Elizabeth has suffered many heartaches. These heartaches, more than the joy in her life, have shaped who she is. First, she is taken from her loving father by her maternal aunt after Elizabeth's mother died. Then her lover — and the father of her unborn child — kills himself. The final calamity in Elizabeth's life is her marriage to Gabriel, an abusive and controlling husband and father.
Elizabeth's father was an open, loving man who cherished his daughter and delighted in her company. Elizabeth's view of her father may not have been the clearest view of him (he, for example, ran a house of prostitution); nevertheless, it is her perception of him that is important. With him, for example, she "pranced and postured like a very queen: and she was not afraid of anything." Elizabeth's aunt, who removed Elizabeth from her father's house, although she may have been justified in her actions, earned Elizabeth's undying hate for having done so. In addition, there is some evidence that the aunt was, at least occasionally, emotionally cruel to Elizabeth, castigating Elizabeth for her pride.
Elizabeth's relationship with Richard was also a loving relationship and one that resulted in her pregnancy. For Richard, Elizabeth acted as a sort of emotional buoy. Even though their marriage was somewhere in the indefinite future and Elizabeth was not comfortable with Richard's godless ways (he drank, for example), "She did not leave him, because, she was afraid of what might happen to him without her. She did not resist him, because he needed her." Still, in the end she was powerless to save him from false accusations and police brutality that brought about his suicide.
Her marriage to Gabriel was based on hope that quickly disintegrated. When he courted her, she saw him more as she wanted him to be than he really was. Elizabeth initially viewed Gabriel's strength — which later turned into domination — as salvation, thinking that he could redeem her and again make her a woman worthy of being a wife. Instead, Elizabeth finds herself with a physically and verbally abusive husband, someone more to be feared than loved. Her son John sees her now as a woman who never laughs and who has "dark hard lines running downward from her eyes, and the deep perpetual scowl in her forehead, and the down turned tightened mouth" — a far different description than the prancing girl who postured like a queen.
To her children, Elizabeth is a trusted and loving caregiver, but something of an enigma, especially to John. He understands that she speaks in a code that he does not understand; he also knows that her words have more meaning to her than they convey. Roy enjoys the arguments that he and his mother share over the breakfast table when his father is not home, but he does not understand why he can speak openly about his feelings with his mother but not with his father. That Elizabeth loves her children is obvious, but what is equally obvious is that, resigned to her life as she is, she is powerless to protect them.
The events that shape her character are significant not only in their own rite but also because they serve to illustrate how Elizabeth's separation from her father was an ongoing process, not just an immediate change in location, but a mental detachment and, finally, an ideological break as well. Her father had told her, "if one had to die, to go ahead and die, but never let oneself be beaten." But Elizabeth has been beaten — and beaten down.