This short chapter is dedicated to describing the apartment, which was formerly a store, that the Breedloves move into once Cholly Breedlove, Pecola’s father, is out of jail. Nowadays the storefront is abandoned, and so the narrator moves backward in time. Before it was abandoned, the storefront housed a pizza parlor, and before that, a Hungarian bakery, and before that, a Gypsy family. The narrator supposes that no one remembers the time when the Breedloves lived there, back when the storefront was divided into two rooms by some wooden planks. In the front room, there are two sofas, a piano, and an artificial Christmas tree that has not been taken down for two years. In the bedroom are beds for Pecola, her brother, Sammy, and their parents, and a temperamental coal stove. The kitchen is in a separate room in the back.
The narrator focuses on the furnishings. The furniture is aged but not by frequent use; it does not hold any memories. It has been “conceived, manufactured, shipped, and sold in various states of thoughtlessness, greed, and indifference.” The only piece of furniture that calls up any emotion is the couch, which fills its owner with anger. Though bought new, the couch has a split down the middle, and the store refuses to take it back. The coal stove seems to have a mind of its own; its heat is unpredictable. One thing is certain: the fire will always be dead in the morning.
This chapter, which focuses solely on describing the Breedlove apartment, reads like a playwright’s instructions for a set. Morrison produces a great deal of meaning from small details. Almost every object in the scene can be interpreted symbolically. The ugliness of the abandoned storefront and its refusal to blend in with the other buildings that surround it symbolize the ugliness of the Breedloves’ story—a story not only about the ugliness they create but also about the ugliness perpetrated against them. Just as the storefront has now been abandoned, they have been abandoned by one another and by the world around them. This sad isolation is somewhat lightened by the description of the other inhabitants of the storefront: the teenage boys who hang out in front of the pizza parlor are filled with a youthful restlessness more attractive than menacing, and their inexperience at smoking expresses their vulnerability. The Hungarian bakery conjures up sensual satisfaction and comfort, and the description of the Gypsy family suggests that people living on the margins can sometimes look and be looked at without fear. The Gypsy girls sit in the windows, sometimes winking or beckoning to passersby, but mostly watching the world go by. This flow of everyday life reminds us that, as desperate as the Breedloves’ circumstances are, is just one among many neighborhood stories.
Even though the Breedloves live in a dwelling so depressing that it borders on hyperbole, we are reminded that each member of the family still draws meaning from the home they make together. Although there is frightfully little material for the imagination to work with, Morrison suggests that human beings always invest meaning in objects, no matter how tawdry they may be. Morrison writes that each member of the Breedlove family pieces together a quilt based upon “fragments of experience” and “tiny impressions,” salvaging the best of what they have. In her vision of what the Breedlove family lacks, Morrison imagines a world in which a sofa is defined by what has been lost or found in it, what comfort it has provided or what loving has been conducted upon it. A bed is defined by someone giving birth in it, a Christmas tree by the young girl who looks at it. The Breedlove home lacks these kinds of positive symbols. Just as their family name is ironic (they do the opposite of their name), the few household objects they do possess—a ripped couch, a cold stove—are symbolic of suffering and degradation rather than of home.
This chapter also makes a point that the novel continually reinforces: giving life meaning is an essential, universal, and relentless human activity. While we might understand Morrison’s insistence on the symbolic meaning of the couch or stove as a mark of her gifts as a novelist, her point is that the Breedloves themselves understand these objects as symbolic. Each character in the novel is, in a sense, a storyteller, making order out of his or her unordered experiences, sometimes in ways that are constructive and sometimes in ways that are destructive.