“It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding. We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair.”
This quotation is from the second prologue to the novel, in which Claudia anticipates the events that the novel will recount, most notably Pecola’s pregnancy by incest. Here, she remembers that she and Frieda blamed each other for the failure of the marigolds to grow one summer, but now she wonders if the earth itself was hostile to them—a darker, more radical possibility. The idea of blame is important because the book continually raises the question of who is to blame for Pecola’s suffering. Are Claudia and Frieda at fault for not doing more to help Pecola? To some degree, we can blame Pecola’s suffering on her parents and on racism; but Cholly and Pauline have themselves suffered, and the causes of suffering seem so diffuse and prevalent that it seems possible that life on earth itself is hostile to human happiness. This hostility is what the earth’s hostility to the marigolds represents. The complexity of the question of blame increases when Claudia makes the stunning parallel between the healing action of their planting of the marigold seeds and Cholly’s hurtful action of raping Pecola. Claudia suggests that the impulse that drove her and her sister and the impulse that drove Cholly might not be so different after all. Motives of innocence and faith seem to be no more effective than motives of lust and despair in the universe of the novel.
It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.
These lines, which introduce Pecola’s desire for blue eyes, are found in Chapter 3 of the “Autumn” section of the novel. They demonstrate the complexity of Pecola’s desire—she does not want blue eyes simply because they conform to white beauty standards, but because she wishes to possess different sights and pictures, as if changing eye color will change reality. Pecola has just been forced to witness a violent fight between her parents, and the only solution she can imagine to her passive suffering is to witness something different. She believes that if she had blue eyes, their beauty would inspire beautiful and kindly behavior on the part of others. Pecola’s desire has its own logic even if it is naïve. To Pecola, the color of one’s skin and eyes do influence how one is treated and what one is forced to witness.
We had defended ourselves since memory against everything and everybody, considered all speech a code to be broken by us, and all gestures subject to careful analysis; we had become headstrong, devious, and arrogant. Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves. Our limitations were not known to us—not then.
This quotation is from Claudia, and it occurs in the second-to-last chapter of the novel. It can be read as a concise description of Claudia and Frieda’s ethos as a whole. The MacTeer girls take an active stance against whatever they perceive threatens them, whether it is a white doll, boys making fun of Pecola, Henry’s molestation of Frieda, or the community’s rejection of Pecola. Their active and energetic responses contrast sharply with Pecola’s passive suffering. Though Claudia and Frieda’s actions are childish and often doomed to failure, they are still examples of vigorous responses to oppression. Claudia hints here, however, that this willingness to take action no matter who defies them disappears with adulthood. Frieda and Claudia are able to be active in part because they are protected by their parents, and in part because they do not confront the life-or-death problems that Pecola does. As adults, they will learn to respond to antagonism in more indirect and perhaps more self-destructive ways.
The birdlike gestures are worn away to a mere picking and plucking her way between the tire rims and the sunflowers, between Coke bottles and milkweed, among all the waste and beauty of the world—which is what she herself was. All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us.
This quotation, from the last chapter of the novel, sums up Claudia’s impressions of Pecola’s madness. Here, she transforms Pecola into a symbol of the beauty and suffering that marks all human life and into a more specific symbol of the hopes and fears of her community. The community has dumped all of its “waste” on Pecola because she is a convenient scapegoat. The blackness and ugliness that the other members of the community fear reside in themselves can instead be attributed to her. But Claudia also describes Pecola as the paragon of beauty, a startling claim after all the emphasis on Pecola’s ugliness. Pecola is beautiful because she is human, but this beauty is invisible to the members of the community who have identified beauty with whiteness. She gives others beauty because their assumptions about her ugliness make them feel beautiful in comparison. In this sense, Pecola’s gift of beauty is ironic—she gives people beauty because they think she is ugly, not because they perceive her true beauty as a human being.
Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.
This quotation is from the last chapter of the novel, in which Claudia attempts to tell us what her story means. It describes love as a potentially damaging force, following the suggestion that Cholly was the only person who loved Pecola “enough to touch her.” If love and rape cannot be distinguished, then we have entered a world in which love itself is ambiguous. Against the usual idea that love is inherently healing and redemptive, Claudia suggests that love is only as good as the lover. This is why the broken, warped human beings in this novel fail to love one another well. In fact, Claudia suggests, love may even be damaging, because it locks the loved one in a potentially destructive gaze. Romantic love creates a damaging demand for beauty—the kind of beauty that black girls, by definition, may never be able to possess because of the racist standards of their society. But the pessimism of this passage is offset by the inherent hopefulness of the idea of love. If we can understand Cholly’s behavior as driven by love as well as anger (and his rape of Pecola is in fact described in these terms), then there is still some good in him, however deformed. We are left to hope for a kind of love that is a genuine gift for the beloved.