Julia L. Ernst


This essay explores numerous factors constraining Mayella Ewell’s actions throughout the novel, particularly with respect to her false accusation of Tom Robinson. Some of the forces bearing down on Mayella include class, gender, race, history, morality, as well as familial, social, and legal dynamics. The jury’s verdict convicting Tom Robinson of rape indicates that Mayella received a much more favorable outcome in the trial than she merited.6 Depictions of Mayella within analyses of the novel have portrayed her in an unfavorable light. However, this essay encourages the reader to dig more deeply into the assumptions one must make about justice, fairness, and the law as applied to Mayella’s circumstances before rendering judgment in her case. Part II of this essay argues that the de facto and de jure discrimination against women during that time period, both in society and under the law, exonerates Mayella from the charges laid against her in the novel and instead lays the blame squarely at the feet, not only of Bob Ewell, but also of society and the remarkably gender-biased legal system of that time. Part III of the essay then briefly addresses various legal themes as they relate to Mayella’s exoneration, such as revenge, justice, process, advocacy, punishment, order, and change. The conclusion highlights that this reexamination of To Kill a Mockingbird is intended to foster an increased understanding of women facing violence within the home today. Although, thankfully, much has changed in our current law and society with respect to violence against women, significant challenges remain. Hopefully this essay will encourage readers to further reflect upon and take action to address the obstacles that women living in violent family situations continue to face.