Keith E. Byerman (essay date June 1982)

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SOURCE: Byerman, Keith E. “Intense Behaviors: The Use of the Grotesque in The Bluest Eye and Eva's Man.CLA Journal 25, no. 4 (June 1982): 447-57.

[In the following essay, Byerman compares the use of grotesque literary conventions in The Bluest Eye and Gayl Jones's Eva's Man, highlighting its suitability to African American literature as a vehicle for social protest.]

At the end of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, the little black girl Pecola, a victim of incest, is pictured talking to herself in a mirror about her imaginary blue eyes. At the end of Eva's Man, by Gayl Jones, Eva is describing, in increasing incomprehensible terms, her poisoning and castrating of the man with whom she lived. Both of these female characters are the central figures of the novels under discussion, and each is, in literary terms, a grotesque. But such figures are not being used by Morrison and Jones just to shock or entertain; rather, they use these bizarre characterizations to examine the even greater grotesqueries of American society. Pecola epitomizes the American obsession with whiteness, while Eva, in a slightly different way, exemplifies the society's fixation on sexual dominance. The novels develop, then, a grotesque within a grotesque and serve to show the particular appropriateness of the grotesque in black literature that is also social criticism.

The grotesque as a literary convention has two aspects that can be found in the fiction under discussion. Flannery O'Connor has described one of these by saying of grotesque characters: “They seem to carry an invisible burden; their fanaticism is a reproach, not merely an eccentricity.”1 Frederick J. Hoffman, in discussing the Gothic and grotesque in Southern writing, comments that “one thing is expectedly true: in a society where intensities of behavior are frequent, the ‘gothic’ is a kind of norm. … There are frightening and often puzzling details, which the reader finds difficult to fit into context, so he concludes that they are ‘grotesque’. …”2 As shall be seen, this social element is the most basic theme of the two novels. The supposed normalities of American life are shown to be absurd and ominous distortions.

The second aspect has to do with the reader's reactions to grotesque literature. The grotesque appeals to something in us that is pre-rational, that defies our intellectual categories. Unlike other writing that is concerned with the beautiful and the realistic, the grotesque is deliberately extravagant, distorted, violent, and ugly. We find it, nonetheless, strangely attractive as well as repulsive. Michael Steig has said that “the grotesque involves the arousing of anxiety by giving expression to infantile fears, fantasies and impulses. …”3

Such a reaction must be created by Jones and Morrison because the social elements they are talking about are themselves pre-rational. It is assumed by these writers that the reader shares the attitudes toward sexuality and race that they are criticizing. The moral visions of the novels can only be understood if these attitudes can be brought into question at the level at which they exist. Therefore, the incest, narcissism, murder, and castration of the books reach beneath the usual level of reader response to give a particular kind of shock of recognition.

In The Bluest Eye and Eva's Man, then, the social manifestations of the grotesque described by O'Conner and Hoffman are combined with the psychological ones mentioned by Steig. Morrison describes a social situation so distorted by the myth of whiteness that it produces a child, Pecola, who is so obsessed by the blue-eyed beauty of Shirley Temple that she creates a self-contained reality that cannot...

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be penetrated even by rape and incest. Jones shows us a society so fixated on the domination of women that Eva can liberate herself only by biting off the penis of her lover. We as readers are forced to consider not only the absurdity of idolizing a blue-eyed child and protecting the sexual vanity of a preadolescent boy, but also the horror when these absurdities lead to murder, incest, and schizophrenia.

The world of The Bluest Eye is clearly one that has a distorted sense of color. All the blacks in the book feel insecure and even inferior because of their skin tone. The narrator says of Pecola's family, the Breedloves:

It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, “You are ugly people.” They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.” And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.4

The significant point here is that such a burden is accepted without direct coercion. There are few white characters in the novel to impose the view. The ideological hegemony of whiteness is simply too overwhelming to be successfully resisted. No alternative source of valuation is provided for these characters. As a case in point, the narrator Claudia serves as a contrast to the Breedloves and especially to Pecola. Though much less passive and more aware of her black identity, Claudia, too, must eventually accommodate herself to the dominant view. When little, she has the disturbing habit of tearing apart the white dolls she is given as gifts. “But the dismemberment of dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls. … To discover what eluded me: the secret of the magic they weaved on others” (p. 22). The magical secret points us toward the nonrational basis of the social belief. Claudia's bizarre response seems an almost reasonable treatment of this complex of ritual and superstition. She seeks understanding where only unthinking faith is tolerated. She changes, however:

When I learned how repulsive this disinterested violence was, that it was repulsive because it was disinterested, my shame floundered about for a refuge. The best hiding place was love. Thus the conversion from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred, to fraudulent love. It was a small step to Shirley Temple. I learned much later to worship her, just as I learned to delight in cleanliness, knowing even as I learned, that the change was adjustment without improvement.

(p. 22)

Claudia, the strongest character in the book, cannot defy the myth and is even made to feel guilty for her childhood doubts. Knowing full well that the myth is a lie, she must nonetheless bow before its idol.

Pecola, in sharp contrast, never has any uncertainties about the gospel according to Shirley. She is portrayed throughout as a true believer who wants only to be like her idol. Every scene in which she appears is used to demonstrate her lack of self-esteem and her passiveness in the face of this American dream. Whites, lighter-skinned blacks, and dark-skinned blacks who redirect their self-hatred, all make her feel her unworthiness. She responds by seeking out a presumed medium who, she believes, can provide her with the emblem of whiteness, blue eyes. In her last scene, she sits in her room talking to an imaginary friend about the precise intensity of the blueness, about whether she, in truth, now has America's bluest eye.

But this rather pathetic obsession is made horrifying when we realize that, during this time, Pecola has conceived and miscarried a baby as a result of rape by her father. This reality is only on the fringes of her consciousness, and we must depend on Claudia and an omniscient narrator to provide us with the details.

What we learn is that the father himself has been victimized, in terms of sexuality, by the same whiteness that destroyed his daughter. Abandoned by his father and mother, Cholly has had no opportunity to develop any self-esteem. What little might have existed was destroyed when his first attempt at lovemaking was interrupted by white men who ridiculed him. This assault on his being saps him of his manhood, both physically and psychologically. He turns his anger against himself and the black girl with him since there is nothing he can do to the men who caused the trauma. Such a feeling of powerlessness only reinforces his self-hatred.

His rage eventually turns into alcoholism and repeated conflict with his wife, who seems to him, simply by being his wife, to be a constant reminder of his ineffectiveness. He would love her, but because love imposes responsibility, he tries to hate her.

This same love-hate complex applies to his children. Moments before the incest, he sits watching Pecola:

Guilt and impotence rose in a bilious duet. What could he do for her—ever? What give her? What say to her? What could a burned-out black man say to the hunched back of his eleven-year-old daughter? If he looked into her face, he would see those haunted, loving eyes. The hauntedness would irritate him—the love would move him to fury. How dare she love him? Hadn't she any sense at all?

(p. 127)

Somehow he wants her to be responsible for the misery of his life. He expects her to reinforce his self-hatred by despising him. The fact that she loves him only intensifies his despair. Such a reaction is to be expected from what we know of him. But what follows is not. In the midst of this emotional confusion, he sees Pecola make a slight gesture that reminds him of her mother in better days. A surge of tenderness causes him to move nearer his child. This protective gesture then is confused by his hatred, and he sexually assaults her. When she becomes pregnant, he abandons the family.

Pecola's reaction is to substitute the sweet world of Shirley Temple for her own bitter one. She escapes, but we as readers cannot. We are left in a state of the grotesque. On the one hand, we are repulsed by Cholly's action and sympathetic to his victim. On the other, we have been made to see that he is himself a victim of the society that condemns him. Because we have been introduced to his way of thinking and suffering, we verge on understanding his action and sharing his confusion. Both of these responses, repulsion against the action and attraction to the actor, are mutually necessary for the grotesque to work in this scene.

Similarly, Pecola leaves us with an ambiguous feeling. We are sorry for her victimization, but we know that she has entered a realm where her suffering will seldom come into her consciousness. That realm is, for us, both silly and pathetic. At a deeper level, Claudia has captured the impact of this particular grotesqueness by pointing out the Christ-like nature of her friend:

All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used—to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.

(p. 159)

Pecola is a grotesque Messiah; she gives the world not grace but the illusion of relief from intolerable circumstances. She is sacrificed so that others may live with the perversions of society. She is a grotesque within a grotesque. She is unquestionably mad, but where in The Bluest Eye is there any sanity?

In Eva's Man, the madness of the central character is also readily apparent; but, significantly, the effect is to create an optimistic ending. Eva's act, though violent, is a way of resisting the oppression she has had to suffer. If Pecola is a suffering Christ, Eva is an avenging angel. Her crime is a symbolic liberation from the particular grotesqueness of her society.

The burden of color in The Bluest Eye becomes the curse of sexuality in Eva's Man. Domination in this book is exercised by men, of whatever color. Women are the ones who are victimized. Virtually every woman in the novel suffers some attack on her integrity. Just as Pecola was educated in color inferiority, so Eva goes through a long training in sexual politics. Every aspect of her society—family, folklore, friendships, marriage—is presented as infused with sexuality. Eva can no more escape the omnipresent phallus than Pecola could the ubiquitous blue eyes.

The family in this case seems almost normal. The mother is concerned that her daughter learn's proper social behavior, including the protection of her virtue. The father is a strong, authoritative figure who seems to deserve the respect he receives from Eva. But this situation is complicated by the presence of two other characters, Miss Billie and Tyrone. Miss Billie is the mother's closest friend, but her conversations are always related to the sexual aggressiveness of the men in the neighborhood. Thus the mother's teaching about chastity is complemented and contradicted by a sex education that demystifies and yet encourages sexuality. The primary lesson learned by Eva is that men are obsessed with sex.

Little in the book refutes this assertion. Tyrone is the mother's friend, though Eva, who narrates, can find no evidence of promiscuity. But Tyrone's attitude toward the child Eva is different. He finds her attractive, and despite her youth, he repeatedly attempts to seduce her.

This activity ends only when the father discovers what he believes to be the unfaithfulness of his wife. What is taught to Eva, however, is not the expected lesson. He waits until he has occasion to return home early and finds the “lovers” together. He then quietly dismisses Tyrone and focuses his hostility on his wife. Eva describes the scene:

Then it was like I could hear her clothes ripping. I don't know if the gentleness had been for me, or if it had been the kind of gentleness one gets before they let go. But now he was tearing that blouse off and those underthings. I didn't hear nothing from her the whole time. I didn't hear a thing from her.

“Act like a whore, I'm gonna [f——] you like a whore. You act like a whore, I'm gonna [f——] you like a whore.”

He kept saying that over and over. I was so scared. I kept feeling that after he tore all her clothes off, and there wasn't anymore to tear, he'd start tearing her flesh.5

What is important about this episode is not the obvious double standard, nor even the verbal and physical abuse; rather, it is the lesson taught Eva. It reinforces in a violent way what Miss Billie had said. The father, a figure of respect, becomes so obsessed that he punishes a woman Eva believes to be innocent instead of the man who she knows from her own experience is guilty. To the extent she believes her father, she must feel that she, too, can never be innocent, since Tyrone found her attractive. To the extent that she disapproves of her father's action, she realizes that no man is to be trusted in sexual matters. It is little wonder that she does not tell her father of Tyrone's real offenses.

This process of education is strengthened by the folklore of the community. In the most prominent case, Miss Billie tells the story of the queen bee. She is a woman who is cursed: each of the men she loves dies. The community holds her somehow responsible, even though she seems merely the victim of bad luck. When she falls in love again, she commits suicide rather than let another man die. Such a story only reinforces the view that women are by nature sinful, that they are responsible for the evil in the world. Original sin, in some cosmic way, has attached itself to the female gender. Eva is thus further encouraged to believe that a woman can never be innocent, even if she has done nothing.

This psychological training is complemented by her physical encounters with male companions. In addition to the trouble she has had with Tyrone, as a little girl she must deal with the sexually precocious Freddy. Although too young for intercourse, he is obsessed with the sexual act and substitutes a dirty popsicle stick for a penis when he play-acts a rape on Eva. When she tries to get advice about how to cope with his aggressions, Miss Billie only laughs and calls him a healthy young rooster. When another man later grabs for her crotch and she cuts his hand with a knife, she is the one put in jail for assault. Even the protection of her physical being is a matter of no consequence to her society. If she resists sexual encounters, then she is labelled silly or criminal. If she even appears to submit, then she will be labelled a whore.

She attempts to adapt herself to the distortions of her society despite her doubts. She marries James, a father figure, and moves with him to a new home. She becomes aware of his possible obsessiveness when he refuses to allow a telephone to be installed in the house, because, he says, he does not want her lovers calling. He reaches the high point of his madness when she repeats the mistake of her mother. A boy from the college she attends visits her one afternoon, and James comes home to find them talking. He then reenacts the violence of her father. Sending the boy away, he stares at her:

He was just sitting there, real hard, and then he just reached over and grabbed my shoulder, got up and started slapping me. “You think you are a whore, I'll treat you like a whore. You think you a whore, I'll treat you like a whore.”

Naw, he didn't slap me, he pulled up my dress and got between my legs.

“Think I can't do nothing. [f——] you like a damn whore.” Naw, I'm not lying. He said, “Act like a whore, I'll [f——] you like a whore.” Naw, I'm not lying.

(p. 163)

This confrontation serves to convince Eva that her gender is indeed her destiny, that she cannot delude herself that she can be different from her mother. But she is in fact different from both her mother and the queen bee, both of whom resign themselves to their condition. Unlike Pecola, Eva cannot accept the myth of her society.

When she next encounters a man who would rob her of her humanity, she strikes out. Her relationship with Davis begins ambiguously. He initiates it with a comment that is a refrain in the book. When she asks why he is interested in her, he says that something in her eyes told him what she wanted. This reading of the eyes is a presumption of all the men that meet Eva. What is read, of course, is sexual desire. Davis is another obsessed man.

Despite this fact, she returns to the apartment with him, though she knows that she cannot give what he wants, since she is menstruating. Two things are clear at this point. One is that Eva differentiates between sexuality and sexual domination. She makes the point several times that she enjoys intercourse, and she only resists the assumption that women are nothing other than their sexual organs. The second point is that she is not deluded into thinking that Davis must be, finally, the “right man.” The fact of her period makes it possible to test his perception of her.

He fails the test. Although he is kind and not initially insistent, he objectifies her to a greater extent than any other man. He will not allow her to leave the room or to comb her hair. He loses patience and takes her despite her condition. He also remains indifferent to her sexual preferences and concerns himself only with demonstrating his prowess. He will not listen to her story, and at one point, he mistakenly calls her Eve rather than Eva.

She does not this time tolerate her own reification. She first poisons him, and then, when he is dead, she indulges in sexual play with the body which culminates in her biting off his penis. This scene is comparable in shock effect to the rape of Pecola. But Gayl Jones uses hers to suggest complex possibilities by attaching mythic associations to it. When Eva arrives, she is bleeding from her period. Later, she comments that she has a pain in her side. At one point, she says that she feels as though there were large rusty nails in her hands. This Christ imagery is completed when, after the murder, she pictures herself being told by a man that her breasts are loaves of bread. Furthermore, Davis's misnaming of her has a strange appropriateness. At the moment of the castration, she relates her action to the biting of an apple. She is, in the light of these symbols, an Eve-Messiah who sacrifices another for both salvation and knowledge. She has gotten revenge for the death of the queen bee and the humiliation of her mother. But she has done this by symbolically liberating all women from the guilt attributed to them and by pointing to the true root of all evil.

She is mad, of course. And men put her in a prison for the criminally insane. Her incarceration replicates the confinement of her father's home, James's home, and Davis's apartment, all of which were clearly institutions for the insane. But in this case there is a kind of freedom in knowing that her resistance has made it possible to escape men. Her liberation is epitomized in the sexual attentions she receives from Elvira, her cellmate. Eva has nightmares, and her crime and situation are abnormal by all conventional standards. But this abnormality only serves to intensify the awareness that the society she has offended is an even greater obscenity.

The Bluest Eye and Eva's Man, though very different, are alike in their use of the conventions of the grotesque. Each involves some sort of obscenity that shocks our sensibilities. The incest of Morrison's book is outdone by the necrophilia and castration of Jones's. Each gives us central characters who are shown to be insane. But each also goes further, for the real grotesqueness in both is revealed to be primarily in the fictional worlds of the books. And these worlds are our world. The two black female characters, in their suffering, act as vehicles for criticizing America's treatment of blacks and women. The grotesque is an especially appropriate form for this commentary because it takes what is considered normal and twists it so that it loses its familiar qualities and becomes alien to us as the observers. In the case of these two novels, the normalities of American life, sex, and race are exaggerated to reveal their basic destructive absurdity. The actions and mental states of the heroines are clearly a function of the distortions and perversions of their worlds. Eva and Pecola respond to their impossible situations in ways that are unacceptable, and each of them enters a kind of prison. But we as readers are made to understand that the real horrors are still loose in the world.


  1. Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), p. 44.

  2. The Art of Southern Fiction: A Study of Some Modern Novelists (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), p. 118.

  3. “Defining the Grotesque: An Attempt at Synthesis,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art, 29 (1970), 258.

  4. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), p. 34. All further references to this work will be cited in the text.

  5. Gayl Jones, Eva's Man (New York: Random House, 1976), p. 37. All further references to this work will be cited in the text.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1659

The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison

(Born Chloe Anthony Wofford) American novelist, nonfiction writer, essayist, playwright, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye (1970) through 2000. For further information on her life and complete works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 10, 22, 87, and 194.

Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, examines the tragic effects of imposing white, middle-class American ideals of beauty on the developing female identity of a young African American girl during the early 1940s. Inspired by a conversation Morrison once had with an elementary school classmate who wished for blue eyes, the novel poignantly shows the psychological devastation of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who searches for love and acceptance in a world that denies and devalues people of her own race. As her mental state slowly unravels, Pecola hopelessly longs to possess the conventional American standards of feminine beauty—namely, white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes—as presented to her by the popular icons and traditions of white culture. Written as a fragmented narrative from multiple perspectives and with significant typographical deviations, The Bluest Eye juxtaposes passages from the Dick-and-Jane grammar school primer with memories and stories of Pecola's life alternately told in retrospect by one of Pecola's now-grown childhood friends and by an omniscient narrator. Published in the midst of the Black Arts movement that flourished during the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Bluest Eye has attracted considerable attention from literary critics—though not to the same degree as Morrison's later works. With its sensitive portrait of African American female identity and its astute critique of the internalized racism bred by American cultural definitions of beauty, The Bluest Eye has been widely seen as a literary watershed, inspiring a proliferation of literature written by African American women about their identity and experience as women of color.

Plot and Major Characters

Ignoring strict narrative chronology, The Bluest Eye opens with three excerpts from the common 1940s American elementary school primer that features the All-American, white family of Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane. The first excerpt is a faithful reproduction, the second lacks all capitalization and punctuation marks, and the third dissolves into linguistic chaos by abandoning its spacing and alignment. This section is interrupted by an italicized fragment representing the memories of Claudia MacTeer, the principal narrator of The Bluest Eye. As an adult, Claudia recalls incidents from late 1941 when she was nine years old living in Lorain, Ohio, with her poor but loving parents and her ten-year-old sister, Frieda. Claudia's friend, Pecola Breedlove, is an emotionally impaired African American girl who comes from a broken home. The rest of The Bluest Eye divides into four separate time sequences, each named for a season of the year and each narrated by Claudia. Interspersed throughout the text are fragments in the voice of an omniscient narrator that discuss Pecola's obsessive desire for blue eyes and her parents, Pauline and Cholly; each fragment is introduced with different lines from the Dick-and-Jane primer. In “Autumn,” Claudia begins her narrative as the MacTeers take in a boarder, Mr. Henry Washington. At the same time, Pecola comes to live with the MacTeer family after Cholly burns down his family's house. Recounting their typical girlhood adventures, Claudia particularly remembers the onset of Pecola's first menses. The omniscient narrator intermittently interrupts with descriptions of the Breedlove's household, noting how the parents are unable to hide the violence of their relationship in the presence of Pecola and her brother Sammy. In the midst of the hostilities, Pecola constantly prays for blue eyes, believing that if she only had blue eyes, life would be better. In “Winter,” Claudia recalls the arrival at school of Maureen Peale, a lighter-skinned, wealthy black girl with green eyes whom the girls both hate and admire. When a group of boys harasses Pecola, Maureen temporarily befriends Pecola, but eventually turns on her, calling the darker-skinned and deeply hurt Pecola “ugly.” The omniscient narrator again interrupts and describes an incident involving Pecola and Geraldine, a socially mobile middle-class African American woman who loves her blue-eyed cat more than she loves her own son, Louis Junior. When Pecola is wrongly blamed for the cat's death, Geraldine quietly calls her a “nasty little black bitch.” Claudia opens the “Spring” sequence of The Bluest Eye with disparate memories about Henry Washington fondling Frieda's breasts, his subsequent beating and eviction by Mr. MacTeer, and a visit to Pecola's apartment. The omniscient narrator's descriptions of Pauline and Cholly's history predominate the rest of this section. The narrator relates events from Pauline's early life, her marriage, and how she became a maid for an affluent, white family. The narrator next recounts Cholly's traumatic childhood and adolescence. Abandoned almost at birth, he is rescued by his beloved Aunt Jimmy, who later dies when he is sixteen. After her burial, Cholly is humiliated by two white hunters who interrupt his first sexual encounter with a girl named Darlene. He flees to Macon, Georgia, in search of his father who is miserably mean and wants nothing to do with his son. Crushed by this encounter, Cholly eventually meets and marries Pauline and fathers her children. Years later, in Lorain, a drunken Cholly staggers into his kitchen, and overcome with lust, brutally rapes and impregnates Pecola. “Spring” concludes with a story about Soaphead Church, a self-proclaimed psychic and mystic, who counsels an unattractive black girl who wishes she had blue eyes. In “Summer,” Claudia resumes her narration, recalling how the gossip spreads regarding Pecola being pregnant with Cholly's baby. Near the end of the novel, Pecola finally narrates a story about her conversation with an imaginary companion concerning her new blue eyes and whether they are “the bluest eyes” in the world. In the last section of The Bluest Eye Claudia remembers meeting Pecola after Cholly's baby is delivered stillborn and accounts for the whereabouts of Sammy, Cholly, and Pauline.

Major Themes

In The Bluest Eye, the opening excerpt from the Dick-and-Jane primer juxtaposed with the experiences of African American characters immediately sets the tone for Morrison's examination of a young black girl's growing self-hatred: American society tells Pecola happy, white, middle-class families are better than hopeless, black, working-class families. Victimized in different degrees by media messages—from movies and books to advertising and merchandise—that degrade their appearance, nearly every black character in the novel—both male and female—internalizes a desire for the white cultural standard of beauty. This desire is especially strong in Pecola, who believes that blue eyes will make her beautiful and lovable. At the same time, every African American character hates in various degrees anything associated with their own race, blindly accepting the media-sponsored belief that they are ugly and unlovable, particularly in the appalling absence of black cultural standards of beauty. In a sense, Pecola becomes the African American community's scapegoat for its own fears and feelings of unworthiness. Unlike Claudia, who possesses the love of her family, Pecola has learned from her appearance-conscious parents to devalue herself. She endures rejection by others who also value “appearances” and who ultimately share the same symptoms that characterize Pecola's insanity. Besides exposing the inherent racism of the American standard of beauty, The Bluest Eye also examines child abuse in terms of the violence that some African American parents subconsciously inflict on their children by forcing them to weigh their self-worth against white cultural standards. Cholly's rape of Pecola in effect culminates the psychological, social, and personal depreciation by white society that has raped Cholly his entire life. As his surname implies, Cholly can only breed, not love, and his brutal act against his daughter produces a child who cannot live. Finally, Pecola's longing for blue eyes speaks to the connection between how one is seen and how one sees. Pecola believes that if she had beautiful eyes, people would not be able to torment her mind or body. Her wish for blue eyes rather than lighter skin transcends racism, with its suggestion that Pecola wants to see things differently as much as to be seen differently, but the price for Pecola's wish ultimately is her sanity, as she loses sight of both herself and the world she inhabits.

Critical Reception

Regarded by modern literary critics as perhaps one of the first contemporary female bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narratives, The Bluest Eye initially received modest reviews upon its publication in 1970. Commentators later claimed that they neglected the work because Morrison was unknown at the time. Since then, however, The Bluest Eye has become a classroom staple, and scholarship on the novel has flourished from a number of perspectives. A recurring discussion has focused on the novel's ability to replicate African American vernacular patterns and musical rhythms. Many critics have approached the novel in the context of the rise of African American writers, assigning significance to their revision of American history with their own cultural materials and folk traditions. Others have considered the ways The Bluest Eye alludes to earlier black writings in order to express the traditionally silenced female point of view and uses conventional grotesque imagery as a vehicle for social protest. Scholars also have been attracted to The Bluest Eye by its deconstruction of “whiteness” along racial, gender, and economic lines, while feminists have equated the violence of the narrative with self-hatred wrought by a wide range of illusions about white American society and African American women's place in it. In addition, some have examined the influence of environment on the novel's characters, identifying stylistic affinities with literary naturalism. Others have offered Marxist interpretations of the novel's formal aspects in terms of the ideological content of its representation of African American life. Acknowledging Morrison's achievement in the novel, critics have generally acclaimed The Bluest Eye for deconstructing a number of literary taboos with its honest portrayals of American girlhood, its frank descriptions of intraracial racism or “colorism” in the African American community, and its thoughtful treatment of the emotional precocity of prepubescent girls.

Madonne M. Miner (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6083

SOURCE: Miner, Madonne M. “Lady No Longer Sings the Blues: Rape, Madness, and Silence in The Bluest Eye.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, pp. 176-91. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Miner links oral storytelling traditions to the process of self-definition in The Bluest Eye, exploring the intersections between Pecola's narrative and mythic accounts of Greek goddesses Philomena and Persephone.]

Robert Stepto begins a recent interview with Toni Morrison by commenting on the “extraordinary sense of place” in her novels. He notes that she creates specific geographical landscapes with street addresses, dates, and other such details.1 His observations certainly hold true for Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, set in a black neighborhood in Lorain, Ohio, in 1941. Reading The Bluest Eye, I feel as if I have been in the abandoned store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain where Pecola Breedlove lives, as if I have been over the territory traversed by the eleven-year-old black girl as she skips among tin cans, tires, and weeds.

Morrison's skill in creating this very specific place accounts, in part, for my sense of the strangely familiar, the uncanny, when I read her novel—but only in part. While reading, I am familiar not only with Pecola's neighborhood but also, in a more generalized way, with Pecola's story. The sequence of events in this story—a sequence of rape, madness, and silence—repeats a sequence I have read before. Originally manifest in mythic accounts of Philomela and Persephone, this sequence provides Morrison with an ancient archetype from which to structure her very contemporary account of a young black woman. In the pages which follow I want to explore intersections between these age-old myths and Morrison's ageless novel.

For an account of Philomela, we must turn to Ovid, who includes her story in his Metamorphoses (8 A.D.). According to the chronicler, this story begins with an act of separation: Procne leaves her much-loved sister, Philomela, to join her husband, Tereus, in Thrace. After several years, Procne convinces Tereus to make a trip to Athens and escort Philomela to Thrace for a visit. In Athens, Tereus barely manages to curb the lust he feels for Philomela. He caresses her with his eyes, watches possessively as she kisses her father good-bye, and uses each embrace, each kiss,

… to spur his rage, and feed his fire;
He wished himself her father—and yet no less
Would lust look hideous in a father's dress.(2)

Arriving in Thrace, Tereus drags Philomela into a dark wood and rapes her. The virgin calls out the names of father, sister, gods, but to no avail. Having indulged his lust, Tereus prepares to leave this “ringdove … with bloodstained plumes still fluttering” when she dares cry out against his sin:

“I'll speak your deed, and cast all shame away.
My voice shall reach the highest tract of air,
And gods shall hear, if gods indeed are there.”(3)

Tereus cannot tolerate such sacrilege against his name, so he perpetrates yet another rape: with pincers he

… gripped the tongue that cried his shame,
That stammered to the end her father's name,
That struggled still, and strangled utterance made,
And cut it from the root with barbarous blade.(4)

Deprived of speech and lodged in “walls of stone,” Philomela weaves the tale of her plight into a piece of fabric, which she then sends to Procne. When Procne learns of her sister's grief and her husband's treachery, she determines upon a most hideous revenge; she slays the son she has had with Tereus and feeds his remains to the unsuspecting father. While Ovid's story ends with this feast, popular mythology adds yet another chapter, transforming Philomela into a nightingale, damned forever to chirp the name of her rapist: tereu, tereu.

Obviously, male-violating-female functions as the core action within Philomela's story. Under different guises, this violation occurs several times: first, when Tereus ruptures the hymen of Philomela; second, when Tereus ruptures the connecting tissue of Philomela's tongue; and, finally, when he enters her body yet again (“Thereafter, if the frightening tale be true, / On her maimed form he wreaked his lust anew”5). With each act Tereus asserts his presence, his sensual realm, and denies the very existence of such a realm (encompassing not only sensuality, but the senses themselves) to Philomela. As if to reinforce the initial violation, Tereus, following his act of rape, encloses Philomela in silence, in stone walls. He thereby forces her to assume externally imposed configurations instead of maintaining those natural to her.

If man-raping-woman functions as the most basic “mythemic act”6 in Philomela's story, the most basic mythemic inter-act involves not only this pair, but another: father and sister of the rape victim. When, for example, Ovid notes that Tereus, lusting for Philomela, “wished himself her father,” and when the chronicler describes Philomela, in the midst of the rape, calling out her father's name (for help, of course, but for what else?) he sets the act of violence within a familial matrix. Thus, we cannot limit consideration of this act's motivations and ramifications to two individuals. Interestingly enough, however, just as the basic mythemic act (man raping woman) robs the woman of identity, so too the mythemic interact; dependent upon familial roles for personal verification (“mother of,” “sister of,” “wife of”7) the female must fear a loss of identity as the family loses its boundaries—or, more accurately, as the male transgresses these boundaries.

Having noted the most important structural elements in Philomela's story, we cross an ocean, several centuries and countless historical, racial, and class lines before coming to the story of Pecola. Despite obvious contextual differences between the two stories, structural similarities abound. Individual mythemes from Philomela's story appear, without distortion, in that of Pecola. First, in various ways and at various costs, the female figure suffers violation: by Mr. Yacobowski, Junior, Bay Boy and friends, Cholly, Soaphead. Second, with this violation a man asserts his presence as “master,” “man-in-control,” or “god” at the expense of a young woman who exists only as someone to “impress upon.” Third, following the violation/assertion, this woman suffers an enclosure or undesirable transformation; she cowers, shrinks, or resides behind walls of madness. Finally, the most characteristic example of violation/assertion/destruction occurs within the family matrix; Cholly Breedlove rapes his own daughter, violating a standard code of familial relations. We now might look more closely at individual instances of mythemes structuring the Pecola story.

An early, and paradigmatic, example of male transgression and subsequent female silence occurs in the “See the Cat” section. Junior, a tyrannical, unloving black boy, invites a rather credulous Pecola into his house, ostensibly to show her some kittens; like Philomela, Pecola has no idea of the dangers involved in trusting herself to a male guide. Once inside, engrossed in admiration of the furnishings, she forgets about Junior until he insists that she acknowledge him:

She was deep in admiration of the flowers when Junior said, “Here!” Pecola turned. “Here is your kitten!” he screeched. And he threw a big black cat right in her face.8

Pecola immediately responds to this unexpected penetration by sucking in her breath; metaphorically she draws herself inward. She then attempts to flee, but just as Tereus confines Philomela behind stone walls, Junior confines Pecola behind the wall of his will:

Junior leaped in front of her. “You can't get out. You're my prisoner,” he said. His eyes were merry but hard. … He pushed her down, ran out the door that separated the rooms, and held it shut with his hands.

(pp. 73-74)

Male realms expand as those of the female suffer an almost fatal contraction.

Junior does not actually rape Pecola. Morrison, however, duplicates the dynamics of the scene between Junior and Pecola in a scene between Cholly and Pecola, where rape does occur. Eleven-year-old Pecola stands at the sink, scraping away at dirty dishes, when her father, drunk, staggers into the kitchen. Unlike Tereus and Junior, Cholly does not carry his victim into foreign territories; rather, Pecola's rape occurs within her own house, and this fact increases its raw horror (Morrison denies us the cover of metaphor and confronts us directly with a father's violation of his daughter). As Morrison explains, several factors motivate Cholly, but the two thoughts floating through his besotted brain immediately prior to his penetration of Pecola point, once more, to his desire for confirmation of his presence. First, a gesture of Pecola's, a scratching of the leg, reminds him of a similar gesture of Pauline's—or, more accurately, reminds him of his own response to this gesture. He repeats his response, catching Pecola's foot in his hand, nibbling on the flesh of her leg, just as he had done with Pauline, so many years before. Of consequence here is not Pecola's gesture, but Cholly's belief that he can regain an earlier perception of himself as young, carefree and whimsical by using this girl/woman as medium. When Pecola, however, unlike the laughing Pauline, remains stiff and silent, Cholly shifts to a second train of thought, a second stimulus to self-assertion: “The rigidness of her shocked body, the silence of her stunned throat, was better than Pauline's easy laughter had been. The confused mixture of his memories of Pauline and the doing of a wild and forbidden thing excited him, and a bolt of desire ran down his genitals, giving it length” (p. 128). Thus, on a literal level, Cholly expands as Pecola contracts:

The tightness of her vagina was more than he could bear. His soul seemed to slip down to his guts and fly out into her, and the gigantic thrust he made into her then provoked the only sound she made—a hollow suck of air in the back of her throat. Like the rapid loss of air from a circus balloon.

(p. 128)

As in the episode with Junior, Pecola sucks inward, but without positive effect; like a deflating circus balloon, she loses the benefits of lifegiving oxygen and the power of speech.

To enforce this silence, Cholly need not cut off Pecola's tongue or imprison her behind stone walls. The depresencing of Pecola Breedlove takes a different form from that of Philomela. Upon regaining consciousness following the rape, Pecola is able to speak; she tells Mrs. Breedlove what has happened. But as Mrs. Breedlove does not want to hear and does not want to believe, Pecola must recognize the futility of attempted communication. Thus when Cholly, like Tereus, rapes a second time, Pecola keeps the story to herself; in silence this eleven-year-old girl steps across commonly accepted borders of reason and speech to enter her own personal world of silence and madness. Pecola's “self” becomes so crazed, so fragmented, that it conducts conversations with itself—and with no one else:

“How come you don't talk to anybody?”

“I talk to you.”

“Besides me.”

“I don't like anybody besides you. …”

“You don't talk to anybody. You don't go to school. And nobody talks to you.”

(p. 153)

Of course, when Pecola comments that her mirror image does not engage other people in conversation, she engages in self-commentary; “I” and “you” are one and the same. Tragically, even when combined, this “I” and “you” do not compose one whole being. Claudia's description of the mutilated Pecola leaves no doubt that she no longer exists as a reasonable human being; like Philomela-turned-nightingale, the “little-girl-gone-to-woman” undergoes a transformation:

The damage done was total. … Elbows bent, hands on shoulders, she flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly. Beating the air, a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue void it could not reach—could not even see—but which filled the valleys of the mind.

(p. 158)

Silent, isolated, insane: Pecola cannot escape.

In depicting the effects of rape on one young woman, Morrison sets into motion a series of associations that take their cue from gender. Men, potential rapists, assume presence, language, and reason as their particular province. Women, potential victims, fall prey to absence, silence, and madness.9 An understanding of the powerful dynamics behind this allotment of presence/absence, language/silence, reason/madness along sexual lines contributes to an understanding of the painful truths contained in Philomela's story, in Pecola's story, and in the story of yet another rape victim: Persephone. While clearly related to the Philomela myth, that of Persephone differs in certain details which, when brought to The Bluest Eye, prompt an even richer reading of the novel. Before engaging in an application of Persephone's story to that of Pecola, however, we might look at three different renditions of the Persephone myth, each of which may advance our understanding of the way Persephone's and Pecola's stories intersect mythopoetically.

Homer sets a springtime mood of warmth, gaiety, youthfulness, and beauty as he begins his rendition of Persephone's story:

Now I will sing / of golden-haired Demeter,
the awe-inspiring goddess,
and of her trim-ankled daughter,
who was frolicking in a grassy meadow.(10)

When Pluto, god of the underworld, abducts the “trim-ankled” young woman (and surely it is not mere coincidence that Morrison specifies Pecola's ankles as a stimulant to Cholly's desire) this mood changes abruptly; in terror, the virgin shrieks for her father, Zeus. While noting that Persephone directs her shrieks to her father, Homer also comments on the virgin's hopes relative to her mother:

Still glimpsing the earth,
the brilliant sky,
the billowing, fish-filled sea
and the rays of the sun,
Persephone vainly hoped to see her mother again.(11)

Homer establishes a causal connection between rape and the loss of a particular vision. He further substantiates this connection in Demeter's response to her daughter's rape, a punitive response which involves Demeter's changing the world so that its occupants will no longer see fruits and flowers:

She made that year
most shocking and frightening
for mortals who lived on the nourishing earth.
The soil did not yield a single seed.
Demeter kept them all underground.(12)

The goddess imposes a sensual deprivation on mortals parallel to the sensual deprivation suffered by her daughter (note that The Bluest Eye opens with a statement of similar deprivation: “Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941”). By the end of the hymn, Demeter and Pluto reach a compromise; half of the year Persephone resides with her mother and the flowers grow; during the other half, Persephone remains with Pluto and the earth produces no fruits.

James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, relates another version of the Persephone story. In substance, Frazer comes very close to Homer; in detail, however, the two diverge, and Frazer's details reverberate in The Bluest Eye. First, Frazer provides more specifics about Persephone's “frolic”; the young woman gathers “roses and lilies, crocuses and violets, hyacinths and narcissuses in a lush meadow.”13 Individual flowers in Frazer's catalog call forth associations of importance to The Bluest Eye: the virginal lily, bloody hyacinth (taking its color from the slain youth, Hyacinthus, beloved of Apollo) and narcotic Narcissus (taking its name from the self-enclosed youth, Narcissus, capable of seeing only himself).14 The mythic situation itself, flower picking, finds an analog in the novel as Pecola, on her way to the candy store, peers into the heads of yellow dandelions. Second, Frazer's more detailed description of Persephone's abduction and underworld residence might serve as metaphoric description of Pecola's state of mind following her rape: “the earth gaped and Pluto, Lord of the Dead, issuing from the abyss, carried her off … to be his bride and queen in the gloomy subterranean world.15 Finally, when Frazer concludes the story, he notes that although the “grim Lord of the Dead” obeys Zeus's command to restore Persephone to Demeter, this Lord first gives his mistress the seed of a pomegranate to eat, which ensures that she will return to him. Tereus and Cholly also “give seeds” to women, thereby ensuring that the women never will be able to reassume their previously experienced wholeness.

In a very recent reworking of the Persephone story, Phyllis Chesler focuses most intently on the fate of this myth's female characters. Because she places women's experiences at the center of her version, Chesler begins with a chapter of the story which does not appear in Homer and Frazer: Persephone menstruates. Further, Chesler specifies the nature of certain acts and relationships that her male counterparts choose to obscure; she identifies rape as rape, fathers as fathers:

One morning Persephone menstruated. That afternoon, Demeter's daughters gathered flowers to celebrate the loveliness of the event. A chariot thundered, then clattered into their midst. It was Hades, the middle aged god of death, come to rape Persephone, come to carry her off to be his queen, to sit beside him in the realm of non-being below the earth, come to commit the first act of violence earth's children had ever known. Afterwards, the three sisters agreed that he was old enough to be Persephone's father. Perhaps he was; who else could he be? There were no known male parents … and thus they discovered that in shame and sorrow childhood ends, and that nothing remains the same.16

Morrison, like Chesler, pays attention to female rites of passage; she includes a description of Pecola's first menstruation, an experience which bonds Pecola to her adopted sisters, Claudia and Frieda. Also like Chesler, Morrison insists on the paternal identity of the rapist (Pecola need not shriek the name of father as Philomela and Persephone do; father is right there) and emphasizes that the rape act brings one entire way of life to a close (“nothing remains the same”). This rapport between Chesler's Persephone and Morrison's Pecola surfaces in conclusions to the stories as well. Chesler writes:

Persephone still had to visit her husband once each year (in winter, when no crops could grow), but her union with him remained a barren one. Persephone was childless. Neither husband nor child—no stranger would ever claim her as his own.17

Pecola's fate runs along strikingly parallel lines. Despite the offerings and incantations of Claudia and Frieda, Pecola miscarries and remains childless. Grown people turn away, children laugh, and no stranger attempts to share Pecola's world.

Structurally, the stories of Philomela, Persephone, and Pecola share the same blueprint: violated by a male relative, a young virgin suffers sensual loss of such an extreme that her very identity is called into question. In one brutally explicit scene Ovid conveys the terror of Philomela's sensual loss—Tereus severs his sister-in-law's tongue and deprives her of speech. As chroniclers of this same basic female experience, Homer, Frazer, and Chesler also must convey the terror of sensual loss. In their versions, however, sight rather than speech assumes priority, and they convey the terror of deprivation not in one explicit scene, but by depicting the ramifications of an altered vision. Of course, this particular emphasis encourages yet further consideration of the Persephone myth and Morrison's novel, the very title of which suggests an interest in the way vision structures our world. This interest, reflected in the novel's title (what does it mean to see through “the bluest eye”?) and in sectional titles (how does one “see mother,” “see father”?) springs naturally from Morrison's more fundamental interests: how does the world see a young black girl? how does a young black girl see a world? and finally, what are the correspondences between presence/absence, vision/nonvision, male/female?

As described by various psychologists and psychoanalysts,18 the processes of identity construction and personal integration involve an extremely sensitive and constantly shifting balance between seeing and being seen—so that, for example, only after an infant sees itself reflected in the mother's eyes (that is, given a presence) can the infant, through its own eyes, bestow a presence on others. Throughout The Bluest Eye, Morrison provides several examples of the ways sex and race may prompt a dangerous distortion of this visual balance. An early instance of this distortion, and subsequent personal disintegration, occurs during an exchange between Pecola and Mr. Yacobowski, white male proprieter of a candy store on Garden Avenue.19 Pecola enjoys her walk to Mr. Yacobowski's store. Many times she has seen that crack in the walk, this clump of dandelions. Having seen them, she grants them a reality, a reality which redounds to include Pecola herself:

These and other inanimate things she saw and experienced. They were real to her. She knew them. … She owned the crack … she owned the clump of dandelions. … And owning them made her part of the world, and the world part of her.

(p. 41)

Such a happy rapport between viewer and vision is short-lived, however. When Pecola enters the candy store and comes under Mr. Yacobowski's eyes, her existence, as well as the existence of her world, become matters of doubt. Mr. Yacobowski does not see her:

Somewhere between retina and object, between vision and view, his eyes draw back, hesitate, and hover. At some fixed point in time and space he senses that he need not waste the effort of a glance. He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see

(pp. 41-42, my italics)

In effect, this scene parallels previously described rape scenes in the novel: male denies presence to female. Pecola cannot defend herself against this denial: “she looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity ought to lodge. And something more. The total absence of human recognition—the glazed separateness” (p. 42). Nor can she defend her world; walking home, she rejects dandelions she formerly has favored. They, like Pecola herself, certainly will not satisfy standards that the blue eyes of a Mr. Yacobowski may impose:

Dandelions. A dart of affection leaps out from her to them. But they do not look at her and do not send love back. She thinks “They are ugly. They are weeds.”

(p. 43)

Before contact with this white male, Pecola creates belief in both a world and a self; following contact with Yacobowski, her conjuring powers impaired, she abandons the effort.

A second example of visual distortion finds Pecola face to face with Geraldine, one of those “brown girls from Mobile and Aiken” able to construct inviolable worlds by imposing strict boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable, the seen and the unseen. Unlike Mr. Yacobowski, Geraldine does look at Pecola, but, like Yacobowski, Geraldine does not see Pecola; she sees only a series of signs, a symbolic configuration. Thus, when Geraldine returns home and discovers a shrieking son, a frying feline on the radiator, and an unfamiliar black girl in her living room, she responds by distancing herself from Pecola. With no qualms whatsoever she relegates the young girl to the general category of “black female who is an embarrassment to us all”, or, “black female whom we would prefer to keep out of sight”:

She looked at Pecola. Saw the dirty torn dress, the plaits sticking out of her head, hair matted where the plaits had come undone, the muddy shoes with the wad of gum peeking out from between the cheap soles, the soiled socks, one of which had been walked down into the heel of the shoe. She saw the safety pin holding the hem of the dress up. … She had seen this little girl all of her life.

(p. 75)

Pecola, for Geraldine, serves as symbol of everything ugly, dirty, and degrading. Physically as well as symbolically, Geraldine must negate Pecola, must deny the ragged eleven-year-old access to her world. The woman who does not sweat in her armpits or thighs, who smells of wood and vanilla (pp. 70-71) says to Pecola, quietly says to Pecola: “‘Get out. … You nasty little black bitch. Get out of my house!’” (p. 75). In other words, get out of my world, out of the vision I construct before and about me. Pecola leaves. As she leaves, she hangs her head, lowers her eyes; incapable of defending herself against visual distortion, Pecola attempts to deny vision altogether. But, even here, she fails: “she could not hold it [her head] low enough to avoid seeing the snowflakes falling and dying on the pavement” (p. 76). These snowflakes, falling and dying, suggest the visual perimeters of Pecola's world. In an earlier comment, Morrison generalizes as to the nature of these perimeters: “She would see only what there was to see: the eyes of other people” (p. 40). As these eyes do not see her, or see her only as a sign of something other, Pecola loses sight of herself.

Although Pecola's encounters with Mr. Yacobowski and Geraldine serve as the most complete and sensitively drawn examples of visual imbalance, they merely reenforce a pattern of imbalance begun much earlier in Pecola's life—for that matter, begun even before Pecola sees the light of day, while she is in Pauline's womb. During the nine months of pregnancy, Pauline spends most afternoons at the movies, picking up an education in white values of beauty and ugliness. Morrison describes this education as yet another violation of male on female, white on black. There, in a darkened theater, images come together, “all projected through the ray of light from above and behind” (p. 97). This ray of light resembles a gigantic eyeball (apologies to Emerson) which defines the boundaries of existence and which, of necessity, projects a white male vision. Having absorbed these silver-screen values, Pauline conjures up “a mind's eye view” of her soon-to-be-born child more in keeping with white fantasy than black reality. Upon birth, Pecola gives the lie to this view, and Pauline expresses her disappointment:

So when I seed it, it was like looking at a picture of your mama when she was a girl. You know who she is, but she don't look the same. … Head full of pretty hair, but Lord she was ugly.

(p. 99)

As various psychologists attest, the mother's gaze is of primary importance in generating a child's sense of self. Tragically, Pauline looks at her infant daughter and then looks away.

Morrison's novel contains repeated instances of Pecola's negation as other characters refuse to see her. The Bluest Eye also provides numerous instances of Pecola's desire to hide her own eyes, thereby refusing to acknowledge certain aspects of her world. Morrison articulates this desire for self-abnegation most explicitly in a postscript to her description of a typical fight between family members in the Breedlove home. Mrs. Breedlove hits Cholly with a dishpan, Cholly returns the blow with his fists, Sammy strikes at Cholly while shouting “you naked fuck,” and Pecola covers her head with a quilt. The quilt of course cannot completely block out this scene, so Pecola prays that God will make her disappear. Receiving no response from the man in the sky, she does her best on her own:

She squeezed her eyes shut. Little parts of her body faded away. Now slowly, now with a rush. Slowly again. Her fingers went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow. Her feet now. Yes, that was good. The legs all at once. It was hardest above the thighs. She had to be real still and pull. Her stomach would not go. But finally it, too, went away. Then her chest, her neck. The face was hard too. Almost done, almost. Only her tight, tight eyes were left. They were always left.

Try as she might, she could never get her eyes to disappear. So what was the point? They were everything. Everything was there, in them.

