The Host by Stephenie Meyer
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
La Casa de los Espíritus by Isabel Allende
I assumed that because I was younger when I first read it, my return to To Kill a Mockingbird would be somewhat disappointing. I was wrong. Atticus remains my main man, and though there’s humor, its perspective of racial injustice is poignant and intense.
The storyline follows young Scout Finch as she witnesses her father’s defense of a black man during a rape trial in a court where the white men always win. They don’t have a prayer, but Scout’s father Atticus does his darndest to defend Tom Robinson anyway. The courthouse scene where Atticus defends Robinson from the racist allegations made me profoundly uncomfortable—but not because of the racism. Rather, it is because it is Atticus himself who promotes injustice there. He builds his case by victim-blaming Mayella Ewell and pressing her with the responsibility of not being raped.
A quick disclaimer: Tom Robinson’s story is still the point. It is the point that the Ewells made false allegations against him simply because he was African American. It is the point that Robinson was made to take the fall for a white man. And it is the point that he was dead meat before he stepped foot in that courthouse. It’s the point that it was wrong, wrong, wrong.
But there was more injustice than that.
Read a few lines from To Kill a Mockingbird, directed towards Mayella during the trial. Gilmer is the lawyer who is defending her, and Atticus is the lawyer defending Tom Robinson.
“Did you scream? […] Did you scream and fight back?” –Gilmer, page 205
“You say you fought him off as hard as you could? Fought him off tooth and nail?” –Gilmer, page 206
“Is this the man who raped you?”
“It most certainly is.”
“How?” –Atticus and Mayella, page 211
[this dialogue refers to the fact that Tom Robinson is disabled due to an accident as a child; he does not have the use of his left arm. Atticus is suggesting that an able person could not be raped by a disabled person and thus Mayella must have given her consent if this scene happened (which he doesn’t think it did).]
“You’re becoming suddenly clear on this point. A while ago you couldn’t remember too well, could you?” –Atticus, page 212
“You’re a strong girl, what were you doing all the time, just standing there?” –Atticus, page 212
“All right, why didn’t you run?”
“I tried to…”
“Tried to? What kept you from it?” –Atticus, page 212
These are all examples of victim-blaming Mayella because they all put the responsibility of not being raped upon Mayella—this includes quotes from the lawyer taking her side of the case! These arguments challenge her resistance, the validity of her being overpowered, her truthfulness, and her attempts to escape.
In the end, they’re asking, “Can you prove that you acted like you didn’t want to be raped?”
Because, of course, had Mayella failed to resist—worse, if she had initiated the contact herself—then she would have been “asking for it.” In a sense, though everyone takes Mayella’s side, she has to prove that she earned the right to be defended in the court of law. (This is particularly sad because we now know that freezing is a natural response to rape.)
Personally, I don’t think Tom Robinson raped Mayella. I think he was a victim of a corrupt justice system that saw the color of his skin before the merit of his behavior, and that is terrible. But still—WHAT IF?
What if Mayella was raped? What if we’re asked to believe she made up the story because she was racist and abused by her father? What if that belief is wrong? Mayella wins her case in the story, yes, but she doesn’t win in the long run. What if Mayella’s rapist had been a white man? Could she have won? What’s more, what if Mayella wasn’t a young white girl? What if Mayella were black, too? No matter who her rapist was, would the crime even be brought to court? Would anybody think she “deserved” defense when her story didn’t merit defending?
Mayella ends up being a victim of this trial, too.
Again, I think this story means a lot when looking at Tom Robinson’s story. He suffered a lot because white people held their prejudice over justice. But we would be remiss as readers if we stopped there. There was injustice on both sides of the table in To Kill a Mockingbird.
It’s just that that wasn’t the one that Atticus was fighting against.