Why is it that Mayella does not know what "love" means and why does she fear her father in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Ewell family is surely one of the most dysfunctional families in 20th century American literature. They have been the "disgrace of Maycomb for three generations," and one can only wonder about the depths of worthlessness that Bob's own parents must have achieved. Mayella is Bob's oldest daughter, and she is left at home to deal with the seven younger children--none of whom go to school. Mayella doesn't remember how long it's been since her mother died; she admits that she has no friends--in fact, she doesn't seem to comprehend the meaning of the word. Fittingly, the trashiest family in Maycomb lives adjacent to the town dump, where the children play most of the time. Bob doesn't work, and his welfare check is not enough to feed his family,

... and there was strong suspicion that Papa drank it up anyway--"

leaving Mayella to serve as the surrogate mother for her brothers and sisters and the female head of the household. There is no evidence that she ever leaves the Ewell property, and she is obviously frightened in the confines of the courtroom. When Atticus politely addresses her, Mayella mistakes his courtesy for sarcasm. Scout wonders if

... anybody had called her "ma'am," or "Miss Mayell"a in her life...

Love is something that Mayella has learned to live without, and in her desperation, she makes the premeditated decision to seek  physical attention from Tom. It is obvious that she does receive some of her father's affection, but a statement made by Tom during his testimony creates the impression that there was more than just a father-daughter attachment, and many critics believe that some kind of incestuous relationship may have existed. When Mayella tells Tom that she has never been kissed before, she adds that

"...what her Papa do don't count..."

It is obvious that Bob has kissed Mayella before, but what kind of kiss does she receive from Bob, a brutal man who is drunk most of the time? And why do the Ewells decide to bring an accusation of rape against Tom? It seems obvious from Tom's testimony that it was Bob who beat Mayella--he added the threat

"... you goddam whore, I'll kill ya..."

after catching her hugging and kissing Tom--and he then decided to blame the beating on Tom. One must still wonder if it was only a beating that Bob gave his daughter, or was there a sexual attack involved as well? And, if Mayella's mother has been dead for longer than she can remember, then who could be the mother of the youngest Ewell children?

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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