Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye is an early and insightful examination of the role of superficial prejudices in shaping cultures and character. Late in the story, Soaphead Church, a figure of questionable repute, convinces Pecola to poison a dog, then sits down at a table and pens a letter to God. Soaphead Church claims to a spirituality that is entirely fraudulent, but he draws the emotionally and intellectually weak, and that includes the much abused Pecola. In the context of the scene involving the dog poisoning, the letter that Soaphead drafts is especially peculiar – but not in the manner one might anticipate. The letter he writes is actually an insightful exposition regarding the shaping of the African American culture – a culture derived in no small part from the legacies of slavery and institutionalized racism that created perceptions of reality in stark variance from the ideal to which a democratic society should aspire. An interesting part of that letter reads as follows:
“We in this colony took as our own the most dramatic, and the most obvious, of our white masters’ characteristics, which were, of course, their worst. In retaining the identity of our race, we held fast to those characteristics most gratifying to sustain and least troublesome to maintain. Consequently, we were not royal but snobbish, not aristocratic but class-conscious; we believed authority was cruelty to our inferiors, and education was being at school. We mistook violence for passion, indolence for leisure, and thought recklessness was freedom. We raised our children and reared our crops; we let infants grow, and property develop. Our manhood was defined by acquisitions. Our womanhood by acquiesce. And the smell of your fruit and the labor of your days abhorred.”
The purpose of citing this passage from Morrison’s novel is to place the subject of “goodness” in its proper context. If one is looking to identify the “good” in The Bluest Eye, the natural inclination is to focus on the story’s main protagonist, Pecola, a young girl whose unattractive appearance condemns her to a life of misery in a society that prizes beauty, as defined by skin color, and relegates those who fail to measure up to a third-class existence. To the extent that the bad among Morrison’s main characters, primarily Cholly, are the product of these cultural prejudices, then one might hesitate before condemning all those who appear bad, or ugly, to a category defined by negative traits. Once upon a time, before he became a brutal drunk and raped his own daughter, Cholly was a man of self-discipline and pride. Reminiscing about their courtship, this chapter’s narrator relates the following about the early period of Pauline and Cholly’s relationship:
“Pauline and Cholly loved each other. He seemed to relish her company and even to enjoy her country ways and lack of knowledge about city things. He talked with her about her foot and asked, when they walked through the town or in the fields, if she were tired. Instead of ignoring her infirmity, pretending it was not there, he made it seem like something special and endearing. For the first time Pauline felt that her bad foot was an asset. And he did touch her, firmly but gently, just as she had dreamed. But minus the gloom of setting suns and lonely river banks. She was secure and grateful; he was kind and lively. She had not known there was so much laughter in the world.”
This passage reminds us that cultural factors, including racism, were responsible for the devolution of mankind. Histories of degradation have created the monsters represented by figures like Cholly Breedlove. In identifying the “good,” then, it is helpful to consider the context in which certain human beings transitioned from “good” to “bad.”
That said, the absolute “good” in The Bluest Eye is represented by Pecola, Claudia and Frieda, the three girls at the center of the story, along with Mr. and Mrs. MacTeer, Claudia and Frieda’s parents. If Pecola is the best of the good, though, her tragic fate speaks to the inevitable destruction of the human character following a childhood filled with emotional and physical abuse.
Claudia, the novel’s second main character, along with Pecola, recalls early in the novel the basic nature of the child exposed to the ugliness of prejudice, in this case the portrait of physical beauty represented by the white baby doll she was given as a present:
“I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me.”
The “good” in The Bluest Eye are the children whose characters are shaped by their upbringing and by their observations of the world around them. For economically disadvantaged blacks, those observations tended to foster bitterness and resentment that sometimes brought out the worst in themselves. The senior MacTeers are presented as good also, in their love for and protectiveness of their children, but too much of what Morrison presents in her novel of prejudice is hard to categorize as “good” in the most superficial sense of the word.