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As Atticus explained to Jem following the death of Mrs. Dubose, she had "real courage," not the kind that is displayed with a gun. Mrs. Dubose had vowed to kick her morphine addiction before she died, so she decided to go cold turkey. It may have made her more irritable and "cantankerous," but the pain didn't matter to her. Atticus told Jem it was a special kind of courage:
"... 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...
Mrs. Dubose wanted to die drug-free and "beholden to nothing and nobody." Atticus wanted Jem to see this for himself, which was the reason he made his son make his daily visits to read to her.
In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Mrs. Dubose makes a terrible and hateful comment about Atticus in front of Scout and Jem. Jem, usually so controlled in his behavior—especially with adults—just snaps.
...for a few minutes he simply went mad.
On their way home from town, Jem takes Scout's new baton (just bought in town) and, like a club, whips off the top of Mrs. Dubose's prized flowers, her camellias. (Then he breaks the baton.) He is furious.
The children return home and wait for Atticus. He has spoken to Mrs. Dubose by the time he comes home, and Atticus asks why he acted as he did. Jem reports that she insulted Atticus.
...she said you lawed for n***ers and trash.
Atticus expects that Jem has heard worse; regardless of his past behaviors, Atticus sends Jem down to speak to Mrs. Dubose and assume the responsibility of his actions. Atticus punishes Jem by making him spend time with Mrs. Dubose everyday after school. Scout chooses to accompany him. By the time they are released for Jem's "debt," a great deal has happened that the children are not really aware of. In the days to come, Mrs. Dubose dies. Atticus reports to his children that Mrs. Dubose was fighting a horrific battle against a drug addiction, trying to break it so that she could face the end of her life on her terms.
Jem and Scout learn a lesson about bravery. Here is an elderly woman, already very sick, who is addicted to pain medication. As they sit with her each day, Mrs. Dubose is able to go a little while longer without taking more medication, until she is finally free of the drug. She still faces the pain of her disease, but does so with a clear mind, and a will of iron. The children learn that one can overcome seemingly overwhelming obstacles by being committed to a purpose and being very brave. Atticus says of Mrs. Dubose:
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.
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