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In a world full of darkness, how can one stay purely innocent? To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is the perfect example of what people can and cannot do in extraordinary situations. Although it is a story that is told by a little girl named Scout, it is also the tragedy of a young woman, Mayella Ewell, who never even had the chance to tell her side of the story. Almost every character in the book, more or less, has the same motifs to be evil, such as racism and white supremacy. However, Mayella Ewell’s motivation has a much deeper meaning. She is a nineteen-year-old motherless girl who has been systematically abused by her father and has to take care of her siblings as the only mother figure in the family. From the very first day she was born, her role in Maycomb has been set; she is one of “the Ewells [who] had been the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations” (Lee 40). She appears in the book as the accuser of Tom Robinson, a black man who also lives in Maycomb, claiming he has raped her, and therefore has to be executed. It is an undeniable fact that Tom is innocent, one of the “mockingbirds” in the book. “[Mockingbirds] don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us” (Lee 119), Atticus says. In this case, many can claim that Mayella cannot be a mockingbird for causing an innocent man’s death. They are wrong; because she, indeed, is a dead mockingbird who has been repeatedly shot by her loneliness that comes with the isolation from the community, the abusive childhood, and the norms of the society she lives in.

Her loneliness begins with her last name. Just like in every other place, Lee’s imaginary town, Maycomb, has upper-class citizens who obey the laws, follow the rules, and live decent lives. But it also contains a group of uneducated, poor families like the Ewells who are looked down on by society. Even the location of their house is, in a way, the symbol of their place in the Maycomb community: “Maycomb’s Ewells lived behind the town garbage dump in what was once a Negro cabin” (227). The fact that they live right next to the city dump is a reference to them being “white trash”. By being raised in this “dump” with such an abusive father and the absence of her mother, Mayella ends up having no moral education. Since she is the eldest child among the Ewells, she has to take the role of the surrogate wife and mother of the house. This full-time job takes all of her time, so she has no chance to go out and make friends. Mayella is doomed by her family name and is pushed outside the community. “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” (228). Red geraniums represent her desire to have a better life. She wants to be more than a filthy Ewell; she wants a seat among the other Southern ladies. “In Maycomb County, it was easy to tell when someone bathed regularly, as opposed to yearly lavations: . . . Mayella looked as if she tried to keep clean, and I was reminded of the row of red geraniums in the Ewell yard” (239). She makes an effort to look more ladylike as if she is trying to prove that she can fit in. But, no matter how much she tries, at the end of the day, she is still nobody but an Ewell to the Maycomb community.

Mayella’s relationship with her father is based on abuse. Bob Ewell, her father, is an alcoholic, unemployed, wicked man who both mentally and physically hurts his children. “She says she never kissed a grown man before an’ she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don’t count” (260), Tom Robinson claims during his testimony. There is no specific description of the abuse that Mayella had to suffer in the book, but it is openly implied by Tom Robinson that she may also have been sexually abused by her father. “Mayella looked from under lowered eyelids at Atticus, but she said to the judge: ‘Long’s he keeps on callin‘ me ma’am a sayin’ Miss Mayella. I don’t hafta take his sass, I ain’t called upon to take it’” (243). It is how she reacts when Atticus shows her respect by calling her “ma’am”. This is a woman who does not have any self-respect and has not seen any sign of compassion in her entire life. The first person who helps her is most likely Tom Robinson. She misinterprets this gentle behavior which she has never seen before. When she tries to make her move on him, Bob Ewell catches them. It is not certain how far he can go to hurt his daughter in this situation. It is Mayella’s own life against Tom’s. There is not a single person who would choose the other way around in such a case. Frankly, it is Bob Ewell’s abuse that killed both Tom and Mayella’s youth.

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On the other hand, the book takes place between the 1920s and 1930s, a period where segregation reigns. Mayella’s only luck in such an era is that she is white. No matter how low she is, she cannot be lower than a black person. Mayella, like all the other children of Maycomb, has grown by believing in this concept. To Maycomb folk, having any kind of feelings for a black person is a depravity. White women are the property of white men. Thence, for a woman to have feelings for a black man is a threat to the dominance of white men. “She was white, and she tempted a Negro. She did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man. Not an old Uncle, but a strong young Negro man. No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterward” (272), explains Atticus during the trial. Mayella knows that her feelings for Tom will entirely isolate her family from the community; because the society cannot afford to damage the “Southern Belle” image. Despite her attraction to Tom Robinson, her racist side –which has been imposed by society since her birth- cannot accept that she has been rejected by a black man.

Mr. Gilmer smiled grimly at the jury. ‘You’re a mighty good fellow, it seems—did all this for not one penny?’ ‘Yes, suh. 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. Below us, nobody liked Tom Robinson’s answer. Mr. Gilmer paused a long time to let it sink in. (264)

Tom Robinson’s answer to Mr. Gilmer is the only crime he commits: Feeling sorry for a white woman. Even though everybody knows that he is innocent, “Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed” (323). Again, in this instance, it is not only Tom who dies but also Mayella’s innocence as a result of the prejudiced society.

There is never only black and white on the color chart; it is all those colors in between that make life worth living. In a world full of possibilities, one cannot claim that there is either good or evil. There are only situations, and decisions to make. Mayella is not a jolly mockingbird whose only concern is to sing beautifully, yet she is a dead mockingbird whose voice is taken away before even she starts singing. And the shooter is the whole nation surrounded by prejudice, ignorance, and racism who keeps “killing mockingbirds”.

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