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What is the theme, or message, in the short story "Marigolds" by Eugenia Collier?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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An important message or theme of the story is that the ability to understand and see other people—especially outsiders—as fully human is the beginning of maturity into adulthood.

Lizabeth is a young adolescent who remembers vividly the day she led the other children in taunting old Miss Lottie as a witch and destroying her beautifully tended marigolds.

We can understand how Lizabeth vented the rage she felt at her own constricted, impoverished life on an old woman who couldn't easily fight back. The story is set in the Depression, and Lizabeth and her brother Joey live in a shack with her parents. Her mother works all day as a maid, and her father goes out each day in search of the work he never finds. Lizabeth feels a sense of affront that, amid all the squalor and ugliness in which they live, Miss Lottie would dare to grow beautiful flowers.

In tormenting Miss Lottie and ripping up what she tried to create, Lizabeth expresses some of her own internalized rage. However, as she looks at Miss Lottie, she suddenly feels ashamed, realizing she has victimized not an "other" or a "witch" but a real human being like herself. Instead of wanting to continue to express wrath at her, she feels compassion for this older woman.

Learning to view others with empathy is an important theme the story illustrates: compassion, to Collier, is the essence of adulthood.

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Felicita Burton eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The main theme or message in the story "Marigolds" is the importance of empathy and compassion.

In the story, Lizabeth is reflecting on a crossroads in her life, an incident that marked the change from child to woman. She is apparently honest with readers in telling us how brutal and hostile she was on the day she attacked Miss Lottie verbally and then attacked her property.

Before the day she tore up the old lady's marigolds, she had not thought of Miss Lottie as a person. In fact, Lizabeth and her friends always used to yell, "Witch!" at the old lady. On that particular day, Lizabeth first took the leading role in yelling furiously at her, repeatedly calling her a witch. Later that day, she returned to her house and tore the marigolds out of the ground. Miss Lottie, however, did not yell at the girl; she just looked deeply sad and wondered why she did it. Lizabeth looked into the "sad, weary eyes" of another human being.

At the story's end, the adult Lizabeth explains the impact:

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 . . .

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accessteacher eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One of the central messages of this short story seems to be summed up in the main symbol of the story, the marigolds, and the narrator's actions in destroying them. From the start it is clear that the marigolds are a symbol in the short story, in that they have a meaning above and beyond their literal significance. The narrator is clearly puzzled by the marigolds, especially given the nature of Miss Lottie's home:

Miss Lottie's marigolds were perhaps the strangest part of the picture. Certainly they did not fit in with the crumbling decay of the rest of her yeard. Beyond the dusty brown yard, in front of the sorry gray house, rose suddenly and shockingly a dazzling strip of bright blossoms, clumped together in enormous mounds, warm and passionate and sun-golden.

In addition to this description, we are told of the care that Miss Lottie takes in working on her marigolds, working on them "all summer". The children come to hate these marigolds:

For some perverse reason, we children hated those marigolds. They interfered with the perfect ugliness of the place; they were too beautiful; they said too much that we could not understand; they did not make sense.

However, by the end of the short story, the narrator realises herself the symbolic significance of the marigolds, however, only after she has destroyed them:

Whatever verve there was left in her, whatever was of love and beauty and joy that had not been squeezed out by life, had been there in the marigolds she had so tenderly cared for.

The marigolds, then, symbolise humanity's innate ability to create and cultivate beauty in even the most desperate and poverty-stricken surroundings. This meaning is made explicit in the last words of the story:

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. And I too have planted marigolds.

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