"Spring," first section
First-person narrative by Claudia MacTeer. On a Saturday in spring, Claudia goes inside and finds Frieda crying. She learns that Mr. MacTeer has beaten up Mr. Henry and kicked him out of the house. Frieda narrates the whole story to Claudia: Mr. Henry made sexual advances at Frieda, who ran to tell her parents. Mr. MacTeer chased Mr. Henry off, beating him first and then firing a gun at him. Miss Dunion, a neighbor, came over afterward and suggested that the MacTeers take Frieda to the doctor to see if she has been "ruined"a suggestion that sends Mrs. MacTeer into a rage against Miss. Dunion. However, Frieda is crying now because Miss Dunion's words have taken hold; she's worried now that she's "ruined." Frieda equates being "ruined" to being like the Maginot Line, because she heard her mother say that the Maginot Line was a "ruined" woman. Both of the girls think that being ruined means becoming fat like Marie, and believe that Poland and China aren't fat only because they drink whiskey. Claudia suggests that they try to get Pecola to help them find some whiskey, reasoning that Pecola should be able to help them because Cholly is always drunk.
The sisters go to the Breedlove home, but no one is there. On the balcony above the door, Marie (the Maginot Line) is having a drink of root-beer. She treats the girls with some kindness, telling them that Pecola is with Mrs. Breedlove at the house where Mrs. Breedlove is a servant. She then tells the girls that they can wait with her until Pecola is back, offering them pop to drink while they wait. Frieda says that they can't because Marie is a ruined woman. Marie becomes silent, clearly somehow hurt by Frieda's words. She then throws her root-beer bottle down at the girls' feet and laughs loudly, terrifying the girls, who run until they can't run any farther. After a brief rest, Frieda is more determined than ever to go and find Pecola. The girls walk all the way to the rich part of town where Mrs. Breedlove works. They find the house and see Pecola sitting on the stoop outside. The girls have a brief exchange during which Pecola defends the Maginot Line (Miss Marie, as she calls her), but the conversation is cut short when Mrs. Breedlove comes out to see who Pecola's visitors are. She allows the girls inside. Pecola is about to use a wagon to bring the wash back to the Breedlove storefront, and Mrs. Breedlove says that the MacTeer sisters can walk back with her. While Mrs. Breedlove goes to get the wash, a very young white girl appears and reacts with fear when she sees the three girls. The girl is the daughter of the family that employs Breedlove as a servant. She asks where "Polly" is, something that infuriates Claudia because even Pecola calls her own mother "Mrs. Breedlove."
Frieda notices a deep-dish berry cobbler, and Pecola goes to see if the cobbler is still hot. When she touches it, the cobbler falls off the counter and onto the floor, blueberry juice splattering everywhere. The hot pie filling burns Pecola's legs painfully, but when Mrs. Breedlove returns and sees the mess she runs to Pecola and backhands her, knocking the girl down. Pecola and the MacTeers leave the house in shame, laundry bag in tow, and as they leave they can hear Mrs. Breedlove fussing over the little white girl, who is crying. When the little white girl asks Mrs. Breedlove who the black girls were, Mrs. Breedlove assures her that she doesn't need to know: "Hush. Don't worry none."
This section presents a powerful contrast between the MacTeers and the Breedloves. Frieda's parents believe her without question, and their reaction is to protect their daughter. The insinuation that Frieda might be "ruined" does not make Mrs. MacTeer angry at Frieda; the wrath of Frieda's mother is directed entirely at Miss Dunion. This moment is something to bear in mind later on, when we learn what happens to Pecola under similar circumstances.
Morrison also manages to humanize Marie (the Maginot Line) without sugar-coating her. Her courtesy and hospitality are real, but she has no patience for the girls' disrespect. The quest for whiskey and the girls' disdain for the Maginot Line show, once again, the esteem the girls have for their mother's opinion and her wisdom. Their poor treatment of the whore seems a comment on their youth more than malice, although it cannot go unnoted that in a novel about the pain of being an outcast, Frieda treats Marie very poorly. The theme of love's scarcity can be seen in the treatment of Marie and the other prostitutes, whose names recall their vulnerable status. For the girls, their mother's word is law: they dislike Marie based on their mother's dislike of Marie.
