When Lizabeth recalls the town that she grew up in, the thing she remembers most is dust. Surely there must have been green lawns and leafy trees, but memory doesn’t always present things as they were. So, it’s brown, crumbly dust that stands out in her memory. That, and Miss Lottie’s sunny yellow marigolds.
The defining feature of the impoverished town where Lizabeth grew up is brown, crumbly dust. This feature reflects the destitution of the town—it’s so poor that there’s very little beauty or interruption to monotony. Miss Lottie’s dazzling yellow marigolds stand out as a beautiful streak of color amidst all the poverty and dust.
Whenever Lizabeth remembers Miss Lottie’s marigolds, all the chaotic emotions of adolescence come flooding back. She’s transported to a moment in Mrs. Lottie’s yard, back when she was fourteen, when she suddenly became more woman than child.
The marigolds are linked to a transitional moment in Lizabeth's life—a moment of coming of age. This paragraph foreshadows the end of the story, when Lizabeth transitions fully to adulthood.
Lizabeth grew up in a shantytown in Maryland during the Great Depression. As she remembers it, her town was characterized by a general feeling of waiting; not for prosperity that white folks assured them was “just around the corner,” nor for the success promised by the American Dream, because they knew better than to wait for those things. Instead, they waited for a miracle.
Though every community of people suffered during the Great Depression, the Black community had it especially bad. They faced the highest unemployment rate and the lowest wages. There were no government assistance programs, and prejudice still prevailed in the nation, so Black people often had no one to rely on but themselves. Thus, it’s no surprise that the people in this community knew better than to wait for success and instead spent time waiting on a miracle.
As a child, Lizabeth and her friends were only vaguely aware of the extent of their poverty—they didn’t have access to radios, newspapers, or magazines, so they couldn’t compare their community to any others. Poverty trapped them like a cage, but their hatred of it was vague and undirected, like an animal at a zoo.
Lizabeth and the other children are too poor to afford radios or newspapers, so they live in a state of ignorance regarding their financial status, since they don’t know that other people have it better than they do. But even though they don’t know that they’re less wealthy than other communities, they still vaguely feel the effects of their poverty. Poverty makes them feel trapped and desperate, but they can’t articulate that poverty is at the root of these feelings. This will be significant when Lizabeth destroys the marigolds out of rage but can’t articulate exactly why she’s mad.
In her childhood, Lizabeth lives with her parents and her younger brother, Joey. Her older siblings have already left home, and two of her younger siblings have been given away to relatives who can better afford to care for them. Lizabeth’s mother works as a domestic, and her father is unemployed. Still, he walks to town every day to try to find some work.
Poverty has torn apart Lizabeth’s family. Her older siblings have left to find work themselves, and two of her younger siblings were given up because the family couldn’t afford to care for them. It’s also revealed that Lizabeth’s mother supports their family while her father is unemployed, something that creates great tension later in the story.
During the summer Lizabeth and Joey spend most their days playing. They amuse themselves by doing things like drawing in the dirt or fishing for minnows with their bare hands. Lizabeth remembers feeling a strange restlessness during that time, almost like something old was ending and something new was beginning.
Lizabeth and Joey’s hobbies reflect the impoverished state of their family; they have no money for toys or fishing poles. Additionally, the narrator again characterizes this time in Lizabeth’s life as a moment of transition, even if she can’t say exactly what’s happening.
Lizabeth remembers the day that marked the end of her innocence. She is loafing under an oak tree when Joey and their friends ask her to find something for them to do. Joey suggests that they hunt locusts, but that’s not fun anymore. Instead, Lizabeth proposes that they go annoy Miss Lottie.
That the children find pleasure in annoying an old woman reveals their youthfulness. They could choose to amuse themselves in a myriad of ways, but they specifically target Miss Lottie without feeling concerned that this is cruel. The story depicts this more as naïve than depraved—a symptom of their innocence, as they’re not mature enough to empathize with Miss Lottie.
Bothering Miss Lottie is always fun, so the children scamper over to her house. Of all the ramshackle homes in their shantytown, Mrs. Lottie’s house is the most decrepit. Its rickety frame is like a house built from cards; a brisk wind might blow it over. There’s no porch or shutters, the wood is all rotting, and the lot has no grass—the house is a monument to decay.
Of all the residents in this impoverished shantytown, Miss Lottie is the poorest of all. Yet, as mentioned previously, the children have a difficult time grasping the implications of poverty. Thus, while they recognize the dilapidated state of Miss Lottie’s house, they view her without any sympathy or compassion.
John Burke, Miss Lottie’s son, sits on a rocking chair in front of the house. He is known as “queer-headed” and likes the chair because of the squeak-squawk sound it makes when it rocks. Usually John Burke is unaware of what happens around him, but if you intrude upon his fantasies he becomes enraged. The children have made a game of angering John Burke and then eluding his attacks.
