“Marigolds” by Eugenia W. Collier has been read by students for decades and is frequently anthologized. It’s the fictional memoir of an older woman looking back on a significant event from her teenage years.
It can be read in the preview of Breeder and Other Stories.
Summary of “Marigolds”
The narrator, Lizabeth, remembers an incident from her home town as a youth. Although there must have been other colors in town, she only remembers two—the color of the dust, which seemed to be everywhere and the golden yellow of Miss Lottie’s marigolds.
The memory of the flowers gives her nostalgia, and she also feels the emotional upheaval of an almost fifteen-year old. It was during the Depression, but that didn’t change anything for the black population in rural Maryland. They just worked hard and waited—maybe for a miracle.
With little media, the children aren’t really aware of their poverty. Everyone is hungry, poorly clothed and trapped.
After doing a few chores, Lizabeth and her younger brother, Joey, hang out in the neighborhood. Their mother goes to her domestic job, and their father looks for work. Lizabeth feels like something is changing in her. One summer day while loafing in her yard, Joey comes by with friends and invites her to go somewhere. They decide to go annoy Miss Lottie, which they enjoy doing.
Miss Lottie’s house is dilapidated, even for this neighborhood. She tends to her flowers while her mentally-challenged son, John Burke, sits in a rocking chair. The children sometimes egg him on and then run from him.
Miss Lottie has a big frame and looks very old. She keeps to herself, and doesn’t like anyone coming in her yard. She has a dazzling strip of yellow marigolds in front of her house. She works on them all summer, every summer. The children hate the marigolds; they don’t fit with everything else.
Joey tells everyone to gather rocks. Lizabeth leads the group to the bushes by the road in front of Miss Lottie’s. She’s bent over in her garden. The kids throw some rocks into her flowers. Miss Lottie is enraged and yells at them. All the kids throw rocks into the flowers. Miss Lottie calls to John Burke for help.
Caught up in the moment, Lizabeth runs out of the bushes straight for Miss Lottie. The children all follow, swarming around Miss Lottie, taunting her. John Burke snaps out of his stupor and jumps out of his chair. The children all run away and gather in Lizabeth’s yard. They’re enthusiastic about what they’ve done, but Lizabeth is ashamed.
At dinner, her father is silent, as he usually is, and her mother is still working, as she often does. Lizabeth sleeps restlessly and wakes up in the middle of the night. She hears her parents talking. Her father is upset about their poverty and that he’s being supported by his wife. Her mother tries to calm him down. He despairs and cries loudly.
Lizabeth has never heard a man cry before. Knowing her father is a strong man, she’s confused by his breakdown. Her parents’ roles have reversed, and she’s not sure what’s going on. She lies awake, then wakes up Joey at 4 A.M. She’s scared and wants company. She says she’s going out and Joey can come.
With Lizabeth leading the way, they run to Miss Lottie’s garden. Lizabeth feels like she’s lost her mind. She leaps into the flowers and starts pulling them up and trampling them. Joey cries and begs her to stop. Lizabeth sits in the ruined garden and cries.
When she opens her eyes, Miss Lottie is standing there. Lizabeth scrambles to her feet and stares. She sees Miss Lottie differently now and understands why she kept the marigolds. They both stand there awkwardly.
Many years later, Lizabeth is far away from her home town. Looking back, she realizes she lost her innocence and learned compassion. Miss Lottie never grew marigolds again. Lizabeth thinks of them sometimes and can’t help but be effected. She has also planted marigolds.
Theme: Coming of Age
Lizabeth clearly identifies this theme for us, saying “. . . I recall that devastating moment when I was suddenly more woman than child. . .”
Lizabeth also remembers from that summer “. . . a strange restlessness of body and of spirit, a feeling that something old and familiar was ending, and something unknown and therefore terrifying was beginning.” Lizabeth is primed for the change that is about to take place, one that will move her out of childhood into adulthood.
Before her epiphany, Lizabeth is “still child enough to scamper along with the group” and hide out in the bushes by Miss Lottie’s, and throws rock into the garden along with the other kids. She also takes part when the children torment John Burke. After her realization, she won’t be doing either of these things anymore.
One notable change in Lizabeth is how she views Miss Lottie. Before, she had a certain fear of her, almost viewing her as a witch. This is definitely a childish perception, as Miss Lottie is very old and not capable of doing much to the kids. After, Lizabeth sees her as “a broken old woman” with a “wrecked body.”
Related to this is how Lizabeth views the marigolds. Before, they were “. . . too beautiful; they said too much that we could not understand.” After, she understands they were “beauty in the midst of ugliness” and they were “love and beauty and joy.”
Lizabeth learns compassion from her destruction of the garden and Miss Lottie’s reaction. She knows not to take things at face value anymore, to look below the surface. She now sees Miss Lottie as an old woman who had a hard life, but who still has the capacity for joy. She’s no longer a witch who should be feared and harassed.
Lizabeth has adopted Miss Lottie’s attitude as her own. She has also planted marigolds as a bright spot in her life. (see next question)
1. What do we learn from Lizabeth’s final statement about the barrenness of life?
Lizabeth says, “For one does not have to be ignorant and poor to find that his life is barren as the dusty yards of our town.” Lizabeth doesn’t give us the details of her life since this incident, but it seems she has improved her station in life. This hasn’t made her happy, though.
Although “Marigolds” is the story of how a young, poor black girl feels, it’s relatable for all of us. Life can seem barren regardless of race, gender, educational level and wealth. Lizabeth has learned to focus on the bright spots in life, and we are being urged to do the same.
Lizabeth remembers her town as dusty and bleak. This is what makes Miss Lottie’s flowers stand out so much, and the obvious contrast is confusing.
The Depression didn’t change anything for the people. No one believes in the American Dream or predictions of prosperity. Lizabeth’s two baby siblings have been sent to live with relatives. Her mother works long days as a domestic servant. Her father is unemployed.
The neighborhood children are underfed and poorly clothed. They don’t understand the severity of their poverty, not knowing much about the rest of the world. Looking back, Lizabeth wonders “whether we were not more aware of it than I thought. Perhaps we had some dim notion of what we were, and how little chance we had of being anything else.” This might explain why they were so bent on destruction.
Of the four things Lizabeth lists as contributing to her act of destruction, three of them are due to poverty:
- her mother’s absence (because she has to work long hours outside the home)
- the hopelessness of their poverty, and
- the fear she feels over her father’s tears.
Her father can’t handle his failure to provide for his family, even though it’s out of his control. When he bursts out crying, Lizabeth’s world is “suddenly out of tune” and she has a feeling “of great bewilderment and fear.”
In the end, “poverty was the cage in which we were all trapped.”
(The fourth thing that contributed was being both a child and woman at once, looked at under Coming of Age, above.)
Lizabeth feels compassion for Miss Lottie after destroying her flowers. She never did before, nor for her son, John Burke.
It’s clear she won’t be hanging out with the group of kids anymore. She won’t be bothering Miss Lottie or her son. She can put herself in their places now.
Identity recurs as a theme as well. Lizabeth struggles with where she fits in, and makes a major stride toward becoming her adult self. Her parents’ roles have also become reversed, throwing their identities into confusion. The children also identify with their poverty, viewing it as a cage that they can’t get out of.
2. What do the marigolds symbolize?
They represent love, joy and hope. It’s fitting that Lizabeth destroys them when she has no hope, fills her time with harassing people, and is disconnected from her family.
In hindsight, they seem to represent joy more than anything, as Lizabeth grows them despite possibly still feeling that life is barren.