They also misinterpret Mrs. MacTeer's words and attempt to avert Frieda's "ruin," misunderstanding the words of adults. Their misinterpretation highlights their innocence. By the end of the novel, through Pecola's experience, the MacTeer sisters will have a much better understanding of ruin.
At the house where Polly Breedlove works, we see where Mrs. Breedlove gives most of her attention and love. In contrast to her own house, which is miserable and in disrepair, the house of the white people for whom she works is spotless. The pie that should become a pleasant memory for Pecola will only be a pleasant memory for the little white girl"Polly" exerts all her effort in trying to make the house of the white folks feel like a home. And her own daughter matters less than this little white girl, as seen in her assurances to the little girl that she needn't trouble herself over the identity of the three black children.
"Spring," second section: SEEMOTHERMOTHERISVERYNICEMOTHERWILLYOUPLAYWITHJANE
The third-person narrator returns to fill in details about Pauline Breedlove's life, in a section that also has passages narrated first-person by Pauline.
Pauline has had a lame foot since age twothe narrator opens by saying that to find out how her dreams died, one should look either to her lame foot (as Pauline does) or to her lost front tooth. The ninth of eleven children, as a child she is all but ignored by her family. Her family, looking for a better life, migrates from Alabama to Kentucky while she is a girl. At fifteen, she meets Cholly; they marry and move far up to the North.
Pauline has few friends; other women look down at her because she is poorly dressed and speaks like a Southern black. Cholly refuses to give her money for better clothes, so she takes work housekeeping. Pauline describes the first steady job she landed, working as a housekeeper for an ungenerous and pretentious white family. She loses the job because Cholly shows up at her workplace drunk. The family does not pay Pauline the last bit of money they owe her. The white woman for whom Pauline worked tries to deal with Pauline, telling her that she will give Pauline the money only if Pauline leaves Cholly. Pauline points out the hypocrisy of the woman, who says she's thinking of Pauline's future but won't give her the small sum she needs to pay the gas man.
She becomes pregnant. Her life is lonely; she takes to going to the movies, where she learns about romantic love and physical beautytwo things Morrison calls "the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought." She loses her tooth, Pauline tells us, while biting into a piece of candy at the movies. The moment is painfully evoked: "There I was five months pregnant, trying to look like Jean Harlow, and a front tooth gone. . . . Look like I just didn't care no more after that. . . . [I] settled down to just being ugly."
After that, her marriage with Cholly deteriorates rapidly. The fights become more and more violent. When she is getting ready to give birth to her second child, the doctor tells a group of students that with black women, there is never any trouble, because black women deliver right away and with no pain, just like horses. Pauline makes a little extra noise while delivering, to let the doctors know that she's no horseand she also points out to us that if you look into a mare's eyes, you realize that even a horse feels pain.
She becomes sole breadwinner while Sammy and Pecola are still young. She begins to become more religious, solidifying her identity as a martyr. She finds a permanent job working for a wealthy and warm-hearted white family called the Fishers. Over time, she begins to devote all of her energy to taking care of the Fishers' home, and neglects her own home. Her love she saves for the Fishers' daughter, while she becomes quick-tempered and abusive with her own children. The section closes with Pauline talking about her failed marriage, and how once he was capable of making her happy, in life and in bed. Those feelings are gone now, and she thinks less and less about them.
This section is arguably the most successful part of the novel. Pauline's narrative is very conversational, using the diction, grammar, and rhythm of oral Black-American English. This section shows the powerful deterministic forces that have shaped Pauline. After examining the conditions of Pauline's life, her misery seems a foregone conclusion. Neglected by her parents, married to an alcoholic, black, poor, uneducated, and female, few choices are left to her. The moment where she loses her tooth in the movie theatre is painful: juxtaposing Pauline as an awkward, gap-toothed, pregnant black woman to the idealized (and illusory) image of Jean Harlow on the screen shows the power of these images to destroy a black woman's belief in her own beauty. The third person narrator points out that for the cavity to have grown, the conditions for it to fester must have been in placea clear metaphor for the social forces that have trapped Pauline in a hard and joyless life. The moment with the doctors is crucial, and is yet another scene in which we can study the gaze and how it functions. The doctors dehumanize Pauline, and part of that dehumanization takes the form of refusing to look into her eyesbecause if they did, they would see her looking back at them, and encounter Pauline's undeniable humanness and her status as a subject (as opposed to purely an object). Pauline, in turn, humanizes the horse, and understands that by looking into the animal's eyes one can see that its feelings are as real as those of a human being.
