An unnamed narrator tells about Mrs. Breedlove's childhood. Mrs. Breedlove grew up in Alabama in a house seven miles from the nearest road. She grows up as Pauline Williams, one of eleven children. At two years of age, Pauline impales her foot on a rusty nail, which leaves the foot disabled and causes it to flop around when she walks. She blames her life's misfortune on the disabled foot, believing her family ignores her because of it and blaming it for her general sense of separateness and unworthiness. Isolated from her family and the world, she takes pleasure in arranging things—jars, peach pits, sticks, stones, and pinecones. When people accidently scatter her rows, she is happy to reset them.
Pauline's self-perceived sense of ugliness begins with her disabled foot, which leads to a sense of separation form her family and feeling of worthlessness, showing the damaging effects of self-perceived ugliness. The rusty nail that penetrates her foot, leading to her deformity, can also be seen as symbolically foreshadowing Cholly's penetration of Pecola, which ultimately destroys her. Mrs. Breedlove's fondness for order as a child foretells her adult proclivity for cleanliness, which signifies her desire for whiteness.
Near the beginning of World War I, Pauline's family migrates north to Kentucky with a number of other families to find employment in the mines and mills. Pauline remembers the June bugs in the trees on the night her family left Alabama. That night was the last time she saw real June bugs. There were no real June bugs in Kentucky like there were in Alabama, and the people called them fireflies instead.
Pauline's family leaves their home in Alabama in search of better employment because of difficult economic circumstances. The lack of real June bugs and colloquial differences in the north make her feel far from home, further her sense of isolation.
In Kentucky, the family lives in a real town. After two of her brothers join the military, one sister dies, and two others get married, the house feels spacious and luxurious compared to the one they'd moved from in Alabama. Pauline begins to care for the house and two younger siblings, Chicken and Pie, after her mother gets a job serving a white minister. Just as she enjoyed arranging things as a young girl, she enjoys taking care of the house after her parents and siblings leave for work and school each day.
Pauline finds a sense of purpose in caring for the home and family, and is able to engage in her childhood passion for arranging things. Pauline takes on the role of a mature woman by caring for the house, although she is still an adolescent. Her mother's job serving a white minister shows that race and class standards exist in the North as they do in the South.
When she turns fifteen, Pauline loses her passion she once felt for her duties around the house. She becomes restless and begins fantasizing about men and love, which takes her focus away from her work. She grows melancholy, with the changing seasons. At church she experiences powerful fantasies. She tries to stay focused on the dangers of sinning, but the gospel songs cause her to dream about redemption, salvation, and rebirth, achieved without any effort on her part. In her fantasies, she is usually sitting by a riverbank, or gathering berries, when a Presence appears. The Presence has no face, voice, or form, but in it's presence her foot is healed and the Presence takes her away forever.
Pauline is changed by her desire for sexual intimacy, drawing her away from the housework she once enjoyed. Pauline's fantasizes about a figure, a god or a man, who will heal her disabled foot and allow her to escape her ugliness and worthlessness, indicates both her own innocence at the time but also the sense among women that their own identities and futures are entirely dependent on having a relationship with a man.
When a man finally arrives in her life, she is grateful, but not surprised. The man, later revealed to be Cholly, approaches Pauline on the hottest day of the year, with yellow eyes and flaring nostrils. He approaches her from behind, and begins tickling her disabled foot and kissing her leg. Pauline's first interaction with Cholly reminds her of colors she saw as a child. She remembers the purple stains left on her dress by mashed berries, her mother's yellow lemonade, and the green streaks of the June bugs.
Cholly is depicted in a threatening almost demonic way, but Pauline's fantasy of a man coming to redeem her allows her to fall for Cholly nonetheless. Cholly is drawn by Pauline's disabled foot, which signifies her weakness. This action foreshadows Cholly's tendency to prey on and oppress the weak (though this view will be complicated by the next chapter, which focuses on Cholly). Pauline associates Cholly's presence with colors that remind her of her home in the South. The image of mashed berries on her dress symbolically suggests Pauline's passage into womanhood, connecting to the blood on Pecola's dress during her first menstruation.
At first, Pauline and Cholly love each other. Cholly finds Pauline's simple country ways and naivety toward life in the city endearing. Instead of ignoring her disabled foot, he treats it as if it makes Pauline special. Pauline enjoys Cholly's liveliness and tendency toward laughter. After getting married, they decide to go further north to Loraine, Ohio.
Pauline's fantasies about a man saving her blind her to the fact that Cholly might not be the best man for her. His attention to her disability allows her to feel special, and like many women in the novel, her sense of worth becomes defined by the man in her life.
