This chapter recounts Mrs. Breedlove’s story. She grows up in Alabama as Pauline Williams, and when she is two years old, she impales her foot on a nail. Forever afterward, she walks with a slight limp, and she believes that this accident determined her destiny. During her childhood, she is isolated from other family members, and therefore cultivates her own pleasures. She enjoys arranging things, creating order and neatness out of clutter. Her family later migrates to Kentucky, where they move into a sizable house with a garden. Pauline is put in charge of caring for the house and her two younger siblings, Chicken and Pie. She enjoys this life, but once she turns fifteen, she becomes restless and melancholy. She begins to dream of a stranger—a man, or a god—who will take her away with him.
Then one day, a stranger arrives. Pauline is standing in the garden and hears a young man whistling. Suddenly she feels him tickling her bad foot and turns to meet the gaze of Cholly Breedlove. They fall in love, and he treats her with tenderness. They decide to marry and move up north to Lorain, Ohio, where there are more jobs. Then life becomes more difficult. Pauline feels lonely and isolated, and she is surprised by how unfriendly the other women are. They are amused by her country ways. She begins to long for clothes that will make the women look at her differently, and she and Cholly begin to argue about money. Cholly’s drinking becomes a problem.
At this point, Pauline takes her first job as a housekeeper in a white woman’s house. The white woman is well-off but petty and foolish. Her family has dirty habits. One day, Cholly shows up at the woman’s house drunk and demands money, and Pauline leaves her job. The woman will not give her the job back or the rest of her pay unless Pauline leaves Cholly. Pauline refuses and is left without money for cooking gas.
Soon thereafter Pauline realizes she is pregnant. Cholly is happy and their marriage improves, but Pauline is still lonely in their apartment. She takes refuge in the movies and develops destructive ideas about physical beauty and romantic love. She tries to make herself look like a movie star, but then while chewing candy at a movie, she loses one of her front teeth. From then on, she feels ugly, and she and Cholly begin to fight again. Her first baby fails to fill the hole in her life. She talks to her second baby in the womb, vowing to love her no matter what. When she gives birth in the hospital, a doctor tells a group of students that black women do not feel pain while giving birth; they are “just like horses.” Despite this insult, Pauline is pleased with her new baby, Pecola, but knows the baby is ugly.
Pauline then takes on her identity as martyr. She joins the church and becomes the family breadwinner, securing a job with the Fishers, a wealthy family who appreciate her good work. She loves her work because it allows her to make things beautiful and orderly. She begins to neglect her own house and family. At times, she remembers the good times with Cholly, when their lovemaking turned everything into rainbows. Now their lovemaking occurs while he is drunk and she is half-asleep.
Morrison uses the technique of shifting perspectives to allow us different ways of judging characters. In this chapter, we are given a new take on the story that is unfolding, the perspective of Pecola’s mother. In the previous chapter, she behaved terribly toward her daughter, and we are ready to condemn her. But now we learn why she behaves the way she does, and our perception of what took place becomes complicated by her past. Like every other character in the book, Pauline is partly a victim of circumstances and has partly chosen her own fate. Though we may condemn some of her choices, we now sympathize with the experiences that have made these choices seem necessary.
Stylistically, Pauline’s story is told in the most sympathetic terms. The majority of it is told by an omniscient narrator, with the more poignant moments of her story narrated by Pauline herself and set off in italics. Our sympathy for Pauline comes in part because of the difficult circumstances she has faced—a deformed foot, loneliness, poverty, racism, and an alternately cruel and tender husband. The sections she narrates herself deal with even more personal subjects: her love for Cholly, her experience of pregnancy, and the mistreatment she receives from others. As well as mixing third-person and first-person narration, Morrison uses color to emphasize the beauty of Pauline and Cholly’s relationship. Pauline describes the green flash of the june bugs that she misses from her hometown. When she falls in love with Cholly, this green imagery merges with a memory of having her hips stained purple while picking berries and the yellow of her mother’s lemonade. When she remembers her and Cholly’s lovemaking, these colors reappear and form a rainbow. This repetition gives a lyricism to Pauline’s memories.
Like the other characters in the novel, Pauline creates narratives to explain her life. These stories provide her life with meaning, but the meanings she creates are frequently damaging. She imagines that she is isolated because of her deformed foot, and accepts this isolation as her fate, when in fact she might have countered her isolation by being more outgoing. She falls in love with Cholly in part because he fits the story she has been telling herself about the stranger who will come to her. Without this story, she might have noticed sooner that they are not perfect for each other. Her addiction to the movies is most damaging in this regard; she comes to believe the stories that imply that love is about beauty and possession rather than about “lust and simple caring for.” According to the narrator, romantic love and physical beauty are “[p]robably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.” The movies Pauline sees are destructive because they are imposed from the outside rather than created from her own experiences and needs. Finally, she considers the story she tells herself about her position in the Fisher family as more meaningful than the story of her relationship to her own family, causing her daughter great suffering.
But Pauline is also able to tell stories that reinforce her rightful self-confidence and the genuine pleasure she has been able to find in her life. She clearly sees the foolishness of her first employer and the wrongs of the doctor who claims that black women feel no pain. She creates a narrative of love for Pecola before Pecola is born. Finally, she weaves the lyrical story of her love with Cholly, creating a brief oasis of beauty and joy in the midst of bleakness.