Why does Scout think to herself that "Mayella Ewell must have been the loneliest person in the world" in To Kill a Mockingbird?

As Tom Robinson testifies, painting a picture of Mayella's life, Scout realizes just how isolated she has been, and this is why Scout thinks that "Mayella Ewell must have been the loneliest person in the world." Mayella's family is shunned by both the Black and white communities. Mayella thinks Atticus is mocking her when he is polite to her, and it becomes clear that she has never had any friends.

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The Ewells are Maycomb's outcasts. They live near the dump. The children do not attend school. Mayella is the oldest of several siblings, and since her mother is dead, she has the responsibility of caring for the younger children and her father. Bob Ewell, Mayella's father, is hardly a loving,...

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The Ewells are Maycomb's outcasts. They live near the dump. The children do not attend school. Mayella is the oldest of several siblings, and since her mother is dead, she has the responsibility of caring for the younger children and her father. Bob Ewell, Mayella's father, is hardly a loving, supportive parent. He does not work, and any relief he receives from the government goes straight into whiskey for himself, while his children struggle to find enough to eat. What's more, as Atticus clearly proves at Tom Robinson's trial, Mayella's father abuses her, physically and perhaps even sexually.

Mayella is only nineteen years old, and she has no hope for a better life. When Atticus questions her in court, he politely calls her "Miss Mayella" and "ma'am." Mayella, however, has spent no time in polite society, and she has never been spoken to with this kind of courtesy before. She thinks Atticus is mocking her and making fun of her. Indeed, this is probably the first time anyone has shown Mayella any kind of respect.

Atticus questions Mayella to inform the court of the situation in which she lives. Mayella doesn't remember how long her mother has been dead. She doesn't remember how long she attended school, perhaps two or three years. When Atticus asks Mayella who her friends are, she doesn't know what he means. She responds with a bewildered “Friends?” as if she isn't sure of the meaning of the word. Then she becomes angry again and says that Atticus is mocking her. Mayella clearly has no friends.

Indeed, Scout is right in her observation that "Mayella Ewell must have been the loneliest person in the world." She has no one to love her, and she has never learned to love anyone. She lives her life in squalor, isolation, and fear.

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As Atticus draws out Tom Robinson's testimony, Scout realizes how isolated Mayella is. Because the Ewells are considered white trash, they are shunned by the rest of the white community of Maycomb. However, because they are white, the Black community won't associate with them. As Scout understands,

Maycomb gave them Christmas baskets, welfare money, and the back of its hand.

In other words, the white community in Maycomb holds the Ewell family in contempt because it has to support them.

Scout begins to realize from Tom's testimony that Mayella might be a decent human being. Tom notes, for instance, that she waters the red flowers by the house. Scout has previously noticed that she looks like she tries to keep clean. However, the Maycomb white people are not going to take the time to pay attention to such details. Mayella is simply tossed away with the rest of her family as a problem.

As we know, too, the Ewell children don't go to school and the town doesn't enforce the truancy rules against them because, as Atticus puts it, they were "members of an exclusive society made up of Ewells." He also tells Scout they live like "animals," showing that even Atticus has little sympathy for them. In this context, it is not entirely surprising that Mayella thinks he is mocking her when he treats her politely on the witness stand.

Such an "exclusive" society as the Ewells is a very lonely one. Because of the shunning, Mayella doesn't even get the relief of going to school, which would have at least gotten her out of the house a few hours a day. As Scout realizes, Mayella reaches out to Tom Robinson out of desperation. He is the only person, it seems, who has ever been kind to her.

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In chapter 19, Tom Robinson takes the witness stand and explains how he continually offered to help Mayella with her chores whenever she asked him. As Tom is testifying, Scout mentions,

"It came to me that Mayella Ewell must have been the loneliest person in the world" (Lee, 195).

Scout begins to think about Mayella not understanding Atticus's question when he asked her if she had any friends and recalls how Mayella thought Atticus was making fun of her by asking that question. Scout then mentions that Mayella is sad and compares her to Jem's definition of a "mixed-child." Scout proceeds to analyze Mayella's difficult life and realizes that she is different and isolated from the rest of the community. Scout surmises that Tom Robinson was probably the only person who ever treated Mayella decently. Mayella not only has no friends but is forced to live with an abusive father. The fact that Mayella finds it offensive when Atticus refers to her as "Miss" also indicates that nobody has ever formally addressed her. Scout's comment concerning Mayella's loneliness is an accurate depiction of Bob's daughter.

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Scout understands that Mayella has no friends and spends a lot of time isolated.

Scout notices that Mayella is lonely when she hears her testimony because she realizes that Mayella lives an isolated existence.  She is lonely and has no friends.  She is surrounded by brothers and sisters, but has no one her age to talk to and no mother to talk to.  As she testifies, Scout realizes how alone she is.

She was even lonelier than Boo Radley, who had not been out of the house in twenty-five years. When Atticus asked had she any friends, she seemed not to know what he meant, then she thought he was making fun of her. (Ch. 19)

During the trial, Scout is at a time when she is beginning to mature and become her adult self.  As she comes of age, she is starting to understand what her father said when he told her that she needed to see things from other people’s point of view in order to understand them. 

She is not normally inclined to empathize with Mayella, since she is on the opposing side of her father who is defending Tom Robinson.  However, she is also able to listen to Mayella’s sad tale and realize that Mayella is lonely, and feel like she is the loneliest person in the world.  This realization is a demonstration that Scout is growing up.

Scout’s revelation, and the fact that she points it out to the reader, is important.  It helps the reader understand why Mayella might have accused Tom Robinson, or how she got herself into the situation in which she might have found herself needing to accuse him.  It also helps the reader empathize with her when we otherwise might not, since we would tend to side with Atticus.

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All of the aspects of Mayella's life as presented above contribute to her loneliness, but I think the full answer goes deeper than those issues.  The other Ewell children live in the same environment but are not presented to be as lonely as Mayella.  The difference is that Mayella loves beauty.  She yearns for beauty so much that she plants geraniums in slop jars, and the beauty of the flowers contrasted with the dirtiness of the rest of the property "bewildered Maycomb."  In a similar manner she yearned for love so much that she dared to break one of the strongest taboos in her society to try to satisfy her desire.  So Mayella was separated from her family by a nature that yearned for beauty and love, foreign to the Ewells; as well as being separated from the rest of the town by the slovenliness, laziness, and generally poor reputation of her family.  Finally, the incident, trial, and death of Tom Robinson made her further ostracized by the town and even more at the mercy of her abusive father.

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Mayella has siblings, but they are anything but a close family. She must keep the house for all of them, including her father. Her father is a mean, horrible man who abuses her. The book never says whether Bob Ewell, her father, sexually abuses her, but it is possible. Mayella lives in the depths of poverty from which there is no escape. She has no one her age to talk to or to care about her. Her future doesn't look bright either, being the poor white trash of Maycomb.

Even though Boo has been in seclusion, he is a kind, gentle man who hasn't let his isolation make him bitter. He lives in a nice house and seems to have made his life bearable by watching life out of his window. He shows his kindness when he puts a blanket over Scout the night of the fire. His rescue of Scout and Jem from Bob Ewell in the end further demonstrates what a gentle soul Bob is.

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