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When Cholly is four days old, his mom abandons him next to some train tracks. He is rescued by his great aunt Jimmy, who names him Charles Breedlove, after her brother.
Jimmy raises Cholly. One day, when Cholly is a preteen, he asks Jimmy about his father. She says he's gone off to Macon and that his name is Samson Fuller.
Cholly takes a job at Tyson's and works for an old man named Blue Jack. Blue Jack is kind to Cholly and regales him with stories about his life.
One day, when Cholly is a teenager, Miss Jimmy gets sick. Her friends ask M'Dear, a local folk doctor, to take care of her.
M'Dear diagnoses Miss Jimmy with a "cold in her womb." She tells Jimmy's friends to give her broth and nothing else.
Near death, Miss Jimmy contemplates her life. She realizes she has spent it working for white men who beat up black men, and loving black men who beat up black women.
After nibbling on some of Essie Foster's irresistible peach cobbler, Aunt Jimmy dies.
At the funeral, Cholly hangs out with his cousin Jake. Jake asks Cholly if he knows any girls. The pair approaches some girls and the group goes to a field near the house to pick grapes. The boys start throwing grapes at the girls and chasing them. Cholly chases a girl named Darlene until they run out of breath and fall on top of each other.
Cholly and Darlene start to make out and then to have sex. In the middle of things, two white men show up and laugh at Cholly, shining a flashlight on the young couple. The men demand that they keep having sex while they watch. Humiliated, Darlene covers her face with her hand. Cholly lifts up Darlene's underwear and pretends to have sex with her. The men watch and laugh. Convinced that being angry at white men would kill him, Cholly directs his anger at Darlene instead. The men hear the dog they are out looking for and leave Cholly and Darlene alone in the field. They dress in silence.
The next day, Cholly convinces himself that Darlene might be pregnant and that he should leave town to find his father. He takes some money Aunt Jimmy had hidden in the stove and walks toward Macon. He walks for a few months before buying a bus ticket.
In an alley in Macon (the novel never says how exactly Cholly wound up there) Cholly finds a group of men shooting craps. He asks for Samson Fuller and finds a short, mean man. Samson thinks Cholly is a creditor after child support. He curses him and tells him to leave. Cholly runs out to the street and, while trying not to cry, defecates on himself.
Cholly runs to the river to wash his clothes. He begins to sob over Aunt Jimmy's death.
After this incident, Cholly drifts from town to town and from woman to woman.
One day, he meets Pauline. Soon after he marries her he begins to feel trapped. When he has children, he doesn't know how to take care of them.
Back in the present, Cholly comes home drunk to find Pecola doing the dishes. He rapes her. She faints, and he covers her with a quilt. When Pecola wakes up, Pauline is standing over her.