The Narrator’s family has recently moved from town to a farming community. He has friends in the new place (Freddy Gray and J.D.), but he still feels like an outsider. This trio of boys are interested in Willadean, a girl their age who lives in the house next to the narrator. Willadean no longer plays children’s games, she is “tall and slender,” and she walks in a way that intrigues the boys. But they do not talk much to her because they are afraid of Willadean’s father, Mr. Wills, who is a big, terrifying man with fierce eyes.
Having just moved from a more urban location, the narrator does not feel that he belongs to the rural community yet. Clearly, he’s thinking about what it might take for him to belong. Additionally, the reference to Willadean’s changes in the past year alert the reader to the coming-of-age nature of the story. While Willadean appears mature, the narrator and his friends still act childishly, afraid to talk to Willadean because they are scared of her father. This shows that, as the story begins, they’re boys still, not yet men.
Mr. Wills is the best farmer in the community, but he does not make it look easy. He “[fights] the earth” when he farms, yelling loudly. He is especially good at growing watermelons, a tricky crop that some men struggle to grow. He is very protective of his watermelon patch, which he plants in between his barn and the creek, and he has no notion of sharing his melons with the boys of the neighborhood.
The narrator thinks that Mr. Wills is quick to anger and potentially even violent, as his farming style is very physical and antagonistic. The fact that he doesn’t share his watermelons immediately paints him as possessive and potentially even selfish, setting up his alienation from the community.
The rest of the farmers in the community expect to lose a certain portion of their watermelons to the regular pests: terrapins and neighborhood boys. It isn’t thought of as stealing for boys to “borrow a sample” of the crop, although if they are caught, the farmers might shoot them with salt pellets. You only break the rules of the game if you step on a lot of melons, destroying the farmer’s crop. But Mr. Wills “[doesn’t] think that way.”
The watermelon raids illustrate the neighborhood’s communal values. Rather than prioritizing individual farmers’ private property, the community finds more value in giving teenage boys a harmless outlet for their rebellion, which in turn benefits the whole community. At the same time, the farmers’ economic security is top priority: the boys can’t destroy the farmers’ crops in their raids. Showing these community norms points to Mr. Wills’s difference from everyone else: he’s perceived as more possessive and more violent, making him fearsome.
Mr. Wills is growing the biggest watermelon anyone has ever seen, right in the middle of his patch. Men travel miles to see it, although he won’t let them enter the patch. All the boys in the area daydream about stealing it, including the narrator, Freddy Gray, and J.D. But they don’t actually plan on doing it, not only because they are afraid of Mr. Wills’s anger, but also because Mr. Willis sits guarding the melon every night, looking out his hayloft window with his gun. He hopes to plant the seeds from the big watermelon next year so he can grow a field of giant watermelons. It seems like he “would rather you [steal] Willadean than his melon.”
Throughout the story, references to the giant watermelon parallel references to Willadean. Like Willadean, the watermelon is an object of male attention, with the men traveling miles to see it and the boys daydreaming about stealing it. And just as Mr. Wills’s anger prevents the boys from talking to Willadean, Mr. Wills also protects the watermelon from male attention. By joking that Mr. Wills would rather someone stole Willadean than the melon, the narrator suggests that Mr. Wills selfishly values his property over his family.
The narrator and his parents often watch Mr. Wills guarding his watermelon at night and gossip about it. His father thinks it is silly to guard it, because no one would think of stealing a man’s seed melon. His mother thinks Mr. Wills should be taking care of his wife instead of the melon. Mrs. Wills has been looking sick and pale all year, and she barely ever leaves the house. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Wills visits with anyone in the community.
The narrator’s parents also judge Mr. Wills for being selfish, as they assume that he is neglecting his ailing wife when protecting the watermelon from thieves. This gossip again illustrates the community’s morality: family should come before personal pride. The narrator’s parents therefore judge Mr. Wills as an outsider to these norms, an impression made stronger by the fact that the Wills family never visits with anyone else in the community. At the same time, the gossip reiterates the importance of respecting farmers’ crops and livelihood, as stealing Mr. Wills’s seed melon is an unthinkable crime because the theft would destroy Mr. Wills’s entire crop for the next year. Destroying an entire year’s crop is unacceptable because of the financial and emotional loss that such a theft would bring to the farmer and his family.
