Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1499
Maureen Peal: a new girl in school who immediately becomes very popular
Bay Boy, Woodrow Cain, Buddy Wilson, and Junie Bug: four boys who are teasing Pecola in the playground
Maureen Peal, a new girl in Claudia and Frieda’s school, becomes popular because she is rich and light-skinned. Claudia tries to concoct a plan to humiliate her, but to her dismay, she discovers that everyone loves Maureen and wishes to become her friend. One day Maureen starts a conversation with Claudia, who holds the locker next to hers. When Maureen decides to walk home with Frieda and Claudia, Frieda is delighted, but Claudia is still wary of her. As the girls head across the playground, they spot Pecola Breedlove, who is being teased by a group of boys. Frieda quickly rushes in and rescues her from the boys. Maureen begins to talk with Pecola, and they seem to get along really well. Maureen spots a drugstore up ahead and asks the girls if they want to have an ice cream. Claudia and Frieda decide that they like Maureen but are shocked when it becomes apparent that Maureen is going to treat only Pecola to ice cream. Ashamed because they expected to be treated to ice cream as well, Claudia and Frieda stay outside the drugstore.
The conversation turns to the facts of life, and Maureen asks Pecola if she has ever seen a naked man. Pecola replies defensively that she would never look at her naked father, but Maureen wants to know why Pecola mentioned her father. Seeing Pecola so uncomfortable, Claudia and Frieda jump at the chance to tease Maureen. Claudia swings at Maureen but hits Pecola instead. Frustrated by her inability to hit Maureen, Claudia begins to chase her and yells, “You think you so cute!” Maureen escapes, yelling back at them, “I am cute! And you ugly!… I am cute!” Claudia and Frieda quickly return the insults, but Pecola stares at the ground, apparently upset that Maureen has left. Claudia is frustrated at Pecola for refusing to fight for herself, yet she admits to herself that Maureen Peal’s words were painful because “if she [Maureen] was cute … then we were not.”
Claudia and Frieda walk home and find Mr. Henry alone in a bathrobe. Mr. Henry gives them a quarter to buy some ice cream. The girls, however, are still upset from their fight with Maureen Peal and do not want to return to the scene of the fight so quickly. They decide to buy candy at the local drugstore instead. Coming home, they see Mr. Henry laughing with China and Miss Marie, whom they call the Maginot Line. When Frieda asks him why the women were with him, he jokes with them but also asks them not to tell their parents. Frieda and Claudia are scared of the prostitutes, especially the Maginot Line, whom their mother “wouldn’t let eat out of one of her plates.” They decide not to tell their mother about them because the Maginot Line did not actually eat anything off of a plate in the house.
Maureen Peal embodies white society’s ideal of beauty and provides a contrast in character to the miserable Pecola. At the chapter’s beginning, Maureen, even though she has just entered school, has already become the most popular girl in the school. It is her unique appearance which makes her so popular. She is as rich as the “richest of the white girls,” with long brown hair and green eyes. As an outsider, Claudia and Frieda expect to have some fun at Maureen’s expense but are shocked and disappointed when their peers immediately embrace Maureen. This makes Claudia jealous, and she spends her days trying to find some flaw or imperfection that she can use as a way to tease Maureen. Claudia has to be satisfied with making fun of Maureen’s name because she cannot find anything ugly about Maureen. Although Claudia dislikes these beautiful girls, she has been brought up to believe that these girls were beautiful, and she cannot find a weakness within this beauty.
It is not so hard for the children to find ways to tease Pecola. When Claudia, Frieda, and Maureen leave the school, they find a circle of boys around Pecola. The boys have created a chant that makes fun of the fact that Pecola has dark skin and the gossip that her father sleeps in the nude. It doesn’t matter that the boys have the same tone of skin as Pecola; the narrator points out that “it was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the … insult its teeth.” The boys are able to transfer this self-hatred upon Pecola, who readily accepts it because she already believes that she is ugly. Pecola’s low self-esteem makes her easy prey for the boys who wish to bring up her supposed ugly appearance while forgetting that they share many of the same physical characteristics.
The children in this chapter feel shame rather easily and are always quick to defend themselves against this shame. When Maureen asks Claudia and Frieda if they intend to buy ice cream, Frieda quickly answers no. They were expecting Maureen to pay for them and do not want to be caught in their mistake. Pecola is ashamed when Maureen asks her if she has ever seen a naked man, and Claudia and Frieda quickly defend Pecola in order to release the anger they have for being poor.
Claudia and Frieda like themselves and usually don’t mind not having money, but Maureen Peal’s money, beauty, and popularity are too much for them to take. It doesn’t satisfy them to think of names for Maureen, because even if they do tease her or defeat her in a fight, she will still be more popular than they ever will. Claudia compares her fight with Maureen with the destruction of the dolls. Destroying the symbol of beauty will not destroy their parents love of beauty. Claudia understands that “dolls we can destroy, but we could not destroy the honey voices of parents and adults … when they encountered the Maureen Peals of the world.” This is what ultimately frustrates Claudia and Frieda in their struggle with Maureen.
What is just as frustrating is the fact that Pecola seems to side with Maureen in this quarrel. Maureen is not as cruel as the boys who tease her, but she begins to make her feel uncomfortable when she asks her about her father. However, when Claudia and Frieda chase her away, Pecola still stares at Maureen as if she were wishing that Maureen would return. Although she was shamed by Maureen, she still had a few moments when she could forget she was ugly. Having a beautiful little girl for a friend made Pecola feel beautiful as well. It was the closest that Pecola had come to having blue eyes herself. Maureen compares Pecola to a “mulatto” character in a movie called Imitation of Life. Pecola is overjoyed to be identified with a character in a movie, and a light-skinned character no less. This identification gives Pecola reason to believe that her wish might finally be coming true. (Incidentally, the character’s name in Imitation of Life was actually Peola, not Pecola.)
So the loss of this “friendship” is more distressing to Pecola than being teased by Maureen. She does not even thank Claudia and Frieda for coming to her defense, even if they were defending themselves as well. Claudia cannot understand this and is angered at the shame that Pecola feels. Claudia wants “to ram a stick down that hunched and curving spine” in order to “force her to stand erect.” While the insults hurt Claudia, she is at least used to fighting in her defense and standing up for herself. Pecola once again displays her passive character and shows that she will hide in the symbols of society’s ideal of beauty when faced with a challenge. Claudia’s fight with Maureen was an opportunity for Claudia to assert her character, while Pecola sees this fight as a lost opportunity to become someone else.
Morrison has already established the contrast between Claudia and Pecola, and she reinforces this contrast through their interaction with Maureen Peal. Pecola envies Maureen and wishes to become her friend, while Claudia sees the injustice in Maureen’s popularity. Maureen is a doll in flesh and blood, and like the plastic dolls, she is undeservedly loved by adults and children. Claudia is able to lash out at Maureen, just as she hurt the dolls, but the fact that she misses Maureen and hits Pecola reinforces the theme of injustice in this novel. Pecola certainly did not deserve to be hit, but this has been happening to her throughout her life. The “beautiful” Maureen will be able to go through life unscathed, while Pecola is unable to avoid the blows and cruelty of others.
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