Marigolds

by Eugenia Collier

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What is the theme or message in Eugenia Collier's "Marigolds"?

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The theme or message of the short story “Marigolds” by Eugenia Collier is that it is not possible to have both innocence and compassion. Though Lizabeth's behavior towards Miss Lottie is thoroughly unpleasant, it comes from her inability to discern right and wrong. It is only in later years, as an adult, that Lizabeth is finally able to develop compassion, as symbolized by her planting marigolds.

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Though there can be no doubt that the behavior of Lizabeth and the other children towards Miss Lottie and her mentally challenged son is pretty disgusting, it would seem to come down to an inability to discern right and wrong rather than a deliberate desire to do evil.

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told, for example, that the children scream with delight when a harassed Miss Lottie curses at them. This would appear to indicate that this is all just a big game to these kids, and that they have no real understanding of what they're doing and no compassion or empathy for Miss Lottie and her son.

Innocence, then, is incompatible with compassion. It's only later on in life, when Lizabeth has become a woman and has long since put away childish things, that she is finally able to develop compassion for Miss Lottie. She too has planted her own marigolds, the very same activity that Miss Lottie discontinued after Lizabeth and the other children destroyed her flowers.

What's more, now that she's started planting her own marigolds, the adult Lizabeth has come to understand why Miss Lottie did the very same thing all those years ago. It's only now that it's possible for her to show compassion for the woman she once tormented so mercilessly.

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An important message or theme of the story is that the ability to understand and see other people—especially outsiders—as fully human is the beginning of maturity into adulthood.

Lizabeth is a young adolescent who remembers vividly the day she led the other children in taunting old Miss Lottie as a witch and destroying her beautifully tended marigolds.

We can understand how Lizabeth vented the rage she felt at her own constricted, impoverished life on an old woman who couldn't easily fight back. The story is set in the Depression, and Lizabeth and her brother Joey live in a shack with her parents. Her mother works all day as a maid, and her father goes out each day in search of the work he never finds. Lizabeth feels a sense of affront that, amid all the squalor and ugliness in which they live, Miss Lottie would dare to grow beautiful flowers.

In tormenting Miss Lottie and ripping up what she tried to create, Lizabeth expresses some of her own internalized rage. However, as she looks at Miss Lottie, she suddenly feels ashamed, realizing she has victimized not an "other" or a "witch" but a real human being like herself. Instead of wanting to continue to express wrath at her, she feels compassion for this older woman.

Learning to view others with empathy is an important theme the story illustrates: compassion, to Collier, is the essence of adulthood.

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The main theme or message in the story "Marigolds" is the importance of empathy and compassion.

In the story, Lizabeth is reflecting on a crossroads in her life, an incident that marked the change from child to woman. She is apparently honest with readers in telling us how brutal and hostile she was on the day she attacked Miss Lottie verbally and then attacked her property.

Before the day she tore up the old lady's marigolds, she had not thought of Miss Lottie as a person. In fact, Lizabeth and her friends always used to yell, "Witch!" at the old lady. On that particular day, Lizabeth first took the leading role in yelling furiously at her, repeatedly calling her a witch. Later that day, she returned to her house and tore the marigolds out of the ground. Miss Lottie, however, did not yell at the girl; she just looked deeply sad and wondered why she did it. Lizabeth looked into the "sad, weary eyes" of another human being.

At the story's end, the adult Lizabeth explains the impact:

In that humiliating moment I looked beyond myself and into the depths of another person. This was the beginning of compassion, and one cannot have both compassion and innocence . . .

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One of the central messages of this short story seems to be summed up in the main symbol of the story, the marigolds, and the narrator's actions in destroying them. From the start it is clear that the marigolds are a symbol in the short story, in that they have a meaning above and beyond their literal significance. The narrator is clearly puzzled by the marigolds, especially given the nature of Miss Lottie's home:

Miss Lottie's marigolds were perhaps the strangest part of the picture. Certainly they did not fit in with the crumbling decay of the rest of her yeard. Beyond the dusty brown yard, in front of the sorry gray house, rose suddenly and shockingly a dazzling strip of bright blossoms, clumped together in enormous mounds, warm and passionate and sun-golden.

