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.