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In Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM), Jem learns about real courage during the time he spends with Mrs. Dubose.
Mrs. Dubose is an elderly member of the community, and the children must pass her home when they go into town.
We could do nothing to please her. If I said as sunnily as I could, 'Hey, Mrs. Dubose,' I would receive for an answer, 'Don't you say hey to me, you ugly girl! You say good afternoon, Mrs. Dubose!'...Countless evenings Atticus would find Jem furious at something Mrs. Dubose had said when we went by.
'Easy does it, son,' Atticus would say. 'She's an old lady and she's ill. You just hold your head high and be a gentleman. Whatever she says to you, it's your job not to let her make you mad.'
On one particular afternoon, Mrs. Dubose starts on the children, and then nastily insults Atticus for taking Tom' Robinson's case. Scout relates that she is used to hearing insults about Atticus regarding Tom Robinson's defense, but this was the first time it had come from an adult. Jem is furious, but they continue into town, buy their toys, and turn for home. When they reach Mrs. Dubose's house, Jem grabs Scout's new baton.
He did not calm down until he had cut the tops of every camellia bush Mrs. Dubose owned, until the ground was littered with green buds and leaves. He bent my baton against his knee, snapped it in two and threw it down.
Of course, when Atticus comes home, he calls for Jem and his "voice was like a winter wind." He has Scout's baton in one hand and camellia buds in the other; it is obvious he knows what has happened. He demands that Jem go to see Mrs. Dubose. When the boy returns, he explains that Mrs. Dubose wants him to come to her house each day to read to her for a month. Atticus readily agrees.
And so Jem and Scout go each day. They are released from the reading time when the alarm clock next to Mrs. Dubose's bed goes off. After about a month, Atticus stops by to visit the elderly woman, and they discuss the time. It is at that point that Scout realizes that each day they have been staying later and later before the alarm sounds. Atticus agrees with Mrs. Dubose that even though the month is up, Jem shall read for one more week. The children return the following Monday, but the alarm clock no longer rings: she just dismisses them when it's time. Finally the last day comes, and they are released for good.
"The spring," as Scout says, "was a good one..." and she describes the lengthened days of playing. One evening the phone rings and Atticus goes down to Mrs. Dubose's house for a few minutes. He returns shortly with a candy box and announces that Mrs. Dubose is dead, but then he explains that everyday Jem read, Mrs. Dubose was trying to end her addiction to morphine, a pain medicine she was taking. The twisted body and face (her "fits") they had seen were signs of her suffering through withdrawal and her pain, taking her morphine only after the ringing of the clock. Each day she had gone a little longer. She finally died as she wanted, not without agony, but without addiction.
Atticus tells Jem:
...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 what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun...It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what...Mrs. Dubose won...she died beholden to nothing...She was the bravest person I ever knew.
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