Mrs. Dubose was addicted to morphine, a pain killer.
Mrs. Dubose is a horrible old woman who likes to shout insults at Scout and Jem as they walk by. One day she insults Atticus with racist remarks about his defense of Tom Robinson, and Jem gets stressed out and can’t take it anymore. Jem destroys all of Mrs. Dubose’s camellia flowers.
Atticus punishes Jem by requiring him to read to Mrs. Dubose every day. She sets an alarm clock timer and he reads to her for several weeks, reading a longer amount of time each day. One day, Atticus goes to see her and when he comes back he tells the children that she just died.
“Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict,” said Atticus. “She took it as a pain-killer for years. The doctor put her on it. She’d have spent the rest of her life on it and died without so much agony, but she was too contrary—” (Ch. 11)
Mrs. Dubose became addicted to morphine, and it is terribly painful. She wanted to wean herself off the drug, and she needed help to do it. When the children were reading to her, it was just to distract her. The alarm clock was the signal that she was going longer and longer without morphine, until eventually she did not take it at all.
“Did she die free?” asked Jem.
“As the mountain air,” said Atticus. “She was conscious to the last, almost.
Conscious,” he smiled, “and cantankerous. …” (Ch. 11)
Atticus tells Scout and Jem that Mrs. Dubose was one of the most courageous people he knew, and he wanted them to get to know her so they could see that real courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” This is an important lesson for them to learn, because it is analogous to Atticus’s position with the trial. He knows that it is a hopeless case, and there is little chance of his winning because of the racism toward Tom Robinson. However, he still has to try.