To Kill a Mockingbird Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis

Harper Lee

Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis

Heck Tate's testimony starts with him being questioned by Mr. Gilmer, the prosecutor. He relates the events of the day in question: Bob Ewell came to find him on November 21st of the previous year and brought him back to the house, where Mayella had been beaten up. She said it was Tom who beat her, so Heck went to arrest him. When Atticus cross examines him, more details come out: Heck didn't call a doctor, despite the severity of Mayella's injuries; Mayella had a black eye on her right side; and there were finger marks around her throat where she'd been choked. This is the end of Heck Tate's testimony.

Next, Bob Ewell takes the stand, looking to Scout like "a little bantam cock of a man" ("bantam" meaning chicken). Scout takes the time to explain that the Ewells live in a ramshackle little home down by the dump, with a fence made out of random bits of things they've pulled from the dump while looking for food. Their house isn't as nice, in Scout's opinion, as the cabins that the African American citizens live in, though these are also situated right next to the dump. It's understood in this chapter that Bob Ewell's drinking is the cause of his family's poverty and that he's not a man worth respecting, but that they're all listening to his testimony because he's white and is accusing a black man of rape.

Once Mr. Gilmer starts questioning him, Ewell goes into a sensationalized account of the rape he says he saw. This is, of course, a lie, which Atticus will prove later, but it's dramatic enough that the audience erupts and Judge Taylor has to bang his gavel for five minutes to call them down. In an effort to keep them quiet without having to close the courtroom off to spectators, he threatens all of them with contempt charges. The trial continues, with Judge Taylor and Mr. Gilmer asking some clarifying questions. Then Atticus cross examines him, beginning again with questions that focus on Mayella's injuries. He then has Ewell write his name to show that he is left-handed, and, therefore, capable of having given Mayella a black eye on her right side. Jem thinks that this will be enough to prove Tom innocent. Scout isn't so sure.

Conflict

Atticus vs. Bob Ewell. It's safe to say that Bob Ewell has conflicts with everyone: his daughter, Atticus, Tom, and just about everyone else in the courtroom. His behavior on the stand makes a mockery of the court, and his obvious lies bring him into conflict with Atticus, who has no respect for him. One could argue that Bob Ewell's conflicts all stem from the fact that he thinks he deserves to be respected when he doesn't.

Metaphor. One example of this would be Scout saying that Ewell is "a little bantam cock of a man," where the word "bantam" means a certain breed of chicken.

Motifs

Flowers. When Ewell writes out his name, Scout says Judge Taylor looks at him as if he were a "gardenia in bloom." This picks up on the flower imagery established through Miss Maudie's character and neatly (if briefly) dehumanizes Mr. Ewell, whose behavior has been pompous or "flowery" in the sense that it has been flamboyant. Note that Mayella Ewell is also said to have grown several red geraniums in jars, a fact that is meant to endear her to the reader.

Repetition

One example of this would be the repetition of the word no in the passage that reads: "No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects…"

Simile

One example of this is Scout saying that Mr. Gilmer can make a "rape case as dry as a sermon," where "dry" means boring.

Themes

Boredom. Unlike the boredom Scout and the children have experienced in previous chapters where they ran out of games to play during the summer, the boredom in this chapter comes as a result of the trial not being as exciting as the spectators originally expected it to be. They want to be entertained by the trial, and when it isn't immediately thrilling, they get restless. This boredom wanes at the end of the chapter when Ewell starts putting on a show.

Law. When Atticus starts questioning Ewell, Ewell accuses Atticus of trying to trick him. His outburst doesn't reflect well on him, but isn't entirely off the mark: as Scout points out, Atticus is adept at asking questions to get the answers he wants and avoiding the ones he doesn't. The law, though a righteous and formidable thing with the capacity to do great good in the world, is also something that can be manipulated or used to manipulate, as when it's used unfairly against Tom Robinson.

Violence. The violence in this chapter is indirect, related to us on the witness stand rather than in scene. We learn from Heck Tate's testimony that Mayella Ewell has accused Tom of raping her and that Bob Ewell claims to have witnessed this act of violence. Though we'll soon find that Tom never raped Mayella, the sensational nature of the case and the presence of the spectators makes the violence seem especially lurid.