Given the earlier answer to a question from the same student regarding Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, it is regrettable, but the best example of a character’s first encounter with romantic love probably involves Pauline (Polly) Breedlove’s courtship with Cholly, who become an abusive spouse as his alcoholism and bitterness about the cards he’s been dealt in life cause his degradation. Pauline’s life has been adversely influenced by her physical deformity, a foot permanently damaged when she, as a young child, steps on a nail. As an adult, alienated by virtue of her physical deformity, Polly is rendered emotionally vulnerable, so when Cholly begins to court her, she is elevated to an extent she has not previously experienced. Describing her early encounter with Cholly, Polly relates the dream-like quality of the vision she experienced:
“When I first seed Cholly, I want you to know it was like all the bits of color from that time down home when all us chil’ren went berry picking after a funeral and I put some in the pocket of my Sunday dress, and they mashed up and stained my hips. My whole dress was messed up with purple, and it never did wash out. Not the dress nor me. I could feel that purple deep inside me. . .All them colors was in me. Just sitting there. So when Cholly come up and tickled my foot, it was like them berries, that lemonade, them streaks of green the june bugs made, all come together. Cholly was thin then, with real light eyes.”
Polly is a victim of mankind’s preoccupation with appearances. The first male to show her any real interest becomes her husband, because she has no real previous experiences with men with which to compare. For Morrison, superficial concepts of beauty have had a deleterious effect on human perceptions of value, a notion clearly embodied in another of her novel’s characters, Geraldine. Geraldine is African-American, but harbors the same prejudices as those of the more venal characters who appear in The Bluest Eye. The following passages describe Geraldine’s character and her obsession with her notion of physical beauty at the expense of deeper, emotional attachments, including with her son, Junior:
“Geraldine did not allow her baby, Junior, to cry. As long as his needs were physical, she could meet them – comfort and satiety. He was always brushed, bathed, oiled, and shod. Geraldine did not talk to him, coo to him, or indulge him in kissing bouts, but she saw that every other desire was fulfilled. It was not long before the child discovered the difference in his mother’s behavior to himself and the cat. As he grew older, he learned how to direct his hatred of his mother to the cat, and spent some happy moments watching it suffer.”
“White kids; his mother did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud. He belonged to the former group . . .”
Geraldine’s prejudices are every bit as pernicious as those of Rosemary and Maureen and the other characters for whom skin color and tone are determinative of how they judge others.
Morrison’s observation that romantic love and physical beauty constitute “probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought” has to be taken in context. Offered in the same chapter as the above discussion of Polly and Cholly, the author’s conclusion that love and beauty “originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion” is a product of the African American experience. Treated as property, physically abused and kept enslaved, the black experience in the United States was heavily tainted by notions of racial inferiority in which skin color was either the key to success or the cross to bear. One’s entire existence was thoroughly influenced by skin color to the point that even within the African American community those with lighter skin were perceived preferentially to those with darker skin, even though lighter skin was a product of interracial relationships that too often, in those days, resulted from rape.
Physical beauty is a natural phenomenon; it exists in nature. To celebrate physical beauty is a normal human exercise, whether it involves the Mona Lisa, Miss America, or any other embodiment of beauty. That doesn’t make it right; it simply acknowledges that individual perceptions of beauty influence how people respond to each other. In that sense, it is destructive. Romantic love is hardly destructive except when it is the product of duplicitous machinations intended to deceive an individual into engaging in a relationship. If we give Cholly the benefit of the doubt, however, that was not the case with his pursuit of Polly.