Maggie of the Green Bottles
This story is about the narrator’s great-grandmother Maggie, who tries to ensure that the narrator will be successful, unlike the rest of their family. Maggie and the narrator are both interested in astrology, which Maggie uses to predict to the narrator that she is destined for greatness. The narrator remembers how Maggie was the only person who would stand up to her (the narrator's) father, who could sometimes be very cruel. Maggie also had a merciless side, though. She would hurt the narrator's father’s feelings by pointing out his flaws, and she would sometimes hit the family dog.
On one occasion, the narrator’s mother sent her and her baby brother out of the room so she and her husband could argue with Maggie. The narrator spied on them, watching as her father stomped into Maggie’s room and brought out some green bottles, which “had a strange effect on Maggie, she shut right up” (156).
The green bottles take on a mystic power for the narrator, and whenever she sees them in the garbage, she makes a wish on them. The narrator recollects another time when Maggie tried to read coffee grounds with her, and asked the narrator what she saw. The narrator could not see anything, so she made up images. Maggie rejected all of them.
One day, Maggie, the narrator, and the narrator’s little brother are sitting in the yard making necklaces out of peppers. Maggie sends the narrator to sneak into the house and bring out one of her green bottles. The narrator does, and Maggie tucks it under her skirt.
Shortly thereafter, she dies. At her funeral, the reverend criticizes Maggie’s moral character because she was found with a green bottle under her skirt. When the narrator’s parents ask her which of Maggie’s possessions she’d like to keep, she asks for the bottles. They give her some colored bottles, but not the green ones. That night, she cries in bed.
“Maggie of the Green Bottles” is a dual character sketch with a unique structure. Initially, the story focuses primarily on Maggie’s characterization. It is similar to “My Man Bovanne” in that it introduces the reader to a colorful elderly character who does not change much over the course of the narrative. The young narrator initially seems like merely a passive vehicle for exposition. However, as the story continues, it also becomes a coming-of-age story for the narrator. We learn how Maggie impacted her life, and how her perceptions of her great-grandmother changed as she grew older.
By telling “Maggie of the Green Bottles” from the perspective of a young narrator, Bambara constricts the reader’s knowledge of the plot to what the narrator would understand. While we can deduce that Maggie is an alcoholic even when the narrator cannot, certain parts of the story are left mysterious because the narrator does not understand them herself. For example, it is unclear what the colored bottles the narrator receives at the end of the story were for – they may have held alcohol like the green bottles, or Maggie may have used their contents for fortune-telling.
We also receive fragments of information about the narrator’s parents, but not enough to fully understand their relationship either with Maggie or with the narrator. By telling the story from a child’s limited perspective, Bambara disorients the reader and upends expectations about how stories convey information. This allows us to look at the story’s dysfunctional-family narrative with fresh eyes, and prevents readers from entering the world of the narrative with preconceived notions about Maggie and people like her.
Students who are reading the entire collection may notice that Baby Jason shares his name with the narrator’s younger brother in “Gorilla, My Love.” By repeating names across multiple stories, Bambara emphasizes the commonalities between the situations and characters in these otherwise unrelated tales. By tying “Maggie” to “Gorilla, My Love” through Baby Jason’s name, Bambara invites the reader to examine broader thematic similarities between the stories. “Maggie” and “Gorilla” are both about naïve young girls who look up to troubled adults. Bambara also uses this conceit with the name Hazel, used for the narrators of “My Man Bovanne,” “Raymond’s Run,” and “Gorilla, My Love.”
The green bottles of the story’s title are deeply symbolic, although their meaning is open to interpretation. For the narrator, the green bottles embody Maggie's problems. From the narrator's eyes, the only time when Maggie's resolve was dampened was when she was confronted with the bottles. However, they are also the only memento of Maggie that she really cares about keeping. This reveals the depth of the narrator’s love for Maggie, because they show that she hopes to remember everything about her great-grandmother, including the woman's faults. The symbol also reveals the narrator’s youth and imagination, because she understands the bottles to be symbolic of more than just alcoholism. In fact, because the narrator is so young and imaginative, she makes an implicit connection between the alcohol bottles and Maggie's mystical interests. What could be a symbol of alcoholic depravity has a mysterious mystical air because we understand it through a child's eyes.
“Maggie of the Green Bottles” also demonstrates Bambara’s nuanced attitude toward morality. Bambara does not excuse or downplay Maggie’s flaws. Her depiction of family arguments and alcoholism is gritty and realistic. However, the story also portrays the reverend in a negative light; his sanctimony upsets the innocent narrator, and neglects to acknowledge Maggie’s kind, nurturing side. Bambara suggests that although Maggie had some problems, she also had redeeming qualities. No person can be simply understood from a strict moral perspective.