New-York Historical Society Reading Into History discussion

Stand Up (chapters 16-21) > Mayella Ewell: to pity or to scorn?

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message 1: by Rachel (new)

Rachel | 5 comments Mod
In his closing statement to the jury, Atticus says of Mayella Ewell that he has "nothing but pity in my heart for the chief witness for the state, but my pity does not extend so far as to her putting a man’s life at stake..." What feelings do you have for Mayella Ewell? Does she more deserve a reader's scorn, pity, or something else entirely? What does her testimony reveal about her and her place in society?

message 2: by Karen (last edited Aug 12, 2015 10:54AM) (new)

Karen Scher | 3 comments I used to have little sympathy for Mayella. She felt like a flat character to me, one who could be a foil for Scout (since they are both motherless girls) but otherwise did not seem like a central focus of the book.

My view changed after reading a 2009 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell ( In it, he suggests that Atticus is not seeing Mayella as fully human.

For instance, "When the defense insinuates that Mayella is the victim of incest at the hands of her father, it is not to make her a sympathetic figure. It is, in the eugenicist spirit of the times, to impugn her credibility... The victim, coming from the same inferior stock, would likely share her father’s moral character. “I won’t try to scare you for a while,” Finch says, when he begins his cross-examination of Mayella. Then he adds, with polite menace, “Not yet.”

This struck me. While I previously had paid Mayella little mind, when I reread the book after reading Gladwell's article, I felt more sympathy for her, as someone who was ostracized by her community and even by the seemingly heroic Atticus.

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