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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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In Chapter 18 of To Kill a Mockingbird, why does Atticus look down after questioning Mayella?

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Atticus takes no pleasure in the hard-hitting manner in which he is forced to question Mayella Ewell. He knows beforehand that she is a pitiful character: She is the oldest of the Ewell children, and she is forced to act as the mother for the rest, making ends meet with the little money that father Bob provides her. She is virtually illiterate and more than one person in the courtroom wonders if she is mentally stable. When Mayella accuses Atticus of "makin' fun o'me," Judge Taylor contradicts her.

"Mr. Finch is not making fun of you. What's the matter with you?"

Scout wonders if Mayella has all of her faculties.

     I whispered to Jem, "Has she got good sense."

Jem answers that he's not sure himself. But Atticus knows the answers to all of the questions he asks of her. She is 19 years old but doesn't have a friend in the world. He knows that Bob drinks up most of his welfare check, leaving his children little food. He stays away for days at a time. None of the children attend school--Bob "needed them at home."

But Atticus really hates when he has to begin asking Mayella questions about the day that Tom supposedly raped her. He believes his client, knowing that Tom did not assault her; Atticus knows that it was Mayella who had attacked Tom, hugging and kissing him out of a pent-up desire for some kind of male companionship. As a Southern gentleman, it goes against Atticus's natural tendencies for him to accuse a teenaged woman of lying--of making up the story about Tom attacking her; of doing

"... something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man."

The frustration, anger and tears that poured from Mayella did not make Atticus any happier, and

     When Atticus turned away from Mayella, he looked like his stomach hurt... Atticus sat down wearily.
     ... Somehow, Atticus had hit her hard in a way that was not clear to me, but it gave him no pleasure to do it. He sat with his head down, and I never saw anyone with the hatred Mayella showed when she left the stand and walked by Atticus's table.

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