Harper Lee ends part 1 of To Kill a Mockingbird with the story of Mrs. Dubose and Jem. Atticus attempts to do a nice thing for Mrs. Dubose, who is dying, while also teaching his children a valuable lesson. The story of Mrs. Dubose foreshadows events to come in part 2 of the book.
As punishment, Jem has been using his time to read to Mrs. Dubose. The children notice that she acts oddly during that time. She seems to have fits or gazes off in another direction, not seeming to hear them. After she dies, Atticus explains that Mrs. Dubose had been a morphine addict as a means to relieve her pain. The doctor had said she could use it and die peacefully, but Mrs. Dubose refused. She wanted to die without the spell of the medication over her. Most people would take the easy way out and would not want to feel pain. Atticus tells the children that
when you’re sick as she was, it’s all right to take anything to make it easier, but it wasn’t all right for her.
He wants Jem and Scout to understand that some things in life are difficult, and it’s not okay to avoid them just because they’re uncomfortable. The easy way out is not always the best way out.
Next, Atticus discusses courage, as he believes Mrs. Dubose was a brave woman. It was not easy for her to make that decision or to see it through but she did. She died “beholden to nothing and nobody.” Atticus teaches the children that courage is following through, no matter how difficult things get. He wants Scout and Jem to understand that people must do what is right. Courage, to him, is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway,” and you do not give up. He says you usually do not win under these circumstances but you take the chance that maybe you can win. Mrs. Dubose was the most courageous person Atticus knows.
His purpose in delivering this speech to his children is clearly to teach them a valuable lesson. Lee’s purpose in including it at this point in the book is to prepare the readers for what is to come. The trial will be grueling to witness. Atticus will do everything in his power to fight for Tom, to prove that he is innocent and to save his life, as well as to create a precedent for any future cases. Yet, people will remain ignorant and take the easy way out, preferring to go along with archaic social norms rather than think for themselves. So, despite Atticus’s best efforts, there is little chance that right will prevail. He is well aware of this fact, but he will still fight hard for Tom.
Atticus is not only lecturing Scout and Jem about the importance of bravely fighting even when you don’t have much of a chance of success, he’s also showing them that he lives by that very idea every day.