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Chapter 18

Professor Bradley Greenburg from Northeastern Illinois University explains Chapter 18 in Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird | Chapter 18 | Summary

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Summary

The trial picks up with 19-year-old Mayella taking the stand. Like her father and brother, introduced earlier, Mayella is angry and defiant. But with Mr. Gilmer's guidance she relates the details of the day in question, her testimony aligning with her father's. She identifies Tom Robinson, seated in the courtroom, as her attacker. As she recounts the attack for Mr. Gilmer and, later, Atticus, she acts tearful and frightened.

When she becomes defiant toward Atticus, he remains courteous while he continues finding more holes in her testimony. When the details of the attack are laid out, he has Tom Robinson stand. The court sees that Tom's left hand is deformed—the result of a childhood injury—and that his left arm is shorter than the right. It is apparent that Tom could not have physically committed the crime that Mayella and her father claim he committed.

By the end of Mayella's testimony Atticus has cast doubt on her portrayal of the events. He presses her with more questions: Why did no one hear her screams? Where were the other children? Was her father the actual attacker? Instead of answering the questions, Mayella spits out the rehearsed speech again, accusing Tom Robinson of raping her. At the same time she gets angry at the court and the jury, accusing them of being cowards if they do nothing about the crime.

Atticus then calls his one witness: Tom Robinson.

Analysis

Lee's skilled handling of Atticus's cross-examination of Mayella sets up a plausible conclusion: there is no way Tom Robinson could be guilty of the crime. Despite Atticus's trademark gentle manner, Mayella reacts fearfully and defiantly. When he presses her with questions toward the end of his examination, she simply stops answering. While the evidence is clear, it does not mean Tom is off the hook.

The trial is shown from the perspectives of Atticus, Jem, and Scout. While Atticus knows that winning the case is unlikely, the children express a childlike sense of hope that—based on the evidence—Tom Robinson cannot be convicted. There is a pervading feeling in the chapter, however, that Tom Robinson is going to be found guilty.

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