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To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 13 - 18

#172: Nov. - Jan. 2021 (Fiction)
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Robert Tulip

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Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 13 - 18

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Four Negroes rose and gave us their front-row seats. The Colored balcony ran along three walls of the courtroom like a second-story veranda, and from it we could see everything.
The court is totally packed and the kids can’t find a seat, until a black reverend arranges these seats, which both enable Scout to provide a detailed account of the proceedings and illustrate the desire of the black community to find white allies. Interesting how the court is so blatantly segregated, but the children of Atticus Finch are happy to break the segregation.

Scout describes the layout of the court room, with the all-white jury (shades of Hurricane) made of rural farmers, not even mentioning they are twelve good men and true, with no women, although apparently women could serve at that time, maybe not in Alabama. Townfolk get excused or struck off, ensuring the jury will be thoroughly racist. Sheriff Tate is in the witness stand.
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Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 13 - 18

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Chapter 17

Sheriff Tate sets out the case for the prosecution, that on his being called to the Ewell house, the victim informed him that Tom Robinson had raped her. Atticus only asks why they did not seek medical help when she was in obvious need of it. After showing he barely knows right from left, the sheriff explains that the girl (so far unnamed) had strangle marks all around her neck.

All this is rather dull for the children, nowhere near as exciting as an attempted lynching. “With his infinite capacity for calming turbulent seas, Atticus could make a rape case as dry as a sermon.”

It turns out that like Editor Braxton Bragg Underwood, the victim’s father, Bob Ewell, was also named after a Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, who also still has one or two equally prestigious things still commemorating his personal contribution to the slavery effort. And guess what?? The two Lees are 13th cousins 5 times removed.

Harper Lee’s description of Bob Ewell is highly detailed, and dripping with contempt, as is her classic account of the Ewell residence – trash is as trash does. The attentive reader will recall that when Calpurnia had explained the collateral damage of the Robinson case to Scout at the black church, Scout had recalled Atticus referring to the Ewells as “absolute trash”.
Every town the size of Maycomb had families like the Ewells. No economic fluctuations changed their status—people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a 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. Maycomb’s Ewells lived behind the town garbage dump in what was once a Negro cabin. The cabin’s plank walls were supplemented with sheets of corrugated iron, its roof shingled with tin cans hammered flat, so only its general shape suggested its original design: square, with four tiny rooms opening onto a shotgun hall, the cabin rested uneasily upon four irregular lumps of limestone. Its windows were merely open spaces in the walls, which in the summertime were covered with greasy strips of cheesecloth to keep out the varmints that feasted on Maycomb’s refuse. The varmints had a lean time of it, for the Ewells gave the dump a thorough gleaning every day, and the fruits of their industry (those that were not eaten) made the plot of ground around the cabin look like the playhouse of an insane child: what passed for a fence was bits of tree-limbs, broomsticks and tool shafts, all tipped with rusty hammer-heads, snaggle-toothed rake heads, shovels, axes and grubbing hoes, held on with pieces of barbed wire. Enclosed by this barricade was a dirty yard containing 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 geraniums might be Mayella’s only redeeming feature, but it seems nothing will save Bob Ewell in Harper Lee’s caustic estimation:
All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.
Here we see the toxic power of the caste system in its full disgrace. And of course, Ewell proceeds in vivid language to make the accusation from the stand, sending the room into uproar. Luckily Atticus cannot see the children, who despite having front row seats in the black bleachers are apparently too far away. Otherwise this saucy information might be deemed too adult for them to hear. Atticus extracts the confirmation, under a cross examination that Scout compares to Sherlock Holmes, that Ewell endorses the sheriff’s account of Mayella’s injuries, whereat his astute court-watching children infer that the bruising on her right is consistent with battery by her left-handed father.
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Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 13 - 18

