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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, when Atticus questions the four witnesses during the trial, how does each witness behave on the stand?

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When Atticus Finch, the wise, honorable attorney and father to Harper Lee's young narrator, Scout, questions the witnesses in the rape trial of Tom Robinson, the myriad personalities and backgrounds are reflected in their responses to the questions. To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story, but it also an indictment of the racism endemic to the American South during the period depicted. That racism is at the core of the criminal trial that constitutes a sizable section of Lee's novel and shapes the trial's outcome. About midway through the novel, Atticus' brother, Uncle Jack, asks Atticus about the prospects of success in the approaching trial (i.e., the likelihood of a black man being acquitted of the charge of raping a white woman). Atticus' response is both prescient and instructive:

“It couldn’t be worse, Jack. The only thing we’ve got is a black man’s word against the Ewells‘. The evidence boils down to you-did—I-didn’t. The jury couldn’t possibly be expected to take Tom Robinson’s word against the Ewells’— are you acquainted with the Ewells?” 

By the time of the actual trial, the reader is acquainted with each of the four witnesses, although details about the defendant are only now revealed. As the questioning of each witness commences, then, the temperament of each witness is entirely consistent with everything we have come to know about them. 

The first witness questioned by Atticus is the sheriff of Maycomb County, Heck Tate. The reader is introduced to Sheriff Tate during the episode involving the rabid dog that Atticus is compelled to shoot because, his children learn, he is an expert marksman. As the story progresses, and during his testimony at the trial, it is clear that Heck Tate is a professional lawman, able to act objectively and competently. Evidence that the sheriff is an honest, professional lawman is suggested during the confrontation in front of the jail, when the gang of vigilantes seek to break Tom Robinson out of jail and lynch him. Atticus, attempting to deter the mob, suggests that the sheriff is nearby, prompting the mob to reject that notion because they have sent Tate off on a wild goose chase. 

When Sheriff Tate is cross-examined by Atticus, the lawman is the consummate professional. He answers in a straightforward manner, suggesting no bias for or against the defendant. He is guided by the "facts":

“—asked her if he beat her like that, she said yes he had. Asked her if he took advantage of her and she said yes he did. So I went down to Robinson’s house and brought him back. She identified him as the one, so I took him in. That’s all there was to it.” 

Heck Tate's testimony serves its only purpose: it sets forth the "facts" of the case as understood by him. In contrast, the testimony of Robert E. Lee "Bob" Ewell is anything but civil. The reader already knows Bob Ewell as the town's leading racist and example of poor...

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white trash. Scout's description of Ewell when the latter is summoned to the witness stand reaffirms this individual's heritage and demeanor:

". . .a little bantam cock of a man rose and strutted to the stand, the back of his neck reddening at the sound of his name. When he turned around to take the oath, we saw that his face was as red as his neck."

The phrase "red neck" is synonymous with simple-minded, virulently racist citizens of the American South. Lee/Scout's description of Ewell--"the back of his neck reddening"--reaffirms that stereotype, and Ewell's testimony is consistent with this characterization. When Ewell is first addressed by the prosecutor, Mr. Gilmore, he responds disrespectfully, “That’s m’name, cap’n." And that is the most gracious Bob Ewell will be during his testimony. When asked to describe the fateful day's events, Ewell includes the following observation, “—I seen that black nigger yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella!” 

While one could anticipate Ewell's demeanor to be angry and confrontational during his cross-examination, he is not smart enough to know when he is being manipulated by a genuinely intelligent lawyer. In establishing that Ewell may have been responsible for his daughter's injuries, rather than Tom Robinson, Atticus asks the witness to write his name, ostensibly to demonstrate his literacy but, in actuality, to demonstrate for the jury that he is left-handed and, in contrast to what will be demonstrated with respect to Tom, physically capable of inflicting the injuries to Mayella for which Tom stands accused:

“Will you write your name and show us?”

“I most positively will. How do you think I sign my relief checks?”

Mr. Ewell was endearing himself to his fellow citizens. The whispers and chuckles below us probably had to do with what a card he was. 

Bob Ewell's temperament on the witness stand, then, is disrespectful of the court, condescending, and reflective of his nature. He is the good ol' boy playing to his crowd.

Mayella Ewell, unlike her cocksure, arrogant and abysmally stupid father, is defensive when questioned by Atticus. She is defensive because she knows she is lying, and, unlike her father, just might be possessed of a conscience. She has clearly been coached, no doubt by her father, on what to say and how to say it, and exhibits the characteristics of a pathetic figure. When asked by the judge to describe what happened, she bursts into tears and, when questioned why the display of terror, replies that she is fearful of Atticus. She knows that the defense attorney is smart and clever, and that she could get tripped up under his questioning. She also knows that her father, her real assailant, will punish her again if she fails in her task of implicating an innocent African American man. Her testimony when questioned by Gilmore, however, leaves her feeling confident: 

"Apparently Mayella’s recital had given her confidence, but it was not her father’s brash kind: there was something stealthy about hers, like a steady-eyed cat with a twitchy tail."

