Mayella Ewell is Bob Ewell’s oldest daughter and is at the center of the case against Tom Robinson, a Black man she accuses of beating and raping her. While Mayella does not appear in the novel until her testimony on the witness stand in Chapter 18, many of the earlier descriptions of the Ewell family as a whole provide important context for her character. The Ewell family sits near the bottom of Maycomb’s social hierarchy with only the Black community beneath them, and much of the family’s pride comes from this false, over-inflated sense of superiority over others. Living behind the town garbage dump, the Ewells are perpetually poor, dirty, and hungry and often break laws without facing punishment. The only glimmer of hope within the family’s bleak existence is the presence of Mayella’s red geraniums growing in jars along their fence, a symbol of the possibility that she alone might be able to escape the trappings of her environment. 

Mayella’s testimony on the witness stand, however, proves that she ultimately succumbs to the same moral lowness that plagues the rest of her family. From the beginning, she attempts to portray herself to the jury as a pure and innocent white woman, crying almost immediately and making herself seem “somehow fragile looking.” This approach, one which emphasizes her position in Maycomb’s social hierarchy, gives her a level of confidence that Scout describes as “stealthy.” Much like her father, Mayella wields her whiteness as a weapon that allows her to manipulate situations and evade the law. Atticus expertly argues that she was the aggressor rather than Tom, yet she walks away as the victor of the trial because of her decision to frame someone rather than own up to her behavior. 

Despite Mayella’s moral bankruptcy, Lee also includes details that invite readers to feel for her. At 19 years old, she serves as a surrogate mother for her seven younger brothers and sisters while her father, a drunkard, beats and sexually assaults her. Mayella has very little formal education and no relationships with people her own age. Scout even muses that “Mayella Ewell must have been the loneliest person in the world.” Of course, her adverse home life in no way excuses her behavior toward Tom or her attempts to cover it up while on trial. Lee seems to use Mayella’s character as a vehicle for exploring the nuances of evil and the ways in which people cause others harm.