Old Mrs. Dubose makes "vicious" comments to Jem and Scout nearly every time they pass her house. Even when Scout "sunnily" greets her, Mrs. Dubose retaliates with an insult. The old lady particularly infuriates Jem when she mentions the children's mother, but Atticus always tells Jem to "hold your head high and be a gentleman." But Jem could not contain himself one Saturday when he and Scout passed by. Mrs. Dubose accused them of playing "hooky"; when they explained that there was no school on weekends, she sailed into them again. After insulting Scout for wearing overalls and for probably facing a future of "waiting on tables at the O. K. Cafe," she directed her fury on Atticus.
"Not only a Finch waiting on tables but one in the courthouse lawing for niggers!...
"... Your father's no better than the niggers and trash he works for!" (Chapter 11)
It was this last remark that triggered Jem's destruction of Mrs. Dubose's prized camellias.
Mrs. Dubose is a hateful older woman who is constantly berating Jem, Scout, and Atticus. She is particularly disapproving of Atticus's defense of Tom Robinson, an African American man accused of raping a white woman. She tells Scout that when Scout grows up, she (Scout) will wait on tables at the O.K. Cafe, a seedy joint in town. She is critical of Scout because Scout wears overalls and does not dress in a ladylike way. Mrs. Dubose says, “Not only a Finch waiting on tables but one in the courthouse lawing for niggers!” She feels that the Finch family has become degraded by Atticus's willingness to defend Tom Robinson and predicts that Scout will have a dismal future. Later, when she asks Jem if he will try to grab her flowers and tear them out by the roots next time, he mutters a response to her under his breath. She replies, “Don’t you mutter at me, boy! You hold up your head and say yes ma’am. Don’t guess you feel like holding it up, though, with your father what he is.” She again criticizes the Finch family for Atticus's defense of Tom Robinson, which Mrs. Dubose finds shameful. Mrs. Dubose thinks that a genteel white family like the Finches should never stoop so low as to disturb the existing racial order.