(p. 39)

These paragraphs forcefully convey Pecola's desire and her notion of how she might realize it. If Pecola were to see things differently, she might be seen differently; if her eyes were different, her world might be different too.20 As Morrison deals out one ugly jigsaw piece after another, as she fits the pieces together to construct Pecola's world, we come to understand the impulse behind Pecola's desire, as well as its ultimate futility. When boys shout at her, “‘Black e mo Black e mo Ya daddy sleeps nekked'” (p. 55), Pecola drops her head and covers her eyes; when Maureen accuses her of having seen her father naked, Pecola maintains her innocence by disclaiming, “‘I wouldn't even look at him, even if I did see him'” (p. 59); when Maureen attacks her yet again Pecola tucks her head in “a funny, sad, helpless movement. A kind of hunching of the shoulders, pulling in of the neck, as though she wanted to cover her ears” (p. 60). By covering ears, eyes, and nose Pecola attempts to shut out the testimony of her senses. Reminded of her own ugliness or that of her world, she repeatedly resorts to an elemental self-denial.

Pecola quavers when Mr. Yacobowski and Geraldine refuse to acknowledge her. She shrinks in fear when Maureen and Bay Boy insist on acknowledging her ugliness. Quavering and shaking, Pecola does maintain a hold on her world and herself—until Cholly smashes her illusions about the possibility of unambivalent love in this world. Throughout the novel, Pecola ponders the nature of love, pursues it as a potentially miraculous phenomenon. On the evening of her first menstruation, for example, she asks, “‘How do you do that? I mean, how do you get somebody to love you'” (p. 29). And, after a visit to Marie, Poland, and China, Pecola ponders, “What did love feel like? … How do grownups act when they love each other? Eat fish together?” (p. 48). When Cholly rapes his daughter, he commits a sacrilege—not only against Pecola, but against her vision of love and its potential. Following the rape, Pecola, an unattractive eleven-year-old black girl, knows that for her, even love is bound to be dirty, ugly, of a piece with the fabric of her world. Desperate, determined to unwind the threads that compose this fabric, Pecola falls back on an early notion: the world changes as the eyes which see it change. To effect this recreation, Pecola seeks out the only magician she knows, Soaphead Church, and presents him with the only plan she can conceive. She asks that he make her eyes different, make them blue—blue because in Pecola's experience only those with blue eyes receive love: Shirley Temple, Geraldine's cat, the Fisher girl.

In its emotional complications, Soaphead's response to Pecola's request resembles Cholly's response to Pecola's defeated stance; both men move through misdirected feelings of love, tenderness, and anger.21 Soaphead perceives Pecola's need and knows that he must direct the anger he feels not at her, but rather at the God who has encased her within black skin and behind brown eyes. But finally, when Soaphead decides to “look at that ugly black girl” and love her (p. 143), he violates her integrity in much the same way Cholly violates her body when he forces open her thighs. Prompted by the desire to play God and to make this performance a convincing one, Soaphead casts Pecola in the role of believer. Thus, although he sees Pecola more accurately than other characters do, he subordinates his vision of her to his vision of self-as-God. He later boasts in his letter “To He Who Greatly Ennobled Human Nature by Creating It”:

I did what you did not, could not, would not do. I looked at that ugly little black girl, and I loved her. I played You. And it was a very good show!

(p. 143)

Of course, the script for this show sends Pecola into realms of madness. Even Soaphead acknowledges that “No one else will see her blue eyes” (p. 143), but Soaphead justifies himself first on the grounds that “she will love happily ever after” and then, more honestly, on the grounds that “I, I have found it meet and right to do so” (p. 143). In other words, Soaphead's creation of false belief is not necessarily right for Pecola, but for himself. Morrison substantiates this assessment of Soaphead's creation a few pages later, when she portrays its effect on Pecola. Imprisoned now behind blue eyes, the schizophrenic little girl can talk only to herself. Obviously, this instance of male-female interaction parallels earlier scenes from the novel: “rape” occurs as Soaphead elevates himself at the expense of Pecola.

In The Raw and the Cooked Lévi-Strauss observes: “There exists no veritable end or term to mythical analysis, no secret unity which could be grasped at the end of the work of decomposition. The themes duplicate themselves to infinity.”22 Although the stories of Philomela, Persephone, and Pecola do not form a composite whole, each of them, with its varied and individual emphases, contributes to a much larger woman's myth, which tells of denial and disintegration, which unveils the oft-concealed connections between male reason, speech, presence and female madness, silence, absence. As a young black woman, Pecola assumes an especially poignant position in this growing complex of mythic representations; she is absent (and absenced) in relation to the norms of male culture and in relation to the norms of white culture. Ultimately, I read Pecola's story as a tragic version of the myth; this twentieth-century black woman remains behind blue eyes, an inarticulate, arm-fluttering bird. But I cannot read The Bluest Eye as tragedy; Claudia, our sometimes-narrator, speaks, as does Morrison, our full-time novelist. Thus, although the novel documents the sacrifice of one black woman, it attests to the survival of two others—a survival akin to that of Philomela or Persephone—filled with hardship, but also with hope.


  1. Robert Stepto, “‘Intimate Things in Place’: A Conversation with Toni Morrison,” in The Third Woman, ed. Dexter Fisher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), p. 167.

  2. A. E. Watts, trans., The Metamorphoses of Ovid (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954), p. 131.

  3. Watts, p. 133.

  4. Ibid., p. 133.

  5. Ibid., p. 133.

  6. I take this term from Claude Lévi-Strauss. For an explanation of Lévi-Strauss's modus operandi see Robert Scholes, Structuralism in Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), pp. 68-74.

  7. “From her initial family upbringing throughout her subsequent development, the social role assigned to the women is that of serving an image, authoritative and central, of man: a woman is first and foremost a daughter/a mother/a wife.” Shoshana Felman, “Women and Madness: The Critical Phallacy,” Diacritics 5 (1975), p. 2.

  8. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Pocket Books, 1979), p. 73. I will include all further page citations from Morrison's novel within the body of my text.

  9. An observation from Shoshana Felman about Balzac's short story “Adieu” condenses many of the associations described. Felman notes: “the dichotomy Reason/Madness, as well as Speech/Silence, exactly coincides in this text with the dichotomy Men/Women. Women as such are associated both with madness and with silence, whereas men appear not only as the possessors, but also as the dispensers, of reason, which they can at will mete out to—or take away from—others. … Masculine reason thus constitutes a scheme to capture and master, indeed, metaphorically RAPE the woman” (p. 7).

  10. Penelope Proddow, trans., Demeter and Persephone, Homeric Hymn Number Two (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1972), n.p.

  11. Ibid., my italics.

  12. Ibid., n.p.

  13. Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (New York: Macmillan and Company, 1950), p. 456.

  14. According to Frazer, in the original Homeric myth Persephone, drawn by the sight of narcissues, moves beyond the reach of help. The choice of this particular plant as lure is of interest not only because of the Narcissus myth, but also because of recent psychoanalytic readings of this myth. These readings stress the importance of a child's progression through a stage of narcissistic self-love and suggest that this progression can occur only with the help of a mother-figure who assures the child of external love.

  15. Frazer, p. 456.

  16. Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness (New York: Avon Books, 1973), p. xiv.

  17. Ibid., p. xv.

  18. See, for example, D. W. Winnicott, “Mirror-role of Mother and Family in Child Development,” in The Predicament of the Family, ed. Peter Lomas (New York: International University Press, 1967), pp. 26-33; Heinz Lichtenstein, “The Role of Narcissism in the Emergence and Maintenance of a Primary Identity,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 45 (1964), pp. 49-56.

  19. Why specify “Garden Avenue”? Perhaps Morrison wants to suggest that Pecola's experience is the twentieth-century urban counterpart to Persephone's experience in an actual garden?

  20. “If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they'd say, ‘Why look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn't do bad things in front of these pretty eyes'” (p. 40).

  21. Compare, for example, Cholly's response (pp. 127-28) to that of Soaphead (p. 137).

  22. Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked (New York: Harpers, 1969), p. 5.

Principal Works

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The Bluest Eye (novel) 1970

Sula (novel) 1973

The Black Book [editor] (nonfiction) 1974

Song of Solomon (novel) 1977

Tar Baby (novel) 1981

Dreaming Emmett (play) 1986

Beloved (novel) 1987

Jazz (novel) 1992

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (essays) 1992

Rac-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality [editor and author of introduction] (essays) 1992

*The Dancing Mind (speech) 1997

Paradise (novel) 1998

The Big Box [with Slade Morrison; illustrations by Giselle Potter] (juvenilia) 1999

I See You, I See Myself: The Young Life of Jacob Lawrence [with Deba Foxley Leach, Suzanne Wright, and Deborah J. Leach] (juvenilia) 2001

Book of Mean People [with Slade Morrison; illustrations by Pascal Lemaître] (juvenilia) 2002

*This work contains the text of Morrison's 1996 acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Ruth Rosenberg (essay date winter 1987)

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SOURCE: Rosenberg, Ruth. “Seeds in Hard Ground: Black Girlhood in The Bluest Eye.MELUS 21, no. 4 (winter 1987): 435-45.

[In the following essay, Rosenberg discusses several aspects of The Bluest Eye that differentiate Morrison's novel from earlier fictional accounts of African American girlhood, including descriptions of first menses and mother-daughter interactions, “colorism,” and the emotional precocity of pre-adolescent girls.]

Little black girls learned their lessons in self-authentication from autobiographies of such artists as Mahalia Jackson, Maya Angelou, and Bessie Smith, which explained how, in spite of immense obstacles, one might fashion a self.1 When Sherley Anne Williams was a troubled twelve-year-old in the fifties, she searched, in vain, through the shelves of her junior high school library for some fictionalized depiction of her own problems. Because she found nothing there that would speak to her difficulties, she says, she “was led, almost inevitably … to the autobiographies of women entertainers—Eartha Kitt, Katherine Dunham, Ethel Waters. The material circumstances of their childhood were so much worse than mine; they too had had to cope with early and forced sex and sexuality, with mothers who could not express love in the terms that they so desperately needed. Yet they had risen above this, turned their difference into something that was respected in the world beyond their homes. I, in the free North, could do no less than endure” (196).

Black girls did not exist as far as the publishers of school anthologies were concerned. Barbara Dodds Stanford writes that “‘Whites Only’ could have been stamped on almost every literature series for high school students published before 1965” (3). Nancy Larrick, who studied 5,206 children's books published between 1962 and 1964, claims that only 349 of those thousands of books include even one black child either in the illustrations or the text. Of that 6.7 percent which do show a black child, all but a small fraction are “set outside the United States or before World War II. Quite clearly, the books used in American schools were primarily by and about white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class people” (84-85).

It was this absence of fictionalized characters with whom she could identify that started Sherley Anne Williams “on the road to being a writer” (195). At some point, in virtually every interview with a black woman writer, comes a similar admission. The consistent response to the question of why she became an author is that she could not find the books that she needed. Alice Walker has said that she was forced “to write all the things I should have read” (“Saving the Life That Is Your Own” 157).

Toni Morrison was a precocious reader as a child, but it was not until she discovered the Russian novelists that she found herself spoken to. Otherwise, she felt herself shunted to the sidelines. She mourned for “‘the people who in all literature were always peripheral—little black girls who were props, background, those people were never center stage, and those people were me'” (Strouse 54). Asked why she had written The Bluest Eye (1970), she responded, “‘I was interested in reading a kind of book that I had never read before. I didn't know if such a book existed, but I had just never read it in 1964 when I started writing The Bluest Eye’” (Parker 252).

Working out of her memory of what Lorain, Ohio, had been like in 1940, she reconstructed her own childhood. Placed center stage are three little girls: the book's narrator, Claudia Macteer, 9; her sister Frieda, 10; and their friend Pecola Breedlove, 11. It is an initiation story so unlike any other that had been done before that Toni Cade Bambara says her students have difficulty dealing with it. Among other things they fail to appreciate the traumatic aspects of the first menses because the onset of menstruation is not something that is valued in our culture. As Bambara notes, “The initiation or rites of passage of the young girl is not one of the darlings of American literature. The coming of age for the young boy is certainly much more the classic case. I wonder if it all means that we don't put a value on our process of womanhood” (Guy-Sheftall 247).2

Morrison renders not only the terror and the mystery of that initial bleeding, but also the older sister's competence in handling it. As Pecola stands with the blood trickling down her legs, her eyes rimmed with fear, asking if she's going to die, Frieda explains, “‘That's ministratin''” (25), and dispatches Claudia for some water to clean the steps. The younger sister's resentment at missing whatever important things are going on in the bushes with a white rectangle of cotton is vented against the prying girl from next door who then screams out that they are “‘playing nasty'” (27). Mrs. Macteer runs out, pulling a switch from the bush and whipping Frieda with four stinging cuts on the leg. About to punish Pecola, too, she notices “the white tail” and the “little-girl-gone-to-woman pants” (28) and hugs them both. That Claudia still does not comprehend what is happening becomes evident in her panic as she listens outside the bathroom and hears the water gushing into the tub. When she asks if Pecola is being drowned, Frieda answers, “‘Oh, Claudia. You so dumb. She's just going to wash her clothes and all'” (28). Later that night as they sleep together, they “were full of awe and respect for Pecola. Lying next to a real person who was really ministratin' was somehow sacred” (28). Claudia needs her sister to interpret her experience for her. The children are forced to rely on each other for information, since adults make themselves so inaccessible.

The child's intense curiosity is not responded to verbally. Adults demand deference and fend off questions. They maintain a social distance between themselves and their children through non-reciprocal conversations. Claudia says, “Adults do not talk to us—they give us directions. They issue orders without providing information” (12). Communication is a hierarchically structured, one-way transmission. Claudia observes that “we didn't initiate talk with grownups; we answered their questions” (22). Another strictly enforced rule, in the forties at least, was the insistence upon terms of respect. A child had to address her mother as “Ma'am.”

A new boarder's arrival in the Macteer household provides another occasion to instruct the children about their place. Their status, it is impressed upon them, is a little lower than that of the furniture: “Frieda and I were not introduced to him—merely pointed out. Like, here is the bathroom; the clothes closet is here; and these are my kids” (16).

Parents express their concern through the strict annihilation of any vestige of impropriety, through lashing out. Each season brings a change in whipping style for the Macteer girls: “They beat us differently in the spring. Instead of the dull pain of a winter strap, there were these new green switches that lost their sting long after the whipping was over. There was a nervous meanness in these long twigs that made us long for the steady stroke of a strap or the firm but honest slap of a hairbrush” (78).

Since parental concern manifests itself in this way, an act of translation is required to read the love latent in it. Claudia shows her ability to realize that she is loved during an illness—the vehicle of her understanding being the pair of rough hands that smear salve on her chest. In an interview with Robert Stepto, Morrison confirms this belated realization, so beautifully inscribed in her first novel: “‘And when they punished us or hollered at us, it was, at the time, we thought, so inhibiting and so cruel, and it's only much later that you realize that they were interested in you,’” that “‘they cared'” (214). Claudia's recognition that she is loved must come through her other senses because it is never told to her. Expressions of maternal concern are seldom verbalized in The Bluest Eye; rather, they are beaten into the child, inscribed on her skin. It was this maternal attitude that Sherley Anne Williams had, as a girl, hoped to find expressed in fiction by black women and whose absence fixed her determination to write about the issue. Only in black women's autobiographies did she find how others coped “with mothers who could not express love in the terms … [children] so desperately needed.”3

Certainly nine-year-old Claudia does not feel coddled, and her claims for attention are never overtly acknowledged: “… if we cut or bruise ourselves, they ask us are we crazy. When we catch colds, they shake their heads in disgust at our lack of consideration” (12-13). Put to bed with a cough, Claudia is scolded and begins to cry because “my mother's anger humiliates me; her words chafe my cheeks” (14). She is not reassured verbally: “No one speaks to me or asks how I feel” (13). Only later does she realize that the rough hands that rub salve on her chest are expressing concern; that love, even when it cannot be heard, can be smelled and tasted. Having made that recognition, she learns to inhale the love that coats her chest, along with the salve (14).

How important a service Toni Morrison rendered in this depiction becomes evident when one contrasts it with Richard Wright's fictionalization of the mother-child interaction in Black Boy. As Ralph Ellison has explained, Wright mistook “gestures of protection” for “blows of oppression.” He failed retroactively to interpret his mother's whippings as does the girl who narrates Morrison's novel. “One of the Southern Negro family's methods of protecting the child,” writes Ellison, “is the severe beating—a homeopathic dose of the violence generated by black and white relationships. Such beatings as Wright's were administered for the child's own good … by the mother. … the cruelty is also an expression of concern, of love” (85-86, 91).

Wright's Richard needed Ellison to reinterpret what might be construed as “maternal sadism” as “an expression of concern.” Morrison's Claudia is able to effect this translation for herself because she internalizes an image of what it means to be a mother. As Alice Walker has argued metaphorically in another context, black women need to know both history and “herstory,” because “to know ourselves as we are, we must know our mothers' names” (In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens 276).

Another aspect of The Bluest Eye that differentiates it from earlier fictional representations of little black girls is the novel's radical repudiation of “colorism.”4 Afro-American fiction is rife with light-skinned heroines. The protagonist of Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859), for example, is a mulatto. William Wells Brown's Clotelle, or the Colored Heroine (1867) is about a quadroon whose appearance gives no evidence “that a drop of African blood coursed through her veins.” Emma Dunham Kelly's Megda (1891) has a white-skinned Afro-American heroine, as does Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola LeRoy, or Shadows Uplifted (1893). Even Janie, in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), is described as having light skin.

Nothing was more damaging to a dark-skinned girl than such valorization of what she could never be. Among the devastating passages in Afro-American autobiographies that testify to the irreparable damage done is Maya Angelou's recollection in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) of a persistent childhood fantasy that she might one day wake up blonde and blue-eyed, not ugly and black. Gwendolyn Brooks's Report from Part One (1972) tells how she came to feel that she was of less worth than a “high-yellow” child, a theme that Brooks had presented earlier in her novel Maud Martha (1951). Because being dark meant never being considered beautiful, being other became a canonical part of black women's literature. “In almost every novel or autobiography written by a black woman,” writes Mary Helen Washington, “there is at least one incident in which the dark-skinned girl wishes to be either white or light-skinned with good hair” (xv). So inherent is this “colorism” that one critic of children's literature has asserted that differentiations of skin color are what distinguish “culturally conscious” books from “inauthentic” ones: “Gradations in skin color,” observes Rudine Sims, “are almost automatically part of an Afro-American's description of another Afro-American” (70).5

Thematically, The Bluest Eye consists of a stipulative definition which radically redefines beauty. The Macteer sisters hate Maureen, a new girl in school to whom everyone else defers reverentially. Claudia wants “to kick her” and plots “accidental slammings of locker doors on her hand” (54). Described by Morrison as “a high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes” (52), Maureen has a hair style which underscores the “sinister quality of such beauty, at the same time acknowledging the white ancestor responsible for those ropes” (de Weever 406).

Claudia's ability to survive intact and to consolidate an identity derives from her vigorous opposition to the colorist attitudes of her community. She fights “to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals” (148). In marked contrast to Pecola Breedlove's surrender to Western values, Claudia refuses to be tamed into conventional behavior and smashes the Shirley Temple doll that is imposed on her at Christmas. Allowing Pecola's submission to the messages transmitted by her culture to be presented from the viewpoint of a nine-year-old who energetically resents them permits Morrison to expose their insidiousness. The socialization patterns thoughtlessly transmitted from mother to daughter, from Pauline Breedlove to Pecola, are fatal to that child's self-esteem, but Claudia, who is bent on self-definition, will mature into someone who has control of her destiny.6

The process of bequeathing self-hatred is symbolized in the name Mrs. Breedlove has given her daughter. As Maureen Peal explains to Pecola, it came, like Mrs. Breedlove's “education in self-contempt” (97), from the movies:

“Pecola? Wasn't that the name of the girl in Imitation of Life?”

“I don't know. What is that?”

“The picture show, you know. Where this mulatto girl hates her mother 'cause she is black and ugly.”


The point being made in this onomastic interplay is that Mrs. Breedlove learned to devalue herself through commercialized fantasies and is teaching her daughter a similar sense of unworthiness. Alice Walker quotes an article from The Black Scholar which calls this “psychic annihilation,” letting “whites turn blacks on themselves.”7

Ineluctably, the implications of Pecola's name work themselves out in her stunted imitation of a life. Acting on her conviction that her teachers ignore her, her schoolmates despise her, and her parents quarrel because she is ugly, she decides to transform herself. “Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she had prayed” (40). She ingests penny candy to become the picture on the wrapper, the smiling white face with its “blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort. … To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (43). She consumes the blue eyes on the Shirley Temple mug with her gaze, drinking in three quarts of milk to swallow its whiteness. Pecola's mother impresses on her daughter the fact that she prefers the pink-and-white, blue-eyed Fisher girl to her own child. Determined to change her eyes so that she too will be lovable, Pecola finds a faithhealer, Soaphead Church, who promises them to her because he is “wholly convinced that if black people were more like white people they would be better off.”8 The price she pays for them is her own sanity: She wanders through the town dump, babbling about how blue the eyes are that no one else can see.

Pecola's childhood is cancelled one Saturday afternoon when, at the age of twelve, she is raped by her father and left unconscious on the kitchen floor. Such things were not much mentioned in the fifties, when Sherley Anne Williams had looked in vain for a book about “forced sex” and had been too embarrassed to ask the librarian,9 but Toni Morrison portrays the pedophiles that prey on little girls: Henry Washington, the boarder who is thrown out of the Macteers' house for “fingering” Frieda, and Soaphead Church, who is notorious for his sexual molestations. While Pecola retreats into delusion, those with the toughness and resiliency to defend themselves develop the inner strength needed to survive. As Claudia says, “We had defended ourselves since memory against everything and everybody” (149).

Frieda's coping skills are demonstrated when she disperses the gang of boys taunting Pecola in the schoolyard. She threatens Woodrow Cain with some information she has stored up from overheard adult conversations, and he slinks away, not wanting to be exposed as a bed wetter. This success in rescuing their friend emboldens the Macteer girls to try another strategy to save Pecola's unborn baby—“We did not think of the fact that Pecola was not married; lots of girls had babies who were not married. And we did not dwell on the fact that the baby's father was Pecola's father too; the process of having a baby by any male was incomprehensible to us—at least she knew her father. We thought only of this overwhelming hatred for the unborn baby” (148). But the marigold seeds they plant on behalf of Pecola's baby fail to sprout, and because they fail to save the baby's life, they avoid Pecola.

The girls' guilty self-recriminations form the prologue and the epilogue, for it has not occurred to them that the earth itself might have been “unyielding.” It is this “hard ground” that the novel explores—a world that permits the foreclosure of childhood, that imposes a premature adulthood. The sociologist Joyce A. Ladner calls the pubescent black girl “emotionally precocious” because she has had either vicarious or personal experience of violence. Having been either a victim or a witness of aggression, she learns strategies of defending herself more vigorously than someone who has never been so vulnerable. Although these preadolescents have encountered harshness and cruelty, they “develop survival skills enabling them to cope with the world.”10

In centering her story on an ordinary girl who is taught by her colorist culture that she is ugly, Toni Morrison portrays the cruel ground which forecloses Pecola's longing to be loved. The passage from the school primer which opens The Bluest Eye represents the “all-white world of children's books” which the novel challenges. The little Macteer sisters, who tell Pecola's story, raise their voices in defense of what is black. Their penetrating vision sees, in Pecola's womb, “the baby that everybody wanted dead, and s[ee] it very clearly. It was in a dark, wet place, its head covered with great O's of wool, the black face holding, like nickels, two clean black eyes, the flared nose, kissing-thick lips, and the living, breathing silk of black skin” (148).

Defiantly alone in their protective impulses toward the unborn baby, they assume a maternal role toward it which is far beyond their capacities to fulfill. Their touching efforts to make a miracle on its behalf and their celebration of its blackness, which no one in their “unyielding” community shares, enhance the book's poignancy.

The protagonist, Pecola, seen through the eyes of a fastidious, middle-class neighbor, seems “dirty.” The neighbor's gaze reveals the girl's

torn dress, the plaits sticking out on her head, hair matted where the plaits had come undone, the muddy shoes with the wad of gum peeping out from between the cheap soles, the soiled socks, one of which had been walked down into the heel of the shoe. She saw the safety pin holding the hem of the dress up. … She had seen this little girl all her life. … Hair uncombed, dresses falling apart, shoes untied and caked with dirt.


Toni Morrison's gaze reveals to the reader that Pecola is a little girl who has always been on the periphery. She presents us with Pecola's innocence and tragedy. The authorial stance of The Bluest Eye is epitomized in the disingenuous voices of its narrators: “We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt” (9).


  1. To assess the importance of autobiography as a genre in Afro-American letters, see Brignano. Stephen Butterfield explains how autobiography can be “both an arsenal and a battleground”: “… if you are never able to take who you are for granted, and the social order around you seems deliberately designed to rub you out, stuff your head with little cartoon symbols of what it wants or fears you to be, and mock you with parodies of your highest hopes, then discovering who you really are takes on the dimensions of an epic battle with the social order” (284, emphasis added).

  2. Bambara's own “The Girl's Story” also deals with this issue. “In almost every household that I can think of when I was growing up,” says Bambara, “the onset of the menstrual period was mysterious and frightening, and totally without information and totally without support from the immediate household” (Guy-Sheftall 246).

  3. Morrison would probe this painful problem again in her second novel, Sula (1974). When Hannah Peace asks her mother Eva if she has ever loved her, even the question is repudiated by the mother as “an evil wondering.” Critic Mary Helen Washington provides useful insights into this incident: “Eva's plain, hostile answer is, ‘No. I don't reckon I did. Not the way you thinkin',’ and she accuses Hannah of thinking evil for even asking such a question. Later, she feels the need to explain that ‘No,’ but the rest of her answer is so brutal that the love behind it is almost unrecognizable: ‘… what you talkin'’ bout did I love you girl. I stayed alive for you can't you get that through your thick head or what is that between your ears heifer? [sic]’ This is the love of a woman who battled her way through life in order to keep her kids from starving. … She did not have anything left over to play around with them or teach them games or be silly with them and so her strength actually seems like a kind of cold indifference. … Eva takes care of her children, but she does so without physical affection or tenderness” (xxii).

  4. “Colorism,” according to Alice Walker, is a form of self-hatred, manifested in celebrations over “the birth of a ‘golden’ child” or the urgings to marry a “high-yellow” in order “to lighten up the race” (In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens 290, 311). “The structured colorism of the black middle class … is camouflaged by the promise of ‘upward mobility,’ i.e., proximity to, imitation of, and eventual merger with (or, as Chestnutt wrote, ‘absorption into’) the white middle class” (310).

  5. Sims also notes that, in an effort to evoke positive associations, these color descriptions are often presented in food-related imagery.

  6. Some of the best contemporary criticism of Afro-American letters is coming from Germany. Berndt Ostendorf says that the function of black art is “to put people in control of their personal destinies. Black art is a form of externalizing the wounds of historically conditioned socialization patterns. These have to be objectified and isolated as art before they can be successfully transcended” (32). That Alice Walker, for one, has assumed this Blakean task is evident throughout her interview with Claudia Tate, particularly in her remarks on the responsibilities of her black readership.

  7. “‘… certainly every Afro-American is descended from a black black woman. What then can be the destiny of a people that pampers and cherishes the blood of the white slaveholder who maimed and degraded their female ancestor? What can be the future of a class of descendants of slaves that implicitly gives slaveholders greater honor than the African women they enslaved?’” (In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens 295).

  8. Toni Morrison told Robert Stepto that, “with Soaphead, I wanted, needed someone to give the child her blue eyes. Now she was asking for something that was just awful—she wanted to have blue eyes and she wanted to be Shirley Temple, I mean, she wanted to do that white trip because of the society in which she lived and, very importantly, because of the black people who helped her want to be that. (The responsibilities are ours. It's our responsibility for helping her believe, helping her come to the point where she wanted that.) I had to have someone—her mother, of course, made her want that in the first place—who would give her the blue eyes … wholly convinced that if black people were more like white people they would be better off” (223).

  9. What, asks Williams, did the white writers whose works she encountered in the library “know about being black, being on welfare, being solicited for sex by older black men in the neighborhood … ?” (195). Sonia Sanchez, too, has observed that, when she was twelve or thirteen, she had “mostly read white writers. No one gave me any literary work by black writers to read. … That's really a terrible commentary on education” (Tate interview 147). In the same interview, Sanchez recounts how she had to defend herself against sexual molestation in the corner store in Harlem when she was nine (138-39). Maya Angelou tells in Caged Bird of her rape at the age of eight. Mary Burger calls black adolescents “Child-Women”: “The Black woman's need to grow up fast, bypassing a leisurely childhood, emanates from harsh environmental conditions” (111).

  10. Ladner 62, 65. “An eight-year-old girl has a good chance of being exposed to rape and violence and her parents will be powerless to protect her” (62).

Works Cited

Bambara, Toni Cade. “The Girl's Story.” The Sea Birds are Still Alive. New York: Random, 1977. 152-65.

Brignano, Russell C. Black Americans in Autobiography: An Annotated Bibliography of Autobiographies and Autobiographical Books Written since the Civil War. Durham: Duke UP, 1974.

Burger, Mary. “Images of Self and Race in the Autobiographies of Black Women.” Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Ed. Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. Garden City: Anchor, 1979. 107-22.

Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1974.

de Weever, Jacqueline. “The Inverted World of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Sula.CLA Journal 22 (1979): 402-14.

Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Random, 1964.

Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. “Commitment: Toni Cade Bambara Speaks.” Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Ed. Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. Garden City: Anchor, 1979. 230-49.

Ladner, Joyce A. Tomorrow's Tomorrow: The Black Woman. New York: Anchor, 1971.

Larrick, Nancy. “The All-White World of Children's Books.” Saturday Review 11 Sept. 1965: 63-65, 84-85.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, 1970.

Ostendorf, Berndt. Black Literature in White America: Studies in Contemporary Literature and Culture. Totowa: Barnes, 1982.

Parker, Bettye J. “Complexity: Toni Morrison's Women—An Interview Essay.” Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Ed. Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. Garden City: Anchor, 1979. 251-57.

Sims, Rudine. Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children's Fiction. Urbana: NCTE, 1983.

Stanford, Barbara Dodds, and Karima Amin. Black Literature for High School Students. Urbana: NCTE, 1978.

Stepto, Robert B. “Intimate Things in Place: A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979. 213-29.

Strouse, Jean. “Toni Morrison's Black Magic.” Newsweek 30 Mar. 1981: 52-57.

Tate, Claudia. “Alice Walker.” Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. 175-87.

———. “Sonia Sanchez.” Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. 132-48.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt, 1983.

———. “Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist's Life.” The Ethnic American Woman: Problems, Protests, Lifestyles. Ed. Edith Blicksilver. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1979.

Washington, Mary Helen, ed. Black-Eyed Susans: Classic Stories by and about Black Women. Garden City: Anchor, 1975.

Williams, Sherley Anne. “In Honor of Free Women.” Midnight Birds: Stories by Contemporary Black Women Writers. Ed. Mary Helen Washington. Garden City: Anchor, 1980. 193-98.

Michael Awkward (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4820

SOURCE: Awkward, Michael. “Roadblocks and Relatives: Critical Revision in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.” In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay, pp. 57-68. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988.

[In the following essay, Awkward considers the ways Morrison has incorporated and manipulated the works of earlier African American writers in The Bluest Eye in order to express and validate specific types of African American female experiences whose cultural significance those texts often deny.]

In “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” Toni Morrison insists that ancestors play an essential role in individual works in the Afro-American canon. She states:

It seems to me interesting to evaluate Black literature on what the writer does with the presence of the ancestor. Which is to say a grandfather as in Ralph Ellison, or a grandmother as in Toni Cade Bambara, or a healer as in Bambara or Henry Dumas. There is always an elder there. And these ancestors are not just parents, they are sort of timeless people whose relationships to the characters are benevolent, instructive and protective, and they provide a certain kind of wisdom.1

Despite the apparent optimistic assurance of this statement, Morrison is well aware that “the presence of the ancestor” is not always viewed by the Afro-American writer as “benevolent, instructive and protective.” Indeed, she argues—just a few sentences following the above declaration that the works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin exhibit particularly identifiable problems with the ancestor. For Morrison, Wright's corpus suggests that he “had great difficulty with that ancestor,” and Baldwin's that he was “confounded and disturbed by the presence or absence of an ancestor.”2

Morrison's singling out of Wright and Baldwin as figures in whose works ancestors represent troubling presences (or absences) is not, it seems to me, a random act. For, as Morrison is well aware, the Wright-Baldwin personal and literary relationship represents the most fabled intertextual association in Afro-American letters. Baldwin's attacks on his acknowledged precursor Wright3 offer intriguing Afro-American examples of what Harold Bloom has termed “the anxiety of influence.” In “Alas, Poor Richard,” for example, Baldwin says of his method of creating canonical space for his own perceptions of Afro-American life: “I had used [Wright's] work as a kind of springboard into my own. His own was a roadblock in my road, the sphinx, really, whose riddles I had to answer before I could become myself.”4

An intertextual reading of Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), suggests that the works of older Afro-American writers also represented “roadblocks” in her journey to artistic selfhood. Specifically, Morrison's novel contains clear evidence of her (sometimes subtle) refigurations of Baldwin's discussion of Wright in “Many Thousands Gone” and the Trueblood episode in Ellison's Invisible Man. As we shall see, such revisionary acts, as well as her complex manipulation of her novel's prefatory primer, provide Morrison with the means of giving authentication and voice to specific types of black and feminine experiences whose validity and significance these texts—by overt and covert means—deny.


In “The Structuring of Emotion in Black American Fiction,” Raymond Hedin astutely discusses Morrison's manipulation of the contents of The Bluest Eye's prefatory primer. Hedin says:

Morrison arranges the novel so that each of its sections provides a bitter gloss on key phrases from the novel's preface, a condensed version of the Dick and Jane reader. These phrases … describe the [American] cultural ideal of the healthy, supportive, well-to-do family. The seven central elements of Jane's world—house, family cat, Mother, father, dog, and friend—become, in turn, plot elements, but only after they are inverted to fit the realities of Pecola's world.5

Morrison employs the primer not only as prefatory material to the text proper, but also to introduce the chapters of The Bluest Eye that are recounted by the novel's omniscient narrative voice. The seven epigraphic sections are, as Hedin implies, thematically tied to the chapters which they directly precede.

For example, the chapter which introduces the Breedlove family to the reader is prefaced by the primer's reference to Jane's “very happy” family:


But the family presented in the subsequent pages of the novel is the very antithesis of the standardized, ideal (white) American family of the primer. The reader learns, in fact, of the Breedloves' utter failure to conform to the standards by which the beauty and happiness of the primer family (and, by extension, American families in general) are measured.

But it is possible to make further claims for Morrison's employment of the primer as epigraph. In her systematic figuration of an inversive relationship between pretext (the primer) and text (her delineation of Afro-American life), the author dissects, deconstructs, if you will, the bourgeois myths of ideal family life. Through her deconstruction, she exposes each individual element of the myth as not only deceptively inaccurate in general, but also wholly inapplicable to black American life. The emotional estrangement of the primer family members (an estrangement suggested by that family's inability to respond to the daughter Jane's desire for play) implies that theirs is solely a surface contentment. For despite Hedin's suggestion that this family is represented as “healthy” and “supportive,” it appears to be made up of rigid, emotionless figures incapable of deep feeling.

Morrison manipulates the primer in such a manner I believe, in order to trope certain conventions prominently found in eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-century Afro-American texts. The convention that Morrison revises here is that of the authenticating document, usually written by whites to confirm a genuine black authorship of the subsequent text (for example, William Lloyd Garrison's preface to Frederick Douglass's Narrative). The Afro-American critic Robert Stepto has suggested that the manipulation of such white pretextual authorization of the black voice has had a significant influence in the development of the Afro-American narrative. The Afro-American narrative moves, as Stepto suggests in From behind the Veil, from white authentication of blackness to, with the examples of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, black self-authentication.7 Morrison's manipulation of The Bluest Eye's prefatory primer signals, it seems to me, another step in the development of the Afro-American narrative as conceived by Stepto. Morrison returns to an earlier practice—of the white voice introducing the black text—to demonstrate her refusal to allow white standards to arbitrate the success or failure of the black experience. Her manipulation of the primer is meant to suggest, finally, the inappropriateness of the white voice's attempt to authorize or authenticate the black text or to dictate the contours of Afro-American art.

The Bluest Eye's first-person narrator, Claudia, performs a similar act in rejecting white criteria of judgment when she is able to view her childhood, which she had formerly conceived in a vocabulary of pain and degradation, as being characterized by “a productive and fructifying pain” and filled with the protective, “sweet,” “thick and dark” love of a mother “who does not want me to die.”8 Like Nikki Giovanni's persona in “Nikki Rosa,” Claudia discovers that despite the difficulties of poverty in an opulent America, “all the while I was quite happy.”9

Claudia's achievement of a positive reading of her childhood, however, is not unproblematic, to be sure. Perhaps the most poignant (and certainly the most charged in an intertextual sense) of the incidents that result in her ability to reread her own life is her attempt to understand the rationale for standards that insist on white physical superiority. Claudia's efforts to comprehend the myth of white physical superiority while attempting, at the same time to hold on to her views of her own people's beauty and cultural worth, exposes hers as a situation “betwixt and between” that the anthropologist Victor Turner has labeled liminality or marginality. Marginals, according to Turner,

are simultaneous members (by ascription, optation, self-definition, or achievement) of two or more groups whose social definitions and cultural norms are distinct from, and often even opposed to, one another.10

To begin to resolve such social ambiguity, Turner argues, it is necessary that the marginal seek both the origin and an understanding of the often self-aggrandizing myths of the “more prestigious group.”11 The questing marginal must seek to understand the origins of myths, “how things came to be what they are.”12 Consequently, adults' gifts of white dolls to Claudia are not pleasure-inducing toys, but, rather, signs (in a semiotic sense) that she must learn to interpret correctly. Such interpretation requires mining the dolls' surfaces—pink skins, blue eyes, blond hair—a literal search for sources:

I had only one desire: to dismember [the doll]. 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. Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs—all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. “Here,” they said “this is beautiful, and if you are on this day ‘worthy’ you may have.” … I could not love it. But I could examine it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable.13

Claudia's search for the source of white beauty, however, is not confined solely to dolls. She says that the impulse to dismember white dolls gives way to “The truly horrifying thing”:

… the transference of the same impulse to little white girls. The indifference with which I could have axed them was shaken only by my desire to do so. To discover what eluded me: the secret of the magic they weaved on others. What made people look at them and say, “Awwwww,” but not for me? …

If I pinched them, their eyes—unlike the crazed glint of the baby doll's eyes—would fold in pain, and their cry would not be the sound of an icebox door, but a fascinating cry of pain.14

Claudia's somewhat sadistic dismemberment of white dolls and her subsequent torture of white girls are meant to recall, it seems to me, Bigger Thomas's axed mutilation of the dead body of Mary Dalton (presented by Wright as a symbol of young white female beauty) in Native Son.15 Morrison's refiguration of Wright's scene, as we shall see, is her means of adding her voice to the discourse surrounding Bigger's murder, the most renowned of which belongs to James Baldwin.

Claudia's impulses lend nominal weight to Baldwin's claim in “Many Thousands Gone” that “no Negro living in America … has not … wanted … to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low.”16 But while Baldwin suggests that such violent urges are “urges of the cruelest vengeance” and motivated by “unanswerable hatred,”17 Claudia's acts are motivated in the main by a need to locate the source of white beauty that is not immediately apparent to her. Baldwin believes that, in general, the Afro-American refusal to give in to such urges and “smash any white face he may encounter in a day” results from a noble embrace of humanity. He states:

the adjustment [from rage to accommodation] must be made—rather, it must be attempted, the tension perpetually sustained—for without this he [the Afro-American] has surrendered his birthright as a man no less than his birthright as a black man. The entire universe is then peopled only with his enemies, who are not only white men armed with rope and rifle, but his own far-flung and contemptible kinsmen. Their blackness is his degradation and it is their stupid and passive endurance which makes his end inevitable.18

For Baldwin, such “adjustment” allows the Afro-American to claim (or reclaim) his humanity, and to demystify and devillainize whites and to love his own people.

Claudia's adjustment, on the other hand, has significantly different causes and consequences:

When I learned how repulsive this disinterested violence [directed toward white girls] was, that it was repulsive because it was disinterested, my shame floundered about for refuge. The best hiding place was love. Thus the conversion from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred to fraudulent love. It was a small step to Shirley Temple. I learned much later to worship her …, knowing, even as I learned, that the change was adjustment without improvement.

(my emphasis)19

Claudia's “conversion” is motivated not by an embrace of humanity, but rather by “shame.” The questing marginal's quandaries about the origins of this standard remain unanswered. She learns only to feel ashamed of the curiosity that led to her “disinterested violence,” and that her failure to accept without question the standards of white America is considered “repulsive.”

Claudia terminates her search for the source of white myths of superiority and replaces the violent urges she had previously directed at whites with “fraudulent love.” But the suppression of violent urges by Afro-Americans has significantly different implications for Morrison than for Baldwin. For Morrison, the Afro-American's humanity is not what is at stake, and “fraudulent love” of whites, the ultimate result of this rejection of violence, is not better or more authentically human. It is only different, only “adjustment” (an intentional repetition of Baldwin's terminology, it would appear) “without improvement.” Hence, Morrison suggests, in her subtle rejection of Baldwin's reading of Bigger Thomas's humanity, that the adjustment of which the older writer speaks can lead to the devaluation of the authentically black.


We have seen how the revisionist impulses of The Bluest Eye plainly demonstrate Morrison's view of the terms in which a truly healthy black art and life are possible. Her provocative revision of Ellison suggests most clearly her view that energetic rejection of male (mis)representations of women is necessary for a faithful and responsible depiction of women's lives. I believe that at the heart of The Bluest Eye's delineation of an incestuous encounter between Pecola and her father is Morrison's intertextually charged revision of the Ellisonian depiction of incest in the Trueblood episode of Invisible Man.

The Breedlove family in Morrison's text possesses a parodic relation to Ellison's incestuous clan. This relation is initially suggested in the names of the respective families. Ellison's designation suggests that the sharecropper and his family are the true (genuine) “bloods” (an Afro-American vernacular term for culturally immersed blacks). The Breedloves' name, however, is bestowed with bitter irony: theirs is a self-hating family in which no love is bred. In both texts the economically destitute families are forced to sleep in dangerously close(d) quarters. In Invisible Man, cold winters—and a lack of money with which to purchase fuel—force the nubile Matty Lou into bed between her still-procreative parents. In the case of The Bluest Eye, Pecola sleeps in the same room as her parents, a proximity that necessitates her hearing the “Choking sounds and silence” of their lovemaking.20

Further, there are stark similarities between mother and daughter in both texts that contribute to the incestuous act in both cases. In a discussion of the Trueblood Episode in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Houston Baker argues that the daughter Matty Lou is her mother “Kate's double—a woman who looks just like her mother and who is fully grown and sexually mature.”21 And Cholly Breedlove's incestuous lust is awakened by Pecola's scratching of her leg in a manner that mirrored “what Pauline was doing the first time he saw her in Kentucky.”22

It is possible, with the above evidence in place, to begin to suggest the specifics of what seems to me to be Morrison's purposefully feminist revision of Ellison. Read intertextually, The Bluest Eye provides—as I shall demonstrate below—an example par excellence of what the feminist critic Annette Kolodny has called revisionary reading [that] open[s] new avenues for comprehending male texts.”23

In The Resisting Reader, Judith Fetterley argues that the reading of the Western canon's overwhelmingly male (and decidedly phallocentric) texts has encouraged women's agreement with the inscribed antifemale slant of the works. Having been taught to accept the phallocentric as indisputably universal, the woman reader unconsciously internalizes the often misogynistic messages of male texts. Fetterley insists that a female must, in order to participate successfully as a woman in the reading experience, “become a resisting rather than an assenting reader and, by this refusal to assent, … begin the process of exorcizing the male mind that has been implanted” in women.24 The removal of the male implant results, for Fetterley, in “the capacity for what Adrienne Rich describes as re-vision, ‘the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction.’”25 Feminist revision, according to Fetterley, offers the terms of a radically altered critical enterprise and the liberation of the critic: “books will … lose their power to bind us unknowingly to their designs.”26

Houston Baker's “To Move without Moving” is an excellent example in support of Fetterley's view of the (sometimes dangerously) persuasive powers of texts. For in this essay, we can observe the power of texts quite literally to bind even the most intellectually nimble readers/critics to their designs. Baker has exhibited, in a stunning reading of the economics of female slavery and the figuration of a community of female slaves in Linda Brent's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,27 his awareness of the ways in which feminist theory can help illuminate literary texts. This sensitivity to feminist concerns is, unfortunately, missing from his reading of Ellison. Instead, Baker's essay mirrors the strategies by which Trueblood (and Trueblood's creator) validates male perceptions of incest while, at the same time, silencing the female voice or relegating it to the evaluative periphery.

Baker begins his reading by citing Ellison's discussion in the essay “Richard Wright's Blues” of “The function, the psychology, of artistic selectivity.”28 This function, according to the novelist, “is to eliminate from art form all those elements of experience which contain no compelling significance (my emphasis).29 Ellison's words provide a means to discuss the shortcomings of his own and Baker's treatments of the subject of incest. For Ellison's statement, situated as it is in Baker's essay, leads to an inquiry as to why neither Ellison's text nor Baker's critique of it treat the female perspective on, and reaction to, incest as containing “no compelling significance.”

In the case of the novel, Trueblood's incestuous act is judged almost exclusively by men, from the black school administrators who wish to remove the sharecropper from the community to Trueblood's white protectors who pressure the administrators to allow the sharecropper to remain in his house and who “wanted to hear about the gal [Matty Lou] lots of times.”30 They form, as it were, an exclusively male-evaluate circle which views Trueblood's act as either shamefully repugnant or meritoriously salacious.

Except for the mother Kate's memorably violent reaction, the female perspective on Trueblood's act is effectively silenced and relegated to the periphery in Trueblood's recounting of the story. Never in the share-cropper's rendering of the story are Matty Lou's feelings in the foreground or even actually shared with the reader. Further, Trueblood is well aware of the silent scorn that the women who help Kate attend to the unconscious Matty Lou bear for him. When he returns home after an exile precipitated, in his view, by the inability of others to distinguish between “blood-sin” and “dream-sin,” he orders the scornful community of women that has formed in response to his “dirty lowdown wicked dog” act off his property: “There's a heap of women here with Kate and I runs'em out.”31 Having effectively run out the openly critical female community and silenced, by means of his abominable act, his wife and daughter, Trueblood is able to interpret his act in an extremely self-serving way, untroubled by the radically incompatible perspectives of women. Thus he can, despite his belief that he is a good family man, fail to see the bitter irony in his own assessment of his family situation: “Except that my wife and daughter won't speak to me, I'm better off than I ever been before.”32

From a feminist perspective, Baker's reading of the Trueblood episode proves as problematic as the sharecropper's own because he, too, relegates the woman's voice to the evaluative periphery and sketches his own circle of males to justify and validate Trueblood's act. Baker asserts that one of the dominant themes of Invisible Man is “black male sexuality”33 and invokes male social thinkers to suggest the accuracy of this reading vis-à-vis the Trueblood episode. And while statements from Clifford Geertz and Freud help Baker to substantiate points about the uncontrollability of phallic energy and about Trueblood's dream signalling a historical regression,34 they fail, because they invoke worlds in which women are indisputably at the mercy of the phallic and legislative powers of men, to allow the critic to consider the response of the victim to her father's act.

And though Baker makes a valiant effort to endow the hastily considered Matty Lou with positive qualities, viewing her—along with her mother—as one of the “bearers of new black life,”35 she remains in the critic's interpretation of the episode—as she does in the sharecropper's narration—simply an absence. While Baker's essay adds immeasurably to our understanding of Ellison's art, it fails, unfortunately, to consider the subsequently silenced victim of Trueblood's unrestrained phallus. Only by failing to grapple seriously with the implications of Trueblood's representation of Matty Lou's state following the incestuous act—“Matty Lou won't look at me and won't speak a word to nobody”36—can Baker conceive of the consequences of the taboo-breaking act as generally beneficial.

