Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
AUTUMN - CHAPTER 3
Claudia remembers her childhood of poverty. She and her sister, Frieda, see Rosemary Villanucci, their next door neighbor, sitting in a 1939 Buick eating bread and butter. When Rosemary rolls the window down to tell the girls she cannot let them come in, they stare at her with feelings of envy mixed with hatred. When she gets out of the car, the girls beat her up. Rosemary has white skin and the blows make red marks on her. She tries to bargain with the girls to let her go by offering to let them pull her pants down. They say no in order to be able to refuse something she offers them.
When school starts, Claudia and Frieda get brown stockings and cod-liver oil. They hear tired-sounding adults around them talking about Zick’s Coal Company. They are taken to the railroad tracks where they fill bags with pieces of coal that has fallen off the train cars.
The girls return to their old, cold, green house. They have only one kerosene lamp in the house; all the other rooms are dark. Roaches and mice are a constant source of fear. The adults in their lives "do not talk to us--they give us directions." All of the common childhood mishaps, such as falling down and catching cold, are treated with contempt. They are treated with dreaded medicine Black Draught and castor oil.
Claudia becomes ill with a cold after hunting for coal at night. Her mother scolds her for not wearing a hat or scarf on her head. She calls her the biggest fool in town. She orders Frieda to re-stuff the rags in the windows of their room to keep out the cold. Claudia lies down. Her metal garters hurt her legs, but she leaves her stockings on to guard against the cold. The bed is very cold and she dares not move after heating a spot on the bed with her body temperature. After two hours of lying alone, her mother comes and roughly rubs Vicks salve on her chest. Claudia suffers under the rough treatment silently and stiffly. Her mother puts some of the salve into Claudia’s mouth. She wraps hot flannel around Claudia’s neck and chest and covers her with quilts to make Claudia sweat.
Claudia vomits later in the day. Her mother scolds her for making a mess on the blanket, complaining about not having time to wash it. Claudia only hears the drone of her mother’s voice complaining. She knows her mother is not talking to her, only to the vomit, but her mother calls the vomit by her name--Claudia. She wipes up the vomit and covers it with a towel. Claudia lies down again and notices the rags at the window have come loose and cold air is entering the room, but she dares not mention it to her mother. She is humiliated by her mother’s anger and she cries. She thinks her mother hates her for getting sick. She does not know her mother is really angry at the illness itself. She vows not to get sick again.
Frieda comes in and feels sorry for Claudia. She sings a song to her "When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls, someone thinks of me . . . " Claudia falls asleep and dreams about plums and walls and "someone."
Claudia pauses to wonder if her childhood was really as painful as she remembers it. She decides it was only mildly bad. Then she decides it was a "productive and fructifying pain." She remembers love also seeped in everywhere in the house. When the flannel came loose during the night and she coughed, she heard her mother come in and readjust the quilt, re-pin the flannel, and feel her forehead. Now, when she thinks of autumn, she thinks of "somebody with hands who does not want me to die."
She also remembers that Mr. Henry came in the autumn. They overheard their mother discussing the idea of renting a room to a roomer. Mr. Henry had been living with Miss Della Jones, but she had become too senile to keep a good house. The neighbor women discuss Della Jones’s bad luck. Her husband left her for another woman, Peggy, one of Old Slack Bessie’s girls. He was said to give as a reason for leaving that he was tired of Miss Della’s use of violet water as perfume. He wanted a woman to smell like a woman. After he left, Miss Della suffered several strokes and became senile.
The women add that all of Miss Della’s people were not very bright. They remember grinning Hattie, Della’s sister, who "wasn’t never right" and they remember Aunt Julia, who still "trots" up and down Sixteenth Street talking to herself. The County would not take her in on the grounds that she was not harming anyone. The women laugh about how scared she makes them when they come upon her early in the morning.
Claudia and Frieda are washing Mason jars. They do not listen to the words of the conversation; they only watch out for the voices.
