This chapter describes in detail a particular type of black woman. She comes from some small, rural town in the South, full of natural beauty, where everyone has a job. She takes special care of her body and her clothes. She goes to a land-grant college and learns how to do the work reserved for her, the care and feeding of white people, with grace and good manners. She marries and bears the children of a man who knows that she will take good care of his house and his clothes. But she also is a tyrant over her home and over her own body. She does not enjoy sex. She feels affection only for the household cat, which is as neat and quiet as she is. She caresses and cuddles the cat in a way that she refuses to caress or cuddle her family.
Then such a woman enters the novel. Her name is Geraldine, she is married to a man named Louis, and they have a son named Junior. Geraldine takes excellent physical care of Junior, but early on, he understands that she feels real affection only for the cat. In response, he tortures the cat and torments children who come to play at the nearby school playground. Junior would have liked to have played with the black children, but his mother will let him play only with upper-class “colored” people, not lower-class “niggers.”
One day, a bored and isolated Junior decides to pick on Pecola, who is passing through the playground. She tells him she does not want to play, but he lures her into his home by promising to show her some kittens. Pecola is overwhelmed by the beauty and cleanliness of the house. Meanwhile, Junior throws the family cat, which has black fur and blue eyes, in her face. Scratched and shaken, Pecola tries to leave, but Junior stands on the other side of the door and shuts her in. The cat begins to rub against Pecola, and its friendliness distracts her from crying. She caresses the cat as Junior opens the door. Angered that the cat is getting attention, he picks it up and swings it around by one of its hind legs. The cat is terrified, and Pecola tries to rescue it. When she pulls Junior down, he lets go of the cat, and it hits the radiator and collapses in a lifeless heap. At this moment, Geraldine comes home, and Junior tells her that Pecola has killed the cat. Geraldine calls Pecola a “nasty little black bitch” and sends her away.
From what we have seen of the squalor of Pecola’s home life, we might imagine that a more orderly life in a middle-class home would give her a happier existence. But in this chapter, it becomes clear that material comfort, neatness, and quiet can become deadly themselves if not accompanied by genuine human warmth. The chapter opens with a deceptively positive description of the kind of woman that we will learn to hate by the chapter’s close. Her hometown has a beautiful name, and her girlhood involves a close relationship to the beauties of nature. She is soft and sweet, not shrill and hard like some of her urban sisters. She smells good and sings in church. But all these details exist only to drive home the point that such surface traits say little about a person’s inner goodness, and, in fact, can be misleading.
The narrator suggests that this emphasis on propriety and cleanliness actually functions as a deep form of self-betrayal. These women are educated but seem so only to be more submissive to white men. They are trained, above all, “to get rid of the funkiness”—the disorderliness of human passion and personality. Though they take good care of their husbands’ clothes and feed them well, they do these chores out of a sense of propriety, not a feeling of love. Their well-kept homes must be defended against human dirt and mess. They have experienced sexual pleasure by accident on their own but seem incapable of taking pleasure in their husbands’ bodies. They expect their children to be as emotionally repressed as they are.
Geraldine’s emphasis on decorum and cleanliness also represents Morrison’s critique of a particular kind of internalized racism and a middle-class contempt for the poor. Throughout the book, the worship of whiteness has been associated with the worship of cleanliness, and the MacTeer girls’ pleasure in their own dirt has been a mark of their self-esteem and physical confidence. Geraldine’s hatred of dirt and disorder is fundamentally linked to her hatred of “niggers” and is, of course, a kind of self-hatred. She scapegoats poor, dark-skinned black children—in this instance, Pecola—because she hates her own blackness. This scapegoating is intensified by fear: the fear that it is not so easy to distinguish between respectable “colored” people and “niggers” after all, and the fear of the suffering she sees in the eyes of black girls like Pecola.