Unlike Baker's reading of the Trueblood episode of Invisible Man in which incest is conceptualized as material and tribal gain, Morrison's revision depicts it as painfully devastating loss. Actually, Morrison's reading of Ellison's text must be remarkably similar to Baker's, for in refiguring Trueblood in the character of Cholly Breedlove, she surrounds her creation with images consistent with Baker's conception of the Ellisonian character as majestic Afro-American vernacular artist free from social restraints. Morrison says:

Only a musician would sense, know, without even knowing that he knew, that Cholly was free. Dangerously free. Free to feel whatever he felt—fear, guilt, shame, love, grief, pity. Free to be tender or violent, to whistle or weep. … He was free to live his fantasies, and free even to die, the how and when of which held no interest for him. …37

It was in this godlike state that he met Pauline Williams.38 Only an Afro-American artist with the blues sensibility that Baker argues for Trueblood can organize and transform into meaningfully unified expression the utter chaos of Cholly's life. But Morrison—the remarkably skilled craftsperson who does transform Cholly's life into art—provides the blues song that is The Bluest Eye with a decidedly feminist slant. For while Ellison furnishes his depiction of incest with a vocabulary of naturalism and historical regression that permit it to be read in relation to undeniably phallocentric socio-cultural interpretations of human history, Morrison's representation is rendered in startlingly blunt terms.

Trueblood's presence inside his sexually inexperienced daughter's vagina is described in ways that suggest a significant symbolic import. The sharecropper's dream of sexual contact with a white woman while in the home of an affluent white man necessarily brings to mind images of lynching and castration of black men because of the threat of black male sexuality. Consequently, Trueblood's actual presence inside his daughter assumes less of an importance in the text than his dream encounter with an unnamed white woman. Morrison, however, provides her depiction of incest with no such historically symbolic significance:

[Cholly's] mouth trembled at the firm sweetness of the flesh. He closed his eyes, letting his fingers dig into her waist. The rigidness of her shocked body, the silence of her stunned throat, was better than Pauline's easy laughter had been. The confused mixture of his memories of Pauline and the doing of a wild and forbidden thing excited him, and a bolt of desire ran down his genitals, giving it length, and softening the lips of his anus. Surrounding all of this lust was a border of politeness. He wanted to fuck her—tenderly. But the tenderness would not hold. The tightness of her vagina was more than he could bear. His soul seemed to slip down to his guts and fly out into her, and the gigantic thrust he made into her then provoked the only sound she made—a hollow suck of air in the back of her throat.39

Cholly is far from the majestic figure that Baker argues for Trueblood during his efforts to “move without movin'” in his daughter's vagina. And though Morrison does give the incestuous male figure the capacity for sympathy—citing, for example, the “border of politeness” that accompanies his lust—Cholly's “wild,” “confused” act lacks the inscribed symbolic weight of Trueblood's transgression. While the sharecropper's inability to withdraw from his daughter's vagina represents, according to Baker, Trueblood's “say[ing] a resounding ‘no’ to the castratingly tight spots of his existence as a poor farmer in the undemocratic south,”40 the tight sexual space represents for Cholly the forbidden area that must be forcibly entered and exited. The text of The Bluest Eye informs us: “Removing himself from her was so painful to him he cut it short and snatched his genitals out of the dry harbor of her vagina.”41

Morrison finally seems to be taking Ellison to task for the phallocentric nature of his representation of incest that marginalizes and renders as irrelevant the consequences of the act for the female victim. Morrison writes her way into the Afro-American literary tradition by bringing to the foreground the effects of incest for female victims in direct response to Ellison's refusal to consider them seriously. So while the victims of incest in both novels ultimately occupy similarly asocial, silent positions in their respective communities, Morrison explicitly details Pecola's tragic and painful journey, while Ellison, in confining Matty Lou to the periphery, suggests that her perspective contains for him “no compelling significance.”

While the criticism of The Bluest Eye has correctly demonstrated Morrison's revisionary intentions vis-à-vis its prefatory primer, it has failed to chart its refigurations of such key texts as Baldwin's and Ellison's. The stunning success of Morrison's revisionist gestures is on a par with Baldwin's efforts to clear away the roadblock to his entry into the Afro-American literary tradition, Richard Wright. But unlike Baldwin, Morrison locates her disputes with ancestors primarily within fictional texts. As a result, she is able to create a first novel that represents an important revisionary moment in Afro-American letters, one in which like no novel before it with the exception of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God,42 nationalist and feminist concerns combine to produce what Morrison elsewhere has called a “genuine Black … Book.”43 Morrison's revisionary gestures, it seems to me, create canonical space for subsequent black and feminist texts such as Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls, Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, and Morrison's own Sula, as well as for the rediscovery of Hurston's classic novel. The Bluest Eye, then, has served to change permanently the overwhelmingly male disposition of the Afro-American literary canon.


  1. Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in Black Women Writers (1950-1980), ed. Mari Evans (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 343.

  2. Ibid.

  3. James Baldwin, “Everybody's Protest Novel,” and “Many Thousands Gone,” in Notes of a Native Son (New York: Bantam, 1955), 9-17, 18-36; Baldwin, “Alas, Poor Richard,” Nobody Knows My Name (New York: Dial, 1961), 181-215.

  4. Baldwin, “Alas, Poor Richard,” 197.

  5. Raymond Hedin, “The Structuring of Emotion in Black American Fiction,” Novel 16, no. 1 (Fall 1982): 50.

  6. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Washington Square Press, 1970), 34.

  7. See Robert Stepto, From behind the Veil (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979).

  8. Morrison, Bluest Eye, 14.

  9. Nikki Giovanni, “Nikki Rosa,” Black Feelings, Black Talk, Black Judgement (New York: Morrow Quill, 1970), 59.

  10. Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974), 233.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Morrison, Bluest Eye, 20.

  14. Ibid., 22.

  15. See Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper and Row, 1940), 90-92.

  16. Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone,” 30.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Morrison, Bluest Eye, 22.

  20. Ibid., 49.

  21. Houston Baker, “To Move without Moving: Creativity and Commerce,” in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 185.

  22. Morrison, Bluest Eye, 28.

  23. Annette Kolodny, “A Map of Rereading,” in The New Feminist Criticism, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 55.

  24. Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), xxii.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Ibid., xxii-xxiii.

  27. See Baker, “To Move without Moving,” 50-56.

  28. Houston Baker, “Richard Wright's Blues,” in Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage, 1964), 94.

  29. Ibid., 93.

  30. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage, 1952), 52.

  31. Ibid., 66.

  32. Ibid., 67.

  33. Baker, “To Move without Moving,” 180.

  34. For Baker's discussion of Geertz and Freud (and others), see Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, 17-84.

  35. Baker, “To Move without Moving,” 185.

  36. Ellison, Invisible Man, 66.

  37. Morrison, Bluest Eye, 125-126.

  38. Ibid.

  39. Ibid., 128.

  40. Ibid., 187.

  41. Ibid., 128.

  42. For a discussion of the nationalist and feminist dimensions of Hurston's masterwork, see Michael Awkward, “The Inaudible Voice of It All: Silence, Voice, and Action in Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in Feminist Criticism of Black American Literature,Studies in Black American Literature, vol. 3 (Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill, 1986).

  43. Toni Morrison, “Behind the Making of The Black Book,Black World, February 1974, 89.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 839


Alwes, Karla. “‘The Evil of Fulfillment’: Women and Violence in The Bluest Eye.” In Women and Violence in Literature: An Essay Collection, edited by Katherine Anne Ackley, pp. 89-104. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Alwes equates the violence in The Bluest Eye with self-hatred caused by Pauline's and Pecola's illusions about white American society and their places in it.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison's “The Bluest Eye”: Modern Critical Interpretations. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999, 270 p.

Bloom presents previously published criticism of The Bluest Eye, offering various perspectives on the diverse issues raised by the novel.

Cormier-Hamilton, Patrice. “Black Naturalism and Toni Morrison: The Journey Away from Self-Love in The Bluest Eye.MELUS 19, no. 4 (winter 1994): 109-27.

Cormier-Hamilton examines the influence of environment on the characters of The Bluest Eye from a “black naturalistic” perspective, highlighting differences between traditional uses of naturalism and African American approaches to naturalism, which are shown to rely upon a protagonist's struggles with self-awareness and self-realization.

Dittmar, Linda. “‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’: The Politics of Form in The Bluest Eye.Novel: A Forum on Fiction 23, no. 2 (winter 1990): 137-55.

Dittmar discusses the formal aspects of The Bluest Eye as a function of ideology, specifically highlighting the novel's displacement of “social pathology and failed human values into the black community.”

Doughty, Peter. “A Fiction for the Tribe: Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.” In The New American Writing: Essays on American Literature since 1970, edited by Graham Clarke, pp. 29-50. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Doughty studies The Bluest Eye within the context of the development of black women's writing since the 1970s when African American writers began revising their history with the materials and narrative traditions of their own culture.

Earle, Kathryn. “Teaching Controversy: The Bluest Eye in the Multicultural Classroom.” In Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay and Kathryn Earle, pp. 27-33. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1997.

Earle advises instructors teaching The Bluest Eye in multicultural settings, concerning not only the novel's racial issues but also its sexual component.

Heinze, Denise. The Dilemma of “Double-Consciousness” in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993, 198 p.

Heinze analyzes Morrison's oeuvre through 1992 with sections devoted to The Bluest Eye concerning such themes as aesthetics, familial relations, social status, and metaphysics.

McKay, Nellie Y., and Kathryn Earle, eds. Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1997, 179 p.

McKay and Earle present essays that outline effective strategies to teach each of Morrison's novels, including The Bluest Eye, addressing such topics as racial and identity issues raised by her works, literary and historical contexts, stylistic and narrative techniques, and theoretical approaches for classroom situations.

Moses, Cat. “The Blues Aesthetic in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.African American Review 33, no. 4 (winter 1999): 623-36.

Moses identifies the themes and rhetorical structures of The Bluest Eye with the conventions of blues music, discerning a female subjectivity in the character of Claudia that relates to the African American oral tradition of “testimony” in the blues aesthetic.

Munafo, Giavanna. “‘No Sign of Life’—Marble-Blue Eyes and Lakefront Houses in The Bluest Eye.LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 6, nos. 1-2 (April 1995): 1-19.

Munafo illuminates the racial, gender, and economic implications of Morrison's deconstruction of “whiteness” in The Bluest Eye.

Portales, Marco. “Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye: Shirley Temple and Cholly.” Centennial Review 30, no. 4 (fall 1986): 496-506.

Portales examines Morrison's characterizations of Pecola and Cholly in The Bluest Eye, focusing on the cultural forces that shape their respective identities.

Wren, James A. “Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Explicator 55, no. 3 (spring 1997): 172-76.

Wren presents a medical autopsy of Aunt Jenny's death in The Bluest Eye in light of folk remedies.

Yancy, George. “The Black Self within a Semiotic Space of Whiteness: Reflections on the Racial Deformation of Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.CLA Journal 43, no. 3 (March 2000): 299-319.

Yancy explores the symbolic values of “whiteness” as it functions within the life of Pecola in The Bluest Eye, focusing on both the character's psychological and bodily “ugliness” and the inherent distortions of “whiteness” itself.

Additional coverage of Morrison's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 22; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 3; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 42, 67; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 10, 22, 55, 81, 87; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 33, 143; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied, Multicultural, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 2, 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 6, 8, 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vol. 57; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 5; and Twentieth Century Romance and Historical Writers.

Trudier Harris (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: Harris, Trudier. “Reconnecting Fragments: Afro-American Folk Tradition in The Bluest Eye.” In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay, pp. 68-76. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988.

[In the following essay, Harris examines the influence of African American folk traditions in The Bluest Eye with respect to the relation between communal patterns of survival and coping and the shaping of individual character.]

The Bluest Eye is not only the story of the destructive effects of inter- and intraracial prejudice upon impressionable black girls in the midwest; it is also the story of Afro-American folk culture in process. Through subtle and not-so-subtle ways, Toni Morrison suggests that the vibrancy of the folk culture persists through the fortunes and misfortunes of the characters, and it serves to baptize them into kinship with each other. From folk wisdom to the blues, from folk speech to myths and other beliefs, Lorain, Ohio, shares with historical black folk communities patterns of survival and coping, traditions that comfort in times of loss, and beliefs that point to an enduring creativity.

The setting mirrors perhaps one of the greatest beliefs in black communities during and after slavery—that the North is a freer place for black people economically and socially. It does not matter that Lorain, Ohio, is just a shade north of south, or that Pauline Breedlove has only come from Kentucky, a couple of hundred miles away; it is still relevant that the city is north of where she was, that it holds out to her the traditional expectations of existence above the Mason Dixon line. It was irrelevant that some blacks arrived in the North and found conditions hardly better than the ones they thought they were escaping in the South. These migrants felt they had to hold out the promise to their relatives and friends in the South even if the promise had failed them. So tales circulated about how wonderful things could be “up North.” Then, too, the myth was reinforced in those blacks who tamed the concrete jungle, acquired good jobs, and sent their children to school well clothed. In time they formed a middle class, separated from the hordes of their still-migrating sisters and brothers.

For Pauline and Cholly Breedlove, the myth of the North is temporarily a reality. For awhile, in Ohio, they have a house and the money they need. But Pauline's restlessness and Cholly's drinking eventually lead them to the triangular storefront house that comes to epitomize their economic and mental state. When Pauline loses a tooth and gives up trying to imitate white movie heroines, she resigns herself to poverty and ugliness. When her children are born, she conditions them to see the North as the nightmare into which her dream has turned. In short, her trading of myth for reality becomes detrimental to her whole family; even when the mythical images were those of the distorting silver screen, Pauline could believe that the promise of the North could be fulfilled. Once she loses faith in the possibility for change, she gives up beliefs that have tied her to historical black communities as well as to prevailing folk traditions. Giving up reflects, in part, her ultimate transference of identification from blacks to whites, as illustrated in her worship of the “little pink-and-yellow” Fisher girl. Her severing of ties to the folk culture in turn short circuits any connections she could pass on to Pecola that would aid her in reconnecting to that culture.

In general, Morrison's characters adhere to many folk beliefs, superstitions, and signs common to historical communities. This is especially true of beliefs surrounding sickness and death. For example, the novel opens with Claudia's remembrances of her mother's treatment for colds when she was growing up: a massage with Vicks salve, a bit to swallow, neck and chest wrapped in a “hot flannel.” All were designed to induce sweating, which was believed to be effective in reducing fevers. In black communities where doctors were expensive or scarce, home remedies and items that could be purchased without prescription were relied on. Wrappings frequently became preventive medicine; children warded off colds and other ailments by wearing roots held on by flannel applied under their dresses and shirts. The belief extends to some of the older women in Morrison's community. Cholly's Aunt Jimmy wears her asefetida bag “around her neck”;1 other older women in the community “wrapped their heads in rags, and their breasts in flannel” (110). For them, belief in natural cures is a way of life, and they are not willing to part with their practices.

The specifics of these details are less important than that they show how people in such communities cared for each other, a caring that is in stark contrast to most of the characters in The Bluest Eye. Where such caring touches the lives of the characters, as with Claudia and with Cholly when Aunt Jimmy was alive, there is a positive influence upon behavior. When such caring disappears, as with Cholly after Aunt Jimmy's death, or was never available, as with Pecola, disastrous results ensue. Thus, through these sometimes casual references, Morrison offers a part of the pattern of black interaction that sustains against the dissolution represented by Pauline's refusal to mother her children, Geraldine's distortion of the notion of family, and Cholly's destructive abuse of his daughter.

The emphasis upon caring applies to the cures offered Aunt Jimmy during her illness. While they do not save her, they illustrate a variety of beliefs and convey the altruistic concern absent from many relationships in the novel. Taken ill after a camp meeting during a rainstorm, Jimmy is told: “Don't eat no whites of eggs,” “Drink new milk,” “Chew on this root” (108). Refusing such advice, Jimmy does not get better until M'Dear, the local healer, is brought in. “A competent and decisive diagnostician,” M'Dear is usually called in when all the “ordinary means” of curing illnesses have failed. She determines that Jimmy has caught a cold in her womb and advises her to “drink pot liquor and nothing else” (108). Jimmy does well until a neighbor decides that she is strong enough to eat a peach cobbler; the next morning Cholly finds her dead. Since the community believes M'Dear “infallible,” Jimmy could only have died from eating the peach cobbler. With the logic of the beliefs that guide their cures and preventions, the women rationally conclude that deviation from the advice (drink pot liquor) that had shown itself effective led to Jimmy's death. In their minds the peach cobbler was not blameless, or Jimmy's condition irreversible. A natural cure had been put into effect, and the natural flow was interrupted by the introduction of an alien element. That alien element was responsible for the death. The women accept that with the same stoicism that they combat the waywardness of their husbands and children and the racism of whites.

Their belief in and the very description of M'Dear is also reminiscent of historical folk communities where local healers, or conjurers, or hoodoo doctors usually had distinctive physical characteristics or deformities that set them apart from others in the community. Newbell Niles Puckett, in his study of conjuration in the South,2 emphasized that many of the conjurers had one blue eye and one black eye, were extremely dark skinned, might be crippled or walked with a cane, and that they frequently lived apart from the rest of the community. M'Dear “was a quiet woman who lived in a shack near the woods” (108). Her power and the confidence the community has in her are reflected in her physical characteristics. Cholly expects her to be “shriveled and hunched over” because he has heard that “she was very, very old”: “But M'Dear loomed taller than the preacher who accompanied her. She must have been over six feet tall. Four big white knots of hair gave power and authority to her soft black face. Standing straight as a poker, she seemed to need her hickory stick not for support but for communication” (108). The preacher's accompaniment lends power to M'Dear's authority, for in this realm of belief, the secular and the sacred come together. M'Dear's place in the community is as secure, or more so, than the preacher's; her practical status as midwife lends credence to, if not actual tolerance for, her other areas of expertise. Her ties to the community, despite her seeming outsider status, provide another contrast to Pecola, who, severed from those traditions that could incorporate her, merely remains outside the bonds of caring.

The community that believes in M'Dear's powers and in the killing power of peach cobbler also has its share of other folk beliefs and entertainments. Blue Jack, the old man who befriends Cholly after he quits school, is an active tradition bearer of various kinds of tales: “Blue used to tell him old-timey stories about how it was when the Emancipation Proclamation came. How the black people hollered, cried, and sang. And ghost stories about how a white man cut off his wife's head and buried her in the swamp, and the headless body came out at night and went stumbling around the yard, knocking over stuff because it couldn't see, and crying all the time for a comb. They talked about the women Blue had had, and the fights he'd been in when he was younger, about how he talked his way out of getting lynched once, and how others hadn't” (106). The story about the headless woman ties in to many tales of decapitation that circulate in oral tradition, those that are legendary in form, that is, told for true, and those that are etiological in form, explaining, for example, how the jack-o-lantern came into existence.

Blue becomes a folk hero to Cholly, and, long into adulthood, after he has killed three white men and become his own legend, Cholly remembers the good times he has had with Blue. The veneration comes as much from the stories Blue has told as from his admiration of Blue's life—carefree and without responsibilities to anyone. It also comes from the fact that Blue has been one of the few people, besides Aunt Jimmy, who cared for Cholly, who responded to him as a human being, rather than as a phallic symbol, a “nigger,” or a burden. No such model exists for Pecola; even the prostitutes who befriend her are equally alienated from the community.

Elements of folk speech, like the folktales and folk heroes are also relevant to the novel. Metaphors comparable to those Zora Neale Hurston uses in Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) occur intermittently, making contrasts between the characters like Geraldine, who deny any ties to folk roots, and those who are closer to the selves inherent in their blackness, such as Claudia's mother. When Mrs. MacTeer exclaims that she has “as much business with another mouth to feed as a cat has with side pockets” (23), she exhibits philosophical ties with black people who express their conditions in metaphoric language that is arresting in its vividness. Pauline Breedlove's observation that it is as “cold as a witch's tit” (35) in her house is also a familiar folk expression. When Miss Marie notes that Pecola, on a visit to her house, is without socks, she describes her “as barelegged as a yard dog” (44), a comparison that again evokes the folk creativity that draws similes and metaphors from animals and the natural world. Such expressions tie these characters to historic folk communities even if they should later, as Pauline does, choose to reject most of those bonds of kinship.

Other traditions relevant to the shaping of black character are nicknaming and name calling, which again reflect patterns of caring and incorporation into community. Pauline is pained that she does not have a nickname and blames it on the family's pity for her, for the “slight deformity” she suffers, left from a nail puncture in her foot when she was two years old. Nicknaming is an old and venerated tradition in the black community, and not having been given one, Pauline felt excluded. Without that special favor bestowed upon her, and without being teased or having anecdotes told about her, Pauline “never felt at home anywhere, or that she belonged anyplace” (88). In their studies of nicknames in black communities, scholars have focused on the tremendous value they have, the special recognition they bestow upon an individual for a feat accomplished, a trait emphasized, or a characteristic noticed. Without a nickname, Pauline feels unclaimed by her family in any special way. When the rich white family for which she works in Ohio assigns her a nickname—Polly—it serves in part to explain Pauline's attachment to them: “they gave her what she never had” (101) and thereby claim her attention and her loyalty more so than anyone in her family had done. The white family tells anecdotes about her, of how they could “never find anybody like Polly,” of how “she will not leave the kitchen until everything is in order,” and of how she is ultimately the “ideal servant” (101). A perversion of the functions nicknames serve in black communities, Pauline, as Polly, illustrates the potential identity-shaping purpose such naming provides. She desperately clings to her relationship with the Fishers, but fails to see in her daughter a similar need to be claimed in a special way. Pecola's formal name, reminiscent of movies and books, suggests distance rather than claiming.

To be called “out of one's name,” as Bernice Reagan has asserted in some of her research on naming, can be just as negatively powerful as a nickname can be positive.3 The person so defamed is denied a confirming identity, and thereby suffers a lack comparable to what Pauline feels for not being singled out. The school children who shout names at Pecola shame her and use her features as a way of denying her admission into their society. When the boys circle her in a ritual of insult and shout “Black e mo Black e mo Ya daddy sleeps nekked” (55), Pecola becomes the victim who invites further abuse because she suffers visibly. The game is tantamount to a rite of separation. In the process, Pecola is given another opportunity to view her status as an outsider. Her rescue by Maureen Peal, Claudia, and Frieda is only temporary, because Maureen indulges Pecola only in an effort to discover if the insult the boys have shouted about her father is really true. Unsatisfied, the light-skinned Maureen draws a circle of acceptance around herself that excludes the other three girls: “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos. I am cute!” (61). Conscious of her unattractiveness and her color, Pecola seems to disappear where she stands, unable to join Claudia and Frieda in returning insults to Maureen, or to appreciate that they are fighting for her. She senses too strongly rejection at an irredeemable level. Children, teachers, neighbors, and other adults have confirmed what her mother concluded upon her birth: that Pecola will never be an insider in the black community and cannot possibly hope for acceptance beyond it. All combine to reinforce Pecola's belief that the only escape for her is to become beautiful through obtaining the bluest eyes of all, ones that will dazzle everyone into loving her.

Her belief in what blue eyes will accomplish for her is just as strong as some of the folk beliefs expressed in the novel. Belief is the single most important factor in conjuration as in Christianity, the two systems to which Pecola is most frequently exposed. Her prayers to God to make her disappear are predicated upon the belief that such a feat is possible. Her giving of the poisoned meat to the old dog is similarly predicated upon the belief that, if a reaction occurs, her wish for blue eyes will be granted. Hope for a magical transformation underlies both desires, and Pecola's belief in the possible transformation ties her to all believers in sympathetic magic. Her conviction that the blue eyes have been granted her may be viewed as insanity, but it simultaneously fits the logic that has led to that final reward. It is no stranger than the community women's belief that Jimmy has died from eating a peach cobbler. Belief is the single most important element in both outcomes.

Pecola's basic wish for blue eyes ties her to all believers in fairy tales and other magical realms. It is Cinderella wanting to be transformed from char girl to belle of the ball, or Sleeping Beauty waiting a hundred years for the prince to awaken her. It is the classic tale of the ugly duckling turned beautiful swan, of the beast transformed through love and caring into the beautiful prince, of Sir Gawain's pig lady turned into a dazzling woman. While Pecola seems doomed whatever she does—if she resorts to fantasy, she is considered crazy, and if she tries to live in the real world, there is no place for her—her desire for blue eyes ties her to many heroines of fairy tales, and to many young girls who have wished for features other than the ones they have. While many of the latter desires are no more than passing fancies, Pecola's is more intense because she is never given the opportunity, in any realm (home, school, playground), to see anything positive in herself as she is. The patterns of caring and incorporation hinted at in some of the occurrences in the novel never reach her strongly enough to reshape her opinion of herself.

Belief in magical realms or in the power to make present conditions seem magical is also seen in the desire of Claudia and Frieda to influence Pecola's fate by planting the marigolds correctly. They hope, as Pecola does with the offering to the dog, to bring about a kind of sympathetic magic, to create a space and circumstances in which Pecola will have a healthier future. When they fail, they blame themselves for not performing the rites correctly, for not having the right amount of belief. Destined to live in the realistic world, which promises a sane future for them, Claudia and Frieda are encouraged to put aside their childish beliefs. Diverging into a different world, Pecola makes the transition into fantasy, into a world from which Claudia's and Frieda's destinies have effectively and happily shut them out.

Beliefs that are adhered to over long periods of time and repeated occurrences can be defined as rituals. One of these operative in Morrison's novel is the ritual surrounding the funeral of Aunt Jimmy; certainly the funeral itself is a ritual, but so too is the traditional gathering of neighbors, relatives, and friends immediately after the death. They come as if in a dance, to perform the movements that custom and tradition have assigned to them. First, they must prepare for the burial. Then, they prepare food for those who come from near and far. They, and the relatives, must divide the belongings of the loved one and see that those left homeless are provided for. Since Cholly has never witnessed the ceremonies surrounding a funeral, he gets an education simultaneous with our witnessing of the unfolding of a tradition. The ladies of Jimmy's generation take over: they “cleaned the house, aired everything out, notified everybody, and stitched together what looked like a white wedding dress for Aunt Jimmy” (111). They also manage to get clothes for Cholly to attend the funeral, and they ensure that all of his physical needs are met.

After the traditional viewing of the body, and the “tearful shrieks and shouts” (113) of the mourners, the processional moves to the cemetery. Although the funeral is not depicted in detail, Morrison captures its emotional intensity in the metaphoric language of classic tradition:

It was like a street tragedy with spontaneity tucked softly into the corners of a highly formal structure. The deceased was the tragic hero, the survivors the innocent victims; there was the omnipresence of the deity, strophe and antistrophe of the chorus of mourners led by the preacher. There was grief over the waste of life, the stunned wonder at the ways of God, and the restoration of order in nature at the graveyard.


The funeral serves to return order to a community disrupted by death. Like all rituals, it provides a functional release, a pattern into which grief can be shaped, for the entire community.

After the “thunderous beauty of the funeral,” the funeral banquet is “a peal of joy”; it is “the exultation, the harmony, the acceptance of physical frailty, joy in the termination of misery. Laughter, relief, a steep hunger for food” (113). It is the sign that things can continue without the departed one, and it serves to put the grieving for her in the perspective of the larger force of ongoing life. Concerns return to the practical—who will take Cholly and what relatives will get which of Aunt Jimmy's belongings.

With the ritual over, the “accounts settled,” and the spectacle completed, the individual families return to their own homes, content in the knowledge that they have played well the roles that tradition and custom have assigned to them. Now, comparable to Janie's burying of Tea Cake in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God,4 there are only the tales to be told, the stories carrying the memories of what happened at Jimmy's funeral, about how well she was “laid out” and how much her family and friends appreciated her. In death, as in life, the pattern of caring that eludes Pecola is a recurring strand in the novel, one that has touched Cholly and Pauline, but from which they have become disconnected in their pursuit of clothes and alcohol.

Jimmy's death provides for one kind of traditional ritual of caring and continuation. Another tradition Morrison draws upon in the novel is that of the blues. In many ways The Bluest Eye is similar to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man5 in its very theme and structure: “What did I do to be so black and blue?” Conscious of it or not, that question must reverberate in Pecola's mind throughout her adventures in the novel. Again and again, she is confronted with people who emphasize to her that she must “stay back” because of her blackness. Again and again, she is “boomeranged” over the head with the knowledge that little black boys do not want to “haul no coal” or be identified with a “stovepipe blonde” and that most of her friends, family, and neighbors believe that “white is right.” She lives the blues twenty-four hours a day, through each of the long minutes drawn out in each of those hours. Mrs. MacTeer can sing about “hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me-times” (24) and about “trains and Arkansas” (78); and Poland can sing about “blues in [her] mealbarrel / Blues up on the shelf” (44), but Pecola can give both of them lessons in living the blues. The ugliness that she believes is hers is just as blues-inducing as those levees breaking to release floodwaters in the Mississippi Delta. At least there was release from floods, and perhaps the pantry can be replenished, but Pecola's ugliness is there to stay. The potential for release from her state of the blues will never be fulfilled because the world around her does not believe that relief is her just due; it will always convey to her that the blues is her permanent condition, not a temporary state from which she can reasonably anticipate escape.

Her adventures, like those of her father, would “become coherent only in the head of a musician” (125), or in the structural composition of a novel that resembles a blues creation. Yet the blues are a way for people to touch their pain and that of others, to sing of what, in any given instance, is but an individualized account of collective suffering. But Pecola is unable to articulate the pain she feels or channel it through the form of the blues. Like her belief in fantasies derived from outside the black community, her state of the blues is familiar, but she has no model for it to serve as a way of connecting her to the community rather than cutting her off from it.

Pauline and Cholly Breedlove have both come into contact with forms of Afro-American culture used to tie black people to each other in caring, sharing ways. Yet their move to the North parallels a dissolution in their abilities to use the forms to which they have been exposed for any sustaining purposes. Thus they break the chains of continuity in culture and can only produce children who are outside that which had the potential to nurture them. Pecola and Cholly must therefore exist in a world of fragmentation, in a world where Mrs. MacTeer and Poland might show signs of the more sustaining Southern black culture, but which they cannot effectively transmit to the Breedlove children. They, like other characters in their isolated existences in the novel, are tied together by cultural forces stronger than all of them, but the strands of that cultural net keep breaking away from Pecola to slip her back into a sea of confusion about herself and about her place in the world of Lorain, Ohio.


  1. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Pocket Books, 1972), 105. Subsequent references to this source appear in the text in parenthesis.

  2. Newbell Niles Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1926).

  3. Bernice Reagan, “We Are ‘Girl,’ ‘Chile,’ ‘Lady,’ That and ‘oman,’ ‘Hussy,’ ‘Heifer,’ ‘A Woman’; or, Naming That Imprisons and Naming That Sets You Free,” Unpublished paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Modern Language Association, Washington, D.C., 27 December 1984.

  4. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1937. reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978).

  5. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1972).

Thomas H. Fick (essay date spring 1989)

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SOURCE: Fick, Thomas H. “Toni Morrison's “Allegory of the Cave”: Movies, Consumption, and Platonic Realism in The Bluest Eye.Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 22, no. 1 (spring 1989): 10-22.

[In the following essay, Fick analyzes the themes, structures and characters of The Bluest Eye in relation to Western literary and philosophical traditions, as primarily represented in T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland and Plato's “Allegory of the Cave,” and their significance to African American economic and social conditions.]

Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), is an unusually effective exploration of racism in twentieth-century American in part because of the place it gives to central legacies of Western civilization. Like Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man draws on Emerson and Whitman as well as folklore, Morrison recognizes the importance of Western literature and philosophy to the Afro-American experience in America; in some ways The Bluest Eye stands opposed to more hermetic work like Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which despite its many strengths does not come to terms with the intellectual and economic foundations of racism and whose portrayal of character and personal growth suffers accordingly.1 Morrison's characters are more convincing and ultimately more moving than Walker's because they operate in a world shaped by a complex and sometimes repressive cultural heritage. In The Bluest Eye this heritage is primarily represented by T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Plato's “Allegory of the Cave” in Book VII of The Republic.2 These two important moments in Western culture provide specific thematic and structural elements in the novel; in a larger sense they suggest Morrison's belief in the close relationship between intellectual traditions and particular economic and social conditions.

Eliot's contribution in The Bluest Eye is the more apparent because it operates on the level of imagery as well as theme and structure. In the prologue the narrator Claudia MacTeer remembers when she and her sister Frieda planted marigold seeds in a childish rite they hoped would guarantee the health of their twelve-year-old friend Pecola's baby. If the seeds sprout, they think, the baby will thrive. But no seeds sprout, the baby dies, and Pecola spends her life “plucking her way between the tire rims and the sunflowers, between Coke bottles and milkweed, among all the waste and beauty of the world.”3 Only much later does Claudia understand that it isn't her fault, that “the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year” (160). The Bluest Eye is framed by the narrator's brooding recollection of a wasteland, and the seasons which title the major sections—“Autumn,” “Winter,” “Spring,” and “Summer”—mark off a parody of rebirth and growth. In “the thin light of spring” (127) Pecola Breedlove is raped by her drunken father (a cruel sort of breeding indeed), and in summer, pregnant, she goes mad after the equivalent of Eliot's Mme Sosostris works a phony spell to give her blue eyes.

The echoes of Eliot's Waste Land are important for thematic and structural reasons and for what they reveal about Morrison's interest in literary tradition. The central conceptual presence in The Bluest Eye, however, is Plato's “Allegory of the Cave.” This is initially difficult to see because the idea and image of the wasteland is everywhere directly present in the novel while Plato's allegory operates through the analogy of the cinema. Movies are the centrally destructive force in the novel not only because of the values they present—perfect white bodies and romantic love—but because of the way they present them: as flawless Archetypes above and outside the shadowy world of everyday life. For Morrison, that is, the message and the medium are almost equally dangerous: as we shall see, the cinema reproduces the structure of Plato's allegory in terms appropriate to a technological and capitalist society and provides the focus for an exploration of the complicity between Platonic realism, racism, and a culture of consumption. In order to understand the centrality of Platonic “realism” as it is embodied in the cinema, however, we first need to understand what personal, cultural, and artistic issues this version of realism engages.

The Bluest Eye is an angry book but it is also an orderly one, perhaps because in Afro-American literature a careful structure is frequently used to contain and shape the anger that might otherwise be construed as lack of control.4 A reasonable place to begin, then, is with the blue eyes of the title, the blue eyes Pecola Breedlove thinks will introduce harmony and love into her fragmented and emotionally barren life. For Pecola, change has become a matter of survival: her father is a drunk, her mother's love goes to a white child, and the whole world tells her she is ugly. On the most obvious level her desire for blue eyes is a response to an ideal of beauty that takes specific form in the Shirley Temples, Hedy Lamarrs, Ginger Rogerses, and unnamed models whose blond hair, blue eyes, and white skins dominate the landscape of American life, “leaning from every billboard, every movie, every glance” (34). Blue eyes epitomize everything desirable in white American culture, but Pecola's longing for this cosmetic change expresses her deeper need to reform the world by reforming the way she sees it, a transcendental rather than existential imperative: “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different” (40).

As this quotation suggests, like many children Pecola asks questions that are disconcerting for both their naiveté and their insight. She poses one such question at the age of eleven: “‘How,’” she asks Frieda and Claudia, “‘do you get somebody to love you?’” (29). The children don't know, but the narrative provides a number of exemplary answers: the neighborhood whores' caustic camaraderie, her parents' desperate fights, the sterile “nesting” of bourgeois black women, and most destructively Pecola's rape by her own father.5 But there is another question Pecola wants answered even more, for without an answer “love” has no meaning: the conditions of her own and the world's reality. This is the question she silently poses to Marie, one of the three whores who, besides Claudia and Frieda, are her only friends: “Pecola looked and looked at the women. Were they real? Marie belched, softly, purringly, lovingly” (49). Marie's answer is clear and unambiguous because its sheer physicality avoids the abstractions such a question is likely to evoke, but the primary emphasis of the passage is on sight, not sound—on the intensity of Pecola's “looking.” The connection between sight and reality tells us as much about Morrison's commitment to the mode of realism as it does about Pecola. As a mode realism has been characterized by its emphasis on sight: as Jeffrey Mehlman remarks, “excellence of vision is the distinguishing mark of realism” and Edwin Cady finds that the principal American realists share a common concern with sight.6 To “look and look,” therefore, is to accept the world's immediate existence, as Pecola does when she accepts the whore's insistent presence, but to look with eyes other than one's own is to falsify both self and world.7 Pecola's wish for blue eyes is not only a wish to match the ideal of the white child, it is also a rejection of right seeing, of the premises of realism for those of romance.

In fact, like many of the classic examples of realism from Flaubert's Madame Bovary to Clemens's Huckleberry Finn the themes and structure of Morrison's novel center on an explicit antagonism to the forms and motives of romance. Tom Sawyer's extravagant dedication to the conventions of romantic fiction counterpoint Huck Finn's sound heart and empirical instincts. Huck tests Tom's assertions both intentionally—for example by rubbing a lamp to see if the promised genie will show—and unintentionally by becoming involved with the real-life counterparts of Tom's fictional heroes. The Shepherdson-Grangerford feud shows Huck that Tom's “authorities” are dead wrong when it comes to chivalric ideals: codes of honor lead to murder not glory. The Bluest Eye follows a similar structure of ironic counterpoint. The novel's epigraph is a “Dick and Jane” children's story that serves as an ironic commentary on the MacTeers's and Breedloves's daily lives: “Here is the house. It is green and white. … Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy,” and so forth. Each segment of this story is used as a section “title” to introduce its counterpart in 1940s racist America: the green and white house of Dick and Jane introduces the Breedloves's “irritating and melancholy” (30) storefront apartment; the strong and smiling father is a bitter drunk; the happy family is poor and miserable.8 The commitment to realist discourse implied in this ironic juxtaposition is made explicit in the characterization of Pecola's friendly whores. Marie, China, and Poland “did not belong to those generations of prostitutes created in novels, with great and generous hearts, dedicated, because of the horror of circumstance, to ameliorating the luckless, barren life of men, taking money incidentally and humbly for their ‘understanding.’” Instead, they are “whores in whores' clothing” (47-8).

In The Bluest Eye, however, the opposition between real and ideal is more profound than in Huckleberry Finn. The obsession with romance and chivalry that Clemens blamed on Sir Walter Scott does not depend on an alternative sense of the real, but on a belief that some actions and attitudes are better than others. Despite their literary origins, that is, notions of chivalry are thoroughly social: Tom Sawyer is not only an aficionado of pirate oaths but a consummate politician, able to read and use others' expectations and desires. Morrison, on the other hand, is interested in antithetical senses of the real, in different ways of locating value in the world rather than in the different values alone. The “Dick and Jane” primer is important not only because it provides a particular set of expectations of modes of behavior (as Scott provides a number of paradigmatic scenarios for Tom Sawyer) but because it locates these expectations and behaviors in a realm of immutable Archetypes—equivalent to the Platonic idea of the “real”—in contrast with which this transient world is only an imitation. Compared to the world of green and white houses, strong, smiling fathers and happy mothers, Claudia's and Pecola's world is but an Imitation of Life, to cite the title of a movie that one character admires extravagantly.9

The novel centers on one successful and several unsuccessful efforts to move beyond Platonic “realism” toward an understanding and acceptance of the physical world's primacy. The first section, narrated from the young Claudia's point of view, introduces the detailed and imperfect particulars of daily life from the limited perspective of a child. Here, as in each of young Claudia's subsequent sections, typography recapitulates ontology: the right margins are “unjustified”—as ragged and as honest as the perceptions of a young girl.10 The house is “old, cold, and green … peopled by roaches and mice” (12) and the first impression is of a world as starkly opposite Dick and Jane's as possible. Adults, young Claudia tells us, “do not talk to us—they give us directions. They issue orders without providing information. When we trip and fall they glance at us; if we cut or bruise ourselves, they ask us are we crazy” (12). But these are the impressions of a child; like their counterparts in the “Peanuts” comic strip the adults in The Bluest Eye are remote, unintelligible, and nearly invisible. Further, the uncertainty we as readers feel about the true proportions of love and neglect in Claudia's life duplicates the ambiguity mark of a world where emotions, like relationships, are mutable rather than absolute (as they are for Dick and Jane). In fact, we find out that love is not absent but “thick as Alaga syrup” (14). The adults are simply too preoccupied with scavaging coal and making ends meet to be the endlessly smiling paragons of a story book.

Unlike the monotonous rhythm of Dick and Jane's prose world, young Claudia's narrative modulates through a number of moods and ends with Pecola's question about love, a question which has been partially answered in the equivocal—because human—terms of the just-concluded section. Love is dynamic rather than static, a process rather than a magic formula. The primary focus, however, is on Claudia's commitment to right seeing—the reverse of Pecola's desire for new, impossibly blue eyes and all that they imply about value in literature as in life. Even as a child Claudia is determined to understand the “beauty, the desirability” (20) of America's cultural icons: Shirley Temple and the white dolls constructed in her image. Though fueled by hate for the icons that usurp her family's admiration, Claudia is rational and resolutely empirical in her quest for understanding. She tears apart her Christmas present of a white doll, looking for its beauty: “Remove the cold and stupid eyeball … take off the head, shake out the sawdust, crack the back against the brass bed rail, it would bleat still. The gauze back would split, and I could see the disk with six holes, the secret of the sound. A mere metal roundness” (21). Young Claudia is an empiricist among metaphysicians, unable to believe there is value above and beyond what can be found in the immediate world; she lays the groundwork for the older Claudia's rejection of romance for realism. For Christmas, she remembers, “I did not want … to possess any object. I wanted rather to feel something,” and feeling is a matter of contact, of specific things and places: “The lowness of the stool made for my body, … the smell of lilacs, the sound of the music, and, since it would be good to have all of my senses engaged, the taste of a peach …” (21).

At the opposite pole from Claudia's world of sense and feeling is the celluloid world of transcendent beauty and health, Dick and Jane in the age of McLuhan. References to movies and movie stars punctuate the narrative, forming an insistent counterpoint to Claudia's quest for authenticity in experience. The MacTeers's boarder, Mr. Henry, delights in calling the young girls Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers; Pecola drinks three quarts of milk just to see Shirley Temple's picture on the mug; black women have their hair styled like Hedy Lamarr's; Betty Grable's name looms large on theatre marquees. Movies convey an adult version of Dick and Jane's ideal world, but in The Bluest Eye the emphasis is not just on the particular scenes, formulae, or characters—that special hairdo or inflection—but on the medium itself. To understand the importance of the cinema, therefore, we need to consider method as well as content, the how as much as the what of its deception.

By co-opting individual sight and replacing it with the camera's apparent omniscience a movie can bestow false authority on its images and offer a nicely framed, repeatable world totally unlike young Claudia's. But it is a mistake to think of the cinema only as cultural shorthand for twentieth-century escapism; its appearance in The Bluest Eye serves to recall an older and more intellectually distinguished precursor. The cinema functions almost precisely like the famous cave in Plato's The Republic, as a brief summary of the allegory will show. Socrates asks us to imagine people living from childhood in a cave, chained by leg and neck with their backs to the only entrance. Behind them is a fire with a parapet in front of it “like the screen at a puppet-show, which hides the performers while they show their puppets over the top.”11 Objects are carried by men behind the parapet so that the fire projects the objects' shadows on the wall of the cave in front of the chained viewers. Obviously, Socrates says, the captives would think the shadows are the sole reality, and if one of the people crossing behind them spoke, the echo would make the sound seem to come from the projected shadow. He concludes, “In every way, then, such prisoners would recognize as reality nothing but the shadows of those artificial objects.”12 But the shadows are still shadows; the “real” lies outside the cave, in the immutable Archetypes represented by the objects carried between the fire and the cave wall. This allegory is an accurate though technologically unsophisticated description of the cinema: celluloid takes the place of Socrates's hand-carried objects, and a projector the place of his fire.13 In each case the effect is the same: the screen shows the shadow of a perfect world, the “real” world of which ours is merely an imitation. But while Socrates imagines the possibility that through rigorous mathematical preparation one will be able to face the “real” (i.e., ideal) world itself, Morrison sees the very notion of a Platonic real as centrally false and destructive. The characters who measure themselves against advertisements and movies are captives not because they are ignorant of the world above and behind, but because they believe that there is such a world.

Pauline Breedlove is the cinema's primary victim, and her story gives shape and context to Pecola's more general tragedy. As a child in Alabama Pauline had cultivated the pleasures of ordering her small world, but she is an artist without the means to realize her creative impulses: “She missed—without knowing what she missed—paints and crayons” (89). When her marriage to Cholly deteriorates she has little else to do but go to the movies, where she is introduced to romantic love and physical beauty, “the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought”: “She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was on absorbed in full from the silver screen” (97). The notion of absolute beauty commits Pauline to think of her world as a shadow, a projection of the perfect world where “‘white men [take] such good care of they women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses’” (97). The consequences of Pauline's immersion in a world of absolutes are intensely personal. In order to embrace the Platonic real she must repudiate the temporal and conditional, the transient physical world whose most insistent manifestation is the body itself. Indeed, the cinema offers a neo-religious physical perfection whose ultimate source is not the Bible but a technologized Republic: “There the flawed became whole, the blind sighted, and the lame and halt threw away their crutches” (97). But in the long run the body cannot be denied, as Pauline discovers one day in the Dreamland Theatre when, coiffed like Jean Harlow, she bites into a candy bar and breaks off a rotten tooth. In contrast with the absolutes of physical beauty and romantic love the pleasures of body and emotion can only seem disappointingly transient and flawed.

The lost tooth climaxes a long process that began with a tiny spot of decay, but personal hygiene is hardly at issue here. As the narrator comments, “even before the little brown speck, there must have been the conditions, the setting that would allow it to exist in the first place” (93). In context, these conditions are social and institutional rather than narrowly hygienic they recall the opening image of a wasteland that breeds only decay and rape. Thus while Pauline's experience in the movies can usefully be read as a general warning to dreamers it is also something more. As Marcia Westkott argues in “Dialectics of Fantasy,” “Fantasy not only opposes real conditions, but also reflects them. The opposition that fantasy expresses is not abstract, but is rooted in the real conditions themselves, in concrete social relations.”14 In The Bluest Eye the real conditions are those of American consumer culture, the continuing “gilded age” that began after the Civil War and replaced physical slavery with other forms of mastery.15 Try as she might, Pauline cannot be Jean Harlow, and the sense of inadequacy that comes from this failure is part of her tragedy. Even more troubling, however, is the sort of ideal that she does achieve: freedom in the 1940s means fulfilling a role that perfects the antebellum position of blacks. As her personal life falls apart she divides her time between the movies and her employer's family, where she becomes the “queen of canned vegetables,” “reign[ing] over cupboards stacked high with food” (101). Her skin glows “in the reflection of white porcelain, white woodwork, polished cabinets, and brilliant copperware” (86). Finally she becomes “an ideal servant” (100), trading personal authenticity for a stereotype in the guise of an Archetype. Pauline's decline from person to “reflection” illustrates how the means of slavery have been internalized. The captive is held most obviously by her commitment to images from movies; even more fundamentally, however, she is bound by this medium's operative assumption that human existence is but an “imitation of life.”

William Carlos William's poem “To Elsie” can help us understand the particularly American context of Pauline Breedlove's tragedy. Williams made “no ideas but in things” the battle-cry of his aesthetic program, and his prose and poetry are an extended response to the notion of Platonic realism, especially as it is worked out in twentieth-century consumer culture. He is the poet of the local and the physical, of body and place; what “depends” upon the white chickens beside the red wheelbarrow in Williams's best known poem is quite simply poetry itself. Whether dancing naked in front of the mirror (“Danse Russe”), indulging his indiscriminate nose (“Smell”), or simply eating cold plums (“This Is Just to Say”) Williams is intent on recovering what we have lost pursuing abstractions. “To Elsie” is one of the clearest statements of his commitment to the immediate against the transcendental. Like Pauline Breedlove, Elsie is an exemplary rather than exceptional figure, “expressing with broken / brain the truth about us.”16 Cut off from peasant traditions, unable to see the beauty of the peasant world, she addresses herself to dreams of cheap finery,

as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky
and we were degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth. …(17)

Like Morrison, Williams sees us as prisoners in a twentieth-century version of Plato's cave, dismissing our world as excrement while straining after a transcendent but meretricious ideal. Both believe that to free ourselves from these chains we need, like Claudia, to have “all of [our] senses engaged” (21) in the discovery of the local and immediate. But most of all we need to see straight, through our own eyes: to trust and respect the angle of vision that makes each imperfect world, and makes it valuable.

