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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

THE STORY

PART ONE

CHAPTER 11

Now that Scout and Jem are old enough to walk downtown by themselves, they frequently have the occasion to pass the house of an elderly lady named Mrs. Dubose. There is no apparent mystery about Mrs. Dubose, but in some ways she is just as intimidating as Boo Radley ever was. The old lady sits on her front porch in her wheelchair and makes nasty remarks as the children pass by. One day, in addition to her usual insults, Mrs. Dubose taunts Jem and Scout for having a father who makes his living "lawing for niggers." Jem has been able to take worse than this from children his own age, but these words coming from an adult try his self-control beyond endurance. On his way back from downtown, Jem takes Scout's toy baton and slashes the buds off all of Mrs. Dubose's prize camellia bushes.

Atticus insists that Jem apologize for what he has done, and Mrs. Dubose says that to make amends Jem must come to her house and read aloud to her for two hours every afternoon for two months. Scout goes along with Jem out of loyalty, but she finds the whole experience frightening. The Dubose house is dark and gloomy. Mrs. Dubose starts every session with more nasty insults, and then gradually drops off into a sort of drooling fit. Every day, the alarm clock that signals the end of the reading session takes longer and longer to ring, and the children suspect that there will never be an end to their ordeal.


Mrs. Dubose finally tells the children that they needn't come around any more. She dies a few weeks later. Atticus now explains to Jem and Scout why Mrs. Dubose wanted someone to read to her. It seems that Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict. Doctors had prescribed morphine for the old lady because she was in constant pain. But Mrs. Dubose hated the thought of being dependent on a drug, and she vowed to get free of the habit before she died. The children's presence helped Mrs. Dubose to get through the agony of withdrawal without being tempted to take the drug.

Atticus tells Jem that he wanted him to help Mrs. Dubose because he wanted him to see a demonstration of courage in action. Courage, says Atticus, is not "a man with a gun in his hand." Courage is "when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what."

In giving Jem this definition of courage, Atticus is obviously thinking about his own situation. He knows that he has little or no chance of winning Tom Robinson's case, but he is going to try anyway because he believes Tom is innocent. Of course, some people might argue that to carry on when you know you cannot win is not courageous, but foolish and self-defeating. How can you tell the difference between a courageous act and a foolish gesture? Is the difference just a matter of how the person involved feels? Or is there some kind of dividing line that separates one from the other? In this novel you can be sure that Atticus' ideas of right and wrong reflect the beliefs of the author. But even Scout and Jem sometimes find his views difficult to accept. For example, Jem finds it hard to forgive Mrs. Dubose for the awful things she said, even though he now knows that her meanness was in part caused by her struggle against drugs.

NOTE:

You may have noticed in this first part of the novel that Scout's confusion about adult morality is often reflected in her confusion about the meaning of words. For instance, in this chapter Scout asks her father to deny that he is a "nigger-lover." Atticus replies that actually the taunt is true, since he does his best to love everyone. Why, then, do other white people use the phrase as an insult? At this point in her life Scout is just old enough to understand vaguely that people's words, like their actions, sometimes have hidden meanings.  

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