Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1731
Claudia: a nine-year-old girl living in a quiet Southern town
Frieda: Claudia’s older sister who is ten years old
Mr. and Mrs. Mac Teer: Claudia and Frieda’s parents
Mr. Henry Washington: a middle-aged man who rents a room from Claudia and Frieda’s parents
Pecola Breedlove: an eleven-year-old girl who lives with Claudia and Frieda briefly when her father burns down the family home
Rosemary Villanucci: a rich girl who lives next door to Claudia and Frieda
It is the autumn of 1940. Claudia is nine years old and lives in an old house with her parents and her ten-year-old sister, Frieda. She remembers the autumn as a time when two new people come into her house. Mr. Henry Washington moves in as a tenant and immediately delights the girls with his charm and wit. Pecola Breedlove is placed in the house as a social case when her father is put in jail for burning down their own home. Claudia and Frieda immediately befriend her because she is quiet and receptive to their offers of milk and snacks. When she is given milk in a Shirley Temple cup, Pecola makes a remark about how beautiful she is, and starts a conversation with Frieda about Shirley Temple. Claudia has always hated little white girls for the attention they received. For birthdays and Christmas, she would tear apart the white dolls that were given to her in an effort “to see what it was that the whole world said was lovable.” More often than not, the adults would cry over the dolls that Claudia had destroyed, as if these plastic tokens were actually real.
Pecola drinks three quarts of milk in order to touch the Shirley Temple cup. Claudia and Frieda’s mother discovers this and starts to complain, shaming the three girls. While the girls decide where they should go, Pecola starts menstruating. She is scared at first, but Frieda calms her down, telling her that “it just means you can have a baby.” The girls attempt to clean her off secretly and bury her bloody underpants in the backyard. However, Rosemary Villanucci, a neighboring girl, spots them and calls their mother. Mama, who accuses the girls of being “nasty,” whips Frieda and begins to whip Pecola. When she grabs Pecola, she notices the blood and asks the girls what is going on. Claudia finally manages to tell her mother what has happened, and Mama apologizes and takes Pecola up to the bathroom to clean her. That evening, both girls are proud of Pecola, but Pecola stays up wondering what she must do now to have a baby. Frieda whispers that “someone has to love you” and goes to sleep. Pecola still wonders “How?”
The one aspect of the novel that is immediately noticed is its tragic tone; the novel seems to be completely devoid of hope. We have already learned at the introduction that a girl will give birth to her father’s baby; the reader assumes that she will be raped by her own father. By mentioning this at the start of the novel, Morrison robs any potential celebration of its joy. Pecola’s menstruation should be a happy event because it marks the transition from a girl to a woman. Frieda’s happy announcement to Pecola that she can now have a baby is now tragic, given the events that have been foreshadowed by the adult narrator, who the reader now realizes is Claudia.
Morrison uses the setting to establish the unhappy tone of the novel; while Dick and Jane live in a pretty green-and-white house, the first scene featuring Claudia and Frieda has them gathering coal by the railroad tracks. The use of the “Dick and Jane” passage becomes clear; Morrison presents a contrast to the fantasy world that is so often taught to children. The cold reality in which Claudia and Frieda live is so far removed from the world of Dick and Jane that the reader is immediately struck by this seemingly cruel world.
However, love does exist in the real world. This is shown when Claudia falls ill, even though Claudia’s parents “shake their heads in disgust at [her] lack of consideration.” Their parents simply do not have the time to deal with a sick child; they are too busy trying to earn a living for their children, so “[a child’s] illness is treated with contempt.” Claudia forgives her parents for their apparent lack of caring. Although she remembers the pain and humiliation when she is scolded for vomiting over her bed, she is able to understand why she is treated this way. When the work is done, and there is some spare time for Claudia’s mother, she finally can take the time to worry about her child. Claudia’s mother comes in one night and rests her hand on Claudia’s forehead. It is this moment that Claudia treasures; through all the suffering, she is able to remember her mother as “somebody with hands who does not want [her] to die.”