Around the time the watermelon should be ripe, there is a full moon, and the three boys decide to go swimming in the creek. The moon rises, illuminating everything in a light almost as bright as daylight but softer. The night makes the narrator feel like he could do anything. Freddy Gray says he would like to take Willadean out, and the others laugh at him but secretly agree: they are reaching an age where that kind of thing is starting to sound like fun. At that time, the narrator was both “part of the bunch” with J.D. and Freddy Gray, but also “left out of certain things.” In this case, he was left out because J.D. and Freddy were afraid that Willadean might like the narrator more than them because he was new to the area. They didn’t talk about that tension, but all three boys felt it.
In this passage, the full moon gives the boys a false confidence, as it enchants them with deceptively clear light. During the harsh light of day, they would be too afraid to ask Willadean out, but under the “soft” moon, they feel certain that Willadean would want to go out with them. Additionally, the passage again represents the narrator as an outsider to the group, since the two boys are afraid that Willadean will like him more than them because he is new to the area. By not talking about this tension, the boys show that they lack mature vulnerability in their relationship.
The narrator tells his friends that the night is so bright he could read a newspaper. Then they reach the swimming hole and race to jump in the water. Freddy Gray jumps first. The water is cold, and it “strikes a chill” into them, but they warm themselves up with a water fight. Finally, all tired out, they sit on the bank and look up at the moon.
The boys’ water fight again demonstrates their immaturity, recalling how the more mature Willadean has stopped playing games. Also, the fact that Freddy Gray jumps into the water first demonstrates his leadership in the group.
Freddy Gray says no one would dare steal Mr. Wills’s watermelon on a bright night like this, and J.D. says that on his walk tonight, he saw Mr. Wills guarding the melon anyway, with his “shotgun loaded with double-ought buckshot.” The narrator is astounded: double-ought buckshot “would kill a man.” But his friends assure him that it’s true, Freddy Gray heard it from his father, who heard it from Mr. Wills.
The community’s gossip about Mr. Wills further excludes him from moral norms, suggesting that he would commit murder in order to protect his watermelon. This rumor aligns with the narrator’s judgment of Mr. Wills as a cruel and angry man, so he chooses to believe it as truth, despite its dubious origins as gossip.
The thought of the buckshot in Mr. Wills’s gun bothers the narrator: who would kill someone over a watermelon? Freddy Gray wonders why the narrator is so angry, asking him half-jokingly if he was planning on stealing it. The narrator says that he actually was thinking of stealing it, surprising himself as much as his two friends. Even as an adult looking back on that night, the narrator doesn’t know why he said that. He remembers it coming from a mixture of origins—his desire for Willadean, his anger at Mr. Wills, and his feeling like an outsider with the two boys. He remembers feeling that “there was a rightness in defying the world and Mr. Wills.” Also, he could already taste the sweet juice of the watermelon in his mouth.
In this passage, Freddy Gray again acts as a leader of the group by challenging the narrator. In accepting the challenge, the narrator acts out of insecurity as an outsider: having moved recently, the narrator needs to prove that he belongs to his new community by engaging in the rural rite of passage of stealing a watermelon. But by choosing the biggest watermelon on the brightest night, the narrator shows that he not only wants belonging, but also admiration, both from his friends and from Willadean. He rationalizes this desire by villainizing Mr. Wills, insisting that he morally right to steal the melon. However, the expectation of the sweet watermelon in his mouth reveals that the narrator is really motivated by self-gratification.
The narrator tells his friends he intends to steal the watermelon that very night. They protest, telling him the moon is too bright and he will surely get caught. But the narrator insists on doing it despite his fear, because “it is too late to stop... Besides, [he doesn’t] want to.” The narrator leads the way to the edge of Mr. Wills’s watermelon patch, where they hide behind willow trees and watch Mr. Wills sitting in the barn, holding his gun under the moonlight.
