Resentful of being ignored by his mother who tends his ailing grandmother, four-year-old Richard becomes curious about the fire that burns to warm the room. He takes some straws from the broom and tosses them into the fire. When this no longer holds his interest, he ignites several straws from the broom and carries them over to the curtains which immediately set the room ablaze. As the fire grows, Richard runs under the house, fearing that his mother will whip him for what he has done.
After hearing screams and the gongs of fire wagons, Richard hears his mother calling him,
Her wails were full of an agony whose intensity told me that my punishment would be measured by its depth.
Having learned that everyone has been saved, Richard is beaten by his mother with a tree limb so hard that he loses consciousness. For days Richard hangs in the balance between life and death. He narrates,
But for a long time I was chastened whenever I remembered that my mother had come close to killing me.
Richard's mother certainly surpasses any level of reasonableness when she beats Richard so severely. Her "agony" at thinking him burned to death and the misery of losing her home is unleased upon little Richard's back. She has simply lost control and vents her fears and emotions in the cruel form of lashing Richard. As the reader later learns, hers is a difficult life since her relationship with her husband is one of emotional neglect; and, she does love Richard because she tries very hard to care for him and his brother.