In Chapter 11 of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee introduces the reader to a remarkable minor character named Mrs. Dubose. Jem and Scout dislike Mrs. Dubose, as she is constantly insulting them and insulting Atticus for defending an African-American man, Tom Robinson. Mrs. Duboses's character serves as a reminder that we need to sympathize with and understand all people, even those who seem detestable at first.
Mrs. Dubose is so unlikeable that Jem destroys all of her prized camellia bushes. To punish him, Atticus makes Jem read to her every day for a month. Mrs. Dubose's house is truly horrible: "An oppressive odor met us when we crossed the threshold, an odor I had met many times in rain-rotted gray houses where there are coal-oil lamps, water dippers, and unbleached domestic sheets" (Chapter 11; page numbers vary according to the edition of the book). Mrs. Dubose is similarly repulsive, as she has saliva on her mouth and continually berates Jem and Scout because Atticus is defending Tom Robinson.
After the month of Jem's reading to Mrs. Dubose is over, Jem and Scout feel relieved. Shortly thereafter, Atticus tells them that she died. She had been addicted to morphine, a pain killer, but was able to kick her addiction before she died. Atticus says, "She said she was going to leave this world beholden to nothing and nobody...She meant to break herself of it before she died, and that's what she did" (Chapter 11). In other words, she could have easily died still addicted to morphine, but she wanted to show that she was stronger than the drug. Jem was reading to her to help her pass the time and forget about her pain.
Mrs. Dubose's character is a testament to the idea that everyone has secret struggles. Atticus asks Jem and Scout to treat Mrs. Dubose with empathy, even though she at first seems dislikable. As Atticus tells his children at the beginning of the book, we can never really understand someone until we walk around in their shoes, and Mrs. Dubose is an example of an unlikeable person who we sympathize with once we understand her inner pain.