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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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How does Atticus use Mrs. Dubose's death to teach the children about courage in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Early in the narrative of To Kill a MockingbirdMiss Maudie tells the children, "Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public streets." This observation of Miss Maudie indicates that Atticus believes in the power of example. Therefore, he is aware of his own behavior constantly so that his children will observe his example and learn from it.

Applying this concept to the incident of Jem's vindictive cutting of Mrs. Dubose's camellias, Atticus decides that his son will better learn what kind of person Mrs. Dubose really is by observing how she conducts herself, and not by her drug-induced words. Therefore, he assigns Jem the task of reading to her each day for a designated time. Finally, the sentence is completed and Jem is no longer required to visit her and read.

Then, one day Atticus returns home with a shoe box containing a perfect white camellia; Jem is annoyed that she will not "leave [him]alone"; however, his father disabuses him of this idea as he explains that Mrs. Dubose had actually been withdrawing from morphine addiction and enduring tremendous pain while Jem read. Atticus tells his son,

"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."

From Mrs. Dubose, Jem learns a lesson that his father will later underscore at the Tom Robinson trial: The noble fight against their foes even when they know they will be beaten because doing so is the morally correct thing to do.

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What lessons does Atticus try to teach his children through Mrs. Dubose and her death? 

In Chapter 11, Jem loses his temper and destroys Mrs. Dubose's camellia bush after she makes several derogatory comments about Atticus. Atticus punishes Jem by making him read to Mrs. Dubose for two hours each day, except for Sunday, for an entire month. After Jem's assigned reading time is over, Mrs. Dubose passes away and leaves a white camellia flower for Jem as a token of her appreciation. Atticus then explains to the children that Mrs. Dubose was suffering from a painful chronic disease. She ended up getting addicted to morphine and her final wish on earth was "to leave this world beholden to nothing and nobody." Jem's reading helped occupy Mrs. Dubose's mind between her doses of morphine until she was finally able to beat her addiction.

Atticus says that he wanted to show his children what "real courage" looked like. According to Atticus, real courage is "when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what" (Lee 69). Along with teaching his children a lesson in courage, Atticus also teaches his children tolerance and indirectly provides them insight into the duality of human nature. Scout and Jem learn that they must control their anger and not be so quick to judge others.

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