In Loraine, Pauline begins to miss "her people". She has never lived around so many white people. In the south, she did not come in contact with many white people, and the ones that she did encounter were hostile. She is surprised that the black people living in the north are different than in the south. They are just as mean as the white folks she encounters.
The nature of racism is different in the North. At home in the South, the communities were strongly segregated, and whites were overtly aggressive toward blacks. While awful, this has the effect of binding all the black people together in a kind of equal status and community. In the North, the whites and blacks are more integrated and racism is less overt and aggressive but still exists (as the novel has portrayed). As a result, outside pressure of white violence and aggression does not bind the black community together and blacks can begin to identify the differences among themselves (based on the standards of white culture that they have adopted) and racism develops among and between black 's themselves and black community, while freer, also becomes more cruel.
In her loneliness, Pauline becomes more dependent on Cholly. He begins to resent her for clinging to him, and spending more and more time out of the house with his friends. Pauline meets a few black women, but feels uncomfortable around them. These women are amused by her "country ways" and the fact that she doesn't straighten her hair or do her makeup correctly. Pauline begins to desire new clothes, as she believes a new wardrobe will help her fit in. When she and Cholly begin to fight over her asking for money, she begins taking jobs as a day worker. The extra income helps her buy new clothes, but Cholly gets angry with her for spending the money. Money becomes the focus of all their arguments, Cholly growing angry with Pauline for buying clothes, and Pauline with Cholly for spending his money on alcohol.
Cholly wants a woman for his own purposes; not someone who needs him all the time. Not someone who impinges on his own desire to do whatever he wants. Their relationship becomes even more strained once Pauline is introduced to the white standard of beauty. Her friends, who are already dedicated to the standard, make fun of her appearance, which causes Pauline to believe she would be accepted if she talked, dressed, and straightened her hair like them. Pauline strives for this unattainable white beauty standard by spending money on items that signify whiteness. Meanwhile, Cholly wants that money to use to escape his demons and sadness in another way: through alcohol.
Eventually, Pauline gets a steady job working for a white family. The woman she works for is mean and simple minded, and Pauline is astonished by the family's inability to get along with one another. She wonders why, with all the money and the beautiful house they own, they can't enjoy one another's company. She also struck by how dirty the family is as she cleans their house and clothing. One day Cholly goes to the house and demands money. Both Pauline and Cholly leave after the woman threatens to call the police. When Pauline attempts to get the job back, the woman tells her she will only take her back if she leaves Cholly. Pauline refuses, thinking it would be wrong for a black woman to leave a black man because a white woman demanded it. Pauline asks the woman for a loan so she can pay the gas man so she can cook. The woman refuses unless Pauline leaves Cholly. She explains that she is only thinking of Pauline's future, that Cholly is no good for Pauline because he doesn't take care of her. Pauline thinks that if the woman really cared about her future, she would lend her money to cook with, and refuses again.
The white family's unhappy home life shows that even though they fit the ideal on the outside, being white and rich, they are still unhappy. Pauline's view of whiteness as the ideal, however, is not changed by what she witnesses. The interaction between Pauline and the white woman captures a lot of the trickiness of racism and its complicated effects on communities. The white woman's sense that Pauline should leave Cholly is almost certainly correct. But the white woman does not make it as a suggestion; she demands it, and she links that demand to Pauline's own survival by refusing to giver he any money if she doesn't leave Cholly. The white woman is acting both patronizing and dictatorially, and Pauline has enough pride to not bow to such pressure. Had the white woman advised Pauline in the spirit of friendship, without demand and with generosity, the outcome might have been different. But, of course, the white woman's implied racism and sense of superiority would never allow her to even think of acting in such a way.
One winter, Pauline discovers she is pregnant. Cholly is delighted by the news and begins drinking less and coming home more often. After leaving her job, and spending her days in their two-room apartment, Pauline continues to be lonely and depressed. She begins going to the movies to pass the time. The movies she watches rekindle her adolescent dreams of love, but more importantly, introduce her to ideas of physical beauty. These ideas become dangerous as Pauline begins to equate physical beauty with virtue, and develops self-contempt because she doesn't fit the images of beauty on the movie screen. Her ideas of love also become distorted as she watches the fictional relationships in the movies. Finally, her desire to access the world of the white movie stars makes it difficult to go home to her apartment and Cholly.
Cholly's behavior changes when he realizes he is going to have a family, showing the redeeming nature of home and family. Pauline's pregnancy forces her to leave her job, making her dependent on Cholly once again, which makes her depressed. The movies heighten her obsession with whiteness as the ideal of beauty and romance. The beautiful white actresses contrast her physical appearance, leading to self-contempt; their fictional love lives distort her views and lead her to hate her own marriage; and their beautiful homes make her resent her little apartment. The white standards of beauty make her hate everything about her own life, and about herself.
