The naïvete with which Claudia experiences the world allows readers a rare glimpse into the mind of a young African American girl coming of age. Much surprises her. When Pecola comes to stay with the MacTeers temporarily because Cholly has set his family’s house on fire, Claudia cannot believe that a father could be so irresponsible as to put his own family outdoors: “Outdoors, we knew, was the real terror of life. . . . There is a difference between being put out and being put out-doors. If you are put out, you go somewhere else; if you are outdoors, there is no place to go.” During her stay, Pecola begins to menstruate. Claudia believes that such bleeding must be fatal, until her hardly more informed sister explains that it simply means that Pecola is now able to have babies. That night, Claudia feels that “lying next to a real person who was really ministratin’ was somehow sacred.” She is surprised again when an adult friend of the family inappropriately touches Frieda, and she concludes that her sister must now be “ruined,” the word applied to the three neighborhood prostitutes. The girls naturally reason that Frieda will either be fat like the one or thin like the other and can be cured only by whiskey. Claudia also comes to realize how important color is in the larger world—through white baby dolls, Shirley Temple, and Maureen Peal, through Mrs. Breedlove’s greater concern for a white girl than for her own child Pecola when a hot blueberry cobbler falls to the floor, splattering both. Only the perfect child is comforted; Pecola is scolded and sent away. Claudia reaches great maturity for the age of nine when she realizes that no one cares about Pecola or her baby, and that no one cares for dark-skinned children in general.
Claudia’s strength is contrasted to Pecola’s weakness. Pecola has been given none of the tools with which to fight the sense of worthlessness from which she suffers daily. No loving parents, no close playmates, not even a house to call her own—only a storefront with sheets strung across the large interior to separate one person from another. Ignored by shopkeepers, scorned by classmates and teachers, used by Soaphead Church, Pecola wants only to vanish. She cannot fight her circumstances; she only wants to escape them.
The narratives of Pauline and Cholly Breedlove help readers at least to understand their characters, even if it is difficult to empathize with them. Pauline is shown first as a young woman craving acceptance and love from her family and, when that is not possible, from Cholly. In the integrated North, acceptance comes only through resemblance to white people. When her rotten tooth undermines her attempt to fashion herself to white standards of beauty, and when her children look nothing like Hollywood’s lovable white children, Pauline succumbs to her own self-hatred and “ugliness,” which expresses itself in self-righteous judgment of her husband and rejection of her children. Cholly’s rape of his own daughter cannot be excused, but Morrison’s presentation helps readers understand him. A violent, drunken, and abusive man, Cholly has little chance to succeed, given the events of his childhood. Rejected by both parents, orphaned by the death of his loving Aunt Jimmy, and humiliated by white men during his first sexual experience, Cholly displaces his anger and humiliation upon all African American women, including his wife and daughter. With no father figure to emulate, Cholly mistakes sex for love. Making “love” to Pauline eventually comes to mean his noise, her silence, and mutual anger. When he sees Pecola washing dishes in the kitchen and scratching the back of her leg with her foot, a gesture that reminds him of the young Pauline, Cholly feels sorry for his daughter and rapes her, showing her affection in the only way he knows—through sex.
The wholly unsympathetic behaviors of Geraldine and of Soaphead Church are painted against a backdrop of the past, also creating understanding, if not sympathy. Both are light-skinned people, a fact that allows them to dissociate themselves from their African roots, their sexuality, and their true natures. What results is an unfeeling woman who wishes sexual organs were located somewhere more convenient (such as the palm of the hand) so that bodies would not have to touch during intercourse, and a latent homosexual whose hygienic meticulousness leads him to pedophilia.
Although the eleven-year-old Pecola is the most obvious victim in the novel, most of the black characters are presented as victims of white society. In her childish innocence, Pecola really believes that the world would be better if viewed through the blue eyes so highly valued according to the white standard of beauty. Pecola has been made to feel ugly because she is black. Her quest for blue eyes is symbolic of her quest for the attention and love that she has missed during her bleak childhood.
Claudia feels loved by her family, yet she also feels rejected by society in general because of her blackness. By having Claudia narrate the events of the novel, Morrison (who herself was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931) presents them with some of the naïveté of the child but also with the clarity of vision that prejudiced adults have lost. Claudia is too young to accept without question what everyone else seems to assume: that little black girls are somehow lesser beings because of their blackness. She hates white baby dolls and the little white girls (including Shirley Temple) on whom they are modeled. She would like to tear both apart to find their secret: What is it that makes all adults, black and white, prize little white girls so much and little black girls so little? Claudia and her sister, Frieda, seem to be the only people who believe that Pecola’s baby deserves to live and be loved. The older Claudia who tells the story, however, knows that she has lost her innocence and her idealism. By the time she looks back on 1941 from the perspective of later years, she has transformed her hatred for the Shirley Temples of the world into a type of fraudulent love.
While the young Claudia can still look upon the inequities of life as the injustices that they are, her parents have long since accepted the roles in which society has cast them. If the white world has declared them ugly, then ugly they will be. Early in the Breedloves’ marriage, Cholly makes Pauline, with her one lame foot, feel beautiful for a time, but she later comes to believe the films and billboards which tell her constantly that white is beautiful and black is ugly: She accepts the mantle of her own ugliness. Cholly shows his ugliness through his actions. As a boy, he was surprised in the middle of his first sexual encounter by three white hunters and forced to conclude the act under the glow of their lights and their laughter. Too young and small to strike out at his tormentors then, he has been striking out ever since. Ironically, he makes his own daughter’s first sexual experience as painful as his own.
Soaphead Church, the fraudulent spiritualist, provides another perspective on the issue of race. For generations, his family has tried to marry “up” and nurture its white blood. Marriage between relatives, however, has also weakened the faculties of certain family members, including Soaphead. He occupies himself by promising his clients the impossible and molesting little girls. He is wise enough in his own mad way, though, to recognize the pathos of Pecola’s situation. He writes a letter to God chastising Him for failing to answer Pecola’s prayer and thus forcing Soaphead to do God’s work for Him.