Formalist critics look at a piece of literature in terms of how its elements work together to create a meaningful whole. The piece must have internal logic in order to present the themes coherently as well as cohesively. In other words, the formalist framework takes into consideration how the elements work together to form a relationship and support the author’s themes. This unity of form and content is called an organizing principle. Once an organizing principle is determined, the critic can use it to present her interpretation of the text. Collier uses symbolism as an organizing principle in her short story ‘‘Marigolds’’ to develop and communicate the coming-of-age theme.
‘‘Marigolds’’ explores several themes, but the most obvious one is coming-of-age, that watershed in every person’s personal history when one crosses over from childhood to adulthood. To underscore this theme, Collier employs a variety of literary elements—metaphor, character development, patterns of contrast—but none so much or so inherently as symbolism. The very title of the story is one of the primary symbols found in the text.
Collier describes the marigolds using vivid, lively adjectives: dazzling, passionate, beautiful. Contrast this description with that of the rest of the neighborhood: crumbling decay, perfect ugliness, grotesque. The flowers symbolize beauty in a world marked by its barren unsightliness. Their very existence in the otherwise black and gray world of that poverty-stricken steel town represents an audacity few could muster under such difficult circumstances.
Yet Miss Lottie planted those marigolds some time before the story began. Marigolds are annuals, that is, they die every year when summer ends. In order to enjoy them again the following summer, they must be replanted. The fact that Miss Lottie—arguably the most destitute of all the characters in the story— replants those marigolds year after year makes them symbolic of hope as well as beauty. Planting a garden is an act of hope in itself. The gardener hopes the plants will grow. She hopes they will bloom and thrive, that she can keep bugs at bay and weeds from choking the very life force out of the delicate stems. To possess this sort of hope even as life has taken more than it has given to the gardener is remarkable.
That Miss Lottie chose marigolds rather than some other type of flower is not accidental. Marigolds are known for their hardiness. Though they prefer rich soil, they can thrive in less than ideal conditions. And marigolds are prolific—they grow quickly and abundantly, requiring little attention. This would not be the case had Miss Lottie chosen to plant roses or, say, lilies. Without a doubt, they would provide that burst of color, but flowers such as these are high maintenance and delicate. Harsh conditions destroy them. Like Miss Lottie herself, those marigolds are able to adapt to their conditions and surroundings.
The marigolds also symbolize freedom, another conundrum: How can one be free in the binds of such fierce oppression as that caused by severe poverty? Miss Lottie lives her entire life in squalor. Happiness is never a factor in the old woman’s existence. Never is she allowed a moment of joy; her own son, damaged and perhaps a burden in an already difficult life, is a constant reminder of a passion she once shared, perhaps too briefly. Yet despite these limitations, Miss Lottie recognizes in her marigolds a haven where she is free to nurture, love, and care for something that can never cause her pain or sadness. Planting those flowers is an act of courage; keeping them alive is a means to achieving a sense of freedom from the constant reminder of her poverty.
Collier uses color as symbol in ‘‘Marigolds.’’ Those flowers provide the sole color in a world Lizabeth remembers as otherwise monochromatic. Although she admits her childhood must have included green lawns and leafy trees, the adult Lizabeth remembers only dirt roads and grassless yards. ‘‘And one other thing I remember, another incongruity of memory—a brilliant splash of sunny yellow against the dust—Miss Lottie’s marigolds.’’ In the story, the lack of color symbolizes the intense poverty that characterizes this African American shantytown. The shockingly bright colors of the marigolds against the dust and decay symbolize life itself and a refusal to bow to the unceasing oppression imposed upon Miss Lottie by her life’s circumstances.
Collier’s characterizations feed into the idea of symbolism as the organizing principle of ‘‘Marigolds.’’ John Burke is that universal character found not only in literature, but in small towns across America. No doubt, metropolitan areas have their fair share of ‘‘simple’’ residents, but the very nature of small towns—in that they are small and people tend to know one another more intimately—makes those marginalized residents more obvious. In some cases, these characters become legends in their own time. Think of Harper Lee’s Boo Radley character in the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Macomb’s children are terrified of Boo because he is an adult who clearly does not possess adultlike behaviors or abilities. As the children torment Boo, so do Lizabeth and her friends torment John Burke. Characters like John Burke and Boo Radley serve as warnings in literature: Be good and count your blessings, for you could have a much worse lot in life. They symbolize the unknown, the freakish, the ‘‘other’’ that is always waiting around the corner.
Even Lizabeth’s parents are symbolic; in their relationship and roles lies Lizabeth’s world order. Her father is the family’s rock and provider; Maybelle is the source of comfort, the nurturer. When that world order is turned upside down and Maybelle becomes the provider while her husband requires comfort and nurturing, Lizabeth does not know what to do or how to assimilate. ‘‘Everything was suddenly out of tune, like a broken accordion. Where did I fit into this crazy picture?’’
It is the symbolism of the parents that Lizabeth first understands. As she points out in the story, children take their world and everyone in it at face value. What they see is what they think exists. Only with a loss of childhood innocence—a coming-of-age—can they switch gears to understand that what appears to be is not always what is. When Lizabeth sees firsthand that her world is not ordered in the way she believed and was comfortable believing it was, she panics. Her rage overflows, and she sets off to destroy the thing she knows somehow does not fit into her impoverished world: Miss Lottie’s marigold garden.
As a spent and distraught Lizabeth is confronted by Miss Lottie there on the destroyed flower bed, she sees her life and the lives of those around her in a new light, one devoid of childlike innocence but with a newfound compassion. At that moment, she understands the symbolic value of all that Collier has put forth, even though she is incapable of putting into words this new knowledge and understanding. ‘‘The years have put words to the things I knew in that moment, and as I look back upon it, I know that moment marked the end of innocence.’’
As the story closes, a more worldly—and seemingly weary—Lizabeth voices the wisdom she has collected over the years. Her own life’s experiences have brought her full circle to the acknowledgement that ‘‘one doesn’t have to be ignorant and poor to find that life is barren as the dusty roads of our town. And I too have planted 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.
Rebecca Valentine, Critical Essay on ‘‘Marigolds,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010