Cholly Breedlove, then, a renting black, having put his family outdoors, had catapulted himself beyond the reaches of human consideration. He had joined the animals; was, indeed, an old dog[.]
As Claudia describes why Pecola is staying with her family, she explains the difference between black people who rent and those who own their homes. Cholly let his family down by failing to provide them with a home. Although this seems normal for the Breedlove family, the fact that the rest of the community sees him as an animal for allowing such a thing to happen shows that, in their eyes, Cholly does not value his family as highly as other men do.
Except for the father, Cholly, whose ugliness (the result of despair, dissipation, and violence directed toward petty things and weak people) was behavior, the rest of the family—Mrs. Breedlove, Sammy Breedlove, and Pecola Breedlove—wore their ugliness, put it on, so to speak, although it did not belong to them.
The narrator explains the difference between Cholly’s ugliness and the ugliness of his family members. Cholly seems to be the only character whose ugliness comes from the inside out, as such ugliness formed as a result of his mostly loveless childhood and the humiliation he has suffered at the hands of white people. He inflicts this violence and ugliness onto the rest of his family, who then have to wear such pain and suffering for him.
Cholly opened his eyes slowly. They were red and menacing. With no exception, Cholly had the meanest eyes in town.
When Mrs. Breedlove wakes Cholly to tell him to get some coal, the narrator describes how even upon waking, his eyes are full of meanness and violence. He has internalized his misery so much that he physically reflects his rage, and he does not even try to prevent taking his feelings out on others. Cholly’s mean eyes represent a stark contrast to the idea of beautiful, innocent blue eyes that other people admire throughout the novel.
He seemed to relish her company and even to enjoy her country ways and lack of knowledge about city things. He talked with her about her foot and asked, when they walked through the town or in the fields, if she were tired.
As the narrator describes how Cholly and Pauline met, readers are given a picture of a kind, courteous gentleman, an image greatly differing from the Cholly readers see in present day. Even though Cholly already had experienced some trauma in his life, when he met Pauline, he had not yet transformed into the mean, violent man he would become. Cholly’s transformation shows how living in poverty can alter a person and turn people against one another.
Only a musician would sense, know, without even knowing that he knew, that Cholly was free. Dangerously free. Free to feel whatever he felt—fear, guilt, shame, love, grief, pity. Free to be tender or violent, to whistle or weep.
After Cholly leaves home, the narrator notes that, for the first time in his life, he feels free from any expectations and can do whatever he wants. For Cholly, who never had anyone to provide him with a moral compass or teach him how to advance in the world, this freedom only leads to pain and suffering. Although he is technically free, Cholly’s race and class greatly limit his options in life.