by Eugenia Collier

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Marigolds Summary

"Marigolds" by Eugenia Collier is a 1969 short story about Lizabeth, a girl growing up in rural Maryland during the Great Depression who has a coming-of-age experience.

  • Lizabeth, now an adult, reflects back on the summer when she was fourteen.
  • One day, Lizabeth, her brother, Joey, and a few neighborhood kids damage Miss Lottie's prized marigolds for fun. Despite her involvement, Lizabeth feels she is outgrowing such antics.
  • That night, Lizabeth overhears her father's anguish over his unemployment. Confused and fearful, Lizabeth runs to Miss Lottie's garden and destroys the marigolds.
  • Seeing Miss Lottie's dismay, Lizabeth understands the consequences of her actions.


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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

When “Marigolds” begins, narrator and protagonist Lizabeth is reflecting on her youth. A child of the Great Depression, she remembers the era’s pervasive dust storms more clearly than anything else. She remarks that her memory of this time is mysteriously selective, representing things not “as they are, but rather as they feel.”

Focusing in on the remembered image of bright yellow marigold flowers, Lizabeth recalls a particularly painful anecdote that, to her mind, marks the transition between her childhood and her womanhood. She, her brother, and the neighborhood children used to take pleasure in antagonizing Miss Lottie, an elderly neighbor. Miss Lottie, a stern woman who dislikes children, spends her free time tending the bed of marigolds in her garden.

To the kids, Miss Lottie’s marigolds are an aberration. She and the other children loathe the flowers because their beauty stands in contrast with the pervasive ugliness and decay that define the rest of the town. In such a context, the flowers are incomprehensible.

One day, Lizabeth can sense that she is on the cusp of womanhood, torn between her childhood ways and a new set of instincts and intuitions. She joins some of the other neighborhood kids to tease Miss Lottie, but she feels uncertain as the kids gather pebbles to throw at Miss Lottie’s marigolds. She’s eager to participate and even throws the first pebble, but she is also wracked with something new—a fear that this sort of play might be too silly for her. In her confusion, she lashes out and leads the children on a particularly cruel rampage against Miss Lottie. They call her names, throw stones at her garden, and chant about her being a witch.

Immediately afterward, Lizabeth feels deeply ashamed at having participated in this act of cruelty. After dinner, she and Joey have an argument, and that night she struggles to sleep.

Soon, she awakes to hear her parents talking in the other room. Her mother, Maybelle, is comforting her father. He is deeply distraught, upset at his struggle to find work and provide for his family during the scarcity of the Great Depression. Maybelle is doing her best to be reassuring, reminding him that she gets paid a little each week, but she can’t soothe his anguish. Before long, he breaks down in tears as Lizabeth listens from the other room.

Lizabeth has never heard a man cry, and her father’s weeping fills her with confusion and fear. This inversion of normalcy—seeing her mother supporting her father, who is typically strong and steadfast—is deeply upsetting to Lizabeth.

After her parents’ conversation ends, Lizabeth lays in bed for a long time, unable to sleep. Feeling lonely, she wakes Joey, who is confused. Without quite knowing what she is doing, Lizabeth invites Joey to accompany her outside. Before long, Joey is chasing her down the street as she, in a whirlwind of rage, fear, and confusion, makes her way toward Miss Lottie’s garden. The various emotions she has been grappling with mingle in her consciousness: her longing for her mother, whose work keeps her away from home; her anguish over the impoverishment of her family and community; and the fear she feels about her father’s pain and uncertainty. Out of this mixture of emotions, she feels a sudden “impulse toward destruction.”

Soon, Lizabeth is single-handedly uprooting Miss Lottie’s garden. Joey, pleading for her to stop, is unable to deter her. Before long, she has destroyed the whole thing, and the two sit in the garden as she weeps.

Miss Lottie arrives and sees what has become of her marigolds. Instead of anger, Lizabeth sees only sadness and resignation; Miss Lottie’s flowers have been destroyed, and she cannot reverse this fact. This moment, Lizabeth realizes in retrospect, marks the end of her childhood. She now sees what she could not see before: the cruelty and recklessness of her own actions; the humanity in Miss Lottie, who strove to cultivate something beautiful in the midst of a bleak and difficult life; and the harsh depths of the reality at hand for everyone involved. Lizabeth finds something new in herself: a burgeoning capacity for compassion. Compassion, she notes, cannot coexist with innocence. With her innocence now lost, she can now see this situation much more clearly than she could before. “In that humiliating moment,” she recalls, “I looked beyond myself and into the depths of another person.”

From the present day, Lizabeth reflects on the time that has passed and the impact of her actions. Now able to see with much greater perspective and depth of understanding, she realizes that she, like Miss Lottie, has worked to cultivate bright patches in otherwise inhospitable environments. “I too have planted marigolds,” she concludes.

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