Toni Morrison has said that she writes to find out answers to seemingly unanswerable questions, often pushing her characters to the edge – to see what they are made of. How does Morrison use...

Toni Morrison has said that she writes to find out answers to seemingly unanswerable questions, often pushing her characters to the edge – to see what they are made of.

How does Morrison use extreme situations (or characters) to explore issues, such as race, culture, gender, age, sexuality, or beauty in The Bluest Eye?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Morrison uses the reality that governs her characters as a means to explore their constituting elements.  In the process, she generates a discourse that leaps out of the text and into the reader's consciousness.  In doing so, Morrison is able to display extreme situations or characters in the text that are not really as extreme in real life because they embody the conditions in which we live within our own lives.

The social dynamic that Morrison presents in The Bluest Eye is one that explores the reality of color.  When Du Bois says that "the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line," Morrison's novel serves as a resounding and emphatic support.  The reality of "the color line" is the situation shown to its extreme that causes characters to explore issues such as race, culture, gender, age, sexuality, and beauty.  This is certainly seen in Pecola's predicament. She is trapped by the desire to possess "the bluest eye," to look like what is deemed socially acceptable.  Her obsession with objects of whiteness is a lens through which the exploration of identity construction takes place.  Milk, Shirley Temple, blue eyes, and not being "ugly" are vital elements that define her identity:  "Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike."  Pecola's driven nature to find out the cause of her ugliness is what enables her to commence an exploration of her race and how social conditions of beauty impact her as a young woman.  Ugliness and what is deemed as ugly is of vital importance to Pecola, something that she cannot answer, but one that she can certainly question. The result of this exploration and the desire to find out the answers to that which might seem unanswerable is a self- hatred that happens as a result of being "different."  It is an extreme situation that Morrison presents, but when we reflect about issues of body image and beauty, it is not that extreme. Pecola's obsession with beauty, or more appropriately to escape her sense of ugliness, infiltrated every aspect of consciousness:  "She eats the candy, its sweetness is good. To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane."   It helps to show how Pecola might have been seen as different in the text, but in the world outside of it, she is not that different.  In this, Morrison depicts a character who struggles to find out what she is made of and equally struggles to find the answer to it.  Pecola is violated in different ways, and is left to singularly pursue "the bluest eye," which is shown to possess the answer for all the complexities she experiences.

The struggle to understand the complex nature of being in the world is what Morrison shows to lie at the heart of what it means to an individual in the modern setting.  Pecola's mother, Pauline, is victimized by the same condition that haunts her daughter.  Pauline can only show love and nurturing to the White families she tends to and shows self- hate to her own family.  She is victimized by the Romantic notions of the good that Hollywood movies shows, impacting her own perception of all aspects of her being.  She equates the most intimate of moments with power and control, washed over with the Romantic tinge from Hollywood movies:  "He would rather die than take his thing out of me. Of me. Not until he has let go of all he has, and give it to me. To me. To me. When he does, I feel a power. I be strong, I be pretty, I be young."   While Pauline is shown to be disillusioned with the clouds that have formed over her life, she still is haunted by the same construction of beauty, power, and a sense of illusion perpetrated by the social order.  Pecola's opening questioning and Pauline's cynical understanding of her own life are reflective of the conditions that govern consciousness, helping individuals to see what they are made of.  These realities push both to the edges of their own identity, precluding any sort of transformation and empowerment within each.  Through both of them, Morrison is able to explore realities such as race, culture, gender, age, sexuality, and beauty.

Ugliness is shown to be a social and individual aspect of identity construction. Morrison shows how ugliness is a part of the dynamic of Lorain, Ohio.  The disdain shown towards the Breedlove family, particularly Pecola, is one that individuals need.  Morrison says that individuals in social settings need to find a source towards which individuals can suggest "ugliness" exists.  Pecola's ugliness is a source of derision for all, a way in which other people in the town can feel better about themselves.  This is in stark contrast to the exclusive condition that Maureen Peel inspires in terms of fulfilling beauty and power. The Maureen Peels of Lorain will always construct reality that causes self- hate. In order to evade such a condition, individuals are shown to need a type of scapegoat or target, a role that the Breedloves, particularly Pecola, represent. The social condition of ugliness is shown to be a part of human identity.  

However, Morrison also believes that part of the novel is the restoration that can happen when these conditions are accepted as a part of being in the world:  “I thought in The Bluest Eye, that I was writing about beauty, miracles, and self-images, about the way in which people can hurt each other, about whether or not one is beautiful.”  Morrison sees the transformative seeds that can be planted when individuals recognize what they are made of and acknowledge it. While there is much "ugliness" that is shown to define human beings, Morrison easily acknowledges that there can be seeds of goodness planted and nourished, as well. This, too, is a part of what human beings are made of. Acknowledging it and encouraging it is an essential part of this process, demanding that characters go to the edge to discover it.

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