Outside a Greek hotel, Rosemary Villanucci, a white neighbor of the MacTeer family, taunts Claudia and Frieda MacTeer from the Villanucci’s Buick. School has started, and the sisters are expected to help gather coal that has fallen out of the railroad cars. Their house is spacious but old, drafty, and infested with rodents. During one trip to gather coal, Claudia catches a cold. Her mother is angry but takes good care of Claudia, who does not understand that her mother is mad at the sickness, not her. Frieda comforts Claudia by singing to her—or at least Claudia remembers it this way. In hindsight, she also remembers the constant, implicit presence of love.
The MacTeers are getting a new boarder, Henry Washington. The children overhear their mother explaining that he was living with the elderly Della Jones but that she has grown too senile for him to stay there. Mrs. MacTeer also explains that Miss Jones’s husband ran off with another woman because he thought his wife smelled too clean. Henry has never married and has the reputation of being a steady worker. Mrs. MacTeer says the extra money will help her. When Henry arrives, the children adore him because he teases them and then does a magic trick: he offers them a penny but then makes it disappear so that the girls must find it hidden on his person.
There is also a second addition to the MacTeer household, Pecola Breedlove. She is temporarily in county custody because her father burned down the family’s house. Pecola is the object of pity because her father has put the family “outdoors,” one of the greatest sins by community standards. Having joined the MacTeers, Pecola loves drinking milk out of their Shirley Temple cup. Claudia explains that she has always hated Shirley Temple and also the blonde, blue-eyed baby doll that she was given for Christmas. She is confused about why everyone else thinks such dolls are lovable, and she pulls apart her doll trying to discover where its “beauty” is located. Taking apart the doll to the core, she discovers only a “mere metal roundness.” The adults are outraged, but Claudia points out that they never asked her what she wanted for Christmas. She explains that her hatred of dolls turned into a hatred of little white girls and then into a false love of whiteness and cleanliness.
It is a Saturday afternoon, and Mrs. MacTeer is angry because Pecola has drunk three quarts of milk. The girls are avoiding Mrs. MacTeer and sitting bored on the steps when Pecola begins bleeding from between her legs. Frieda understands that Pecola is menstruating (though she calls it “ministratin’”) and attempts to attach a pad to Pecola’s dress. Meanwhile, Rosemary, who has been watching from the bushes, yells to Mrs. MacTeer that the girls are “playing nasty.” Mrs. MacTeer starts to whip Frieda, but then sees the pad, and the girls explain what has happened. Mrs. MacTeer is sorry and cleans up Pecola. That night in bed, Pecola asks Frieda how babies are made. Frieda says you have to get someone to love you. Pecola asks, “How do you get someone to love you?”
This chapter introduces the various forms of powerlessness that Claudia faces and the challenges that she will encounter as she grows up. First of all, she experiences the universal powerlessness of being a child. Raised in an era when children are to be seen, not heard, she and her sister view adults as unpredictable forces that must be watched and handled carefully. Next, Claudia experiences the powerlessness of being black and poor in the 1940s. She and her family cling to the margins of society, with the dangerous threat of homelessness looming. Finally, Claudia experiences the powerlessness of being female in a world in which the position of women is precarious. Indeed, being a child, being black, and being a girl are conditions of powerlessness that reinforce one another so much that for Claudia they become impossible to separate.
Though Claudia is careful to point out that fear of poverty and homelessness was a more prevalent day-to-day worry in her community than fear of discrimination, racism does affect her life in subtle yet profound ways, especially in the sense that it distorts her beauty standards. Morrison most notably uses the cultural icon of Shirley Temple (a hugely popular child actress of the day) and the popular children’s dolls of the 1940s to illustrate mass culture’s influence on young black girls. When Claudia states that, unlike Frieda, she has not reached the point in her psychological “development” when her hatred of Shirley Temple and dolls will turn to love, the irony of the statement is clear. Claudia naïvely assumes that the beauty others see in the doll must inhere physically inside it, and so she takes apart the doll to search for its beauty. She has not yet learned that beauty is a matter of cultural norms and that the doll is beautiful not in and of itself but rather because the culture she lives in believes whiteness is superior.
Claudia’s hatred of white dolls extends to white girls, and Morrison uses this process as a starting point to study the complex love-hate relationship between blacks and whites. What horrifies Claudia most about her own treatment of white girls is the disinterested nature of her hatred. Claudia hates them for their whiteness, not for more defensible personal reasons. Ultimately, her shame of her own hatred hides itself in pretended love. By describing the sequence of hating whiteness but then coming to embrace it, Claudia diagnoses the black community’s worship of white images (as well as cleanliness and denial of the body’s desires) as a complicated kind of self-hatred. It is not simply that black people learn to believe that whiteness is beautiful because they are surrounded by white America’s advertisements and movies; Claudia suggests that black children start with a healthy hatred of the claims to white superiority but that their guilt at their own anger then transforms hatred into a false love to compensate for that hatred.
Unlike Claudia, Pecola does not undergo a process of first rejecting then accepting America’s white beauty standards. Pecola adores Shirley Temple and loves playing with dolls. Her excessive and expensive milk-drinking from the Shirley Temple is part of her desire to internalize the values of white culture—a symbolic moment that foreshadows her desire to possess blue eyes. While these desires illustrate that Pecola mentally and emotionally remains a child, her menstruation shows that she is experiencing a physical coming-of-age. Claudia and Frieda envy Pecola’s menstruation, but implicit in this scene is the threat that Pecola can now become pregnant, an adult reality that turns out to be quite troubling.
The pressures that Claudia faces as a girl becoming a woman are perhaps subtler than the pressures of race, but in some ways, more prevalent. There are continual references to the fate of women done wrong by men: Della Jones is thought to be senile in part because her husband left her; Pecola is homeless because her father has beaten his wife and burned down their home; Mrs. MacTeer sings blues songs about men leaving their women; and the onset of Pecola’s first period is cause for fear, confusion, and accusations of “nastiness” before becoming cause for muted celebration. The chapter ends with speculation about the connection between men, love, and babies. For Claudia, issues of racism, poverty, and standards of beauty are intimately connected to her inevitable entrance into womanhood. The same is true for Pecola, though her eventual initiation into the world of men, love, and babies is much too soon and much too violent.
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