Again, the narrator’s selfish desires and youthful bravado override a more rational assessment of the situation. Not only is the moon very bright, making the narrator visible, but Mr. Wills is also protecting the watermelon with a gun rumored to contain buckshot. The narrator may therefore be risking his own life by stealing it, and his reasons for doing so seem hazy and even suspect, as it seems like he’s trying to gain the admiration of his friends and Willadean by doing something selfish and even cruel.
The narrator enters the patch by crawling flat on his stomach, looking back once at his friends’ white faces watching from the willows. He sees a terrapin eating a small melon and wishes “he was equipped like a terrapin for the job, outside as well as inside.” At every move, the narrator expects Mr. Wills to see him, but the tall grass covers him. Finally, he reaches the enormous watermelon, which is even bigger than he imagined. He lies still for five minutes, wondering how he will carry the watermelon out and why he’s there in the first place. He decides that, more than “just bravado,” he is “proving something to [him]self—and to Mr. Wills and Willadean.”
By wishing that he was more like a terrapin (which is a type of turtle that is very good at stealing melons) “outside as well as inside,” the narrator is wishing for the turtle’s interior wisdom as well as his armored exterior. However, when he gets to the watermelon, he reveals that he lacks that wisdom. At this moment of reflection, he still cannot see that his attempt to “prove something” to himself, Mr. Wills, and Willadean is also an act of selfish bravado.
He considers just carving his name into the watermelon but decides he needs to actually take it. So he breaks the stem. Mr. Wills yawns. The narrator shoves the melon back through the path in the grass he made crawling into the field. The melon is so heavy he can barely push it, and the dust he is creating makes him want to sneeze. He expects to be shot at any moment. But he reaches the edge of the field, feeling a hundred years older, and collapses. After a quick rest, he climbs back under the willows. His friends grab him and start to celebrate the victory, but the narrator urges them to continue on, since Mr. Wills could still catch them.
The trial of wrestling the watermelon is so physically and emotionally challenging that the narrator feels much older when he reaches the edge of the field. While the narrator thought that proving himself by stealing the watermelon would make him a man, his true coming of age moment has yet to happen—stealing the watermelon was not, in fact, an act of maturity. But for now, the narrator’s actions have won his friends’ admiration, as they now defer to him for leadership in this adventure, rather than Freddy Gray.
The three boys carry the watermelon back to the swimming hole, almost dropping it three or four times because it’s so difficult to carry. At last, they reach the hole and put the melon down, panting. Excited, they decide to eat it before someone finds them with it. The narrator “penetrates” it with his pocket knife, which he thinks is more respectful than bashing it open with their fists, and the melon splits in half by itself. The narrator takes the first bite, closing his eyes as he enjoys the sweet, moist heart meat, still warm from the day’s sun. It tastes exactly as he imagined it would; it is the most delicious watermelon he has ever had. He “graciously” invites his two friends to “help [themselves]” to the melon.
This passage shows how the watermelon is a sexualized feminine symbol. The description of the narrator’s first bite of melon appears sexual, with the narrator’s knife “penetrating” the melon, and the melon seeming to act of its own volition, opening itself for the narrator, and offering its “warm” and “moist” meat. Additionally, this passage demonstrates how the adventure has placed the narrator in a new leadership role among his friends, as he eats the melon first and then offers it to them “graciously.” Finally, this passage reveals the narrator’s skewed sense of morality: he thinks that by stealing the melon, he has made the melon his. And by opening it with a knife, he believes he is being more respectful than breaking it, even though the underlying theft is the real source of disrespect.
After eating all they can, the boys haven’t even consumed half of the melon. Realizing that they can’t share the watermelon with anyone else, they become depressed at all the wasted melon. The narrator says that he has to go home, and he begins to stomp on the leftover melon, destroying it. Freddy and J.D. watch him until he throws a chunk of melon at them, and then they join in the destruction, laughing. Looking around at the strewn rinds and seeds, they all agree that they couldn’t have done anything else. But the depression follows them home, and they say goodnight to each other quietly. The narrator doesn’t feel proud anymore, even though he knows the adventure has brought him closer to his friends.