That Miss Lottie cares for her mentally disabled son alone makes her life incredibly challenging. It would be challenging even if she wasn't poor, but her poverty only compounds her difficulties. The children, of course, understand none of this complexity. Instead, they make a game of annoying John Burke, cruelly aggravating a disabled man.
The real fun, however, is in annoying Miss Lottie. She’s at least one hundred years old. Miss Lottie was tall and powerful when she was young, but now she’s bent and drawn. Miss Lottie never left her yard, and nobody ever came to visit her. Some of the children used to think she was a witch, but they’re too old to believe in that now.
Miss Lottie cares for her son and home despite her age and deteriorating body. The children’s classification of her as a witch reveals their ignorance. They see an old, haggard woman living without a man in the woods, and they think of witches. It’s a callous assumption based on simple appearances, and it reveals their juvenile tendency towards fantasy and lack of empathy.
When the children see Miss Lottie, she’s bent over working on her marigolds. Her flowers are particularly dazzling because they’re surrounded by so much dust and decay. Miss Lottie nurtures her marigolds all summer, every summer, even while her house falls to ruin.
Marigolds are annuals, so Miss Lottie has to plant and nurture them every summer. She does this despite her poverty and the demands of her life. Her effort results in a symbol of beauty at the center of a destitute property in a destitute town, a sign that one can live a good life even under miserable circumstances.
The children hate the marigolds for their beauty—they interfere with the perfect ugliness of the town. The way Miss Lottie cares for the flowers, and destroys the weeds surrounding them, intimidates and upsets the children, though they can’t explain exactly why. The children decide to annoy the old woman by throwing stones at her flowers.
The children reside in a state of innocence, rendering them unable to articulate exactly why they hate the marigolds. Yet, it’s suggested that the flowers challenge their simplified worldview. All the children know of the world is their dusty, drab town—the flowers don’t fit in. They hint at the possibility of something better: a life full of beauty. But this life is inaccessible to them, so they choose to take their anger out on the flowers.
As the children begin to gather stones, Lizabeth hesitates. She’s torn between wanting to join in the fun and feeling that it all is a bit silly. Joey provokes her by asking if she’s scared. Lizabeth responds by spitting on the ground, a gesture of phony bravado, and says that she’ll show the children how its done.
Lizabeth’s moment of hesitation exposes her ambivalent position. An adult would condemn these actions, while a child would participate in them. Lizabeth is stuck between these options, but in this moment, she chooses to cling to her youth.
Lizabeth wonders if, as children, they were not more aware of their poverty than she previously claimed: if they didn’t recognize the cage that poverty trapped then in, then why were they so bent on destruction? Anyway, the children gather the stones and Lizabeth leads them towards Miss Lottie’s garden.
Though the children aren’t able to articulate the reasons behind their feelings, their inclination to destroy the marigolds indicates some level of awareness about the poverty that traps them. The effects of the Depression are felt by people everywhere, even children.
Lizabeth throws a stone and cuts the head off one of the marigolds. Miss Lottie yells, then Joey chucks a stone and beheads another marigold. Miss Lottie struggles to her feet, leaning on her rickety cane, and shouts at the children. More stones are thrown, and Miss Lottie cries for John Burke to come and help her.
By destroying the marigolds, the children are making their environment more simple: they’re removing the audacious reminder of the beauty that could fill their town, but doesn’t.
Mad with the power of inciting Miss Lottie’s rage, Lizabeth runs out of the bushes and chants “Old lady witch, fell in a ditch, picked up a penny and thought she was rich!” while dancing around the old woman. The other children join in too, but then John Burke runs out and chases them all off.
By identifying Miss Lottie as a witch, Lizabeth is attempting to reinforce her status as a child. She’s adhering to a simple understanding of the world, one where Miss Lottie is not a poor old woman, but a witch who lives in the forest.
Though the other kids are in a state of merriment after their fun, Lizabeth suddenly feels ashamed. She’s conflicted: the child in her says it was all in good fun, but the woman in her cringes at the thought of the malicious attack. She’s in a funny mood all day and hardly notices her father’s silence and mother’s absence during dinner that night.
Lizabeth teeters between childhood and womanhood. The children around her celebrate, but she feels shame—an indication that she’s beginning to think as an adult. She goes home, but her parents, who are also suffering from the effects of poverty, aren’t able to help Lizabeth through this transition.
Lizabeth wakes in the middle of the night and hears her parents talking through the thin walls that separate their rooms. Her father is ashamed that his wife is working and he isn’t, and he laments that “no man oughtta eat his woman’s food day in and day out, and see his children running wild.” Despite his daily efforts, he can’t find a job and doesn’t know what to do.
Just as Lizabeth begins to feel the first stirrings of shame, she goes home and finds that her father struggles with shame of a different origin. The Depression has left him without work, and despite his daily efforts he can’t find a job. He relies on his wife to provide for the family, which makes him feel emasculated.
