Summary and Analysis Part 2: Chapters 17-20


The trial begins. Heck Tate is the first witness. Under cross-examination, he admits that a doctor was never called to the scene to examine Mayella Ewell. Bob Ewell takes the stand next and causes a stir in the courtroom with his bad attitude and foul language. Mr. Ewell is not shaken from his story, but Atticus carefully plants the seed that Mr. Ewell himself could've beaten Mayella. Mayella takes the stand next. Even though Atticus believes that she's lying, he treats her with courtesy and respect; Mayella thinks that he's making fun of her. Her testimony soon proves that Mayella is unused to gentility and common courtesy. Atticus asks Tom to stand up so that Mayella may identify him; as he does, Scout notices that Tom's left arm is withered and useless — he could not have committed the crime in the way it was described. The state rests its case.

Atticus calls only one witness — Tom Robinson. Tom tells the true story, being careful all the while not to come right out and say that Mayella is lying. However, Tom makes a fatal error when he admits under cross-examination that he, a black man, felt sorry for Mayella Ewell. Dill has a very emotional response to Mr. Gilmer's questioning and leaves the courtroom in tears. Scout follows Dill outside, where they talk with Dolphus Raymond, who reveals the secret behind his brown bag and his drinking. Scout and Dill return to the courtroom in time to hear the last half of Atticus' impassioned speech to the jury. Just as Atticus finishes, Calpurnia walks into the courtroom and heads toward Atticus.


At this point in the story, readers may be tempted to think that Tom Robinson's trial is basically about white prejudice against African Americans. Prejudice certainly does come to play in the court proceedings, but Lee explores much deeper human emotions and societal ideals than the straightforward mistreatment of a person based on skin color.

The Ewells are what people today would call "white trash." Scout sums the Ewells up when she says "people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of depression. No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings." The Ewells forage for food, furnishings, and water at the town dump, which is very close to their shack. Just beyond their home is a "Negro settlement." Atticus had once taken Scout and Jem out to the dump to discard their Christmas tree, and Scout noticed that the black people's houses were modest but neat and appeared to be clean with aromatic smells rising from their kitchens — quite a contrast to the Ewells' surroundings. The fact is that most in the African American community live cleaner, more honest, and more productive lives than the Ewells. Consequently, the resentment against blacks on the part of the "white trash" runs deep.

Against this backdrop of a trial where a "white-trash" female is accusing a black man of a violent crime, Lee expertly explores several of the novel's major themes while focusing on the questions of prejudice and class or social station.

In Maycomb during the time of Tom Robinson's trial, African Americans reside at the bottom of the totem pole as far as power in the community. Even Scout, who probably can't yet define the term "prejudice," tells Dill, "'Well, Dill, after all, he's just a Negro.'" Scout's community has so reinforced the low station of blacks that she innocently accepts and helps maintain that station. In Scout's world, some things just are, and the fact that blacks are "just Negroes" is one of them. In fact, Scout shows her lack of intentional prejudice by admitting "If he [Tom Robinson] had been whole, he would have been a fine specimen of a man."

It is fair to assume, however, that the adult Scout who is actually telling the story has come to understand the error of thinking that any human being is lesser than another based solely on skin color. If Scout believed that blacks were truly lesser, then her character would have no reason for telling this story — the story she'd tell, if she told one at all, would be markedly different.

The blacks in the community accept their lot. They may not like the treatment they receive, but to defy the rules set by the community means literally risking their lives. Tom Robinson did nothing but help Mayella Ewell. In fact, he "was probably the only person who was ever decent to her." The only thing that Tom is guilty of is feeling sorry for Mayella. But, for an African American man to publicly admit feeling pity for any white person is overstepping societal bounds.

In truth, Tom embarrasses Mayella by refusing her advances and Mayella embarrasses her father by making advances toward a black man. Bob Ewell's pride can't afford for a black man to go back to his community talking about a white woman making a pass at him. Worse yet, Tom is now aware of incest in the Ewell household, something that is taboo in every class. Tom was unlikely to tell anyone of what had happened with Mayella, recognizing that his safety was at stake. Bob Ewell could've let the whole thing drop, but he'd rather be responsible for an innocent man's death than risk having his family further diminished in the town's eyes.

Truthfully, Tom's testimony actually embarrasses the Ewells more. Tom tells the court that Mayella asked him to kiss her saying, "'what her papa do to her don't count,'" which informs the whole town that Bob Ewell sexually abuses his daughter. He further tells the court that Bob called his own child a "goddamn whore." Tom is careful to never directly accuse Mayella of lying, repeatedly qualifying, "'she's mistaken in her mind.'"

Tom is a compassionate man, and ironically, his acts of kindness are responsible, at least indirectly, for his current situation. In Maycomb society (and, truthfully, the Southern United States at this time), basic human kindness from a black person to a white person is impermissible. The consequences are deadly when the "lesser" show their compassion — and then have the audacity to admit it — for the "greater."

The all-white jury is in an awkward position. If they acquit a black man who admittedly pities a white person, then they're voting to lessen their own power over the black community. However, if they convict Tom, they do so knowing that they're sentencing an innocent man to death. Mayella makes their choice very easy when she looks at the jury and says, "'That nigger yonder took advantage of me an' if you fine fancy gentlemen don't wanta do nothin' about it then you're all yellow stinkin' cowards.'"

