How and why does author Harper Lee end Part One of To Kill a Mockingbird with a perfect camellia?
The perfect camellia is the surprise gift that Jem receives from Mrs. Dubose--via Atticus--after her death. It is the rare Snow-on-the-Mountain variety, and it drives Jem into a frenzy when he opens the box. Atticus explains that the camellia
"... was her way of telling you--everything's all right now, Jem, everything's all right." (Chapter 11)
But author Harper Lee probably used this particular white variety of camellia to represent racism and the power of the white man in the Deep South. Jem nearly destroyed the plants in the first case, but Mrs. Dubose chided him about not completing the job. In a manner reminiscent of the old post-bellum phrase "The South will rise again," the camellias returned to health as old Mrs. Dubose--a relic of Civil War days--lived out her last months. The camellia symbolizes the supremacy of the white man and, to Mrs. Dubose's way of thinking, both goodness and purity; the ushering in of a new generation (Jem) and the death of an old generation (Mrs. Dubose). Yet another view believes
Jem’s destruction of the white flowers symbolizes an internal backlash against the prejudice he has so recently witnessed. His subsequent care of the damaged plants (which Atticus demands, along with regular reading to Mrs. Dubose) demonstrates his learning the lesson of tolerance and of standing up to the negativity of his world. (eNotes, TKAM, Symbols of Race in TKAM)
The camellia foreshadows the racially-charged atmosphere of Part Two where the children get a better look at black/white relations and the segregationist social order of Maycomb.
Interestingly, the camellia has been the state flower of Alabama since 1959. Prior to this change, the goldenrod was the state flower, but many of the ladies in Butler County, the county just south of the state capital of Montgomery, objected as goldenrod is a wild flower that was considered by many a mere weed.
Also of relevancy to the novel,a News article of January 3,2010 quotes Frank Kaplan as contending that 1959 was a monumental year for change because of advancements in biochemistry and technology:
But can a single year like 1959 really bear all that weight? Kaplan says the year was significant in civil rights - a federal commission held hearings, and the lynching of Mack Charles Parker triggered national outrage.
Mack Charles Parker was an African-American accused of raping a white woman in northern Pearl River County, Mississippi. Just three days before he was to stand trial, a mob kidnapped him from his jail cell in the county courthouse, and he was beaten and shot.
It would seem, therefore, that Harper Lee has Jem open the box in order to reveal the white camellia of Mrs.Dubose as a means of subtle foreshadowing of events to come. For, the white camellia is the harbinger of change as Scout loses much of her naivete in her observation of the trial of Tom Robinson, a man whose tragic life loosely parallels that of Mack Charles Parker.