Pecola's trip to buy candy early in the novel concisely explores these needs. When Pecola sets out for Mr. Yacobowski's store she is filled with affection for herself and her immediate world: the “sweet, endurable, even cherished irritation” (40) of the coins in her shoe; the dandelions that others call ugly “because they are so many, strong, and soon” (41); the Y-shaped crack in the worn-smooth concrete so perfect for skating. These are “the familiar and therefore loved images” of her world:

These and other inanimate things she saw and experienced. They were real to her. She knew them. They were the codes and touchstones of the world, capable of translation and possession. She owned the crack that made her stumble; she owned the clumps of dandelions. … And owning them made them a part of the world, and the world a part of her.


But at the candy store she can't make Mr. Yacobowski see what she wants—“the angle of his vision, the slant of her finger, makes it incomprehensible to him” (42). Pecola has once again been told that the way she sees is wrong, and that her world—the immediate, the local, and the sensual—is worthless, even unreal. It is not surprising, then, that on the way home she finds the world beneath her feet has turned to excrement: she looks at the dandelions and discovers “‘They are ugly. They are weeds’”; she trips on the sidewalk crack (no longer her friend) and “anger stirs and wakes in her” (43). The world has changed because Mr. Yacobowski denies her perspective, and because as a consequence Pecola, like Elsie, has been forced to deny the particular in herself—the special conditions of her own loves and hates.

As Pecola's experience suggests, The Bluest Eye is as critical of economic and political systems, of the underlying “concrete social relations” that generate fantasy, as it is of fantasy itself.18 The essentially political and economic origins of Pecola's self-betrayal are represented in the exchange of the “sweet, endurable, even cherished” feel of her money—more sensation than specie—not for an equivalent feeling but for a consumable image of the ideal. Her transaction reverses the terms of Claudia's economy: feelings are exchanged for things, rather than things for feelings. Specifically, Pecola wants “Mary Janes” because each wrapper has the picture of a young girl, “blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort,” and she devours the Mary Janes because to do so “is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (43). Like the earlier milk-drinking binge (three quarts to see Shirley Temple on the mug), her action points to a confederation of the ideal with an economy of consumption. Eating Mary Janes is a strictly capitalist magic: by ingesting the product she hopes to ingest what advertising associates with it, and certainly an appeal to this magic is at the root of advertising's power.19 In other words, the idea of a transcendent reality is no longer a matter of philosophical debate but of immediate commercial application, as the shift from cave to cinema clearly suggests. Capitalism appropriates the idea of Platonic reality in order to inspire a demand for products that is both insatiable and predictable since both qualities are essential for a smoothly functioning system. Only economic chaos can result when some want dandelions and others marigolds, when the common is as valuable as the exceptional, or when values and demand vary from region to region, class to class. Modern consumer capitalism is made possible by locating or even more commonly creating stable markets, as recent work on the institutional matrix in the publishing industry has effectively illustrated.20 In short, in The Bluest Eye capitalism is presented as redefining the image of a bound and shackled audience in the “Allegory of the Cave”: Socrates's observers become the captives of an economic system which appropriates the ideal in the name of profit.

In a novel concerned with racism, of course, captivity has a special resonance, and The Bluest Eye is profoundly concerned with the shifting forms of “slavery” in America. Slavery can be most simply defined as a commodification of the body: men become objects of commerce, as Harriet Beecher Stowe recognized when she wished to subtitle Uncle Tom's Cabin “The Man That Was a Thing.” When we look for signs of racism in The Bluest Eye we are most quickly drawn to those made familiar by works like Uncle Tom's Cabin whose explicit message is the visible dehumanization of blacks: segregation, lynching, poor paying jobs, racial stereotyping. But even Stowe's novel deals with more than the cruder forms of Southern slavery. As Richard Slotkin demonstrates, the paternalistic slave-owning economy shared important qualities with the paternalistic factory system in the North,21 a point Stowe also makes when she has Augustine St. Clare, her spokesperson, quote his plantation-owning brother: “‘he says, and I think quite sensibly, that the American planter is “only doing, in another form, what the English aristocracy and capitalists are doing by the lower classes;” that is, I take it, appropriating them, body and bone.’”22 Shortly after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin Herman Melville made the same connection in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” a powerful and topical short story which portrays the exploitation of white, unmarried women in a Northern paper mill.23 When the balance of power definitively changed from agrarian to industrial society (and from South to North) after the Civil War, this form of economic and psychological captivity extended its domain to the Southern blacks who began to join the ranks of white workers in the North. Finally, as labor laws progressively eliminated the conditions Stowe and Melville wrote about advertising stepped in, blurring the line between “captivity” and “captivating” by internalizing the means of bondage for blacks and whites.

The journey of the Breedlove family South to North, from pre-industrial America to consumer society, recapitulates this temporal and economic change in geographic terms. The contrasting experiences of rural, Southern-reared Cholly and his Northern-born daughter are especially instructive. As an adolescent in the South Cholly is interrupted during his first sexual encounter by white hunters, who make him give a dehumanizing sexual performance at gunpoint: “‘Come on, coon. Faster. You ain't doing nothing for her’” (117). But this gut-wrenching scene belongs to a polemical tradition whose very familiarity can distract us from the more subtle but related influences at work in the North—the sorts of performances and responses required of those who buy into the premises of a consumer society. The crude white masters of the South are replaced by invisible systems of mastery dedicated to maximizing profit through a process equally dehumanizing. In the sections of the novel set in Ohio, Morrison portrays Pecola's violation of self in imagery that recalls Cholly and his companion's violation at the hands of the hunters. The incident at the candy store, for example, draws its power from the conflation of sex and consumption: when Pecola eats her Mary Janes she experiences “nine lovely orgasms” (43), one for each candy. Sexual love is one of the most profound and private expressions of individuality, but for both Cholly and Pecola sex assumes a public aspect: for Cholly a spectacle, and for Pecola a form of packaged masturbation. In each case human beings are defined not in terms of their feelings but as performers and consumers respectively, and in each case the results are nearly the same: anger is displaced from its real target. When Cholly is surprised by the hunters he directs his hate not at the powerful white men, since doing so “would have consumed him, burned him up like a piece of soft coal” (119), but at his adolescent partner. Similarly, after buying the candy and tripping on the cracked sidewalk Pecola experiences a moment of cathartic anger: “There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth. It is a lovely surging”. (43). Her anger's unspoken target is not the beloved crack but Mr. Yacobowski and all those who devalue her world; unfortunately the momentary clarity of vision, the discovery of reality and worth, cannot hold against the attraction of “blue eyes [in] a world of clean comfort” (43). Instead of turning her anger outward as Claudia does, she turns it self-destructively inward and celebrates her surrender to external definition with the orgiastic pleasures of consumption.

The story of Pecola's idealism and destruction has an unexpected but important precursor in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, an American classic that can help us locate The Bluest Eye in a long tradition of works about the American dream. Both novels focus on protagonists who at bottom believe not so much in the reality of an ideal as in the ideal nature of reality, a Platonic reality in the service of consumption. As Nick Carraway tells us, Jay Gatsby “Sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. … [and] he must be about his Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”24 Race, sex, and opportunity rather than values account for his success and Pecola's failure. Despite his criminal business practices, that is, Gatsby believes in a world of absolutes where Daisy Buchanan, her voice “full of money” (120), survives in splendid and virginal youth just as he last saw her; this is a glitzy adult version of Pecola's Dick and Jane world where time, lust, and ambiguity seem to play no part. In each case the protagonist is confronted with violent proof of the world's disorder and transience. Gatsby breaks up “like glass”25 against Tom Buchanan's brutal malice and the evidence of Daisy's imperfection; Pecola is raped by a father who has not learned how to love. One is murdered—a symbolic suicide—and the other goes mad.

In its concise duality Pecola's family name, Breedlove, summarizes the problems posed by each novel: how can one reconcile the claims of body and spirit in a secular world, how can one be in and of the world without becoming brutalized by physical impulses, enthralled by the ideal, or exploited by those who would make use of both? Cholly Breedlove shows the depth of this problem when he rapes Pecola: confused, caught between disgust and love, “he wanted to fuck her—tenderly” (128). The rape, like his name, is an oxymoron whose two terms, at least for Cholly, cannot be conjoined. But The Bluest Eye does not end in despair; both anger and community offer a way to redeem the waste land, although each has its own dangers.26 Anger can provide a “sense of being” and “an awareness of worth” (43), but it becomes lethal if displaced from its rightful target: Claudia remains sane by confronting racist society directly and through her retrospective narrative, while Pecola goes mad because she fights herself. A community, on the other hand, can support and comfort, as we see in young Claudia's first section. But when Pecola's drama has played itself out this same community takes the pregnant girl as a scapegoat whose defects define their virtues; as Claudia says, “We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health” (159). Personal and collective health begins with the effort at self-recovery exemplified in the narrative, which is itself a shaping and refinement of Claudia's anger at the white dolls, but it ends in a recognition of human interdependency. Finally, The Bluest Eye asks us to consider how as well as what we see, both as individuals and as a society. The wasteland will be fully redeemed only when all its members see with their own eyes, when they are no longer held captive, like a contemporary version of Plato's audience, by the idea that “reality” is a consumable absolute, a product independent of local commitments and personal loyalties.


  1. Trudier Harris, for example, argues that The Color Purple leaves the reader “equally skeptical about accepting the logic of a novel that posits so many changes as a credible progression for a character. Such total change of life-style, attitudes, and beliefs … asks more of the reader than can be reasonably expected” (“From Victimization to Free Enterprise: Alice Walker's The Color Purple,Studies in American Fiction 14 (1986), 16.

  2. Gerry Brenner has recently discussed Morrison's treatment of Western mythology in Song of Solomon. See Song of Solomon: Morrison's Rejection of Rank's Monomyth and Feminism,” Studies in American Fiction 15 (1987), 13-24.

  3. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Pocket Books, 1970), p. 159. Future references will be cited in the text.

  4. Raymond Hedin argues that anger has been problematic for black writers because of racist attributions of brutishness and lack of control. As a consequence, Hedin says, black writers have paid special attention to structure in their fiction: “Emphasis on form implicitly conveys the rationality of the writer; and that context of rationality allows him to express his anger, or the anger of his characters, without suggesting an overall lack of control” (“The Structuring of Emotion in Black American Fiction,” Novel 16 [1982], 37). Hedin discusses The Bluest Eye briefly on pages 49-50. For a discussion of the novel as a female Bildungsroman see Joanne S. Frye, Living Stories, Telling Lives (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1986), 97-102. Frye argues that “The general problem for Claudia's self-definition is a version of the conflict between submission and self-assertion, which is the problem of all female authorship” (99). But this application of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's influential thesis in The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979) seems less useful than Hedin's approach because it minimizes the special circumstances of black authorship in America.

  5. Morrison comments that “all the time that I write, I'm writing about love or its absence” (Jane S. Bakerman, “The Seams Can't Show: An Interview with Toni Morrison,” Black American Literature Forum 12 [1979], 60).

  6. Jeffrey Mehlman, Revolution and Repetition: Marx/Hugo/Balzac (Berkeley: U of California P, 1977), 124; Edwin H. Cady, The Light of Common Day: Realism in American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1971), 5.

  7. Many critics have discussed vision and the relationship between seeing, subjectivity, and objectification in The Bluest Eye. Frye comments that for Pecola the need “to see, to participate in the culture's image of what life ought to be … become the negation of her subjectivity” (102). Cynthia A. Davis, on the other hand, analyzes The Bluest Eye in terms of Sartre's Existential doctrines: “human relations revolve around the experience of ‘the Look,’ for being ‘seen’ by another both confirms one's reality and threatens one's sense of freedom” (“Self, Society, and Myth in Toni Morrison's Fiction,” Contemporary Literature 23 [1982], 324).

  8. For a concise discussion of the child's reader in The Bluest Eye see Phyllis Klotman, “Dick-and-Jane and the Shirley Temple Sensibility in The Bluest Eye,Black American Literature Forum 13 (1979), 123-25.

  9. Maureen Peal, the “high-yellow dream child” (52) who is everyone but Claudia and Frieda's favorite, mentions this 1934 movie starring Claudette Colbert because (in Maureen's selective synopsis) it is about a beautiful mulatto girl named Pecola who “‘hates her mother' cause she is black and ugly but then cries at the funeral’” (57). In the movie Pecola's mother gives her pancake recipe to her white employer, who parlays it into a fortune.

  10. Throughout the novel the margins reflect different narrators and points of view. The sections with ragged right margins are narrated primarily from young Claudia's point of view, although the language is the adult narrator's; sections with justified right margins are narrated by the older Claudia from an omniscient point of view. I will use “young Claudia” whenever I need to distinguish the narrator of the childhood sections from the omniscient narrator (the adult Claudia).

  11. Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Francis Macdonald Cornford (1941; rpt. New York: Oxford UP, 1967), 228.

  12. Plato, 229.

  13. L. Chauvois points out that in fifth- and fourth-century Greece puppet theaters formed a sort of “cinéma populaire,” and that Plato's allegory of the cave is a transposition of this extremely popular form of national amusement. See L. Chauvois, “Le ‘cinéma populaire’ en Grèce au temps de Plato et sa projection dans l'allégorie de la ‘caverne aux idées,’” Revue Générale des Sciences Pures et Appliquées, 74 (1967), 193-5. In the notes to his translation of The Republic Cornford remarks that “A modern Plato would compare his Cave to an underground cinema” (228n).

  14. Marcia Westkott, “Dialectics of Fantasy,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 2 (1977), 1. Quoted in Alfred Habegger, Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature (New York: Columbia UP, 1982), 7.

  15. For a discussion of the black emigrant's experience of reification in the North see Susan Willis, “Eruptions of Funk,” in Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Henry Louis Gates (New York: Methuen, 1984), 263-83.

  16. William Carlos Williams, “To Elsie,” in The Collected Earlier Poems of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1951), 271.

  17. Williams, 272-3.

  18. The political thrust of Morrison's novels is apparent to every sensitive reader. As Morrison explained in a recent interview, “I am not interested in indulging myself in some private, closed exercise of my imagination that fulfills only the obligation of my personal dreams—which is to say yes, the work must be political” (Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: the Ancestor or Foundation,” in Black Women Writers [1950-1980]: A Critical Evaluation, ed. Mari Evans [Garden City, NY: Anchor Doubleday, 1984], 343).

  19. Susan Willis points out that candy is often associated with capitalism in Morrison's fiction (228n).

  20. Richard H. Brodhead, The School of Hawthorne (New York: Oxford UP, 1986), 48-66; Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986, 19-46.

  21. Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (New York: Atheneum, 1985) 138-58.

  22. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, ed. Kathryn Kish Sklar (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 269. Gillian Brown argues that “in the name of domesticity, Uncle Tom's Cabin attacks not only the patriarchal institution, but nineteenth-century patriarchy: not only slave traders, but the system and men that maintain ‘the one great market’ upon which trade depends” (“Getting in the Kitchen with Dinah: Domestic Politics in Uncle Tom's Cabin,American Quarterly, 36 [1984], 511).

  23. For an excellent introduction to nineteenth-century American racism see Carolyn Karcher, Shadow Over Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville's America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980), 1-27.

  24. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1925), 99.

  25. Fitzgerald, 148.

  26. Morrison's cautious optimism comes from a belief in the power of the local and individual; in this she resembles William Carlos Williams, who found Eliot's The Waste Land “the great catastrophe to our letters” because it ignored “the elementary principle of all art, in the local conditions” (The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams [New York: Random House, 1951], 146, 174.). Williams's response to Eliot is “Spring and All,” a poem rooted in the sense of place. In reworking the image of the waste land Morrison strips it of abstraction: at the end of the novel Pecola is living among very real Coke bottles, tire rims, and milkweed.

Vanessa D. Dickerson (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8104

SOURCE: Dickerson, Vanessa D. “The Naked Father in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.” In Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy, edited by Patricia Yaeger and Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, pp. 108-27. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Dickerson analyzes the “doubled” identity of fathers—characterized as at once both “familiar” and “unknowable” to their daughters—in The Bluest Eye, focusing on the way Cholly's familiarity with Pecola causes not only his daughter's demise but also his own.]

In Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970), the nine-year-old narrator Claudia McTeer and her ten-year-old sister Frieda lie in bed one night and peer at their naked father who “pass[es] the open door of [their] room”:

We had lain there wide-eyed. He stopped and looked in, trying to see in the dark room whether we were really asleep or was it his imagination that opened eyes were looking at him? Apparently he convinced himself that we were sleeping. He moved away, confident that his little girls would not lie open-eyed like that, staring, staring. When he had moved on, the dark took only him away, not his nakedness. That stayed in the room with us. Friendly-like.


These lines are busy with meaning. On the one hand, they point up the father's insistence on the innocence of his daughters. On the other hand, they intimate the vulnerability of McTeer himself: the lines suggest that for the father the gaze of his daughters would constitute some exposure or violation of his self. Incredulous and suspicious, the father resists the reality of the incident; silent and wide-eyed, the girls grant the significance of the encounter as they acknowledge a difference between a “him” that the darkness takes away, removes, or obscures, and a “nakedness” that is “friendly-like.”

Understandably, McTeer refuses to see the open-eyed presence of his daughters because their gaze is an assertion of female selfhood, which threatens the personal power of McTeer. By looking at “him” the girls show a curiosity and a boldness, which the patriarch Noah found so presumptuous and disrespectful as to warrant anathema (Gen. 10:18-29). By denying the gaze of his daughters, McTeer, like this biblical figure, both restricts Frieda and Claudia's access to and understanding of a masculine self that is rendered awesome because it is remote and obscure, and also limits the knowledge, growth, and empowerment of the girls themselves by disallowing the part of his daughters that may be curious about sexuality. While McTeer refuses to acknowledge this dimension of his girls, the daughters perceive two sides to the father—the “him” or self that is in the shadows—that is, the self that the dark obscures, the self they cannot see or know directly—and the nakedness of a physical self revealed, a self they can see and interpret as familiar, if not intimate, companionable, if not congenial, knowable, if not open: “friendly-like.”

The phrase “friendly-like” takes the relationship between McTeer and his daughters out of the realm where the father is the “big and strong” (7) parent who acts as the lawgiver and the benevolent keeper of his biological charges to a place where the children feel they are not confronting a seemingly infallible, inscrutable other, but rather an adult they recognize as vulnerable, warm, primal, accessible. Frieda and Claudia construe the nakedness of their father as “friendly-like” because when he is naked he is less dignified and distant, less concealed, less adulterated, more natural. Cloaked by the darkness, McTeer symbolically adds one more layer to the personal, social, psychological complexities that already separate child and adult. To put it another way, the clothed adult is a complicated, often formidable—if not intimidating text for which the child lacks the analytical skills. “Adults,” announces Claudia who perceives grown-ups as enigmatic and obscure, “do not talk to us—they give us directions. They issue orders without providing information” (12). Claudia describes the father who denies the possibility that his daughters would stare at his nakedness, the shadowy father who insists that he remain unseen, unknown, hidden. But she also admits, “The edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotion is always clear to Frieda and me. We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for the truth in timbre” (16). Naked, the body becomes a primer that the child can more easily decipher.

In The Bluest Eye, the children, those readers of the truth in adult hands, faces, feet, and voices, also give us the key we need to understand the most provocative father in the novel, Cholly Breedlove, who rapes his eleven-year-old daughter Pecola at the height of “lust and despair,” states of genitals and of mind engendered in his own unneat primerless childhood. Toni Morrison writes in awe of a character she herself finds it difficult to fathom: “The pieces of Cholly's life could become coherent only in the head of a musician. Only those who talk their talk through the fold of curved metal, or the touch of black-and-white rectangles and taut shins and strings echoing from wooden corridors, could give true form to his life” (125).1 It is not only this jazz musician of Morrison's specification, but also the more primal musician of her suggestion, the child, that can give us the clues needed to piece together the episodes of Cholly's being. Indeed, the explanation for Cholly's tender rape lies fittingly enough in the afterschool chant of “uncorrigival” (56) black schoolboys who taunt Pecola one day after school. “Black e mo Black e mo,” they incant, “Ya daddy sleeps nekked” (55).

While these boys provide the key to Cholly's unstorybooklike improvised fatherhood, the girls—Pecola, Maureen, Frieda and Claudia—pick up the reference to nakedness that the boys so quickly drop and worry it until it begins to yield meaning. It is Frieda and Claudia's frank and shameless encounter with their own father's nakedness that enables us to define the truth of Cholly's nakedness. The scene in which McTeer stands naked before his daughters introduces, as we have seen, the figure of two fathers—one, the “him” that passes into the darkness, is obscure, distant, dignified, jealous of his power, a lawgiver; the other, the father with the “friendly-like” nakedness that remains before the girls and the reader, is warm, exposed, spontaneous, physical. Unlike Claudia and Frieda's father, who survives, Morrison suggests, because he is able to be the obscured and the naked father, Pecola's father, even more the victim of unpropitious personal, social, and economic conditions, is cast out. He lives the life of the naked father. In a society controlled by traditional white patriarchs, Cholly, denied the opportunity to protect, provide, and command, becomes not just confused and frustrated, but desperately extreme in his spontaneity, passions, physicality, weakness—his nakedness. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison portrays the conditions under which a naked father such as Cholly is created and shows how such a nontraditional father operating in a traditional Dick-and-Jane society ruins himself and his own.

Cholly Breedlove's childhood is vexed by bitter-sweet exposure and overexposure. When he is only a helpless four-day-old, his mother compromises his existence when she leaves him on a junk heap, “Down in the rim of a tire under a soft black Georgia sky” (105). The ugliness of the junk heap is not mitigated by the soft black Georgia sky, rather the two are juxtaposed forever like the ebony and ivory of a keyboard in Cholly's life. Fifteen years later, when Cholly has his first sexual experience, he suffers a more blatant exposure that undercuts the ecstacy of the moment. Heady with the “thunderous beauty of [Aunt Jimmy's] funeral” and the “exultation” of the funeral banquet (113), Cholly, who has set out with a small group of youths to a wild vineyard, finds himself alone and about to experience his first sexual encounter with one Darlene. However, just as Cholly, astride Darlene, feels “an explosion threaten” (116), two white men out coon hunting interrupt the lovemaking with their eyes, lamps, flashlights, and laughter.

“Hee hee hee heeeee.” The snicker was a long asthmatic cough.

The other raced the flashlight all over Cholly and Darlene.

“Get on wid it, nigger,” said the flashlight one.

“Sir?” said Cholly, trying to find a buttonhole.

“I said, get on wid it. An' make it good, nigger, make it good.”


As the “flashlight [makes] a moon on his behind” (117), Cholly, having lost the thrust of his desire, fakes “with a violence born of helplessness” (117) the moves of intercourse. The two white men have spotlighted Cholly's nakedness, vulnerability, and powerlessness, and in doing so have put a junk heap beneath his soft Georgia sky. The dissonance is jarring as the pleasurable excitement of coition collides with the painful make-believe of coition performed for two white men, as love slides into hate. Cholly feels deeply the degradation of having this very private act of affirming his manhood turned into a sideshow, into the spectacle of two animals rutting in the woods.

Unable to shield Darlene or himself from the snickering, guntoting, coon hunting, white men, Cholly transfers his hatred to the weakest player in “the drama” (117), the one who lies beneath him literally and figuratively: “He hated her. He almost wished he could do it—hard, long, and painfully, he hated her so much. The flashlight wormed its way into his guts and turned the sweet taste of muscadine into rotten fetid bile. He stared at Darlene's hands covering her face in the moon and lamplight. They looked like baby claws” (117).

This hatred is no more or less than the inversion of Cholly's desire to protect Darlene from exposure. But since he “had not been able to protect, to spare, to cover [her] from the round moon glow of the flashlight” (119), he opts to save something of himself by hating Darlene. Since hating the hunters “would have destroyed him” (119), he must degrade and reduce Darlene. She has proffered him a thing as fruity as muscadine, but under the light of the white men her gift has soured. The pitiful hands she uses to cover her face so that she cannot see or be seen become “claws,” but significantly those of a small, helpless baby.

This reference to Darlene's babylike helplessness recalls Cholly's own helplessness as an abandoned infant at the same time that it points up his inability to protect not only Darlene but himself from the violation of the white man. In fact Cholly's hatred of Darlene is also self-hatred. For in her he senses the dawning of his own parental nakedness. That is, unable to protect, to fight, to hide, Cholly cannot manifest the patriarchal prowess, benevolence, or obscurity (after all, his backside is literally exposed) that is traditionally associated with maleness and manhood. Like Darlene he is accessible, weak, and naked. And to be thus naked is to share not only the tenderness and the plight of the female, but also to share a role traditionally assigned to her. The naked male is feminized, if not humanized.2

It follows, then, that Cholly, revolted by his identification with the femininity of nakedness, goes in search of his father. What Cholly finds strips him of any illusions he entertains about a relationship with that parent. He does see in his parent his own eyes, mouth, and head; however, instead of a man as tall as the black father who had broken open the watermelon at the July picnic, he finds a man shorter than himself and going bald at that. Instead of a man as sympathetic as Blue, one who is willing to share the heart of life with his son just as Blue had shared the heart of the watermelon, instead of the dignified, firm, but benevolent patriarch, he finds a man impatient, insensitive, unapproachable, and hard. The father made present is flawed and alien, the bastardization of the inscrutable father, the diametrical opposite of the naked father.

In the wake of these painful discoveries, Cholly reveals how tender and vulnerable he really is when “he soil[s] himself like a baby,” goes down to the river where, “finding the deepest shadow under the pier … [he] crouched in it [the river] behind one of the posts … [and] remained knotted there in the fetal position, paralyzed, his fist covering his eyes, for a long time” (124). The fetal position and the paralysis of this scene recall Cholly the infant deserted on the junk heap and Cholly the teenager momentarily paralyzed by the flashlight of the white men. Smelling himself just as he had smelled the white men in the woods, just as he had “inhaled a rife and stimulating man smell” (121) among the black gamblers, young Breedlove “takes off his pants, underwear, socks, and shoes” and washes all but these last in the river” (125).

Having thus regressed, Cholly lets his thoughts return to one of the first females who helped define his passage from childhood to manhood:

Suddenly he thought of his Aunt Jimmy, her asafetida bag, her four gold teeth, and the purple rag she wore around her head. With a longing that almost split him open, he thought of her handing him a bit of smoked hock out of her dish. He remembered just how she held it—clumsy-like, in three fingers, but with so much affection. No words, just picking up a bit of meat and holding it out to him. And then the tears rushed down his cheeks to make a bouquet under his chin.


Up to this point, Cholly's feelings for Aunt Jimmy have been as confused as those he later has for Darlene. Aunt Jimmy has saved Cholly from death on a junk heap; however, Cholly has wondered whether it “would have been just as well to have died” (105) on that junk heap. Some of Cholly's ambivalent feelings about his mother-aunt are mirrored in the character of the aunt as Morrison presents her. For example, Aunt Jimmy subsumes the manly role of the rescuer and provider as well as the womanly role of the nurturer. The feminine role of nurturer finally characterizes the aunt for Cholly (he is nearly split open with a recognition of love when he remembers her “just picking up a bit of meat and holding it out to him”); as her androcentric name suggests, she has not only been aunt and mother to Cholly, but also Jimmy and father.

Aunt Jimmy, then, embodies both a remoteness, firmness, and maleness, and a tenderness, weakness, and femaleness that Cholly finds difficult to accept. When Cholly smells the old asafetida bag that Aunt Jimmy wears to ward off sickness and infirmity, when he sees the purple rag (not kerchief) she uses to cover and protect her hair, and when he is made to sleep with her for warmth in the winter, he has mixed feelings of pity and revulsion about the smell of that asafetida bag, about the sight of that purple rag, and finally about the sight of Aunt Jimmy's nakedness, of her old, wrinkled breast sagging in her nightgown (105). Cholly has misgivings about the vulnerability these things ultimately signal.

The pity Cholly has felt for his Aunt Jimmy intimates an identification with the aunt. And it becomes clear elsewhere in the novel that the experiences of a maturer Cholly will bear some resemblance to those of all the Aunt Jimmy's of Cholly's childhood. For like these old black women he too “had grown, [e]dging into life from the back door” (109). He too had taken orders from the white men. And he too had knelt by the riverbank. But the difference between Cholly and these old black women is indeed “all the difference there was” (110). Listening to the chatter of these old women, hearing the lullaby of their grief (110), the child Cholly can at best only revision the thing that most strikingly sets him apart from them and validates his man-life. “In a dream his penis changed into a long hickory stick, and the hands caressing it were the hands of M'Dear” (110). This childhood dream identifies Cholly's penis as the one thing that does not allow him, like the old black women, to “walk the roads of Mississippi, the lanes of Georgia, the fields of Alabama unmolested” (110). His penis marks a manhood that the Southern white man openly and continually flouts or denies. In this way Cholly's penis is simultaneously his rod of affliction and of self-validation. The transformation of Cholly's penis into a hickory stick that M'Dear caresses also points to another association that will in part help account for Cholly's rape of Pecola. For the hickory stick that M'Dear carries when Cholly first sees her is used “not for support but for communication” (108). The dream suggests, then, that Cholly will use his stick-penis to communicate.

From start to finish, Cholly's communications and relations with women are problematic. Aunt Jimmy's love for Cholly, clumsy and unspoken, is nevertheless and eventually communicated. Cholly, however, never manages to express clearly to Aunt Jimmy what he feels. Dead, she can never receive the bouquet of tears that token his love for and loss of her. Similarly, after the trauma Cholly and Darlene both experience under the glare of the white man's flashlight, Cholly's communications with Darlene are strangled when he turns to her: “We got to get girl. Come on!” (118). Cholly's confusion and fear of vulnerability coupled with the growing desire to move from adolescence to manhood further qualify Cholly's relations with the female as he opts, if not for the role of the traditional male who is firm, in control, a protector of women, then for the “strong black devil” (106) who is defiant, daring, bad, a user of women.

In a rite de passage with three unnamed prostitutes, Cholly proves himself the mighty disposer of women, a male reminiscent of the “woman-killer” Blue, whom Cholly had so admired and yet had found an unapproachable father figure (119). In the encounter with the prostitutes, an event that quickly follows Cholly's memories of his dead aunt, Cholly puts aside the weakness, tears, and love he begins to feel by the Georgia riverside for the kind of power and obscurity that sex in a brothel affords him. Here, Cholly takes back “aimlessly” (125) a manhood from women who remain unnamed because they are dwarfed by Cholly's need to affirm his male self. In the transaction, these women are used to satisfy his hunger. And yet what Cholly receives from this incident, Morrison suggests, is equivocal in value as he does not get anything as substantial as Aunt Jimmy's smoked hock or even Darlene's grapes. From the prostitute he takes “lemonade in a Mason jar,” “slick sweet water” (125).

Having received this unsubstantial libation from a Mason jar, Cholly sets out on the road to a godlike freedom too extreme to result in good for himself or others. The man Pauline meets and marries has experienced a freedom that ultimately accentuates his nakedness:

Only a musician would sense, know, without even knowing that he knew, that Cholly was free. Dangerously free. Free to feel whatever he felt—fear, guilt, shame, love, grief, pity. Free to be tender or violent, to whistle or weep. Free to sleep in doorways or between the white sheets of a singing woman. Free to take a job, free to leave it. He could go to jail and not feel imprisoned, for he had already seen the furtiveness in the eyes of his jailer, free to say, “No, suh,” and smile, for he had already killed three white men. Free to take a woman's insults, for his body had already conquered hers. Free even to knock her in the head, for he had already cradled that head in his arms. Free to be gentle when she was sick, or mop her floor, for she knew what and where his maleness was. He was free to drink himself into a silly helplessness, for he had already been a gandy dancer, done thirty days on a chain gang, and picked a woman's bullet out of the calf of his leg. He was free to live his fantasies, and free to die, the how and the when of which held no interest for him. In those days, Cholly was truly free. Abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose. He was alone with his own perceptions and appetites, and they alone interested him.


The “godlike” freedom that reveals itself in these lines is neither the genuine nor the conventional thing. The force here represented is not that of a lawgiving, unbending, inscrutable godlike Yaweh. Cholly's acts tend to invert those of the patriarchy. For Cholly, the law becomes lawlessness; firmness can quickly turn to meanness, order passes into confusion. The freedom posited in these lines is one of contradiction, of paradox, of extremity, of heavenly tenderness and hellacious murder. Cholly's liberation is here exposed as a liberation of detachment and worthlessness: “there was nothing more to lose.” Having no real power, no real possessions, no relationship, Cholly is naked. Having no real power, Cholly is subjected to prison, insults, bullets, and rejection. Having no real possessions, he is cut adrift as he moves from one place to another. Having no real relationship, he is “alone with his own appetites and perceptions.”

As we have seen, Cholly's appetites and perceptions have in the course of his move from childhood to manhood shifted from smoked hock to slick sweet water, from love to sex. In his marriage to Pauline, Cholly tries to have the smoked hock, the love, the traditional Dick-and-Jane idea. He even tries to realize that which can more firmly establish the male's place in a patriarchal society—fatherhood. However, “having no idea of how to raise children, and having never watched any parent raise himself, he could not even comprehend what such a relationship should be. Had he been interested in accumulation of things, he could have thought of them as his material heirs; had he needed to prove himself to some nameless ‘others,’ he could have wanted them to excel in his own image and for his own sake” (126-27). The problem is that as a father Cholly has been stripped by his past of the possibilities of material accumulation and of social standing. Poor and black, renting a storefront because of a poverty that “was traditional and stultifying” (31), Cholly Breedlove and his family cannot indulge the “hunger for property, and for ownership” (18) that drives other blacks like the Peals, the Geraldines, and the McTeers (18). Cholly's modest attempts to buy his family and himself some of life's amenities are thwarted by whites who, in control of money and materials, take advantage of the helplessness and powerlessness visited upon black men in American society who, like Cholly, suffer deprivation of the goods and experiences by which manhood is signified.3 Thus when Cholly buys a new sofa that is delivered to his house with split fabric, it becomes, as the delivery man tells Cholly, “Tough shit, buddy. Your tough shit” (32).

The “joylessness” (32) of paying for something that is damaged marks a social impotence that is accentuated by the presentation of other fathers in the novel. The white male in Morrison's novel, for example, usually realizes the idea of the powerful but somewhat distant if not inscrutable provider. Morrison encourages this notion of remoteness and obscurity with her purposefully brief representations of the white fathers in the novel. At most the reader learns that these patresfamilias have money, which equals power, or they have possessions, land, and servants, which also amount to power and control. Though these often unnamed white men tend not to be physically present in the novel (and we can never know them or even McTeer as intimately as we do Cholly), their presence is very definitely felt as the heads of households of “power, praise, and luxury” (101). As the Dick-and-Jane text with its own brief mention of the father suggests, these obscure figures are the ideal patriarchs, the father against which society measures Cholly. At the top of a hierarchy of color and money is Mr. Fisher, a well-to-do white father who commands a household in which Pauline finds “beauty, order, cleanliness and praise” (101). At the very bottom is Cholly, a poor renting black father whose household is characterized by ugliness, cold, and strife. The distance between this naked black father and the white ideal of fatherhood looms insurmountable.

While Cholly in no way resembles the white patresfamilias in the novel, Morrison's multiple imaging of black fatherhood shows that he is both unlike and like his black contemporaries especially in his relations with his daughter. Cholly is most unlike the father of “the high-yellow dream child” (52), Maureen Peal. A black approximation of Mr. Fisher, Mr. Peal is able to secure the financial well-being of his daughter. According to the McTeer girls, Maureen “was rich … as rich as the richest of the white girls, swaddled in comfort and care” (52). The fine patent-leather shoes, fluffy sweaters, brown velvet coat trimmed in white rabbit fur, kelly-green knee socks, and money with which Peal outfits his daughter help reinforce, if not foster, her sense of self-esteem and beauty: “I am cute! And you ugly!” she screams to “the three black girls [Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola] on the curbside, two with their coats draped over their heads, the collars framing the eyebrows like nuns' habits, black garters showing where they bit the tops of brown stockings that barely covered the knees” (61).

Pecola is finally the strongest foil to the confident daughter of Mr. Peal. For Cholly Breedlove has neither genetically nor financially created a doll-like child, a storybook Jane, or a Polly Fisher. In one of her most unconfident and vulnerable moments, Cholly's daughter, a representative of his fatherly accomplishments, stands in a “dirty torn dress, the plaits sticking out on her head, hair matted where the plaits had come undone, the muddy shoes with the wad of gum peeping out from between the cheap soles, the soiled socks, one of which has been walked down with the heel of the shoe … a safety pin holding the hem of the dress up” (75).

The McTeer girls are not without slack in their own worn stockings (54); however, Morrison suggests that though their father shares some of Cholly's weaknesses, his is not so starkly impotent or naked. We can never know McTeer as well as we know Cholly. The circumstances of his childhood and his entry into manhood are not given; Morrison textually obscures and reveals McTeer. For us, then, as well as for his children, a side of him remains in shadow. We glimpse him only when we hear of his nakedness and again when he turns the lecherous boarder, Mr. Henry, out of his house for making lewd advances to Frieda (80).

Yet one of the most sustained though oblique commentaries on Cholly's fatherhood comes through the portrayal of McTeer in a poetic interlude that commences the section of the novel called “Winter.” Here Claudia McTeer pays tribute to a father who, like Cholly, cannot swaddle his girls in luxury, but a father, who unlike Cholly, is not so naked as to turn physically his frustration at his condition upon his daughters. Claudia writes:

My daddy's face is a study. Winter moves into it and presides there. His eyes become a cliff of snow threatening to avalanche; his eyebrows bend like black limbs of leafless trees. His skin takes on the pale, cheerless yellow of winter sun; for a jaw he has the edges of a snowbound field dotted with stubble; his high forehead is the frozen sweep of the Erie, hiding currents of gelid thought that eddy in darkness. Wolf killer turned hawk fighter, he worked night and day to keep one from the door and the other from under the windowsills. Vulcan guarding the flames, he gives us instructions about which doors to keep closed or opened for proper distribution of heat, lays kindling by, discusses qualities of coal, and teaches us how to rake, feed, and bank the fire. And he will not unrazor his lips until Spring.


The first part of this tribute to McTeer describes a parental figure reminiscent of the white patriarchs whom Cholly can never be or emulate. With skin that “takes on the pale, cheerless yellow of winter sun,” father McTeer is identified not only with the coldness and whiteness of a season, but also with the remoteness of the traditional white father. A cheerless face given to “avalanche” and “currents of gelid thought” requires study, as it is formidable, grim, and reticent—the face of the stern, unreadable “him” obscured by the dark.

As Claudia continues the description of her daddy, and that cold parent warms up, as it were, with images of heat that lead toward a spring, the father depicted comes to resemble Cholly especially as he assumes the role and blackness of the Vulcan. Vulcan, the lame keeper of the flames, is a more human and frail form than the wintry one Claudia first pictures. In his blackness and vulnerability, Vulcan is also a figure closer to the black devil with which Cholly had identified as a youth.4 Nevertheless, as the description progresses, it becomes clear that even as a Vulcanlike figure, McTeer's warmth, his nakedness is still governed by the wintriness of the obscured parent we hear of in the opening lines. He never completely exposes himself to his daughters as Cholly finally does. When McTeer opens up enough to talk to his offspring, he teaches, directs, and instructs them about the blackness of coal and about warmth, and thus remains the lawgiver and the supervisor. In other words, the unrazored slash in McTeer's face becomes a mouth as he moves from the role of wintry, remote patriarch to the role of the communicative, less aloof, father who is not so almighty and invincible as not to worry “night and day” about food, shelter, and warmth. And in his difficulties, his troubles, and his nakedness, McTeer is able to remain distant enough to give what comfort and care he can to his children in a way that is not so extreme as to devastate them. He has that degree of nakedness that his daughters need to feel loved and secure instead of defiled and brutalized.

McTeer does what Cholly Breedlove has not, can not: “Wolf killer turned hawk fighter, he [McTeer] worked night and day to keep one from the door and the other from under the windowsills.” This is to say that McTeer has kept hunger from the door and the cold from the windowsills. Cholly, so repeatedly unmanned by a society and by personal relationships that have allowed him comparatively no respect, no money, no voice, has been worsted in the struggle of the father to provide care and comfort. He has suffered a defeat that negates his ability to act conventionally—that is, within a patriarchal circle of commerce. Therefore instead of “guarding the flames” Cholly does not bother to fetch the coal his wife needs to warm the house and prepare the food. Rather, he burns down the house and puts his family outdoors. Finally when spring comes and Cholly unrazors his mouth—that is, when he tries to speak to his child—he rapes her.5

The actual rape (which is preceded by a rush of seemingly contradictory emotions) is the culmination of Cholly's own deflowered life, his own weakness and powerlessness, his own nakedness. Without money, without authority, without dominion, without education, Cholly looks at the hunched back of his child and perceives in the “clear statement of her misery … an accusation” (127). Here is the same accusation with its accompanying guilt, pity, and revulsion that Cholly felt when, caught with his pants down, he could not shield Darlene. “He wanted to break her neck [Pecola's, as presumably he had Darlene's]—but tenderly. Guilt and impotence rose in a bilious duet. What could he do for her—ever? What give her? What say to her? What could a burned-out black man say to the hunched back of his eleven-year-old daughter?” (127) As Cholly casts about for something to lay hold of that will confirm his manhood and his fatherhood, it is apparent that he has a strong desire to communicate with his child, to relieve her of the burden of unhappiness; however, he feels stripped and exposed as he so often has been in the past.

When Cholly, “reeling drunk” (127), sees his young, helpless, hopeless daughter, he sees in her the focal point for poignant feelings predominant in childhood events, such as the picnic with Blue and his encounter with his father. But more important, he experiences feelings codified in his relationship with the significant females in his life. Cholly's mixed feelings for Aunt Jimmy, his interrupted experiment with Darlene, his marriage to Pauline, and presumably his knowledge of his rejecting mother generate varying degrees and combinations of the “revulsion, guilt, pity, then love” (127) that lead up to Cholly's violation of Pecola. The questions that run through Cholly's mind before he crawls “on all fours” toward his daughter are questions that pertain to all the women who have cared for Cholly Breedlove. “How dare she love him? Hadn't she any sense at all? What was he supposed to do about that? Return it? How? What could his calloused hand produce to make her smile? What of his knowledge of the world and of life could be useful to her? What could his heavy arms and befuddled brain accomplish that would earn him his own respect, that would in turn allow him to accept her love?” (127).

Pecola at this point is not just Cholly's offspring, she is Cholly's everywoman. She is the woman who can open her legs and thereby testify to Cholly's manhood, and yet when he cannot protect that same woman that he himself is victimizing, she becomes the one who undercuts that testimony; she is implicated in the degradation and the denial of his manhood. She is a human baby with claws. Cholly's ambivalence, contradiction, and befuddlement are underscored in questions that reveal an almost indignant desire to help and to please his child and a simultaneously anxious need to aggrandize himself (to “earn him his own respect” and allow him to accept her love?).

Cholly, of course, answers these questions, which lay bare his feelings of worthlessness and degradation, by offering (for the rape is, in his mind, both a violation and a gift, a tender fuck) the knowledge and the power that is naturally his, the knowledge and the power that has ever been begrudgingly and mythically granted the black male, that of sexuality. And in the wake of Cholly's carnal gift to his daughter is the wholesale carnage of his life and hers, of their potential and hope. Pecola, despairing of a white “heavenly, heavenly Father” (141) who will grant her the bluest eyes, unwittingly sacrifices an old dog Bob at the altar of another of the black fathers imaged in the novel Soaphead Church.6 Pecola loses her baby and her sanity. Even the marigolds that Claudia and Frieda superstitiously plant to insure the life of Pecola's baby die. Cholly's “touch was fatal,” writes Claudia, “and the something he gave her filled the matrix of her [Pecola's] agony with death” (159).

Claudia goes on to explain that Cholly had really loved Pecola, loved her enough to be the only one “to give something of himself to her.” Cholly is not the obscured paterfamilias who hides himself from his daughter. Unlike the partially naked McTeer who denies the gaze of his daughters, Cholly bares himself: he gives Pecola complete access to his masculine self. However, while Cholly thus acknowledges the sexual side and power of his daughter, his nakedness is not “friendly-like,” because it is finally unmitigated by any reference to others or to a reachable, sociable idea of fatherhood. Unleashed in its social meaning, friendly nakedness becomes fiendish in the havoc wreaked upon the child. The gift Cholly gives his daughter is poisoned by the starkness of Cholly's very self, which has been warped by personal experience, social and economic conditions and circumstances that have stripped him of the capacity to share in a tradition inimical to that self. As Claudia puts it, “Love is never any better than the lover,” and “the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glow of the lover's inward eye” (159-60).

Shorn, and neutralized, himself, Cholly's love for his child is the love not only of a man who is free, but also of one who is so naked he is consequently dispossessed. And in the extreme nakedness of abandonment, degradation, poverty, and confusion there is no friendliness for children; there is only the waste and barrenness of aborted fatherhood. With its worship of whiteness, maleness, and power, and its high valuation of land, wealth, and acquisitions, with its hatred and exclusion of blackness and its fierce disdain of femaleness, frailty, and want, Western society has warped black fatherhood and consequently sacrificed the children.

The magic, the miracle of Morrison's novel is the survival, if not the transcendence, of a black father like McTeer who, in spite of the stress of being a black man in a white paternalistic culture, is able to foster in his children a feeling of security and a good sense of self. The saddest reality in the novel is the naked father like Cholly who, distressed unto madness by his total segregation from purportedly godly ideals of manhood and fatherhood, raises children who cannot see, and so deny the value and beauty of their selves and wish for the bluest eye.


  1. In her analysis of The Bluest Eye, Barbara Christian notes the musical qualities of the novel's form (Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 [Westport: Greenwood, 1980], 138-53).

  2. The ways in which Cholly's humanity is undercut are worth noting. Mrs. McTeer straightaway refers to Cholly as “that old Dog Breedlove” (Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye [New York: Washington Square Press, 1970], 17). Claudia explains, “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” (19). Later on we find Cholly sniffing the air like an animal to identify the scents of white men and the black gamblers (116, 121). And finally before he rapes his daughter, he gets down on all fours and crawls toward her like an animal.

  3. Susan Willis (Specifying: Black Women Writing, The American Experience [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987]) offers an interesting insight into the ways in which black men have maintained themselves when she writes, “Historically, gambling and bootlegging have afforded black men the opportunity to deal in a money economy without being employed by the economy” (12). When Cholly finds his father, that parent is gambling. When Cholly moves north with Pauline he quickly finds work in the steel mills of Lorain, Ohio. By the end of the novel Cholly has succumbed to the bootleggers, if he has not become one. Frieda notes that he is “always drunk” (Bluest Eye, 81), and he dies in a workhouse.

  4. According to Thomas Bulfinch (Mythology, abbr. Edmund Fuller [New York: Dell, 1959]), in one account of the titans, Vulcan (Hephaestos), son of Jupiter and Juno, was born lame; Juno, dissatisfied with Vulcan's deformity, flung him out of the heavens. In another account, Vulcan's lameness results from his fall.

