John Burke is the ‘‘queer-head’’ son of Miss Lottie Burke. Although his condition is never labeled, he is known to be mentally challenged. Lizabeth describes him as ‘‘totally unaware’’ of his surroundings, an ageless black man prone to violence if his ‘‘mindless stupor’’ is interrupted.
John Burke spends most of his time sitting in the rocking chair on his front porch, lost in his own limited world. As often is the case in small towns where everyone knows everyone else, the neighborhood children look for ways to taunt their dim-witted neighbor and then run screaming when their efforts succeed. For Lizabeth, John Burke rounds out the picture of the neighborhood’s relentless decay. Regardless of what else goes on in that Maryland steel town, the buildings continue to crumble from neglect and John Burke continues to rock. His eternal rocking—his presence on the front porch—is as constant as the decline of the town’s economic conditions and the dissipation of hope as days pass and hardship increases.
Miss Lottie Burke
Miss Lottie is John Burke’s mother and the gardener of the marigolds for which this short story is titled. She is a neighborhood character whose legend and mystery overshadows the truth of her life, and the children perceive her as a witchwoman. Of all the houses in the town, Miss Lottie’s is the most dilapidated, its weathered boards warped and tumbledown. Like Miss Lottie herself, the building seems to have a magical quality about it: ‘‘the fact that it was still standing implied a kind of enchantment that was stronger than the elements.’’
A large, African American woman, Miss Lottie seems to the children to be at least one hundred years old and a complete mystery. Because they never see her anywhere but in her front yard, Lizabeth and the other children cannot fathom how she conducts those daily tasks that require human interaction. How does she get her groceries? Does she ever go into town? She never has visitors and does not want anyone in her home. These little mysteries roused suspicion and great fear in the children when they were younger. And although as teens they no longer believe she holds witchlike powers, their fear of Miss Lottie remains.
Those fears manifest themselves in the form of bullying, and like her son, Miss Lottie is the target of the neighborhood children’s ridicule and taunts. Although she never bothers anyone, Lizabeth and the other children go out of their way to harass Miss Lottie. They especially despise her abundant display of marigolds. ‘‘For some perverse reason, we children hated those marigolds. They interfered with the perfect ugliness of the place. … Something in the vigor with which the old woman destroyed the weeds intimidated us.’’ And so the children take out their aggression on Miss Lottie by throwing stones at her flowers.
After Lizabeth loses control and destroys Miss Lottie’s marigold bed, she realizes Miss Lottie is nothing more than a destitute, defeated old woman whose only joy was found in tending to her flowers. The reader never knows how Miss Lottie reacts to Lizabeth’s tantrum, but she never replaces those flowers she so dearly loved. In Lizabeth’s mind, Miss Lottie becomes a symbol for an entire generation of downtrodden, poverty-stricken people who dared to hope even in the most desperate circumstances.
Lizabeth’s and Joey’s father has been out of work for an unspecified amount of time. His frustrations overwhelm him as he apologizes to Maybelle for not being the provider he is expected and wants to be. When Maybelle tries to assuage his guilt by reminding him that she gets paid weekly and that the people she cleans for pass along useful clothing, Lizabeth’s father begins to sob. It is a sound she has never heard before, and the sudden realization that the world is not as she thought it was—how it ought to be—proves too much for Lizabeth to bear.
Children typically experience an event that in hindsight can be considered the bridge between childhood and adulthood. In Lizabeth’s case, her father’s emotional breakdown is the catalyst for her own act of defiance.
Joey is Lizabeth’s eleven-year-old brother. During the summer, Joey and Lizabeth are left on their own while their parents work, and so Joey becomes his sister’s closest companion. Lizabeth considers her younger brother more of a pain than anything, someone to accompany her in her summer boredom. ‘‘Joey was three years younger than I, and a boy, and therefore vastly inferior.’’ He is a typical younger brother, taking glee in annoying his sister and making her shake her head in judgment.
Joey is the child who comes up with the idea to throw stones at Miss Lottie and her marigolds while she tends to them. And when Lizabeth cannot sleep in the night and wants to escape her feelings of confusion and grief, it is Joey whose company she seeks to save her from her loneliness. He witnesses Lizabeth’s formidable fury as she lays waste to Miss Lottie’s marigolds that night, and when his sister’s rage finally subsides, Joey is still there, loyally sitting beside her in disbelief and fear.
Joey’s character acts as a sort of looking glass into the past for Lizabeth. Though just three years younger than she, he is a version of how she once was: naive, childlike, accustomed to acting before thinking things through. Joey lives in the moment as Lizabeth once did, thinking only of himself and what he desires at the moment.
Lizabeth is the narrator of the story. Although she recalls the memory as an adult, at the time the event took place, she was fourteen years old. Lizabeth is an African American teenager growing up in the poverty of the Great Depression. Although everyone in her Maryland steel town lives in the grips of poverty, the adult Lizabeth is aware that as an African American, the economic depression had an even more severe impact on her race. Even in the best of times, blacks did not generally aspire to achieve the American dream (a comfortable life in which all needs are met and children grow to achieve more than their parents did); they realistically judged it to be out of their reach due to the confines and limitations of widespread racism and prejudice. At the time the story takes place, however, the depths of despair were not realized by Lizabeth or her peers. ‘‘We children, of course, were only vaguely aware of the extent of our poverty. …In those days everybody we knew was just as hungry and ill-clad as we were.’’
‘‘Marigolds’’ is Lizabeth’s story; readers know what happens from her perspective, through her eyes. She exhibits traits universal to most teens: restlessness, egocentricity (thinking she is at the center of the world), subject to daydreaming with a tendency to shift moods abruptly. But in the scope of one late summer’s night, Lizabeth leaves behind the innocence of her childhood and takes those first tentative steps into adulthood as she realizes reality lies in the eyes of the beholder.
Lizabeth is the character who experiences the most growth and change in the story. Whereas she first appears as a sullen girl who is annoyed with the world in general, the story culminates in her evolution into a woman whose awkwardness has transformed into realization and understanding. The final passages of the story reveal a woman whose life experiences have led her full circle, back to those marigolds and all they have come to symbolize.
Maybelle is Lizabeth and Joey’s mother. She tries to comfort her husband when he laments his current unemployed state, ‘‘Honey, you took good care of us when you had it. Ain’t nobody got nothing nowadays.’’ Maybelle is solely responsible for the family’s income, but rather than feel resentment, she rises to the responsibility of being the source of her family’s strength.
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.