During the trial of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, Robinson’s attorney, does what trial lawyers are supposed to do: find contradictions in the testimony of witnesses on the opposing side of a case. Tom Robinson is a cripple; one arm is a foot shorter than the other and the hand at the end of its shriveled and lifeless. He has been accused of rape by a nineteen-year-old woman described by Scout as “a thick-bodied girl accustomed to strenuous labor.” It Atticus’ job to cast reasonable doubt on the suggestion that a one-armed man was able choke, beat and rape a woman of Mayella’s proportions. And, it was clear from the direction of Atticus’ cross-examination of Mayella’s drunken, violent father, Bob Ewell, that there was good reason to suspect that it was he, not Tom, who had beaten his daughter. Mayella’s bruise on her face could not have been inflicted by Tom, given the latter’s inability to use the arm that would have been used to strike from that side and angle. When cross-examining Mayella, Atticus, again, is employing the tactics common to defense attorneys in rape cases: he is treating the “victim”/accuser with the utmost respect so as to not be seen to be persecuting someone who presumably has been through a physically and emotionally horrendous ordeal. In addition, Atticus does not want to be seen by the jury as bullying a young woman on the witness stand. By questioning Mayella in a formal manner, he is demonstrating to all observers that he is respectful of the witness and presumed victim, while illuminating for the witness how easy it will be to intellectually dominate her and deconstruct her testimony – which Atticus succeeds in doing.
Mayella’s reaction to Atticus’s formality has the desired effect: it undermines her confidence and deprives her of her victimization. As Scout describes her,
“I wondered if anybody had ever called her "ma'am," or "Miss Mayella" in her life; probably not, as she took offense to routine courtesy. What on earth was her life like? I soon found out.”
Atticus’ job is convince a jury in a southern, racist town that a black man was innocent of raping a white woman. That is more than he is supposed to do, as convincing a jury that “reasonable doubt” that Tom raped Mayella existed was legally all that was required. Atticus knows, however, that that is not enough. He has to make certain that the jury, and the town, know that Mayella was beaten by her father, not but Tom. He has to expose the lies the Ewells have told under oath. By demonstrating that Tom could not have committed the crime, and by suggesting that Bob Ewell probably did, Atticus’ next move is to manipulate Mayella’s testimony where he, Atticus, needs it to go: to the violent, drunken rages that were a part of Bob’s character and that better explain Mayella’s injuries than the made-up story about Tom Robinson. Towards that end, Atticus engineers the following exchange, as described by Scout:
Atticus was quietly building up before the jury a picture of the Ewells' home life.
Atticus let her question answer his.
"Do you love your father, Miss Mayella?" was his next.
"Love him, whatcha mean?"
"I mean, is he good to you, is he easy to get along with?"
"He does tollable, 'cept when-"
Mayella looked at her father, who was sitting with his chair
tipped against the railing. He sat up straight and waited for her to
"Except when nothin'," said Mayella
Atticus has had to gradually and carefully lead the prosecution’s witnesses in the direction necessary to convince the jury that Tom could not have raped Mayella, and that Bob likely did.