Fear and Hope in Marigolds

Fear and Hope in Marigolds

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Eugenia Collier’s “Marigolds” is a memoir of a colored girl living in the Great Depression. The story does not focus on the troubles society presents to the narrator (Elizabeth), but rather is focused on the conflict within her. Collier uses marigolds to show that the changes from childhood to adulthood cause fear in Elizabeth, which is the enemy of compassion and hope.
“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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Elizabeth’s attitude towards life creates the two other conflicts between fear and hope. Combining three conflicts adds a depth and richness to the story that could never have been achieved otherwise.
Finally, Collier uses Elizabeth’s identity as a black girl in the Great Depression to give each protagonist – symbolic or literal – a motivation. The child in Elizabeth fights against the woman because “the black workers in rural Maryland had always been depressed” (1) and childhood was “bright, dry times” (1). The identity of the main character gives her a sense that her future will be like her mother and father. The child in Elizabeth is not willing to face that yet. Her future is not bright because of her identity and that causes fear. Elizabeth’s pessimism causes her to enjoy the “perfect ugliness” (3) of poverty and hate the marigolds that “said too much that [she] could not understand” (3). In the main conflict of the story, Collier uses her identity to make her a dynamic character. Without fear at the beginning of the story, the character would be static. Elizabeth’s identity causes her character flaws. Her main one, fear, is defeated by compassion.
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.

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