Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1665
Old Woman Magoun and some other women planned a treat—two sucking pigs, and pies, and sweet cake—for a reward after the bridge should be finished. They even viewed leniently the increased consumption of ardent spirits.
"It seems queer to me," Old Woman Magoun said to Sally Jinks, "that men can't do nothin' without havin' to drink and chew to keep their sperits up. Lord! I've worked all my life and never done nuther."
"Men is different," said Sally Jinks.
"Yes, they be," assented Old Woman Magoun, with open contempt.
This quote comes near the beginning of the story. In this excerpt, Old Woman Magoun and Sally Jinks discuss their perspective of the men in their town, which is that they are unmotivated, lazy, and weak. The women believe that the men use alcohol and tobacco while working to stay motivated because the men do not have good attitudes towards usefulness and labor—they believe that the men in their town do not work hard (and are not motivated by the joy that they are contributing to society or making life easier on their women).
Symbolically, the men do not want to work to make the life-paths of women easier. Rather, the men are represented as so self-interested that they must be bribed by women with treats ("pigs, and pies, and sweet cake") to build the necessary bridge. This is an important quote because it sets up the tension between men and women in the story, which lends to developing themes of sexism throughout; women are disempowered, and must stoop to manipulation, trickery, and secretiveness when pitted against men. The primary external conflict of the story between Magoun and Nelson Barry is influenced by the sexism established here, especially as it paints the men of the town as altogether unreliable (and almost against) any sensible purposes of women.
But Old Woman Magoun had within her a mighty sense of reliance upon herself as being on the right track in the midst of a maze of evil, which gave her courage.
This quote—which comes in the context of discussing Nelson Barry as a wicked man—is an important one because it gives insight into how Magoun sees the world. Old Woman Magoun takes Lily's life into her own hands later in the story, determining that it is better for the girl to die than to be with her biological father. Her actions may be hard for readers to understand: If she wants to protect Lily, how could she let her die? This quote helps explain her motives, showing that Magoun is used to operating based upon her own sense of right and wrong, and any external views of right and wrong established in general by society are not relevant, as she believes that society is, on the whole, evil.
Magoun sees the exterior world as a metaphorical "maze of evil" and herself as the rare, self-reliant hero navigating through it. Mazes are full of obstacles, false paths, dark shadows, and so on. With this warped perception of the world—and of herself as responsible for guiding Lily through it—it is no wonder that Magoun, when trapped, feels she has no choice but to let Lily die rather than surrender her to the maze.
She had been filled with one of the innocent reveries of childhood. Lily had in her the making of an artist or a poet. Her prolonged childhood went to prove it, and also her retrospective eyes, as clear and blue as blue light itself, which seemed to see past all that she looked upon.
This quote gives insight on Lily as a childlike character. Her "clear and blue" eyes symbolize that she sees the world untainted—many dolls have clear blue eyes because babies' eye color starts out blue before pigmentation sets in. Lily has not matured enough to let her individuality set in, which, to Old Woman Magoun, would be something akin to sin. Magoun wants to control Lily, keeping her innocent as a child forever.
Lily is also set up here as being very naïve and gullible because she does not really look at reality but looks "past" everything instead of at it. Again, like a baby that looks at the world and does not really comprehend what they see, Lily can look upon a corrupt, dangerous reality and not see with anything but wonder because she has not experienced corruption (and also because she is used to filtering her reality through Old Woman Magoun).
Lily may also be a bit of an idealist at heart, as the quote states directly that she would likely grow into an "artist or a poet." The quote implies that, if Lily had survived, she may have grown into someone stronger than her grandmother: someone able to make something beautiful of anything, no matter how dark. Artists, by profession, take the subject matter of an imperfect world and, with aesthetics and vision, make it more beautiful.
"How old are you, my dear?"
"Fourteen," replied Lily.
The man looked at her with surprise. "As old as that?"
Lily suddenly shrank from the man. She could not have told why. She pulled her little hand from his, and he let it go with no remonstrance. She clasped both her arms around her rag doll, in order that her hand should not be free for him to grasp again.
In this excerpt, Jim Willis's comment shows the reader that Lily's maturation has been stunted beyond what was typically expected in her era. His surprise at her age seems to awaken within Lily the realization of how she is perceived by others: specifically, how she is perceived by men. By holding his hand and being walked into town, Lily is startled to realize that she could be sexualized. The quote shows that people perceive Lily as too childlike and assume that she should act more like a woman.
When she clasps her rag doll so that "her hand should not be free for him to grasp again," it is a symbolic act wherein she is choosing to hold onto her innocence and imagination awhile longer. Lily is not ready to "hold hands" with societal expectations by having a physical relationship or to be figuratively led around by any man. While people did marry younger at the time this story was written, this quote still reflects themes of pedophilia (present throughout the story, as Willy is attracted to Sally, who still looks, feels, and acts like a child).
Lily started and looked at her, as if to make sure that it was her grandmother who spoke. Then she sat down on a stone which was comparatively free of the vines. . . . She began idly picking at the blackberry-vines; there were no berries on them; then she put her little fingers on the berries of the deadly nightshade. "These look like nice berries," she said.
Old Woman Magoun, standing stiff and straight in the road, said nothing.
"They look good to eat," said Lily.
Old Woman Magoun still said nothing, but she looked up into the ineffable blue of the sky, over which spread at intervals great white clouds shaped like wings.
This quote is at the climax of the story, where Old Woman Magoun indirectly murders Lily by not telling her that the nightshade berries are deadly. Description tells that the clouds are shaped like wings. Magoun here assumes that heaven has orchestrated Lily's death as an act of mercy since she was not transferred to her care, which was Lily's last opportunity to escape the control of Nelson Barry. Magoun probably sees the clouds shaped like angels because it is her belief that Providence is watching over the scene.
It is also notable that, at this point, Lily is seated on a bare stone—like a Biblical altar—one that innocent animals would have been slaughtered upon in an act of worship or atonement. With Lily staged upon this altar with angel clouds above, it does almost seem like Providence set Lily up to make the fatal error here; ultimately, however, it was Magoun's choice to stop there, and it was also her choice not to tell Lily that the nightshade berries were dangerous.
"And all the dolls are alive," said Old Woman Magoun. "Dolls like yours can run, and talk, and love you back again."
Lily had her poor old rag doll in bed with her, clasped close to her agonized little heart.
In this quote, Old Woman Magoun is watching Lily die and tries comforting her with images of a happy afterlife to distract her from her physical agony. The dolls are mentioned once again because they represent innocence and childlike imagination. Magoun is saying that Lily will be able to hold on to her innocent perspective forever because she will not live long enough to see the corruption of reality.
In the quote, Magoun depicts innocent, reciprocal relationships between Lily and her dolls. She says the dolls will be alive; Lily's childlike imagination will never die, and so she will always be able to fantasize that they are real (the way that children do).
Magoun also says that dolls will "love" Lily back; Lily will be able to have the kind of reciprocal, innocent love relationship with her dolls in heaven that she would be unable to have on earth—both with her biological father and with Old Woman Magoun. Nelson Barry would have given her to Willie Jenkins over a game of cards, which shows how little he cares for his child; he also demonstrated a repulsive physical admiration for his daughter when he kissed her while drunk. And Old Woman Magoun, rather than continuing to care for Lily the best she can—even from a distance—decides to force Lily into her afterlife. Magoun says that Lily is like an uncared for doll; but in heaven, she says, Lily will have and be able to give the innocent care she deserves.