Marigolds by Eugenia Collier Summary, Characters and Themes

“Marigolds” by Eugenia Collier is a short story about a young African American girl named Lizabeth growing up during the Great Depression. 

Lizabeth’s struggle with poverty and hopelessness leads her to a cruel act against an elderly woman, Miss Lottie, and her prized marigolds. This moment of destruction becomes a turning point. Lizabeth witnesses Miss Lottie’s pain and realizes her own capacity for cruelty. The experience triggers a shift from childish innocence to a painful awareness of the world’s harsh realities, marking her coming-of-age.


Fourteen-year-old Lizabeth is listless, trapped in her small, dust-choked town during a long summer. Bored and restless, she’s caught in the awkward stage between childhood and adulthood. 

The usual childish games with her younger brother Joey no longer hold their appeal. The stifling weight of poverty, amplified by the era’s struggles, hangs heavy in the air, fueling her discontent. 

Amidst the drabness, the one spot of defiant color is Miss Lottie’s marigold garden. Miss Lottie, a marginalized elderly woman with a disabled son, somehow finds the strength and will to nurture these vibrant, defiant flowers.

One day, spurred on by Joey and succumbing to a mix of frustration, boredom, and peer pressure, Lizabeth joins a group of children in a cruel act – taunting Miss Lottie and throwing stones at her precious flowers.

This act, seemingly done on a whim, sparks shame within Lizabeth, revealing the first stirrings of a burgeoning conscience.

That night, Lizabeth is jolted awake by her parents’ hushed voices. The strong man she sees as a protector, her father, breaks down in sobs over his inability to provide for his family. 

Their vulnerability shatters her childhood illusions of strength and safety. Overwhelmed by desperation and the realization that her world isn’t as secure as she’d believed, Lizabeth is propelled into a destructive rage.

Unable to explain her complex emotions, Lizabeth escapes into the night, dragging Joey with her. 

She races towards Miss Lottie’s marigold garden, and in an act of misdirected anger, destroys the flowers. Only upon seeing the ravaged flowers and Miss Lottie’s devastated gaze, does the full weight of her actions hit her. 

Seeing Miss Lottie’s deep pain, Lizabeth’s shame intensifies, but it’s also mixed with something new—an understanding of Miss Lottie, not as a witch-like figure the children mocked, but as a woman enduring hardship.

The story closes with Lizabeth’s adult reflection on the experience. She now understands the marigolds were symbolic of the hope and beauty Miss Lottie dared to create despite her life’s harshness. 

This moment of destructive clarity was the catalyst for Lizabeth’s journey into maturity. 

It marked the painful shedding of childish naivete and the reluctant acceptance of the world’s sometimes-bleak reality. Yet, even the adult Lizabeth finds solace in the idea that beauty and compassion, like marigolds blooming amidst desolation, can help one endure. 

It’s hinted that perhaps she, too, metaphorically plants her own ‘marigolds’ to find meaning and light in the face of life’s challenges.

Marigolds by Eugenia Collier Summary



Lizabeth is the heart of the story and a complex figure caught in the tumultuous transition from childhood to adulthood. She’s restless and dissatisfied in the face of her family’s poverty and the bleakness of her surroundings.

This inner conflict fuels her initial cruelty towards Miss Lottie; the act is both an outburst of pent-up anger against an unfair world and a confused expression of her budding maturity.

However, witnessing Miss Lottie’s pain and hearing her father’s despair shatters Lizabeth’s childish perspective. She’s forced to confront the harsher realities of life, grapple with her own capacity for cruelty, and develop a compassionate awareness crucial for entering adulthood.

Miss Lottie

Miss Lottie is a fascinating figure, as enigmatic as she is significant. She represents the community’s marginalized and overlooked members. Her dilapidated house reflects her difficult circumstances, yet she fiercely cultivates beauty in her marigold garden.

These flowers become not only her pride but a symbol of her steadfast spirit. For Lizabeth, Miss Lottie initially embodies something to be feared and mocked.

Yet, through the climax of the story, Lizabeth recognizes Miss Lottie’s humanity behind the facade of age and hardship. This recognition awakens Lizabeth’s empathy and forces her to mature.


Joey serves as a reflection of childhood. He’s less conflicted than Lizabeth, still fully immersed in childish diversions and unburdened by deeper understanding.

His participation in stoning Miss Lottie’s marigolds underscores Lizabeth’s shift away from carefree childhood and into a world of moral complexity. His bewilderment during her breakdown reflects their differing stages of development.

Lizabeth’s Father

While Lizabeth’s father’s physical presence is minimal, his emotional weight is powerful. A provider figure, he symbolizes security for Lizabeth.

His sobbing desperation shatters her perception of adult strength, triggering her destructive outburst against Miss Lottie. His brokenness forces Lizabeth to confront a world where those she relies on are vulnerable, propelling her towards true maturity.

Lizabeth’s Mother

Lizabeth’s mother, like her father, primarily functions symbolically. Her weariness emphasizes the economic hardships the family faces, highlighting the underlying social pressures that weigh upon Lizabeth.


The Loss of Innocence and the Transition to Adulthood

“Marigolds” masterfully portrays the painful transition from childhood to adulthood as a shedding of comforting illusions. 

Lizabeth, at fourteen, is on the cusp of this shift, her summer marked by restlessness and dissatisfaction. Initially, her destructive act against Miss Lottie’s marigolds stems from boredom and an unfocused rebellion against the oppressive atmosphere of poverty. 

However, witnessing her father’s despair shatters her naive assumption of safety and parental omnipotence. 

This revelation, coupled with the realization of the hurt she inflicted on Miss Lottie, strips away the protective veil of childhood. She begins to understand the complexities of life and recognizes her own capacity for cruelty.

The Destructive Power of Poverty

Economic hardship in “Marigolds” extends beyond financial deprivation. 

Poverty is represented by choking dust, drab buildings, and the hopelessness that seeps into every aspect of Lizabeth’s life. It restricts opportunities and crushes spirits, evident in her father’s breakdown and Miss Lottie’s seemingly futile clinging to beauty. 

This environment breeds a simmering anger and despair within Lizabeth that ultimately explodes in her attack on the marigolds. 

Her destructive act can be seen as a misdirected rebellion, a lashing out against the invisible force that stifles her and her community.

The Importance of Compassion and Beauty

The vibrant marigolds become a potent symbol of hope and resilience within a bleak environment. Miss Lottie’s care for them represents a refusal to surrender entirely to despair. 

While Lizabeth initially resents the flowers, the story’s climax sees her connect with Miss Lottie’s suffering for the first time. This moment marks a shift, as she recognizes shared humanity and a shared desire to fight against the crushing weight of hardship. 

This realization is the seed of compassion within Lizabeth. The adult narrator reflects on this, suggesting that even in times of struggle, beauty, both literal and metaphorical, offers a source of hope and a means to find purpose within the bleakness.

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