The answer to the question – how in the world do Cholly and Polly (Pauline) make their relationship work – may be intended as a trick question. Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, is a deeply melancholy narrative of black life in white America, and the Breedlove’s represent the tragedy that history has brought about. The simple answer to the question is this: Cholly and Polly do not make their relationship work; it is seriously, fatally flawed, as Cholly’s descent into alcoholism and emotional abuse is punctuated by his rape of their daughter Pecola. That Cholly will prove a tragic and brutal figure is suggested in Morrison’s prologue, in which the story’s narrator, Claudia MacTeer, and her sister Frieda establish the atmosphere by relating in flashback the hopelessness and despair that characterized African American life for much of the country’s history. It is in the final passage of this prologue that Claudia provides the following details of her and her sister’s, and of Cholly’s destiny:
“We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair. What is clear now is that of all that hope, fear, lust, love, and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth. Cholly Breedlove is dead; our innocence too. The seeds shriveled and died; her baby too.”
“Her baby” was, of course, the product of the rape by her father, Cholly, and represents the beginning of a new cycle of despair in this community – a cycle that includes Cholly’s dismal childhood and humiliation at the hands of two white men who force him to have sex with his girlfriend in front of them, an event that scars him emotionally and results in his own need to degrade and abuse the women in his life.
Specific to the relationship between Cholly and Pauline, the initial period of their courtship marked a rare uplifting period in the latter’s life. As Pauline describes that early period in their relationship, Cholly’s attention was like a gift from heaven for this young woman with the deformed foot whose life had seemed destined to remain lonely and unrequited:
“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 with purple, and it never did wash out. Not the dress norme. I could feel that purple deep inside me.”
Contrast that passage with the following description of Cholly provided by Claudia following the former’s descent into alcoholism and physical and emotional abuse at the expense of Pauline:
“Cholly Breedlove, then, a renting black, having put his family outdoors, had catapulted himself beyond the reaches of human consideration. He had joined the animals; was, indeed, an old dog, a snake, a ratty nigger. Mrs. Breedlove was staying with the woman she worked for; the boy, Sammy, was with some other family; and Pecola was to stay with us. Cholly was in jail.”
The Breedlove’s relationship evolved from tender and loving to spiteful and bitter and violent. Glimmers of the early passion that had existed between them would occasionally reemerge, but Pauline’s lack of self-esteem and the legacy of deprivation and humiliation at the hands of white employers would take its toll. Again, as Claudia described the evolution of the Breedlove’s relationship, it is clear that that relationship can not be categorized as “working”:
“Cholly was kindness still, but began to resist her total dependence on him. They were beginning to have less and less to say to each other. He had no problem finding other people and other things to occupy him—men were always climbing the stairs asking for him, and he was happy to accompany them, leaving her alone.”
Money problems lead to tensions between them and the arrival of children provided only momentary relief from the anger that permeated the household. In a particularly sad observation, Pauline comments that “Cholly commenced to getting meaner and meaner and wanted to fight me all of the time. I give him as good as I got.” That Cholly would rape and impregnate their daughter Pecola and eventually abandon the family is the final piece of evidence suggesting that the question asking how the Breedlove’s made their relationship work was intended as irony.