The chapter opens at night at L’Arbe de la Croix. The narrator looks in on the house’s different residents, most of whom are asleep. In one room, Sydney and Ondine share a bed and lie close to one another. Valerian and Margaret sleep in separate rooms. Valerian sleeps poorly after napping for much of the day in the greenhouse; Margaret’s nighttime ritual involves elaborate beauty precautions. In her own room, Jadine is awake, and she remembers a day she spent in Paris, when she was celebrating her appearance on the cover of Elle magazine and her achievement of academic honors from the Sorbonne. She went shopping to buy fancy ingredients for a celebratory dinner party, and in the grocery store she saw an astonishingly beautiful black woman wearing a yellow dress. Her skin was dark as tar, her cheeks scored with African tribal markings, and she had no eyelashes. She bought three loose white eggs that she carried in her black hands. As she left the store, she stopped, turned, looked directly at Jadine, and spat on the ground.

Thinking of the incident unsettles Jadine because she wanted the woman to respect her. Looking out her window, she sees the hills that the wild horsemen of the island are supposed to ride over. Imagining them riding, though, only brings her back to the woman in yellow and how lonely the woman made her feel. She remembers arguing with the man most in love with her in Paris, a white man named Ryk. She worried that he did not want her for who she really is, because she thinks white men only fetishize her blackness. Jadine did not want to have to like certain “black” things, like “primitive” art works or jazz, when really she prefers forms of European high culture. They made up after the fight, but when the woman spat at her, the old feelings resurfaced, and she ran away. Jadine wonders what she should do in the future and whether her future can or should include her aunt and uncle. Although she has discussed opening a store with them, she does not think they will leave the island.

Valerian wakes up and thinks about his history and about how he grew up as the heir of the Street Brothers Candy Company, with a candy named after him. The Valerians were red and white, made of the leftover sludge from the most popular candy the business made, but they were only popular in the South among blacks. Valerian worked hard at the business when he became head of it, but he always knew he wanted to retire at age sixty-five. On a trip to Maine he met Margaret, and her complexion reminded him of the color of Valerian candies. He courted her, and they got married and had Michael. Valerian had high hopes for a good relationship with Michael, but these hopes died as Michael grew up, and over time, he and Margaret also grew apart. After a fairly boring but adequate adult life, he retired to the island at age sixty-eight, and he built the greenhouse as a way of reasserting a feeling of control over life.

Margaret is stuck in a state somewhere between sleep and waking. She thinks of her increasingly common forgetfulness: She forgets what objects are for and winds up staring at her lipstick, not sure if it is for licking or writing. The forgetfulness creates a low, constant terror in her life. With a half-conscious mind, she also remembers her youth and reflects on the trauma associated with growing up very beautiful in a small town. Her red hair caused a lot of gossip, especially because neither of her parents had red hair. Her father became paranoid about rumors of her mother’s adultery, and he brought his unmarried aunts to visit because they had had red hair in their youth, which was the only proof that Margaret was his child. Margaret also thinks back to a time early in her marriage when she felt lonely and bored as a young bride and how she started to befriend Ondine. Valerian put a stop to the friendship on the grounds that it was inappropriate. Valerian and Margaret fought for the first time over the issue, and Valerian made Margaret feel bad about having humble origins. Margaret misses Michael and thinks that she would be happy if she could just spend time near him.

Sydney and Ondine have a comfortable night rhythm together in their room, and they sleep well. Ondine dreams of slipping into water and that her heavy legs, swollen from decades of standing, will sink her. Sydney dreams the same dream he dreams every night: of red brick Baltimore, the city he left to become a proud “industrious Philadelphia Negro.” Although he left more than fifty years ago, he always dreams of his roots. Eventually everyone in the house falls asleep. They hear nothing, not even footsteps in the dark.


By entering the characters’ minds in Chapter Two, the narrator displays the characters’ fears, desires, and motives. When each character is alone in his or her room, he or she can escape from the outside world and nestle deep in his or her own thoughts. Each character focuses on at least one significant personal moment from the past. Although the characters’ moments are all different and all associated with different stages of life, these acts of remembering promote the idea that life in the present is very much determined by the actions and events of the past. Some of the characters long to return to the sites of their memories, and others cringe at the thought of them. Based on the thoughts of the characters, the past is clearly unforgettable and will never be dead to them.

The narrator further reveals the characters’ fears, desires, and motives by describing how they live with the past every day in the present. They live with it as a racial heritage, as in the burden that Jadine feels to be true to being black, although she prefers European cultural forms, and in Sydney’s nightly return to his childhood in impoverished Baltimore. They also live with the past in their daily family lives too, as in Valerian’s marriage to a woman he does not understand because of her resemblance to the candy that bore his name. He is also consumed with regret over not becoming closer to his son. And the characters live with these thoughts through their own personal struggles, as in Margaret’s battle to not just be a pretty girl who married well. No matter how she tries, she will always be formerly beautiful, and she will always be less cultured than Valerian. This power of the past is part of the conflict between nature and civilization. Although Jadine, Sydney, and Margaret appear to want try to change themselves by changing the past, they cannot escape the hold that the past, or nature, has on them. The only character who does not focus entirely on the past is Ondine. Her dream implies that she dreads the day when she will have to stop working because her body is too old.

The characters’ memories emphasize racial dynamics and racial divisions. Taken together, their memories suggest that race lacks a straightforward set of definitions. Jadine’s and Sydney’s memories display divisions between black people and suggest that there are different definitions of blackness. Jadine desperately admires the woman in the yellow dress, whose dark skin, tribal markings, and proud bearing embody everything that Jadine imagines as “true” blackness. Continuing the association between nature and blackness, the woman is a force of nature that Jadine admires. At the same time, she herself does not want to be objectified as a black woman by her European boyfriends. She does not want them to imagine her the way she imagines the woman in the yellow dress. This realization hits her when the woman in the yellow dress spits at her. She does not admire or want to learn about her heritage, but she is frustrated because she knows she should embody what the woman in the yellow dress does. If Jadine chose to stay on the island with Sydney and Ondine, she thinks she would be limiting herself by staying close to her roots. For her, true blackness is something she imagines as much as white people do. However, Jadine thinks she should embody true blackness instead of sharing the same view as white people. Because Jadine does not represent or desire to represent true blackness, the woman in the yellow dress rejects her.

Sydney’s memory of Baltimore suggests the class distinctions that exist within black culture. Although he considers himself a black man from Philadelphia, proud and upwardly mobile, he remains connected to his past as a poor, southern black. While he has rejected that past, he longs for it in his dreams. This distinction is played out in Sydney’s relations with and treatment toward poor blacks like Son and Gideon throughout the novel. These racial divisions and dynamics that the characters dealt with in the past affect how the characters live their lives in the present.

Valerian’s and Margaret’s memories indicate that there are also divisions among white people. Margaret’s sense of dislocation in a rich, cultured environment has never faded. The fact that both Valerian and Margaret are white provides little unity. Indeed, Margaret remembers that as a young bride she felt more comfortable with her black servant Ondine. Her lack of education and her class background was at that time more important to her sense of affinity than was her skin color. However, it is somewhat ironic that it was Valerian who put an end to this friendship. From the first chapter, it is clear that Valerian has a more comfortable relationship with the black servants, while Ondine now reviles Margaret and Sydney treats her only with the respect his position requires. Valerian’s and Margaret’s different upbringings partly explain the division between them.