    This reference to Vulcan links McTeer with Cholly. Though a crippled potentate, Vulcan was also the celestial artist. Morrison hints at Cholly as a frustrated artist of sorts when she insists that his psyche and life are the stuff of jazz musicians. Vulcan, in his smithy with all its attendant blackness and heat, is also reminiscent of the devil in his workshop. The devil is, of course, a figure with which young Cholly at one point openly identifies. Significantly, Cholly's understanding of the devil is not traditional or conventional. Cholly's devil is that opposite of the patriarchal devil. “He wondered if God looked like that [the black father at the picnic]. No, God was a nice old white man, with long white hair, flowing white beard, and little blue eyes that looked sad when people died and mean when they were bad” (106). Cholly's devil is a strong black man, caring and accessible. The black devil-father wants, as Cholly sees it, to split open the world (watermelon) and give its red guts (sustenance, good things) to the blacks who need it. Quite the opposite of the obscured, distant father, the devil-father stands so close that Cholly “felt goose pimples popping along his [own] arms and neck” (106). Cholly here is describing a version of the naked father. As Cholly in his own nakedness performs apparently devilish acts in the novel, it becomes clear that in the weakness and vulnerability of the naked father is also included the idea of the fallen father. This is to say that the naked father is fallen in the sense that he has fallen away from the white patriarchal idea, and fallen in the sense that acts in which he engages mark his weakness, his powerlessness to resist temptation, his sin, and finally fallen in the sense that he is pushed away or dispossessed. A tabular schema of this assertion follows:

    1st father—“obscured” 2nd father—“naked”
    Yaweh devil
    inscrutable exposed
    powerful weak (or fallen)
  5. In his Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), Keith Byerman writes that Cholly attempts to deal with “self-hatred and oppression by becoming as evil as possible. … Behind this ‘bad-nigger’ persona lies a history of distortions of principal relationships and rituals of life.” In various ways society has so conditioned and controlled Cholly, Byerman perceptively observes, that the effect has been one of “denying him a socially acceptable means of expressing authentic human emotion.” Byerman goes on to note that Cholly “is incapable of appropriate fatherly behavior because he has had no parents” (187-89). I contend that this want only partly accounts for Cholly's inappropriate behavior. What Cholly needs most is covering and the protection that may come out of love, consistency, sustenance, and equality in any significant personal and social relationships. For indeed, such covering provides the space, the time, and the wherewithal to integrate and affirm a culturally constructed self.

  6. Mr. Henry, but especially Elihue Micah Whitcomb, alias Soaphead Church, are part of Morrison's device of multiple imaging. These two characters are not biological fathers per se, rather they are father figures. Mr. Henry, a fatherly figure who lives with the McTeers, is soon cast out of that household when he gets too friendly with Frieda McTeer. Soaphead Church, whose attentions to Pecola are not physical, though they are very damaging, emerges as a more interesting fatherlike character. A self-appointed instrument of God (138), a type of Father Divine who had “dallied with the priesthood in the Anglican Church” (130), Soaphead Church, as his name suggests, is a pseudo-father whose relations with “his daughters”—that is, the young black girls who visit him—connect him to Cholly Breedlove. Morrison deliberately and carefully links Soaphead to Cholly to drive home further her point about how Western standards of fatherhood or fatherliness can be distorted or perverted in black fathers who live in a society that has historically, socially, and economically pushed them toward complete vulnerability. In his letter to the “heavenly, heavenly Father” of white patriarchy, Soaphead essentially locates his weakness and the beginning of his trouble in the history of his West Indian family, which has sought to whiten itself:

    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 acquiescence. And the smell of your fruit and the labor of your days we abhorred.


    In trying not only to be white, but also to adopt the white standards, the Whitcombs are falsified and weakened.

    Soaphead's father, a bad version of the white Yawehlike paterfamilias inflicts upon young Elihue not only “the precision of his [the father's] justice and the control of his violence” (133), but also “his theories of education, discipline, and the good life” (133). But “for all his exposure” to the fathers of “the Western world”—Christ, Hamlet, Gibbon, Othello, Dante—Soaphead only learns “the fine art of self-deception” and hatred (133). These two inculcations help lead Elihue to, among other things, his preference for little girls, the members of humanity whom he finds “least offensive” because they “were usually manageable and frequently seductive” (132). The little girls are just as vulnerable as he, if not more so, and so he identifies with these children in his sick way.

    Soaphead Church himself is every bit as destructive as Cholly Breedlove when he insists that he felt that he was being “playful” and “friendly” when he “touched their [the little girls'] sturdy little tits and bit them—just a little” (142). Soaphead's characterization of his deeds as “playful” is his perverted rendering of the lines in the Dick-and-Jane primer: “See Father. He is big and strong. Father, will you play with Jane? Father is smiling. Smile, Father, smile” (7). A bogus parent, Soaphead is neither big nor strong, though magical powers are attributed to him. Were he a little boy, his actions may possibly be construed as innocent exploratory play; however, the play of this “father” is not, as he declares, innocent. His play is abuse and victimization. Soaphead's description of his actions as “friendly” is not the “friendly-like” (my italics) warmth and nurturing that Claudia and Frieda sense in the presence of their naked father who denies, as it were, the tacit and full-blown realization of “friendly” (that is, unlike Cholly and Soaphead, McTeer dismisses the possibility of ever physically manifesting friendliness to his daughters).

    Like Cholly, this false father Church gives to Pecola a gift no better than himself. The parallels between Cholly and Soaphead are telling. The caresser of little girls, Soaphead never touches Pecola. Instead, like a fairy godfather, he grants her wish for the bluest eyes. While he, a self-deceived and deceiving father figure, passively gives Pecola a lie that leads her to madness. Cholly Breedlove, a more confused than deceived father, violently gives Pecola his physical self, a gift that has propelled her not only toward Soaphead's gift of insanity, but also toward exile and death.

    Finally, Soaphead voices an important indictment against white patriarchy and how it has excluded and injured black lives when he writes:

    You said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and harm them not.” Did you forget about the children? Yes. You forgot. You let them go wanting, sit on road shoulders, crying next to their dead mothers. I've seen them charred, lame, halt. You forgot, Lord. You forgot how and when to be God.

    That's why I changed the little black girl's eyes for her, and I didn't touch her; not a finger did I lay on her. … I did what You did not, could not, would not do: I looked at that ugly little black girl, and I loved her. I played You. And it was a very good show!


    The truth here is that Yaweh has not been kind to the children, especially to the daughters like Pecola who have black fathers in white society who cannot recreate Yaweh in themselves, cannot manage a mite of the power to protect, provide, and comfort. In Soaphead's cry for the children is a cry interestingly enough for both Cholly and for Soaphead himself. For both these men are in some sense reduced to children; that is, in as far as their manhood has been denied or undercut in society, they remain children who have urges to “play” in particular with those who are at least as weak and exposed as they are—the little girls.

Shelley Wong (essay date summer 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5795

SOURCE: Wong, Shelley. “Transgression as Poesis in The Bluest Eye.Callaloo 13, no. 3 (summer 1990): 471-81.

[In the following essay, Wong isolates a two-fold process in Morrison's narrative method in The Bluest Eye that transgresses conventional boundaries of signification and then reconfigures the material to form a new order of signification.]

In the opening pages of The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes that since the “why” of Pecola and Cholly Breedlove's situation is “difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how” (9). This admission, hardly the admission of a lack of technique or craft, is, instead, Morrison's admission that she is interested in, not questions of final causes, but questions of process, questions about how process comes to be shut down. Not surprisingly, then, The Bluest Eye opens with a tuition in closure. In a passage rendered in the style of the Dick and Jane series of primers, the novel lays bare the syntax of static isolation at the center of our cultural texts:

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane? See the cat. It goes meow-meow. Come and play. Come play with Jane. The kitten will not play. See Mother. Mother is very nice. Mother, will you play with Jane? Mother laughs. Laugh, Mother, laugh. See Father. He is big and strong. Father, will you play with Jane? Father is smiling. Smile, Father, smile. See the dog. Bowwow goes the dog. Do you want to play with Jane? See the dog run. Run, dog, run. Look, look. Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane. They will play a good game. Play, Jane, play.


With the exception of Jane, each character—Mother, Father, Dick (who is absent from the narrative after the first mention of his name), the dog and the cat—maintains himself in a self-enclosed unity, “each member of the family in his own cell of consciousness” (31). The short, clipped sentences accentuate their discreteness. Each of their respective actions—again, with the exception of Jane—is marked by an intransitive verb: “laugh, smile, run,” and the conventional sound signatures ascribed to cats and dogs—“meow-meow” and “bowwow.” While the verbs “laugh,” “smile,” and “run” can function as transitive verbs, they do not do so in this passage. These verbs—including “see”—are also imperatives, suggesting the presence of, though never naming, the controlling authority that directs both the reader and the characters of the story. Only Jane (and the unnamed “friend”), who “wants to play,” expresses a desire, or a capacity, to engage a world beyond the self. The family is purportedly “very happy.” However, the laughing and smiling, seen in the context of the characters' atomized condition, seem not to express joyful affirmation but, rather, almost scornful repudiation. They refuse to play.

In an interview, Morrison commented that she had “used the primer, with its picture of a happy family, as a frame acknowledging the outer civilization. The primer with white children was the way life was presented to black people” (LeClair 28-29). The lesson of this passage in fact goes well beyond acknowledging or presenting white bourgeois values—it goes as far as enacting the very conditions of alienated self-containment which underlie those values. We might note, for instance, that the “house” precedes the “family” in order of both appearance and discussion. In this scheme of things, human relations are preempted by property and commodity relations. The space of ownership engulfs the time of human development and fellowship. The body of human relationships is drawn into the marketplace of being, an essentially timeless space which fosters a frightening commensurability between people and units of exchange, a commensurability which renders family members falsely individualized moments of a social and material whole. In the school of bourgeois economics, the child's first lesson in cultural literacy teaches the primacy of the singular and the discrete. The lesson works against memory and history, and collapses the structure of desire and communitas, while simultaneously promoting the desirability of discrete repetition, the wish to be always equal to some measure of ideality divorced from one's own physical and spiritual needs.

The primer passage itself is subsequently repeated twice (though with quite another lesson in mind): the first time without punctuation or capitalization, and the second time without punctuation, capitalization, or spaces between words or sentences. Again, in an interview, Morrison offers a reason for this particular arrangement: “As the novel proceeded I wanted that primer version broken up and confused, which explains the typographical running together of words” (LeClair 29). The brevity and the apparent simplicity of this explanation belie the dynamic complexity of a formal practice. “Broken up” means broken into pieces, ceasing to exist as a unified whole. “Confused” means mixed indiscriminately, blurred, from the Latin root confundere meaning “to pour together.” Out of this seeming contradiction, it is possible to locate a two-fold process which marks the trajectory of Morrison's narrative practice—i.e., the practice of taking apart and then pouring back together to form the ground of a' new order of signification.

Formal considerations notwithstanding, some critics have read these typographical arrangements as symbolic representations of three different kinds of family situations. The first typographically “correct” version formally represents the ideal (or close to ideal) American family typified in the novel by the white Fisher family (Pauline Breedlove's employers), or the aspiring black bourgeois household of Geraldine, Louis, and Louis Junior. The second version is then associated with the family of the young narrator, Claudia MacTeer, a family admitting of some “disorder,” but which “still has some order, some form of control, some love” (Ogunyemi 112). The final run-on version is said to depict the “utter breakdown of order among the Breedloves” (Ogunyemi 112).1

What these critics have overlooked, however, in their rush to establish thematic equivalencies, is the actuating potential of Morrison's formal textual strategies. They focus on the facts of the story but do not attend to the technique through which the story is told. The omission is problematic because while the story itself may fall within the thematic bounds of bleakness, the way in which it is told can constitute a means of resistance to both personal despair and cultural oppression. By omitting punctuation and capitalization, Morrison begins to break up—and down—conventional syntactic hierarchies, conventional ways of ordering private and public narratives.

The practical effect of this omission is to force one to reevaluate the cultural signposts which give the measure to one's life. By also omitting conventional spacing between words and sentences and breaking lines without respect for the integrity of the word, Morrison collapses those measures altogether, forcing one to pick one's way through a welter of potential signification. The progressive elimination of markers and the running together of words at once defamiliarizes and refamiliarizes the signifying terrain. In refusing the terms of the dominant culture's patterning of experience, one is in a position to restate the familiar, that is, to retrace the particular contours of one's own experience, to regain the practice of one's own narrative. This refusal of ready-made terms, and the responsibility it entails, plays itself out through other art forms, such as music—in particular, jazz. Some time ago, in answer to an interview question, the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk offered the following:

Jazz and freedom go hand in hand. That explains it. There isn't anything to add to it. If I do add something to it, it gets complicated. That's something for you to think about. You think about it. You dig it.


The refusal of the dominant culture's ready-made terms also challenges that culture's monopoly of meaning. The singular authority of the self-contained word threatens always to hypostatize and monopolize the very process of signification itself. As Morrison notes in conversation:

It's terrible to think that a child with five different present tenses comes to school to be faced with those books that are less than his own language. And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging. He may never know the etymology of Africanisms in his language, not even know that “hip” is a real word or that “the dozens” meant something. This is a really cruel fallout of racism. I know the standard English. I want to use it to help restore the other language, the lingua franca.

(LeClair 27)

It is indeed a fallout of racism, but it is also a fallout of a way of organizing social and economic relations. It is a fallout of what one Chinese American writer has called—and called into question—a “Christian esthetic of one god, one good, one voice, one thing happening, one talk at a time,” in short, an ideology and an aesthetic of authoritarian closure (Chin xxviii).

The single image of the ideal, the single meaning of the word, command either silence or mute repetition, and produce people “who know not what they do / but know that what they do / is not illegal” (Loy 127). Against a contemporary mood wherein, as Morrison notes, “everybody is trying to be ‘right’” (LeClair 27), The Bluest Eye launches a critique of received norms of beauty and morality. The novel accomplishes this, in part, through its structural affinity with jazz, in particular, with a jazz practice which insists on overstepping conventional boundaries. Working out of an aesthetic of transgression, such music is frequently misunderstood, and mistaken for the stammered expression of past and/or present oppressions. When Theodor Adorno condemns jazz for its perpetuation of slave rhythms, its integration of “stumbling and coming-too-soon into the collective march-step” (128), he mishears the music because he conflates “slave”—black American in bondage—with “slavish”—being imitative, submissive, or spineless. Adorno considers jazz's incorporation of slave rhythms to be black America's self-mocking responses to, and affirmation of, past and present oppressions. For Adorno, syncopation involves the “coming-too-soon” into an enforced march-step, the self-lacerating eagerness which rushes headlong into servitude. But syncopation is not always a matter of being ahead of the beat; syncopation can also involve dragging the beat, resisting the received measure by deliberately working behind the beat. While acknowledging other critics' ideas concerning the transformative power of “stumbling,” Adorno nevertheless refuses to concede the idea's actuality. Had he known Monk's music, for example, he could have seen that the “stumbling,” the sometimes rapid and unexpected rhythmic shifts, are not ways of reflecting or accommodating victimage but are, instead, ways of negotiating a cultural minefield. To stumble the way Monk stumbles is to recognize the constant necessity of picking one's way through that minefield, refusing to be pinned down by the enemy, to be where the enemy expects you to be, or to be caught within the range of their oppressive cultural instrumentation. It can be a terrifying freedom—the freedom to be blown apart by a careless step, by an extravagant hubris. But at the same time, “stumbling” remains one of the few honest motions left in a world that demands a collective march-step. Decrying the tendency amongst young people today to give themselves up to a totally administered existence (LeClair 28), Morrison peoples her novels with characters such as Cholly Breedlove in The Bluest Eye and Sula and Ajax in Sula who try to resist such pervasive administration:

They are the misunderstood people in the world. There's a wildness that they have, a nice wildness. It has bad effects in a society such as the one in which we live. It's pre-Christ in the best sense. It's Eve. When I see this wildness gone in a person, it's sad. This special lack of restraint, which is a part of human life and is best typified in certain black males, is of particular interest to me. … Everybody knows who “that man” is, and they may give him bad names and call him a “street nigger”; but when you take away the vocabulary of denigration, what you have is somebody who is fearless and who is comfortable with that fearlessness. It's not about meanness. It's a kind of self-flagellant resistance to certain kinds of control, which is fascinating. Opposed to accepted notions of progress, the lockstep life, they live in the world unreconstructed and that's it.

(Tate 125-26)

The word “unreconstructed” is crucial here, for it points up and elaborates on that two-fold process characterizing both Morrison's use of the primer passage and an analogous jazz practice. An “unreconstructed” world suggests a world that has, first of all, been taken apart and then not—or not yet—put back together in any definitive sense of a final unity. The world unreconstructed refuses the matter-of-factness with which the administered world fixes a permanent name to an object, choosing instead to remain plural and fissiparous, requiring constant naming and constant articulation. Whether that articulation evolves into the blues, jazz, or other modes of formal expression, the impulse behind it is to express the mutable extravagance of materiality and to eschew the restraining paucity of all forms of ideality. In blues and jazz, improvising becomes a way of keeping the world open to its own potentiality. Jazz articulates meaning through attention to the particulars of the moment, to the work under hand, rather than through any strict adherence to received, and preconceived, notions of the bar or the line. Musicians such as the pianist Cecil Taylor or the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman have, in their early work, even called into question the very notion of tonal centers:

[The resulting music is] in many cases atonal (meaning that its tonal “centers” are constantly redefined according to the needs, or shape and direction, of the particular music being played, and not formally fixed as is generally the case …).

(Jones 226)

[Through jazz improvisation] music and musician have been brought, in a manner of speaking, face to face, without the strict and often grim hindrances of overused Western musical concepts; it is the overall musical intelligence of the musician which is responsible for shaping the music.

(Jones 227)

The improvised piece, if it is to be articulate, requires not only attention to the immediate complex of sound and feeling being worked out but, also, attention to the total field of composition, to the “total area of its existence as a means to evolve, to move, as an intelligently shaped musical concept, from its beginning to end” (Jones 226).

“Intelligence,” I might note, takes its etymological cue from an agricultural vocabulary, from the Latin for “gleaning,” the gathering together of meanings. Much of Morrison's writing comes back repeatedly to this concern with her characters' abilities to gather meaning from the ragtag details of a life. Pauline Breedlove “liked, most of all, to arrange things,” but that impulse was never able to find an appropriate outlet: “she missed—without knowing what she missed—paints and crayons” (TBE [The Bluest Eye] 88-89). In Morrison's second novel, Sula, we find Sula Peace without a way to perform herself in the world:

[Sula's] strangeness, her naivete, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.


Similarly, for Cholly Breedlove in The Bluest Eye, the inability to articulate the disparate moments of a life results in a hysteria of freedom:

The pieces of Cholly's life could become coherent only in the head of a musician. Only those who talk their talk through the gold of curved metal, or in the touch of black-and-white rectangles and taut skins and strings echoing from wooden corridors, could give true form to his life. Only they would know how to connect the heart of a red watermelon to the asafetida bag to the muscadine to the flashlight on his behind to the fists of money to the lemonade in a Mason jar to a man called Blue and come up with what all that meant in joy, in pain, in anger, in love, and give it its final and pervading ache of freedom. Only a musician would sense, know, without even knowing that he knew, that Cholly was free. Dangerously free.


Cholly was free in the sense that he was not bound by responsibility (or response-ability) to anyone but himself. Having been “abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose” (126). For Cholly, in this “godlike state” (126), the world remained unreconstructed. Having lost all measures of relatedness to others, he was free to remake, or free to not make at all, his own ties to the world. In this sense, the unreconstructed narrative of his life resembles the third primer passage where all hierarchies, all conventional ordering has been collapsed. Using the analogy of a tape recording played back at high speed, or a film shown in fast motion, the seeming absence of cultural markers requires one either to create new orders of signification or to risk losing one's way altogether. In a nation which has historically insisted upon some people “shar[ing] all the horrors but none of the privileges of our civilization” (Algren ix), what passes for cultural measures can, when taken up by the disinherited, quickly be revealed as a hysteria of mismeasure.

For Cholly, the inability to ground himself in new measures results in despair. Initially unfitted, by way of race and class, for the dominant culture's patterning of experience, and then fitted too tightly into the “constantness, varietylessness, [and] sheer weight of sameness” (126) of his marriage, Cholly was soon smothered by his own “inarticulate fury and aborted desires” (37). “Only in drink was there some break” (126) from the relentless routinization of body and soul. The weight of sameness, the tyranny of repetition—at home and at the mill—destroys for him the sense of time as a generative, forwarding process. The destruction, however, actually begins much earlier than his marriage. Cholly's abandonment by his parents radically disconnects him from the time of family. Later, the interruption and the frustration of his first sexual encounter by two white hunters further highlights his separation from the world of generative and reproductive time. This intrusion of the white world maintains a historical precedent in slavery. The slave trade had disrupted generative, and genealogical, time by breaking up families and by rendering family members commodities, that is, by reducing the ever-changing, ever-proliferating body to the status of exchangeable homogeneous units. Nowhere in this novel is this legacy of slavery—the disfigurement of human relationships by the marketplace—more ironically stated than in Morrison's decision to locate a family by the name of “Breedlove” in a converted (and poorly converted at that) storefront.

In the Breedloves' lives, repetition as the time of “flesh on unsurprised flesh” (38), as the copying of a static ideal, or as the submission to slave or factory time, results only in a stopped narrative, an arrested history. Pecola's rape too is, in one concrete sense, an arrested history. As Cholly moves to rape her, Pecola's “shocked body” (128) startles Cholly out of the miasma of routinized desire that was his marriage, setting in motion a “confused mixture” (128) of his memories of his first encounter with Pauline and his hatred for Darlene, the young girl who had witnessed his humiliation in front of the white hunters. Pecola's “shocked body” excites him, perhaps because it recalls for him a time before the freezing of his bodily imagination. Thus, while trying to break out of the stultifying confines of his quotidian existence by doing “a wild and forbidden thing” (128), Cholly succeeds only in copying those two earlier moments. In turning back process through raping his own daughter, Cholly breaks with and thwarts genealogical time. Within this context, their baby cannot possibly live, for nothing can issue from a stopped narrative.

The pathos of the Breedloves' lives lies in their complete alienation from each other and from the world; locked in their individual cells of consciousness, they are unable to give birth to each other, unable to bring each other into the world of generative time. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison allows the reader to see how the Breedloves arrive at their atomized conditions. The subsequent revelation points up how a metaphysics, a socioeconomic system, a society and a community, can interact in a mutual frenzy of blind ideality to mutilate people, particularly girls and women. The destructiveness of culturally sanctioned closures is implicit in the very title of the novel, where the “eye” is decidedly singular. There can, after all, only be one bluest eye, not a pair of eyes that are the bluest in the world, but a single eye. The impossibility of Pecola's wish is rooted in the singularity of the superlative. In order to achieve the bluest eye, she has to sacrifice the other—the result, self-mutilation. Pecola's subsequent derangement, the splitting up of her psyche and the splitting off of herself from the world, provides the only route to the superlative.

The Bluest Eye emerges as the indictment and the uncrowning of a social and economic order which upholds and implements a metaphysics of isolate unity. The world of discrete facts spawned by such a metaphysics refuses the ambivalence of the material world; it refuses to acknowledge the mutuality of material being that reveals itself in a newborn baby whose eyes “all soft and wet,” are a “cross between a puppy and a dying man” (100); in a dog who coughs the “cough of a phlegmy old man” (139); in men who are dogs (15, 128); in cats who take the place of men (70); in an old woman who “yelps” like a dog (144); in a pregnant woman who “foals” (99); in a young girl who “whinnies” when she begins to menstruate (25); in all the ways that the material body asserts its transformative possibilities in an unfinished world of metamorphosis:

The unfinished and open body (dying, bringing forth and being born) is not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries; it is blended with the world, with animals, with objects … it represents the entire material bodily world in all its elements.

(Bakhtin 27)

In confusing, in running together, the usually discrete states of birth and death and the discrete orders of humans and animals, Morrison breaks down the false and isolating solidity of self-contained identities and, at the same time, answers with an emphatic “No” Soaphead Church's question to God: “Is the name the real thing then? And the person only what his name says?” (TBE 142). In refusing the fixed identity of word and object, Morrison begins the work of decentering the logos itself. Through Soaphead's address to God, Morrison reveals the inanity at the center of the authoritarian word:

Is that why to the simplest and friendliest of questions “What is your name?” put to you by Moses, You would not say, and said “I Am Who I Am.” Like Popeye? I Yam What I Yam? Afraid you were, weren't you, to give out your name? Afraid they would know the name and then know you? Then they wouldn't fear you?


One way Morrison breaks open the secretive, evasive nature of the solitary word is by acknowledging the physicality of words themselves. Words are not dead letters on the page but live sounds in the mouth and in the ear. She pays careful attention to not only the connotations of words, but also to the cadences of the language itself. Through the repetition of words, images, and grammatical structures, she affirms and enacts the resonance of materiality. To repeat in this way is not to yearn after the exactness of a copy but, rather, to follow up the traces of a family resemblance. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison uses the repeated phrase in much the same way a musician uses a riff—i.e., as a way of grounding, without prescribing, the entire composition; it is as much a point of departure as it is a point of return. On one level, the riff bears structural affinities with the rhetorical device of anaphora, a device which Morrison uses throughout the novel. Anaphora literally means “a bringing again” and refers to the practice of beginning successive sentences or clauses with the same word or sound. Each “bringing again” of the concrete word or sound offers another look, another hearing, another context, and another shifting around and gathering of meanings. “Truth” is to be found, not in semantics alone, but also in “timbre” and cadence (16).

For Morrison, language is material; language “is the thing that black people love so much—the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them” (LeClair 27). The same could be said of a jazz musician's relationship to the musical phrase, particularly in the practice of the riff-solo sequence, the riff, here, being the occasion of collective playing which launches the individual musician on his own solo improvisation. The musician will take up the phrase and play with it, extending it and turning it over and over again until he extracts from it all the meaning that his own desires and questionings can call up. In Morrison's writing, the riffing frequently takes the form of a kind of rhyming, not of sounds necessarily (though this is often the case), but of occasions. This rhyming manifests itself temporally and spatially. In temporal terms, the novel is composed in such a way that it continually folds back on itself, replaying certain themes, images, or words. When we encounter Maureen Peal in the “Winter” section of the novel, we realize that her appearance had in fact been prepared for in the “Autumn” section, when Pecola, savoring the thought of eating Mary Jane candies, feels a “peal of anticipation unsettl[ing] her stomach” (41). The sonic rhyme in “peal” signals the occasional rhyme—both the eating of the Mary Jane candies and the appearance of Maureen Peal in midwinter promise false springs. Maureen is the “disrupter of seasons” (52), and for Pecola, the Mary Janes will ultimately be the disrupters of generative time, the seasonal time of the body. The repetition also throws us forward into Pecola's later encounter with Soaphead. There, on the verge of achieving the much desired transubstantiation, of achieving the beauty and the popularity of a Maureen Peal, Pecola's stomach is unsettled by the odor of the poisoned meat and by Bob's subsequent death throes.2

In spatial terms, Morrison rhymes by distributing human and animal characteristics amongst her characters in such a way that the human and animal worlds are unmistakably linked through a shared materiality. When humans “nest” and dogs cough like old men, and when a “high-yellow dream child” has a “dog-tooth” and another girl “whinnies” in fear, the hierarchical boundaries between the human and the animal are no longer absolute and human pretensions to the contrary are exposed as self-delusions.

In her writing, Morrison dethrones isolate unity and, instead, articulates the connectedness of people, animals, objects, and words—in short, all the manifestations of material being. The very act of articulating—of “making [one's] own patchwork quilt of reality—collecting fragments of experience here, pieces of information there” (TBE 31)—becomes a means of survival. For some of Morrison's characters—such as Mrs. MacTeer and Poland, one of the three whores who live in the apartment above the Breedloves—the blues provide a means to gather and to transmute the pain of daily existence. Mrs. MacTeer, Claudia tells us, “having told everybody and everything off … would burst into song and sing the rest of the day,” singing about “hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me times” (23-24). In his essay, “Richard Wright's Blues,” Ralph Ellison writes this:

blues is an impulse to keep the painful details of and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.


Ellison's choice of the word “transcend” seems to jar against the rest of his observation, and in its place, I would insert the word “transform,” for the blues do not rise above the pain but bear witness to it and make it livable. Morrison's own writing stems from a similar impulse. After Soaphead has performed Pecola's miracle, he writes a letter to God. As he prepares to do so, he reaches for a “bottle of ink [that] was on the same shelf that held the poison” (139). The juxtaposition of the ink and the poison is far from gratuitous. The literal poison on the shelf here merely underscores the novel's repeated concern with a metaphorical poisoning which works through the American culture industry's projection—from the movie screen, from Mary Jane candy wrappers, and from Shirley Temple mugs—of a single image of ideal beauty, one that is decidedly white and devoid of any “dreadful funkiness” (68). The writing-out of pain remains inseparable from the cause itself.

There are those, however, without the means to transform their experience. The criminal failure to be equal to the dominant culture's image of beauty, to be equal to any imposed measure of ideality, leaves Morrison's characters scrambling for refuge in what are often destructive alibis. When it becomes known that Cholly has raped his own daughter, and that she is pregnant as a result of it, the black community's response ranges over disgust, amusement, shock, titillation, and outrage. Their moral outrage, while purportedly based on the violation of the incest taboo, is also clearly based on the violation of culturally sanctioned standards of beauty: “Ought to be a law: two ugly people doubling up like that to make more ugly. Be better off in the ground” (148). Any child of Cholly and Pecola's was “bound to be the ugliest thing walking” (148), and it would be better, for all concerned, if the baby didn't live to remind them of their own tenuous relationship to white America's standards of beauty. The baby doesn't live. And the community's alibi, created to deflect their own complicity in its death and in Pecola's psychological death, remains intact:

All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used—to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.

And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeking in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.


“Quiet as it's kept” (9), the narrator tells us at the beginning of the novel, leaving us to anticipate the “big lie [that] was about to be told” (LeClair 28). From that moment on, the novel bears witness to the lie that is closure itself. In bearing witness, Morrison will tell the tale of “who survived under what circumstances and why” (LeClair 26). Through the telling, the dominant culture's monologue on itself will be challenged and ruptured by the lingua franca of ambivalent materiality itself. In this sense, the telling becomes a liberating pedagogy. In commenting on her function as a writer, Morrison says:

I write what I have recently begun to call village literature, fiction that is really for the village, for the tribe … [my novels] ought to identify those things in the past that are useful and those things that are not; and they ought to give nourishment.

(LeClair 26)

According to the tenets of an older Platonic tradition of rhetorical theory, the function of the rhetorician was to move the soul of another in order that the soul begin to move itself. In more recent terms, the American poet Charles Olson has formulated another conception of that function for the contemporary writer: “he who can tell the story right has actually not only, like, given you something, but has moved you on your own narrative” (38). In bearing accurate witness to the “big lie,” Morrison has reopened the tale of the tribe, reopened for the members of her tribe and for her readers the points of entry to a private and a public narrative. Telling and freedom go hand in hand, we can hear Morrison saying—“You dig it.”


  1. A similar reading of this primer passage can be found in Klotman, (123-25).

  2. In conversation with Claudia Tate, Morrison has spoken of what I have referred to as a rhyming of occasions in terms of “omens”: “you don't know what's going to happen at the time the omens occur, and you don't always recognize an omen until after the fact, but when the bad thing does happen, you somehow expected it” (Tate, 124-25).

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981.

Algren, Nelson. Never Come Morning. 1942. New York: Harper, 1963.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984.

Chin, Frank. The Chickencoop Chinaman/The Year of the Dragon. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1981.

Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. 1953; 1964. Toronto: New American Library of Canada Limited, 1966.

Jones, LeRoi. Blues People. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1963.

Klotman, Phyllis. “Dick-and-Jane and the Shirley Temple Sensibility in The Bluest Eye.Black American Literature Forum 13 (Winter 1979): 123-25.

LeClair, Thomas. “The Language Must Not Sweat.” New Republic, 184 (21 March 1981): 25-29.

Loy, Mina. The Last Lunar Baedeker. Highlands: The Jargon Society, 1982.

Monk, Thelonious. In Martin Williams, liner notes, The Smithsonian Collection of Classical Jazz. Smithsonian Institute, 1953.

Morrison, Toni. Sula. 1973. New York: New American Library, 1982.

———. The Bluest Eye. New York: Washington Square Press, 1970.

Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. “Order and Disorder in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 19 (1977): 112-20.

Olson, Charles. Muthologos: The Collected Lectures and Interviews. Ed. George Butterick. 2 vols. Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation, 1978.

Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1983.

Doreatha Drummond Mbalia (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4628

SOURCE: Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond. “The Bluest Eye: The Need for Racial Approbation.” In Toni Morrison's Developing Class Consciousness, pp. 28-38. Selinsgrove, Mass.: Susquehanna University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Mbalia traces the narrative development of racism as the primary focus of The Bluest Eye in order to account for the novel's structural limitations.]

In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison's emphasis is on racism. Specifically, she investigates the effects of the beauty standards of the dominant culture on the self-image of the African female adolescent. The role of class, the primary form of exploitation experienced by African people that will become the focus of later works, is only relevant insofar as it exacerbates that self-image. Of the three main characters—all African female adolescents—it is Pecola Breedlove who is the primary focus. It is she who is most affected by the dominant culture's beauty standards because it is she who is the poorest and, consequently, the most vulnerable. Thus, even with this early work, Morrison is conscious of the role economics plays in the African's having a wholesome self-image. For it is the Breedloves' fight for survival that weakens the family structure and makes the family members more vulnerable to the propaganda of the dominant culture. Still, it is clear that in The Bluest Eye Morrison regards racism as the African's primary obstacle. Describing the Breedloves, she writes: “Although their poverty was traditional and stultifying, it was not unique. But their ugliness was unique.”1 This comment demonstrates that in the late 1960s, when this novel was written, Morrison's level of consciousness about the primary cause of the nature of the African's oppression in the United States as well as in the rest of the world was considerably weak, for she not only subordinates the role of economics to racism, but also neglects to show a causal relationship between them, that an exploitive economic system gives rise to racist ideology.

The thesis of the novel is that racism devastates the self-image of the African female in general and the African female child in particular.2 Toni Morrison's emphasis is on the society, not the family unit. According to her, the African's self-image is destroyed at an early age as a result of the ruling class's (i.e., the European capitalist class's) promotion of its own standard of beauty: long, stringy hair, preferably blond; keen nose, thin lips; and light eyes, preferably blue. By analogy, if the physical features of the European are accepted as the standard of beauty, then the African must be ugly. This is the type of logic that the Breedloves use to convince themselves of their ugliness:

They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.” And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.3

Although Morrison clearly and correctly understands that the concept of beauty is a learned one—Claudia MacTeer learns to love the big, blue-eyed baby doll she is given for Christmas; Maureen Peal learns she is beautiful from the propaganda of the dominant society as well as from the African adult world; and Pauline Breedlove learns from the silver screen that every face must be assigned some category on the scale of absolute beauty—Morrison does not yet understand that this concept will change depending on the racial makeup of the dominant class. That is, her immature class consciousness at this point in her writing career precludes her understanding of three important facts: first, that the ruling class, whether of European, African, or Asian descent, possesses the major instruments of economic production and distribution as well as the means of establishing its socio-cultural dominance (i.e., all forms of media including books, billboards, and movies); second, that possessing such means, the ruling class uses and promotes its own image as a measurement of beauty for the entire society; and third, that the success of this promotion ensures the continual dominance of this ruling class.

Although her class analysis is immature at this point, Morrison is at least conscious of a limited role that economics plays in the exploitation of African people. For example, Morrison begins The Bluest Eye with a page and a half of one passage repeated in three different ways. Each of the passages reflects the three primary families in the novel: the Dick-Jane primary reader family, the MacTeer family, and the Breedlove family. The first family is symbolic of the ruling class; it is an economically stable family. Both the MacTeers and the Breedloves symbolize the exploited class although the Breedloves are less economically stable than the MacTeers. In fact, the spacing of the passages reflects the varying economic levels of these families. Although the MacTeers are poor, the father works and provides some shelter, food, and clothing for the economic survival of the family. On the other hand, the Breedloves are dirt poor, and it is the extent of their poverty that strips them of their sense of human worth and leaves them more vulnerable to the cultural propaganda of the ruling class. Their house, significantly a run-down, abandoned store, reflects no stability. The family members come and go like store patrons, having no sense of family love and unity. That Morrison takes the time to describe and explain the poor economic conditions of the Breedlove family, and the effects of these conditions on it, reflects her awareness of the class question. At least she informs the reader that the MacTeers and Breedloves do not suffer simply because of racism, but because of poverty as well.

Additionally, Morrison reveals her class consciousness by exploring the intraracial prejudices caused by petty bourgeois Africans, those who aspire for the same goals and aspirations of the ruling class. In The Bluest Eye, she creates three “minor” African families who, because they benefit economically, politically, and/or socially from the exploitation of their own people, disassociate themselves from poor Africans and associate themselves with the ruling class.

One such family is the Peals. Although the reader is introduced to only one member of this family, Maureen, her appearance, behavioral patterns, and remarks about the nature of her family's “business” offer sufficient glimpses of the Peals to reflect their class interests. Physically, Maureen looks and dresses like a little European-American girl, the storybook Jane or the child actress Shirley Temple. Her hairstyle, “long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back” resembles that of little European girls. In fact, the description of her hair as lynch ropes clearly associates her with the African's oppressors.4 Her “high-yellow” complexion and her clothes make this association even more pronounced. She wears “Kelly-green knee socks,” “lemon-drop sweaters,” “brown velvet coat trimmed in white rabbit fur, and a matching muff.”5

Socially, Maureen's behavior patterns reflect the way in which some within the dominant class relate to poor African people. She pities Pecola when she is humiliated by Bay Boy and Junie Bug, and she humors Claudia by speaking to her on one occasion after neglecting her on many others. Economically, the Peal family appears to make money by exploiting the race issue. They initiate suits against European-American establishments (e.g., Isaley's ice cream store in Akron) that refuse to serve Africans. Although, according to Maureen, her “family does it all the time,”6 apparently these suits are benefitting financially no other African family but the Peals.

Still, Morrison is more interested in developing the skin-color conflict (race) than the class conflict (capitalism). For the emphasis in the Peal section is on “unearned haughtiness,” Maureen's physical appearance. She looks like the doll that Claudia has had to learn to love; she is the person whom the teachers smile at encouragingly, the parents talk to in honey-coated voices, the boys leave alone; she is Shirley Temple; she is Jane. Moreover, Maureen's last appearance in the novel is clearly associated with the question of intraracial prejudice based on skin color. When Maureen is verbally attacked by Claudia, she responds by using the same dehumanizing name calling that Bay Boy used against Pecola: “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos. I am cute!”7 Clearly, Maureen sees herself as superior because she looks more like her oppressors.8

By disassociating itself from the African community, the second family—Geraldine, Louis, and Louis Junior—also reflects ruling class aspirations. The family members consider themselves to be colored, a term that for them signifies some nebulous group of Africans who are neither European nor African: “Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud.”9 So Louis Jr. plays with European-American children; his hair is cut short to deemphasize its woolliness; his skin is continually lotioned to keep him from revealing his ashy Africanness. When Geraldine sees Pecola, she is reminded of everything she has sought to escape—everything associated with the poor, struggling African masses: their physical appearance, their behavioral patterns, their lifestyle, and their speech patterns. Her calling Pecola, a little girl of ten, a “nasty little black bitch” and commanding her to “get out of my house” illustrate the extent of Geraldine's isolation from her people and her association with her oppressors. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that she showers love on her black cat, but not her “black” son. Clearly, for her, the blue eyes of the cat make it easier to love the animal than her own son. All in all, her thoughts, words, and actions parrot those of the ruling class.

The third family, the Elihue Micah Whitcombs, are so obsessed with the physical appearance of Europeans that they jeopardize their mental stability by intermarrying to maintain some semblance of whiteness. They are grateful that their ancestor, a decaying British nobleman, chose to whiten them, and they enthusiastically separate themselves “in body, mind, and spirit from all that suggested Africa” while developing “Anglophilia.”10 They are, in fact, convinced of DeGobineau's hypothesis that “all civilizations derive from the white race, that none can exist without its help, and that a great society is great and brilliant only so far as it preserves the blood of the noble group that created it.”11 Not only do the Whitcombs strive for the “whiteness” of the ruling class, but they imitate the exploitive nature of this class as well; they exploit their own people, the Africans who live in the West Indies: “That they were corrupt in public and private practice, both lecherous and lascivious, was considered their noble right.”12

Clearly, Morrison's class consciousness, however weak, is reflected in her condemnation of these families who share the class aspirations of their oppressors. All suffer from what Kwame Nkrumah called the crisis of the African personality—Africans so bereft of their own national identity that they exhibit distorted, even psychopathic, behavioral patterns. Morrison is certainly aware of this crisis, for in this work as in later ones, she harshly criticizes those characters who divorce themselves from the African community. In fact, she considers this petty bourgeois sector of the African population the living dead, a buffer group between the ruling and the oppressed classes who are always portrayed as abnormal in some sense. In The Bluest Eye, Geraldine lavishes love on her black cat, but withholds it from her son; the Whitcombs become a family of morons and perverts. Quite appropriately, Elihue is donned Soaphead Wilson by the community for he is a pervert who is incapable of healthy love. Instead, he loves worn things and little girls; Pecola is both worn (loss of virginity) and a little girl.

Morrison's characterization of these three “minor” families—the Peals, the “Geraldines,” and the Whitcombs—certainly substantiates the premise that she does possess some class consciousness even in this first novel. However, that these are not major families in the novel indicates that her class consciousness is decidedly weak. Moreover, even though Morrison is conscious of the role class aspirations play in these minor families, she often discusses these aspirations as if they were intraracial prejudices based on skin color rather than class conflicts. That is, her discussions of class conflicts are couched within, and thus over-shadowed by, her discussions on racial prejudices. Indeed, it is interesting to note that just as Africans in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s viewed the primary enemy of African people as “the white man,” so does Morrison, writing The Bluest Eye in the late 1960s, see the issue as one of European versus African. However, as she continues to think about, write about, and experience the ongoing oppression of African people despite the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, she will become more conscious of the fact that capitalism, not racism, is the African's greatest enemy.

It is interesting to surmise that the limited focus on the issue of class as the primary problem confronting African people in The Bluest Eye and the primary focus on racism as the major concern may be dialectically related to the novel's inorganic structure. The structural limitations of the novel can be gleened through the many artificial props that Morrison relies on to help her develop her theme. First, she includes two prefaces, one to inform the reader of the conflict in the novel, the other to present the outcome. The first preface, extracted from the Dick-Jane primary reader, presents the three dominant families that will be contrasted in the novel: the Dick-Jane family, the MacTeers, and the Breedloves. Each is represented by one of the three storybook passages that Morrison places at the beginning of the novel to give the reader his or her first clue as to the economic and social well-being—or lack thereof—of the families. The structure of the first passage, representing the Dick-Jane household, is correct according to the double spacing and punctuation requirements of a standard typewritten passage. The next passage lacks the traditional structure of the first. It is single spaced. Representing the MacTeer household, it signifies neither the ideal nor completely chaos. Rather, it reflects a struggling household, one that manages to survive despite its economic hardships. The third passage is completely devoid of spacing and punctuation. Its words are run together, reflecting the chaos found in the Breedlove household. Therefore, just as the second two passages are presented to enable the reader to compare and contrast them with the first, so the MacTeer and Breedlove families are presented to enable the reader to compare and contrast their condition in society with that of the standard or ideal European-American family, the Dick-Jane family. The structural layout of the passages enhances the theme that as Africans born in a racist society, neither the MacTeers nor the Breedloves enjoy the benefits of America that their European counterparts do.

The second preface, the marigold page, presents the outcome of the novel—the unfortunate and irreparable demise of Pecola Breedlove in particular and of the Breedlove family in general. It also reveals the reason for this demise; the infertile soil of Lorain, Ohio, symbolic of the United States, precludes the healthy, normal growth of the marigolds, symbolic of African-American people.

Another prop used by Morrison to help her tell her story is the use of three different levels of time. First, the reader is introduced to a present that exists outside of the novel proper, the present of the adult Claudia. Second, the reader is given a glimpse of the future within the context of the novel, the marigold preface. Third, the story proper actually begins in the present on page twelve. However, by page seventeen, with the introduction of Pecola, and certainly by page thirty, with the description of the Breedlove's store house, the reader does not know what time period exists. Does Pecola come to live with the MacTeers after the Breedlove's abandoned store house is burned, or does Cholly burn some other, prior dwelling place, and then the Breedloves move into the abandoned store? Such questions arise because of Morrison's clumsy handling of time throughout the novel. She is not yet skilled in structuring plots.

The use of names of seasons to indicate the major parts of the novel also aids Morrison in telling her story. By beginning the novel with autumn, she informs us that the world of the novel is topsy turvey. Spring usually symbolizes the beginning of things, the time of birth and rebirth. Autumn, in contrast, is the time of death and decay. Summer, commonly associated with life in full bloom, ripeness, is a time of death, life in its final moments. These seasonal divisions aid the reader in understanding the fundamental decadence of life for the African living in the United States. They help tell Morrison's story of the warped psyche of an adolescent African female living in a racist society.13

A fourth structural crutch is Morrison's reliance on a series of passage chapter headings primarily to let the reader know that the Breedlove family will be the focus of the chapters and, secondarily, to let the reader know what specific aspect of the family will be the focus. For example, chapter 2, the first section that concerns the Breedloves, has as its heading a run-together passage describing the house of Dick and Jane. By using this particular passage as the heading, Morrison informs the reader that the contents of the chapter will be devoted to a description of the Breedlove house. When a heading includes all the members of the Dick-Jane family, as in chapter 3, the reader knows that all the Breedloves will be discussed. Admittedly, Morrison has created an interesting and unique structural device. Still, these headings do in fact simplify her task as a writer, for she can rely on them to help organize her material, i.e., to help develop the plot of The Bluest Eye. In later works, such devices are omitted because they are unnecessary. Moreover, they distract the reader from concentrating on the narrative itself. In later works, Morrison demonstrates her developed consciousness, her developed writing ability, and her developed confidence by relying only on the narrative to tell her story. In other words, the act of writing itself helps her class consciousness develop, and her developed class consciousness enhances her writing skills. The two are dialectically related.

Morrison's reliance on three narrators—Claudia the child, Claudia the adult, and an omniscient narrator—is problematic as well.14 For instance, as narrator, Claudia the adult at times ascribes her adult feelings and adult analytical ability to Claudia the child. The reader is amazed, for instance, that a nine-year-old can understand that U.S. capitalist society is to blame for creating the standard of beauty: “And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us.”15 For most, this realization does not come until adulthood. Phyllis Klotman attempts to offer a logical explanation for this shift in point of view from the child to the adult Claudia when she writes: “The narrative voice shifts … when the author wants us to have a more mature and objective view of the characters and their situations. … There is not only a progression in Claudia's point of view from youth to age, but also from ignorance to perception.”16 Contrarily, Morrison's narrative structure is more illogical than logical since Claudia the child thinks like an adult at times and a child at others. There is not what Klotman refers to as “a progression in Claudia's point of view.” Throughout the novel, the reader constantly asks the following question: Is Claudia, the adult narrator, looking back on her childhood and telling the story, or is she telling the story as a nine-year-old participant and an adult observer?

The use of the omniscient narrator adds to this narrative confusion and awkwardness. It is the omniscient narrator who tells the Breedlove's story; Claudia, the child and/or adult, relates the events within the remaining chapters. What prevents the reader from being totally confused by this arrangement is the inclusion or omission of chapter headings. Chapters without headings are told by Claudia; those with headings are told by the omniscient narrator. However, this understanding of Morrison's narrative structure does not rid it of its awkwardness. On the contrary, the division of the story in such a way contributes to the reader's impression that Morrison, at this early stage in her writing career, must rely on artificial or external textural devices to organize her material.

Just as there are organization weaknesses between chapters, so are there weaknesses within chapters. In interviews with both Jane Bakerman and Robert Stepto, Morrison admits that she had difficulty with the Pauline Breedlove section of the novel. Unable to have either of her three narrators—the omniscient narrator, the adult Claudia, or the child Claudia—tell Pauline's story, Morrison is forced to use italics to symbolize Mrs. Breedlove's own thoughts. Morrison admits this writing weakness to Bakerman:

When I wrote the section in The Bluest Eye about Pecola's mother, I thought I would have no trouble. First I wrote it out as an “I” story, … then I wrote it out as a “she” story. … I was never able to resolve that, so I used both. The author said a little bit and then she said a little bit. But I wish I had been able to do the “I” thing with her. I really wanted to.17

To Robert Stepto, she says: “I sort of copped out … because I used two voices.”18

Having to oscillate between Pauline's thoughts within italics and the omniscient narrator's comments within a single chapter is only one instance of Morrison's inability to make her text cohere. The introduction of Pecola is another. At the end of one paragraph, Morrison completes a discussion of Mr. Henry Washington, the MacTeer's new boarder. At the beginning of the next, Pecola is introduced by the following nebulous statement: “She slept in the bed with us.”19 There is no transition from the discussion on Mr. Henry to that on Pecola. Neither is there a legitimate stylistic reason for this textual gap since for the reader it creates confusion, not clarity.

