Literary Gardeners: Mayella Ewell and Maudie Atkinson

This weekend my son accompanied me to the garden center and wanted to choose his “very own” little pot of flowers.  I let him browse around the annuals section and take his pick.  He chose this:

It will look cheerful out on our sunny back patio, but honestly, I cannot look at a red geranium without thinking of one of the most wretched and pathetic characters in all of American literature.

That would be Mayella Violet Ewell.

Remember her?  Mayella stars in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird and is the primary witness for the prosecution in the trial of Tom Robinson, the black man whom Mayella and her despicable father falsely accuse of rape. 

All through the novel, the Ewells are characterized as the worst kind of  “white trash” — dirty, drunken, wretched, illiterate trash.  Author Harper Lee describes the yard of the Ewell cabin as “the playhouse of an insane child,” with random car parts, broken tools, and other detritus strewn about.  But then there’s this:

Against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderly as if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson…people said they belonged to Mayella Ewell.” 

A still from the 1962 film version of the novel. Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell, in the courtroom.

It’s a fantastic little bit of characterization that Harper Lee throws in.  Suddenly we see Mayella as more than just another pathetic, lying Ewell.  After learning about her care of the red geraniums, her attempts to bring some beauty and color into her wretched life, suddenly she is far more complex and worthy of sympathy.   

The film version, unfortunately, omits Mayella’s penchant for container gardening, and thus she comes across far less sympathetically than she does in the novel.

On the other end of Maycomb’s social ladder we have Miss Maudie Atkinson

If your memory of the novel is dim, I will gently remind you that Miss Maudie is young Scout’s kind but no-nonsense neighbor, who is always either 1) tending her flowers, 2) baking Lane Cakes or 3) stomping out gossip about Boo Radley.  She participates in the rituals of proper Southern womanhood, but — being more enlightened — she also stands above their darker aspects.  In a nutshell, she is the female counterpart to the noble Atticus Finch.

But most importantly (for the purposes of my post) she is an obsessive gardener!  In the novel, she is often described with sunhat and hedge clippers, bending over her flowers.  She believes that time spent in the house is “wasted time” and prefers to spend all hours of the day outside in her garden. 

Miss Maudie Atkinson taught life lessons and grew some mean azaleas.

Some examples of her mania:

When a rare cold snap blows through town one winter day, Miss Maudie freaks out and goes out to wrap her azaleas in burlap bags.  That night, the entire neighborhood is awakened when Maudie’s house catches fire and burns to the ground.  Miss Maudie handles the catastrophe in her typical stoic manner, and says: “Gives me more yard.  Just think, I’ll have more room for my azaleas now!”

The cause of the fire?  When Scout’s brother asks her, Miss Maudie nonchalantly replies, “Probably the flue in the kitchen.  I kept a fire in there last night for my potted plants.”

If you do not view the incineration of your house as a gardening opportunity, then clearly you have not reached the highest gardening echalons occupied by the likes of Miss Maudie.

But anyway, here we have two very different characters who actually garden for similar reasons.  Beyond Mayella’s and Maudie’s love of flowers, it seems that both women use gardening as a bit of a coping mechanism, a compensation for the strange and cruel environments in which they live.

Not so different from us, I suppose.   Okay, so we may not be mired in abuse and poverty, like Mayella, or surrounded by small-mindedness and insane gender expectations, like Maudie, but we’ve all got stuff we like to escape from.  Luckily, running away from the world into our gardens is  far more socially acceptable than doing the same thing with drugs, porn, or shoe shopping. 

I have taught To Kill a Mockingbird to nearly 40 classes of 10th-graders over the years, but not once have I ever required my students to do a horticultural reading of the novel.  Now I can see that this has been a gross oversight on my part.  Forget all the lessons in the novel about courage and acceptance, blah blah blah….clearly this is a gardening novel.  I am going to have to adjust my lesson plans.

18 thoughts on “Literary Gardeners: Mayella Ewell and Maudie Atkinson

  1. Clearly it has been too long since I read this fine book. I shall endeavor to get to it soon, and will certainly read it from more of a horticultural slant now. Thank you.

  2. Bravo, Mary! Brilliant! TKaMB is one of my favorite books and I taught it a number of times, but I never thought of the significance of the flowers and the characters. You should be an English teacher…or a landscape designer… oh, wait…

  3. During the census I took a job locating addresses on GPS. I noticed that often the most meager, anonymous trailer would have a pot of something growing on the front deck.

  4. Thank you for turning a much loved book (and somewhat equally loved movie, Mr. Peck after all) into something completely new. It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve read this…must do it again now with my gardening glasses on.

    • Loree, I agree about the movie. Though it unfortunately must leave out many wonderful storylines, it is one of the few movies that (I think) perfectly captures the tone and heart of the novel it’s based on. I could watch it over and over again (actually, I have, since I’ve always shown it to my students after reading the novel)

      • Totally agree; To Kill a Mockingbird the movie is, I think, the most perfect adaptation of a great book into film. Peck is wonderful, of course, but it’s the children, i believe all of them non-actors, who make it, especially Scout. Book and film both brilliant.

  5. Yes, yes! There are so many possibilities. Hamlet through herbs. Sons and Lovers – Miriam’s deeply disturbed relationship with daffs. And don’t get me started on Emily Dickinson….

  6. Literary analysis + Horticulture = brain candy.

    I’ve taught To Kill a Mockingbird (it kills me that I can’t use italics in a comment box) a few times and really enjoyed it. After reading your post, I now understand why Miss Maudie is my favorite character. We used the audiobook read by Sissy Spacek for my students with reading disabilities, so I couldn’t help but hear her voice say every word in your post.

    Now I can’t stop thinking about the plants and gardens in so many things I’ve read. Lady Deadlock walking through the old lime tree walk and the lush descriptions of the fruits and vegetables in Dickens’ Bleak House; the eeriness of the overgrown gardens and water well in juxtaposition to the schizophrenic architecture of Audley Court in Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret …and there’s more, but it hurts too much to not use proper MLA formatting when listing book titles 😉

    • Oooooooohhh, I’m not familiar with Lady Audley’s Secret. Will have to check that out. I did an earlier post on Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet and all his horticultural shenanigans, and I want to do another one on the main character from Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums. Brain Candy indeed!

  7. I was a big fan of To Kill a Mockingbird when I read it as a high school student — and not just because Scout and I share both first and middle names. But now I’m going to have to go back and read it as a gardening novel.

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