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Robert Tulip wrote:Chapter 17
Here we see the toxic power of the caste system in its full disgrace. And of course, Ewell proceeds in vivid language to make the accusation from the stand, sending the room into uproar. Luckily Atticus cannot see the children, who despite having front row seats in the black bleachers are apparently too far away. Otherwise this saucy information might be deemed too adult for them to hear. Atticus extracts the confirmation, under a cross examination that Scout compares to Sherlock Holmes, that Ewell endorses the sheriff’s account of Mayella’s injuries, whereat his astute court-watching children infer that the bruising on her right is consistent with battery by her left-handed father.
The semi-omniscient narrator gives that finely detailed account in order to reveal the full power of the caste system, I agree. I don't see the attitude as being scornful of the Ewells, just objective. It is indeed a devastating indictment that black people living in a decent way, by white standards, have fewer rights and less regard as citizens than the Ewells have, only because of skin pigment. Isabel Wilkerson covers the phenomenon of the lowliest whites hating blacks in order to protect their meager status as second-from-the-bottom.
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Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 13 - 18

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Robert Tulip wrote:Harper Lee’s description of Bob Ewell is highly detailed, and dripping with contempt, as is her classic account of the Ewell residence – trash is as trash does.
This is one of the more problematic aspects of the book. By tossing us a villain, and one from contemptible social status, Lee is inviting us to feel superior to those who lie for the preservation of their meager status. I am not denying that such people, and such lineages, exist. (Apparently one of them, the Pooles of Northern Pennsylvania and Southern upstate New York, includes a member of my ancestral lineage). I just resist reducing the dynamics of racism to that one oversimplified narrative. In a book that shines with the beauty of a little girl treating everyone as "just folks" the same as everyone else, it's a jarring gash of sneering hostility.
Every town the size of Maycomb had families like the Ewells. No economic fluctuations changed their status—people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a 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. Maycomb’s Ewells lived behind the town garbage dump in what was once a Negro cabin.
The redemptive moment comes when Atticus asks Mayella if she has any friends. Along with some processing afterward, we get to see her loneliness as the reason Tom Robinson was singled out for exploitation and eventually for execution. Her father is too far gone to do the chores, and she imposes on Robinson to do them, but it turns out loneliness was the true motivation.

The good ladies of Maycomb, like her aunt Alexandra, would never deign to mingle with Mayella Ewing. Their Christianity does not extend to lepers. Lee's jaundiced eye takes it all in, and she can see the sadness of the wreckage that leads to Robinson's horrible death. Just in case we didn't see the workings of caste in the situation, Lee twists the knife with the irony of the prosecutor's seizure of Tom Robinson's pity as the nail in his coffin. "You felt sorry for her?" That is, of course, absolutely too much insult to be tolerated.

After recently reading an excellent book about trauma, it's easy to imagine the generations of abuse behind Mayella's plight. There are hints in the text ("what her father did with her didn't count" for example) of incest, reputed to be rife in the world of Appalachian hillbillies from which the Ewings are not far removed. Incest victims are often themselves torn apart inside and, even if the outside world would give them the time of day, are not able to receive it. I am just starting Delia Owens' "Where the Crawdads Sing", which seems to be about a world like that of the Ewings. Bob Ewing was no doubt beaten by his (probably alcoholic) father, and crumpled into alcoholism before he even had a chance to find his footing as a productive citizen. I met a few young people caught in intergenerational transmission of abuse even in the pretty suburbs of Southern California. Not a pretty sight.
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.
I looked up "slop jar" and Dr. Duck Duck Goose confirmed my suspicion that it is a polite term for "chamber pot". Here we have another symbolism that can be heartwrenching if you dwell on it. Mayella wanted a few flowers, settling for the hardy and easily transferred ordinariness of geraniums, and she planted them in chamber pots discarded by folks who had presumably acquired indoor plumbing.
Robert Tulip wrote: Atticus extracts the confirmation, under a cross examination that Scout compares to Sherlock Holmes, that Ewell endorses the sheriff’s account of Mayella’s injuries, whereat his astute court-watching children infer that the bruising on her right is consistent with battery by her left-handed father.
The movie made this point a bit more explicit, and heightened the drama, but the subtleties in the book's presentation were admirable. For example we get to see the carelessness with which Bob Ewell (and Mayella and the sheriff) have ignored the obvious inability of crippled Tom Robinson to do the deed of which he is accused, because they know the evidence doesn't matter (reminds me of Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley). The point at which Ewell recognizes he has been exposed, but switches quickly to a new variant on the lie. The agitation among the Black citizens of Maycomb after the trial, having had the truth laid out for them in a way they know none of their White neighbors could have missed.
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Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 13 - 18