In addition to this description, we are told of the care that Miss Lottie takes in working on her marigolds, working on them "all summer". The children come to hate these marigolds:

For some perverse reason, we children hated those marigolds. They interfered with the perfect ugliness of the place; they were too beautiful; they said too much that we could not understand; they did not make sense.

However, by the end of the short story, the narrator realises herself the symbolic significance of the marigolds, however, only after she has destroyed them:

Whatever verve there was left in her, whatever was of love and beauty and joy that had not been squeezed out by life, had been there in the marigolds she had so tenderly cared for.

The marigolds, then, symbolise humanity's innate ability to create and cultivate beauty in even the most desperate and poverty-stricken surroundings. This meaning is made explicit in the last words of the story:

For one does not have to be ignorant and poor to find that his life is as barren as the dusty yards of our town. And I too have planted marigolds.

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What is the claim in the story Marigolds by Eugenia W. Collier?

There could be many claims (themes) identified in "Marigolds" by Eugenia W. Collier, but one that is stated explicitly is that innocence and compassion cannot co-exist. In order to be truly compassionate toward someone's suffering, a person needs to have personally suffered, too.  

The story is told by an adult first-person narrator—Lizabeth—who is looking back on an act of childish cruelty that took place when she was fourteen. Lizabeth and her younger brother, Joey, are frustrated by circumstances they cannot control: the summer heat, their family's poverty, their mother's absence, the "formlessness of [their] summer days." To alleviate their boredom, they decide to annoy their neighbor, Miss Lottie, because "annoying Miss Lottie was always fun." Miss Lottie has a lot of misfortune in her life—her home is described as being "the most ramshackle" one in an already-destitute town, and she has a "queer-headed" (handicapped) adult son named John Burke—but despite her hardships, Miss Lottie plants marigolds on her property. The marigolds are tangible evidence that Miss Lottie defiantly refuses to give in to her misfortunes.  

As the story develops, Lizabeth and her brother (as well as some other neighborhood children) throw rocks at Miss Lottie's marigolds and damage a few. Later, Lizabeth's frustration spills over into envious violence, and she destroys Miss Lottie's flowers. Instead of appreciating Miss Lottie's efforts to bring a small bit of beauty to an otherwise ugly place, Lizabeth strikes out at the flowers in misplaced rage. The narrator realizes after her rage is spent that she

could not express the things that I knew about Miss Lottie as I stood there awkward and ashamed. The years have put words to the things I knew in that moment, and as I look back upon it, I know that that moment marked the end of innocence. . . In that humiliating moment I looked beyond myself and into the depths of another person. This was the beginning of compassion, and one cannot have both compassion and innocence.

By the end of the story, the narrator has gained hard-earned adult perspective. She still feels a sense of remorse for what she did to Miss Lottie's marigolds, which is evidenced by the last sentence, "And I too have planted marigolds." Younger Lizabeth's innocence was lost as she destroyed the small patch of beauty in Miss Lottie's yard, but this loss of innocence is what gives the narrator the ability to be a compassionate adult.

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What is the theme in Eugenia Collier's short story "Marigolds?" 

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A theme is...

...the central and dominating idea in a literary work.

It is the main idea or a life-truth that the author is trying to impart to the reader.

In Eugenia Collier's short story "Marigolds," the narrator Lizabeth recalls a painful moment in her childhood when she stopped being a child; she remembers when innocence ended for her and compassion took its place—for she notes that these things cannot occupy the same space at the same time...when compassion enters into one's life, innocence can no longer remain. 

Lizabeth and her younger brother Joey are the only children in their family still living at home during the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. While work was extremely difficult for white men to find during this time, getting work was nearly impossible for a black man. Each morning Lizabeth's parents leave: her mother going to her domestic job and her father to look for work.

