This chapter recounts the history of Cholly Breedlove. His mother abandons him on a trash heap when he is four days old, but his Great Aunt Jimmy rescues him. She beats his mother and his mother runs away. After four years of school, Cholly gathers the courage to ask Aunt Jimmy his father’s name; it is Samson Fuller. After two more years of school, Cholly takes a job at Tyson’s Feed and Grain Store and meets a man named Blue Jack. Blue Jack enthralls Cholly with his stories and shares the heart of a watermelon with him at a church picnic. Cholly remembers this kindness for a long time.
Then Aunt Jimmy gets sick. The community calls in M’Dear, the local healing woman, whose height and authority impress Cholly. She prescribes pot liquor, and Aunt Jimmy begins to improve, but then she eats a peach cobbler and dies. Cholly finds her the next morning. He does not immediately feel grief, because everyone takes care of him during the funeral and he is fascinated by all the excitement. Aunt Jimmy’s brother, O.V., and his family plan to take care of him.
Cholly tries to impress one of his older cousins, Jake, by taking him to a place where the girls are. Jake persuades a girl named Suky to take a walk with him, and Cholly persuades the girl he likes, Darlene, to come along as well. They eat muscadine berries and chase each other, and then lie down to rest. When they get up to head back, Darlene tickles Cholly, and the two of them begin to touch each other. Just as Cholly is having sex for the first time, two white hunters shine their flashlights upon him. They tell him to continue while they watch, and Cholly pretends to finish. The men leave when they hear their dogs. Cholly is furious with Darlene instead of with the white men because some part of him knows that if he feels anger against the white men, it will destroy him.
It occurs to Cholly, irrationally, that Darlene might be pregnant, and he decides to run away and look for his father. He finds some money that Aunt Jimmy had hidden and spends several months working his way toward Macon, Georgia, where his father lives. He finally purchases a bus ticket, arrives in Macon, and is sent to an alley to look for his father. There he finds men gambling in various states of excitement and desperation. When he asks for Samson Fuller, he finds a man who looks especially fierce, but who is, to Cholly’s surprise, shorter than he is. Samson thinks that Cholly has been sent by a creditor (or perhaps the mother of another child he has fathered) and curses him. Cholly stumbles back into the street and, in his effort not to cry, defecates in his pants. He runs to the river, hides under the pier, and washes his clothes after dark. For the first time, he feels grief for Aunt Jimmy.
From this point forward, Cholly is free in a dangerous way. He loves and beats women, he takes and leaves jobs, and he kills three white men—all the while remaining indifferent. He is indifferent about when or how he dies. He meets Pauline, and her sweetness and innocence make him want to marry her, but marriage makes him feel trapped. His interest in life is sapped, and he begins to drink. Most of all, he does not know how to relate to his children.
Now, in the present, Cholly comes home drunk and finds Pecola doing the dishes. With mixed motives of tenderness and rage, both fueled by guilt, he rapes her. She faints, and he covers her with a quilt. She wakes to find her mother looking down at her.
The novel’s prologue warns us that Cholly will do something unthinkable—impregnate his own eleven-year-old daughter. If this event were told from Claudia’s or Pecola’s point of view, it would likely remain a senseless act of violence, something impossible to understand. But Morrison chooses to explain the rape from Cholly’s point of view. Understanding how it was possible for Cholly to commit incest does not change our knowledge that he has caused tremendous suffering to his daughter but does change the nature of our horror. Cholly’s violence is not frightening because it is senseless; it is frightening because it makes all too much sense, given the kind of life he has lived. Knowing Cholly’s story may not change the horror of what he does, but it does make his action more bearable to us.
As with Pauline’s story in the previous chapter, we sympathize with Cholly not only because he has suffered abandonment, sexual humiliation, and racism, but because there was once real beauty and joy in his life. We are given a long celebratory description about the breaking and eating of the watermelon, as if it were “[t]he nasty-sweet guts of the earth.” Cholly’s childlike joy in sharing the heart of the watermelon with Blue Jack is vividly rendered. Also, the pleasure of Cholly’s flirtation with Darlene is narrated at length. Their bodies are compared to those of the muscadine berries. The comparison suggests that both are new and tight, not yet ripe enough to yield full pleasure, but as exciting in their promise as their full ripeness would be. The staining of Darlene’s dress with berry juice recalls Pauline’s memory of a similar, joyful stain. Rather than dirtiness that must be scrubbed away, here a stain is cause for celebration. In the innocence of their coming-of-age, Cholly is shy and naïve, and he tenderly helps Darlene tie her ribbon in her hair. It is she who makes the first overture, and their touching is presented as fully consensual and completely natural. When their experience is brutally interrupted by the white men, it is clear that white power deforms black lives, rather than some kind of inherent black “dirt” that must be cleaned (as Geraldine, for example, seems to believe).
This chapter demonstrates Morrison’s ability to move seamlessly between compelling, individual characters and a more generalized portrait of black life. Aunt Jimmy is an individual but is also a representative of elderly black women. She has suffered racism and abuse at the hands of her man, but she has also felt the joy of sexual love and motherhood; she has suffered violence and committed violence. Now that she is old, she is at last free—free to feel what she feels and go where she wants to go without fear.
At first glance, Aunt Jimmy’s freedom seems similar to the dangerous freedom that Cholly finds, which is marked by an indifference that makes him fearless. But the novel makes a distinction: the black women understand the difference between grinding work and making love, and “the difference was all the difference there was.” Cholly’s depression comes when his indifference becomes a total lack of interest in life, when freedom becomes a premature desire for oblivion.