Lizbeth faces several conflicts during the summer she describes in "Marigolds." It is most fundamentally a coming-of-age story, expressed through her memories of a single incident. That conflict is internal, of youth versus age, child versus adult. The central incident concerning the actual flowers also expresses reason contrasted to emotion, and within emotion, affection contrasted to rage. More broadly, her family’s poverty during the Great Depression shapes the overall conflictual situation, of desire contrasted to privation. She calls poverty a cage. The conflicts she presents in the story are not resolved during its action; rather, her adult self is reflecting on that time from a perspective years and “worlds away.”
Joy and rage and wild animal gladness and shame become tangled together in the multicolored skein of fourteen-going-on-fifteen as I recall that devastating moment when I was suddenly more woman than child, years ago in Miss Lottie’s yard. . . . I remember, that year, a strange restlessness of body and of spirit, a feeling that something old and familiar was ending, and something unknown and therefore terrifying was beginning.
One particular act of reckless destruction, which made her ashamed but also taught her something about adulthood, continued to exert its power: "I recall that devastating moment when I was suddenly more woman than child, years ago in Miss Lottie’s yard.”
Awareness of the true extent of her family’s economic situation is beyond the child, but its effects shape her reckless actions that day.
Poverty was the cage in which we all were trapped, and our hatred of it was still the vague, undirected restlessness of the zoo-bred flamingo who knows that nature created him to fly free. . . . For one does not have to be ignorant and poor to find that his life is as barren as the dusty yards of our town.
In numerous places, the narrator highlights the internal conflict by presenting the child Lizabeth’s awareness of her state, both through her own feelings and her awareness of her parents’ situation. She speaks of “the bewilderment of being neither child nor woman and yet both at once . . . ” and tells us that “all the smoldering emotions of that summer swelled in me and burst. . . . And these feelings combined in one great impulse toward destruction.”
Two related parts convey the conflict. One consists of her two actions in tormenting Miss Lottie and then returning to destroy her beloved marigolds. The child in her thought it fun to annoy Miss Lottie, an “old black witch-woman” who seemed to be at least a hundred years old. Calling her a witch had been a childhood pastime, as the kids revel in their youth and mock her age. One day something wells up in Lizabeth and she unleashes her frustration on the old woman. First she screams “Old witch!” at her repeatedly; later that night she returns and pulls up her flowers, sensing somehow that “they were too beautiful; they said too much that we could not understand; they did not make sense." Shocked by her own destructive force, being confronted by the grieving Miss Lottie marks the end of childhood.
I scrambled to my feet and just stood there and stared at her, and that was the moment when childhood faded and womanhood began. That violent, crazy act was the last act of childhood. For as I gazed at the immobile face with the sad, weary eyes, I gazed upon a kind of reality which is hidden to childhood. The witch was no longer a witch but only a broken old woman who had dared to create beauty in the midst of ugliness and sterility.
Another marker of the child-to-adult passage is inadvertently witnessing her parents’ powerlessness, and understanding the true effects of poverty. Her father’s frustration and his inability to earn and provide spills over into tears.
I had never heard a man cry before. I did not know men ever cried. I covered my ears with my hands but could not cut off the sound of my father’s harsh, painful, despairing sobs . . . How could it be that my father was crying?
Lizabeth has to feel lost in order to find her adult self.
The world had lost its boundary lines. My mother, who was small and soft, was now the strength of the family; my father, who was the rock on which the family had been built, was sobbing like the tiniest child. Everything was suddenly out of tune, like a broken accordion. Where did I fit into this crazy picture? I do not now remember my thoughts, only a feeling of great bewilderment and fear.
At the story’s end, the adult Lizabeth tells us what she learned when she looked into Miss Lottie’s face, and how it stays with her. Growing beautiful flowers means being an adult.
In that humiliating moment I looked beyond myself and into the depths of another person. This was the beginning of compassion, and one cannot have both compassion and innocence…. [There are times when the image of those passionate yellow mounds returns with a painful poignancy. And I too have planted marigolds.