One day at the movies, Pauline is watching Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. She has done her hair like Jean Harlow's, and imagines she looks like her. After biting into a piece of candy, her front tooth falls out. Things change for Pauline after losing her tooth. She no longer does her hair, and just accepts that she is ugly. Cholly pokes fun at Pauline's missing tooth, and they begin fighting the way they did before she'd found out she was pregnant.
Losing her tooth symbolically represents the loss of her dreams of attaining whiteness and her acceptance of ugliness. The (white) tooth leaves an empty dark space in its wake, which can be equated to the emptiness Pauline feels as a black woman. Pauline's acceptance of ugliness and Cholly's insults have a devastating effect on her relationship with Cholly.
Pauline gives birth to a baby boy, Samuel, but discovering the first baby did not fill the emptiness she feels, she gets pregnant again. She talks to the second baby in her womb, promising to love it no matter what it looks like. She decides to give birth to this baby in the hospital. While she is in labor, the doctor brings a group of medical students into Pauline's room. He tells the students that black women like Pauline have no trouble giving birth. He says they give birth right away without any pain, just like horses. The students don't acknowledge her while they examine her body.
Pauline's emptiness comes from her longing for whiteness, so the birth of her black child was unsuccessful in fulfilling her desire. Realizing this, she decides to think about her second child differently, although the force of her desire for whiteness leaves her unable to live up to this promise. The doctors' interaction with Pauline demonstrates the shocking dehumanizing effect of racism and specifically the damage such racism inflicts on black women.
When Pecola is born, Pauline is surprised because she doesn't look the way she had imagined her during the pregnancy as she talked to the baby her stomach. She is happy to have her newborn baby, but she knows Pecola is ugly.
Pauline's obsession with white beauty leads her to imagine the ideal child. This ideal, however, is unattainable, and distorts her views of her own child, allowing her to believe Pecola, her own newborn baby, is ugly. Pecola's conviction about her own ugliness now makes more sense—any baby brought up by a mother who thinks it is ugly is bound to come to that same conclusion about itself. So Pauline's sense of her own ugliness is passed on to Pecola—it's a vicious cycle.
Pauline finds a new sense of purpose in becoming a mother. She no longer has time for dreams and movies. She takes on the full responsibility as the family breadwinner and goes back to church. Pauline takes on the role of a martyr during this time. She enables Cholly's immoral activities, which allows her to feel morally superior, "[bearing] him like a crown of thorns, and her children like a cross."
Pauline's taking on the role of a family martyr who sacrifices herself for those she loves gives her a sense of purpose and a sense of superiority, which helps to maintain her, but with serious negative consequences, as she comes to see and treat both Cholly and her children as burdens she must bear, and neither Cholly nor her children will benefit from, or like, being treated that way.
Eventually, Pauline finds a steady job working for a wealthy white family. She enjoys the work, as it fulfills her childhood need to arrange things, her disabled foot doesn't make any sound on the carpets, and the cupboards are full of food. Most importantly, they give her the nickname she'd been denied as a child—Polly. She begins to care for the home's children as if they were her own, taking pleasure in bathing them in a tub with endless hot water and brushing their straight blond hair. During this time, however, she begins to neglect her own home and family, and becomes increasingly harsh with them, beating the desire to run away into her son, Samuel, and the fear of growing up into Pecola.
Working for the white family allows Pauline to finally feel like she is part of the world of white people. She is blind to the fact that her nickname marks her as pejorative or inferior. Instead, it makes her feel a part of the family. She especially enjoys taking care of the white children, paying close attention to the signifiers of their whiteness—their white skin and blond hair—but her devotion to the white family makes her resent her own home and family, showing the negative outcomes of a black woman striving to access the white world.
Pauline and Cholly's marriage grows increasingly worse. She continues using her Christian virtue to feel superior to him, and speaks badly about him to Pecola and Samuel. She describes the way they used to make love. In the early days of their relationship, he would come home and make love to her, during which she would feel deep affection for him. She would feel colors rising up in her. These sexual encounters gave Pauline a sense of power, youth, and beauty. Later in their relationship, however, Cholly comes home drunk and begins "thrashing away inside of [her]" before she even wakes up. She claims not to care because God will take care of her, but she misses the rainbow of colors she used to experience.
Unable to overpower Cholly physically, Pauline uses gossip and her Christian virtue to overpower him. Sex can be a redeeming factor in a woman's life, and for Pauline it once gave her a sense of beauty and a feeling of power in the relationship. The colors she used to experience during the act connect love making with a feeling of being at home in the South. But as her relationship with Cholly sours, sex becomes an oppressive force in Pauline's life. In her powerlessness she turns to God, but misses the sense of home she used to experience.