The friends’ depression comes from their knowledge that they broke communal norms and behaved cruelly. By stealing the melon, they hoarded it selfishly, instead of sharing it with the entire community. Their act of stomping the rest of the melon to erase the evidence of the crime recalls the one rule in watermelon raiding: never stomp on the crop. Although the narrator does not fully comprehend the consequences of his actions, he can tell that something is not right. The three friends are bonded in this experience of guilt, but that kind of belonging is not the kind of inclusion the narrator hoped for.
When he gets home, his father asks him where he has been, and the narrator tells him he was swimming. The narrator looks over at Mr. Wills’s barn and sees Mr. Wills in the field under the moonlight. He watches as Mr. Wills reaches the spot where the watermelon should be, and unable to find it, he lets out a “strangled cry” that “chilled [the narrator] deep down...like the cry of a wild animal.” Mr. Wills throws his shotgun away from him and begins running up and down the field. At first, the narrator can’t figure out what he’s doing, and then he realizes that Mr. Wills is destroying every melon in the patch. The narrator feels sick to his stomach.
The wasted watermelon depresses the narrator, but witnessing Mr. Wills’s devastation at the loss of the melon shocks the narrator to his core. In a community that prioritizes farmers’ crops, Mr. Wills’s destruction of his own crop illustrates how terrible the watermelon’s loss is to him. The narrator feels so guilty at seeing this animalistic grief that he is physically sick.
The narrator follows his father into the watermelon patch, passing Mrs. Wills and Willadean, who are huddled in the kitchen doorway. The narrator’s father asks Mr. Wills what is going on and Mr. Wills screams back, “they’ve stolen my seed melon.” The narrator’s father bravely grabs Mr. Wills with both arms, but Mr. Wills punches him and shoves him to the dirt. Mr. Wills then returns to his destruction, with his eyes full of fury. Attempting to stop Mr. Wills, the narrator’s father chases him, but each time he gets close, Mr. Wills bats him away. Finally, Mr. Wills stops in the spot where the big watermelon grew and looks around at the destroyed patch.
The narrator’s father models a mature masculinity in his care for his neighbor. The narrator notes how brave he is to try to stop Mr. Wills’s destructive rampage, despite the fact that he is smaller and weaker than the farmer. This masculinity is different than the narrator’s previous boyhood bravado in stealing the watermelon, when he acted bravely to cause destruction, rather than prevent it.
Mr. Wills tells them that he had been planning to give the watermelon to his wife, who has been sick since the spring. He planned on saving the seeds to plant the “greatest melon crop in the world” next year. Every day, his wife would ask him if the giant melon was ripe yet. The narrator looks at the two women standing in the doorway and runs home, straight to his bedroom. All that night, he can’t sleep and watches the moon fall until it disappears, bringing a “welcome darkness.” He feels the shame of having committed such a crime “out of pride,” without regard for its meaning. He has heard many men reminiscing about stealing watermelon in their youth, but stealing Mr. Wills’s seed melon is something different.
The neighborhood has judged Mr. Wills for being a selfish and cruel man, neglecting his family in favor of hoarding the watermelon for himself. However, this passage reveals the consequences of rushing to judgement prematurely, as Mr. Wills was guarding the watermelon not out of selfishness but out of devoted care for his wife. Additionally, the setting moon symbolizes the narrator’s humility as he finally realizes the pain his actions have brought to the entire Wills family. Finally, an irony of the narrator’s theft is that in trying to fit in to the farming community, the narrator proves himself to be an outsider still, since he committed the unthinkable crime of selfishly destroying a farmer’s crop “out of pride.” In destroying a farmer's livelihood, the narrator has violated the community’s moral code.
When daylight arrives, he walks towards the swimming hole, where the wasted watermelon greets him, reminding him of Mr. Wills’s destructive rampage last night. He collects all the watermelon seeds he can find in a paper bag, crawling around on the ground for the last ones. When he returns home, his father asks him if he was afraid of Mr. Wills last night, and the narrator responds by asking his father to come over to Mr. Wills’s house with him immediately. His father suddenly understands and asks the narrator if he stole the seed melon. But instead of responding, the narrator tells him, with a slight tremble in his voice, that he is afraid Mr. Wills will shoot him if he goes alone. The narrator’s father agrees quietly, and they walk together over to the Wills’ house.
