To Kill a Mockingbird Chapter 18 Summary

Instructor: Erica Schimmel

Erica has taught college English writing and literature courses and has a master's degree in children's literature.

In chapter 18, the woman accusing Tom Robinson of rape takes the witness stand. We learn more about both Mayella Ewell and the Ewell family as Atticus questions testimony. Scout and Jem watch as Atticus exposes falsehoods told during the trial.


Tom Robinson's trial continues in chapter 18 of To Kill a Mockingbird. At this point, we have heard testimony from the town sheriff, Mr. Heck Tate, and Robert (Bob) E. Lee Ewell, the father of the woman accusing Tom Robinson of rape. Though their testimonies have shown there is no doubt the woman was beaten, Atticus's questioning revealed her injuries were most likely inflicted by someone left-handed. His questioning also led to the discovery that Bob Ewell is left-handed. In this summary, we will review the woman's testimony and see why Atticus's line of questioning was so important.

Mayella Takes the Stand

A booming voice opens chapter 18 by calling Mayella Violet Ewell to the stand. At aged nineteen, Mayella is Bob Ewell's eldest child. Scout notes that Mayella seems 'somehow fragile-looking' while being sworn in, but when seated in the witness chair she looks again like 'a thick-bodied girl accustomed to strenuous labor.' In contrast to Mayella's father, Bob, Scout observes that Mayella looks like she at least tries to wash consistently. This observation reminds Scout of the row of bright red flowers that seem out of place in the Ewell's yard and are said to be Mayella's.

Mr. Gilmer, the prosecuting attorney, opens questioning by asking Mayella to share her side of the events. Mayella seems reluctant, and after answering only a few questions, she bursts into tears. Judge Taylor allows her to cry for a few minutes before reassuring her and asking why she is scared. She responds that she is afraid of Atticus after watching him question her father and show he is left-handed. Judge Taylor reassures her that Atticus is not there to scare her. In the balcony, Scout questions whether Mayella has 'good sense' as Mayella begins to answer questions.

Mayella recalls that when Tom Robinson passed by her home, she offered him a nickel to break a chiffarobe into kindling. She claims that when she went to retrieve the nickel, he attacked her, grabbing her around the neck, hitting her repeatedly, and finally raping her. While she recalls these events, she nervously twists her handkerchief. She tells Mr. Gilmer that she fought back as hard as she could before losing consciousness.

Atticus Questions Mayella

Mr. Gilmer finishes, and Atticus stands to begin his questions. Scout notes that Atticus does not immediately walk to the stand. Instead, he slowly makes his way over to look out the window before walking back to Mayella. Scout understands that this indicates Atticus is trying to make a decision.

Once in front of the stand, Atticus opens by smiling at Mayella and saying he does not want to scare her, but instead to 'just get acquainted.' When he asks her how old she is, Mayella responds by saying she has already answered that question. Atticus apologizes, saying he is getting older and does not always remember. He is sure, however, that she will humor him and answer his questions.

Atticus is startled when she responds by saying she will not answer any questions 'long as you keep on mockin' me.' During this brief exchange, Atticus has been addressing Mayella as 'ma'am.' Mayella incorrectly interprets Atticus's manner as making fun of her. Judge Taylor reassures her that Atticus is simply a courteous man who treats all with respect. Scout wonders what Mayella's life is like, if she is unused to being addressed with respect.

During the initial round of Atticus's questions, we learn that Mayella has seven siblings. Her mother has been dead a long time, and she attended school for only two or three years. Scout observes that Atticus is building a picture of Mayella's life for the jury. There is never enough money to feed the family. Washing is not a priority. The children are often sick, and rarely attend school. Gently, Atticus gets her to admit that her father drinks, though she defensively claims that he has never beaten her.

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