What drives a man to rape his own daughter? Of all the hard-luck stories we’ve encountered so far in this novel, nothing can equal Cholly’s story — especially his early years, when he was abandoned by his father before he was born, then wrapped in newspapers and thrown on a junk heap by his mother after he was born. Mentored by Blue Jack, an old drayman, and raised for a while by an old great aunt, Aunt Jimmy, Cholly was basically rootless for most of his life. After he and a young girl, Darlene, are caught having sex by a couple of derisive white men, Cholly strikes out on his own. Darlene may be pregnant, but Cholly isn’t anxious to assume the role of a responsible father, and, more important, he feels the need to find his own father. Ironically, he is willing to abandon the child that Darlene may be carrying in order to find the father who abandoned him.
When he is angrily rejected by Samson Fuller, fourteen-year-old Cholly’s resolve shatters, and he flees outside and soils himself with bowels that have needed to be relieved since he boarded the bus in Macon, Georgia.
After Cholly is metaphorically cleansed in a river, he takes charge of his life, feeling free to do whatever he wants — satisfy his lust with prostitutes, sleep in doorways, work thirty days on a chain gang, do odd jobs and leave them spontaneously, spend time in jail without resenting it, kill three white men, knock a woman in the head if he wants to, or be gentle if he chooses to be. For the first time in his life, Cholly feels free; in Morrison’s words, he feels “godlike.”
It is in this godlike frame of mind that Cholly meets Pauline Williams, marries her, and produces two children, Sammy and Pecola. However, without any understanding of how to raise children, having never known a healthy parent-child relationship or even enjoyed the basic security of parental affection, Cholly reacts to all family problems according to the mood he’s in, never considering the emotional needs of his wife or small children.
The tangled sequence surrounding Pecola’s rape exposes Cholly’s painful memories of his humiliating sexual experience with Darlene, the passion he felt for Pauline years ago, and the forbidden desire he has for Pecola — despite his initial repulsion for her small, ugly, humped body, bending over the dish pan as he approaches her. In his drunkenness, Cholly confuses his long-ago feelings for Pauline with his attraction to his emotionally fractured daughter, standing at the sink, one foot scratching her leg, the same way Pauline was doing the first time he saw her in Kentucky. Drunkenly, he equates his forced physical contact with Pecola as an act of love because she loves him so unconditionally and because he knows he doesn’t deserve her love. Afterward, he looks at Pecola and is filled with revulsion, the same feeling he felt for Darlene. However, before he leaves her, he covers her tenderly with a quilt, a meager gesture that in no way compensates for his violent transgression.