Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 740
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.
Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486
Except for possibly the Frasier family and the archetypal Dick and Jane, all the characters of The Bluest Eye are both universal—that is, representative—and individual. Morrison successfully infuses the characters with personal qualities that lead us to empathize with them, as well as with universal meaning. For the most part, they are victims of the European-American community's standards of beauty and of an economic system that exploits minorities. Many also are caught up in a cycle of victimization, like Geraldine, who in her attempt to protect her son from becoming the poor African American she despises, alienates him both from the culture she despises and the one to which she aspires.
Pecola is everyone's victim, so hers is the scapegoat's role. Cholly passes on his frustration as a husband, father, and wage earner to her in the form of sexual aggression; Pauline, Geraldine, and Junior despise her as an emblem of a culture they wish to escape. Soaphead and Junior take advantage of her innocence for their own sick agendas. Even Claudia, despite many acts of friendship and love, realizes that she and her sister used Pecola to compensate for their own lack of self-esteem. Thus the vast majority of the characters are caught in a vicious circle of victimization; unable to cope successfully with their own lack of power in the culture, they find someone weaker than themselves upon whom they can prey. Unfortunately for people like Pecola, some are too weak or too good to pass on the heritage of suffering. Such people become recipients of wrath and frustrations many times removed and compounded.
Pecola finds acceptance for who she is without judgment of her ugliness, uncleanliness, or poverty in only one place in the novel. Not in the church, the home, the schools—all these institutions reinforce her sense of unworthiness. Only in a brothel does she find acceptance. There three whores, already stigmatized by the community as worthless persons, give the child something approximating nurturing love. And even that is compromised, in part because Marie, China, and Poland are themselves alienated victims whose freedom is much like what Morrison attributes to Cholly—that of someone who has nothing to lose. Whores traffic in love and illusion, and the women, with probably the best of intentions, contribute to Pecola's association of affection with objects. As she later believes she has blue eyes, she tells Claudia the whores give her expensive clothes, jewelry, and money; she even brags that each will help Pecola escape—one will take her to Chicago, another to Cleveland.
Thus even the only free individuals of The Bluest Eye, the prostitutes, contribute to Pecola's illusion and in a way victimize her while trying to help her. None of the characters successfully gives unqualified love. None can really like Pecola on her own terms, and many characters compensate for their own low self-esteem by victimizing someone weaker than they.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1918
Aunt Jimmy becomes Cholly Breedlove's guardian after rescuing the four-day-old child from the trash heap where his mother, her niece, had abandoned him. When she is ill, Aunt Jimmy is instructed to drink only "pot liquor"; however, she "[dies] of peach cobbler" after eating a piece of pie.
Cholly Breedlove begins his life abandoned by his mother when he is only four days old. He spends most of his life in a state of abandonment, disconnected from those around him, and as the novel describes him, "dangerously free" because of his isolation. When his guardian, Aunt Jimmy, dies, he is initiated into the world of racism as two hunters interrupt him having sex with a young black girl named Darlene and refuse to let the couple stop. He is unable to continue having sex and directs his hatred toward Darlene instead of toward the white men because, as the novel states, hatred for whites who are in a position of power would have consumed him totally and immediately. However, the hatred he directs toward Darlene gnaws at him his entire life. The day before he is to leave with the uncle appointed to be his guardian, Cholly leaves for Macon in search of his father who, when Cholly finds him, spurns him in favor of a game of craps. Cholly turns to alcohol, and although his early married life with Pauline contains some hopeful moments, for the most part, his existence is dismal. In a scene portraying a drunken Cholly's ultimate frustration at being unable to offer his children a better life than his, he rapes Pecola while visualizing her as the young Pauline. In the novel's last pages, the narrator reveals that Cholly finally dies in the workhouse.
Pauline Breedlove, mother of Pecola, is trapped by the same destructive force as her daughter: the unachievable desire for beauty. After stepping on a nail as an infant, Pauline is left with a deformed foot, an event that causes her to see her entire self as deformed in some way. As an adolescent, she buys into the myth of a "prince charming" who will sweep her off her feet, and she seems to find such a man in Cholly. Although their life together begins well, it quickly declines. Pauline struggles with loneliness and a loss of self-esteem after she loses a front tooth. She turns to Cholly for consolation, but he turns to alcohol instead of to her. She begins to take solace in going to movies and imagining herself as beautiful film star Jean Harlow. After Pauline loses another tooth while eating candy at a movie, she no longer cares about her physical appearance, and her relationship with Cholly, Pecola, and Sammy becomes the way we find it at the book's beginning: abusive and full of hatred. Pauline only finds satisfaction in working for the Fishers, a white family that lives in a clean, affluent world, a world in total contrast to the one in which Pauline exists.
Pecola Breedlove, the protagonist of Morrison's novel, is the truest of all victims, for she is an innocent little girl born into a family that does not provide her with any support to endure society's racial prejudices. When Pecola lives temporarily with the MacTeers after her family is evicted from their apartment, we learn of her obsession with white female beauty when she sits at the table with Claudia and Frieda to snack on milk and graham crackers. She continues to drink quart after quart of milk just to be able to use the cup with Shirley Temple's picture on it, almost as if she was trying to drink Shirley Temple's beauty. Much like her mother, Pecola longs to be beautiful, to have blue eyes specifically, because she thinks that fulfilling white society's idea of beauty will bring her the love she has never received. Pecola's life is consumed by this desire, and after she is raped by her father, she is so desperate that she goes to the town's pedophilic fortune teller, Soaphead Church, for help in obtaining blue eyes. Even the fraudulent Soaphead pities her and writes in a letter to God that he may not have been able to give Pecola blue eyes but that she thinks she has them and will, therefore, live "happily ever after." Soaphead is, of course, horribly mistaken, and Pecola descends into madness. She continues believing that her eyes are bluer than any others, illustrating the danger for an unloved black girl who accepts white society's definition of beauty.
