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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
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.