‘‘Marigolds’’ is set in a rural Maryland steel town during the Great Depression (1930s). Since segregation is only just beginning to be legally opposed, it is safe to assume that the entire community is African American. At the very least, all the characters in the story and the neighborhood in which they live are African American.
Fourteen-year-old Lizabeth is the narrator of the story, and she opens by recalling her childhood hometown. From this the reader understands that Lizabeth is now a grown woman, writing about her experience from memory. In her memory, she remembers mostly dust, although she admits there must have been green lawns and paved streets lined with shade trees somewhere in her youth. But memory is just that: a recollection of something as it is remembered, not necessarily as it was. The narrator remembers that amidst the dilapidated shacks and soul-crushing poverty stood Miss Lottie’s house. By far in the worst condition, her yard nevertheless boasted what no other property did: a breathtaking color explosion of yellows and oranges in a marigold garden that Miss Lottie lovingly tended. Those flowers symbolized hope, a seemingly perverse idea in a community that had never known anything but hopelessness and destitution.
Lizabeth recalls that her community was rather isolated from the rest of the world because no one could afford the latest technological advancement known as radio, nor was there an abundance of newspapers and magazines. She likens poverty to a cage in which everyone there was trapped. The children’s anger at their poverty lay just beneath the surface. ‘‘Our hatred of it was still the vague, undirected restlessness of the zoo-bred flamingo who knows instinctively that nature created it to be free.’’
Lizabeth and her eleven-year-old brother Joey are the only children left at home, the others having moved or been sent away. As September is passing and summer is coming to a close, Lizabeth and Joey find themselves bored yet wanting to wring every last drop of freedom from the waning summer days. They are left on their own each day as their father looks for work and their mother, Maybelle, works as a servant in the home of a white couple, Mr. and Miz Ellis.
Joey gets bored one day and suggests to Lizabeth and a handful of their friends that they go to Miss Lottie’s. The idea is immediately accepted because Miss Lottie and her simpleminded son, John Burke, are the town outcasts. Although the children fear Miss Lottie, they turn that fear into meanness as they taunt and torment John Burke and his mother. On this particular day, John Burke is sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, just as he is almost every day. He spends his days in a mindless stupor and is generally unaware of the world around him. When irked, ‘‘he would become enraged, strike out at you, and curse at you in some strange enchanted language which only he could understand.’’ The children have made a game out of exploring ways to disturb and then escape the adult but childlike John Burke.
Miss Lottie is another story. The children think of her as a black witch because they never see her in town or anywhere else but her house. She welcomes no visitors and so isolates herself that they figure she must perform magic to complete those day-to-day chores that require human interaction. She seems to them a hundred years old, and her once-powerful body is now bent from years of labor and hardship.
When the children come upon Miss Lottie, she is hunched over in her marigolds, weeding. The children throw stones and knock off the heads of some of her flowers, which sends her into a fit of rage. She yells for John Burke to come help her, but before his reverie is broken, Lizabeth runs straight at Miss Lottie, chanting a nasty child’s rhyme. The other children join her in her bullying until John Burke finally understands that his mother needs him. The children then scatter in all directions and gather again back in the safety of Lizabeth and Joey’s yard.
Unlike the other, younger children, Lizabeth is ashamed of her behavior. Dinner that night is quiet as the children and their father eat leftovers. Maybelle is working late to earn much-needed money.
Lizabeth falls into a fitful sleep on her pallet but is awakened in the middle of the night by her parents’ voices. Her father is lamenting his inability to find work and provide for his family. ‘‘Twenty-two years, Maybelle, twenty-two years and I ain’t got nothing for you, nothing.’’ His own sense of pride is hurt, but more importantly, his own sense of self-worth is damaged. This is a man who has historically been a capable provider and a loving father who not only cares for his children, but involves himself in their lives. Since the Depression hit, he has lost his job and with it, his self-identity.
Even as Maybelle soothes her husband’s sorrow and grief, he breaks down into heaving sobs, like those of a tiny child. Lizabeth hears this foreign sound and cannot wrap her brain around the idea that this is what her world has come to. ‘‘The world had lost its boundary lines. … Where did I fit into this crazy picture? I do not remember my thoughts, only a feeling of great bewilderment and fear.’’ Lizabeth is struck with the realization that her world order has been upended. Whereas she once knew—or thought she knew—how everything worked, she suddenly understands that her life has veered off course.
Lizabeth needs to escape so she wakes up Joey and tells him to follow her outside. They climb out the window and she runs as if her life depends on it. She finds herself in Miss Lottie’s yard once again, and though the crumbling house frightens her, she does not turn away. ‘‘It looked haunted, but I was not afraid, because I was haunted too.’’
Lizabeth then proceeds to destroy Miss Lottie’s marigolds. With blind fury, she pulls them out of the ground and smashes them, damaging the one thing of beauty in an ugly, oppressive world. She pulls with a rage for all the emotions she has kept inside, the unceasing ‘‘need for my mother who was never there, the hopelessness of our poverty and degradation, the bewilderment of being neither child nor woman and yet both at once, the fear unleashed by my father’s tears.’’
When her emotional storm has subsided, Lizabeth sits in those flowers, sobbing with the realization that she can never undo the ruin she has caused. She looks up and seesMiss Lottie towering over her. Only she no longer sees a threatening witch, but a broken old woman who had tried to make the best out of a life of sorrow and despair.
Although she had no words to describe the experience at the time, the adult Lizabeth recognizes that the event was the very moment that slammed the door on childhood and pushed her through the door to womanhood. Her innocence was gone, forever, and in its place grew compassion ‘‘Innocence involves an unseeing acceptance of things at face value, an ignorance of the area below the surface. In that humiliating moment I looked beyond myself and into the depths of another person.’’
Miss Lottie never does replant those marigolds. Lizabeth, finally understanding the symbolic hope of those flowers, admits that along her life’s path, she has planted her own marigolds.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Eugenie W. Collier – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.