Little Fires Everywhere

by

Celeste Ng

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Little Fires Everywhere: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The fire trucks have left, and “the shell of the Richardson house [is] steaming gently.” Mrs. Richardson pulls her bathrobe tight and looks around. Mr. Richardson is in conversation with the chief of the fire department as well as two policemen, and her children are “perched” atop the hood of Lexie’s car across the street. Mrs. Richardson knows that her husband is discussing Izzy’s absence with the police, probably giving them a description of her and asking them to help search for her. She wonders aloud how Izzy could have done this to their family. The fire chief asks where the Richardsons will be staying, and Mrs. Richardson answers that they will go to their rental house—“it was vacated,” she tells her family, “yesterday.”
The Richardsons’ lives have been completely overturned. The fire is the most concrete example of their inability to return to their previous lives and perceptions, and the destruction of any semblance of order. The tables have been completely turned—it is the Richardsons who are now forced to live a transient, orderless life (although they still have the resources and privilege to remain economically stable), and the rental house which once represented Mrs. Richardson’s inclinations toward altruism and the manipulation of people she perceived to be less fortunate is now the only place she and her family have to live.
Themes
Order vs. Disruption Theme Icon
Altruism and Manipulation Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Identity: Heritage, Assimilation, and Transience Theme Icon
Once the Richardsons park their many cars in the driveway leading up to the rental house, Mrs. Richardson is seized by the fear that perhaps Mia and Pearl haven’t left after all, or, worse, that Mia has desecrated the place in order to make a “statement.” She is relieved to find, though, that the apartment is in great shape, and empty except for a few pieces of furniture. Lexie remarks on how different the apartment looks, and all three of the Richardson children move through it, reminiscing on their times here with Pearl. Mrs. Richardson makes a plan, divvying up one bedroom for the adults, one bedroom for the boys, and the sleeping porch for the girls—she is “certain” that Izzy will be home “shortly.”
Mrs. Richardson, even among the literal ashes of her old life, is still attempting to assert a sense of order over the circumstances she now faces. Meanwhile, her children are lost in the memories that the house on Winslow holds for each of them, and the ways in which their time here with Pearl and Mia has shaped each of their identities over the course of the past year.
Themes
Order vs. Disruption Theme Icon
Identity: Heritage, Assimilation, and Transience Theme Icon
Lexie calls for her mother, and Mrs. Richardson joins her in the kitchen to find a large and thick manila envelope that Mrs. Richardson somehow knows has not been left behind by mistake. Her family gathers around her to see what is inside. In the envelope there is a series of photographs, one meant for each of the Richardsons. Each member of the family knows which is theirs instantly, and finds the portraits “unbearably intimate.”
By leaving behind the photographs for the Richardsons to discover, she has given them the gift—or the curse—of her point of view. Thus Mia really has the last word, reflecting the Richardsons back onto themselves through her art.
Themes
Order vs. Disruption Theme Icon
Altruism and Manipulation Theme Icon
Identity: Heritage, Assimilation, and Transience Theme Icon
Lexie’s photograph has been modified to feature part of the pink discharge slip from the abortion clinic. Trip’s photo features a hockey chest pad poked through with holes—small “curling leaves” have started to grow, “soft[ness] emerging from the hard shell.” Moody’s photo features origami birds made from the torn pages of Pearl’s notebook. Mr. Richardson’s features his metal collar stays, shirt accessories which define and support a dress shirt collar’s points, blurred by long exposure. Mrs. Richardson’s is “a paper cutout of a birdcage, shattered, as if something very powerful inside had burst free.” The cage is made of newsprint, and Mrs. Richardson is “sure” the text is from “one of her own articles.” Izzy has already removed her print, which featured a black rose made from boot leather. Mia has left the negatives behind, as shorthand for the fact that she did not keep and does not intend to sell the photographs.
Mia’s identity as an artist and an disruptor—as well as her intimate role as their housekeeper—has enabled her to see the Richardsons more clearly than they could ever see themselves. She has a deep knowledge of each of their identities, even if the Richardsons themselves are mired in the struggle to identify themselves and each other. She was able to see Lexie’s secret pain, Trip’s sensitivity, Moody’s rejection, Mr. Richardson’s role as a provider and supporter, Mrs. Richardson’s imprisonment within the “cage” of order and propriety, and Izzy’s softness beneath her difficult exterior. By assuring the Richardsons that she will not sell, or even retain, the photographs, Mia reveals her good will toward them even in the face of all they have done to her and to Pearl.
Themes
Order vs. Disruption Theme Icon
Altruism and Manipulation Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Identity: Heritage, Assimilation, and Transience Theme Icon
