How do Atticus Finch and Mrs. Dubose each display courage under pressure?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both Atticus and Mrs. Dubose represent courage under pressure because they embrace reality without evading the challenging elements within it. Both characters display a willingness to embrace the difficulties that life offers.  They could take an easier path to avoid such pain.  Yet, their respective visions of courage arise because they embrace such challenges, allowing a true aspect of their characterization to be revealed.  They display courage under pressure because of their understanding the success lies in the will to endure times of challenge and not be defined by them.

Mrs. Dubose is shown to represent courage under pressure in how she confronts life.  Atticus conveys this to Jem in describing her the pain she experienced in merely living:

She said she was going to leave this world beholden to nothing and nobody. Jem, when you're sick as she was, it's all right to take anything to make it easier, but it wasn't all right for her. She said she meant to break herself of it before she died, and that's what she did.

In the face of agonizing pain, Mrs. Dubose displays courage under pressure in how she does not want to be "beholden to nothing and nobody."  As difficult as she might have been, Mrs. Dubose wishes to display a certain courage in the midst of suffering agonizing pain.  She rejects morphine at the cost of intensely difficult conditions, as revealed in the physical descriptions of her fits:

Cords of saliva would collect on her lips; she would draw them in, then open her mouth again. Her mouth seemed to have a private existence of its own. It worked separate and apart from the rest of her, out and in, like a clam hole at low tide. Occasionally it would say, "Pt," like some viscous substance coming to a boil.

While physically challenged and repulsive, Mrs. Dubose accepts this condition because she wishes to free from dependency.  Mrs. Dubose accepts the difficulty of living with pain in order to achieve a higher standard or quality of life.  It is in this regard where she displays courage under pressure.  Given her condition, she could acquiesce and take the morphine.  Even Atticus concedes this with his belief that she could "take anything to make it easier."  Yet, Mrs. Dubose stands true to courage under pressure.  There is no external benefit she gains from such a stance.  It is principled and reflects the dignity of acting with courage under pressure.

Throughout Chapter 11, Atticus speaks of Mrs. Dubose's courage.  In doing so, his own courage is displayed.  In explaining his motivations to Jem, Atticus makes clear that courage under pressure is a defining quality of what it means to be human:

She had her own views about things, a lot different from  mine, maybe... son, I told you that if you hadn't lost your head I'd have made you go read to her. I wanted you to see something about her-  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. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.

At this moment, Atticus' own courage is on display.  Atticus defines courage under pressure in distinct manners.  The first way is how Atticus argues that courage under pressure means maintaining one's own beliefs, even if others differ with you.  Certainly, Atticus's actions in defending Tom Robinson and maintaining his own sense of courage in the face of challenging social conditions is a part of this.  He alludes to this in a previous discussion with Scout:

I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody... I'm hard put, sometimes- baby, it's never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn't hurt you. So don't let Mrs. Dubose get you down. She has enough troubles of her own. 

In showing that he does not have to take the form of the world around him when labeled with a "bad name," Atticus displays another aspect of courage. For Atticus, there is a courage under pressure that comes with undertaking endeavors where "you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what."  The will to persevere in the face of difficulty is where courage under pressure lies.  This becomes a critical component of courage under pressure in both Mrs. Dubose and Atticus.   

For Atticus and Mrs. Dubose, courage under pressure is evident in how both of them are willing to confront the difficult conditions that exist in the world.  To look life in the face and to stare at it for what it is without losing one's voice and sense of honor is where courage under pressure exists in both characterizations.  Both visions of courage under pressure are reminders that human beings are capable of taking what is and transforming it into what can be.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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