Claudia MacTeer is now a grown woman, telling us about certain events that happened during the fall of 1941. She was only a child then, but she remembers that no marigolds bloomed that fall, and she and her friends thought it was probably because their friend and playmate, Pecola, was having her father’s baby. She tells us that Pecola’s father, Cholly Breedlove, is now dead, the baby is dead, and the innocence of the young girls also died that fall.
We then segue into a lengthy flashback, to Autumn 1940, a year before the fall when no marigolds bloomed. Claudia and her older sister, Frieda, have just started school. That autumn, the MacTeers accept Mr. Henry as a roomer because his rent money will help pay bills. The family soon has another roomer — Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl whom county officials place in the MacTeer home after Pecola’s father burns the family house down.
Pecola and the MacTeer girls share childhood adventures, and what Claudia remembers in particular is the startling onset of Pecola’s puberty when the eleven-year-old girl unexpectedly has her first menstrual period.
The second narrator offers us her memories about Pecola’s family. She describes the house where the Breedloves lived (before Cholly burned it down), and she points out the antagonistic relationship between Pecola’s parents. We see Pecola and her brother, Sammy, bracing themselves for the ordeal of listening to their mother quarreling violently with their drunken father, Cholly, as he tries to sleep off the effects of the previous night’s whiskey.
Against a backdrop of grinding poverty, with her parents locked in an ugly cycle of hostility and violence, Pecola seeks hope in her prayers for beauty, which she feels will lead to her being loved. Each night Pecola fervently prays for blue eyes, sky-blue eyes, thinking that if she looked different — pretty — perhaps everything would be better. Maybe everything would be beautiful.
Claudia’s narrative returns with Winter. She remembers the arrival of Maureen Peal, a new girl in school, whom Claudia calls “the disrupter.” Despite Maureen’s protruding dog-tooth and the fact that she was born with an extra finger on each hand (removed at birth), Maureen seems to embody everything perfect; she has long, beautiful hair, light skin, green eyes, and bright, clean, pretty clothes. She is enchanting and popular with both the black and white children.
Pecola is not popular. On the playground, Frieda rescues her from a vicious group of boys who are harassing her. Maureen moves quickly and stands beside Pecola, and the boys leave. Maureen then links arms with Pecola and buys her some ice cream. The world seems wonderful until Maureen begins to talk about Pecola’s father’s nakedness. Claudia and Frieda quarrel with her, and during the squabble, Claudia swings at Maureen but hits Pecola instead. Maureen runs across the street and screams back at the three girls, “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly . . .” Deeply hurt, Pecola curls her shoulders forward in misery.
The omniscient narrator now describes Geraldine, her son Junior, and her much-loved blue-eyed black cat. Neglected by his aloof and status-conscious mother, Junior wickedly lures an unsuspecting Pecola into his house under the pretense of showing her some kittens. Once inside, Junior hurls his mother’s big black cat in her face. Scratched and terrified, Pecola moves toward the door, but Junior blocks her way. She is momentarily distracted by the black cat rubbing against her. The blue eyes in the cat’s black face mesmerize her.
Junior grabs the cat and begins swinging it in circles. Trying to save the cat, Pecola grabs Junior, who falls and releases the cat, letting it fly full force against the window. Geraldine suddenly arrives home, and Junior immediately blames the cat’s death on Pecola.
Claudia’s narrative resumes with Spring, and she tells us about painful whippings and about her father beating Mr. Henry for touching Frieda’s tiny breasts. The sisters go to visit Pecola, who now lives in a drab downstairs apartment; the top floor is home to three prostitutes — Marie (“Miss Maginot Line”), China, and Poland.
The omniscient narrator then tells us about Pauline Breedlove’s early life, her marriage to Cholly, the births of Pecola and Sammy, and her job as a servant for a well-to-do white family.
Pauline’s story is followed by a recounting of Cholly’s traumatic childhood and adolescence. Abandoned by his mother and father, Cholly is raised by a beloved great aunt, Jimmy, who dies when Cholly is a teenager. During Cholly’s first sexual experience, he and the girl, Darlene, are discovered by two white men, who mock and humiliate them. Afterward, the pain of humiliation, coupled with the fear that Darlene might be pregnant, prompt Cholly to leave town and head toward Macon, where he hopes to locate his father, Samson Fuller. He finds a belligerent wreck of a man who wants nothing to do with his son. Cholly eventually shakes off the crushing encounter. One day while he is in Kentucky, he meets Pauline Williams, marries her, and fathers two children, Sammy and Pecola.
Years later, on a Saturday afternoon in spring, Cholly staggers home. In a drunken, confused state of love and lust, he rapes eleven-year-old Pecola and leaves her dazed and motionless on the kitchen floor.
The omniscient narrator continues, introducing the character of Elihue Micah Whitcomb, a self-proclaimed psychic and faith healer known as Soaphead Church. He is visited by what he calls a pitifully unattractive black girl of about twelve or so, with a protruding pot belly, who asks him for blue eyes. He tricks her into poisoning a sickly old dog, proclaiming the dog’s sudden death as a sign from God that her wish will be granted.
Claudia’s narrative returns with Summer, and she tells us that she and Frieda learned from gossip that Pecola was pregnant by her father. She remembers the mix of emotions she felt for Pecola — shame, embarrassment, and finally sorrow.
Alone and pregnant, Pecola talks to her only companion — a hallucination. She can no longer go to school, so she wraps herself in a cloak of madness that comforts her into believing that everyone is jealous of her miraculous, new blue eyes.
In this final section, Claudia says that she remembers seeing Pecola after the baby was born prematurely and died. Pecola’s brother, Sammy, left town, and Cholly died in a workhouse. Pauline is still doing housework for white folks, and she and Pecola live in a little brown house on the edge of town.