She takes care of the Fishers better than her own family, and there is a strange parallel between her care of the Fishers' daughter and the care of blonde dolls described by Claudia earlier in the novel. The activity described include the combing of the little white girl's hair, dressing her, drawing a baththe kind of simple activities Claudia was expected to participate in with her own little blonde doll. Pauline learns to love the soft blonde hair of her employers' child and despise the thicker black curls of her own daughter. It's possible to see an unsettling connection between the blonde dolls and the blonde daughters of families that employ black servants: in playing with little blonde dolls, black girls must either pretend the child is theirsand so negate their own race and deny their own beautyor they must pretend that they, like Pauline, are servants caring for the children of white employers.
"Spring," third section: SEEFATHERHEISBIGANDSTRONGFATHERWILLYOUPLAYWITHJANE
A third-person omniscient narrator describes Cholly's life. Born and raised in Georgia, Cholly is abandoned by his mother when four days old, and taken in by his Great Aunt Jimmy. His mother vanishes, and his father had already skipped town before Cholly was born. There are hints that his mother was insane. As a young boy, Cholly has a great friend in old Blue Jack, an older black man who works at the feed store. One of Cholly's happiest memories is of Blue Jack smashing a watermelon and sharing the heart with him. The passage is written with poetic tone, turning Blue Jack into something like a figure of myth, male and strong and holding up the watermelon so that it blocks out the sun.
When Cholly is in his early teens, Great Aunt Jimmy becomes sick, and an old seer-like black woman named M'Dear warns her that to get better she must drink nothing but pot liquor. The old women of the community, matriarchs described with great reverence by the narrator, take care of Aunt Jimmy and she seems to get better. But after a few days of following M'Dear's prescription, Aunt Jimmy eats a peach cobbler and dies.
During the funeral, Cholly goes down to the river with a girl named Darlene. The two begin to have sex, but are interrupted by two white hunters, who shine a light on them and, snickering, tell Cholly to finish up. Humiliated but also powerless, Cholly keeps at it until the hunters grow bored and leave. Curiously, Cholly's hatred is directed at Darlene. Cholly is supposed to be taken in by an uncle, but the humiliation by the river is the catalyst for him running away from home to find his father. He goes to Macon, where his father supposedly resides. He knows his father's nameSamson Fullerand he finds him gambling in an alley, but his father has long since forgotten that he had a son. He humiliates Cholly and turns his back on him, returning to his game of dice. Cholly, then, is free, without parents or people. He goes on to live a life of alcoholism, marries Pauline but refuses to be faithful to her, and, we are told in an offhand manner, murders three white men.
The narrative then moves to the current story-line. One Saturday afternoon in spring, Cholly, while totally drunk, rapes his daughter. Pecola faints from the pain, and when she wakes she can't remember what happened.
Cholly has had no one to teach him how to be a fatherAunt Jimmy is so much older that she hardly seems an adequate role model. Cholly searches for father figuresfirst, in Blue Jack, and then in his biological father. The rejection by Samson Fuller is a turning point in Cholly's life: "Abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose." Cholly knows nothing of love and little of faithfulness or family.
The events by the riverbed are important: note that Cholly's hatred is not directed at the white hunters, but at Darlene. The white hunters are out of his reach; for all intents and purposes they are invincible (although later, as a grown man, Cholly learns to hate and kill white men). He despises Darlene because his inability to protect her destroys his sense of his own masculinity. He goes from being the young lover to the naked black boy, forced to go on with sex while two bigger and stronger men watch.
