Two lonely and lovelorn girls, growing up in squalor–Mayella Ewell and Merope Gaunt are literary sisters in many ways. I have come to believe that Chapter 10 of The Half-Blood Prince is JK Rowling’s tribute to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird.
When we first see Merope Gaunt, she is cowering in her father’s kitchen, surrounded by grime and filth. Yet Harry notices that Merope has made an effort to be clean and presentable. I was instantly reminded of Mayella’s efforts to keep tidy, and of her struggling red geraniums.
Mayella and Merope have the misfortune of sharing a father. Seperated by magic, an ocean and a couple of decades, Bob Ewell and Marvolo Gaunt are nevertheless the same man. Dirt poor and ill-regarded by their neighbours, Gaunt and Ewell both consider their race and lineage to be their chief source of pride. As long as Bob Ewell is white, in his mind he has character above the black workers who trundle past his tumbledown junkyard house every day. As long as Marvolo Gaunt is a pureblood wizard and a direct descendant of Salazar Slytherin he can hold his head above muggles and wizards alike. In both sagas the pervasive racism of these small-minded men becomes the undoing of all those around them and in fact sets in motion all events of each story.
Our heroines also share an obsession, after a fashion. Tom. Mayella’s Tom is Tom Robinson, the handsome and gentle-hearted black man she watches through her window every day. Mayella Ewell grows to lust after Tom Robinson, knowing that his very blackness would make him a forbidden lover in her house. Merope’s Tom is Tom Riddle, the handsome and hard-hearted Muggle she watches through her window every day. In her world the love for Riddle is the same as Mayella’s love for Robinson, yet it’s Riddle’s non-wizard nature that makes him forbidden to her. Both Mayella and Merope see their love as an escape from the tyranny of drunken and abusive fathers.
Each girl sets her obsession in motion at the absence of her family. Mayella takes “a slap year to save [seven] nickles” to send her younger siblings for ice cream. We are not witnesses to the further action, but the story would seem to prove out the following events. Mayella lures Tom Robinson into the Ewell shack and throws herself at him. Bob Ewell comes upon the scene and beats Mayella fiercely. Due in part to her beating and in part to her shame at being rejected by Tom, Mayella levels the accusation of rape that tears apart Maycomb county and ends the lives of Tom Robinson and Bob Ewell.
In Merope’s Little Hangleton hovel events are somewhat inverted but have similar outcomes. Like Bob Ewell–his muggle counterpart–Marvolo Gaunt beats and strangles his daughter upon discovering her obsession with Tom Riddle. Unlike TKAM, the reader is a witness to this beating. I surmise that this is JK Rowling’s subtle way of confirming Tom Robinson’s version of events and offering Robinson a postmortem exoneration. In HBP, the beating results not in Tom Riddle being falsely accused but in Marvolo Gaunt and his worthless son Morfin going to prison. At first the reader is relieved to see Merope finally have some peace. But just as Mayella couldn’t resist seducing her Tom, Merope used her freedom to the same ends. Unlike Mayella, however, Merope has the means to concoct a love potion that enslaves Tom Riddle to her. The child born of this bitter obsession becomes the boy Tom Marvolo Riddle and the man Lord Voldemort, who reigns evil and chaos over both the Muggle and Wizarding worlds.
Two sad, lonely, lovelorn girls. Both seem inconsequential yet both prove the far-flung disastrous outcomes of obsessive love.