The children, after finishing a few odd chores in the shack they called home, have the freedom to run and play all day long. One of their favorite activities is to torment the elderly Miss Lottie, living on the poorest property of their neighborhood with her son John Burke who is mentally challenged or "queer-headed," as they describe him. He is capable of nothing more than rocking on a chair outside, unable to help his mother in any way.

One particular day after tormenting Miss Lottie as she worked outside caring for her beautiful garden of marigolds in a landscape of poverty and ever-present dust, Lizabeth returns home, eats dinner and falls asleep.

When she wakes she hears her father and mother talking. Her father is devastated that he cannot find work. In losing his ability to provide for his family, he has lost the sense of being a man, especially one able to provide for his family. While his wife tries to comfort him, he begins to sob. Lizabeth has never heard a man cry before and it leaves her angry and confused.

Lizabeth wakes her brother and they go out in the middle of the night. Joey is unaware of what has happened and is completely baffled when Lizabeth begins to rip up the beautiful marigolds growing next to Miss Lottie's old house. The flowers always seemed out of place, somehow, thriving under Miss Lottie's care while everything around them was falling apart.

They interfered with the perfect ugliness of the place...they did not make sense...

In the midst of Lizabeth's rage, which she does not understand, Miss Lottie comes outside. The youngster's coming of age takes place as she looks at Miss Lottie and sees her not through the eyes of an adolescent, but through the eyes of new awareness:

The witch was no longer a witch but only a broken old woman who had dared to create beauty in the midst of ugliness and sterility. She had been born in squalor and lived in it all her life.

Regardless of Lizabeth's "wild contrition," Miss Lottie never planted marigolds again. Lizabeth thinks of those flowers and that time of her life. She remembers how beautiful they were in the midst of the poverty that pinned them all to the earth so they could barely move. Miss Lottie's flowers allowed her to rise above her place in the world. Their destruction was the last blow to a heart already so beaten down. Certainly Lizabeth felt to blame, even as an adult. However, what she did not understand then came to her in growing up and facing the world, as Miss Lottie did—as all of us must.

Yet, there are times when the image of those passionate yellow mounds returns with a painful poignancy. For one does not have to be ignorant and poor to find that one's life is barren as the dusty yards of one's town. And I too have planted marigolds.

Identifying a theme is a subjective job—so much depends upon what message you receive from the author when reading his or her work. There can be a variety of messages: both those that the author intended and those that take on a life of their own, out of the control of the author's pen (or computer). These are things we see based on our own experiences.

There are a couple of themes I find every time I read this story. A verse of scripture from the Bible, in Genesis says, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (4:9) It means, am I responsible for my brother—or for my fellow man, or for others? In this case, I believe that Collier uses the character of Lizabeth to tell the reader, "Yes, you are." For certainly Lizabeth suffers from her vicious attack on the flowers, just as Miss Lottie suffers—perhaps not in the same way: but had Lizabeth been older and/or more mature, she would have recognized the hope Miss Lottie nurtured in the flowers that offered a promise of beauty in a world that had taken more from her than it had ever offered. 

In articulating this idea, I would say this theme is that we are all of us responsible not to crush the dreams or hopes of others, regardless of what we think about those people.

We could also look to the old saying that we can only truly understand another person when we have walked a mile in his shoes. 

Collier also writes:

Whatever verve there was left in her, whatever was of love and beauty and joy that had not been squeezed out by life, had been there in the marigolds she had so tenderly cared for.

To Miss Lottie, the flowers represented love, beauty and joy. The narrator notes at the story's end that life can be barren without living in squalor. Poverty can come to us emotionally as well. She notes that in those gray and colorless times in her life, she has figuratively planted marigolds by trying to create love, beauty and joy around her.

This, then, would be the last theme: When we feel lost, we need to stay hopeful and bring things into our lives that inspire hope, beauty and joy. This has nothing to do with things, but has everything to do with people we choose to invite into our lives, places that bring us joy and even movies we watch and books we read—for we can choose to defy life's moments of hardship or distress by planting marigolds around us.

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