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“Marigolds” is about change. Collier chose a “fourteen-going-on-fifteen” (1) year old girl because the transition from childhood to adulthood adds layers of conflict to the story. The initially obvious conflict is that of the woman and child inside Elizabeth. She represents the child when she pulls up the marigolds: “The fresh smell of early morning and dew-soaked marigolds spurred me on as I went tearing and mangling and sobbing” (5). She (as the child) is struggling inwardly against being a woman. At the end of her rampage, she is “more woman than child” (1), and the child in her loses the battle. As a woman, she wins “a kind of reality which is hidden to childhood” (5). The second conflict is also symbolic. Elizabeth represents fear. She has the feeling that “ something old and familiar [is] ending and something unknown and therefore terrifying [is] beginning” (1). The marigolds represent hope. The reason for her “great impulse towards destruction” (4) was a combination of fear for the future and bitterness towards the past. In this conflict, fear wins because Miss Lottie “never [plants] marigolds again” (5). The third conflict is the most important. It takes place inside of Elizabeth and is also between fear and hope. At the end of the story, fear may win symbolically, but hope wins inside of Elizabeth: “In that humiliating moment I looked beyond myself and into the depths of another person. This was the beginning of compassion” (5).
Not only does Collier use age to create depth of conflict, but she also uses Elizabeth’s attitude. The first conflict (the transition from childhood to adulthood) could stand by itself. If Collier had created an optimistic character it would not have allowed Elizabeth to have a struggle between fear and hope. By creating a pessimistic character, Collier shows that she is bitter and fearful. That is evident in her statement that her “hatred of [poverty] was still the vague, undirected restlessness of a zoo bred flamingo who knows that nature created him to fly free” (1).
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Changes from childhood to adulthood are difficult, and familiar to most people. Collier has crafted a unique main character to strengthen the theme. Traits including age, attitude, and identity all affected Elizabeth’s purpose. Each of these traits adds a layer of depth, which was Collier’s purpose in creating her protagonist – to create a character whose circumstances would cultivate both fear and hope.