Coming of Age
A coming-of-age story is one in which the protagonist, or main character, is initiated into adulthood through the attainment of knowledge or experience. Often, experience leads to knowledge, and the process is often one of disillusionment.
‘‘Marigolds’’isLizabeth’scoming-of-age story. The confusion she feels over her father’s desperation and shame and the subsequent role reversal of her parents leave her mind reeling as she tries to make sense of her world. Immediately after destroying Miss Lottie’s garden, Lizabeth recognizes she has crossed the bridge from childhood into adulthood. ‘‘And that was the moment when childhood faded and womanhood began. … For as I gazed at the immobile face with the weary eyes, I gazed upon a kind of reality which is hidden to childhood.’’
Lizabeth’s coming-of-age includes two other themes: innocence and compassion. At the instant of Lizabeth’s coming-of-age, innocence is replaced with compassion as childhood is left behind. She suddenly understands that life and its events—and people—cannot be taken at face value, that there is always more than meets the eye. Lizabeth could now look at her parents and Miss Lottie and understand them with a sense of compassion she did not possess just a moment ago. The loss of innocence involves a willingness to embrace the idea that the world does not revolve around Lizabeth and her limited ability to truly ‘‘see’’ reality. ‘‘This was the beginning of compassion, and one cannot have both compassion and innocence.’’
Two types of conflict are addressed in ‘‘Marigolds’’: external and internal. The external conflict causes—or at least exacerbates—Lizabeth’s internal conflict.
Lizabeth lives in poverty. For a young black girl in rural Maryland in the 1930s, poverty is not a result of the Great Depression, but merely a fact of daily existence. She and her neighbors know prosperity is not just around the corner as President Herbert Hoover and his administration are claiming. She knows she and her people need nothing short of a miracle. ‘‘But God was stingy with miracles in those days, and so we waited—and waited.’’
Lizabeth’s father is unable to find work and so he and his children rely on Maybelle’s meager income. He expresses his remorse and shame to Maybelle, and the conversation ends in his sobbing. Lizabeth has never heard her father cry; she does not even know that men ever cry at all. Lying in the dark, she listens to her strong, able father emotionally fall apart while her small, gentle mother offers comfort and solace.
This is a world Lizabeth did not know existed, and she does not know how to deal with her sudden realization of it. In her struggle to comprehend the destruction of her world’s boundaries, she falls back on the emotion that becomes the bucket for emotional confusion: anger. Miss Lottie’s garden becomes the target of Lizabeth’s anger, the manifestation of her internal conflict, which was caused by external conflict.
Poverty is almost a character of its own in Collier’s ‘‘Marigolds.’’ It affects every aspect of the story in the way it affects everyone’s life that it touches in the real world. Lizabeth identifies with poverty from the very beginning of the story. Although she initially claims that as children they were only vaguely aware of their circumstances, she eventually wonders if that is true. ‘‘Perhaps we had some dim notion of what we were and how little chance we had of being anything else.’’
Poverty is but one aspect of the lives of Collier’s characters, but it is a highly defining aspect, both in terms of how the world sees them and how they see the world. Lizabeth likens poverty to a cage, and it is this realization that she comes to when she experiences her epiphany, or sudden insight, there in Miss Lottie’s garden.
The last paragraph of the story implies that Lizabeth grew up to overcome the poverty in which she was raised. Yet even as an adult, she clearly identifies with the concept; it will always be with her.
Both self-identity and social identity are explored in Collier’s story. Lizabeth and the other children form their self-identity based on their living conditions. Rather than acknowledge their poverty as merely one factor in who they are, they define themselves by it. They do not see themselves as a who, but a what.
Likewise, their social identity is wrapped up in those same limitations. Their living conditions and ignorance of society at large form the basis of how they relate to the world around them. ‘‘ … we were somewhat unaware of the world outside our community. Nowadays we would be called ‘culturally deprived,’ and white people would write books and hold conferences about us.’’ The children do not have any perception of themselves as children in a larger community, but of a poor, isolated community in a much larger, more prosperous world.
Lizabeth’s father’s sense of self is based on his role as provider and protector. His shame at failing his family in those capacities overwhelms him, and when Maybelle tries to comfort him by mentioning the clothing Mr. Ellis is going to pass along, it only inspires an emotional breakdown. All of Lizabeth’s father’s shame and humiliation, his frustration and grief is contained in those sobs, and it is that sound that sends Lizabeth fleeing from the house and into her destructive behavior.
Lizabeth clearly loves and admires her father. In her eyes, he is the strength of the family, the person around whom all others orbit. When that perception is proved to be false, her own identity is brought into question, and she flounders and lashes out in confusion.
This theme goes hand in hand with identity. There are clear gender role expectations in the world of ‘‘Marigolds.’’ Joey, as Lizabeth’s younger brother, is, in her eyes, ‘‘a boy, and therefore vastly inferior.’’ Her parents, too, have predetermined roles in Lizabeth’s mind. Her mother, tiny in stature and soft in nature, is suddenly the source of the family’s strength, the one who comforts her father in his time of weakness. Her father, the stable core of the family, is reduced to the violent, heaving sobs of a child. This reversal of roles throws Lizabeth’s sense of balance off center. ‘‘Everything was suddenly out of tune, like a broken accordion.’’
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.