By the time Scout is in the second grade, tormenting Boo Radley is a thing of the past and Scout and Jem’s games take them further up the street and past Mrs. Dubose’s house. Mrs. Dubose lives alone with a black servant named Jessie and is rumored to carry a concealed pistol. Scout and Jem hate her, as she’s mean and responds viciously to even polite greetings. As time goes on, Jem gets bolder and insists that he and Scout need to run all the way to the post office—past Mrs. Dubose’s house—to meet Atticus in the evenings. But most nights, Atticus finds Jem enraged by something Mrs. Dubose said. He encourages Jem to understand that Mrs. Dubose is ill and greets her heartily every evening.
Atticus’s choice to greet Mrs. Dubose politely, even when she insults his own children on a daily basis, adds more evidence to the idea that Atticus believes treating an individual with respect is always the right thing to do, regardless of that person’s behavior. Ignoring Mrs. Dubose or heckling her back would likely make her feel even meaner and less accepted by the community than she already is, whereas treating her kindly could yield positive results even if doing so is difficult. Jem’s willingness to write Mrs. Dubose off comes from his youth, as he’s not mature enough to consider that there might be an underlying reason for her behavior.
Jem receives money for his 12th birthday, so he decides to buy a miniature train for himself and a twirling baton for Scout. Mrs. Dubose hurls insults at the children, terrifying Scout, but Jem keeps his composure until Mrs. Dubose accuses Atticus of defending a black man, insisting that Atticus is no better than the “trash” for whom he works. This is the first time that Scout has heard abuse of this sort coming from an adult. They make their purchases in town and Scout gleefully tosses her baton as they head home. When they reach Mrs. Dubose’s house, she’s not on the porch. Jem snaps. He grabs Scout’s baton, uses it to cut the tops off of Mrs. Dubose’s camellia bushes, and then snaps the baton. He beats up Scout and they head home.
The simple fact that Mrs. Dubose cultivates camellias, just like Miss Maudie, makes it clear that she’s not an entirely evil person—like the delightful and kind Miss Maudie, Mrs. Dubose takes pleasure in the natural world and wants to make it beautiful. This, however, doesn’t excuse her nasty and rude behavior, as the abuse she slings at Scout and Jem here is clearly racist. Keep in mind that it’s likely Atticus knows Mrs. Dubose’s views on black people already, which makes it seem even more courageous that he continues to greet her warmly.
Scout and Jem don’t meet Atticus that evening. When Atticus arrives home with the broken baton and a camellia, Jem confesses, and Atticus icily sends him to apologize to Mrs. Dubose. Scout is terrified—she believes Mrs. Dubose will shoot Jem—but her anger at Atticus for sending Jem into danger evaporates. She crawls into Atticus’s lap and he encourages her to keep her head, even if nobody at school does so. He says that things will get worse come summer. Scout points out that Atticus might be wrong about needing to defend Tom, since everyone else thinks he’s wrong. Atticus says he needs to do this to live with himself.
As far as Scout is concerned, what everyone else in Maycomb thinks is probably right—thus far, she’s had little reason to question the status quo and whatever the majority believes since, for the most part, she’s been a part of that majority (due to the fact that she’s white and Atticus is a respected figure in town). This experience starts to show her what it’s like to be on the outs, which will help her develop empathy for other people who are different and disliked.
Jem returns home. He says that he said he was sorry, but he isn’t, and that Mrs. Dubose wants him to read to her every day after school. Atticus says that Jem must do this for the whole month that Mrs. Dubose requested. On Monday, Scout accompanies Jem to Mrs. Dubose’s house. Jessie lets them in. The house is dark and smells oppressive. Mrs. Dubose lies under many quilts and looks almost friendly, so Scout momentarily feels sorry for her. Mrs. Dubose insults Scout and Jem begins to read Ivanhoe. Scout inspects Mrs. Dubose’s face and thinks of how disgusting she looks. Mrs. Dubose corrects Jem for 20 minutes, but then seems to go into a silent fit. When an alarm clock goes off, Jessie shoos Scout and Jem out so Mrs. Dubose can have her medicine.
