Collier tells the story in the style of a memoir, that is, in first person, as if she is speaking directly to the reader. Use of the words ‘‘I’’ and ‘‘my’’ and ‘‘we’’ make the story more personal, more emotional than it would be if told in the third person or in the style of newspaper reporting.
Although a memoir is assumed to be autobiographical, this is not the case in ‘‘Marigolds.’’ Lizabeth is not Collier, and the scenes depicted do not describe Collier’s experience. That the story reads like a memory of something the author experienced reflects the power of the memoir to conjure up feelings and emotions. The emphasis of this story is on emotion rather than events; the climactic scene of the story—the destruction of Miss Lottie’s marigolds—is merely a result of Lizabeth’s emotions. Without an understanding of what Lizabeth was feeling, that scene loses its meaning. Telling the story in the form of a memoir encourages the reader to focus on what lies beneath and motivates its characters.
Collier frequently uses metaphor—an expression that connects seemingly unrelated subjects or concepts—frequently in ‘‘Marigolds.’’ Already in the first paragraph, she turns to metaphor. ‘‘But memory is an abstract painting—it does not present things as they are but rather as they feel.’’ Another metaphor Collier uses involves the oppression of poverty. ‘‘Poverty was the cage in which we were all trapped … .’’
Metaphor is a useful device for underscoring thematic elements in a story. Both of the previous metaphor examples serve this purpose. The first emphasizes the theme of memory, the second focuses on poverty. Both themes are explored in ‘‘Marigolds’’ and add to the meaning of Collier’s message. By creating the story as a memory, she suggests to the reader that what is written is only what is remembered in terms of feelings, not necessarily what actually happened. Without placing Lizabeth in the grips of extreme poverty, the story would be about a girl who is merely confused by what she overhears. The climactic scene would take on a different meaning, perhaps one of malice. With poverty as a backdrop, the reader better understands the impact of Lizabeth’s desperation upon realizing the reality of her life. The climactic scene, then, is understood to be motivated by grief, a sort of painful evolution.
Marigolds are the primary symbol in the story. Against a dusty brown yard upon which sits a decaying hut, those flowers ‘‘rose suddenly and shockingly’’ in a ’’dazzling strip of bright blossoms, clumped together in enormous mounds, warm and passionate and sun-golden.’’ The flowers symbolize hope and freedom. Even in the midst of a lifetime of hardship that includes poverty and raising a mentally challenged son on her own, Miss Lottie holds on to her hope that life might one day improve. While tending her marigolds, she is free from the constraints and concerns of poverty as she focuses only on keeping those marigolds alive through tender care. Those moments spent in her garden allow Miss Lottie to escape, to find freedom from her oppressive life.
To Lizabeth and the neighborhood children, who do not fully comprehend the far-reaching effects of chronic poverty, the flowers are confusing. That Miss Lottie would spend her time tending to them with obvious love and determination to keep them alive even though the world around her is barren and hopeless does not make sense. The children do not understand the meaning behind planting and nurturing those marigolds. What they cannot understand, they despise and wish to destroy.
The use of color—specifically, the lack of it— symbolizes poverty. Although the child Lizabeth does not realize the extent or meaning of her impoverished life, her story, which is a memory, is filled with drab colors. Collier emphasizes this in the first sentence of the story. ‘‘When I think of the home town of my youth, all that I seem to remember is dust—the brown, crumbly dust of late summer—arid, sterile dust… .’’ Other references to the lack of color include ‘‘from white to a sullen gray’’ and ‘‘a gray rotting thing.’’
Understanding the lack of color as symbolic of poverty makes the meaning of the intensely bright marigold symbol easier to comprehend. If not for the abject poverty in which Lizabeth and the neighborhood children have been living, the presence of the cheerful marigolds would not have inspired such intense longing to destroy them.
An epiphany is a defining moment, sometimes referred to as the ‘‘ah-ha!’’ moment when something is suddenly realized or comprehended. Collier’s entire short story is developed around Lizabeth’s epiphany. As she stood in front of Miss Lottie in the haze of early dawn, Lizabeth intuitively knew her life was forever changed by the destruction of Miss Lottie’s beautiful marigolds. ‘‘That violent, crazy act was the last act of childhood.’’ It was the exact moment Lizabeth left behind her childlike innocence in exchange for a sense of compassion. Miss Lottie was no longer a witch, but merely an old woman whose life had given her next to nothing and yet who had chosen to create beauty among the ruins. ‘‘Whatever there was of love and beauty and joy that had not been squeezed out by life, had been there in the marigolds she had so lovingly tended.’’
This epiphany is what the story builds up to; it is what allows Lizabeth to leave behind the dust and squalor of her childhood. It is the turning point in both the story and the main character’s life.
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.