The women hope no one will let them run around senile when they get old. One woman announces that Della’s sister is coming from North Carolina to look after her. Another woman speculates that this sister only wants to get Della’s house. The first woman scolds her for such an evil thought, but the second woman claims that Henry Washington said this sister has not seen Miss Della for fifteen years. The women say they always thought Henry would marry Miss Della. They discuss Henry’s marriage history. He has never been married. They wonder if he is picky. Someone says he is just sensible. She claims he is a steady worker with quiet ways. They ask Claudia’s mother how much money she is charging him. She answers, five dollars every two weeks. They agree this will help her a good deal.
Claudia thinks of their conversation as "a gently wicked dance sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires." The girls do not know the meaning of all their words, but they keep track of the "edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions."
Mr. Henry arrives at their house on Saturday night. He smells wonderful "like trees and lemon vanishing cream, and Nu Nile Hair Oil and flecks of Sen-Sen." Claudia remembers that she and her sister were never introduced to Mr. Henry, "merely pointed out," along with other household rooms and furnishings. They are surprised that he speaks to them. He calls them Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers. He plays a game with them, holding out a penny to give them and then making it disappear. Their mother and father look on amused.
Pecola Breedlove comes to stay with Claudia’s family for a few days of foster care. Claudia’s mother calls her a "case." The County has placed her there until her family is reunited. She sleeps with Claudia and Frieda. They hear their mother talking about that "old Dog Breedlove," Pecola’s father, who had burned up their house, beaten up his wife, and ended up "outdoors." Claudia knows that being "outdoors" was the worse thing that could happen in life. All excess was warned against with the potential result of ending up outdoors. If a mother put her son outdoors, the people always felt sorry for the son. Being put outdoors meant having no where to go.
The African American community lived "on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses and hang on, or to creep singly up into the major folds of the garment." They lead a "peripheral existence." The prospect of ending up outdoors bred in people a desire for property and ownership. Propertied African Americans spent all their time and money fixing up their property. Renting African Americans looked at the propertied yards and resolved to get a place of their own.
Cholly Breedlove was considered by the community to have put himself on a level with animals for putting his family outdoors. Mrs. Breedlove was temporarily staying with the woman for whom she worked. Sammy, Pecola’s brother, was staying with family.
Pecola came with nothing, no clothes or even underwear. Claudia and Frieda enjoy having her to play with. She answered either indifferently or affirmatively all the girls’ questions for what to do. Claudia watched her as she accepted a glass of milk and graham crackers from Frieda. Pecola admired the picture of Shirley Temple on the glass. She and Frieda discussed how cute Shirley Temple was. Claudia hated Shirley Temple and did so ever since she saw her in a movie dancing with Bojangles. For Claudia, Bojangles was her uncle, her daddy, her friend, and he should be dancing with her not the white girl.
Since Claudia is younger than Frieda and Pecola, she has not learned to like dolls. She began to hate white dolls one Christmas when she got a blue-eyed Baby Doll. She could tell the adults thought the doll was her fondest wish. She could not figure out what to do with the doll. She had no interest in acting like its mother. For her, motherhood was old age. She saw countless images in picture books of girls holding baby dolls. She was especially repulsed by raggedy Ann dolls.
She hated sleeping with the doll; its body was unyielding. She only wanted to dismember it in order to find out what was so dear about it, "the desirability that had escaped me." She saw all the adults around her agreeing that the blue-eyed, pale-skinned dolls were what every girl should want. Adults used dolls as a bribe to be good. She dismembered the doll and looked at its insides. Adults would scold her and tell her they had always wanted but never got a baby doll. She wished someone would have asked her what she wanted for Christmas. It would not have been to own something, but to feel something. She would have wanted to sit on a low stool just the size for her size in the warmth of Big Mamma’s kitchen and listen to Big Papa play his violin just for her. She would have engaged all her senses, the smell of lilacs, the taste of a peach, the sound of the music.