It doesn’t seem as though Scout and Jem have much experience spending time with elderly people, which likely explains some of their fear and apprehension about being here—to an active and imaginative child, an elderly person who’s confined to her bed, spews profanity, and seems unwell could be understandably unsettling. That Scout momentarily feels sorry for Mrs. Dubose shows that she certainly has the capacity to feel empathy and compassion for people who are very different from her, even if they’re also scary—an important lesson as she continues to consider Boo.
That afternoon, Jem tells Atticus that Mrs. Dubose is nasty, drools, and has fits. Atticus reminds him that sick people don’t always look nice. As the week wears on, Scout, Jem, and Mrs. Dubose fall into a routine: Mrs. Dubose corrects Jem’s reading for a while and insults them and Atticus, seems to go vacant, and when the alarm clock rings, Jessie dismisses Scout and Jem. One evening, Scout asks Atticus what a “nigger-lover” is. She explains that Mrs. Dubose calls Atticus that and that Francis hurled it at her, but she’s not sure what it means—users’ tones, however, tell her it’s not nice. Atticus says it’s an ugly term like “snot-nosed,” and it reflects more on the ugliness of the person using it than the person receiving it.
Atticus suggests here that when a person uses slurs, it simply shows how cruel and misguided the person is—in Scout’s position of receiving these slurs, it says nothing bad about her. Keep in mind the fact that Scout is hearing this abuse from adults as well as children, which begins to create cracks in the idea that Maycomb is an idyllic place. There’s a clear undercurrent of hate and racism in town that Scout is just beginning to see, even if Atticus implies that it’s been here the entire time—just not on Scout’s radar.
A month later, Atticus enters as Jem reads to Mrs. Dubose. With a smile, Mrs. Dubose tells Atticus that it’s 5:14, and the alarm is set for 5:30. Scout realizes that they’ve been staying a little longer at Mrs. Dubose’s every day and that today, Mrs. Dubose shows no sign of having a fit. Mrs. Dubose asks if Jem will read to her for another week. On the way home, Atticus insists that Jem must continue reading. The next week, Mrs. Dubose, not the alarm clock, releases Jem. She doesn’t have fits, picking on Jem and Scout instead. On the last day, she releases the children and they race away howling.
Extending the alarm clock every day makes it clear to Scout that there’s more going on here than just reading, even if she’s not yet sure what. This again speaks to her capacity to understand some aspects of the adult world, even if she can’t fully interpret them yet. That Mrs. Dubose’s racist abuse continues even as she improves indicates that this is not just an anomaly due to her illness, but rather a feature of her personality. Her open expression of these sentiments also suggests that this mindset is common among adults in town, and that there are others who are just as racist as Mrs. Dubose.
A month or so later, the phone rings and Atticus goes to Mrs. Dubose’s house. He returns much later with a candy box and explains that Mrs. Dubose died. He says that Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict, and this is why she had fits. She called him just before Jem cut down her camellias to make her will and insisted that she’d die beholden to nothing—she wanted to overcome her addiction, and she did. Atticus assures Jem that Mrs. Dubose died free and told him all sorts of nasty things before she went. He hands Jem the box, which contains a white camellia. Jem throws it and screams. He buries his face in Atticus’s shirt and Atticus says he would’ve made Jem read anyway. He wanted Jem to see that courage is not a man with a gun—it’s doing something even if you know you won’t succeed.
The camellia is a reminder to Jem to remember that for all her faults, Mrs. Dubose was a human being like anyone else—and like everyone else, she deserves kindness, respect, and to be remembered as being courageous and dignified in her own way. Atticus recognizes that this is one of the most important things he can teach his children, as learning this lesson will help them to be empathetic and caring in the future, especially when faced with people who are different.