Claudia and Frieda MacT eer live in Lorain, Ohio with their parents. Their lives are hard, but their parents provide a stern and loving household. To make money, their parents take in a boarder, Henry Washington. Soon after, another young girl, named Pecola, comes to live with the MacTeers after her father, Cholly, burned down her house. The three girls become friends. Pecola loves milk and Shirley Temple; it quickly becomes clear that she believes that all things Caucasian are beautiful.

It also becomes clear that Pecola considers herself ugly because she has such strong African features. She does not believe she can be loved. Pecola eventually moves back in with her family. Life there is not pleasant. Her father is an alcoholic, her mother is distant, and the two of them often fight. Pecola's older brother, Samuel, often runs away from home.

Pecola also runs away but into her own fantasies: she dreams of having the bluest eyes in the world. Pecola's life away from her family is no better. She is often picked on and called ugly by those around her. Claudia and Frieda realize that the entire neighborhood agrees with Pecola that Caucasian features are beautiful. Pecola's parents have both had difficult lives. Pauline always felt like an outsider in her family and constantly suffers through feelings of loneliness and ugliness.

She wants to love her daughter but finds Pecola unattractive. Pauline works for a wealthy white family and finds her solace in their house and in movie theaters showing the glamorous white world. Cholly was abandoned by his parents and brought up by his aunt. He was often humiliated by white people and built up a great rage toward whites and women.

When he met and married Pauline, things were good for a time, but he soon felt trapped and unhappy. The marriage is listless and dull, except for those moments when they are fighting. One day, as he returns home and finds Pecola washing dishes, Cholly's life of rage and aborted desire wells up and he rapes his daughter. Pauline blames Pecola for the rape, irrationally seeing it as Pecola's fault. Pecola becomes more obsessed with getting blue eyes and visits Soap head Church, a sham mystic, who promises to help her. Instead, he uses her to help kill a dog he doesn't like.

Pecola discovers she is pregnant. Over the course of her pregnancy, Pecola goes mad. She believes she has been given blue eyes and imagines a friend who admires her good looks. Cholly rapes her again, but Pecola doesn't tell anyone. Unlike the rest of the neighborhood, Claudia and Frieda desperately want the child to live. They come up with a childish scheme they think will help, in which they plant marigolds.

The marigolds do not bloom; Pecola's baby is born prematurely and dies. Cholly eventually dies in a workhouse. Pauline continues working in the houses of the wealthy white. Pecola remains mired in her madness.