To Kill a Mockingbird Chapter 17 Summary

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  • 0:04 Going on Trial
  • 0:53 Chapter Summary
  • 2:53 Hope and Darkness
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Molly Richards

Molly has ten years of middle school teaching experience and two master's degrees in teaching.

Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' tells the story of a racially divided Southern town. In Chapter 17, Jem tries hard to believe that justice will prevail in the courtroom.

Going to Trial

Tom Robinson's trial for the rape of Mayella Ewell begins just before Chapter 17 of To Kill a Mockingbird. The town of Maycomb can talk about nothing else, and Atticus Finch and his family are at the center of it all. Atticus chooses to represent Tom Robinson, a black man, even though he stands no chance of winning the trial with an all white jury. Still, Atticus chooses to believe in the truth, as do his two children, Jem and Scout.

Jem and Scout are young, but the trial has made them grow up fast, being subjected to taunts and name calling from friends at school and people in the community. Nevertheless, Jem, Scout, and their friend Dill go to the courthouse and sit in the black balcony as they watch their father try to save Tom Robinson's life.


Chapter 17 opens with Sheriff Heck Tate on the witness stand. The prosecuting attorney, Mr. Gilmer, questions him about the night Bob Ewell called for him to come to his house. His story goes that Mr. Ewell came running for him and told him his daughter, Mayella, had been raped. When Mr. Tate arrived, Mayella was badly beaten and lying on the floor. When Mayella identified Tom Robinson as the one who did it, Sheriff Tate arrested him.

Atticus cross examines Sheriff Tate by asking more specific questions about Mayella's injuries. The sheriff explains the injuries to her neck and face, including a black eye. Atticus wants to know which eye, and after going back and forth, Tate finally determines that it was her right eye.

Bob Ewell is called to the stand next. He is very poor and uneducated. He and his children live in a run down cabin behind the town garbage dump. Their yard is littered with trash and infested with rodents. Many of his black neighbors live better than he and his family.

On the witness stand, Mr. Ewell tells Mr. Gilmer how he heard Mayella screaming inside the house. He then tells how he ran inside and saw Tom Robinson raping his daughter. This causes quite a bit of commotion in the courtroom, but when it settles down, Mr. Gilmer continues. When he is finished, Mr. Ewell is ready to leave the stand, but Atticus stands up to ask a few questions.

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