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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
AUTUMN - CHAPTER 3
Instead she got a tea party set made of acrid smelling tin plates and cups or she got new dresses for which she had to have a hurried bath before wearing. Aside from dismembering white baby dolls, she also wanted to do the same to white girls. She wanted to discover "what eluded her." She wanted to know what made Black women look admiringly at them but not at her. When she pinched them, though, she found out it was repulsive to see them cry out in pain. Disinterested violence "was so abhorrent to her that she found refuge in fabricated love. She realized it was a small step to Shirley Temple."
Claudia and Frieda hear their mother complaining about Pecola having drank three quarts of milk. They know she loves to use the Shirley Temple cup and drinks at every opportunity. All three girls listen painfully, fidgeting, while she complains. Claudia and Frieda hate to hear her complaints. "They were interminable, insulting." She never named anyone, but the complaints were painful to hear. She went on and on until she was finished and then she would start singing and sing for the rest of the day. During her "fussing soliloquy," she reveals that no one has checked on Pecola. Cholly has been out of jail for two days and has not come by to check on her. Neither has Mrs. Breedlove. When their mother gets to Henry Ford, the girls know it is time to sneak outside. They sit on the porch steps.
It is a lonesome Saturday. Saturdays are "lonesome, fussy, soapy days." Only Sundays are worse because they are so full of "‘don’ts’ and ‘set’cha self downs.’" If her mother was in a singing mood, Claudia liked these days. Her mother would sing the blues so longingly, Claudia found herself longing for those old days when no one had "a thin di-i-me to my name." Her mother’s blues left her "with the conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet." However, this Saturday her mother was fussing, and it felt like someone was throwing stones at Claudia’s head.
The girls on the porch try to think of something to do. Claudia suggests going up to Mr. Henry’s room and looking at his pornographic magazines. Frieda does not want to. Claudia suggests threading noodles for a half-blind woman, but Frieda thinks her eyes look like snot. Pecola does not have any ideas. Claudia suggests looking in the trash cans in the alley for things. Again her idea is put down. Then she suggests going to the Greek hotel and listening to the men curse. When Frieda says she already knows all their words, Claudia gives up and examines the white spots on her fingernails; they signify the total number of boyfriends she will have.
Suddenly Pecola makes an alarmed sound. Blood is running down her legs. Frieda tells her it is "ministratin’." She assures Pecola that she will not die, that she can now have a baby. She runs upstairs and sends Claudia for water. Claudia goes into the kitchen where her mother is still fussing and asks for a glass of water. Her mother complains about it and tries to make her stand there and drink it, but Claudia manages to get outside. Outside, she finds Pecola crying. Frieda arrives and scolds Claudia for getting such a small amount of water for the task of cleaning the blood off the porch. She tells Claudia to clean it while she takes Pecola around the side of the house. Claudia does not want to miss seeing what happens so she sloshes a little water on the blood and runs around to see Frieda helping Pecola out of her underwear. She throws them at Claudia and tells her to bury them. Frieda pins a cotton pad to Pecola’s dress.
When Claudia looks for something to bury the underwear with, she sees Rosemary hiding in the bushes watching. Rosemary yells for their mother, Mrs. MacTeer, telling her the girls are playing nasty. Their mother comes out yelling that she would rather raise pigs than nasty girls. She breaks off some twigs from a bush and grabs Frieda. She hits her several times. Claudia knows that Frieda is destroyed by whippings; they "wounded and insulted her." Their mother grabs for Pecola and the pin comes loose letting the pad fall. The girls manage to tell her they were helping Pecola because she had begun to bleed. She pulls the girls toward her with sorry eyes and tells them to stop crying. Mrs. MacTeer takes Pecola into the bathroom and runs a bath. Claudia asks Frieda if their mother is going to drown Pecola. Frieda calls her dumb. Claudia suggests going over and beating up Rosemary, but Frieda says they should leave her alone.
That night in bed, the girls treat Pecola with awe. Pecola asks if it is true she can have a baby now. She wants to know how and Frieda tells her somebody has to love her. Pecola is silent for a while and then asks how you get somebody to love you. Frieda had fallen asleep, and Claudia did not know.
Morrison here begins the structural principle of the novel--the seasons, beginning with autumn and ending with summer. Although other works of literature have used the seasons as markers of time, they usually begin in Spring, the time of beginnings. Beginning in Autumn, the time when plants go dormant, leaves begin to fall from trees, and the earth prepares for winter, strikes the reader as ominous. When we see the constrained lives of these children, we understand the reason for the ominous note.
In sharp contrast to the bright and happy green house of the Dick and Jane primer, Claudia and Frieda live in an old, cold green house, poorly insulated against the biting cold. Unlike Dick and Jane’s smiling parents, Claudia and Frieda’s father is mainly absent and their mother is too tired to be kind to her daughters. She blames Claudia for getting sick. There is some love in her mother’s constant rough treatment of the girls, but the dominant note is meanness and anger. They have absolutely no voice in their family. They only listen silently while their mother calls them names, mainly "stupid." Adults treat them as inconvenient pieces of furniture.
Morrison moves outward in this chapter from the specific family of Claudia and Frieda to the larger African-American community in their neighborhood. She does this with the clever technique of an overheard conversation among adult women with Claudia and Frieda’s as yet unnamed mother. These women talk about the character Miss Della, who has just lost a boarder, Mr. Henry, to Claudia’s mother.
Mr. Henry comes with several smells. He smells like vanishing cream and hair oil among other things, both of which are products for changing the physical features of African Americans. Vanishing cream was used with the purpose of lightening the color of the skin and hair oil was used along with straightening agents to make the hair straight. Mr. Henry, the dandy of the novel, is a victim of internalized racism.
The women commiserate with Miss Della, but also gossip about her family’s lack of intelligence and sanity. We get our first view of gender relations with Miss Della. Her husband seems to have left her for a prostitute for the flimsy reason that she smelled like perfume. The two ways to be a woman in this community are named--respectable women who go to church and sexually promiscuous women who do not. They seem to wage a fierce competition over who gets the men.
Pecola Breedlove is introduced in this chapter. She is a girl almost entirely without a voice and seemingly without a will of her own. She goes any way the other girls lead her. She voices no desires, but accepts what is given to her. She loves Shirley Temple to excess. She gets her period in this chapter, leading the reader to assume that what we heard in chapter 2--that Pecola became pregnant by her father--occurs later in time. Pecola has been abandoned in this chapter. While her brother was taken in by family, she was left to the county to place in the grudging care of Mrs. MacTeer.
Morrison delays naming Claudia’s mother until late in this chapter, when Rosemary calls her and tells her her daughters are playing nasty. She gives them no time for explanation before she applies vigorous and brutal corporal punishment. When she sees her mistake, she does not apologize.
The chapter ends poignantly with Pecola wondering how she will ever find someone to love her and not getting an answer. The reader is reminded of all the love poured forth for white children and for white dolls.