This passage demonstrates the narrator’s new-found maturity. In collecting the watermelon seeds, the narrator demonstrates that he understands the gravity of having stolen Mr. Wills’s seed melon and he wants to try to repair the damage by bringing the seeds for the farmer’s future crop back. In doing what is right despite his crippling fear of Mr. Wills, the narrator finally acts bravely instead of acting out of bravado.
Willadean opens the door and fetches Mr. Wills, who appears in the doorway looking tired from the night. He asks absentmindedly what the narrator wants. Full of fear, the narrator holds out the bag of seeds, telling him that they are from the seed melon. Mr. Wills asks if he stole the melon, and the narrator confesses. Instead of grabbing his shotgun, like the narrator expects, Mr. Wills leans down towards the narrator with gleaming eyes and asks him why he stole it. The narrator responds that he doesn’t know, and Mr. Wills reveals that his wife had planned to invite the whole neighborhood over to eat the melon together. Even more deeply ashamed, the narrator apologizes. He finally looks at Willadean, who is standing behind her father, but he can’t see any emotion in her eyes.
The revelation that Mrs. Wills wanted to share the melon with the entire neighborhood again demonstrates the consequences of rushing to judgement. The narrator and his parents had not seen Mrs. Wills as a full person. They had pitied her as a victim of her illness and the supposed cruelty of her husband, but they had never thought of her as someone who wanted to be included in the community through friendship. By stealing the watermelon, the narrator took away Mrs. Wills’ hope for inclusion. Additionally, the narrator’s honest apology shows the extent of his new maturity, as he is able to own up to his mistakes and acknowledge the pain they caused. The fact that he does this while Willadean is watching, even though he deeply desires her approval, suggests that he has learned to value moral integrity over self-gratification.
Mr. Wills tells the narrator that he also feels ashamed of his actions last night, since they both ruined the melon crop together. The narrator can only respond with a thought he had in the early light of the morning: he offers to help Mr. Wills with next year’s melon crop. Mr. Wills looks at the narrator’s father and explains that he has no sons himself, and he needs a boy to help on the farm. Mr. Wills puts his hand on the narrator’s shoulder and says that even though they can’t do anything about this year, they’ll “grow next year together.”
Mr. Wills’s vulnerability in admitting fault demonstrates a different kind of masculinity than his previous displays of anger. It is this caring and vulnerable masculinity that allows the narrator to trust him enough to offer to work with him in the next year. In making that plan, the narrator is able to find the belonging he had craved in his new community: his hard work will replace his status as an outsider with a sense of belonging. The Wills family, too, will fulfill their desire for more connection with their neighbors through this agreement with the narrator’s family. Therefore, although the narrator’s mistakes still have consequences that can’t be repaired, he has been able to heal some of the pain he caused.
Agreeing, the narrator looks again at Willadean, whose eyes are now smiling, and feels his heart beat in his chest. He blurts out that they don’t need the seed melon to get people to visit them; he can sit on the porch with Willadean anytime. The two men laugh at this, and although Willadean blushes, she doesn’t look angry. The narrator starts to turn around to go home, but realizes he has one last question for Mr. Wills. “Was there double-ought buckshot in that gun?” Mr. Wills picks up the gun and takes out a shell. Breaking it with his fingers, he pours white salt into his hand. The narrator remembers how “the next year started that very day.”
The narrator demonstrates that he has learned how to treat women with respect. Previously, the narrator and his friends had objectified Willadean’s body, talking about her but not to her. In stealing the seed watermelon, a symbol of femininity, they had again disrespected the feminine. However, with his new maturity, the narrator understands that he must treat Willadean as a person, not an object. The two fathers’ laughter at his comment suggest that the community approves of this far more respectful and consensual romantic relationship. Additionally, Mr. Wills’s demonstration that his gun was filled with buckshot the whole time shows once again that, despite the gossip, he is a trustworthy man according to the community’s morals. With this reassurance, the narrator can commit to building an honest relationship with him.