An unnamed narrator describes a particular type of black woman. These women come from small southern towns surrounded by natural beauty, where people are gainfully employed. They are beautiful, clean, and sweet smelling. They soften their skin with Jergens lotion, and straighten their hair with Dixie Peach, parting it to one side. These women are educated at land grant colleges, and trained to work for white people. They are often sweet and moral on the outside, but internally they detest the "funkiness" of nature, passion, and human emotions.
Although these women are black, they go to great lengths to cultivate whiteness by softening their skin and straightening their hair. Because being black is associated with dirtiness and immorality, they keep obsessively clean homes and bodies. This denial of their black race, however, has immense negative effects in their lives as later shown.
These women are hyper-conservative when it comes to sex, referring to sex as "nookie" into adulthood. These women do not enjoy sex, and give their bodies to their husbands sparingly. To engage with them sexually, their husbands must "enter them surreptitiously," and during the act these women are more concerned with the curlers in her hair or the sounds their bodies make during sex than their own pleasure. Occasionally, these women will find a connection to another living being—a cat, for example—who will appreciate the effort she puts into the home. These women will spend time during the day with the cat, until their husbands, "the intruder", comes home expecting dinner. Even after having children, the cat remains the primary focus of her affections.
Their obsession with cleanliness prevents these women from developing healthy views about sex and engaging in satisfying relationships with themselves and their partners. Their relationships with their families are hindered by the denial of their race and obsessive cleanliness. When they do develop connections, it is with their cats, which are traditional understood as compulsively clean and emotionally distant animals.
Geraldine is one of these black women. She moved with her husband and her cat to Lorain, Ohio from a southern town. In Lorain, she gives birth to a son she names Louis Junior. Geraldine meets Junior's physical needs, but refuses to coddle him emotionally. She does not talk to him, allow him to cry, kiss, or coo him. As Junior grows up, he notices his mother directs her love toward her cat. He directs his hatred of his mother toward the cat, and is happy when he is able to watch it suffer.
The damaging effects of racial self-denial are demonstrated through Geraldine's relationship with her child. She meets his physical needs, and raises him in a beautiful home, but fails to respond to him emotionally, showing that external appearances do not always represent internal realities. These effects creates cycles of violence, as shown by Junior's sadistic pleasure in watching the cat suffer.
Junior lives next to the playground at Washington Irving School. He considers the playground his own, and the other children envy him for dominating it after school. He hates seeing the playground empty, so he tries to get children to stay after school to play. At first he longs to play king of the hill with black children. He wants to feel their bodies against him as they tumble down the hill, smell their blackness, and curse casually with them, but his mother calls them "niggers" and only allows Junior to play with "colored" children. Geraldine explains to Junior that there is a difference between colored people like himself and "niggers". Geraldine makes Junior wear clothing worn by white children, cuts his hair short to avoid any suggestion of wooly black hair, and puts lotion on his skin to keep it from becoming ashen as a way to distinguish him from other black children.
Geraldine teaches Junior that he is different than other black children. She distinguishes between colored people and "niggers" based on elements beyond skin color, such as dress and behavior that are also modeled on white behavior. Before being subjected to his mother's racial bigotry, Junior desires to play with black children (and to physically connect with people in a way his mother does not touch him), but that changes as he adopts his mother's racist views. Junior feels superior to other black children, but this feeling ultimately leads to loneliness and frustration. And he responds to those feelings by becoming even more hateful and superior, as that is all he has.
One day, Junior sees Pecola walking home through the playground. He has seen her before, always alone and walking with her head down. He thinks nobody plays with her because she is ugly. Junior asks Pecola if she wants to see the kittens he has at home. Pecola agrees and they walk to Junior's house.
Junior's racist views and perception of Pecola as ugly allows him to feel no regret about luring her into his house to harm her.
Once inside, the beauty of Junior's house amazes Pecola. Junior pulls her into another room, and throws his mother's cat at Pecola's face. Junior laughs after the cat scratches Pecola's face and chest. When Pecola tries to leave, Junior gets in the way, telling Pecola she is his prisoner. After he leaves and shuts Pecola in the room, the cat, which is black with blue-green eyes, begins rubbing itself against Pecola's ankles. When Junior stops hearing Pecola crying, he comes back into the room and sees Pecola petting the cat. In a fit of anger, he picks it up by the back legs and begins swinging it around his head. When Pecola tries to intervene, Junior lets go of the cat, which hits the window and slithers down onto the radiator before dying.
The physical beauty of the house contrasts the ugliness of what happens inside, again depicting the way physical appearances do not always reflect inward realities. Junior directs his hatred of his mother toward the cat and Pecola, exemplifying the way that hatred is often misdirected toward those who are weak or vulnerable, and is often directed by men and boys at girls. Pecola is symbolically connected to the cat, which has black fur but the blue eyes she's always desired. Through this connection, the violence committed against the cat mirrors and forebodes the racial violence committed against Pecola.
Immediately after the altercation, Geraldine arrives home and Junior accuses Pecola of killing the cat. Geraldine picks up the cat's body and pulls it toward her face, looking over its back at Pecola. As she stares, she notices Pecola's ragged clothing, and matted hair. She thinks about all of the things that separate children like Pecola from "colored children", how they sleep together, six to a bed with pee mixing together as they wet their bed, and take seats in church that belonged to "colored children". Eventually, she calls Pecola a "nasty little black bitch", and tells her to get out of her house.
Junior blaming Pecola for killing the cat speaks to a larger issue of racism—blame being placed on the hated other. As Geraldine looks at Pecola, she notices the markers that signify Pecola's blackness and ugliness, which separate her from Pecola. Her thoughts depict the false and absurd ideas that uphold racist ideologies, and her true racist nature shines through as she calls Pecola a "black bitch". She never even thinks of investigating her own son, of investigating the hatred that she herself has created (but does not recognize) in her son.