Too, there is at least one chapter—the Geraldine-Junior chapter—that seems superfluous to the rest of the text because it is not clearly integrated with the other chapters. Unlike the Maureen Peal section, which clearly helps to explain the effects of racism within the African race, and unlike the Soaphead Wilson section, which is relevant in providing the conditions under which Pecola imagines she has blue eyes, the Geraldine-Junior section seemingly does not advance the plot of The Bluest Eye. At first glance, it appears merely as a repetition of an already established fact: Pecola has an all-consuming desire to have blue eyes. However, it actually moves beyond repetition by relating the circumstances under which Pecola becomes convinced that she can be “black” and have blue eyes and, by convincing her of this fact, helps to seal her fate. But for Morrison to use an entire chapter to make this point (and then to make it so unclearly) is a mark of her undeveloped writing skills.

Later works evidence a symbiosis between text and structure, for as Morrison better understands capitalism/imperialism—the exploitation of one class of people by another class—she will structure her text to represent the type of economic system that condemns exploitation and promotes collectivism: socialism. Thus, by the time she writes Tar Baby, her story will be told equally by all of the main characters in the novel as well as by the omniscient narrator. Each will have the opportunity and the responsibility to contribute to the organic whole. And by the time she writes Beloved, she will so expertly manipulate past, present, and future as to demonstrate to African people that there is no significant difference between the quality of their life now and that experienced in slavery. This devotion to creating a dialectical relationship between text and structure will, in turn, point the way to the solution: collectivism.


  1. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Washington Square Press, 1970), 24.

  2. Toni Morrison's decision to use an African female as protagonist reflects her interest in gender oppression as well as race and class oppression. In fact, all three forms of oppression are explored in each of Morrison's works. However, their primacy varies depending on the author's level of consciousness. In The Bluest Eye, sexism, like class exploitation, plays a secondary role to race oppression. Morrison does make clear, however, that the African female is the most vulnerable to capitalist propaganda in the United States, for it is the female in general who, in the United States, has often had her worth measured in terms of beauty rather than character or accomplishment. Also, Morrison's concern with gender oppression is reflected in the rape of Pecola. Pecola's rape and subsequent pregnancy further isolate her from society and, therefore, hasten her flight into insanity.

  3. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 34.

  4. The Harlem Renaissance poet and novelist, Jean Toomer, made clear this association between the European female's hair and lynching in his short poem, “Portrait in Georgia”:

    Hair—braided chesnut, coiled like a lyncher's rope.
    Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
    Breath—the last sweet scent of cane
    And her slim body, white as the ash of black flesh after

    Toni Morrison, student of African literature and former English major and teacher, is certainly aware of Toomer's poem. Her point that Maureen Peal's hair resembles lynch ropes is intended to remind the reader of this poem and thus to elicit feelings of apprehension and ugliness rather than beauty.

  5. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 53.

  6. Ibid., 57.

  7. Ibid., 61.

  8. Keith E. Byerman's comment on the skin-color conflict in The Bluest Eye reflects the extent of Morrison's emphasis on race: “Morrison describes a social situation so distorted by the myth of whiteness that it produces a child, Pecola, who is so obsessed by the blue-eyed beauty of Shirley Temple that she creates a self-contained reality that cannot be penetrated even by rape and incest.” “Intense Behaviors: The Use of the Grotesque in The Bluest Eye and Eva's Man,CLA Journal 25 (June 1982): 448. Also Chikwenye Ogunyemi's insightful statement on the significance of the novel's title emphasizes the issue of race as Morrison's thematic concern: “The bluest eye can be a pun on ‘the bluest I,’ the gloomy ego, the black man feeling very blue from the psychological bombardment he is exposed to from early life to late. The novel is, then, a blues enunciating the pain of the black man in America and an attempt to grapple with the pain which is sometimes existential. The superlative ‘bluest’ implies that the other groups are ‘blue’ and ‘bluer’—and, of course, the black race is the ‘bluest.’” “Order and Disorder in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye,Critique 19, no. 1 (1977): 114.

  9. Morrison. The Bluest Eye, 71.

  10. Ibid., 132.

  11. Ibid., 133.

  12. Ibid., 133.

  13. According to Barbara Christian, “Morrison's use of the inversion of the truth is sifted. So that the seasonal flow of birth, death and rebirth is inverted in the human society.” Christian, “Community and Nature,” 74.

  14. The structural problems of the text have led some critics such as Jacqueline DeWeever to believe that there is only one narrator. According to DeWeever, “Claudia tells the story from her point of view, presenting the world of three little black girls. DeWeever, “The Inverted World,” 404.

  15. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 62.

  16. Phyllis R. Klotman, “Dick-and-Jane and the Shirley Temple Sensibility in The Bluest Eye,Black American Literature Forum 13, no. 4 (Winter 1979): 123-24.

  17. Bakerman, “‘The Seams Can't Show,’” 59.

  18. Stepto, “‘Intimate Things in Place,’” 222.

  19. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 7.

John Bishop (essay date summer 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1361

SOURCE: Bishop, John. “Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Explicator 51, no. 4 (summer 1993): 252-55.

[In the following essay, Bishop comments on the ironic implications of Pecola's name in The Bluest Eye with respect to ideals of beauty.]

Many writers have noted the importance of names (and the act of naming) in Toni Morrison's novels but, surprisingly, no one in print has noted the ironies surrounding the name of Pecola Breedlove, the central character of The Bluest Eye.1

“I just moved here. My name is Maureen Peal. What's yours?”


“Pecola? Wasn't that the name of the girl in Imitation of Life?”

“I don't know. What is that?”

“The picture show, you know. Where this mulatto girl hates her mother 'cause she is black and ugly but then cries at the funeral. It was real sad. Everybody cries in it. Claudette Colbert too.”

“Oh.” Pecola's voice was no more than a sigh.

“Anyway, her name was Pecola too. She was so pretty. When it comes back, I'm going to see it again.”


As many have remarked, white cinematic icons—blue-eyed, pale-skinned Shirley Temple is their main representative—shape the self-images of the novel's black community in general and the Breedlove family in particular. The book's single reference to a specific film, then, invites comparison between the story in the novel and the story on the screen. (Since the novel is set seven years after the movie's 1934 release, the twelve-year-old Pecola could not have been named for the girl in the film.) Maureen's accurate but incomplete summary of the film, based on Fannie Hurst's 1933 bestseller, illustrates her—and her community's—adoption of Hollywood's image of beauty: “black” is “ugly,” “mulatto” is “pretty,” and, by extension, Shirley Temple is prettier still. Maureen's reference to the film illustrates how white cultural values shape the black community's idea of physical beauty—an idea that Morrison's narrator deems one of “the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought” (97).

More telling is the connection between Aunt Delilah, the mother in the film, and Pecola's mother Pauline. Like Delilah, Pauline—herself a credulous consumer of Hollywood images—is a domestic servant for a white family, a woman for whom “[a]ll the meaningfulness of her life was in her work” (102). By invoking Imitation of Life, Morrison registers Pauline's fantasy of the good life as it is lived by her cinematic counterpart: to be loved by, and to live with, the white family that employs her; to have a beautiful (i.e., light-skinned) daughter; to enrich the family by her skill in cookery (pancakes, in the film); and to be martyred by her ungrateful child. Some of these things she manages to accomplish, working for an “affectionate, appreciative, and generous” family whose patriarch remarks, “I would rather sell her blueberry cobblers than real estate,” and cultivating a sense of her own persecution, bearing her husband “like a crown of thorns and her children like a cross” (100-01). But Pauline's life falls short of her fantasy, and her awareness of the discrepancy exacts a tragic price:

She became what is known as an ideal servant, for such a role filled practically all of her needs. … More and more she neglected her own house, her children, her man—they were like the afterthoughts one has just before sleep, … the dark edges that made the daily life with the Fishers lighter, more delicate, more lovely. Here she could arrange things, clean things, line things up in neat rows. … Pauline kept this order, this beauty, for herself, a private world, and never introduced it into her storefront, or to her children.


It is in relation to her daughter that the contrast between Pauline and Delilah is most telling. Once an avid movie-goer, Pauline has imbibed Hollywood's implicitly white version of beauty: “[s]he was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen” (97). Far from being the light-skinned and “so pretty” daughter who “passes” for white in the film, Pecola is repeatedly described as “black” and “ugly” or both at once (34; 39; 61; 75; 140-43; 159). Her own mother, to whom she is “like a black ball of hair,” puts it flatly: “Lord she was ugly” (99; 100). By invoking the film, Morrison thus indicates Pecola's failure to measure up—in the eyes of Hollywood, of Maureen Peal, and her own mother—to the “so pretty” mulatto daughter of the film.

Most significant, however, is the hitherto unnoticed discrepancy in Maureen Peal's account of the film: the name of “the girl in Imitation of Life” is not, in fact, “Pecola,” but “Peola.”3 The irregularity is appropriate because it denotes Pecola's failure to be like her cinematic double: she spends “long hours looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness that made her ignored and despised at school …” (39). Maureen Peal's mistake has a larger relevance as well, for in Morrison's novels the act of (mis) naming signifies the community's power to deny individual autonomy and to use people for its own ends. The appropriation of her name is another token that Pecola is the novel's scapegoat, raped by her father and blamed by the community. The misnaming puts her in company with the book's other outcasts: the prostitute Miss Marie, known to all (save Pecola) as “The Maginot Line,” and the quack mystic Elihue Whitcomb, dubbed “Soaphead Church.”

Finally, one must note the phonic play created by the missing c of “Peola.” The book's very title, as others have observed, is a pun: Pecola's consciousness disintegrates (she becomes the “bluest I”) because she wishes in vain for those “bluest eyes” that would make her face—and her life—like one in the movies.4 Pecola has inscribed in her name the discrepancy that makes that dream impossible. Morrison makes clear that the community has failed to save Pecola, and this failure is figured as blindness:

The gray head of Mr. Yacobowski looms up over the counter … [H]e looks toward her … [H]is eyes draw back … [H]e senses that he need not waste the effort of a glance. He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see. How can a fifty-two-year-old white immigrant store-keeper with the taste of potatoes and beer in his mouth, his mind honed on the doe-eyed Virgin Mary, … see a little black girl? Nothing in his life suggested that the feat was possible, not to say desirable or necessary.


They cannot see Pecola because only the pretty, pale Peola is deemed worth of notice—they do not c the real girl. Pecola's final madness, marked by an interior dialogue between two halves of her fractured consciousness, one with blue eyes and one without, is the final marker of the damage done by her (and her mother's) vain wish to reconcile the “black and ugly” Pecola with her impossible fantasy self, the Peola of the silver screen.


  1. See, for instance, Karen F. Stein, “‘I didn't even know his name’: Names and Naming in Toni Morrison's Sula,Names: Journal of the American Name Society 28.3 (September 1980): 226-29; Lucinda K. MacKethon, “Names to Bear Witness: The Theme and Tradition of Naming in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon,CEA Critic 49 (winter 1986-summer 1987) 199-207; Linda Buck Myers, “Perception and Power Through Naming: Characters in Search of a Self in the Fiction of Toni Morrison,” Explorations in Ethnic Studies 7.1 (1984): 39-55; and Ruth Rosenberg, “‘And the Children May Know Their Names’: Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon,Literary Onomastic Studies 8 (1981): 195-219.

  2. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Pocket Books, 1970). Subsequent page references are to this edition.

  3. Thomas H. Fick, in “Movies, Consumption, and Platonic Realism in The Bluest Eye” (MMLA 22 [spring 1989]: 10-22), mentions Imitation of Life in passing, but repeats Maureen Peal's mistake—calling the daughter in the film “Pecola.”

  4. The pun is made more evident by the jacket copy for the book's first edition in 1970, in which each i is dotted in blue ink. I am indebted to C. O. Ogunyemi (“Order and Disorder in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye,Critique 19.1 [1977]: 113) for this observation.

Harihar Kulkarni (essay date summer 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3549

SOURCE: Kulkarni, Harihar. “Mirrors, Reflections, and Images: Malady of Generational Relationship and Girlhood in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Indian Journal of American Studies 23, no. 2 (summer 1993): 1-6.

[In the following essay, Kulkarni interprets Pecola's fate in The Bluest Eye through Jacques Lacan's theory of the mirror stage of psychosexual development, tracing the origin of Pecola's sense of inferiority to Pauline's self-image.]

The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison's The Waste Land. Like Eliot, she too, in a limited sense, presents bleak, wastelandish human conditions characterized by grotesque environment which, like the earth of 1941, is unyielding. She brings into focus a place that fosters an underground invisibility and barrenness, composed of an imaginary cultural dissolution and fraught with brutal discrimination that strains human comprehension and stuns our conscience; where the “soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, … and the victim had no right to live” (Morrison 1970:160).1 The Lorain of 1941 is almost an industrial incarnation of the wastelandish underground where blacks like Cholly and Pauline Breedlove are pathetically relegated to a hidden, self-diminutive existence, “festering together in the debris of a realtor's whim” (p. 31), little more than compost for the capital growth of others. Hopelessly fragmented under the weight of various horrors typical of black life in America, the Breedloves remain buried as deep as the failed sacrificial marigold seeds planted by Claudia and Frieda MacTeer. Displaced from daylight, they remain invisible to the moted blue eyes of the Euro-American culture, yet ironically enough, such blue eyes are what dark Pauline and her eleven-year-old girl child Pecola obsessively long for. Morrison digs into the malady of black existential conditions characterized by a grotesque quality which, as Anderson (1976: 24) defines it, is

the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became falsehood.

The novel presents black persons who become grotesque by embracing the generationally inherited white culture and its value structure as their own.

The existential gloom and grotesqueness, then, could be attributed not to nature but rather to the misappropriated images of a Eurocentric cultural mirror inviting a renunciation of one's own true self and the natural resistance of one's own black reflection.

Offering a critique of mirrors and reflections, Jacques Lacan (1977:3) notes that “the mirror image could seem to be the threshold of the visible world.” For instance, an infant takes delight in testing mirror images and verifies the hypothesis of an emergent cohesive self. Culture, however, encourages cases of mistaken identities as one grows, since only certain images appear to have a chance for recognition by others. In The Bluest Eye, black girlhood assumes tragic propensities when it borrows identity models from the mandates of white culture and from the malevolent parental mirrors as well. Now, to seize upon and maintain a foreign image—inappropriative mental image of the self—seals the individual in the wastelandish soil of psychic underground, a terrain characterized by grotesque isolation and fragmentation: Pecola Breedlove's fate precisely.

Jacques Lacan envisages the mirror stage as having a clear function in growth because it gives form to the disembodied image of the earliest months of life. This specular image both verifies and alienates the self or, in the process of recognizing oneself, it even enables identification of another as potentially compatible. Such an identification, thinks Lacan (ibidem), leads to “the larger question of the meaning of beauty as both formative and erogenic.” This linkage of beauty to sexual and social fulfillment stands central to Morrison's discourse of disaffection.

Like many other contemporary black women writers such as Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks and Paule Marshall, Morrison too believes in the anxiety black girls/women feel about what their mirrors tell them. She holds that girls growing up black and female in a white society often experience the malady of internalizing the belief that an aesthetically pleasing image is what constitutes the necessary precondition for receiving love and security. If the cultural or patriarchal voice in the mirror emanates unkind messages about women's self-evaluation, it has still unkinder things to transmit to black females who are barred even from becoming “women” in the traditional sense. A preoccupation with overcoming this devaluation consumes Pecola and Pauline Breedlove. At the root of such preoccupation, almost an obsession with both of them, is something deeper and more fundamental, some emotional component which operates actively. Although Pecola spends “long hours … looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised …” (p. 39) everywhere, it is not merely the white beauty that she is looking for, but an existential harmony which that beauty symbolizes. Her search is for the security of a loyal mirror, for its total acceptance which, as Pecola presumes, can easily be found in the preoedipal unity of the mother-daughter symbiosis. For Pecola, an approving mirror is equivalent to an approving mother. Basing her argument on Lacan's theory of the mirror stage, Winnicott (1971:12) notes that the child looking upon the mother's face, sees himself or herself: “In other words, the mother is looking at the baby and what she looks like is related to what she sees there.” The child, however, loses its sense of worth if it sees the mother mirror governed only by “moods or, worse still, the rigidity of her defenses” (ibidem).

Such malevolent reflections are exactly what Pecola sees. From the beginning, Pauline Breedlove's mirror reflects to her daughter her own sense of inferiority which, in turn, Pecola radiates back to her. This mother-daughter mirror reflects images of sometimes-self and sometimes-other in their struggle to know who each is, an effort which runs generationally. The reverence for whiteness, which is Pecola's most valued possession, is passed on to Pauline through the intergenerational mirror by her mother. Pauline seeks her own missing mother as she looks at Pecola. She tells Pecola: “So when I seed it [the baby], it was like looking at a picture of your mama when she was a girl. You knows who she is, but she don't look the same” (p. 99). Pauline's mother worked as a maid for a white family, and by internalizing its mores, allowed herself to be encased in the glass coffin. The intergenerational mirror has already fractured Pauline's psyche and placed her beyond redemption. She resists any concept of internal wholeness based on cultural autonomy, believing that salvation will come from outside. By escaping into the world of white acquescience, dark Pauline believes that she has been refined when she has actually been weakened through “psychological paralysis.”

The Fisher house is a place where she retains the illusion of being among the fairest in the land. A white movie theater is no mere place, but some religious shrine signifying wholeness and vision. To Pauline, it is a place where “the flawed became whole, the blind sighted, and the lame and halt threw away their crutches” (p. 97). She represents a self that exudes nothing but mania for all that is white, and lovelessness for everything that is her own. She reflects what Lacan (1977:4) calls a “primordial Discord” to her daughter. The image that Pecola returns weighs her mother's fantasies even more. She stands as a constant reminder of Pauline's blackness and limitations. To Pauline, the newborn Pecola is no more than a mere “black ball of hair” (p. 98), something that causes sheer disappointment. It was better to hold an image of Pecola than to embrace the real girl. Pauline clearly embodies the damages of what Morrison calls “an enslavement of the sense” (Clark 1980:51). “In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap” (p. 97), explains Claudia.

Morrison provides textual ambivalence by portraying the world of relationship in the MacTeer family. As opposed to Pauline's, the mirror that Mrs. MacTeer holds out to her daughter is the one which Demeter held out to Persephone. She provides Claudia enough sustenance and security to allow her to develop a voice that surfaces from the crisis of adolescence and blackness. In spite of the stress and tension that she encounters in white society, Mrs. MacTeer displays “love, thick and dark as Alga syrup … sweet, musty, with an edge of wintergreen in its base—everywhere …” (p. 14). The voices of her mirror transform Claudia's blues into sweet, exotic songs. Claudia narrates:

She would sing about hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me times. But her voice was so sweet and her singing-eyes so melty I found myself longing for those hard times, yearning to be grown without “a thin di-i-ime to my name. …” Misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother's voice took all of the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet.

(p. 24)

Having not been succumbed to the societal indoctrination, Mrs. MacTeer sustains her daughter's gaze. Unlike Pecola, Claudia longs to express her knowledge based on a strong sense of relationship as well as on internal wholeness. She possesses a faculty she inherited from the well-guarded African “nommo” of her mother which, as Karla Holloway (1987:41) defines, embodies a power which “can be destructive or sustaining—but its power seems to be held best by women who have remembered its creative potential.” It is this power of the Demeterian mirror that enables Claudia to resist the notion of white superiority and to feel connections with her own community. She informs us: “We felt comfortable in our skins, enjoyed the news that our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness” (p. 62).

In Claudia, one finds what Lacan calls a perfect “dialectical synthesis” of the internal self and the external reality. She feels whole and happy and embodies the spirit of her community so much so that Morrison (1984:341) thinks of her as a reflection of “the community or the reader at large, commenting on the action as it goes ahead … a choral note.” The symbiosis with self and community is what Claudia has inherited from the positive reflections of her maternal mirror. Winnicott (1971:118) notes:

When a family is showing concern over a period of times, each child derives benefit from being able to see himself or herself in the attitude of the family as a whole.

By mirroring one another, the MacTeer family, especially the mother, endows her daughter with a sense of identity and selfworth, something that Pecola does not know. It is through the correct mirror of mother that Claudia has gained a valuable insight into the mechanism of “ideological environment.” She has a resentful realization that

adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window—all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.

(p. 20)

Like Pecola, she has not learnt to “tame her anger down.” Rather, Claudia feels, and rightly so, that “anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger … An awareness of worth” (p. 43).

In contrast, Pauline is no Demeter nor Pecola a Persephone signifying a nurturing ground of authentic being. Pecola, therefore, can harbor no such resentment. Owing to her mother's flawed mirror, she allows the ideological apparatus to be inserted into the fabric of her consciousness and get her psyche hopelessly fragmented. To her, eating the penny candy is the only way to salvation. She sees on the candy wrapper a

[S]miling white face. Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort. The eyes are petulant, mischievous. To Pecola they are simply pretty. She eats the candy, and its sweetness is good. To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane.

(p. 43)

Adulation of “Pretty blue eyes … Blue sky eyes. Blue-like Mrs. Forrest's blue blouse eyes. Morning-glory-blue-eyes. Alice-and-Jerry-blue-storybook-eyes” (p. 40) is Pecola's sole obsession, signifying an existential anathema which is passed on to her through the malevolent cultural mirror of her mother. Pauline's culture invites this obsession, tempts Pecola with it, and systematically poisons her life that finds no relief.

As a girl child growing up black and female in a hostile society, Pecola easily observes Pauline's self-distaste, gazes at her mother, her approving mirror, and buries herself through stunting complicity. Commenting on the attachment theory, psychologist Robert Karen (1990:49) observes that proper relationship with the mother provides impetus for growth to young children, who during their mirror stage life, try out various behaviors on their caretakers: “A sense of reciprocity—the agency of a friendly mirror—influences growth.” Karen adds that some mirrors are not so accommodating, and “nature's intentions could go awry … if the environment failed them.” In Pecola's case, there is no reciprocity, but only a self-surrendering complicity resulting out of her need for survival which demands total adaptation to her mother's needs in failed environments. Carol Gilligan (1989:25) thinks that adolescent girls possess a natural ability for spontaneity, even in anger, and “repeatedly … emphasize the need for open conflict and voicing disagreement.” Pecola's volatile environments dissolve all such possibilities of spontaneity, leaving only dreary complicity which, according to Winnicott (1971:147) “… is not authenticity but rather the creation of self that only appears to be authentic.” In other words, Pecola creates a false identity which is invented as “a defence against that which is unthinkable” (ibidem). In her case, there is nothing more “unthinkable” than a father's rape and a “dangerously poised” mother. It is this complicity that leads Pecola to her ultimate doom. “Her need for friendship and acceptance is finally met by her split personality” (Gaston 1980:210). Madness and isolation become her private, safe mirror that no one can shatter. Gilligan (1989:26) maintains that girls can be liberated and made to feel whole if women “can stay in the gaze of girls. …” Pauline's sustenance of that gaze could have enabled Pecola, in the Lacanian sense, to see the mature and positive other of her species and redeem her life. But only to be looked upon negatively and having nothing or nobody to look up to creates a disjointed self-image and thrusts her headlong into the dismal abyss of life-consuming isolation and madness.

The discordance of Pecola's girlhood could be attributed not only to Pauline and her flawed mirror but also to Cholly and his mirror-free life. “Abandoned in a junk heap” (p. 126) by his mother who “wasn't right in the head” (p. 105), “rejected for a crap game by his father” (p. 126), and later by Aunt Jimmy, Cholly remains blind to proper relationships with others. Without a father, mother or school where one would have some moral and social instruction, Cholly's perceptions and behavioral pattern were decidedly shaped by libertinism. In the absence of a guiding mirror,

Cholly was free. Dangerously free. Free to feel whatever he felt—fear, guilt, shame, love, grief, pity. Free to be tender or violent, to whistle or weep. Free to sleep in doorways or between the white sheets of a singing woman. Free to take a job, free to leave it.

(p. 125)

He is left with no one from whom to distinguish himself, no woman to recognize as unlike himself. Nancy Chodorow (1987:13) maintains that the male must reject his “primary femaleness,” as the discovery and rejection of this is “important to men to have a clear sense of gender difference.” Even Jean Strouse (1974:7) echoes the same opinion when she remarks that “… much of what we call ‘masculine’ behavior … is evidence of the constant struggle to fight off this primary feminine identification.” In the absence of a strong, primary relationship with a female, Cholly cannot distinguish “me” from “not me,” the object-relating which provides foundations for all relationships. For him, therefore, the distinctions between self and other remain constantly blurred. His libidinous desires assume anarchic shape and remain ungoverned by taboos. In the absence of proper role models, “he floated aimlessly” (p. 119) and did “what he felt at the moment” (p. 127). Ostensibly a child of chaos, he makes others lives chaotic.

Devoid of mirrors reflecting primary identification, Cholly's sense of self is not only wavering but even fraught with simplistic notions that life is just a matter of light over darkness, power over powerless, and male over female, or father over daughter, to be precise. He destroys Pecola by raping and impregnating her, shatters the cohesiveness of her self, and violates her reflective image, permanently transforming her into a big contaminated Other. Writing about daughters in seduction, Winnicott (1971:52) observes that “in seduction some external agency exploits the child's instincts and helps to annihilate the child's sense of existing as an autonomous unit.” Cholly's rape robs Pecola's existing sense of autonomy by forcing her to gaze into the same mirror he himself was forced to gaze into during his childhood days. The brutal patriarchal encounter removes Pecola from the sense that granted distinctions between self and other, between appropriativeness and the forbidden just as her father was removed in the early phase of his life. She remains without a cultural place in patriarchal society when she tries to achieve Oedipal love for her father. She is left to collect the garbage of life by seeking a pathetic regression to the previous generation, to her father's beginnings on a junk heap. She comes to symbolize, as Claudia puts it, “all of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed” (p. 159). Pecola becomes an emblem of inversion, of waste, of all rubbish that no one really wants. The voice of patriarchy shatters her semi-tranquil mirror, ruins the world of her relationships, and finally produces conditions of isolation, psychic derangement and silence in Pecola's life.

Toni Morrison describes The Bluest Eye as a novel “about one's dependency on the world for identification, self-value, and feeling of worth” (Gaston 1980:197). Generational dependency as the only base for identification is what constitutes the real malady for the Breedlove family. The parental mirror causes psychic annihilation in Pecola's life, and shatters the cohesiveness of her self, leaving no context of the past or hope for a future. The forerunner of Jadine Childes, Pauline Breedlove generates subterrean diabolical chaos in Pecola's life by introducing her to the destructiveness of a culturally sanctioned mirror symbolized by the “eye” that is decidedly singular and the “bluest” in the world. Subsequently, Pecola's wish, rooted in the singularity of the superlative, causes psychic devastation, splitting her psyche and splitting her own self from the world as well. As opposed to Pauline's intergenerational dependency, Cholly's pseudo-Bohemianism characterized by a chaotic disconnectedness leaves Pecola in a permanent disjuncture with the outer and inner world, causing total dislocation of self, mind and body. Thus, tragic entrapment becomes the only sign structure signifying Pecola's existence. As Gilbert and Gubar (1979:37) put it:

To be caught and trapped in a mirror rather than a window … is to be driven inward, obsessively studying self-images as if seeking a viable self. [This inward search] is necessitated by a state from which all outward prospects have been removed.

Having been offered the Lacanian “primordial Discord” at the social and familial level, whatever little inward search Pecola can make uncovers only an illusory and imitative self, a distorted, discordant version of the real thing, or a self that is hopelessly fragmented, making her life, to use loosely T. S. Eliot's phrase, a “heap of broken [self] images.” With all of her “outward prospects” snatched away, she is emotionally abandoned as if only isolation and madness, with its freedom to invent conducive voices and reflections, can restore that “viable self.” Grotesque mirrors and malevolent reflections coupled with dark images encase Pecola in a jar of mental illness, and finally seal her off in the glass coffin where, like millions of other black-eyed Susans, she is condemned to dwell eternally.


  1. All further references to this book are indicated by page numbers only.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. 1976. Winesburg, Ohio. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Chodorow Nancy. 1987. “Gender, Relation, and Difference in Psychoanalytic Perspective.” In Eisenstein and Jardine: 3-19.

Clark, Norris. 1980. “Flying Black: Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye,Sula, and Song of Solomon.Minority Voices 4:2:51-61.

Eisenstein, Hester and Alice Jardine. 1987. Editors. The Future of Difference. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Evans, Mari. 1984. Editor. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. New York: Anchor/Doubleday.

Gaston, Karen Carmean. 1980. “The Theme of Female Self-Discovery in the Novels of Judith Rossner, Gail Godwin, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.” Doctoral Dissertation, Auburn University.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. 1979. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gilligan, Carol et al. 1989. Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Wimma. New York: Wimma Willard School Press.

Holloway, Karla F. C. and Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos. 1987 New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison New York: Greenwood Press.

Karen, Robert. 1990. “Becoming Attached.” The Atlantic 265:2:35-70.

Lacan, Jacques. 1977. Ecrits: A Selection. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton.

Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye. New York: Washington Square Press.

———. 1984. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” In Evans: 339-345.

Strouse, Jean. 1974. Women and Analysis: Dialogues on Psychoanalytic Views of Femininity. New York: Grossman.

Winnicott, D. W. 1971. Playing and Reality. New York: Basic Books.

Jane Kuenz (essay date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Kuenz, Jane. “The Bluest Eye: Notes on History, Community, and Black Female Subjectivity.” African American Review 27, no. 3 (fall 1993): 421-31.

[In the following essay, Kuenz shows the relationship between images of mass culture and identity development by focusing on its detrimental effects on the subjectivity of the African American female characters in The Bluest Eye.]

In Toni Morrison The Bluest Eye, the Breedloves' storefront apartment is graced overhead by the home of three magnificent whores, each a tribute to Morrison's confidence in the efficacy of the obvious. The novel's unhappy convergence of history, naming, and bodies—delineated so subtly and variously elsewhere—is, in these three, signified most simply and most crudely by their bodies and their names: Poland, China, the Maginot Line. With these characters, Morrison literalizes the novel's overall conflation of black female bodies as the sites of fascist invasions of one kind or another, as the terrain on which is mapped the encroachment and colonization of African-American experiences, particularly those of its women, by a seemingly hegemonic white culture. The Bluest Eye as a whole documents this invasion—and its concomitant erasure of specific local bodies, histories, and cultural productions—in terms of sexuality as it intersects with commodity culture. Furthermore, this mass culture and, more generally, the commodity capitalism that gave rise to it, is in large part responsible—through its capacity to efface history—for the “disinterestedness” that Morrison condemns throughout the novel. Beyond exemplifying this, Morrison's project is to rewrite the specific bodies and histories of the black Americans whose positive images and stories have been eradicated by commodity culture. She does this formally by shifting the novel's perspective and point of view, a narrative tactic that enables her, in the process, to represent black female subjectivity as a layered, shifting, and complex reality.

The disallowance of the specific cultures and histories of African-Americans and black women especially is figured in The Bluest Eye primarily as a consequence of or sideline to the more general annihilation of popular forms and images by an ever more all-pervasive and insidious mass culture industry. This industry increasingly disallows the representation of any image not premised on consumption or the production of normative values conducive to it. These values are often rigidly tied to gender and are race-specific to the extent that racial and ethnic differences are not allowed to be represented. One lesson from history, as Susan Willis reiterates, is that “in mass culture many of the social contradictions of capitalism appear to us as if those very contradictions of capitalism appear to us as if those very contradictions had been resolved” (“I Shop” 183). Among these contradictions we might include those antagonisms continuing, in spite of capitalism's benevolent influence, along the axes of economic privilege and racial difference. According to Willis, it is because “all the models [in mass cultural representation] are white”—either in fact or by virtue of their status as “replicants … devoid of cultural integrity”—that the differences in race or ethnicity (and class, we might add) and the continued problems for which these differences are a convenient excuse appear to be erased or made equal “at the level of consumption” (“I Shop” 184). In other words, economic, racial, and ethnic difference is erased and replaced by a purportedly equal ability to consume, even though what is consumed are more or less competing versions of the same white image.

There is evidence of the presence and influence of this process of erasure and replacement throughout The Bluest Eye. For example, the grade school reader that prefaces the text was (and in many places still is) a ubiquitous, mass-produced presence in schools across the country. Its widespread use made learning the pleasures of Dick and Jane's commodified life dangerously synonymous with learning itself. Its placement first in the novel makes it the pretext for what is presented after: As the seeming given of contemporary life, it stands as the only visible model for happiness and thus implicitly accuses those whose lives do not match up. In 1941, and no less so today, this would include a lot of people. Even so, white lower-class children can at least more easily imagine themselves posited within the story's realm of possibility. For black children this possibility might require a double reversal or negation: Where the poor white child is encouraged to forget the particulars of her present life and look forward to a future of prosperity—the result, no doubt, of forty years in Lorain's steel mills—a black child like Pecola must, in addition, see herself, in a process repeated throughout The Bluest Eye, in (or as) the body of a white little girl. In other words, she must not see herself at all. The effort required to do this and the damaging results of it are illustrated typographically in the repetition of the Dick-and-Jane story first without punctuation or capitalization, and then without punctuation, capitalization, or spacing.

Perhaps one function of the mass deployment of these stories was in fact to raise hopes for a better future in order to counteract the oppressiveness of the present and, in the process, to delimit the chance of dissatisfaction or unrest and encourage unquestioning labor at the same time. If so, it also tempts, as these tactics always do, the opposite conclusion: The comparison of their lives to Dick and Jane's seemingly idyllic ones will breed, among those unaccounted for in mass culture's representations, resentment and class consciousness instead. That this is not the result for most of the characters in The Bluest Eye, as it is not for most people in general, bespeaks the extent to which mass culture has made the process of self-denial a pleasurable experience.1 Indeed, as I hope to show later, this process is explicitly sexual in The Bluest Eye and offers, particularly for women, the only occasion for sexual pleasure in the novel.

As noted above, interaction with mass culture for anyone not represented therein, and especially for African-Americans, frequently requires abdication of self or the ability to see oneself in the body of another. The novel's most obvious and pervasive instance of this is in the seemingly endless reproduction of images of feminine beauty in everyday objects and consumer goods: white baby dolls with their inhumanly hard bodies and uncanny blue eyes, Shirley Temple cups, Mary Jane candies, even the clothes of “dream child” Maureen Peal, which are stylish precisely because they suggest Shirley Temple cuteness and because Claudia and Frieda recognize them as such. But Claudia and her sister can recognize “the Thing that made [Maureen] beautiful and not [them]” (62) only in terms of its effects on other people. Despite knowing that they are “nicer, brighter,” they cannot ignore how “the honey voices of parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of [their] peers, the slippery light in the eyes of [their] teachers” (61-62) all pour out to the Maureen Peals of the world and not to them. From the responses of other people to girls like Maureen and others for whom Shirley Temple is the model, the sisters learn the fact of their own lack, variously identified as ugliness or “unworthiness,” if not the essence of it. “What was the secret?” Claudia asks, “What did we lack? Why was it important? And so what?” (62)

Claudia's body, much more so than her sister's, has yet to be completely socialized in the process Frigga Haug calls “female sexualization.” By this, Haug means both the production of femininity through the competent performance of feminine skills (including how to hold, move, and dress the body) and the reproduction of subordination within and on women's bodies as evidenced in the gradual “sexualization” of various body parts (for example, hair or legs) as girls mature. This process—inevitably modified, as The Bluest Eye indicates, by both race and class—results in bodies that are always the site of multiple discourses circling around and ultimately comprising what we call “femininity” or, as it is generally construed, “the sexual.” Claudia's confusion about the source of her failure to arouse “honey voices” and “slippery light” indicates that, though she is catching on quickly, she has yet to experience her body as the alienated entity Haug describes. She is still at the level of sensation, not prohibition or enforced definition: Instead of “asking the right questions” about her sister's near molestation, for example, Claudia wants to know what it feels like to have breasts worth touching and to have them touched (79).

The innocence of this question parallels the delight with which Claudia revels in her own body's myriad substances and smells. While women like Geraldine are quick to dispatch with “funk” wherever it “crusts” (68), Claudia is fascinated with her own body's sometimes graphically nauseating materiality: She is captivated by the menstrual blood her sister hurries to wash away; she studies her own vomit, admires the way it “[clings] to its own mass, refusing to break up and be removed” (13); she abhors the “dreadful and humiliating absence of dirt [and] the irritable, unimaginative cleanliness” (21) that accompanies it; she remembers the year recounted in the novel as a time when she and Frieda “were still in love with [themselves and] … felt comfortable in [their] skins, enjoyed the news that [their] senses released to [them], admired [their] dirt, cultivated [their] scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness” (62) that distinguishes them from Maureen and is already overwhelming Pecola.

The older Claudia attributes this ease with her body to her youth and admits that she eventually succumbs to the pleasures of dominant discourse and its definitions of “femininity.” Speaking of Shirley Temple, she says, “Younger than both Frieda and Pecola, I had not yet arrived at the turning point in the development of my psyche which would allow me to love her” (19). She goes on explicitly to equate “worshiping” Shirley Temple with “delighting” in cleanliness (22). The Bluest Eye suggests that this “development”—the sexualization of Claudia's body (changes both in it and in how she experiences it) and the simultaneous transformation of her psyche is learned and achieved through commodities like the Shirley Temple cups that proscribe appearance and behavior in accordance with the images they project. Claudia learns to “love” Shirley Temple when she learns to identify herself as Shirley Temple, as a complete person—limited as that is for women in our culture to some variation of “the sexual.” Moreover, femininity and “the sexual” can be produced and reproduced as commodities, as Pecola's belief that she can simply acquire blue eyes indicates. The mass dissemination of these images of femininity in American society was and is among the primary mechanisms by which women are socialized and sexualized in this country. It is no accident that Morrison links many of these images of properly sexualized white women to the medium of film which, in 1941, was increasingly enabled technologically to represent them and, because of the growth of the Hollywood film industry, more likely to limit the production of alternate images.

The effect of the constant circulation of the faces of, for example, Ginger Rogers, Gretta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and, again, Shirley Temple is to reintroduce and exaggerate, as it does for Pauline Breedlove, “the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought” (97)—romantic love and physical beauty, each defined according to what they exclude and each destructive to the extent that they are made definitionally unavailable. After waiting out two pregnancies in the dark shadows of the silver screen, Pauline “was never able … [again] to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty” which she had “absorbed in full” from the movies (97). Among these faces to which she can't help but assign a pre-determined value is her own, ironically made less acceptable by her Jean Harlow hairstyle because of the rotten tooth that contradicts it. In spite of the hope implicit in naming her after a fair character in a movie itself called Imitation of Life,2 Pecola, too, is, according to her mother and apparently everyone else,” ‘ugly’” (100). The consequences of this estimation, repeated as it is continually throughout Pecola's life, are, of course, obvious: When others—Mr. Yacobowski, her teachers, etc.—cannot or will not see her, then she ceases to be seen at all or sees herself in the iconographic images she can attain only in madness.

The horror of the industry responsible for generating and continuing these repeated, static, and unattainable images is not just that, in the process of appropriating standards of beauty and femininity for white women, it does not allow alternate images and standards to coincide—though such is certainly horrible—but that in so doing it also co-opts and transforms a history of communal and familial relationships it cannot otherwise accommodate. This co-optation was facilitated by the migration of African-Americans in the first half of this century and the end of the last to Northern, usually industrial, towns like Lorain, a process that accelerated the separation of families and friends as it removed them farther from whatever common culture existed in the rural South (Willis, Specifying 83-109). In the absence of a network of community members ready to step in—as Aunt Jimmy's family and friends do—and make it their business to look after each other, blacks up north who feel isolated from their past and alienated in their present are more likely to look elsewhere for self-affirming context.

As Pauline Breedlove's history bears out, the culture industry is always quick to provide its notion of what this context should be and thus assure the dependence necessary for its own continued existence, even, indeed especially, at the expense of alternate cultural forms. Although she has few fond memories of her childhood, it is her early married life in Lorain that Pauline remembers as the “‘lonesomest time of my life.’” She is simply not prepared for the kinds of changes not prepared for the kinds of changes wrought by her transplantation north:

I don't know what all happened. Everything changed. It was hard to get to know folks up here, and I missed my people. I weren't used to so much white folks. The ones I seed before was something hateful, but they didn't come around too much. … Up north they was everywhere—next door, downstairs, all over the streets—and colored folks few and far between. Northern colored folk was different too. Dicty-like. No better than whites for meanness. They could make you feel just as no-count, 'cept I didn't expect it from them.


From this seemingly fragmented and hostile community, Pauline turns to day jobs in the homes of “nervous, pretentious” people and to the movies. Her attachment to the former is due in part to the fact that at the Fishers she can exercise the artistic sensibility that otherwise cannot find expression. As a child in Alabama and especially Kentucky, Pauline “liked, most of all, to arrange things. To line things up in rows—jars on shelves at canning, peach pits on the step, sticks, stones, leaves. … She missed—without knowing what she missed—paints and crayons” (88-89). But it is not until her job at the Fishers that Pauline can again “arrange things, clean things, line things up in neat rows. … [At the Fisher's] she found beauty, order, cleanliness, and praise. … It was her pleasure to stand in her kitchen at the end of a day and survey her handiwork” (101). Moreover, her job with the Fishers provides her with the semblance of acceptance and community she cannot find or create in her own home and neighborhood. They have given her the nickname she never had as a child and tell small anecdotes about her. Mr. Fisher says, “‘I would rather sell her blueberry cobblers than real estate’” (101). Finally, it is easier for Pauline to ignore the fact that both the name and the anecdotes are condescending and exemplative of her subordinate, and ultimately outsider, status in the Fisher household (as evidenced when Claudia feels “the familiar violence” rise at the little pink girl's question” ‘Where's Polly?’” [86]) than to do without the “power, praise, and luxury” (101) she finds there.

The other place she finds this “power, praise, and luxury” is, of course, the movies, and, unfortunately, it is to them that Pauline turns for help and validation rather than the few black women she has met in Lorain who, “with their goading glances and private snickers,” were merely “amused” by her and her loneliness (94).3 It is at the movies that Pauline learns to equate “physical beauty and virtue,” where she “stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap.” As she watches “‘white men taking such good care of they women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses’” (97), Pauline finds it increasingly difficult to return to her own life and, as a result, “more and more … neglected her house, her children, her man” (101). Like the Dick-and-Jane story, Pauline's movies continuously present her with a life, again presumably ideal, which she does not now have and which she has little, if any, chance of ever enjoying in any capacity other than that of “the ideal servant” (101).4 In the absence of alternate images which might validate and endorse a kind of virtue not tied to physical beauty or ones offering competing definitions of beauty itself, and in the absence of a network of family and friends, especially women friends, whose own lives would provide a differing model and the context in which to erect her own, Pauline succumbs to the “simple pleasure” of “black-and-white images projected through a ray of light” and “curtailing freedom in every way” (97).

Images projected on the screen and mass-produced items curtail freedom in other, less obvious and brutal ways as well, although the effects can be due as much to what is not seen or experienced as to what is. Claudia, for example, fosters a brutal hatred for her white baby dolls not just because they don't look like her but because the gift of them is supposed to replace and somehow improve upon what she would really prefer for Christmas: the experience of sitting “on the low stool in Big Mama's kitchen with [her] lap full of lilacs and [listening] to Big Papa play his violin for [her] alone” (21). Instead of family interaction—and the touching, playing, and ritual storytelling that might accompany it—Claudia is supposed to pretend to be the mother of this “thing” dressed in “starched gauze or lace” and sporting a “bone-cold head” (20).

Similarly, Claudia hates Shirley Temple well enough because her socks stay up, but what really gets her is the presence in the films of Bojangles. This is the outrage: the rewriting of either a historical moment (the Civil War) or interpersonal relationship (an orphaned child and benevolent older friend) with her part edited or bleached out so that those few images of African-American life afforded space on the big screen are put there not as evidence or proof of the experience itself, but as a tactic for further erasure, denial, or revisioning of just that experience. Instead of the ideologically opportune sight of an older black man “soft-shoeing it and chuckling” harmlessly, aimlessly, with a little white girl, the world should be seeing her, Claudia, socks around her ankles, “enjoying, sharing, giving a lovely dance thing” (19) with her friend, uncle, daddy Bojangles.

It does not, however, and Morrison signals the effects of these oversights—of supplanting or having supplanted both one's appearance and one's history and culture—repeatedly in The Bluest Eye in details of sexuality, especially women's but, as the lifestories of Cholly and Soaphead indicate, not exclusively so. Mr. Henry, for example, when first moving into the MacTeers' home, greets Claudia and Frieda with, “‘You must be Greta Garbo, and you must be Ginger Rogers’” (17), thus reducing them to type in a kind of objectification which, in part, will make it easier for him later to molest Frieda. He follows this greeting with a gift of money, a gesture repeated later when he wants them out of the house so he can entertain two of the more colorful “members of [his] Bible class” (65), China and the Maginot Line. The exchange of money and the objectification of women as types converge here in such a way as to align his interaction with the two women and with Frieda and Claudia under the heading of prostitution.

The incident with Mr. Henry suggests one way the mass circulation of images of “femininity” negatively affects women in the area of sexuality by negatively affecting the attitudes and thus behavior of the people with whom they interact. The Bluest Eye, however, documents further the effect of those images on women themselves on the level of the body and in terms of how they understand and experience their own sexuality. For Pauline, for example, sexual pleasure depends entirely on the ability to “‘feel a power’” (103) that comes from a sense of herself as desirable. In bed with Cholly, she thinks,

I know he wants me to come first. But I can't. Not until he does. Not until I feel him loving me. Just me. … Not until I know that my flesh is all that be on his mind. … Not until he has let go of all he has, and give it to me. … When he does, I feel a power. … I be strong enough, pretty enough, and young enough to let him make me come.


Unfortunately, Pauline defines strength, beauty, and youth solely in the terms she's learned from film; thus, as the possibility of ever attaining them is foreclosed, so too is sexual pleasure. Confident that “‘my Maker will take care of me,’” (104), Pauline reassures herself that “‘… it don't make no difference about this old earth,’” (104), thus hoping to cash in on one dream in exchange for relinquishing another.

Sexual pleasure is no longer even a consideration for Geraldine and the other “sugar-brown girls” who have lost “the dreadful funkiness of passion … of nature … of the wide range of human emotions” (68) almost as a consequence of moving north and away from family and towns like Mobile, Aiken, and Nagadoches, whose names “make you think of love” (67) if the girls themselves do not. Geraldine's desire to eschew inappropriate manifestations of black American culture by maintaining the “line between colored and nigger” (71) and thus to effect a bland respectability is connected in her portrait with a body that can give itself only “sparingly and partially”: “She stiffens when she feels one of her paper curlers coming undone from the activity of love. … She hopes he will not sweat—the damp may get into her hair” (69).

Geraldine's concern is focused on her hair, that part of her appearance which, along with her fair skin, she can control and adapt most easily to standards of white beauty. One is reminded at this point of Pauline and her Jean Harlow hairstyle or China who, with a flick of the wrist, converts herself from one feminine type to another: One minute she has the “surprised eyebrows” and “cupid-bow mouth” of a starlet, the next the “Oriental eyebrows” and “evilly slashed mouth” (49) of a femme fatale. Pecola, however, whose ugliness “came from conviction,” has no such physical qualities capable of altering and thus redeeming what she and her family perceive as her “relentlessly and aggressively” ugly appearance (34). Pecola, in fact, is all sign: To see her body is to know already everything about her or at least everything her culture deems important about her.

The depiction of her sexuality is thus correspondingly total: Pecola gets off eating candy—nothing new here, except that, for her, orgasm takes the form of a curious transubstantiation and, ultimately, transformation: “To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (43). Unlike Claudia who cannot yet, in the words of Susan Willis, “imagine herself miraculously translated into the body of Shirley Temple so as to vicariously live white experience as a negation of blackness” (“I Shop” 174), Pecola not only can, but, from this denial of self and substitution of the store-bought image, actually gets in the process “nine lovely orgasms with Mary Jane” (43). Whatever pleasurable resources Pecola's own body may harbor are available to her now—and this at the early age of eleven—only to the extent that, like her mother, she can experience them as the alienated effects of another woman's body.