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Chapter 18 begins with Mayella Ewell on the witness stand. To Kill A Mockingbird reflects Harper Lee’s own experience with her father as a lawyer in a similar situation in Alabama, with the detail of observation that can only come from such first hand experience. The way Mayella reacts, accusing Atticus of being rude to her for speaking with common courtesy, illustrates such awareness of how people from the lowest classes of society, who are routinely excluded from all social respect, behave in court.

The pattern of Atticus’s questions was quietly building up before the jury a picture of the Ewells’ home life, basically to undermine the jury's trust in their testimony. It is sometimes said that rape victims can find the trauma of court comparable to the trauma of rape, reliving bad memories in the full glare of public attention, and not being believed. Atticus appears to be sensitive to these concerns, even though he does not believe her at all. This problem of trustworthiness emerges when Mayella declared firmly but unconvincingly “My paw’s never touched a hair o’my head in my life. He never touched me.” This comes across as a statement of loyalty rather than fact.

It is interesting that the Me Too movement has made this problem of disbelief in the testimony of rape victims a key issue. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Believe_women provides a summary of how this has been debated in relation to the Kavanagh and Biden allegations, with of course the Weinstein and Trump cases in the background.

It illustrates how To Kill A Mockingbird sits at the intersection of gender and race discrimination. The testimony of Mayella Ewell serves to promote suspicion and doubt over rape allegations, against the Believe Women slogan reflecting the view that false allegations are rare.
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Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 13 - 18

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Robert Tulip wrote:Chapter 18 begins with Mayella Ewell on the witness stand. To Kill A Mockingbird reflects Harper Lee’s own experience with her father as a lawyer in a similar situation in Alabama, with the detail of observation that can only come from such first hand experience. The way Mayella reacts, accusing Atticus of being rude to her for speaking with common courtesy, illustrates such awareness of how people from the lowest classes of society, who are routinely excluded from all social respect, behave in court.
Mayella interpret Atticus's courtesy as sarcastic, because whoever would speak to her sincerely in such a way? This, too, illustrates the lack of respect she would have encountered from other white people. I don't necessarily fault other whites for not understanding the underlying reasons for Mayella's stunted development. She's very rough, even a bit frightening, after all, and there are always socially-set limits to compassion. Such an acute psychologist Harper Lee can often be.
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Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 13 - 18

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“Was this the first time you asked him to come inside the fence?”
Mayella jumped slightly at the question.
Here Harper Lee builds the portrayal of Mayella as lying on instruction from her father. By repeating and emphasising that this was the first time Tom Robinson had visited, Mayella would be digging herself a hole if the jury were fair. But then she immediately retracts her emphatic declaration amidst wrathful snuffles of pure hatred directed toward Atticus.

And after this comes the dramatic climax of the book:
Will you identify the man who raped you?” “I will, that’s him right yonder.” Atticus turned to the defendant. “Tom, stand up. Let Miss Mayella have a good long look at you. Is this the man, Miss Mayella?” Tom Robinson’s powerful shoulders rippled under his thin shirt. He rose to his feet and stood with his right hand on the back of his chair. He looked oddly off balance, but it was not from the way he was standing. His left arm was fully twelve inches shorter than his right, and hung dead at his side. It ended in a small shriveled hand, and from as far away as the balcony I could see that it was no use to him.
The implication is that it is impossible for a one handed man to choke and punch a person in the way Bob and Mayella Ewell have described, and that therefore they are covering up the reality that Bob Ewell assaulted his daughter.
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