Analyze the symbolism of white baby dolls, blue eyes, and Shirley Temple, used in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, and tie them together to show how they represent a particular theme. Please provide quotes for each of the symbols.
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In Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye, the story's narrator, nine-year-old Claudia, is possessed of a rebellious streak that sets her apart from other little girls who inhabit her world, particularly her older sister Frieda and the troubled, abused Pecola Breedlove. While Frieda shares Claudia's relative maturity and clear-eyed vision of the confines in which these lower-income black people live, it is Claudia who resents the prevailing image of feminine perfection represented in the dolls she is regularly given as presents.
As Morrison's story begins, the reader is introduced to the kind of bland, Eurocentric imagery that dominated both children's literature and the marketing that sought to place those images in every American home irrespective of ethnicity:
“Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy.”
As this introductory passage continues, it quickly becomes apparent that Morrison, through her precocious protagonist, is regurgitating the same lesson that was forced upon untold millions of youth during their formative years. That image of the ideal American home, with two loving parents, was invariably depicted as white, and it is the prevalence of such imagery that frustrates Claudia. In passages early in The Bluest Eye, Claudia describes her disdain for these white-dominated symbols of human perfection, the blond-haired, blue-eyed dolls that dominated the department store toy shelves. Referring to those dolls as “one of those little white girls whose socks never slid down behind their heels,” Claudia continues to describe the genesis of her animosity towards those gifts -- animosity that manifested itself in the physical destruction of those symbols of (white) human perfection:
“I did not know why I destroyed those dolls. But I did know that nobody ever asked me what I wanted for Christmas.”
Similarly, the image of Shirley Temple provided a powerful symbol of what the entertainment industry expected the population to emulate and idolize. Frieda and Pecola take the bait, idolizing this Hollywood creation with her blond, curly hair and bright blue eyes. Claudia, however, rejects the image, noting that "I couldn't join them in their adoration because I hated Shirley." This hatred of America's sweetheart, however, is directed less at the innocent little starlet and more at the manner in which this innocent little Caucasian starlet has preempted the African American community's linkage to its own heritage in the person of Bill Bojangles Robinson, the gifted African American dancer with whom Temple was partnered in a classic scene from her film The Little Colonel. Claudia deeply resented the imagery of Robinson and Temple dancing together because, as she writes, Bojangles was "my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with me." So dominant and oppressive is the white imagery that Claudia comes to loathe the mere suggestion that white people have co-opted black talent for their own aggrandizement.
That African Americans were sold by white-dominated industries like the entertainment industry, which marketed a false bill of goods intended to eliminate in the national consciousness the notion of positive black contributions to society, eats away at Claudia's soul. Even she, though, can't muster the strength necessary to rectify these social injustices.
I just wanted to add a quick note in reference to the symbolism of white baby dolls in the book The Bluest Eye.
During the time period that this novel takes place, there were not any black dolls being mass produced for black children to play with. What makes this point important is the fact that young African-American girls did not have a product to associate themselves with—or in other words, a product that reflected their image. Instead, they saw a white doll that was universally accepted as the appropriate toy that all children (no matter their race) should play with. By not having black dolls to play with, African-American girls were subjected to desire an unrealistic image.
Within the novel itself, the children are constantly surrounded by commercial images featuring a white doll with blue eyes and blonde hair being played with by a white girl who looks the same as the doll. In The Bluest Eye, the first-person narrator Claudia discusses the irreversible psychological impact that these images have on the development of young black girls' psyche. Unlike her older sister Frieda and her friend Pecola, Claudia believes that she has yet to become absorbed into this inescapable desire to play with white dolls. She thus cannot understand why black adults have fallen in love with this doll and why they think that their children desire it as a gift. This feeling becomes prominent around Christmas time when the images of white dolls become plastered around her. She states that "adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs—all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every child treasured. 'Here.' They said, 'this is beautiful, and if you are on this day 'worthy' you may have it'" (Morrison 20-21). These commercial images influence Claudia's psyche and causes her to feel inadequate or different from other children because she does not possess these same feelings about the beauty of the doll. Instead, she feels only hatred towards it and disgust towards herself for hating it.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Kuenz, Jane. "The Bluest Eye: Notes on History, Community, and Black Female Subjectivity." African American Review. Volume 27 (1993): 421-431
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