What is the significance of "snow on the mountain" in Chapter 11 of To Kill a Mockingbird?

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bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

On the surface, the Snow-on-the-Mountain camellia that the dying Mrs. Dubose leaves for Jem appears to be a kindly gift that the old lady wanted him to have for his many days of reading to her. It certainly serves as a remembrance that Jem will not forget. The Snow-on-the-Mountain camellia is native to Japan and was only introduced to the United States in the 19th century; Mrs. Dubose must have spent many years cultivating the plant, which most often grows at high altitudes. It is loved for its pure white color. Author Harper Lee no doubt used this particular variety of camellia to hammer home a few points. First, the plant--normally found in cold areas--fits the theme of Mrs. Dubose's icy personality. Although there was "a hint of summer in the air," when it came time to discipline Jem for chopping down the camellias, Atticus's

... voice was like the winter wind.

After he told Jem to go and apologize, Atticus sat down to read "in cold blood." When Jem began reading to Mrs. Dubose, he saw that she drooled

... like a glacier down the deep grooves enclosing her chin.

Each day, Mrs. Dubose "warms up every afternoon" by calling Atticus a "nigger-lover"; and when she died, it was without her morphine addiction--as free "as the mountain air."

Her gift to Jem serves as a reminder that some things--and people--don't die easily. As Mrs. Dubose reminds Jem, to kill her camellias, one must "pull it up by the roots." Many critics point out that the white camellias also serve as a symbol of the old lady's undying racism: Her beloved white camellias represent her pre-Civil War upbringing, and how she is bound to die unrepentant in this regard. Like the camellias, racism cannot by destroyed by merely killing off the head (especially with an innocent weapon like a girl's baton): It, too, must be cut off at the roots.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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