Eugenia Collier’s short story ‘Marigolds’ is a somber contemplation on innocence and maturity, and a poignant depiction of the lives of black people in America during the Great Depression. This short story, written in 1969, won the Gwendolyn Brooks Prize for fiction.
Marigolds | Summary
The narration consists of two layers: the first layer consists of the narration of an episode in the life of the narrator in the past when she was a teenager and this first layer of narration is interspersed with certain observations and realizations that the narrator has access to only in the time of narration, as an adult.
The story starts with the narrator, Lizabeth, remembering how everything was dry, dusty and sterile in their hometown during her youth. Then she remembers how Miss Lottie’s marigolds, ‘a brilliant splash of sunny yellow against the dust’, stood out. The narrator then looks back on the lives of black people in Maryland during the Great Depression. They led very poor lives. The parents in the black families would leave for work early and the children, the narrator included, would be left to run around the place all day.
The narrator starts narrating how one day the children’s group decided to go irritate Miss Lottie, an activity already popular with them. Then we get a detailed description of Miss Lottie, her shabby home, and her disabled son. The children take particular delight in pestering Miss Lottie. The readers are now told how the group despises Miss Lottie’s well-looked-after marigolds. To them, this sight is an intrusion into their world of usual decay, and they want to disrupt this sight as much as possible. The children, led by the narrator herself, start throwing pebbles and damaging the marigolds. The narrator in fact walks up to Miss Lottie and chants, “Old witch, fell in a ditch, picked up a penny, and thought she was rich!” She feels ashamed of this later, though.
That night, the narrator sees her father in tears. Her father is frustrated because he can find no work. The sight of her father crying shocks the narrator to the core. She wakes up her brother and goes to Miss Lottie’s garden and in a moment of rage, causes mayhem in the garden by destroying the marigolds completely. Then she meets Miss Lottie herself. Miss Lottie somehow does not seem like a witch anymore but a human who has tried to keep all dejections of life at bay by investing all her time and energy and hopes on her marigolds, which the narrator has just taken away from her. The narrator understands that her innocence has been lost since she now begins to see beneath the skin of things. The story closes with the narrator’s speculations about guilt. innocence and the loss of it.
Marigolds | Analysis
Innocence and the loss of innocence are prominent themes of the story. The narrator indicates that innocence is a state of emotional naivety in which people cannot fathom the true consequences of their actions. Experience or maturity, on the other hand, involves seeing ‘the area below the surface’. At the beginning of the story, the children’s group just sees the marigolds literally but fails to see what they actually signify. In other words, they lack the emotional depth as of now to realize what the marigolds mean to an old lady like Miss Lottie, the victim of many misfortunes. It is only the ugly and almost mocking visibility of the brilliantly yellow marigolds, in an otherwise sterile world infested with extreme hardships, that catches their attention. The narrator tells us:
‘For some perverse reason, we children hated those marigolds. They interfered with the perfect ugliness of the place; they were too beautiful; they said too much that we could not understand; they did not make sense. There was something in the vigor with which the old woman destroyed the weeds that intimidated us … it was something we could not name. We had to annoy her by whizzing a pebble into her flowers or by yelling a dirty word, then dancing away from her rage, reveling in our youth and mocking her age. Actually, I think it was the flowers we wanted to destroy… ‘
The children think it is right to want to destroy the marigold just because they ‘could not understand’ what they mean. However, towards the end, the narrator attains a true understanding of the significance of the marigolds:
‘For as I gazed at the immobile face with the sad, weary eyes, I gazed upon a kind of reality which is hidden to childhood. The witch was no longer a witch but only a broken old woman who had dared to create beauty in the midst of ugliness and sterility. She had been born in squalor and lived in it all her life. Now at the end of that life she had nothing except a falling down hut, a wrecked body, and John Burke, the mindless son of her passion. Whatever verve there was left in her, whatever was of love and beauty and joy that had not been squeezed out by life, had been there in the marigolds she had so tenderly cared for.’
With this understanding, the narrator remarks, her innocence disappears for she can sense the complexities of the world, and more importantly, she now has the gift of compassion. The narrator draws the line between innocence and experience thus: ‘Innocence involves an unseeing acceptance of things at face value, an ignorance of the area below the surface. In that humiliating moment I looked beyond myself and into the depths of another person. This was the beginning of compassion, and one cannot have both compassion and innocence.’
Coming of age, accompanied by changing worldviews, is another prominent theme in the story. The shift in the narrator’s view of Miss Lottie and her marigolds has already been noted. Also worth noting is Lizabeth’s state of mind after she and her group have thrown pebbles at Miss Lottie’s marigolds and hurled abuses at her. She is ashamed of her conduct and she says, ‘The child in me sulked and said it was all in fun, but the woman in me flinched at the thought of the malicious attack that I had led.’ This moral tug-of-war, albeit ephemeral, is significant.
