Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose was "plain hell," in the immortal words of Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, the narrator of Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The old woman who lived two doors up the street from the Finches was "the meanest old woman who ever lived." Mrs. Dubose is not a minor figure in Lee's novel. On the contrary, this mean-spirited neighbor who regularly insults Jem and Scout at every opportunity, occupies a special place in Scout's narrative. While the Finch children hold Mrs. Dubose in exceedingly low esteem ("Jem and I hated her"), there is much more to this character than one initially realizes, and it is that hidden detail that Atticus uses to teach his children an important lesson about compassion and courage.
In Chapter 11 of To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem and Scout, but the former in particular, have had enough of their elderly neighbor's verbal abuse. It is when Mrs. Dubose attacks their father, Atticus, because of the lawyer's willingness to defend the African American, Tom Robinson, in his trial for allegedly raping a white woman, though, that pushes Jem over the edge. Defying his father's repeated admonitions about taking the low road in response to Mrs. Dubose's provocations, Jem attacks her flower garden, decimating many of the flowers with Scout's baton. Atticus had urged patience upon his children, advising them that Mrs. Dubose is an old and sick lady, and that, Jem "can’t hold her responsible for what she says and does.," but the young boy lacks the self-restraint that will presumably come with age. And so, at the old lady's command, Jem is required to visit her everyday for two hours and read to her. Atticus, of course, is only too willing to compel Jem's compliance with this arrangement.
So, what lesson does Atticus want Jem to learn from his having to read everyday to an old woman he loathes? After Mrs. Dubose passes away, Atticus explains his rationale:
"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.”
Mrs. Dubose had been very ill and had become addicted to the morphine she was prescribed for pain. She refused to continue to use the powerful pain medication, however, choosing instead to live out her remaining days in discomfort rather than die an addict. Atticus knows this from his meetings with her, during which he was tasked with drawing up Mrs. Dubose's will. Atticus wanted his children to learn the meaning of compassion and of courage -- compassion for a frail, deathly-ill old woman, and the courage that woman displayed in spite of indescribable pain.