The characters of Claudia and Pecola are quickly established in their differences. The most striking difference is the world in which each girl chooses to live. Claudia is grounded in reality and understands that it is sometimes necessary to fight for respect; therefore, she is quick to strike out at real or imagined insults. She attacks Rosemary Villanucci because she must “assert her pride”; it is this feeling that also causes her to attack the white dolls. When Pecola comes into the house, Claudia is concerned about her guest’s feelings, and she does her best to accommodate her. Pecola truly comes to life, however, when she sees the image of Shirley Temple on the cup. The symbol of a fantasy world stimulates Pecola. Claudia has seen this type of behavior before and immediately realizes that Pecola, like so many others, is enamored with movies and the white actresses that star in these movies.
Morrison’s contrast between fantasy and reality is used to establish two themes that will run throughout the novel. The first is beauty, and how this idea affects Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola. All of the adult characters seem to identify blond and blue-eyed white girls as “beautiful.” Claudia always gets the pretty white dolls that her elders had wanted when they were children. Mr. Henry compliments the girls by calling them “Greta Garbo” and “Ginger Rogers,” both white actresses. As a result, the young black girls in this story will grow up feeling that they are ugly and inferior. Each girl deals with this inferiority differently. Claudia hates the dolls that she receives as gifts for birthdays and Christmas, which seem to be more valuable to grown-ups than Claudia herself is. So Claudia lashes out at these symbols, ripping out their eyes and tearing off their heads in an effort to find out “what it was that all the world said was lovable.” She also hates Shirley Temple because she dances with Bojangles in a famous movie scene when that man “ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with me.” She resents these white girls who have the love of both black and white adults, because they steal the attention and love that Claudia deserves.
Pecola and Frieda, however, are both enamored by these white girls themselves. Pecola is enraptured with the Shirley Temple cup and drinks three quarts of milk just so she can hold the cup. Pecola is introduced as someone who is outdoors, which is someone without a home, and consequently, no one to count on. While Claudia presents her own parents with love, she already has contempt for Pecola’s father because he is guilty of putting his family outdoors. Pecola’s father has apparently failed to give his daughter the protection that she needed, and as a result, Pecola is terribly insecure. Claudia and Frieda try hard to be her friends, but they clearly have a long way to go in order to give Pecola a sense of security. Pecola seems to find this security only by drinking milk from the Shirley Temple cup.
The second theme introduced in this chapter is the theme of injustice. Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola are at the mercy of adults, who deal out whippings and beatings without concerning themselves with the reasons for punishment. Claudia feels that “adults do not talk to us—they give us directions.” The theme of injustice is connected to the idea of beauty as well. It seems that the “ugly” Pecola, Claudia, and Frieda are always victims of injustice. Pecola begins to menstruate at Claudia and Frieda’s house, and Mama whips Frieda when she catches them trying to clean Pecola in the backyard. They are punished for “playing nasty,” even though menstruation is a natural process. The symbols of prettiness, such as the cup and the dolls, are not real, yet the adults treat these symbols as if they were. Pecola and Frieda are punished for being “nasty” because they are not able to be the same as the dolls, that is, clean and plastic. The fact that no girl, white or black, could possess this fake beauty makes the punishment all the more unfair and cruel.
It seems that the allure of this fantasy world has had a profound effect on Pecola’s character. Even though the reader has just been introduced to her, Pecola is presented as extremely passive, especially when shown alongside the doll-crushing Claudia. Pecola quietly accepts her fate, even when presented with injustice. She doesn’t resist when Claudia’s mother prepares to spank her, and Claudia must quickly come to her defense. Their response to the injustice of being beaten suggests that Pecola is used to being hurt. Another aspect of Pecola’s character that immediately comes to attention is her immaturity. Even though Pecola should be “grown-up-like,” she is in fact ignorant of what she must do to have a baby. She possesses the responsibilities of a woman but still resorts to asking Frieda what one must do in order to have a baby. The fact that Pecola is not aware of the facts of life makes it easy for the reader to forget that she is in fact “a little-girl-gone-to-woman.” Pecola and Claudia’s reactions to different situations should be noted while reading this novel.
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