Lizabeth’s established worldviews tumble when she sees and hears her father crying. The fall of the patriarch of the house during the Great Depression necessarily coincides with Lizabeth’s disillusionment with whatever sense of stability she might have had with regards to how the world works, precisely because the strength of her able father has hitherto symbolized this stability for her. This experience causes her to lash out her wrath on the marigolds, an experience that eventually brings out the woman in her. This coming across with the cruelty of the world proves a necessary step in her coming of age from a child to a woman.
The excruciating poverty experienced during the Great Depression comes across in the short story very poignantly. The narrator remarks, ‘Poverty was the cage in which we all were trapped,
and our hatred of it was still the vague, undirected restlessness of the zoo-bred flamingo who knows that nature created him to fly free.’ Also, the story is an effective commentary on the lives of black people in general in America:
‘I don’t know what it was that we were waiting for; certainly not for the prosperity that was “just around the corner,” for those were white folks’ words, which we never believed. Nor did we wait for hard work and thrift to pay off in shining success, as the American Dream promised, for we knew better than that, too.’
This effectively brings out the race problem in America, especially during the first half of the twentieth century.
Hope in the face of hardships, and its absolute necessity in general, are other themes of the story. Not only do the marigolds stand for hope to Miss Lottie, the adult narrator, at the time of narrating this tale, is fully aware that no matter your present circumstance, but hope is also an ever-helpful entity since one can always hope to see things better than they are now. She remarks, ‘For one does not have to be ignorant and poor to find that his life is as barren as the dusty yards of our town. And I too have planted marigolds.’
The working of memory is another subtle theme in the story. Now that Lizabeth is looking back at her past and trying to recreate the scenes with the help of memory, she speculates how memory ‘is an abstract painting—it does not present things as they are, but rather as they feel’.
‘Marigolds’ NARRATIVE STYLE AND TECHNIQUES
The short story is narrated in the first person. Collier crafts the story as a recollection, a remembrance of things past. This creative choice and the resultant narrative technique become very useful in showing the difference between innocence and experience in the story since the present Lizabeth who is a woman can look back at the teenage Lizabeth and tell the latter’s story aided by the realizations that have dawned upon her since then. Further, though the narrator and the protagonist of the story are the same individuals, the narrative itself is crafted in a way that the story effectively reflects the change in the attitude of Lizabeth, and
tell the latter’s story aided by the realizations that have dawned upon her since then. Further, though the narrator and the protagonist of the story are the same individuals, the narrative itself is crafted in a way that the story effectively reflects the change in the attitude of Lizabeth, and the attainment of her maturity. This can be understood by reading the opening and closing passages of the story with particular attention. Also, traces of social realism can be found in the story.
Imageries are heavily used in the story. Right from the opening paragraph, a host of images are invoked in order to bring out the disparity between the general staleness of Lizabeth’s surroundings and the brilliant yellow marigolds of Miss Lottie’s garden. The very opening line of the story is highly stimulating to the senses:
‘When I think of the hometown of my youth, all that I seem to remember is dust—the brown, crumbly dust of late summer—arid, sterile dust that gets into the eyes and makes them water, gets into the throat and between the toes of bare brown feet.’
Imageries are often used in the text in order to build effective contrasts. Consider, for instance, the use of contrast in the following sentence: ‘Miss Lottie’s marigolds were perhaps the strangest part of the picture. Certainly, they did not fit in with the crumbling decay of the rest of her yard. Beyond the dusty brown yard, in front of the sorry gray house, rose suddenly and shockingly a dazzling strip of bright blossoms, clumped together in enormous mounds, warm and passionate and sun-golden.’
Also, since the story is a recollection, there is generous room for foreshadowing in the narration. When the narrator remarks, ‘One day returns to me with special clarity for some reason, perhaps because it was the beginning of the experience that in some inexplicable way marked the end of innocence’, we expect something extraordinary to happen. Hence, the readers’ expectations are set up through this foreshadowing.
Also, metaphors abound in the text. To take but one example, let us see this sentence: ‘Joy and rage and wild animal gladness and shame become tangled together in the multicolored skein of fourteen-going-on-fifteen as I recall that devastating moment when I was suddenly more woman than child, years ago in Miss Lottie’s yard.’ The ‘skein’ comparison is an apt metaphor here.
TITLE OF THE STORY
The marigolds mentioned in the title of the story are symbols of hope. And it takes Lizabeth to lose her innocence entirely in order to understand that these symbols of hope are not just mere material possessions to someone like Miss Lottie but these marigolds are but one manifestation of the universal need to construct a repository of hopes and then stick to it when times get tough. Once she loses her innocence, Lizabeth sees Miss Lottie as a fellow sufferer in their common humiliation by forces beyond their control, and this realization lends Lizabeth the gift of compassion.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eugenia Collier was born in 1928. She is an American writer and teacher of English, and she grew up during the Great Depression. ‘Marigolds’ is one of her best-known works, and it is one of the most anthologized short stories worldwide.