Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves. Our limitations were not known to us—not then.
Summer arrives, a time of storms. Claudia remembers a storm her mother told her about that blew away half of South Lorain in 1929. She imagines her mother being pulled up into the air, smiling with her hand on her hip, unconcerned. Frieda and Claudia are selling marigold seeds to earn money for a new bicycle. Even though their mother has told them only to visit houses they know, they tromp all over town. When they are invited in at homes they know to refresh themselves with a cold drink, they overhear adult conversations and begin to piece together a story about Pecola.
Claudia and Frieda learn that Pecola has been impregnated by her father. Cholly has now run away. The neighborhood gossips are disgusted by Cholly’s action but also blame Pecola. They think she should be taken out of school. When her mother found her, she beat her almost to death. The gossips think that it would be best for the unborn baby to die. Claudia and Frieda are embarrassed and hurt for Pecola, and their sorrow is intensified by the fact that none of the adults seems to share it. Claudia can picture the baby in the womb, with beautiful eyes, lips, and skin. She thinks that wanting Pecola’s baby to live is a way to counteract everyone else’s love of white dolls and white little girls. She and Frieda are unconcerned with the incestuous component of the story—they do not understand how babies are made in the first place.
Claudia and Frieda decide to help Pecola by praying and by giving a sacrifice; they will give up their seed money and plant the rest of the marigold seeds. They will bury the money by Pecola’s house and bury the seeds in their own yard so that they can tend them. Claudia will sing and Frieda will say the magic words.
This chapter juxtaposes a variety of different ways of understanding and telling stories. In Claudia’s opening discussion of storms, she distinguishes “public fact” from “private reality.” It is a public fact that a tornado destroyed part of Lorain in the summer of 1929, but Claudia’s image of her mother floating in this storm is a dream image cast by the complexity of her private reality. Storms to her are not simple facts; they are connected in her mind to the texture of strawberries, dust, darkness, and the sticky feeling of humidity. Paradoxically, they are both frightening and satisfying. Her memory of a summer storm gets mixed up with the story her mother has told about the tornado, demonstrating that “public facts” are made private not only because of the personal connotations they hold for individuals, but also because they are distorted by memory. The image of her mother she conjures—strong, smiling, unconcerned by the storm even when it lifts her into the air—has less to do with the reality of storms than with her own admiration for her mother’s beauty, toughness, and independence. Her mother is a source of stability in the midst of metaphorical and real storms.
At the same time, Pecola’s story is both a matter of public fact and private reality. No one tells Claudia and Frieda the story directly or explains to them what it means. They are given the burden and the freedom of deciding for themselves what it means. They resist what they understand from the adults’ narrative, which implicates Pecola in Cholly’s “nastiness” and dismisses the entire family as crazy and ugly. Claudia and Frieda listen carefully, but they never hear sympathy or concern in the adults’ dialogue. Claudia tells herself a separate story that will include the sympathy she feels: the baby is beautiful inside the womb, much more beautiful than white dolls. She and Frieda, fearless at that age, cast themselves as heroines in a story that looks toward the baby’s future instead of back at the ugliness of its creation. Pecola’s baby must live, and they must save it.
They decide that, to save the baby, they must make a miracle. This miracle is to work by metaphorical rather than practical logic. First, they will petition God, but they suspect that a petition is powerful only if it is accompanied by the genuine sacrifice of their hard-earned money and seeds. Claudia and Frieda’s plan is not practical, of course, and it does not work. But their plan permits them to imagine a world in which human beings are connected to one another and to nature. They imagine that their sacrifice can earn Pecola’s safety and that the fruitfulness of the earth will parallel the fruitfulness of Pecola. Most of all, they imagine that words and song can be healing. Their hopefulness is a symbol of the hopefulness of the novel as a whole, which attempts to heal the terribly disjointed community it describes by lyrically telling its story.