That confidence, expectedly, disintegrates under Atticus' meticulous questioning. Where her father was simply arrogant and disrespectful of the proceedings, Mayella is overtly hostile towards Atticus. This suspicion of and hostility towards Atticus aside, Mayella is soon revealed to be an extremely sad figure, desperately poor, motherless and under the domineering control of a violent, drunken father, although she denies on the witness stand that he has ever beat her. She is combative when the details of her testimony begin to crumble under Atticus' cross-examination, and resorts to overt displays of racism to try and appeal to the all-white jury's sentiments. 

The next witness called to the stand is Tom Robinson. It has been revealed during Mayella's testimony that Tom's left arm was crippled in his youth, and lies shriveled and useless at his side. Tom's testimony when questioned by Atticus is, like Heck Tate's, straightforward and honest. Tom, however, is hopelessly outmatched when he is cross-examined by Gilmore, who adopts a hostile, racist tone in his ultimately-successful effort at portraying the hapless Tom as a violent sexual predator. Tom comes across as stable and honest, but the facts of his case will have no bearing on the outcome.

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Heck Tate tells all that he knows on the stand and even has to correct himself with the specifics on which hand the attacker lead with in Mayella's beating.  He is honest and straight forward in his answers.

Bob Ewell is compared metaphorically to a rooster with his reddened neck, his "crowing" answers and how he struts up to the stand.  He is up there to show off his "knowledge" which turns out to be all lies anyway.  This is his only shot at being admired by others.

Mayella is considered pathetic.  She is rude to Atticus because he uses his manners with her, and yet she thinks he's "mocking her."  She also doesn't even know what "friends" are when he asks her who her friends are.  She snaps back at Atticus with contempt and disrespect.  She then screams at him and the court and calls them "Yellow stinkin cowards" as she runs off the stand.

Tom is honest and respectful.  He tells his story with as much respect as he can.  He won't even call Mayella a liar, he just says she was "mistaken in her mind."  His only downfall is when he says he "felt sorry for her."  That was the nail in his coffin.

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During the trial in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus questions four witnesses. Discuss Tom Robinson's behavior on the stand and your impressions of him. 

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the first thing that strikes the reader about Tom Robinson's time on the stand in court—during the trial in which Atticus defends him—is when he attempts to place his hand on the Bible to be sworn in.

In Chapter 19, Tom Robinson is called to the stand.

Tom Robinson reached around, ran his fingers under his left arm and lifted it. He guided his arm to the Bible and his rubber-like left hand sought contact with the black binding. As he raised his right hand, the useless one slipped off the Bible and hit the clerk's table. He was trying again when Judge Taylor growled, "That'll do, Tom."

Not only is reader aware that life must be difficult for this family man to support his wife and kids, but one must immediately sense that this injury would have made it impossible for him to carry out the attack as described by Mayella Ewell and her father.

We know that Tom went to jail for a time not because his crime was so terrible, but because he didn't have the money to pay his fine for getting into a fight—as the other man did.

Tom is a good worker. He is polite, tipping his hat to Mayella as he passes her home. The jury is told that Tom has done work for Mayella many times, without taking money to do so. This shows what a kind person he is. Tom notes he was happy to help her as her father did little to help around the house, and he knew they didn't have much money. Tom infers that Mayella was always taking care of the children who he could see through the windows of the house, watching.

When Mayella calls Tom into the house on this occasion, he asks about the absence of the children. She declares that she has saved for a year to collect enough money to send them to get ice cream. The quiet and Mayella's unusual behavior make Tom nervous. Tom is a black man in a white family's home. He knows his "place." Entering the house is not something he does lightly. It's almost as if he's too polite to say no.

Tom is worried, but I also see him as a gentleman. Mayella throws her arms around him, and while this is a fearful development for him, it seems that he hesitates to talk about it—almost as if it might be an embarrassment to her. As her advances continue, Tom (politely) tries to extract himself, but Mayella won't let go. Then Tom recalls hearing her father bellow from the outside—at Mayella...calling her a whore.

When Atticus asks why Tom ran, Tom said he was scared...

Mr. Finch, if you was a n***er like me, you'd be scared, too.

Tom is a victim of circumstance: chosen by Mayella because he was nice to her, and accused by Bob Ewell because of his anger and embarrassment over his daughter's (in his eyes) unforgivable behavior. Then, when Mr. Gilmer asks why Tom was always so ready to help Mayella out, Tom makes his biggest mistake—as a black man in a white courtroom in the Depression South: he says that he felt pity for her:

"...I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more'n the rest of 'em—"

"You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?" Mr. Gilmer seemed ready to rise to the ceiling.

The witness realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. But the damage was done.

This is damning because the bigoted whites would find it appalling that a black man could ever elevate himself above a white person enough to look down and feel sorry for her/him.

Tom is the victim here—a tragic victim of Bob Ewell's racism and Mayella's abject loneliness.

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