The camellias represent how ugly things like racism can hide under pretty shells.
When Jem slashes at the camellias, he has come to some understanding of how the world works and he can’t face it yet. Both Scout and Jem are too young to really appreciate what is happening in Maycomb, but the trial forces them to face it. Mrs. Dubose’s flowers are pretty, but she is ugly.
Scout believes that Jem has lost his mind when he attacks Mrs. Dubose’s flowers. He is not unprovoked, though. Mrs. Dubose is a horrible woman who often shouts insults at the children. Atticus treats her respectfully and politely, and encourages his children to do the same. Jem reaches a tipping point on this day, though, and takes out the meanness of Mrs. Dubose and all of Maycomb on her flowers.
Mrs. Dubose is just one of the racists in Maycomb. No one in Maycomb believes that all people should be treated equally. They do not approve of Atticus defending a black man. Many of them take it out on his children. Mrs. Dubose yells at the Finch children.
“Yes indeed, what has this world come to when a Finch goes against his raising?
I’ll tell you! … Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for!” (Ch. 11)
Scout is aware that they are not supposed to react to these taunts. Jem is as well, and has been keeping his head held high until now. This is the time he just snaps. Jem is an idealist, and the reality of the world is too much for him to face.
The last thing Jem does after destroying the flowers is destroy the baton.
He did not begin to calm down until he had cut the tops off every camellia bush Mrs. Dubose owned, until the ground was littered with green buds and leaves. He bent my baton against his knee, snapped it in two and threw it down. (Ch. 11)
He realizes that his approach is not going to work. Getting angry and throwing a fit might have made him feel better at first, but in the long run it makes him just as bad as she is. Her ugly behavior became his ugly behavior. The flowers were innocent. Taking out your anger on the innocents never does any good. Racism and intolerance cannot be fought with violence.
Atticus takes an interesting approach to the problem. He tries to teach Jem and Scout that things are not what they seem. Mrs. Dubose is a horrible, mean old woman, but she is also in a great deal of pain. Knowing this, Atticus has Jem read to her until she finally kicks her morphine habit.
Why would Atticus, the pillar of compassion, subject his son to this woman’s abuse? He wants to teach Jem a lesson in courage. Mrs. Dubose was courageous for fighting her addiction. Scout and Jem will need to be courageous to fight the racism they will face in the coming months.
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. (Ch. 11)
Jem tends to see the good in people. The underlying racism that is a part of everyday life in Maycomb doesn’t seem to faze him. When Tom Robinson is convicted, Jem is horrified. He was sure that the people of Maycomb would see the truth. It is a hard lesson that is part of growing up. People are not always what they seem.