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Later that afternoon, Mr. Richardson checks his voicemail to find a message from the distraught McCulloughs, in which they tell him that May Ling disappeared in the night—while they slept peacefully as “they hadn’t for months,” May Ling was taken by Bebe, and the two have absconded to China. The police have told them there is “almost no chance” of tracking Bebe or May Ling down. A year later, the narrator says, the McCulloughs will apply to adopt another baby directly from China, where the chances of a parent trying to reestablish custody are almost zero, and Mrs. McCullough will “tr[y] not to think about Mirabelle” while she feels “dizzy with love for this [new] child she has yet to meet.”
Ng’s decision to award “custody” to Bebe in the end, leaving the McCulloughs distraught but not totally disheartened (and they have the resources to simply “try again”), speaks not necessarily to the whole novel’s decision on the issue of “what makes someone a mother” but to the ways in which order, altruism, and assimilation have failed the majority of its characters. Bebe regains control over her own circumstances in the end, though her methods are dubious and perhaps harmful.
Themes
Order vs. Disruption Theme Icon
Altruism and Manipulation Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Identity: Heritage, Assimilation, and Transience Theme Icon
The narrative flashes back to the previous night, when Pearl drops the keys to the duplex into the Richardsons’ mailbox. She then rejoins Mia in the car and wonders aloud whether those are the pictures that were “going to make [Mia] famous.” The narrator reveals that the Richardsons will never sell their photos; they will become “uneasy heirlooms” for future generations to find and wonder about. Mia puts the car in gear and begins driving toward the highway. Pearl wishes aloud that she’d had a chance to say goodbye to the Richardson children. The two of them lament “poor Izzy” being stuck in a place she wants to leave, and Pearl suggests going back for her. Mia tells her that “there are rules about that kind of thing.” Mia nonetheless “allow[s] herself a brief fantasy” of encountering Izzy on the road.
Pearl, as always, believes in her mother’s talent and capability, and she is concerned that Mia has just abandoned her own best shot at fame. Mia, meanwhile, is only focused on the road ahead, on getting out of Shaker Heights and resuming her and Pearl’s transient life. Pearl and Mia are shown to be believers that love makes a family, not biology, as they feel sadness over leaving Izzy behind and wish they could bring her along.
Themes
Order vs. Disruption Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Identity: Heritage, Assimilation, and Transience Theme Icon
At the same time as Mia and Pearl cross into Iowa, and the Richardsons gather at the duck pond near their burned house, Izzy, with “the smell of smoke still [in] her hair,” boards a greyhound bus for Pittsburgh. She has found the Wrights’ address in her mother’s files, and plans to track down Mia’s parents. She has another address, too—Anita Rees’s—and Izzy hopes that either Anita or the Wrights will help her find Mia. Even if she’s sent home, she vows to leave “again and again until she [is] old enough that no one c[an] send her back.” As she settles into her seat on the bus, she imagines a fantasy in which she finds Mia.
Izzy is unable to return to life as it was—too many “little fires” have disrupted her perception and changed her identity. Her actions argue that love and care, not biology, makes a family. Izzy’s determination to reunite with Mia, and to strike out on her own path no matter the consequences, mirror her mother’s worst fears about Mia’s “dangerous” influence—the idea that Izzy does not care what other people or society thinks of her.
Themes
Order vs. Disruption Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Identity: Heritage, Assimilation, and Transience Theme Icon
Mrs. Richardson tries to settle down for sleep, but is distracted by the duplex’s noises and the soundtrack of her own thoughts. She goes outside and sits on the front steps of the duplex in just her bathrobe. Though all day she has been angry with Izzy, now she is worried—Izzy has crossed a line, and “she might never [come] back.” A car drives by and Mrs. Richardson thinks she must look “crazy” to her neighbors, but “for once” she doesn’t care. She sobs, distraught, her heart “shatter[ing]“ as she thinks of Izzy alone in the world. She thinks of Mia’s portrait and wonders if she was the bird within it “trying to batter its way free,” or if she was the cage which held it. Mrs. Richardson tells herself that if the police can’t find Izzy, she will look herself “for as long as it [takes,] for forever if need be.” She has a fantasy of herself searching for Izzy and “searching for familiarity in the faces of strangers.”
Mrs. Richardson’s identity as a mother and her faith in the value of order have been broken. She vows to try and restore those things at any cost in a desperate, last-ditch effort to reassert her ability to wrangle a situation in her favor. Order and manipulation have backfired against Mrs. Richardson, but she still clings to them even as she mulls over what Mia’s photograph said about her obsession with rules and rigidity. Just as Mia and Izzy engage in their own fantasies in this chapter, Mrs. Richardson engages in one, too—yet hers, in a significant departure from her character, focuses on being plunged into the unknown and the unfamiliar.
Themes
Order vs. Disruption Theme Icon
Altruism and Manipulation Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Identity: Heritage, Assimilation, and Transience Theme Icon
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