Most of the time, however, she cannot do this and, rather than reconcile herself, as her mother has, to the prospect of greater glory and bigger rainbows in the next world, Pecola opts instead to make a life of her own erasure and annihilation. As her parents and brother fight in the next room, she prays to God to “‘make me disappear’” and then performs the meditation to do so:

She squeezed her eyes shut. Little parts of her body faded away. Now slowly, now with a rush. Slowly again. Her fingers went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow. Her feet now. … The legs all at once. It was hardest above the thighs. She had to be real still and pull. Her stomach would not go. But finally it, too, went away. Then her chest, her neck. The face was hard, too. Almost done, almost. Only her tight, tight eyes were left. They were always left.


The inability to make her eyes go away prompts Pecola's final disappearing act: The ugliness of her entire body is dissolved in and absolved by the blue eyes only she and her new “friend” can see. Her breakdown at the end of the novel is the last in a series of instances in which boundaries marking the space between inside and outside, self and other, sense and nonsense are broken, removed, or simply no longer perform their tasks. As the novel's prefatory Dick-and-Jane story turns from order to chaos with the gradual removal of punctuation and spacing, so too does the erasure of Pecola's body and sexuality lead to her madness and isolation.

It seems to me that it is at this point that we can begin to make sense of Morrison's notion of “disinterested violence” which she introduces first with Claudia and elaborates upon in her depiction of the three prostitutes, Cholly, and, by implication, the black community in Lorain, Ohio. After systematically destroying her baby dolls in order to “discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped [her]” (20) and then, finding this tactic unproductive, transferring “the same impulses to little white girls,” Claudia “learned how repulsive this disinterested violence was, that it was repulsive because it was disinterested” (22). Michael Awkward argues that what Claudia feels is “repulsive” here is her own “failure to accept without question the standards of white America” (72), a reading which, while it has a lot of general application in the novel, seems to misdirect the focus of this passage. Claudia's self-in-crimination is, it seems to me, more in response to her failure to feel enough for her white victims, to have the interest that would make her actions meaningful. Willis claims that Claudia's realization “that violence against whites runs the risk of being ‘disinterested’ … suggests that white people are little more than abstractions … [that] all are reified subjects” (“I Shop” 174). What Claudia realizes is that her violence cannot help but be disinterested, since even the little girls she thinks she wants to dismember are finally only representatives to her of the system she resents and wants to dismantle. “Disinterestedness,” then, is the result of not seeing individual people and how their actions combine in ways affecting you; “disinterested violence,” the prelude to “adjustment without improvement” (22), is possible precisely when the specificity of bodies, places, and histories is erased, as it is by commodity culture and those living under its aegis.

Though charming in their own way, China, Poland, and the Maginot Line are also condemned in The Bluest Eye for just this kind of refusal to take into account difference and history:

Except for Marie's fabled love for Dewey Prince, these women hated men, all men, without shame, apology, or discrimination. They abused their visitors with scorn grown mechanical from use. Black men, white men, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Jews, Poles, whatever—all were inadequate and weak, all came under jaundiced eyes and were the recipients of their disinterested wrath.

(47-48; emphasis added)

Neither their hatred for men and the “mechanical” violence it spawns5 nor Marie's love for Pecola, however, has much effect on either their own standing in the community or Pecola's life. Any power moves they think they are making by indiscriminately hating all men are probably negated by the fact that they do not take into account differences in race and class, factors supremely affecting their position vis á vis men, especially in their profession. Their kindness to Pecola is similarly disinterested in that, by failing to see her and her situation clearly, the three, in the words of Michele Wallace, “fail to understand victimization or the fact that [she] is in danger” (65).6

This failure is finally the community's as a whole, a fact Morrison repeatedly suggests by illustrating the extent to which as a group it too has “absorbed in full” dominant standards of value and beauty with little or no inspection of or reflection on the effects to itself or to its individual members. In her conversation with friends, Mrs. MacTeer jokes about “‘Aunt Julia … still trotting up and down Sixteenth Street talking to herself’” (15). The significance of this remark is not really apparent until the depiction of Pecola's breakdown is complete, and we are presented with a similar image of Pecola “walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear” (158). Lorain sees Aunt Julia as “‘that old hag floating by in that bonnet’” whom the County will not”‘take’” and whom the sight of will “‘scare the living shit out of you’” (15). One of the women attributes Aunt Julia's fate to senility, but the designation “still trotting” implies she has been out there a while. Their inability or refusal to make sense of her actions, to put them in context, foreshadows their eventual scapegoating of Pecola and suggests that the town has an undiagnosed and unexamined history of producing women like Pecola, that her experience—and the extremity of it—is not an isolated instance.

Morrison characterizes Cholly's disinterestedness as the condition of being “dangerously free. Free to feel whatever he felt—fear, guilt, shame, love, grief, pity. Free to be tender or violent” (125). Her depiction of him traces the source of this freedom to his loss of mother, father, community, and home and to the feeling that the history of people and events extends as far as his interest in them:

… Cholly was truly free. Abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose. He was alone with his own perceptions and appetites, and they alone interested him.


Paradoxically, this is a state that allows him to see Pecola more clearly than probably anyone else in the book (with the exception of the adult Claudia) and to love her in spite of what he sees, but does not allow him to interact with her in any form other than “reactions based on what he felt at the moment.” Cholly sees his daughter washing dishes and sees also, in her stooped frame, “an accusation” against him. Unlike others in town, though, he sees “her young, helpless, hopeless presence” (127) and “loved her enough to touch her, envelop her, give something of himself to her” (159) where no one else would.

In the four examples cited above, disinterestedness is occasioned specifically by the inability to place people and events into contexts that would flesh out experience and thus make obvious the limitations of present actions or beliefs. It becomes steadily more difficult for characters in The Bluest Eye to do this because they are either separated from the supportive networks that would encourage it and (or as a result) because their placement in American culture does not sanction accurate representations of what that context would be. The result is a community of individuals who are, at times, painfully alienated from each other as each is divided within him- or herself. Pecola's split consciousness at the end of the novel is a literal representation of this doubleness7; it affects other characters also as distortions or denials of self, but denials and distortions approved and fostered in popular iconographic representation.

An explicit formal project of The Bluest Eye, then, is to rewrite the specific stories, histories, and bodies of African-Americans which are quickly being made invisible in commodity culture and which, if written, will make disinterestedness and its unproductive or damaging results impossible. Morrison acknowledges this project in so many words when she says she wrote The Bluest Eye because she wanted to read the story it would tell. The novel's shifting focus and point of view, its willingness to let different people speak and not to reconcile contradictory explanations and claims where they arise is indicative of Morrison's preference for telling all sides of Pecola's story rather than hammering home one of them. In this, she is like other black women writers who, according to Mae Henderson, “through their intimacy with the discourses of other(s) … weave into their work competing and complementary discourses—that seek to adjudicate competing claims and witness concerns” (23). It would be to miss the point, then, to read The Bluest Eye looking to assign blame. One of the great virtues of the book is its capacity to empathize and to allow its readers to empathize—something not possible in the absence of history and context—with all of its characters, perhaps especially those who seem most irredeemable: Cholly, Soaphead Church, Pauline.

Finally, though, since The Bluest Eye and this project of representing African-Americans focuses most specifically on the histories and bodies of black women, the novel's alternating perspective reproduces formally their complicated subjectivity in particular. As she shifts from young girl to older woman to black man to omniscient narrator, Morrison seems to move her examination of Pecola's life back and forth from the axis of race to that of gender. This process allows her in turn to move through the story as both insider and outsider in what Mae Henderson calls a “contestorial dialogue” involving “the hegemonic dominant and subdominant or [after Rachel Blau Du Plessis] ‘ambiguously (non) hegemonic’ discourses” (20). At one point Morrison writes as a black person among other black people speaking to a white audience, at others as a woman among women speaking to men. The movement between these positions allows Morrison to “see the other, but also to see what the other cannot see, and to use this insight to enrich both our own and the other's understanding” (36). Of course these categories can be separated only artificially since, as Valerie Smith notes, “the meaning of blackness in this country shapes profoundly the experience of gender, just as the conditions of womanhood affect ineluctably the experience of race” (47). By doing so here, however, Toni Morrison enables the reader to witness structurally the complexity of black female subjectivity as she writes it back into a culture whose social and economic mechanisms would otherwise try to write it out.


  1. For more on this analysis of mass culture see, among many others, Adorno and Horkheimer's work in Arato and Gebhardt, Fredrick Jameson, or Tonia Modleski.

  2. I take it, then, that Maureen's guess is correct, that Pauline does name Pecola after the movie's black daughter and even then getting it wrong: The daughter's name is Peola, not Pecola.

  3. It is not the case, however, that the kind of community support Pauline needs is simply unavailable in Lorain. When Cholly burns their apartment, for example, Pauline's own daughter Pecola is taken in immediately by the MacTeers and, in spite of Mrs. MacTeer's raving about the amount of milk Pecola drinks, is cared for as a matter of course.

  4. Morrison's reference to Imitation of Life, then, is quite specific and damning: Both versions of the film finally take as a given the black woman's status as servant in the white woman's household. A recent television screening of the original version was introduced optimistically as the story of two women who must “hide their friendship” by masquerading as mistress and maid. While Sirk's version problematizes as it foregrounds the story's racial thematics, it counteracts much of its own insightfulness by concluding with an image of the fair-skinned black daughter being reincorporated into the white family, sans mama and the “problems” her definite blackness presented.

  5. “On one occasion the town well knew, they lured a Jew up the stairs, pounced on him, all three, held him up by the heels, shook everything out of his pants pockets, and threw him out of the window” (48).

  6. Wallace also argues that “in distinct contrast to the variety of maternal images in the book, these women neither nurture nor protect children” and that, by including them in the text, Morrison “seems to question the self-involvement of traditional modes of black female creativity, as well as [pose] a general critique of more recent feminist strategies of ‘man-hating’ and ‘self-love’” (65). I am not sure what exactly she means by “the self-involvement of traditional modes of black female creativity,” but I think the characterization of the three prostitutes is more complex and ultimately more endearing than Wallace admits. When it comes time to name who “loves” Pecola, for example, the narrator—now definitively Claudia—cites Cholly and the Maginot Line.

  7. Awkward argues that Pecola's “schizophrenia” is a “coded intertext of W. E. B. Du Bois's discussion of a Black ‘double consciousness’ in The Souls of Black Folk” (12).

Works Cited

Arato, Andrew, and Eike Gebhardt, eds. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Continuum, 1982.

Awkward, Michael. Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women's Novels. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

Haug, Frigga, ed. Female Sexualization: A Collective Work of Memory. Trans. Erica Carter. London: Verso, 1987.

Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. “Speaking in Tongues: Dialectics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition.” Wall 16-37.

Jameson, Fredric. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Social Text 1 (1979): 135-48.

Modleski, Tonya. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Routledge, 1984.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Washington Square, 1970.

Smith, Valerie. “Black Feminist Theory and Other Representations of the Other.” Wall 38-57.

Wall, Cheryl A., ed. Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989.

Wallace, Michele. “Variations on Negation and the Heresy of Black Feminist Creativity.” Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. 52-67.

Willis, Susan. “I Shop Therefore I Am: Is There a Place for Afro-American Culture in Commodity Culture?” Wall 173-95.

———. Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.

Edmund A. Napieralski (essay date fall 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1508

SOURCE: Napieralski, Edmund A. “Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Explicator 53, no. 1 (fall 1994): 59-62.

[In the following essay, Napieralski compares and contrasts the narrative elements of The Bluest Eye with those of the classical myth of Oedipus.]

In addition to the popular myths that she uses in The Bluest Eye to criticize society—the Dick and Jane Story and Pauline Breedlove's Dreamland Theatre—Toni Morrison also incorporates characters, incidents, and themes that recall classical myth. In her article, “Lady Sings the Blues,” Madonne M. Miner has explained how Pecola's rape by her father recalls Philomela's by Tereus and Persephone's by Pluto (176). Pecola's story—her tragic failure to find her truth, to find her happiness in knowing who she is and her worth to herself and others—recalls also the tragedy of Oedipus the King. In The Bluest Eye, however, the myth appears in a peculiar and distorted fashion. Raymond Hedin has pointed out that central elements of the Dick and Jane world—“house, family, cat, Mother, Father, dog, and friend”—become “inverted to fit the realities of Pecola's world” (50). Much the same can be said about the myth of Oedipus and the world of The Bluest Eye.

First, the novel's setting recalls Sophocles' play. Barrenness envelops Lorain, Ohio, in 1941: Claudia, a choral character, says, “We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby that the marigolds did not grow … seeds shriveled and died” (3). Although not, on the surface at least, as serious as the plague gripping Thebes, it is a barrenness nonetheless—metaphorical as well as literal—that is somehow connected to incest, a sin that from the beginning of humankind has been thought to pollute the earth. Moreover, the novel progresses through chapters or episodes named after the seasons—Autumn through Summer—that provide the backdrop of a planting and harvesting cycle appropriate to the sacrifice of a scapegoat.

The Oedipus story takes further shape in the lives of Pecola's parents, Cholly and Pauline Breedlove. As Jocasta mocked the truth of oracles, Pauline also rejects facts of her life, first for the fantasy of the Dreamland Theatre, and then for the imitation of life she lives with her white employers, the Fishers. As Jocasta had originally abandoned Oedipus as a child and had virtually denied his existence, Pauline denies and ultimately deserts her own daughter.

Abandonment has also crippled the life of Cholly Breedlove: “When Cholly was four days old, his mother wrapped him in two blankets and one newspaper and placed him on a junk heap by the railroad” (103). Cholly is rejected a second time, as a teenager, when he travels to Macon in search of his father. Samson Fuller resents this strange boy's intrusion on his dice game and brutally turns him away, leaving Cholly to soil himself and weep like a baby. Cholly's virtual denial of his relationship to his daughter in his rape of Pecola becomes understandable—though certainly not excusable—against this background. Cholly, the victim of a mother and father's rejection, becomes the victimizer in a worse abandonment.

Valerie Smith in The Southern Review noted that throughout her fiction Morrison demonstrates the “interconnectedness of past and present” (723). In The Bluest Eye, that interconnectedness appears as a family curse, a relentless and recurring pattern or design characteristic of Greek tragedy generally and of Oedipus the King in particular. Pieces of this pattern reach an awful climax in Cholly's rape of Pecola, an act that follows immediately the flashback to his own rejection by his father. Overcome by conflicting emotions of guilt, pity, love, revulsion, and fury, Cholly watches Pecola standing at the sink, “one foot scratching the back of her calf with her toe” (127). The gesture reminds him of that time in the past in Kentucky when he saw his wife-to-be for the first time—Pauline, with one foot pierced as a result of a childhood accident. In short order, abandonment, betrayal, and a crippling both figurative and literal from the past and the present gather in a fate-filled moment to destroy Pecola. After the rape she awakes from a faint, “trying to connect the pain between her legs with the face of her mother looming over her” (129).

Although Oedipus at first appears to belong to a family and to Thebes, he is, like Pecola, an outsider, alienated and apart—someone, as Claudia explains, who is a “case,” “outdoors.” Oedipus seeks answers about his identity from oracles, family, and servants; Pecola looks for her place too, but in her case from a variety of inadequate models and helpers: Shirley Temple, Mary Janes, Maureen Peal, Geraldine, a trio of whores. None provides helpful answers or even clues to who she is or should become. After the rape by her father, however, Pecola does seek out her own seer, her own Teiresias—Soaphead Church.

Morrison devotes considerable space in the novel to describing the background, personality, and theology of Soaphead Church—“Reader, Adviser, and Interpreter of Dreams.” As adviser and interpreter he appears to perform functions similar to those Teiresias did for the people of Thebes: “People came to him in dread, whispered in dread, wept and pleaded in dread” (136).

Soaphead Church, however, whose real name—Elihue Micah Whitcomb—mocks the Jewish prophets, mocks in his behavior as well the seer of Sophocles' tragedy. Instead of the piety of Teiresias, he exhibits arrogance and disrespect in the letter he addresses “TO HE WHO GREATLY ENNOBLED HUMAN NATURE BY CREATING IT.” Instead of exercising power to do good as Teiresias tries to, he abuses his position to lead Pecola not to salvation but to damnation. Teiresias tries to dispel Oedipus' illusion and to lead him to see truth and to experience self-knowledge. Soaphead Church, on the other hand, leads Pecola to lies, self-delusion, and madness. “I, I have caused a miracle,” he boasts in his letter to God. “I gave her the eyes. I gave her blue, blue, two blue eyes. … No one else will see her blue eyes. But she will. And she will live happily ever after” (144). Unlike Teiresias who is physically blind but spiritually enlightened, Soaphead Church is spiritually blind and even self-deluded.

Differences in the behavior and experiences of Oedipus and Pecola are also striking. On the one hand, Oedipus blinds himself in a fit of grief and guilt. He laments his condition, but sees the truth, claims an identity. He also gains stature by bravely accepting the exile he had decreed as further punishment for himself. On the other hand, Pecola who sees with what she believes to be blue eyes is really blind. She has no claim to an identity and wholeness but has instead been divided in two, inside and outside the mirror. Pecola also becomes an exile: “walking up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear” (162). For Pecola, no victory, only defeat. No plague is lifted.

Several critics of her fiction have remarked on Morrison's use of myth and on the tension her writing explores between universal myths and the unique experience of black people. Terry Otten, for example, notes that “For Morrison, the artistic struggle involves achieving the balance between writing a truly black literature and producing a fiction that in Faulkner's phrase ‘grieves on universal bones’” (2). In her study of The Bluest Eye,Sula, and Song of Solomon, Cynthia Davis claims that these works testify to Morrison's developing use of mythic structure and to her attempt “to combine existential concerns compatible with a mythic presentation with an analysis of American society” (334)

In The Bluest Eye, Morrison seems less interested in depicting universal experience than in using myth to grieve over American society in general and black American experience in particular. The plague that ravages the landscape and infects people in the world of the novel and generation after generation is racism. Racism denies truth, freedom, justice, and the opportunity to experience identity and dignity. The tragic victim is neither a king nor even one little girl but an entire people. The question of responsibility, of fate and free will, hovers over Sophocles' play. At the end of The Bluest Eye the question of responsibility also remains to challenge us. Who or what is, after all, responsible for the soil that is bad for certain kinds of flowers, for seeds it will not nurture, for fruit it will not bear?

Works Cited

Davis, Cynthia A. “Self, Society, and Myth in Toni Morrison's Fiction.” Contemporary Literature 23 (1982): 323-342.

Hedin, Raymond. “The Structuring of Emotion in Black American Fiction.” Novel 16 (1982): 35-54.

Miner, Madonne M. “Lady No Longer Sings the Blues: Rape, Madness, and Silence in The Bluest Eye.Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1985. 176-191.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

Otten, Terry. The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison. Columbia, Missouri: U of Missouri P, 1989.

Smith, Valerie. “The Quest for and Discovery of Identity in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.The Southern Review 21 (1985): 721-732.

Mark Ledbetter (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4601

SOURCE: Ledbetter, Mark. “Through the Eyes of a Child: Looking for Victims in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.” In Literature and Theology at Century's End, edited by Gregory Salyer and Robert Detweiler, pp. 177-88. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Ledbetter examines the characteristics of the victims in The Bluest Eye and the reader's response to them, investigating the ethical dimensions of writing and reading the novel.]

And then last night, I tiptoed up
To my daughter's room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there …
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands

Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)1


Desperation characterizes the victim. The victim will do most anything to avoid his fated end, which is disappearance. Victims are a lost people; they are victims because they are neither heard nor seen. To posture any sense of “real” presence is to no longer be a victim.

“Otherness” characterizes desperation.2 A tremendous mystery—awe inspiring, even religious—embodies acts of desperation. The desperate act is always described by the voyeur with the phrase, “Why did she do that?” The irony, here, is that the voyeur, too, is desperate to see and, therefore, to know and to experience the mystery, however horrible, of the observed “other.” As a result, she becomes victim, too, of the unanswered question, “Why?”

Violence characterizes otherness. Victims in an ethic of reading and writing are those persons desperate to be heard and seen (note the passive voice) and whose alternative to a literal disappearance from the human story, is to commit desperate acts of violence to themselves, even to those whom they love, in order to create a world that, while not of their choosing, is at least of their making. In this world, the victims are seen and heard. The voyeur is implicated into the lives of the victims, for the violence violates the sensibilities of the observer, who knows, because of this violation, that he has encountered otherness, a moment beyond human control and definition and so physically and emotionally scarring, that he must embody this moment in order to define his existence.

The voyeur is characterized by need, the need to control a situation by surreptitiously looking at and into the world around him. The voyeur is not simply the “peeping-Tom” variety, but also the reader of newspapers and the follower of fire engines. And yet perhaps the most persistent voyeur is the reader of literature. This voyeur, the reader of literature, experiences an ethical moment when she is blinded, at least temporarily, when the object of her sight, the text, looks back at her. With this “returned gaze” comes the moment of implication. Narrative's victim(s) is discovered when the text “looks back,” and the reader (voyeur), in turn, blinks.

At this moment, the text's ethical dimensions reveal themselves, and the victim is named. Writer and reader, as well as characters in the text, must choose from a discourse inherently ethical and one which encourages responsible reflections, if not actions. What are my connections with narrative's victims, particularly the violence they experience and the violence they cause me? In response to such a question, I suggest that personal violation, beyond our control and as a result of our observing the body violence to narrative's victims, is a claim of human community. Personal violation is the moment of silence, where writer and reader become victims themselves, and is a silence out of which come questions of, Complicity? Empathy? Naivete? Ignorance?, questions which Levinas might call “the rumbling within silence,3 questions which make reader and writer profoundly aware that no one is immune from the disease of victimization. There are only pained victims and anesthetized victims, but there are only victims.


Thus, I begin the application of theory to practice with a brief essay on discovering and naming the victim. I believe that this exercise is critical to any argument concerning the ethical dimensions of writing and reading, particularly the suggestion that such an ethical enterprise involves making heard and hearing silenced voices. I turn, now, to a novella by Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, and ask, “Who are society's victims?”

Desperate acts of violence by text, character, and reader provide intimately profound moments of ethical reflection in Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Remember, desperation characterizes the victim. Characters are desperate for love and will choose freely to violate society's most strictly-held moral codes, as well as to inflict violence on their own bodies, in order to be loved. The text itself reveals a language of desperation, fragmented by the nature of the story it tells and violently interrupting any attempt, on the part of reader or writer, to create a neat or romantic closure to the narrative. The reader is desperate to avoid the pain that comes from seeing the world through an abused child's eyes, and to avoid the moral impotence that comes with knowing that another victim has vanished from the human story, violently lost to a world dark and silent, “right before our [your] very eyes”.4

The Bluest Eye is the story of black America in the South during 1941, pre-civil rights legislation. African Americans were shunned and denied opportunities by the powerful white community. This disease of prejudice and hatred infected the African American community itself, where a disenfranchised people, struggling to “make ends meet” economically, as well as create a stable social community, find little time to develop a family life that gives love and nurture to the individual members. Through physical and emotional violence, family members forge a world of love, however seemingly perverted and mutated, given the one thing they possess: their bodies.

The painfully constant theme in The Bluest Eye is that desperation forces the victim to victimize others and even the self. Victimization has a vicious circuity in the community of the hopeless and the helpless, and more often than not requires not merely the unpredictable act or event, by the narrative and/or characters, to break free from the victim's cycle but more so a horrifyingly indecipherable, if not shockingly inhuman, act or event by the narrative or characters. These acts or events are the moments in narrative where the text confronts the voyeur, the reader, the “me” of the narrative, and forces “me” to blink. Roles are reversed; I am being read, and ethical reading begins.

The Bluest Eye has many such moments. Cholly, the father, rapes his daughter, an act that horrifies and excites him and is his last and only claim on/to love. Mrs. Breedlove rejects her own child—a violence to maternity—yet calls the daughter in the white family for whom she works, “baby,” in a vain attempt to construct a family life that she will never know. Pecola, the daughter, longs for blue eyes, a sign of acceptance in the white person's world. Everyone loves a blue-eyed child. When her wish is not granted by God, she blinds herself—physically?—certainly mentally, turning inward to the dark world of the victim where she can define love on her own terms and leaving the blue glaze of her mutilated or crazed eyes to look upon her victimizing world.


The text, at first glance, attempts to gloss the world of the victims. The Bluest Eye is not about victims, suggest the epigrams of the early chapters; rather, the world is victim-less. Each chapter begins with the world of the Dick and Jane primer, indeed, an Edenic life where all the people “are very happy” (7). But the Dick and Jane story has nothing to do with the African Americans' story of victimization, and language becomes desperate. The narrative tries three times to construct the story of the friends and the nice house, of Dick, Jane, their parents, and the dog.

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are happy … See the dog run. Run, dog, run. Look, look. Here comes a friend.

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are happy … See the dog run. Run, dog, run. Look, look. Here comes a friend.


Each time, the story refuses to be told in its entirety, until the language of the story crumbles in on itself, violated by an inability to approximate the harsh realities of a world, a world of victims, that will never live with such security or happiness.

The narrative is divided into chapters by the names of the four seasons, beginning with Autumn, an odd beginning for most of us, a sort of “in-the-middle” existence, but which seems appropriate for the life of the victim. The victim-less text would end or begin with Spring, a time of rebirth and new beginnings. The language within each chapter of the text violates the season which names it. Autumn is not a season with leaves of beautiful colors, as one might expect, but rather a season of a child's sickness, coughed-up on her bed, and the colors of fall are used to describe her vomit. “The puke swaddles down the pillow onto the sheets—green-gray, with flecks of orange” (13).

“Winter,” says the young narrator, “tightened our heads with a band of cold and melted our eyes” (52). The winter should be expectant and should not hold you tightly in its moribund grip. The child's winter should be playful, and the primary emotion should be anticipation. Yet the only “epiphany” the young children have in The Bluest Eye's winter is to discover a reason to hate someone “better-off” than they are: “we discovered that she had a dog tooth” (53).

Spring echoes autumn and winter with references to death. The text violates itself. Desperate to name lives that will change, like the seasons, naturally and for the good, the language reminds us that there are no seasons in the lives of victims. Pecola is raped by her father. Ironically, his last name is Breedlove; she carries his child. Spring is incestuous for the victim; it breeds on the familiar, violating her purity and offering only the false hope of birth.

Summer is “the season of storms” (146). Summer is the most frightening because it represents the “Moirai of our small lives” (146). Pecola is summer's child and is fated to be victim. In the summer, Pecola's child by her father dies before the pregnancy completes term. The victim has no sense of completion to her life. Acquiescing to the world's claim that “the victim had no right to live” (160), Pecola disappears into a world, violent and silent and sadly alone.

Seasonal change is seductive; its newness offers hope to those of us at liberty to define ourselves in its beauty and predictability. Yet for the victim, the seasons serve as metaphor for the old adage, “what goes around, comes around.” Indeed, in The Bluest Eye, the seasons represent lack of change, a violation of nature's narrative, which should suggest that with each season something other than the status quo awaits us. The victim discovers that there are no seasons in her life, only a season of silence, which is characterized by frustration, pain, and a lack of control over her life.

Thus, the language of the text violently turns on itself, refusing to allow the victim to go unnoticed. Dick and Jane stories, as well as the pleasant and sensual changes of the season, are seductive, and they appeal to the person who neither knows desperation nor runs the risk of disappearing from the human story. But these master plots fail to tell the story of language's victims. Yet Morrison's language, like all language, has the power to invoke the other. In The Bluest Eye, this language of “otherness” is the language of victim. The victims in an ethic of reading and writing stand as an other against the master plot. When the master plot encounters the story of victim, an other, the victim-less and romantic story, like the tale of Dick and Jane, crumbles. The victim is revealed.


The wish of the victim often reflects the depth of her desperation. Victims wish not only for those things they are denied but also for those things which they can never have, much like a one-armed person wishing to grow another arm. The inability to fulfil that wish, regardless of its impossible nature, leads to the desperate act that is often violent and serves, at a level of distortion, if not perversion, to meet the requirements of the wish and to horrify the seemingly “normal” observer of the desperate act.

I suggest that the “wish” is Levinas's notion of “obsession,” which is “irreducible to consciousness, even if it overwhelms it.” This wish or obsession is, in Levinas's terms (which I think reflects Morrison's text's intentions), the victim's last grasp at “freedom,” an almost pre-reflective wish or obsession to be other than she is.5 In this obsession exists the desperate act, which culminates all previously “failed” acts to free oneself from being the victim. The desperate act, in an attempt to be other, creates an otherness that violates all traditional or normal expectations of what those of us who control narrative's master plots consider to be human and humane and challenges our definitions.

The Breedlove family has wishes. Pauline Breedlove wishes for a house and a family like the one for whom she is a servant. “Power, praise, and luxury were hers in this household” (101). Life here is ordered and neat. Finding satisfaction in this white family's household, “she stopped trying to keep her own house” (101). She establishes an intimate connection with the family. They give her “what she had never had—a nickname—Polly” (101). “She is the ideal servant” (101). Yet Mrs. Breedlove's wish can never have fulfillment. She is the “ideal servant.” Her wish is to be the “ideal” mistress of her own house, yet she is neither white nor monied and her wish is bound to fail.

We are not aware of the desperate nature of her wish until she denies the maternity of her own child to act as the mother of the white child for whom she is a servant. By laying claim to the white family's daughter, she attempts to lay claim to their lives. The irony is that in the same motion with which she dismisses her daughter, she is valuing the role of daughter in the family life.

Pecola spills a blueberry pie on the white family's floor, or as Mrs. Breedlove says, “my floor” (87). Pecola is slapped to the floor and abused verbally. The family's little girl, “in pink,” starts crying. Sending her own child out the door, she begins to call the white child “baby,” and when asked who the other child was, she will not say that Pecola is her daughter, only “don't worry none” (87).

While I may not condone physical violence as the appropriate punishment for children, I am not horrified by the violent act of mother striking daughter. I am moved to reflect on a moment of violence in which mother denies the identity of her daughter. This desperate act, a result of what Langston Hughes calls, “a dream deferred,” reveals a moment of ethical reflection that names Mrs. Breedlove not a bad mother, but rather a victim of racial prejudice certainly, but perhaps more so of a world that has lied to her, the “ideal servant,” and told her that she could ever be other than a victim, an otherness she exposes to us—the violence of a mother dis-owning her daughter—causing further, more profound, ethical reflection about the lies we tell to those whom we control and in turn encourage the victim to tell herself.

Cholly Breedlove's wish is less easy to define but is as poignant as Mrs. Breedlove's, and the wish's denial leads to a violent act even more horrifying than familial rejection. Cholly wants to be wanted by a family. There was a time, before the whiskey, when Mrs. Breedlove wanted him to take her away from her poverty, and she wanted him sexually. “But it ain't like that anymore. Most times he's thrashing away inside me before I'm woke, and through when I am” (104). Their love for each other is equalled only by their hate. “She needed Cholly's sins desperately” (37), and for Cholly, she was one of the few things abhorrent to him that he could touch and therefore hurt (37). In desperation, the victim hurts the one whom he loves the most. Loved ones are the most convenient, and ironically, because victims are drawn to a community of pained others, they make themselves available to one another.

Cholly's life is a series of failed communities. “Abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose. He was alone with his own perceptions and appetites, and they alone interested him” (126). What the world will not give, Cholly is prepared to take. He will be impotent no longer, the male victim's final words before an act of desperation.

Cholly rapes his daughter. The voyeur is repulsed by the violence. Cholly is overwhelmed with ambiguity. “He wanted to break her neck—but tenderly … What could he do for her—ever? What give her? What say to her” (127)? The language is that of the poor boy proposing to the rich girl; then, he reminds us that she is “his eleven-year-old daughter” (127). Suddenly remembering the first time he saw his wife, Cholly takes his daughter. Now he wants “to fuck her—tenderly” (128). Pecola becomes the victim's victim.

Cholly disappears from the text, the ever possible, even probable, fate of the victim. The crime of incest, one of Freud's original taboo's, demands serious judgement. And I make no apologies for a society where “our manhood was defined by acquisitions. Our womanhood by acquiescence” (140). And yet I am moved by the narrator's argument for sympathy. “Cholly loved her. I'm sure he did. He, at any rate, was the one who loved her enough to touch her, envelop her, give something of himself to her. But his touch was fatal” (159). The victim is left without choice, no romantic option between loss of integrity with life or maintained integrity with death. Loss of integrity and death go hand and hand for the victim. Cholly, emasculated by society, asserts his manhood on a girl-child, losing his integrity and a place in the narrative. The victim disappears.

Pecola Breedlove's wish is the most desperate of all wishes. She, a young black girl, wishes to have blue eyes. To have blue eyes, “Pretty blue eyes … Morning-glory-blue-eyes” (40), will make her world, now torn and violent, whole and peaceful. “Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they'd say, ‘Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn't do bad things in front of those pretty eyes’” (40). Unlike Claudia, a young girl her age, who can distinguish between the possible and the impossible and who “destroyed white baby dolls” (22), quite aware that she did not have access to their privilege, Pecola wishes for the blue eyes of the young white girls. Seduced by her obsession, she is seemingly ignorant of the fact that such a change cannot happen.

“Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes” (40). To be seen is the victim's most profound desire and is why Pecola wants blue eyes. She sees the world clearly with the eyes she has, and what she sees with crystal clear sight is that the world ignores a young black girl. The storekeeper, “does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see. … Nothing in his life even suggested that the feat was possible, not to say desirable or necessary” (42). The face of the victim is blank and indistinguishable.

Of course the world reminds her, all the time, that blue eyes are favorites. Shirley Temple has blue eyes. Even the “Mary Jane” candy she buys has a young girl, “blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort” (43), and depicts a life denied her. The sky, where the white families live, is “always blue” (84).

When a “Reader, Adviser, and Interpreter of Dreams” (130) arrives in town, Pecola comes to him. After all, his card reads, “If you are overcome with trouble and conditions that are not natural, I can remove them” (137). The dilemma is interesting. Pecola believes that her dark eyes are unnatural; she is a victim of society's rhetoric that describes beautiful and powerful people. Rhetoric, to be successful, need not be true, only persuasive, which is rhetoric's own inherent perniciousness. Though Pecola's eyes are very natural, the white world's rhetoric has won; rhetoric's best audience is desperate people.

This false prophet convinces Pecola that her eyes will turn blue; he convinces himself that her request is “logical” (137), “an ugly little girl asking for beauty. … A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes” (137). The promise is a lie, and the lie is devastating. “To rise up out of the pit of her blackness,” may be the most evil statement in Morrison's text. The phrase's horror is that it embodies both truth and lie. Pecola's blackness is a “pit,” not of her own making but no less depthful and restraining. And yet, what world would ask her to rise out of her blackness? For the victim, the right, true, and beautiful world is always other, and leaves the victim no choice but to become like the world or to vanish, silently.

Pecola's eyes turn blue. “A little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment” (158). Does she blind herself or does she go crazy? The text says that, “She … stepped over into madness” (159). Whether Pecola's eyes become blue from the blue-like glaze of the physically blind or whether she simply turns inward, creating a world of her own in which her eyes are blue, I think, does not matter. From either perspective, the violation of this young girl's mind/body, her eyes, is both painful and unsettling.

Pecola spends her time now in conversation with herself, creating a fictitious friend who confirms that her blue eyes are beautiful. “What will we talk about? Why, Your eyes. Oh, yes. My eyes, My blue eyes. Let me look again. See how pretty they are. Yes. They get prettier each time I look at them. They are the prettiest I've ever seen” (156).

The victim may either disappear, like Cholly, or create a world frightening and other, if she is to continue to exist. Pecola creates the world of other. This new world violates the sensibilities of those persons who chose to look upon it or who fall under Pecola's gaze. Those persons of her world, other victims, are “frightened” when they see her (158). Their world may, by necessity, become like hers. Others, who see her “blue eyes” know that they have “failed” her (158). Victims exist because there are those who victimize. Pecola's life, “among the garbage and the sunflowers” (160), where she “flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal grotesquely futile effort to fly” (158), indicts her observer, calling us either to be a participant in her world or the cause of it.


The frightening implication of the rhetoric that describes a victim is the loss of freedom. The victim is not free to be other than victim. In fact, to be other than victim is to lose one's power of mystery and awe, is to lose otherness. The empathetic observer of society's victims is not free to free the victim from her bondage, whether economic, religious, racial, sexual, or otherwise. The reader of texts, who sees and hears the victims of those texts, is violated by a moral powerlessness, discovering, as in The Bluest Eye, that “it's too late … it's much, much, much too late” (160) for Mrs. Breedlove, Cholly, and Pecola.

The admission of powerlessness is the reader's desperate act, a moment of confession, when he reveals a personal victimization and, therefore, a oneness with the text's victims. Perhaps, this moment is narrative's ethic, for if we all become victims, then there are no victims.

Such an idealistic moment does not deny difference, in race, gender, or economic status, the differences between us which produce victims. I am looking only for a moment of complicity and community, where distinctions are erased. Differences will/should remain, as a cause for celebration and, more important, perhaps, as the revealer of victim. For as long as there is difference, there will be victims. So, what is left for the desperate reader? I think that an ethic of reading and writing reminds the reader that he should take a turn as victim.

To choose to be victim is the one powerful freedom that the reader, privileged, even omniscient, has. But readers only make such a choice out of desperation, and readers only reach such desperate moments when they are violated by the violence of the text, by moments shocking to and discordant with our everydayness: a father wants love, a wholesome desire, and so he rapes his daughter; a child wants blue eyes, and (because?) she's black, so she steps “over into madness” (159) to gain them.

The victim's world, through a child's eyes, is a violent and horrifying moment, a moment that should so awaken our anesthetized existences, as readers, that narrative as an ethical event is one of many givens in the critical process called reading. In fact, I think that narrative is the one certain and predictable event in which an ethic is implied because reader and writer, by their very actions, choose to participate in a community, a narrative community, where society's victims are most profoundly and uncomfortably presented back to the very society which creates them.

Narrative has the power to hear the voices of the young Pecolas say, “Please God, … make me disappear” (39), and to describe her disappearance: “she squeezed her eyes shut. Little parts of her body faded away. … Only her tight, tight eyes were left. They were always left” (39). Perhaps most important, narrative has the power to force our gaze upon her gaze, those blue eyes, and know who the victim is.


  1. Imamu Amiri Baraka, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” ed. Arna Bontemps, American Negro Poetry (New York: Hill & Wang, 1974), pp. 178-9.

  2. I would describe my use of “Otherness” here, if not in agreement with, certainly influenced by Emmanuel Levinas in an essay called “Time and the Other.” He describes the other by saying: “its hold over my existing is mysterious. It is not unknown but unknowable, refractory to all light. But this precisely indicates that the other is in no way another myself, participating with me in a common existence. … We recognize the other as resembling us, but exterior to us; the relationship with the other is a relationship with a Mystery.” Ed. Sean Hand, The Levinas Reader, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), p. 43.

  3. See Levinas's “There is: Existence without Existents,” in Hand, A Levinas Reader, p. 28.

  4. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Washington Square Press, 1970), p. 58. All future references are to this text and are parenthetically referenced in the essay.

  5. See Levinas's “Substitution” in Hand, A Levinas Reader, pp. 88-92.

Lynn Scott (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5723

SOURCE: Scott, Lynn. “Beauty, Virtue and Disciplinary Power: A Foucauldian Reading of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Midwestern Miscellany 24 (1996): 9-23.

[In the following essay, Scott correlates Michel Foucault's theories about the workings of power in modern societies with Morrison's exploration of American racism in The Bluest Eye, demonstrating Morrison's contention that racism has less to do with exclusion than with the pressure to assimilate to cultural ideals of beauty and virtue.]

In that young and growing Ohio town whose side streets, even, were paved with concrete, which sat on the edge of a calm blue lake, which boasted an affinity with Oberlin, the underground railroad station, just thirteen miles away, this melting pot on the lip of America facing the cold but receptive Canada—What could go wrong?

(The Bluest Eye, 93)

Set in a small, industrialized, Midwestern town on the eve of World War I, The Bluest Eye explores the relationship of a variety of black families and individuals to each other as well as to the larger white community from which they are marginalized by racism. The locale is important. Neither the rural south, nor a large northern ghetto, Lorain, Ohio affords an intimate microcosm of caste and class, both within and without the black community. The narrator's question, “what could go wrong?”, is both rhetorical and ironic.

The population of Lorain is described as ethnically disparate and fluid. While segregation is still legal, blacks are not allowed in Lake Shore Park, much of the community is integrated. Black and white children attend the same school, frequent the same stores, and even live next door to each other. Yet the “integration” of this Midwestern community does not result in the cultural mixing implied by the metaphor of a “melting pot.” The term “melting pot,” like so many names and labels in Morrison's work, ironically belies the characters' experience. In fact, the community is marked by sharp social stratification, fragmentation, and radical instability for its most marginal members. Claudia MacTeer, whose first person narration frames the novel, uses a different metaphor to describe the social relations of her world; it is a “garment” rather than a “pot” and her position in this garment is the “hem,” the struggling periphery of life. Claudia's perspective, especially her resistance to oppression, is linked to her position in the social fabric, a fabric held together by an externally imposed cultural ideal; an ideal that her narrative deconstructs.

Michel Foucault's analysis of the link between power and knowledge is useful in engaging the analysis of racism that Toni Morrison develops in this novel. In particular his concepts of “genealogy,” “discourse” and “disciplinary power” are relevant to questions of method and theme in The Bluest Eye. “Genealogy” is the term Foucault used to describe his historical method. Unlike traditional approaches, genealogy does not set forth a developmental or progressive view of history, nor does it view events as historically inevitable. Foucault used this method to reveal the relationship between discourses and the disciplinary structures employed by social institutions to control bodies and actions. Paul Bove summarizes Foucault's concept of discourse as “an institutionalized system for the production of knowledge in regulated language” (53). In other words, knowledge and truth are constituted in discourse, and discourse is both constituted by and constituting of institutions. It is the function of genealogy to unmask discourse by showing its association with the subjugating effects of power.

… genealogy lets us confront how power constructs truth-producing systems in which propositions, concepts, and representations generally assign value and meaning to the objects of the various disciplines that treat them.

(Bove 57)

The Bluest Eye is suggestive of a genealogy in several respects. The novel affirms that events can't be traced back to single origins, that history is circuitous, and most importantly that the purpose of historical reflection is not to romanticize the past, or to justify the present, but to unmask structures of power. Like Foucault, the narrator of The Bluest Eye wishes to explore the how of her story, not the why. After the primer introduction, Claudia tells the ending of the story she is about to relate. By making the end known in the beginning, she directs the reader away from the suspense of what happens and away from the representation of events as a linear cause and effect sequence. Claudia concludes her introduction by claiming: “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how” (9). The difficulties of finding a determinate cause are put aside for a more functional description. Morrison's genealogical approach in The Bluest Eye is appropriate to her purpose of unmasking the claims to truth in the discourses of western beauty and bourgeoise morality. The novel is an exploration of how images of physical beauty and moral virtue are disseminated through popular culture, the school, the family and the community, and how they combine to serve a system of racial and sexual oppression.

The Dick and Jane passage, which opens the novel and reappears in parts as chapter headings, represents, in Foucauldian terms, the norm or standard against which all subjects of a discipline are measured. By opening the novel with this passage Morrison links the two most important institutions that discipline young bodies, the family and the school. For young children literacy means acquiring a discourse that normalizes family relationships. Dick and Jane readers represented the American family as a white, middle class, harmonious unit. In the novel the three black families are distributed in a hierarchical relation to the story book family. The idea of the school as a disciplining institution whose effects are extended to the family is carried through in the characterization of Geraldine, whose orderly and beautiful house appears to place her family closest to the story book model. Geraldine, like others of her class, had learned “how to get rid of the funkiness” in “land-grant colleges” and “normal schools” (68). Her domestic skills were acquired in the Home Economics Department where she learned how to make souffles (70-71). Further down the pyramid are the MacTeers, who lack social status, but are successful in their struggle to survive the harsh climate and contingencies of life. The Breedloves in their disorder, violence and suffering are at the bottom and represent the greatest distance from the norm. While the Dick/Jane family may have little if anything to do with the characters' experience, it remains a powerful construct through which they learn to evaluate their lives. In showing literacy to be a force of subjugation, Morrison revises the slave narrative tradition that links literacy to freedom.

In the epigraph to the novel the Dick/Jane passage is repeated first without any punctuation and second without any space between letters. This dismembering of language has its corollary in Claudia's desire to dismember white baby dolls and little white girls in order to discover “the secret of the magic they weaved on others” (22). The secret, however, is not to be found in the language, the object, or even the person that transmits the images of normalization. “Doll's we could destroy, but we could not destroy the honey voices of parents and aunts. …” Maureen Peal, a “high yellow dream child” screams at Claudia: “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly,” and Claudia considers the “wisdom, accuracy, and relevance” of Maureen's words (61). Claudia realizes the “truth” of these words is a constructed truth, but its source of power eludes her.

And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful and not us.


In Foucauldian terms the invisible “thing” that Claudia fears, the “thing” that includes some and excludes others, that ranks and classifies individuals, that creates asymmetries according to a standard of beauty is an entire disciplinary structure, a mode of power. The norms and hierarchies of disciplinary power are maintained by a continual surveillance, where “subjects are presented as objects to the observation of a power that [is] manifested only by its gaze” (Discipline and Punish 188). While power makes its subjects visible, it remains invisible:

Disciplinary power … is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline it is the subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.

(Discipline and Punish 187)

Maureen Peal may not be “the Enemy,” but she manifests the gaze of an invisible power, a power that is implicit in the body of Shirley Temple, of white baby dolls, of Mary Jane Candy wrappers, of Jean Harlow and all the other symbols of western beauty that gaze on the characters of The Bluest Eye. Foucault describes surveillance as “an uninterrupted play of calculated gazes” that functions not only “from top to bottom, but also to a certain extent from bottom to top and laterally” (177). Thus surveillance is carried out by individuals who are themselves under surveillance and inscribed in the same disciplinary system as the objects of their surveillance. Maureen identifies blackness as the mark of visibility which makes Pecola, Claudia and Frieda less than herself. The passage is just one instance in the novel where we see the normalizing gaze coming from within the black community. Maureen Peal provides an example of Foucault's analysis of the individual as produced by power. While Maureen uses her power to exclude and repress, she is ultimately a product of the same power she exercises. Because she identifies with the subject position created by the discourse of western beauty, one can see her as fabricated by power as well as exercising it.

The power of the gaze and the trap of visibility are important motifs throughout The Bluest Eye. The opening section “Autumn” is framed by two scenes where Claudia describes and resists the gaze of her white neighbor, Rosemary Villanucci. At the beginning of “Autumn” Rosemary is sitting in her father's Buick “eating bread and butter.” She tells Claudia and Frieda that they can't come in. Claudia narrates, “We stare at her, wanting her bread, but more than that wanting to poke the arrogance out of her eyes …” (emphasis mine 12). The mixture of anger with jealous desire in Claudia's response suggests the difficulty of resistance; the desire for the other's place acknowledges the other's power. Rosemary's eyes reappear at the end of “Autumn” in the menstruation scene:

… I saw a pair of fascinated eyes in a dough-white face. Rosemary was watching us. I grabbed for her face and succeeded in scratching her nose. She screamed and jumped back.

“Mrs. MacTeer! Mrs. MacTeer!” Rosemary hollered. “Frieda and Claudia are out here playing nasty! …”


Pecola experiences puberty under the surveillance of a white gaze that measures her distance from the norms of physical beauty and virtue and view her as an object of fascination. Under Rosemary's gaze the categories of blackness and sexuality are linked to moral corruption implied by the term, “nasty.” Pecola becomes the object of a prurient interest. Rosemary's gaze constitutes a matrix of racial and sexual oppression that is repeated in the scene where the school boys, encircle Pecola and chant: “Black e mo. Yadaddsleepsnekked” (55). The circle is the prison of a discourse that equates, blackness, ugliness and sin; Pecola, trapped within this circle becomes the visible expression of the boys' “exquisitely learned self-hatred” (55). Pecola “covers her eyes” in a gesture of shame and a characteristic attempt to protect herself from the violating gaze of others by “disappearing.”

