An interesting glimpse into the character of Mayella Ewell occurs in Chapter 17 of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The story's young narrator, Scout Finch, is describing the Ewell family in less-than-flattering terms, emphasizing the clan's primitiveness and sloven ways. Scout's description proceeds as follows, beginning with a recitation of the artifacts found on the Ewell's lawn, before seguing into an observation regarding the possible influence on the surroundings of Mayella:
" . . . the remains of a Model-T Ford (on blocks), a discarded dentist’s chair, an ancient icebox, plus lesser items: old shoes, worn-out table radios, picture frames, and fruit jars, under which scrawny orange chickens pecked hopefully. . .One corner of the yard, though, bewildered Maycomb. Against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderly as if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson, had Miss Maudie deigned to permit a geranium on her premises. People said they were Mayella Ewell’s."
The reader can surmise from the above passage that Mayella represents the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal scene. Bob Ewell, it is revealed, is the town's most bitter and and among the most virulently racist citizens. There is nary a good word word to be said about this pathetic figure. The presence of a young woman who possibly dreams of more, however, is felt in the above reference to the geraniums.
As Chapter 18 begins, Mayella is called to the witness stand, presumably to testify against Tom Robinson, the poor and physically disabled African American accused of raping her. As Mayella is introduced to the reader, Scout provides the following description:
" . . .she seemed somehow fragile-looking, but when she sat facing us in the witness chair she became what she was, a thick-bodied girl accustomed to strenuous labor."
And, as importantly, and with reference to the earlier passage noting the presence of carefullly-tended flowers on the Ewell's otherwise trash-strewn lawn, Lee's young narrator goes on to observe:
"Mayella looked as if she tried to keep clean, and I was reminded of the row of red geraniums in the Ewell yard."
Mayella, the reader is lead to conclude, has been forced to accuse Tom Robinson of a rape that didn't occur by her physically-abusive "white trash" father. She is, in her own way, as pathetic a figure as her father, but one excused because of the nature of her dismal existence with a man as contemptuous as her father, who, Atticus points out for the jury, was almost certainly the individual who inflicted the injuries on his own daughter. Atticus suggests as much when, early in Chapter 23, he explains to his children the good may have come out of Bob Ewell's having spat in Atticus' face:
" . . .if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take."
Mayella, then, is portrayed as a victim of her father's brutality and demeanor. That said, it is left clear that Mayella, while a victim of an exceedingly bad upbringing, is complicit in Tom's conviction and eventual death. Late in Chapter 25, contemplating the editorial in the town's newspaper by the paper's editor, Mr. Underwood, Scout summarizes the meaning of the article within the context of her father's ultimately unsuccessful efforts at saving an innocent black man: "Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed." In other words, had Mayella not been a desperate, pathetic 19-year-old adult, none of this ever would have happened.