Claudia MacTeer, now a grown woman, tells us what happened a year before the fall when no marigolds bloomed. She was nine years old then, sick with a bad cold, and was being nursed through her illness by her mother, whose constant brooding and complaining concealed enormous folds of love and concern for her daughter.
That fall, the MacTeer family — Mrs. MacTeer and her daughters, Frieda and Claudia — stretches to include two new people: Mr. Henry, who moves in after his landlady, Della Jones, becomes incapacitated from a stroke, and Pecola Breedlove, whom the county places in their home after Pecola's father, Cholly, burns down the family house. Pecola's brother moves in with another family, and her mother stays with the white family whom she works for.
Claudia fondly remembers those few days that Pecola stayed with them because she and her sister, Frieda, didn't fight. Mrs. MacTeer fumes and rants, though, when Pecola begins drinking gallon after gallon of milk — simply because the little girl likes to gaze at the golden-haired, blue-eyed, dimple-faced Shirley Temple on the special drinking cup. Claudia also recalls the awe and bewilderment she felt when she witnessed the onset of Pecola's first menstrual period. The girls' reactions range from ignorance and terror as Pecola initially wonders if she is going to die, to Frieda's authoritative reassurances, and finally to Claudia's awe and reverence for the new and different Pecola. Ironically, Pecola is not concerned with her new physical ability to bear children, but with Frieda's assurance that she is now ready to find "somebody . . . to love you." The notion of someone loving her is overwhelming to Pecola; she has never felt loved by anyone.
Using similes and metaphors, Morrison introduces certain characters in this novel by relating them to elements of nature, plants, or animals. For example, black people with property are described as being like "frenzied, desperate birds" in their hunger to own something. Cholly Breedlove is metaphorically described as "an old dog, a snake, a ratty nigger" because he burns the family home and causes his family to be dependent on the kindness of others while he sits in jail. Mr. Henry arrives at the MacTeer home smelling like "trees and lemon vanishing cream." Significantly, Pecola is introduced with no comparisons, no color, no characteristics. She is alone, non-dominating, and devoid of possessions. With no demands of her own, she is easily absorbed into the lives of the other people in the MacTeer house.
As the black characters emerge in Claudia's memories, they are juxtaposed to the characters in the white, perfect world of Dick and Jane and their symbols — in particular, the cute and charming, dimpled face of Shirley Temple on the drinking cup, and the big, white, blue-eyed baby dolls that Claudia has received as presents.
Pecola is so hypnotized by the blue and white Shirley Temple mug, so mesmerized, in fact, that she drinks every ounce of milk in the MacTeer house in an effort to consume this hallmark of American beauty. In contrast, Claudia recalls how she herself reacted when she was given a beautiful white doll to play with, one that had bone-stiff arms, yellow hair, and a pink face. Black adults proclaimed these dolls as beautiful and withheld them from children until they were judged worthy enough to own one. Ironically, when Claudia is finally deemed worthy enough to own one, she dismembers and maims it. She hates it. To her, it is not a thing of beauty.
The Shirley Temple mug that Mrs. MacTeer brings into the house does not have the same mesmerizing effect upon Claudia and Frieda that it does on Pecola; therefore, when they have to stand up to the taunts of the light-skinned Maureen Peal, they can do so. Pecola, however, who has been called ugly so many times — even by her own family — cannot. She doesn't have the emotional stamina to defend or assert herself. Claudia rejects all attempts by others to force feelings of inferiority upon her, but Pecola, lacking the same self-confidence because of her unloving home life, is an easy target for demoralizing propaganda. As a result, she drinks three quarts of milk just to be able to use the Shirley Temple cup and gaze worshipfully at Shirley Temple's blue eyes.