In Chapter 11, why does Jem destroy Mrs. Dubose's camellia bushes?

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Jem destroys Mrs. Dubose’ camellia bushes in a fit of rage after succumbing to the pressure of constantly receiving her negative comments. Throughout the novel, Scout is always portrayed as the quick tempered, “short-fused” Finch child who cannot control her emotions. Scout gets into several fights throughout the novel with boys (Cecil Jacobs and Francis Hancock) over negative comments made about her father. Jem, in contrast, is viewed as a gentleman, similar to his father. Scout describes Jem by saying, “I took it for granted that he kept his temper--he had a naturally tranquil disposition and slow fuse.” (11.136) Scout’s only explanation for Jem’s actions is that “he simply went mad.” We all have our boundaries and limits to how much verbal abuse we can take and Jem is no different. Jem had endured negative comments about his father time and time again from children but never adults. When Mrs. Dubose said, “Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for!” Jem snapped. Interestingly enough, Jem walked to store, bought a steam engine and baton with “no pleasure,” while he let the negative energy build up inside him. Jem probably contemplated his actions while he was at the store, until his fury became uncontrollable. Following the destruction, Jem’s punishment is to read every day, including Saturdays, for two hours at Mrs. Dubose’s house.

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Intermittently throughout Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout references the angry old woman who lives two doors up the street, and whose home is the unofficial boundary beyond which the children were not allowed to wander when they were smaller.  That woman, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, is given to regular demonstrations of vituperation directed at Scout and her brother, Jem.  In Chapter One, Scout refers to Mrs. Dubose as “plain hell,” and, in Chapter Four, suggests that, throughout the community, “neighborhood opinion was unanimous that Mrs. Dubose was the meanest old woman who ever lived.”  Atticus, the children’s father, regularly counseled Jem and Scout about the importance of ignoring Mrs. Dubose’s taunts and simply holding their heads high and acting with utmost courtesy whenever they passed her house.  In Chapter Eleven, however, Jem has reached the end of his rope with regard to the old woman’s insults.  Atticus, of course, is defending Tom Robinson, an African American, against a charge of raping a white woman, a development that sets the attorney against the racist community in which he and his family live. 

The event that precipitates Jem’s furious assault on Mrs. Dubose’s garden is her exclamatory remark directed at the kids: “Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for!”  Jem, Scout observes, “was scarlet,” meaning beyond mad.  What followed was described by Scout:

“Jem snatched my baton and ran flailing wildly up the steps into Mrs. Dubose’s front yard, forgetting everything Atticus had said, forgetting that she packed a pistol under her shawls, forgetting that if Mrs. Dubose missed, her girl Jessie probably wouldn’t. He did not begin to calm down until he had cut the tops off every camellia bush Mrs. Dubose owned . . .”

Jem’s actions, of course, run counter to his father’s instructions regarding Mrs. Dubose, is he sentenced to a period of reading to her every afternoon – a punishment that has the desired effect of humanizing the old wheelchair-bound woman and establishing in Jem a sense of empathy previously missing.

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In Chapter 11, Mrs. Dubose makes very harsh and critical comments about Atticus. Jem and Scout have been hearing these comments since the trial started, but up until this point it has been Scout who loses her temper. This time, Jem is the one who reacts. Using Scout's baton, Jem chops Mrs. Dubose's flowers (something she treasures and takes great pride in). For his punishment, Jem has to read to Mrs. Dubose every afternoon. This punishment is fitting as it forces Jem to see why Mrs. Dubose's demeanor is so harsh. Throughout the novel, Atticus encourages his children to not judge others without first understanding why they act a certain why. Reading to Mrs. Dubose gives Jem that insight.

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