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.