Brother of Pecola, Sammy Breedlove is a victim of his parents failed marriage and deals with their arguments by running away from home. The novel reveals that at fourteen Sammy has run away from home at least twenty-seven times, and the last mention of him in the novel states that he runs away for good some time before Pecola's descent into madness.
China is one of three prostitutes who live in an apartment above the storefront where the Breedloves also live. The only trait that distinguishes China from the other two prostitutes is that she is constantly curling her hair. All three are characterized as cruel haters of men and disrespectful of women, yet these three prostitutes are among the very few characters in The Bluest Eye who are kind to Pecola.
Darlene is the young women with whom Cholly Breedlove has his first sexual experience on the day of his Aunt Jimmy's funeral.
Samson Fuller is Cholly Breedlove's father, who left town for Macon before Cholly was born. When Cholly locates his father after Aunt Jimmy's death, his father rejects him, his attention totally focused on a game of craps, leaving Cholly emotionally scarred.
Geraldine fits the type of middle-class black woman that Morrison describes in detail just before Geraldine appears in The Bluest Eye. This kind of woman rejects what she views is "black" by distancing herself from the "funkiness" of life, the dirt of poverty, and ignorance. Geraldine has only a perfunctory relationship with her family and is closest to her cat, whom her son, Junior, throws against a wall after Pecola shows it affection. In Geraldine's eyes, Pecola represents the black lifestyle she rejects; therefore, when Geraldine discovers Pecola in her house, she throws Pecola out with the words, "You nasty little black bitch. Get out of my house."
Mr. Henry boards with the MacTeer family and endears himself to Frieda and Claudia by calling them Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers, popular film stars of the 1940s. Mr. Henry is involved in two important scenes in the book. The first occurs when Claudia and Frieda return home from school and he gives them money for ice cream. They return before he expects them to, and they find him with China and Maginot Line, two of the town's prostitutes. When the women leave, Mr. Henry explains to the girls that these women were part of his Bible study group but that the girls should not tell their mother that the women were there. After this episode opens Mr. Henry's morality up to question, his depravity is confirmed when he is thrown out of the house for molesting Frieda.
Junior is the only son of Geraldine, an arrogant black woman who despises most other black families and, as a result, prevents Junior from playing with other black boys. Because he lives near the school, Junior claims the playground as his turf, and when he sees Pecola walking there, he invites her into his house and terrorizes her with his mother's cat.
See Miss Marie
A nine-year-old black girl, Claudia narrates the majority of the novel. Because she and Pecola share many of the same experiences, Claudia also acts as a foil, or contrast, to Pecola. For example, Claudia hates Shirley Temple, unlike Pecola who idolizes her, and does not understand the fascination black adults have with little white girls. Claudia is also a representative of society as a whole in her attitude toward Pecola. Although she and Frieda befriend Pecola after she lives with them temporarily, they have no contact with her after her father rapes and impregnates her. Claudia hopes that her baby will live simply to "counteract the universal love of white baby dolls"; however, the baby dies, and Claudia and Frieda avoid Pecola from then on. As an adult, Claudia realizes that she, like those around her, made Pecola into a scapegoat, hating Pecola in order to make her life appear much better in comparison.
Frieda is the sister of Claudia, the narrator of the novel. She is a minor character, largely in the shadow of Claudia, but shares in most of her experiences and is, therefore, also part of the coming of age motif in the novel. However, she is distinguished from Claudia in a few places in the novel, such as when she knows that Pecola has begun menstruating when Pecola and Claudia have no idea why Pecola is bleeding, and also she appears apart from Claudia when she is molested by the MacTeer's boarder, Mr. Henry.
The prostitute called Miss Marie by Pecola and Maginot Line by Claudia and Frieda is overweight and obsessed with food, a quality revealed in her passion at describing a meal eaten in the distant past and her habit of using food-related nicknames for Pecola. She also has a knack for storytelling and amuses Pecola with stories of her former "boyfriends."
M'Dear, a midwife and practitioner of folk medicine, instructs Cholly's Aunt Jimmy to drink only "pot liquor" during an illness. People in the community believe M'Dear possesses supernatural abilities and summon her when all other remedies are ineffective.
Maureen is a light-skinned, wealthy, African-American girl who attends the same school as Pecola, Claudia, and Frieda. The girls resent her because she is adored by teachers and students, both black and white alike. Claudia and Frieda make up names for her, such as "Six-finger-dogtooth-meringue-pie," to express their resentment, but they are alone in their ridicule. Maureen does try to befriend Pecola, but she later turns against Pecola, calling her ugly and taunting her with accusations that she has seen her father naked.
Another of the prostitutes living above the Breedloves, Poland is characterized by her singing and her soundless laugh.
See Pauline Breedlove
A pedophile and misanthrope, Soaphead Church bills himself as a spiritualist, an interpreter of dreams, and a miracle worker, while in reality he is a fraud. The book details his sexual preferences for young girls as well as his family background, former professions, and failed marriage. He despises his landlady's mangy dog Bob, and when Pecola comes to him asking for blue eyes, he sees the perfect opportunity to rid himself of Bob. He gives Pecola poisoned meat to give to Bob, telling her that if the dog reacts to the meat, her eyes have become blue. Of course, the dog dies, leaving Pecola to believe that she truly does have blue eyes. In a letter to God, Soaphead admits that he did not attempt to molest Pecola because he truly pities her and actually wishes he could perform miracles.
Rosemary Villanucci is a young white girl who lives next door to the MacTeers and always tattles on Claudia and Frieda.
Elihue Micah Whitcomb
See Soaphead Church
See Pauline Breedlove
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