Mrs. Dubose, an ill, elderly woman who lives two doors down from the Finches, is known by many in the neighborhood to be “the meanest old woman who ever lived.” Although she habitually insults passers-by from the safety of her front porch, tensions between her and the Finch children explode when she responds to the news of Tom Robinson’s case by attacking Atticus’s moral character. This attitude is one that many in Maycomb hold, but hearing it shouted to the public by a woman he perceives as indisputably evil causes Jem to lose control and destroy her garden in retaliation.  

Jem experiences a different side of Mrs. Dubose, however, when he faces his punishment of reading aloud to her each Saturday. He sees her in moments of weakness and vulnerability as the effects of her illness become apparent, and after she dies, he learns from Atticus that she spent her last weeks alive trying to break herself of her morphine addiction. This personal struggle to free herself from the grips of morphine in order to be at peace with herself is, in many ways, a small-scale version of the moral struggle that Atticus faces in his representation of Tom Robinson. The easy option, in Mrs. Dubose’s situation, is to continue taking morphine to ease the pain caused by her illness. Similarly, Atticus could remain in his neighbors’ good graces by refusing to represent Tom in court. Both refuse to compromise, however, on their individual moral codes despite how challenging they may be to uphold. Mrs. Dubose’s life ultimately serves as an example of “real courage” for Jem, Scout, and the reader and sets up a framework for understanding the central tension of the novel.