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Suddenly Mayella became articulate. "I got somethin' to say," she said.
Atticus raised his head. "Do you want to tell us what happened?" But she did not hear the compassion in his invitation. (18.165-166)
Mayella can't recognize Atticus's politeness or compassion. That shows just how different her world is from his—neither is something she's had any experience with, and so they're strange to her. Poor Mayella. Even our cold hearts almost feel sorry for her.
"Yes, suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more'n the rest of 'em-"
"You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?" Mr. Gilmer seemed ready to rise to the ceiling. The witness realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. But the damage was done. Below us, nobody liked Tom Robinson's answer. Mr. Gilmer paused a long time to let it sink in. (19.125-126)
Uh-oh. Why is Tom's compassion for Mayella such a problem? Well, feeling sorry for someone usually implies that you think they're worse off than you are—and in racially-divided Maycomb, for any African-American person to think he's superior to any white person is seriously messing with the order of things.
"Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell's shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that's something I'll gladly take. He had to take it out on somebody and I'd rather it be me than that houseful of children out there. You understand?" (23.15)
Maybe Atticus really is so selflessly good that he can feel compassion even for Bob Ewell. Or maybe compassion really is based on a sense of superiority. Atticus can afford to be so generous because he knows he's so much better off than the Ewells will ever be, just because he was born a Finch instead of a Ewell. Or… both?