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We learn that when Pauline (a.k.a. Mrs. Breedlove) was 2 years old and living in Alabama, she stepped on a nail, leaving her foot limp and crooked.
Pauline had 10 brothers and sisters, and she always felt that her physical deformity left her anonymous in the family.
Pauline always liked to arrange things – she was kind of compulsive.
Near the beginning of World War II (around 1939, if your history is fuzzy) Pauline's family moves to Kentucky to find work. One by one, Pauline's siblings leave to get married. Pauline stays home to take care of the house and her youngest siblings, Chicken and Pie.
As she gets older, she fantasizes about love, daydreaming about a man whose love would straighten her foot. She also loses herself in church music.
One day, while taking a rest from her work and leaning on a fence, she hears a man whistling. It's Cholly Breedlove. He approaches her and starts tickling her foot and kissing her leg. Instead of totally creeping her out, this makes her laugh.
Cholly and Pauline fall in love, get married, and decide to move to Ohio. Pauline feels lonely once they move. The white people are cold and unfriendly to her, and Northern blacks are, too. She starts to think that if she could buy nicer clothes, maybe the women in her neighborhood would like her more.
Pauline starts to ask Cholly for money to buy clothes. They begin fighting. Cholly begins drinking a lot.
Pauline takes a job as a housekeeper for a white woman. Cholly gets meaner and meaner. Pauline complains about how dirty and selfish the white family is.
One day, Cholly comes to Pauline's work, drunk, demanding money to drink. The woman she works for is frightened, and Pauline leaves her job. The woman says she won't pay her or give her her job back unless she leaves Cholly. Pauline refuses and loses her job, with no money to heat her stove.
One winter Pauline gets pregnant. Pauline and Cholly are happy about this and their relationship improves. Pauline starts watching movies and begins to learn about physical beauty. She fixes her hair like the white movie star Jean Harlow.
One day at the movies Pauline loses one of her teeth after eating hard candy. Cholly begins teasing her about the tooth and their cycle of fighting starts up again.
Pauline gives birth to Sammy, then Pecola. During Pecola's birth, the white doctor delivering her tells his medical students that African-American women don't feel any pain during childbirth; he compares them to horses.
Pauline returns to work. Her dreams of romance and love of movies are gone.
Pauline begins to attend church, fashioning herself into a good Christian woman. She begins to view Cholly as a sinful burden that she is forced to bear.
Pauline finds a permanent job with a white family, the Fishers. In the Fishers' large house, oozing with beauty and wealth, Pauline can clean and arrange things as she likes. She stops cleaning her own house.
Cholly tries to set the house on fire. Pauline remembers how they sometimes used to make love in the dark. Pauline stays with Cholly.