Her father begins to sob, loudly and painfully. Lizabeth has never heard a man cry before—she didn’t know that men ever cried. She covers her ears with her hands, but she still hears her father sobbing. Her father is a strong man—he can whisk a child upon his shoulders, he can whittle toys from wood, and he can hunt. How could it be that he is crying?
Lizabeth’s image of her father as a strong, traditionally masculine man dissolves when she hears him cry. She believes in simple maxims: children cry, not men. The complexity of poverty’s effects on her family’s life is beginning to be revealed, and Lizabeth is having trouble processing it—after all, she’s still partially a child.
Finally, Lizabeth’s mother comforts her father by humming to him, as if he were a frightened child. Lizabeth is bewildered; her mother, who was small and soft, is now the strength of the family. Her father, who was the rock on which the family had been built, is sobbing like a child. The world had lost its boundary lines.
Lizabeth’s understanding of her family has been totally obliterated: her mother is the strong provider that her father used to be, and now her father is sobbing like a child. Lizabeth’s understanding of the world no longer matches the reality that she witnesses, and this is traumatic and confusing for her.
Lizabeth lies awake even after her parents have stopped talking and gone to sleep. She feels scared and lonely, so she decides to wake Joey. She can’t tell Joey how she really feels, so she says that she’s going out, knowing that the promise of an adventure will entice Joey to come along.
Lizabeth’s world is in chaos. She’s nearing the end of her transition to womanhood, something that makes her feel lonely. Often, when children are distressed and confused, they act out, which is what Lizabeth is about to do here.
Lizabeth runs as if the furies are after her, and Joey follows. She stops at Miss Lottie’s yard. Her emotions swell to a bursting point—she’s exasperated by her mother’s constant absence, crushed by the hopelessness of her poverty, bewildered by her changing body, and afraid of her father’s tears. She experiences an overwhelming impulse to destroy.
Just as the flowers incite the children to rage because they challenge their simple understanding of the town, Lizabeth is now enraged because her simple understanding of her family has been upended. Her world is no longer ordered and easily comprehendible, and she reacts with rage.
Lizabeth leaps into Miss Lottie’s garden and pulls furiously at the marigolds, destroying the perfect golden flowers. She’s sobbing and Joey begs her to stop, but she continues trampling and pulling the flowers until all of them are ruined.
This is the culmination of the destructive feelings that have manifested in the children as a result of their poverty. It is the last act of Lizabeth’s childhood.
Lizabeth stops sobbing, opens her swollen eyes, and sees the age-distorted body of Miss Lottie standing in front of her. There is no rage in her face, since her garden has already been destroyed and there is nothing left to protect. Lizabeth scrambles to her feet, and it’s at that moment when her childhood fades and her womanhood begins.
Now that all the flowers are ruined, both Miss Lottie and Lizabeth are bereft of their anger. Miss Lottie’s reaction is a clue to Lizabeth’s emotional state: Miss Lottie isn’t angry because the marigolds are already gone, so her anger only results from wanting to protect something. Lizabeth was angry out of a desire to protect something, too: her own innocence. But she couldn’t protect it, and now that her innocence is gone, she is no longer angry.
As Lizabeth gazes into Miss Lottie’s eyes, she sees a kind of reality that’s hidden from children. She sees that Miss Lottie is not a witch, but only a “broken old woman who had dared to create beauty in the midst of ugliness and sterility.” She had lived a life in squalor, and whatever joy was left in her had gone into those flowers that she had so lovingly cared for. And now those flowers lay in ruin.
Now that Lizabeth has completed her transition from child to woman, she’s able to see Miss Lottie in a new light. She no longer sees a witch; instead, she recognizes the difficult circumstances that Miss Lottie overcame in order to grow her flowers. Lizabeth’s understanding no longer relies simply on appearances—she’s incorporating empathy and broader complexity into her view of the world.
Standing before Miss Lottie, Lizabeth feels ashamed and cannot express her thoughts aloud. Looking back on this moment, Lizabeth recognizes it as the end of her innocence—for innocence involves an acceptance of things at face value, with no thought to the area below the surface. When she looked into Miss Lottie’s eyes she felt the beginning of compassion, and one cannot have both compassion and innocence.
Now that she’s able to comprehend the complexity of Miss Lottie’s circumstances, Lizabeth is also able to feel compassion. Children’s innocence—their simplified worldview—prevents them from feeling compassion. This emotion, like shame, is one reserved for adults.
Now, years later, Lizabeth lives far from the dust and squalor of her shantytown. She knows that Miss Lottie died long ago, and that she never planted marigolds again. Yet, Lizabeth still thinks about those marigolds every now and then—one doesn’t have to live in poverty to know that life can be as barren as a dusty road. And Lizabeth too has planted marigolds as an adult.
Lizabeth’s misguided rage destroyed Miss Lottie’s garden forever. As an adult Lizabeth comes to understand the value of planting marigolds, and she does so in her own garden. Rather than the destroying the things of beauty that give us hope, we should work to cultivate that beauty, to resist misery and plant hope amidst oppression.