What do the camellias symbolize in To Kill a Mockingbird?
Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose is an elderly, racist, seemingly bitter woman about whom Jem harbors intense emotions. Jem and Scout have been raised by their father, the eminently decent Atticus Finch, to judge people solely on the basis of their behavior, and not even on that basis unless you know that person’s history. Such is the case with Mrs. Dubose. A neighbor of the Finches, Mrs. Dubose is known for her animosity towards the children as well as for her virulently racist comments. In Chapter One of To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem describes this elderly neighbor as “plain hell,” and it’s not hard to see why, given the personal nature of Mrs. Dubose’s verbal assault on the Finch children. Finally, Jem retaliates against Mrs. Dubose by destroying her prized camillias. Sentenced by his father to attend regular sessions at Mrs. Dubose’s house as punishment for his destruction of the flowers, Jem and Scout gradually discover the importance of those flowers. They represent Mrs. Dubose’s humanity. What Atticus knows that the children are too young to appreciate is that this old woman battles constantly, every day, an addiction to morphine, which she had started taking to relieve pain. After Mrs. Dubose has died, Atticus reveals to his children the old woman’s secret, which included the humanity she retained in her heart, if not always in her political convictions. It is revealed that she has left for Jem a single camellia, a Snow-on-the-Mountain, an enduring symbol of her humanity. As Atticus explains to a crestfallen Jem, “I think that was her way of telling you – everything’s alright now, Jem, everything’s alright. You know, she was a great lady.”
Mrs. Dubose's camellias represent the racism and prejudice found in Maycomb County. The fact that her camellias are white hints towards the racial tensions in Maycomb. Jem's rash behavior represents an immature way of attempting to deal with racism. Violence cannot simply erase racism and prejudice. To effectively eradicate racism and prejudice, one must approach these issues with a level head and a caring heart. When Jem is given the opportunity to reconcile his actions, he calmly reads to Mrs. Dubose each day, except on Sundays. Each day that Jem reads, Mrs. Dubose is able to delay her morphine fix a little longer, until she if finally cured of her addiction. Jem's reading represents the sensible, pure approach to dealing with racism. By sacrificing one's time and sharing affection, people can gradually eradicate racism and prejudice. When Jem receives a single camellia in perfect condition, it is a reminder to approach difficult issues with compassion and understanding first.
The camellias symbolize understanding. Atticus says that Mrs. Dubose is the bravest person he knows, because she battles her illness daily. When she gives Jem the flower, she is passing that bravery on to him. His attacking the flowers was a learning opportunity for him, because he did not understand Mrs. Dubose’s behavior. He had to learn that things are not always what they seem, and you should not judge people. Sometimes you will learn things about others than change your perspective on them, and you will develop understanding.