Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis
This chapter focuses on Mrs. Dubose, the cantankerous old woman who sits out on her porch and yells terrible things at the children of Maycomb. She's so mean, in fact, that Cecil Jacobs walks a mile out of his way just to avoid her house. One Saturday, the day after Jem's twelfth birthday, he and Scout walk into town to buy a steam engine and a baton, and on their way there Mrs. Dubose yells at them that Atticus is "no better than the niggers and trash he works for!" This is racist and classist and makes Jem so mad that after he buys their toys, he takes Scout's baton and hacks all the blooms off Mrs. Dubose's camellia bushes. Naturally, this doesn't go over well with Atticus.
Jem's punishment is to read to Mrs. Dubose for two hours every day after school and on Saturday for an entire month. During this process, Mrs. Dubose's health deteriorates to the point where her mouth seems to move of its own volition, allowing great ropes of saliva to pour out of her mouth. After she dies, Atticus reveals that she was a morphine addict and that she'd quit cold turkey around the same time Jem destroyed her camellias. She was sick because she was going through withdrawal while Jem and Scout sat with her. Because of this, Atticus thinks Mrs. Dubose is the bravest person that he has ever met. This is an important lesson about courage for Jem and Scout. Part I ends with Jem thinking about Mrs. Dubose's bravery while staring at a camellia.
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. This is the first book Jem reads to Mrs. Dubose. It's about a young nobleman who is disinherited by his father and winds up going on an adventure, first being wounded in a tournament, and then being captured by his enemies, before finally marrying his true love, Lady Rowena. This story of knights and valor appeals to Jem, and it allows Lee to build on the theme of courage.
Jem vs. Mrs. Dubose. Scout's narration makes it seem like Mrs. Dubose has ongoing conflicts with almost every single character in the novel. Of these conflicts, the biggest and most important is between her and Jem. He's so upset over her calling Atticus trash that he destroys her camellias, and as punishment he's forced to read to her six days a week for over a month. During her lifetime, these two are never able to reconcile, but after she dies, Jem begins to understand why she was the way she was.
An example of this would be when Scout and Jem wait for Atticus after Jem destroys all of Mrs. Dubose's camellia bushes. Scout says, "Two geological ages later," Atticus returns, which clearly exaggerates how long it took and builds on the theme of time.
Camellias. Mrs. Dubose leaves a single Snow-on-the-Mountain camellia for Jem after she dies. This flower alone symbolizes the end of their conflict, embodying Mrs. Dubose's forgiveness and Jem's worth in her eyes. Collectively, however, the camellias are a symbol of Maycomb's racist heritage, both because they're white and because camellias are the state flower of Alabama, which of course has a long history of racism and segregation.
Courage. Thus far in the narrative, courage has largely consisted of being willing to touch or just approach the Radley house, but in this chapter courage starts to take on a more serious character, with Mrs. Dubose fighting through a very painful and largely unnecessary withdrawal because she wanted to die "free," without being beholden to anyone or anything. Atticus thinks that she's the bravest person he's ever met because of this, but Jem and Scout have trouble understanding this, at first. Later in the novel, we'll see how this first lesson in courage affects their understanding of Tom's trial and Atticus's actions.
Time. Once again, time is most noticeable to Scout when it seems to drag, as when the alarm clock in Mrs. Dubose's house keeps them there a little bit later every day. In this chapter, Scout and Jem lose much of their precious free time on weekday afternoons and consequently begin to feel that their responsibility to Mrs. Dubose, like school, is a tremendous waste of time. Only after Atticus explains to them about her morphine addiction does Jem begin to think that perhaps all this time wasn't completely wasted and that, in the end, he did learn something.