We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt.
The novel begins with a series of sentences that seem to come from a children’s reader. The sentences describe a house and the family that lives in the house—Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane. The brief narrative focuses on Jane. The pet cat will not play with Jane, and when Jane asks her mother to play, she laughs. When Jane asks her father to play, he smiles, and the dog runs away instead of playing with Jane. Then a friend comes to play with Jane. This sequence is repeated verbatim without punctuation, and then is repeated a third time without spaces between the words or punctuation.
An unnamed narrator explains that there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941, when she was nine years old. She relates that she and her sister believed that there were no marigolds because Pecola, a slightly older black girl, was having her father’s baby; it was not only their own marigold seeds that did not sprout—none of the marigolds in the community did. The sisters believed that if they said the right words over the seeds, the seeds would blossom and Pecola’s baby would be safely delivered. But the seeds refused to sprout, and the two sisters blamed each other for this failure in order to relieve their sense of guilt. For years, the narrator believed that her sister was right—that she had planted the seeds too deeply. But now she believes the earth itself was barren and that their hope was no more productive than Pecola’s father’s despair. The narrator states that the sisters’ innocence, Pecola’s baby, and Pecola’s father are all dead; only Pecola and the earth remain. She concludes by indicating that it would be too difficult to explain why these events happened, so she will instead relate how they happened.
Each section of this prologue gives, in a different way, an overview of the novel as a whole. At a glance, the Dick-and-Jane motif alerts us to the fact that for the most part the story will be told from a child’s perspective. Just as the Dick-and-Jane primer teaches children how to read, this novel will be about the larger story of how children learn to interpret their world. But there is something wrong with the Dick-and-Jane narrative as it is presented here. Because the sentences are not spread out with pictures, as they would be in an actual reader, we become uncomfortably aware of their shortness and abruptness. The paragraph that these sentences comprise lacks cohesion; it is unclear how each individual observation builds on the last. In the same way, the children in this novel lack ways to connect the disjointed, often frightening experiences that make up their lives. The substance of the narrative, though written in resolutely cheerful language, is also disturbing. Though we are told that the family that lives in the pretty house is happy, Jane is isolated. Not only do her parents and pets refuse to play with her, but they seem to refuse any direct communication with her. When Jane approaches her mother to play, the mother simply laughs, which makes us wonder if the mother actually is, as we have been told, “very nice.” When she asks her father to play, her father only smiles. The lack of connection between sentences mirrors the lack of connection between the individuals in this story.
When the Dick-and-Jane story repeats without divisions between the sentences, its individual components are more connected because they are run together more, but this kind of connection is not a meaningful one. Instead, the meaninglessness of the sequence becomes more noticeable, even shocking, because the sequence is sped up. In the third repetition, when all the words run together, the speed and closeness of the connection between the elements of the story make it nearly unreadable. This third repetition alerts us that the story that follows operates in two related ways: it presents a sequence of images that are isolated from one another, and it presents a sequence of images that are connected by sheer momentum rather than any inherent relationship. This repetition implicitly warns us to expect a story that is vivid but fragmented.
The second section of the prologue gives a more conventional overview of the story, as the narrator looks back on the events the novel will recount and tells the reader how it will end. This anticipation of the story not only creates suspense (we are immediately curious about Pecola and her father), but also, like the repetitions in the Dick-and-Jane section, gives a sense of circularity. This story cannot simply be told once and forgotten. It contains some central mysteries that its characters must return to again and again.
While the two parts of the prologue resemble one another in function, they differ in expression. Whereas the first section is marked by a lack of connection between ideas, people, and sentences, the second section is filled with such connections, including a association between the natural cycles of the earth and the unnatural components of the story—a traditional literary device that contributes to the section’s lyrical feeling. Even though the narrator believes that she and her sister were foolish to think that there was some connection between their flower bed and Pecola’s baby, a parallel nonetheless persists. There is an emotional connection between Pecola, her baby, and the sisters who are worried for them, and there is a cause-and-effect connection between the sisters’ actions and the success of their planting. There is also a connection between action and questions of morality—the sisters feel guilty that their seeds have not grown, and they look for someone to blame. These are the kinds of connections that give a story meaning, in opposition to the seemingly meaningless order of the Dick-and-Jane sentences. Thus, Morrison’s two-part prologue has set up a structure for the work as a whole, and the novel moves between the extremes of the meaningless, fractured, and damaged (represented by the first part of the prologue), and the meaningful, lyrical, and whole (represented by the second).