His rape of Pecola is motivated by hatredthe text says explicitly that he despises his daughter for loving him because he is painfully aware of his failures. He feels a mix of tenderness and hatred as he rapes Pecola, the tenderness confused and misapplied. Ultimately, any tender feelings Cholly has for Pecola are transformed into a desire to consume her.
Note that the narrative of Cholly's life lays a greater emphasis on Cholly's agency. Although we are told that Cholly has no sense of fatherhood because he never knew his own parents (a statement which emphasizes social forces rather than Cholly's choices), we are also told repeatedly that Cholly is dangerously free. As with his son Sammy, who is always running away from home, Cholly's gender gives him a degree of agency that Pecola and Pauline simply do not have.
"Spring," fourth section: SEETHEDOGBOWWOWGOESTHEDOGDOYOUWANTTOPLAYDOYOUWANT
Soaphead Church, whose real name is Elihue Whitcomb, is a man of mixed race from the Caribbean. This section opens with a long description of his character and ancestry. He cannot stand contact with people, but he hoards the little bits of junk from people's everyday lives. He is a pedophile who loves to touch little girls. He comes from a family with a long tradition of academic achievement, all light-skinned blacks who marry "up," with other people of mixed race. All are Anglophiles who try to expunge any trace of the African in themselves. Elihue's own education brings him into contact with the Western canon, but in these great works he understands only what he wishes to see. The one adult love of his life, a woman named Velma, marries him but then leaves him soon afterward.
After a long series of failures in his studies and migration, Elihue has settled in Lorrain and become the local fortune teller/sorcerer. He has also acquired the nickname Soaphead Church. He rents from an old woman with a nasty, aging dog named Bob. Elihue hates the animal and longs to poison it, but he convinces himself that he wishes to poison it for the animal's own sake. He doesn't poison the dog because he's terrified of personal contact with the animal.
Pecola, already showing signs of pregnancy, comes to him and asks for blue eyes. Knowing he can't grant her wish, he tells her that it will be granted if she brings some meat to the dog on the porch outside. If the animal eats the meat and behaves strangely, her wish will be granted. Pecola, not knowing that the meat is poisoned, brings it to the dog. The dog devours the meat and dies almost immediately, and Pecola flees in terror. Soaphead Church proceeds to write a letter to God, in which he blames God for making the world badly. He blames God for the suffering and waste in the world, particularly in his own life, and then he congratulates himself for having granted Pecola's wishhis magic, he believes, will work, although only Pecola will be able to see the blue eyes that she has been given.
The family of Elihue Whitcomb displays a kind of mixed-race person who lives in colonial societymore fortunate than pureblooded natives, they are still ultimately powerless, allowed to occupy only the most meaningless government positions, allowed to be educated but never to rule. These mixed-race colonial subjects worship their own oppressors, struggling to emulate them. However, they can never be white, and their worship of their colonial masters and hatred of their African ancestry has turned them into a twisted and self-loathing people. This section, like the sections on Pauline and Cholly, shows a preoccupation with geneology and ancestry. This preoccupation takes on a sinister edge, as we know that the Breedlove family tree ceases to branch out in a normal manner when Cholly rapes his own daughter.
Soaphead Church is self-deluding, unhappy, and megalomaniacal. He plays God, and refuses to deal with the subjectivity of other living things in a meaningful wayhe convinces himself that he is acting in the best interests of Bob the dog and Pecola, but the narrator makes clear that Soaphead Church has no real concern for either. His desire to poison the animal stems solely from his own hatred of the beast, and his racial self-loathing prevents him from offering any sound counsel to Pecola. As far as we know, Soaphead Church is the only mortal being to whom Pecola has revealed her wish, and his emotional reaction is admiration. He feels that is right for a black girl like Pecola to long to "see the world with blue eyes," but a thoughtful reader will note that eye color does not have an effect on vision. The color of eyes is not for looking, but for being looked at. This points toward a source of Pecola's suffering: she cannot see herself, because she is invisible to so many. Because no human looks at her, she cannot conceive of her own worth and eventually loses the ability to maintain her own basic sense of identitySoaphead Church's use of Pecola for his own ends is the final step in the unraveling of her sanity.