In “The Taste of Watermelon,” the 16-year-old narrator comes of age, particularly by finding a way to belong to the world of men. At the beginning of the story, the narrator and his two friends are still boys. They’re interested in dating their neighbor, Willadean Wills, but they never talk to her because they are afraid of her father. And they are “still young enough” that they seek the security of belonging in a “bunch” of friends, rather than having the maturity to strike out after their individual desires on their own. But one night, after swimming with the boys at the creek, this changes. The narrator decides to defy his friends’ protests and steal a giant watermelon from Willadean’s father, Mr. Wills. The watermelon is both a stand-in for Willadean herself (whom he intends to impress by stealing the watermelon), and a way to differentiate himself from the boys and earn their respect as a man.
However, after successfully stealing the melon only to waste most of it, the narrator returns home to find out from a devastated Mr. Wills that the watermelon was supposed to cheer up the ailing Mrs. Wills, who had looked forward all summer to sharing it with the community. Rather than feeling like a man, the narrator feels foolish and ashamed. To make amends, he brings the watermelon seeds to Mr. Wills the next morning, apologizes for his crime, and makes a plan to work on the Wills farm the next year. After the conversation, the narrator looks up to see the smiling eyes of Willadean; what won her over wasn’t foolishly stealing the watermelon in an act of misguided bravado, but having the courage to apologize and return the seeds. The narrator’s coming of age moment is therefore not his rebellious stand against Mr. Wills, but his much braver act of finding compassion for the man he feared, owning up to his mistakes, and committing himself to the hard work of repairing the damage. In this way, the story suggests that true maturity and masculinity lie not in rash rebellion but in the more thoughtful qualities of honesty, compassion, and hard work.
Coming of Age and Masculinity ThemeTracker
Coming of Age and Masculinity Quotes in The Taste of Watermelon
She was my age, nearly as tall as I, and up to the year before, Freddy Gray told me, she had been good at playing Gully Keeper and Ante-Over. But she didn’t play such games this year. She was tall and slender, and Freddy Gray and J.D. and I had several discussions about the way she walked.
Mr. Wills was the best farmer in the community. My father said he could drive a stick into the ground and grow a tree out of it. But it wasn’t an easy thing with him. Mr. Wills fought the earth when he worked it. When he plowed his fields, you could hear him yelling for a mile. It was as though he dared the earth not to yield him its sustenance.
The moon floated up into the sky, making everything almost as bright as day, but at the same time softer and gentler than ever daylight could be. It was the kind of night when you felt you can do anything in the world, even boldly asking Willadean Wills for a date. On a night like that, you couldn’t help but feel that she’d gladly accept.
It surged up out of me – not the idea of making my name for years to come by such a deed, but the feeling that there was a rightness in defying the world and Mr. Wills.
Mixed up with it all there came into my mouth the taste of watermelon. I could taste the sweet red juices oozing over my tongue, I could feel the delicate threaded redness of the heart as I squeezed the juices out.
I met a terrapin taking a bite out of a small melon. Terrapins love watermelon, better than boys do. I touched him on the shell and whispered, “Hello, brother,” but he didn’t acknowledge my greeting. He just drew into his shell. I went on, wishing I was equipped like a terrapin for the job, outside as well as inside.
We gorged ourselves until we were heavy... We gazed with sated eyes at the leftover melon, still good meat peopled with a multitude of black seeds...
“There’s nothing we can do,” J.D. said. “I can just see us taking a piece of this melon home for the folks...”
We were depressed suddenly, it was such a waste, after all the struggle and the danger, that we could not eat every bite. I stood up, not looking at the two boys, not looking at the melon.
Mr. Wills was tearing up and down the melon patch, and I was puzzled by his actions. Then I saw; he was destroying every melon in the patch. He was breaking them open with his feet, silent now, concentrating on his frantic destruction. I was horrified by the awful sight, and my stomach moved sickly.
Watermelon raiding was a game, a ritual of defiance and rebellion by young males. I could remember my own father saying, “No melon tastes as sweet as a stolen melon,” and my mother laughing and agreeing.
But stealing this great seed melon from a man like Mr. Wills lay outside the safe magic of the tacit understanding between man and boy.
“I’m about as ashamed of myself last night as you are of yourself,” Mr. Wills said. He frowned at me with his heavy brows. “You ruined the half of it, and I ruined the other. We’re both to blame, boy. Both to blame.”
He broke the shell in his strong fingers and poured the white salt out into his palm.
“You see?” he said.
“Yes, Sir,” I said, taking a deep breath. “I see.”
I went on, then, and the next year started that very day.