The narrator, Hazel (though we do not her learn her name until later), goes on a drive with her Granddaddy Vale, her uncle Hunca Bubba, and her brother Baby Jason. Hazel mentions that Hunca Bubba is no longer to be called Hunca Bubba – he now goes by his full name, Jefferson Winston Vale. She does not give the reason for the name change. She also mentions that her grandfather calls her Scout because she likes to sit in the front seat and navigate whenever he drives.
Hunca Bubba shows pictures of his girlfriend to Hazel and Baby Jason. Though Hazel is not interested in hearing about the girlfriend, one picture of the girl in front of a movie theatre sparks a memory. Hazel recalls the day that she went to see the (fictional) film Gorilla, My Love with Baby Jason and her older brother, Big Brood.
When the movie began, the children were upset to realize that it was a religious film, about Jesus. They booed and popped potato-chip bags, much to the dismay of the theatre attendant whom they call Thunderbuns. Thunderbuns constantly shone a flashlight at them, but they only quietened momentarily.
After the film, Hazel demanded a refund from the manager because the film was not about gorillas, as its title suggested. When the manager refused to refund her money, Hazet set a fire under the candy machine in the lobby, which caused the theatre to shut down for a week. She explains that her boldness is inspired by her mother, who once went to the school to complain after Hazel told her that her teachers were “playin the dozens behind colored folks,” meaning they punished her for refusing to do as they demanded (17). Her parents respect her fierce integrity, and do not punish her for her defiance.
The narrative returns to the present. We finally learn that the narrator’s name is Hazel when she corrects Granddaddy Vale after he calls her Peaches. Hazel asks Hunca Bubba if he plans to marry his girlfriend, and he replies in the affirmative. Hazel then reminds him of a time when he babysat her and her brothers for two days when she was young. She claims he told her that he would marry her when she got older, and that he would wait. She is accusing him of being a liar.
There is an awkward silence in the car. Granddaddy Vale explains that Hunca Bubba is no longer the same person because he now goes by Jefferson Winston Vale. The narrator calls her uncle “a lyin dawg,” and she and Baby Jason start to cry (20).
“Gorilla, My Love” employs a unique narrative structure. Most of the stories in this collection feature a relatively traditional plot arc that follows the narrator through a series of events. (One exception to this is “The Survivor,” which also features a non-chronological structure.) However, “Gorilla, My Love” is a hybrid between a traditional narrative and a frame story. In some ways, the car scene is a frame for Hazel’s extended flashback on her trip to the movies. Although the car scene is undoubtedly where the bulk of Hazel’s character development takes place, Hazel’s trip to the movie theatre provides crucial information about her values and her relationship with her family. It also gives the story its title. So, while the car scene is technically a frame for the movie-theatre scene, they are of equal thematic and narrative importance.
“Gorilla, My Love” is also one of the most densely allusive stories in the collection. Granddaddy Vale’s nickname for Hazel – Scout – may be a reference to Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The story is similar to [Mockingbird] in the way that Hazel is very observant but does not fully understand everything she sees because of her youth. Bambara also refers to several films, including Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings. While these allusions do not have the thematic significance that the [Mockingbird] reference does, they do help flesh out the cultural landscape that is part of the story’s setting.
Names are very significant in “Gorilla, My Love,” as is the case in many other stories in the collection. Hazel has many nicknames, including Scout, Badbird, Miss Muffin, and Peaches. We learn these nicknames even before we learn her given name. This stylistic choice allows the reader to first understand Hazel through the way others perceive her. All of these names have a childish air to them, revealing that Hazel is far more inexperienced than her strong voice and confidence suggest. The choice also indicates that the moment she insists Grandaddy Vale call her Hazel is meant to be a strong assertion of her identity. Her youth is belied by her strong voice, and yet the final moment - in which she cries alongside the baby - reminds us without question that she is inexperienced.
Hazel is not the only character who believes that a person’s name influences his or her identity. Hunca Bubba also signifies his resolution to turn over a new leaf by asking people to call him by his full name, Jefferson Winston Vale.
This story also introduces the themes of integrity and authenticity. The conflict in both the car and the movie theatre stems from Hazel's anger over recognizing dishonesty. She is angered when a literal statement is not honored. At the movie, she is indignant over being duped by the movie's title. With Hunca Bubba, she feels a pivotal moment of her childhood is being dishonored. From an objective standpoint, then, “Gorilla, My Love” follows a pivotal moment in the narrator’s development into an adult – she is starting to understand the difference between literal and figurative expression. Not everyone means exactly what they say. However, Bambara is also sympathetic to Hazel’s frustration when Hunca Bubba’s affectionate promise to marry her turns out to be false. By taking Hazel’s disappointment seriously, Bambara suggests that the adult world could benefit from adopting Hazel’s fierce sense of integrity.
There is some ambiguity in the collection about whether some characters appear across several stories, because Bambara uses similar names and so many nicknames. For example, there are multiple characters named Hazel in the collection. Squeaky’s real name in “Raymond’s Run” is Hazel, and an adult woman named Miss Hazel appears in “My Man Bovanne” and “Happy Birthday.” Although these characters are different ages, they could conceivably be the same person at different points in her life. (Bambara is generally vague about the time period in which many of the stories take place.)
There is also the possibility that these Hazels are not literally the same character, but are kindred spirits. Bambara emphasizes the strong bonds that can form between people based on nothing more than empathy and the shared human condition. Evidence for this reading includes the fact that the Hazel in “Gorilla, My Love” speaks differently from the Hazel who narrates “Raymond’s Run.” For example, the narrator of “Gorilla, My Love” uses many more phonetic spellings. What is more, supporting characters rarely appear in multiple stories, suggesting different families. (There are some moments of overlap amongst secondary characters, however; for instance, a character named Baby Jason appears in both this story and “Maggie of the Green Bottles”).