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In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Mrs. Dubose is the character that vexes Jem the most. As a morphine-addicted old woman in poor health, Mrs. Dubose’s nasty attitude earned the disdain of much of the neighborhood, particularly Jem and Scout. The narrator (the grown Scout) described her this way:
Mrs. Dubose lived two doors up the street from us; neighborhood opinion was that Mrs. Dubose was the meanest old woman that ever lived.
Mrs. Dubose earned her notorious status by sitting on her front porch in her wheelchair and hurling insults at the kids who passed by. She was particularly tough on Jem and Scout after it was discovered that their father Atticus would be defending a black man, Tom Robinson, against charges that he raped a white woman.
However, Atticus had a different and surprising opinion of Mrs. Dubose. In his wisdom, he used Mrs. Dubose to teach Jem a valuable lesson. One day, after Mrs. Dubose infuriated Jem by insulting Atticus, Jem destroyed the flowers on her camellia bush. Jem’s punishment was to read to Mrs. Dubose for two hours every day after school. Although Jem was not aware of it, Atticus had arranged this punishment to help Mrs. Dubose overcome her morphine addiction. Jem’s visits gave her a way to occupy her mind while she got accustomed to going for longer and longer stretches without the morphine.
She was successful in overcoming the addiction, but died soon afterwards. After her death, Atticus revealed to Jem his opinion of Mrs. Dubose’s determination to die free of her morphine dependence. Keep in mind that Atticus holds this opinion despite the fact that Mrs. Dubose routinely castigated him for doing a poor job of raising his children and for defending Tom Robinson in court:
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.
For Atticus to tell Jem that Mrs. Dubose was the “bravest person I ever knew” was a shock to Jem’s view of the world and how he thought life worked. Atticus’s opinion of Mrs. Dubose forced him to consider her in a new light and taught him that people are complicated beings who deserve our understanding, rather than our condemnation.
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