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 these sunny, red geraniums.
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.”
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.
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.