What does the narrator mean when she says "Since why is difficult to handle,one must take refuge in how"?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The narrative focus of the section of the text in which "how" vs. "why" is raised illuminates the condition of victimization.  Pecola is the universal victim.  She is the recipient of abuse from all levels.  Socially, her darkness and her condition of being sparks abuse and rejection from both White and African- American communities. Personally, she is the recipient of sexual abuse from her father.  She receives the abuse of the world as its universalized notion of victimization.  "Why" these conditions happen, why some people are "chosen,"  is something that the text argues cannot be ascertained:

For years I thought my sister was right:  it was my fault.  I had planted them too far down in the earth.  It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding.  We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola's father had dropped his sees in his own plot of black dirt.

The narrative focus of this passage reflects how there can be no real explanation as to "why" this happens.  What answer can satisfactorily explain why a father would rape and impregnate his own daughter?  What answer can sufficiently cover why a society would allow this to happen?  It is in this vein where the "how" has to be addressed.  To understand such a condition in so far as trying to "stop" it can be the only "refuge" for the individual.  The "why" cannot explain why the "earth itself might have been unyielding."  The "how" is the only realm in which individual action can have some resonance.  Yet, even this is only a refuge, a brief respite, from the inability to answer the critical question of "why."

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