AUTUMN: Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 1,731 words.)