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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.