The remaining question about Tom's innocence is why did he run from the Ewell property if he did nothing wrong? Atticus explains that Tom was truly between a rock and a hard place: "he would not have dared strike a white woman under any circumstances and expect to live long, so he took the first opportunity to run — a sure sign of guilt." The rules are so clearly defined in favor of white people that Tom was literally doomed the moment Bob and Mayella Ewell decided to accuse him.

Dill, a child who has not yet reached Scout's level of acceptance about societal prejudices, reacts strongly to the lack of respect African Americans are shown. As Dill and Scout leave the courtroom for a few minutes, Dolphus Raymond explains his own disdain for "'the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they're people, too.'" In fact, Raymond is so disturbed by this dichotomy that he prefers to live amongst black people; however, in order to save himself and his family from the same treatment that Tom is receiving, he pretends to be a drunkard. The white community excuses his behavior because they believe he is an alcoholic who "can't help himself." The thought has yet to occur to anyone that a white man may enjoy the company of African American people. With that conversation, Scout is further educated about prejudice and the negative consequences that result from it.

When Bob Ewell takes the witness stand, Scout notes that the only thing "that made him better than his nearest neighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white." It is ironic that the Ewells are so dirt-covered that identifying their skin color is difficult. Ewell testifies with the confidence of someone who knows he's already won. If his case weren't so clear cut in his eyes, he wouldn't make lewd jokes when being questioned on the witness stand.

The more sophisticated white people in Maycomb at least try to pretend that their prejudices don't run so deep, but Ewell is beyond this sort of genteel pretense. He boldly tells Judge Taylor that he's "'asked this county for fifteen years to clean out that nest down yonder, they're dangerous to live around 'sides devaluin' my property — '" If a man's life were not at stake, Ewell's testimony would be laughable. No one — not even a neighborhood of "lower-class" blacks — can devalue a piece of property that is basically an extension of the town dump. And, the entire courtroom will soon realize that the danger actually lies in living close to the Ewells, not vice versa.

Atticus gently shows the injustice of Tom's situation throughout the court proceedings. For instance, Atticus makes a point of noting that even though Mayella was badly beaten and claimed to have been brutally raped, no doctor was ever called to the scene. When he asks Sheriff Tate why he didn't call a doctor, the answer is a simple "'It wasn't necessary, Mr. Finch.  . . . Something sho' happened, it was obvious.'" Of course, a doctor could have verified that Mayella had not been raped, and if a white man had been accused, a doctor almost surely would've been called. But Tom Robinson is a black man, so calling a doctor simply "wasn't necessary," another indicator of the deep-running prejudice that blacks in Maycomb live with every day.

Scout (as well as Judge Taylor) is genuinely surprised when Mayella claims that Atticus is mocking her. He is only treating her respectfully. That Lee chooses the word "mock" here is important. Mockingbirds repeat sounds they hear. They're like little echo machines. Atticus is only repeating the story as it really happened, but in this case, an echo is a very dangerous thing to Mayella. Lee describes Mayella as being like "a steady-eyed cat with a twitchy tail," which is ironic given that Tom is much like a mockingbird just trying to make her life easier and more enjoyable. Cats hunt birds, and Lee's description is of a cat stalking prey. After Mayella's testimony, Scout suddenly understands that Mayella is "even lonelier than Boo Radley."

During his closing argument, Atticus ties the questions of race and social station together. Making no judgement about Mayella, Atticus tells the jury that "'she has merely broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with.  . . . What did she do? She tempted a Negro.'" Atticus admits that like Tom Robinson, he pities Mayella Ewell, but Atticus is white and educated and so is allowed to feel that pity.

Had Tom Robinson been a woman accused of seducing a white man, the outcome of the trial would be no different. How then, is Dolphus Raymond allowed to live and procreate with black women? He's white, he owns land, and he comes from a "fine old family." Simply stated, the rules are different for a white male with this pedigree. Ironically, Scout thinks of Mayella as facing the same problems that a mixed child deals with: "white people wouldn't have anything to do with her because she lived among pigs; Negroes wouldn't have anything to do with her because she was white." Class can be as big a separator within a community as race.


bantam cock a small but aggressive person; a bantam is a small domestic fowl.

crepey wrinkled like crepe cloth or paper.

acrimonious bitter and caustic in temper, manner, or speech.

ruttin' referring to rut, the periodic sexual excitement, or heat, of certain mammals: applied esp. to males.

tenet principle, doctrine, or belief held as a truth, as by some group.

ambidextrous able to use both hands with equal ease.

lavation the act of washing.

chiffarobe a wardrobe with drawers or shelves on one side.

frog-sticking a method of hunting frogs on bayou banks with a small pitchfork.

constructionist a person who interprets, or believes in interpreting, a law, document, etc. in a specified way.

ground-itch an itchy allergic reaction caused when parasitic hookworms enter the body through bare feet.

ex cathedra with the authority that comes from one's rank or office: often specif. with reference to papal pronouncements, on matters of faith or morals, regarded as having authoritative finality.

impudent shamelessly bold or disrespectful; saucy; insolent.

corroborative making certain; confirming; corroborating.

temerity foolish or rash boldness; foolhardiness; recklessness.

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