To Kill a Mockingbird Questions and Answers
by Harper Lee

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In To Kill a Mockingbird, what is the significance of Mrs. Dubose's addiction to morphine, and why was she so irritable?  

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Jessica Akcinar eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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After Mrs. Dubose's death, Atticus stated that she was the bravest woman he ever knew. This utterly confused Jem because all he ever witnessed was how mean she had been. In fact, every single time he and Scout walked by her house, she would yell "philippics" at them:

"Don’t you contradict me!...And you—what are you doing in those overalls? You should be in a dress and camisole, young lady! You’ll grow up waiting on tables if somebody doesn’t change your ways—a Finch waiting on tables at the O.K. Café—hah!"

The last straw for Jem was when Mrs. Dubose insulted Atticus by saying that he was "in the courthouse lawing for niggers," and he was sent him in a fit of anger which ended with Jem destroying Mrs. Dubose's camellias. Jem's punishment was to read to Mrs. Dubose for an extended period of time. When he and Scout first entered her home, "she was lying under a pile of quilts and looked almost friendly." However, that amiability didn't last long before Mrs. Dubose called Scout "dirty."

During their time at her home, the children noticed that Mrs. Dubose would often have "fits" and then doze off. Usually an alarm clock would go off around this time. Over time, Mrs. Dubose stayed awake longer and longer and listened to more of Jem's reading. The day came when Atticus arrived to pick up the children, and Mrs. Dubose triumphantly exclaimed, "Do you
know what time it is, Atticus?...Exactly fourteen minutes past five. The
alarm clock’s set for five-thirty. I want you to know that." The significance of time was a mystery to the children.

Mrs. Dubose died about a month after Jem's "sentence" was over which was something Jem had conflicted feelings about. On one hand, Mrs. Dubose had been rotten to him and his sister. On the other, she had passed away. Atticus says to Jem that she was "not suffering any more. She was sick for a long time," and asks his son if he knew "what her fits were." It was then that Jem learned the truth about Mrs. Dubose and her nasty temper: She was a morphine addict. A doctor had prescribed the drug as a pain killer and she had gotten hooked. Jem's reading distracted her from the withdrawal. She could've died pain-free, but she chose to die without addiction. Atticus then handed Jem a perfect camellia in a box, a gift from the deceased and a sign that everything was now okay. She was at peace.

Jem now understood why Mrs. Dubose was so nasty: she was in pain and going through withdrawals. Choosing to die experiencing so much suffering especially when she didn't have to was certainly a very courageous feat.


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