Why is Atticus so insistent about Jem reading to Mrs.Dubose in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Atticus has Jem read to Mrs. Dubose so that he will "climb into her skin" and begin to understand her. By reading to this ailing neighbor, Jem will witness her "bravery."

Because all that Jem and his sister know of Mrs. Dubose is her irascible personality, displayed as she hurls insults at them and about their father from her porch, they believe her to be "vicious." Often she accuses them of ridiculous things such as "playing hooky" from school on a Saturday and breaking down Miss Maudie's grape arbor, which Scout declares that Jem has not been near since the previous summer. One day Mrs. Dubose insults Scout, saying that she will amount to no more than a waitress at a cheap cafe. Then she derogates Atticus by declaring, "Your father's no better than the n*****s and trash he works for!" After hearing this insult, Jem loses his self-control. He snatches Scout's baton and destroys the lovely blooms on Mrs. Dubose's camellias.

Jem is made to return to Mrs. Dubose's yard to clean up his destruction and apologize to Mrs. Dubose. When he returns home, Jem tells his father that Mrs. Dubose wants him to read to her after school and on Saturdays. Atticus approves of this arrangement. After Mrs. Dubose dies,  Atticus tells Jem that he has wanted his son to get to know Mrs. Dubose's courage in withdrawing from morphine so that she could leave the world "beholden to nothing and nobody." This act of Mrs. Dubose's demonstrates an important virtue.

"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 . . . she died beholden to nothing and nobody. . . . " (Ch.11)

Jem is given a box that Mrs. Dubose ordered for him. He opens the box containing a Snow-on-the-Mountain camellia that is like the ones that he has destroyed. Jem throws away the box, but holds the lovely bloom, fingering the wide petals meditatively.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Atticus makes Jem read to Mrs. Dubose so he will understand the meaning of real courage, because Mrs. Dubose is very ill and is trying to die without morphine.

After Jem ruins Mrs. Dubose’s flowers, Atticus makes him go to apologize although Scout is sure that he will be murdered with a Civil War relic.

Scout is angry at Atticus for sending Jim to Mrs. Dubose.  Atticus explains that the summer is going to be difficult for them, and tells her that she will understand when she is older.

[When] you and Jem are grown, maybe you'll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn't let you down. (ch 11)

Atticus knows that Mrs. Dubose is only the beginning.  The children are going to have to face ridicule from both adults and children over Atticus’s defending Tom Robinson.  He wants the children to learn courage, and he thinks that Mrs. Dubose is a good example of it.

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. (ch 11)

Atticus wants Jem—and Scout—to realize that courage is more than bravery in the face of danger.  Courage is when you have a difficult situation and you still try anyway.  Courage is not giving up.  He is trying to show them this lesson with his trial.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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