This is the first of the four main sections of the novel, and is set in the Autumn of 1940. The first part is told by Claudia. She begins with an incident involving the girls' neighbor, Rosemary, who is white. She is sitting in her car eating bread and butter, and rolls the window down just to let the other girls know they cannot come in her car. Claudia reacts angrily because she and her sister, Frieda, want the good food that Rosemary can afford to eat; but more than that, Claudia is angry because of Rosemary's superior attitude. She and Frieda plan to beat her up. They know, since they have obviously done this before, she will cry and ask if they want her to pull her pants down. Frieda and Claudia do not know why Rosemary says this, but they say no.
That fall, the MacTeers accept a boarder, a single man named Mr. Henry, who has been living with� an old woman who is no longer competent to take care of him. The girls overhear some of the talk about him before he arrives. It is said that he is a steady, quiet worker, and when he arrives Claudia and Frieda think he is wonderful because he talks to them in a friendly way and plays with them.
Soon after, a girl named Pecola Breedlove is placed in the MacTeer home by social services because Mr. Breedlove burned down their house. When Pecola arrives, Claudia and Frieda stop fighting each other and try to make Pecola feel at home.� Pecola loves drinking milk out of the blue and white Shirley Temple cup the girls bring her, but Claudia hates Shirley Temple. She also recalls how she hated the big, blue-eyed baby doll she was given for Christmas. She starts to hate little white girls, too.
One Saturday afternoon, Claudia and Frieda are bored and try to think up something interesting to do. Before they can decide anything, Pecola interrupts them with a little scream. They look at her and see she is bleeding between her legs. Pecola asks whether he is going to die, and Frieda tells her that all the blood means is that now she is able to have a baby. Pecola is menstruating for the first time. Claudia gets some water to wash the steps, while Frieda takes� Pecola to the side of the house where the bushes are thick. Frieda attaches a cotton pad to Pecola's dress. Rosemary, the neighbor, comes to watch. Claudia scratches Rosemary's nose, and Rosemary calls for the girls' mother and complains that the girls are playing "nasty." Mrs. MacTeer comes out the back door and whips Claudia with a switch across her legs, but when the girls explain what� is happening to Pecola, she softens and helps to clean Pecola up.
In the next short section, the second narrator describes in detail the apartment that the Breedloves move into when Cholly is released from jail. It used to be a store. There is nothing remarkable about the furnishings, which are all old. There are two sofas, a piano, and an artificial Christmas tree that has been there for two years. There are three beds, one for Pecola, another for Sammy, her older brother, and a double bed for Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove. There is also a coal stove.
The Breedloves live in the storefront because, as the narrator puts it, they are poor and black, and also because� they believe they are ugly. Their ugliness comes not so much from their actual physical appearance as from their belief that they are ugly.
The incident the narrator now relates took place on a Saturday morning in October. Cholly has come home drunk the previous evening. When Mrs. Breedlove gets up in the morning, she is angry with him and demands that he go outside and get some coal. Cholly refuses. It is clear that a physical fight between them is brewing. This is a frequent occurrence in their house, and is of course deeply painful to Pecola. Every time it happens she wishes she could die. Mrs. Breedlove throws a dishpan of cold water over Cholly. He tackles her and knocks her down. She hits him with the pan and he strikes her in the face. Sammy joins in and beats his father about the head with his fists. Mrs. Breedlove then hits her husband with a stove lid, knocking him out.
Pecola feels nauseous and begs God to allow her to disappear. She has come to believe that if her eyes were different she would be different and would not have to endure being ugly. Each night she prays for blue eyes.
She walks down to a grocery store to buy some candy. Mr. Yacobowski, the store owner, seems barely to see her. As with all white people, in Pecola's experience, there is "a vacuum edged with distaste" in his eyes when he looks in her direction. She points at some Mary Janes but has difficulty in communicating to Mr. Yacobowski what she wants. Eventually she succeeds in buying three Mary Janes.
On her way home she visits China, Poland and Miss Marie, the three prostitutes who live in the apartment above the Breedloves' apartment.� Pecola loves these women and often visits them and runs errands for them.� They talk in a friendly way to Pecola about the men Pecola calls their "boyfriends." In truth, the three prostitutes hate all men and enjoy cheating them out of their money whenever they get the opportunity. Pecola wonders what love is, and how people behave when they love each other. A picture comes into her mind of her parents making love, in which her father makes noises that sound as if he is in pain, and her mother is silent. Pecola thinks that maybe that is love.
This section conveys a lot more than it says on the surface. Using understatement, Morrison reveals the relationship between white and black children. The white children lord it over the black ones, pointing to the privileges they enjoy. The black children hate the white children because they have more, and their attitude is superior.
When Rosemary tries to appease Claudia and Frieda by asking them if they want her to pull her pants down, the reader knows what this detail signifies: Rosemary offers to do this because someone has asked her to do it before. This suggestion of sexual abuse is a stark contrast to the idealized picture of family life depicted in the prologue, and a foreshadowing of what will happen to Pecola.
This section conveys the helplessness with which these children of nine and ten years old experience the world. The adults do not talk to them but only give instructions. They speak roughly to the children, who regard them as unpredictable because their words cannot be fully understood. The children learn to read the adults' emotions by watching their body language and listening to the tone of their voices. They are additionally helpless because they are black girls growing up poor in a white-dominated� world. One of the great fears of black people is presented as a fear of homelessness, of ending up "outdoors." This is the worst thing that can happen, and of course, Cholly, who puts his entire family "outdoors" by burning down his own house, is despised because of it.
Claudia is fortunate in that at least her mother, for all her impatience and harsh words, loves her. Claudia is aware of the presence of love in their home, which she experiences as "love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup." This is a love that is denied to Pecola, who internalizes her parents' image of themselves as ugly, inferior and undeserving of love.�
This section also shows how the dominant white culture serves to undermine the black girls' belief in their own beauty and worth.� All the images of beauty they are presented with in popular culture are white. Shirley Temple looks at them from the side of a teacup, and the smiling faces on the Mary Janes candy Pecola buys are all white, with blond hair and blue eyes. No wonder Pecola develops� a longing for blue eyes. She is very young and cannot be expected to have the maturity to develop her own standards of beauty in a way that might include herself. This is shown quite clearly in the incident in which Pecola, on the way to the candy store, observes some dandelions. She thinks they look pretty, but she knows that adults refer to them as weeds and wonders why this should be so. After her humiliating experience in the candy store, in which the owner seems to look right through her, she regards the dandelions quite differently. "They are ugly," she says. "They are weeds." She is allowing her perceptions and her ideas to be shaped by cultural norms rather than what she herself thinks. She is too weak to rely on her own judgments, although as a poor and abused young girl she can hardly be blamed for that.