Winter arrives, which means boredom and the long wait for spring. But this winter, the arrival of a new girl named Maureen Peal breaks the monotony. She is a light-skinned, wealthy black girl who enchants the whole school. Claudia and Frieda dislike her and search for flaws. They are relieved to discover that she has a dog tooth and stumps where her sixth fingers were removed. She has a locker next to Claudia’s, and one day she suggests that she walk part way home with Claudia and Frieda.
Soon the three girls come upon a circle of boys harassing Pecola. Shouting a derogatory chant, they taunt her for her black skin and because her father sleeps naked. Frieda comes to the rescue, hitting one boy and threatening another. Claudia joins the fray, and it looks as if the boys will beat up the MacTeer girls, but then Maureen arrives on the scene. The boys do not want to fight in front of Maureen and leave. Maureen takes Pecola’s arm and talks to her about movies and gym class. She asks the girls if they want some ice cream and treats Pecola. Claudia is embarrassed because she thought Maureen would treat her as well. Instead, she goes without ice cream. The girls talk about menstruation, and Maureen asks Pecola if she has ever seen a naked man. Pecola says she has never seen her father naked, and Maureen presses the issue. Claudia and Frieda tell Maureen to cut it out, and Claudia remembers the shame and strange interest of seeing her own father naked. The girls argue: Claudia accuses Maureen of being boy-crazy, and Maureen tells the girls they are black and ugly. Pecola is pained, and Claudia secretly worries that what Maureen has said is true.
When the girls arrive home, only Henry is there. He gives them money for ice cream, but they decide to buy candy instead because they do not want to run into Maureen again. When they come home, they see Henry entertaining the prostitutes China and the Maginot Line (Miss Marie) in the living room. Claudia and Frieda are disturbed because they know that their mother hates these women. The girls come in after the women leave, and Frieda asks Henry about them. He lies and says they are members of his Bible-study group. The girls decide to keep his secret.
The introduction of the light-skinned black girl Maureen reinforces the novel’s earlier message of the Shirley Temple cup—whiteness is beautiful and blackness is ugly. Maureen also reinforces the connection between race and class—lighter-skinned than the other black children, she is also wealthier. At first, Claudia responds to Maureen with jealousy—she simply wants the pretty things Maureen has. But this jealousy gives way to a more destructive envy, as Claudia begins to suspect that in order to have the things that Maureen has, she must look like Maureen. She remains puzzled, however, by what Maureen has and what she lacks. She explains that, at this point, she and her sister were still in love with themselves and enjoyed their own bodies. They had not yet learned self-hatred. But Maureen is the harbinger of the self-hatred that will come with the onset of womanhood, when physical beauty becomes more important and the body becomes easier to shame. Claudia is perceptive enough to understand at this point that it is not Maureen she hates and fears, but whatever it is that makes Maureen cute and the MacTeer girls ugly.
As with the Shirley Temple cup in the first chapter, the use of popular culture in this chapter provides commentary on the mass media’s preference for whiteness—and the effect this preference has on the lives of young girls. In a revealing moment, Maureen recounts the plot of a movie she has seen in which the light-skinned daughter of a white man rejects her black mother but then cries at her mother’s funeral. It is clear that Maureen revels in the melodramatic, without recognizing that it may be a reflection of her own assumption of superiority and perhaps her own relationship with her mother (who has seen the movie four times). Racist messages are so prevalent that they are difficult to see. They are as commonplace as drinking milk from a cup or enjoying a movie.
This chapter also gives a brief portrait of the cultural pressures that black boys experience. We are told that their meanness to Pecola is an expression of their own self-hatred. They can taunt her for being black—“Black e mo Black e mo”—because they hate their own blackness. This self-hatred, along with their “cultivated ignorance” and “designed hopelessness,” is, like Pecola’s ugliness, a state of being that is both forced upon them and chosen. At this point, the boys are still vulnerable. Claudia and Frieda can stop them in their tracks, and Frieda threatens to reveal that one of the boys still wets his bed. But we can anticipate that the children’s even playing field will not last when the boys become men and the girls become women. All the players in this scene are experiencing their last moments of childhood before sex changes everything.
The mystery and fear of sex hangs over this chapter. Maureen introduces the subjects of menstruation, babies, and naked men, and though Claudia and Frieda try to silence her, their fear reveals that this topic has a power over them too. Claudia remembers her father’s nakedness as both disturbing and oddly “friendly,” and Pecola’s defensiveness about her own father’s nakedness foreshadows the sexual intimacy he forces upon her later in the novel. When Claudia sees Henry entertaining the prostitutes, even though she does not understand what is happening, she feels “terror and obscure longing.” There is a hint that sex makes adults behave like something other than responsible caregivers. Sex will disrupt the order that, even though it sometimes galls Claudia, gives her a sense of stability and comfort.
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