Yet, it is important to note that both of these scenes are followed by a temporary reprieve for Pecola. Once Mrs. MacTeer understands the situation, “her eyes were sorry,” and she tells Rosemary to go home, “the show is over” (28). Pecola is taken into the bathroom to be washed; outside the door Claudia and Frieda can hear the restorative music of their mother's laughter. In the second episode Frieda comes to Pecola's rescue by hitting one of the boys over the head and breaking the circle. The progressive victimization of Pecola does not occur without interruption. Both the MacTeer family and the three prostitutes offer Pecola alternate spaces for development, yet, finally, these spaces are not adequate to save Pecola from madness. The pervasive tone of loss in the novel stems not from the lack of resistance, but from its failure to disrupt the system of power that can finally bend even the desire for love and the impulse for freedom to its own ends.

There is an evident similarity between Pecola's initiation into womanhood and her father, Cholly's initiation into manhood. At age fourteen Cholly's first sexual experience in a dark pine forest is interrupted by two white men who shine bright lights on the couple and force Cholly to perform at gun point: “Get on wid it, nigger … an make it good” (117). Under the gaze Cholly can only “simulate what had gone on before” (117). Powerless to resist the hunters and overcome by hatred and shame, Cholly transfers these emotions to the girl beneath him. The significance of a private sexual act is literally constructed under a public gaze. For both Pecola and her father the trap of visibility functions at the site of sexually formative experience; both are seen by white eyes who construct black bodies as objects of vicarious pleasure.

Cholly Breedlove's love for Pauline, however, is not determined by his adolescent humiliation. Initially, Cholly and Pauline are “young, loving and full of energy” (92). Their brief romance is another space in the novel where the gaze does not operate. While Morrison certainly does not idealize these characters' southern beginnings, it is not until they come to Lorain, in search of work and a better standard of living, that their personalities and their marriage disintegrate. The pressures they face are described in cultural and commercial terms. Pauline's isolation increases through the loss of community.

I missed my people. I weren't used to so much white folks. The ones I seed around before was something hateful, but they didn't come around too much. I mean, we didn't have too much truck with them. Just now and then in the fields, or at the commissary. But they want all over us. Up north they was everywhere—next door, downstairs, all over the streets—and colored folks few and far between. Northern colored folk was different too. Dicty-like. No better than whites for meanness. They could make you feel just as no-count, 'cept I didn't expect it from them. That was the lonesomest time of my life.


Pauline begins to straighten her hair, buy new clothes and wear make-up, hoping that other women will “cast favorable glances her way” (94). The couple begin, what is to become, a constant quarrel over money, so in order to pay for the expense of fashioning herself appropriately, Pauline turns her love for domestic labor into a cash benefit. She goes to work in white women's homes, neglecting her own. After their children are born, the Breedloves move into a converted store where the furnishings are “conceived, manufactured, shipped and sold in various states of thoughtlessness, greed and indifference” (31). The store/home symbolizes a conflation of commercial and domestic space revealing the extent to which the Breedlove's private lives have been thoroughly interpenetrated by market values. The mass-marketed furniture symbolizes the Breedlove's ethical and spiritual decline. The “ugly” Breedloves are on display in their store; created by the subjugating gaze of others, they are ironic products of their desire to assimilate into an alien community. In the south Cholly experiences the gaze of the white hunter as an abrupt and cruel rupture; in the north the gaze is diffuse, omnipresent and commercial.

While The Bluest Eye is about the power of gazes to subjugate, it is also about the necessity of re-visioning. Nowhere is this more clear than the climatic scene where Cholly rapes Pecola. The reader, who has been led to condemn the classifying and voyeuristic gazes of Maureen Peal, Rosemary Villanucci, Geraldine and the rest, is challenged to view Cholly's abhorrent act as a result of complex, tangled motivations, and to empathize with the father as well as the daughter. In an interview with Claudia Tate, Toni Morrison stated that she prepared her readers for this scene in order to get them to really look at it.

I tell you at the beginning of The Bluest Eye, on the very first page what happened, but now I want you to go with me and look at this, so when you get to the scene where the father rapes the daughter, which is as awful a thing, I suppose, as can be imagined, by the time you get there, it's almost irrelevant because I want you to look at him and see his love for his daughter and his powerlessness to help her pain. By that time his embrace, the rape, is all the gift he has left.


In the very long paragraph that leads up to the rape Cholly is watching Pecola as she washes dishes with her back to him. This scene presents a sharp contrast to the previous and subsequent sightings of Pecola. When the store owner, Mr. Yacobowski's eyes encounter Pecola, there is a “vacuum … a total absence of human recognition” (42). When Geraldine looks at Pecola she sees an intruder, “a nasty little black bitch” who brings disorder to her home (75). In contrast to these other cursory and dismissive gazes, Cholly's gaze lingers; it discovers Pecola's sorrowful existence, her “whipped,” unhappy look. Then his gaze turns back against itself forcing Cholly to look inward to experience his own failure. Feeling “revulsion, guilt, pity, then love” (127) as he looks at his daughter, Cholly experiences the anger and guilt of a father who has nothing to give a child. Pecola never turns around, but Cholly precedes to imagine his daughter's gaze upon him: “If he looked into her face, he would see those haunted, loving eyes. The hauntedness would irritate him—the love would move him to fury. How dare she love him? Hadn't she any sense at all?” (127) What finally triggers the rape, is Pecola's small gesture with her foot that reminds Cholly of his original love for Pauline and fills him with “softness … a tenderness, a protectiveness” (128). Because Pecola never turns around to meet her father's gaze, the reader must view the scene through the rapist's eyes alone and acknowledge that an act of destruction originated in an impulse of love. By constructing Cholly's motivations in this way, Morrison ironically reflects on Pecola's desire to be loved. Love is de-romanticized. Love can not transcend the disciplinary structures that subjugate bodies.

By constructing Cholly's motives as complex and by comparing his life to that of a blues musician, the novel also reflects on the link between discourse and power. Foucault discusses how the human sciences (sociology, psychology, etc.) use language to extend disciplinary methods. In feudal society the chronicle of a person's life “formed part of the rituals of his power” (Discipline and Punish 191). But in modern society individual lives are frequently described for the purpose of increasing social control and domination. Surveillance in modern disciplinary systems occurs in part through the documentation of people's lives in language (especially the lives of children, the sick, and criminals).

This turning of real lives into writing is no longer a procedure of heroization; it functions as a procedure of objectification and subjection.

(Discipline and Punish 192)

To the extent that characters in many realistic and, especially, naturalistic novels often represent psychological or sociological types, such fiction is an adjacent literary discourse to the discourses of the human sciences. Morrison's departure from realistic technique and style, especially her mode of characterization, is instrumental to her purpose of exposing the way racism is perpetuated through a subjugating discourse.

Compare, for example, the difference between Morrison's description of Cholly and Richard Wright's description of Bigger Thomas. In the final section of Native Son the reader views Bigger through Max's lengthy Marxist analysis that explains Bigger's actions as a direct consequence of social forces over which he had no control. Bigger is analyzed as a case of psychopathology created by racism. Max's words create a mirror by which Bigger comes to know himself. While Wright, through Max, makes Bigger very describable in language, Morrison pointedly tells her readers that Cholly can not be described in language: “The pieces of Cholly's life could become coherent only in the head of a musician” (125). Words, finally, can not fully express the paradoxes of Cholly's life, while music, particularly the blues, is a medium that might give form to the combination of joy and pain, love and hate that make up Cholly's character and experience. This distruct of language is consistent with a Foucauldian analysis of discourse. Morrison creates characters that resist psychological or sociological labels by employing a lyrical, non-realistic style that challenges her readers to view not only events and characters, but cultural values in unexpected ways.

By describing Cholly as a “free” man,” the narrator de-romanticizes freedom in the same way she has de-romanticized love. Cholly is free simply because he is not bound to the moral codes of his community. He is neither the heroic individual who exposes social injustice by placing himself in opposition to society, nor is he the criminal whose actions threaten social destruction. In other words, Morrison breaks apart the opposition between society and freedom, the formula of so many narratives of emancipation. The discourse of “freedom” like that of “love” can not be detached from the lives of disciplined bodies. Cholly's “freedom” as well as the society's “morality” are both functions of social control, of the power that subjugates bodies. Cholly's status as outsider, his violation of the moral code, make him a delinquent in the eyes of the community. Foucault describes the production of delinquency and the moralization of the lower classes as the primary methods of de-politicizing crime, keeping the lower class divided among themselves and thus subjugated to power (Discipline and Punish 257-292). The ritualized violence of Pauline and Cholly's marriage suggest that “morality” and “freedom” are placed in opposition in a discourse that serves existing power relations. Pecola, rejected by her mother and raped by her father, is the victim of this opposition.

As just suggested, Pauline's position in the disciplinary structure is drawn in counterpoint to Cholly's. Her character clearly illustrates how the discourses of beauty and virtue create “intelligible” and “useful” bodies. Drawing from Foucault, Susan Bordo defines the “intelligible body” as our cultural and aesthetic conceptions of the body, and the “useful body” as the practice that is used to achieve these norms (25-26). Bordo stresses the importance of visual images in the creating of the intelligible feminine body: “With the advent of movies and television, the rules for femininity have come to be culturally transmitted more and more through the deployment of standardized visual images.” As a result femininity has become a matter of constructing an “appropriate surface presentation of the self” (Bordo 17). In The Bluest Eye Pauline receives her “education in the movies,” where she learns “to equate physical beauty with virtue,” and to assign every face she looks at a “category in the scale of absolute beauty” (97). Pauline, who from childhood liked to “arrange things” and “line things up in rows” (88), is one of Morrison's artists without an art form: “She missed—without knowing what she missed—paints and crayons” (89). Her education in the movies provides her with a culturally acceptable system of creativity. Pauline does her hair up like Jean Harlow and tries to, in Bordo's words, construct the “appropriate surface presentation of the self.”

She fails. After losing a front tooth, Pauline “settled down to just being ugly” (98). But Pauline is characterized by her ability to make use of her “defects.” She learns to wear her ugliness “as an actor does a prop: for the articulation of character, for support of a role she frequently imagined was hers—martyrdom” (34-5). If she can't be beautiful, she will be virtuous. “She came into her own with the women who despised her, by being more moral than they” (100). Pauline is the consummate performer always able to find a role in the scheme of things, a place within the disciplinary system. As Foucault would say, she “assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; [she] makes them play spontaneously upon [herself]; [she] inscribes in [herself] the power relation in which [she] simultaneously plays both roles; she becomes the principle of [her] own subjection” (Discipline and Punish 202-203). Pauline's position as the “ideal servant” in the white family represents her availability as an agent of and for power. “Power, praise and luxury were hers in this household. They even gave her what she had never had—a nickname—Polly” (101). As Pauline rises in the esteem of the white family she works for, her own family disintegrates. Her daughter, Pecola is the victim of the Manichean dialectic of Pauline's double life. That Pecola comes to represent the blackness her mother detests is implied in one of the novel's most painful scenes where Pecola spills the pie of “blackish blueberries” (86) in the kitchen of the white family.

Pecola, not surprisingly, is named by her mother for a character in a movie, although she seems to be unaware of the origin of her name until Maureen Peal points it out. However, the dark Pecola does not resemble the “pretty … mulatto” girl in An Imitation of Life (57), and Mrs. Breedlove finds her daughter ugly from day one. Given a name which only serves to mark her distance from the norm of beauty, it is hardly surprising that Pecola blames her miserable home and school life on her own “ugliness.” Pecola finds that teachers and other adults avoid looking at her. Underlying the absence or vacancy on their gaze is “distaste,” a distaste she associates with her blackness, a distaste “lurking in the eyes of all white people” (42).

Pecola tries to escape the brutality of her life by making her body disappear. During her parents' fights she closes her eyes (as she did when surrounded by the school boys) and succeeds in making all her body parts fade away, except for her eyes. She comes to believe that the secret of “the ugliness that [makes] her ignored or despised” is in the eyes (39). Thus, Pecola prays to God for a miracle, for blue eyes:

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different that is to say beautiful, she herself would be different.


Pecola's desire for blue eyes is doubly significant. It not only represents her wish to be loved by looking like the little white girls so prized in her culture, it also represents a tacit knowledge of how power works. Eyes are the organ of sight and Pecola, named, ironically, after an image on the silver screen, is the victim of a power that values and classifies bodies according to norms established and disseminated by visual images. It seems appropriate, therefore, that the “eye” comes to represent “I.” Pecola believes that if she can change her eyes, she can change herself, or more importantly the way others perceive her with their eyes. Pecola's desire then reveals not only her culture's racism, it reveals her culture's method of perpetuating racism.

Soaphead Church, a West Indian Anglophile, a misanthrope revolted by the human body, and a man who likes to play God, transforms Pecola's desire into a pathological “reality.” At the end of the novel Pecola's isolation from the community is complete. She lives in a fantasy world where she has blue eyes and spends her days in silent conversation with an imaginary “friend.” Susan Bordo argues that “pathology as embodied protest” is a motif in feminist literature. Pecola's desire for blue eyes can be viewed as this type of “unconscious, inchoate, and counterproductive” protest. Like the anorexics that Bordo describes, Pecola has pursued the ideals of her culture “to the point where their destructive potential is revealed for all to see” (Bordo 20-21). Pecola's fate is the logical extreme of the culture's values inscribed on the black body. Like the anorexics, Pecola's pursuit of her culture's image of the body beautiful is a way to seek power, but her experience of power is a self-destructive, dangerous illusion. Soaphead Church believes that his gift to Pecola will allow her to “live happily ever after” (143). The reader sees otherwise in the concluding section where Pecola in conversation with her “friend” agonizes over whether or not her eyes are blue enough. The normalizing gaze turned inward is relentless and Pecola has become thoroughly imprisoned by it.

Even Claudia, who wants Pecola's baby to live, who scratches Rosemary's eyes, and who disassembles white baby dolls, is not immune from worshipping whiteness. The retrospective point of view allows Claudia to describe both her resistance and the way in which it is folded back and made available for discipline. The attraction of Shirley Temple for both Frieda and Pecola eludes Claudia because she is younger than they. Claudia states that she “had not yet arrived at the turning point in the development of [her] psyche which would allow [her] to love [Shirley Temple]” (19). The turning point comes when Claudia experiences shame over her own violence directed at little white girls.

When I learned how repulsive this disinterested violence was, that it was repulsive because it was disinterested, my shame floundered about for refuge. The best hiding place was love. Thus the conversion from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred, to fraudulent love. It was a small step to Shirley Temple. I learned much later to worship her, just as I learned that the change was adjustment without improvement.


“Maturity” requires that Claudia adopt a discourse of virtue. Even though Mrs. Breedlove, Pecola and Claudia respond to power differently, at some point each is motivated by shame—shame over a lost tooth, shame over “blackness,” shame over one's own violent response to the things and people that embody the norm. Shame inscribes each character in a discourse of virtue that reinforces cultural norms. Thus, Morrison clearly shows how closely associated the discourses of beauty and virtue really are and how they act together to reinforce one another.

The Bluest Eye exposes a power that classifies and subjugates bodies, that produces different subjectivities within its discourse, and that is disseminated by a normalizing gaze which turns its subjects into agents of power. In short, there is a close resemblance between Foucault's understanding of the workings of power in modern society and Morrison's understanding of racism. While both writers emphasize the difficulties involved in resisting power, they seem to suggest that an analysis of how power works is the first step toward change. In The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 Foucault writes:

We must make allowance for the complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it.


Foucault goes on to describe how the discourses of the human sciences which increased social control over sexuality, also made possible the emergence of a “reverse discourse.” He describes, specifically, how homosexuality “began to speak in its own behalf” by using the same vocabulary and categories that had condemned it to demand its legitimacy (101).

Similarly, the black empowerment movement reversed the discourse of white supremacy: “Black Power” and “Black is Beautiful” became nationally heard slogans in the late sixties. Morrison stated that she wrote The Bluest Eye between 1965 and 1969 “during great social upheaval in the life of black people.” Just as Claudia is telling a long kept secret, Morrison saw her novel as a “public exposure of a private confidence.” (“Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” 20). The Bluest Eye exposes a community enthralled by the value of whiteness, and the narrator's angry response. As such it not only critiques the past, but provides a genealogy for the reverse discourse on race that emerged in the sixties. Claudia's childhood resistance to a culture enamored by western models of beauty is more visceral than articulate, but it marks an opening for change. The existence of a reverse discourse in the culture that produced the novel informs the more sophisticated narrative voice that modulates Claudia's childhood memories. By setting the novel in Lorain, Ohio, a locale where the schools and some neighborhoods are racially mixed, and by writing the novel at a time after the legal battle against segregation had been won, Toni Morrison challenges her readers to reconsider the nature of racism. The traditional “protest novel” focuses on the injustice of race-based exclusion that results from legal or defacto segregation. Morrison has revised this text, by exploring racism less as a problem of exclusion, than as a problem of pressure to assimilate to destructive cultural values.

Works Cited

Bordo, Susan R. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity: A Feminist Appropriation of Foucault.” Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing. Ed. Alison M. Jagger and Susan R. Bordo. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1989. 13-33.

Bove, Paul A. “Discourse.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. 50-65.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

———. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. Pantheon Books: New York, 1978.

———. “Nietzche, Genealogy, History.” Language Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Trans. Bouchard and Simon. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977. 137-164.

———. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Trans. Gordon, Marshall, Mepham, and Soper. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Washington Square Press, 1970.

———. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature” Michigan Quarterly 28 (1988): 1-34.

Tate, Claudia. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.

Allen Alexander (essay date summer 1998)

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SOURCE: Alexander, Allen. “The Fourth Face: The Image of God in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.African American Review 32, no. 2 (summer 1998): 293-303.

[In the following essay, Alexander explores Morrison's representation and allusions to a deity in The Bluest Eye, contrasting Western notions of the divine with African perceptions of the same, which traditionally associate the deity with evil in this world.]

Religious references, both from Western and African sources, abound in Toni Morrison's fiction, but nowhere are they more intriguing or perplexing than in The Bluest Eye. And of the many fascinating religious references in this novel, the most complex—and perhaps, therefore, the richest—are her representations of and allusions to God. In Morrison's fictional world, God's characteristics are not limited to those represented by the traditional Western notion of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Instead, God possesses a fourth face, one that is an explanation for all those things—the existence of evil, the suffering of the innocent and just—that seem so inexplicable in the face of a religious tradition that preaches the omnipotence of a benevolent God.

Is Morrison's introduction of this fourth face into her fiction, then, a means of depicting evil, a redesigned Satan, if you will? It is true that in Morrison's fiction the fourth face at times is portrayed as a reservoir of evil—for example, when the people of the Bottom in Sula believe “that the fourth explained Sula” (118), who for them is a manifestation of evil—but the fourth face is much more than a rationalization for all that ails humanity. When Morrison's references to God are taken in their totality, it becomes quite clear that her depiction of the deity is an attempt to humanize God, to demonstrate how God for her characters is not the characteristically ethereal God of traditional Western religion but a God who, while retaining certain Western characteristics, has much in common with the deities of traditional African religion and legend.1

Though Morrison's model of God owes much to African tradition, a major part of her portrait is dedicated to exposing how traditional Western notions about God affect her characters. If The Bluest Eye can in any way be characterized as an initiation story, then a major portion of a character's initiation involves discovering the inadequacy of Western theological models for those who have been marginalized by the dominant white culture. But many of Morrison's characters, unlike Richard Wright in Black Boy and James Baldwin's John Grimes in Go Tell It On the Mountain, fail to follow Baldwin's admonition in The Fire Next Time to recognize the religion of the white majority for what it is and to “divorce [themselves] from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church” (67). In Morrison's oeuvre, the characters who blatantly attack the norms of white society—for example, Guitar Bains in Song of Solomon—often seem ridiculously ignorant of their own heritage (Guitar does not know the reasoning behind Malcolm X's choice of last name [160]), and consequently their philosophy retains some of white culture's worst characteristics—witness the violence and genocidal hatred of the Seven Days. Sula is a character who certainly rejects the norms of society, but it is not clear exactly which society—white or black, or both—she is rejecting. And then in The Bluest Eye there is the sad case of Pecola Breedlove, who falls prey to the false notions of white superiority espoused not only by the white community but also by her mother and Soaphead Church.

Though the traditional theological models of white society may adversely affect others of Morrison's characters, Pecola is by far the one character whose life seems most vulnerable to the whims of those who have bought into the Western tradition. At every turn Pecola is confronted with attitudes and images based on the myth of white superiority that reinforce her tendency toward self-hatred. When Pecola encounters Mr. Yacobowski, a white man whose religious sensibility, “honed on the doe-eyed Virgin Mary,” is alien to the world she inhabits, she is struck by “the total absence of human recognition” on his face (42). But such blatant expressions of racial inequality are not limited to the white characters, who are noticeably few and far between. Geraldine, a black woman who is said to have suppressed her racial identity by getting rid of “the dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions” in order to appease the white man's “blunted soul” (68), treats Pecola as not only a nuisance or blight, as does Mr. Yacobowski, but as a threat to the “sanitized”—i.e., anti-black—environment that she has constructed around her son. As Pecola is thrown out of Geraldine's house, she sees a portrait of an Anglicized Jesus “looking down at her with sad and unsurprised eyes” (76), an image of a God who seems either incapable of helping her or complicit in her suffering.

With this portrait of Jesus, Morrison introduces us to one of the shortcomings of the Western model of God, namely the problem of how a supposedly omnipotent and loving God can allow the existence of evil and suffering. Morrison reintroduces this model of an inadequate God, of a deity incapable of alleviating or unwilling to rectify the injustices of human society, as she recounts Cholly Breedlove's childhood. At a church picnic, Cholly watches the father of a family raise a watermelon over his head to smash it on the ground and is impressed with the man's god-like stance, which he sees as the opposite of the unimpressive white image of God: “a nice old white man, with long white hair, flowing white beard, and little blue eyes that looked sad when people died and mean when they were bad” (106).

Although this white image of God is woefully inadequate for Cholly, who, at least during this period of his life, embraces his African heritage, it is an image to which Pauline Breedlove clings, even at the expense of her daughter's psychic well-being. Pauline, though she has not enjoyed the quasi-middle-class lifestyle that Geraldine believes is the result of having suppressed her racial identity, still looks to white society—through films produced for and religion constructed around the tastes of the white majority—to provide the guidelines for her manner of living. Her acceptance of her poverty and suffering, reflected in her belief that “‘it don't make no difference about this old earth’ “because” ‘there is sure to be a glory’” (104), echoes the teachings of slave masters, who manipulated biblical passages to stifle dissatisfaction among those they oppressed. Pauline has bought into the Western notion of linear history, an outlook that emphasizes the future and belittles the past.2

Pauline has also adopted the Western theological tradition of either—or thinking, of believing that the differences between good and evil, righteous and unrighteous, believer and nonbeliever, are clearly demarcated. This ethical orientation is reflected in her belief that she is “an upright and Christian woman, burdened with a no-count man, whom God wanted her to punish” (37),3 and she rationalizes that her antipathy toward Cholly is sanctified by her God, for “Christ the Judge” demands that she make her husband pay for his transgression. Yet Pauline cannot think of “Christ the Judge” and “Christ the Redeemer” simultaneously because such a linkage does not fit the severely drawn categories of good and evil that she has inherited from the dominant white culture. To her way of thinking, “Cholly was beyond redemption” (37). Pauline's religion, built upon such a rigid and unforgiving foundation, cannot tolerate the notion that a man like Cholly could be a blend of both good and bad, that he, quite simply, could be human. Consequently, she never recognizes God's fourth face. She remains as detached from this concept as she does from her family and heritage. Pauline's belief system, whose either—or design requires its adherents to judge others, often by impossible standards, leads her to leave behind those persons, including her family members, whom she feels fail to measure up to her standards. She thus becomes an extreme individualist, a person cut loose from her cultural moorings.4

Though Pauline is not the only African American character in Morrison's fiction to try to mold herself in an image that she thinks will be more acceptable to white society (Jadine from Tar Baby and Ruth Foster from Song of Solomon are two obvious examples, as are Soaphead Church and Pecola in The Bluest Eye and Helene Wright in Sula), her name, which may be a direct reference to Pauline theology, and her central role in the psychological disintegration of Pecola make her perhaps Morrison's most identifiable example of this type. And one chief reason that she so aptly fills this role is her vision of God, which is so antithetical to the fourth-face image that is more central to her heritage. Pauline's adoption of the white society's notion of an ethereal God who judges humans from an alien perspective contrasts with a strain in African American thought that has sought to put a human face on God. As Major J. Jones points out in his study The Color of God, this African-influenced theological outlook envisions God as “neither threat nor rival” to humans. Instead, “God is … the very basis or ground of the creature's fullest possible self-realization. … Black religious experience … is about being and becoming more human under God” (22).

Since this outlook suggests that one's humanity is inextricably linked to God, it follows that such an orientation would lead one to believe that perhaps the connection runs both ways, that God cannot be fully God, or at least a God to humanity, without also being in some sense human. This concept is not completely alien to Western theology, for the Christian faith itself depends on the notion of God becoming a man in the form of Jesus, but, as Jones concludes, and as Morrison suggests in her fiction, the West has lost its connection—through various factors, including, no doubt, Pauline influences on Christian theology—to this fundamental idea of a link between God and humanity. Consequently, in white society God has been molded into an otherworldly presence who, despite Christ's role as redeemer of fallen humanity, regards human weakness, in the form of sin, as something disconnected from the divine.

Within the African tradition we see a substantially different representation of God. In African folklore God is often depicted as having very human-like qualities, not only regarding his appearance but also his personality and abilities. Whereas the Western tradition pictures God as a stoical figure who demands perfection from his creation because of his own perfection, African storytellers have given God a human face, portraying him as a lovable character with a sense of humor and a streak of fallibility. Julius Lester in his renditions of traditional African folk tales characterizes God as “an amateur” (13) who is trying his best “to make the world look a little prettier” (3) but who doesn't “know what he's doing half the time” (23). This folksy God, a God who is seen not only as the creator but also as the ancestor of humanity and who consequently possesses many of the characteristics of his imperfect creation (Sawyerr 95), is a far cry from the West's omnipotent, infallible God who despises human frailty.

There is little doubt, given Morrison's characterization of Pauline, that the author sees the values of white religion as inappropriate and ultimately self-defeating guides for her African American characters. Though she does not present us with a character in The Bluest Eye who, like Baldwin's John Grimes, is suspicious of the trappings of white religion, including those characteristics that have been absorbed by African American Christianity, she does portray characters who embrace these trappings, such as Pauline and Geraldine, as less than admirable figures. In contrast to John Grimes, who senses that his parents' church has lost something of value because it has moved too far away from its African roots, Pauline chooses her church precisely because it is a place “where shouting [i]s frowned upon” (100), a sanctuary from the passion that she so despises. But ultimately both John and Pauline suffer from their association with these churches. John comes to regard the church as a source of darkness and oppression and thinks of God as a “monstrous heart” (217) that consumes his joy and stunts his passion for life. Pauline divorces herself from her African American heritage and in the process loses the closest manifestation of that tradition: her family. Obviously neither Baldwin nor Morrison sees a movement from an African to a Western sensibility as an appropriate step for a productive and authentic life.

The question, then, arises: How does Morrison demonstrate the qualities of an African-inspired vision of God in her fiction? Of course, no serious reader of Morrison's work would begin an analysis with the assumption that there is a simple, clear-cut answer to any question regarding her richly complex work, and her portrayal of an African religious sensibility offers no exception. Her selection of the fourth face of God image underscores her commitment to demonstrating that this sensibility is inherently attuned to the notion that God is much larger than the image to which the divine has been confined by Western theology. And a significant part of that largeness is built on the belief that God is in some way responsible either as an active participant or a willing spectator—in the tragedies that befall human beings.

Such an idea is certainly not foreign to the Western theological tradition, which is constructed on the foundation of a Judaic faith that sees God as many things, from protector to the engine behind catastrophe. But in the Judaic tradition, there is typically a reason behind God's decision to punish humans—namely, their defiance of divine laws. In contrast to this belief that tragedy can ultimately be explained by human transgression, traditional African religions tend to understand tragedy as something that happens regardless of what humans have or have not done.

This association of God with the existence of evil is a common element among several of the many variations of traditional African religions.5 E. Thomas Lawson notes that within the Zulu tradition evil is not seen as “an independent, autonomous power” but as a force that draws its strength from three positive powers: the God of the Sky, the ancestors, and medicine (27). K. A. Busia finds a similar belief among the Ashanti, for whom nature is populated by the “malignant spirits of fairies and forest monsters” who “are subservient to the Supreme Being, from whom ultimately they all derive their power” (qtd. in Sawyerr 100).

Within the belief systems of many African peoples God's kinship to evil far surpasses that of a source of origin. Evil not only derives its power from God but is allowed to flourish by God. Harry Sawyerr, who in the preface to his study God: Ancestor or Creator? stresses the difficulty of studying the African concept of God because of the vastness of the continent and the diversity of its population, nevertheless feels comfortable asserting that within African belief systems “the general well-being of man, as well as his distress, are freely attributed to God” (ix). He supports this contention with evidence from his study of the Yoruba, for whom “evil forces seem to be more subject to the ultimate control of God. They can and often do destroy human life, but not without the permission of God” (49). This notion that evil exists because God allows it to was noted over two hundred years ago by Olaudah Equiano. In his autobiography, published in 1789, Equiano recalls traditions he learned as a child in Africa, and he writes that his people believed that God “governs events, especially our deaths or captivity” (27). This same idea can be found in the work of Zora Neale Hurston, who introduced into her fiction characters like Janie and Tea Cake of Their Eyes Were Watching God who combine an African sensibility with a belief that “all gods dispense suffering without reason” (138). Janie and Tea Cake, caught in the destructive path of a hurricane, wonder if God “meant to measure their puny might against His” (151). And later as she watches Tea Cake suffer from a rabid dog's bite, Janie concludes that “God would do less than He had in His heart” (169).

However, there is also a strain of African belief that sees God not as the source or master of evil but as a participant in the universe's struggle against malignant forces. According to J. B. Danquah, the Akan—a cultural group which includes the Ashanti—believe that “Nana, the principle that makes for good, is himself or itself participator in the life of the whole, and is not only head” (88). Since God (Nana) is thus viewed by the Akan as a part of creation rather than as a being apart from it, they see “physical pain and evil … as natural forces which the Nana, in common with others of the group, has to master, dominate and sublimate” (88-89). Within this framework of belief, God and humans are part of the same community, working together, like the people of the Bottom in Sula, against evil, not in a futile effort to eliminate it but in order to outlast it (118).

African perspectives on the existence of evil are multiple and varied, but one idea that seems to link them is that an explanation for the presence of evil is unnecessary. Evil is a real presence in the lives of African peoples, yet it is precisely because of the weight of evil on them that they steer away from metaphysical speculations about it. As James Cone, writing from an African American Christian perspective, contends, “… black reflections about suffering have not been removed from life but involved in life, that is, the struggle to affirm humanity despite the dehumanizing conditions of slavery and oppression” (183).

One African folk tale that illustrates this African belief that evil is not a riddle to be solved but a reality with which one must deal is the story of a woman who, after her family has died, goes in search of God in order to find an explanation for the tragedy that has beset her. As she searches the world for God, she encounters people who question her motives, for they contend that “‘Shikakunamo [the Besetting One] sits on the back of everyone of us and we cannot shake him off!’ “She ultimately fails in her quest,” ‘and from that day to this, say the Africans, no man or woman has solved the riddle of this painful earth’” (McVeigh 48-49).

Morrison deftly works a similar sense of tragedy into The Bluest Eye, though one could well argue that in her fiction it is based as much on the inadequacy of the Western model of God as on African traditions. Though there is no shortage of suffering characters in the novel, the Breedloves, like the woman troubled by Shikakunamo, or like Job in the Old Testament, seem uniquely chosen to wear the mantle of divine retribution: “It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear. …” The fact that they see support for the cloak “leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance” is an indication of just how much what white society values has distorted their own self-image, so much so that each accepts the ugliness “without question” (34). But even though the Breedloves' pitiful circumstances seem to be largely attributable to human action, both in the form of a racist society and their own personal shortcomings, the odds are so great against them that it appears that the hands of “some mysterious all-knowing master” are holding them back, or perhaps choking the life out of them in the same way that those hands strangle the life from “a tuft of grass [that] had forced its way up through a crack in the sidewalk, only to meet a raw October wind” (48). In the world of the Breedloves, it seems that much more than human forces are working against them, that, in fact, “the earth itself might have been unyielding” to their survival (9).

If, then, God is, in Morrison's cosmology, the agent behind much human suffering, do her characters' attitudes suggest that they respond to their plight in a way reflective of the African sensibility toward tragedy reflected in the tale of the woman seeking Shikakunamo? This is not the case with Pauline and Pecola, both of whom approach their pain in ways more in line with the values of white culture. Pauline molds her lifestyle to correspond to what the dominant culture. Pauline molds her lifestyle to correspond to what the dominant culture applauds. And Pecola withdraws into herself, “peeping out from behind the shroud very seldom, and then only to yearn for the return of her mask” (35), which she puts aside only after believing she has acquired a feature—blue eyes—that she identifies with the happiness that eludes her. Pauline and Pecola, in effect, attempt to deal with their circumstances by altering their sense of reality, not by attempting to maintain their authenticity as meaningful members of a larger community. They seem willing to exchange their personhood, and consequently their heritage, for models of themselves that only strengthen in their minds the cultural norms that make them hate their true selves.

In contrast to Pauline and Pecola, Cholly, though he is in many ways as tragic a figure as they are, seems to see the life-affirming values of his heritage, an insight that he discovers most memorably while thinking about the image of God while watching the man smash the watermelon at the church picnic:

It must be the devil who looks like that—holding the world in his hands, ready to dash it to the ground and spill the red guts so niggers could eat the sweet, warm insides. If the devil did look like that, Cholly preferred him. He never felt anything thinking about God, but just the idea of the devil excited him. And now the strong, black devil was blotting out the sun and getting ready to split open the world.


The image that Cholly relishes is one that embraces the fourth face, one that portrays God as much more than the pallid, antiseptic God envisioned by white society. Cholly's God is dynamic, complex, unpredictable, exciting, dangerous.6

The notion that God can be dangerous, something other than the benevolent grandfather figure that has been pre-eminent in the Western mind, might be unsettling, but Cholly appears to welcome the idea, perhaps because such an image seems much more realistic in a world that does not give the impression of being controlled by an omnipotent and loving deity. He sees this representation of God reaffirmed at his Aunt Jimmy's funeral, where “there was grief over the waste of life, the stunned wonder at the ways of God, and the restoration of order in nature at the graveyard” (113). Here, the concept of evil, of pain and suffering and those things that appear to contradict that which affirms goodness and life, is not an alien thought, nor is it something that overwhelms the funeralgoers and forces them into a state of nihilistic apathy.7 In contrast to the Western approach to the existence of evil, which has been marked by attempts to sequester or destroy it, these people, drawing from their African Americans in general, “that evil has a natural place in the universe” and consequently “they are not surprised at its existence or horrified or outraged” (Parker 253).

Is there, then, no limit to the amount of evil one can tolerate without lashing out? Is not what happens to Pecola, particularly at the hands of her father and Soaphead Church, so horrific and outrageous that some response against it is necessary? For Pecola, unfortunately, there is no one to respond but herself, and her lack of response—what some might call her acceptance of her situation—cannot be attributed to the African sensibility of which Morrison has spoken. Pecola has become so disconnected from her heritage that her movement toward insanity is instead an indictment of the white cultural framework that has become her guidepost for living.

But Morrison does not intend for us to conclude that the African sensibility toward tragedy is one of complacent and powerless acceptance. To the contrary, she suggests that the correct stance for one to take with regard to tragedy is not passively to give in to its inevitability but, like the people of the Bottom in Sula, to be actively engaged with it so that it can be “dealt with, survived, outwitted, triumphed over” (118). Yet Pecola is ill-equipped to outwit and triumph over her tragic situation. She lacks the cultural rootedness or the intestinal fortitude to outlast the forces that work to annihilate her personhood. And in the end she accepts as her destiny the destruction of her true being in favor of an insanity-induced self-image that validates in her mind the inherent inferiority of her heritage.

The instrument that finally pushes Pecola over the edge is Soaphead Church, a character who not only rejects his African heritage but who also relinquishes his identity as a human being in favor of the self-generated delusion that he is in some sense a god. He is a hater of humanity, a self-professed misanthrope whose “disdain for people” ironically “led him into a profession designed to serve them,” that of a “Reader, Adviser, and Interpreter of Dreams” (130). However, he “serves” others not out of a spirit of generosity but because of a selfish desire to assert his power over the innocent and weak. Into the lair of this preyer on humanity walks Pecola, who stands little chance of withstanding Soaphead. Instead of sexually molesting her, as he has been fond of doing to other girls, Soaphead assaults her psyche, taking from her any knowledge of her true identity.

But is Soaphead totally to blame for Pecola's demise? From his seemingly peculiar perspective he is not, but is his view of the world really all that unique? It would be easy to conclude, given Morrison's consistently negative appraisal of Western theological models, that Soaphead, who is easily Morrison's most detestable character in a novel that is replete with them, represents the worst side of white religion. Such a conclusion makes even more sense when one considers how Soaphead, following the path the West has laid down for God, severs himself from humanity. In this sense he could be seen as an allegorical figure. But Morrison is much too complex a writer to introduce such an obviously allegorical character into her work, and there is evidence in the text that suggests that Soaphead, far from being solely a human likeness of the white God, actually embraces a theological perspective that is not far removed from that of the fourth-face notion of African tradition. Like the people of the Bottom, he believes that, “since decay, vice, filth, and disorder were pervasive, they must be in the Nature of Things,” that “evil exist[s] because God had created it.” But he also departs from the African perspective, rejecting the notion that evil is part of God's nature and instead believing that the deity “made a sloven and unforgivable error in judgment: designing an imperfect universe” (136). His adoption of this idea suggests that he still embraces the Western notion of dualism, the belief that good and evil exist as separate forces. His explanation for the existence of evil, then, is not far removed from that of Western theologians who have struggled with the apparently contradictory notion that evil exists in spite of the presence of an omnipotent and benevolent God. Yet Morrison, ever conscious of complicating Soaphead's character, once again undercuts any idea that we might have regarding his one-to-one connection to any theological tradition, revealing that he sees God as something less than omnipotent, as a power so weak and incompetent that “Soaphead suspected that he himself could have done better” (136).

In the final analysis Soaphead's theology is schizophrenic, leaping back and forth between Western and African traditions, between different notions of the physical and metaphysical. His perspective is thus an anticipation of what will happen to Pecola, whose idea of self will teeter on the edge between reality and a reality-induced fantasy, a delusion that may have been locked into place by Soaphead but one for which the community surrounding her—her family and friends and the messages thrust at her by white society—is also culpable. Pecola becomes the ultimate tragic figure, who, in the words of Claudia MacTeer, took “all of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed” (159). In this sense she becomes a Christ figure, one who takes on the ugliness (sin) of the world around her and consequently absolves others of their feelings of inferiority (guilt). But Morrison's final image of God is an aborted one: Unlike Christ, there is no resurrection for Pecola. In her world, “it's much, much, much too late” to keep hope alive (160).8

Although there is no clear affirmation of life in The Bluest Eye, the possibility of hope, though it seems far removed from the lives of the characters, remains for those who can rediscover the value of their heritage and reject the notion that they can succeed only if they adopt the norms of white society. The experiences of Pauline and Pecola suggest that it is impossible for a character to adapt to white society without also sacrificing one's true self. In order to adapt, both Pauline and Pecola have to embrace the Western concept of dualism—of believing that life is divisible, that good is distinguishable from evil, that the past, present, and future are disconnected. The failure of these two characters to retain their authenticity, to be who they truly are, suggests “that half a reality is insufficient for anyone” (Lepow 364).

In contrast to the efforts of Pauline and Pecola to separate themselves from their heritage, there are characters who seem to have an understanding that their lives in the past and the present have value. For example, the three prostitutes—China, Poland, and Miss Marie—who live above the Breedloves offer a counterpoint to Pauline, showing Pecola that their lives, no matter how much they are despised by others, have meaning because the women define themselves rather than relying on the judgments of outsiders. They make no pretensions about being anything other than “whores in whores' clothing” (48) and thus provide Pecola with a contrast to her mother, who tries to change who she is in order to fit white society's dictates. Whereas Pauline has done her best to squelch her own and her daughter's taste for the passion of life, the prostitutes, with their large appetites for the sensual, whether it be in the form of sex or food, show Pecola that the physical is a realm to be embraced rather than shunned. Marie makes even the disgusting seem beautiful to Pecola, who witnesses her belching “softly, purringly, lovingly” (49). That love might be associated with such physical crudeness is an idea that Pecola could never have gotten from her mother. And it is Pecola's failure to embrace the image Marie provides that ultimately makes her susceptible to Soaphead's trap, for he exploits her tendency to divorce physical reality from her identity.

Much like the prostitutes, Mr. and Mrs. MacTeer seem largely unconcerned with fulfilling any roles prescribed by outside influences. They do not pamper their children the way that Pauline, trying to emulate the whites for whom she works, pampers “the little girl in pink” (87). Mrs. MacTeer often speaks harshly to her daughters, but Claudia realizes that “love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup” (14), fills her home. Their father also proves his love through actions rather than words, standing as “Vulcan guarding the flames” of the home fires (52). Though Claudia and Frieda do not always understand the words of their parents, they understand “the edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions” (16). Unlike Pecola, who must face Pauline's and Soaphead's acts of deception, Claudia and Frieda have the advantage of living with adult role models who place more value on action than image. Mr. and Mrs. MacTeer are soundly grounded in reality. Consequently, they are not drawn to the false ideals peddled by Hollywood and Madison Avenue which so distort Pauline's self-image.

Cholly, though there are aspects of his character that put him “beyond the reaches of human consideration” (18), has experienced and appreciated the value of his heritage through individuals like Aunt Jimmy. He provides Pecola with yet another alternative to her mother, acting as a physical foil to Pauline's movement toward an image-driven existence. When Pecola recalls the sound of her parents making love, she remembers being appalled by Cholly's groans, yet as “terrible as his noises were, they were not nearly as bad as the no noise at all from her mother” (48-49). As imperfect as Cholly is, he is still more genuine than Pauline. His rape of Pecola is reprehensible, but he does not rape her mind the way that Pauline and Soaphead do. Claudia senses that Cholly really loves Pecola: “He, at any rate, was the one who loved her enough to touch her, envelop her, give something of himself to her” (159). The fact that this one gift given to Pecola is in reality a sexual assault on her body underscores just how horribly brutal her life is.

But perhaps the character who holds the most promise for living an authentic existence is Claudia, whose telling of the story is a sign in itself that she has come to recognize the value of rediscovering the past. It is Claudia, after all, who seems to be most in touch with reality, for she is the one who reconstructs it for the reader. Claudia understands that those who try to measure their world with black-and-white scales and to find easy solutions to the drudgery of daily life are doomed to lose not only their grounding in their heritage but also their grounding in reality. Ultimately, the price such a person pays is the loss of one's self. When Claudia observes her parents, she recognizes that their authenticity is not based on the literal meaning of the words they speak but in the way they are spoken: “Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly” (16). The story she gives us is not one that allows us to march straight toward the truth, for such a path would oversimplify a world that is so full of evil and so far beyond explanation that it need not be explained—it can only be “dealt with, survived, outwitted, triumphed over” (Sula 118). Claudia's narrative, which has a circular and, some might say, elusive quality to it, is in itself a reflection of the image that is so central to her heritage: the fourth face of God.


  1. Any serious student of Western and African religions knows that the conceptualizations of God within fairly similar theological traditions can differ dramatically. My intent in this essay is not to examine the competing models within closely related traditions but to explore how Morrison presents the differences between general models of two distinctly different traditions: the Western and the African.

    Though my study is limited to the images of God present in The Bluest Eye, other studies have dealt with this topic in relation to some of Morrison's other novels. See Vashti Crutcher Lewis for a comparison of Shadrack's role in Sula to that of “a divine river spirit” or “a West African Water priest who represents and speaks for a river god” (92). See Janice M. Sokoloff for an examination of Eva Peace's god-like role in Sula. And see Lauren Lepow for an exploration of Valerian's role in Tar Baby as “the image of a white man's god” (368) and an analysis of the religious connotations of Son's name.

  2. Maxine Lavon Montgomery has made this same point with regard to the people of the Bottom in Sula, arguing that “Western linear history” is “a distorted version of reality that keeps the townsfolk reaching out in vain for a future that persistently eludes their grasp” (128).

  3. Patricia Hunt discusses Sula's parabolic qualities, which she sees as part of Morrison's critique of either-or thinking.

  4. As Trudier Harris has pointed out, Pauline's separation from the African American community is underscored by her “attachment to the rich white family for which she works in Ohio when they assign her a nickname—Polly” (20). Harris contends that Pauline's acceptance of the nickname is a subversion of the tradition of nicknaming that has been a central feature of the African American community.

  5. Though most scholars argue that African traditional religions tend to associate evil with God in some way, at least one writer, Gwinyai H. Muzorewa, concludes that “African traditional religion holds that all good comes from God and that evil was not created by God” (19).

  6. The contrasting images of a white and a black God envisioned by Cholly are part of a larger pattern of inversion present throughout the novel. See Jacqueline de Weever for a discussion of this pattern in The Bluest Eye and Sula.

  7. According to John S. Mbiti, in many African religions God “is brought into the picture primarily as an attempt to explain what is otherwise difficult for the human mind” (45). In contrast to Western religious traditions, within which the existence of evil is typically blamed on the sinful nature of humans and a spiritual being who stands in conflict with a benevolent God, practitioners of African religions tend not to divorce God from the problem of evil.

  8. Pecola's symbolic connection to Christ and her failure to triumph over her circumstances is illustrative of Morrison's drive to stress the failure of white theological models for her African American characters. Deborah Guth has uncovered this same theme in Beloved in which “the hostile dialogic interaction between” Christian symbols and the circumstances of African American characters “leads to a total polarization that exposes the terrible inadequacy of the Christological model to contain or clarify the teleology of black historic reality” (90).

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. 1953. New York: Dell, 1985.

———. The Fire Next Time. 1962. New York: Dell, 1988.

Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. San Francisco: Harper, 1975.

Danquah, J. B. The Akan Doctrine of God: A Fragment of Gold Coast Ethics and Religion. 2nd ed. London: Frank Cass, 1968.

de Weever, Jacqueline. “The Inverted World of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Sula.CLA Journal 22 (1979): 402-14.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Life of Olaudah Equiano. 1789. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1969.

Guth, Deborah. “‘Wonder What God Had in Mind’: Beloved's Dialogue with Christianity.” Journal of Narrative Technique 24.2 (1994): 83-97.

Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991.

Hunt, Patricia. “War and Peace: Transfigured Categories and the Politics of Sula.African American Review 27 (1993): 443-59.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: Harper, 1990.

Jones, Major J. The Color of God: The Concept of God in Afro-American Thought. Macon: Mercer UP, 1987.

Lawson, E. Thomas. Religions of Africa: Traditions in Transformation. San Francisco: Harper, 1984.

Lepow, Lauren. “Paradise Lost and Found: Dualism and Edenic Myth in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby.Contemporary Literature 28 (1987): 363-77.

Lester, Julius. Black Folktales. New York: Grove, 1969.

Lewis, Vashti Crutcher. “African Tradition in Toni Morrison's Sula.Phylon 48 (1987): 91-97.

Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. 2nd ed. Oxford: Heinemann, 1989.

McVeigh, Malcolm J. God in Africa: Conceptions of God in African Traditional Religion and Christianity. Cape Cod: Claude Stark, 1974.

Montgomery, Maxine Lavon. “A Pilgrimage to the Origins: The Apocalypse as Structure and Theme in Toni Morrison's Sula.Black American Literature Forum 23 (1989): 127-37.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. New York: Washington Square P, 1972.

———. Song of Solomon. 1977. New York: Plume, 1987.

———. Sula. 1973. New York: Plume, 1982.

Muzorewa, Gwinyai H. The Origins and Development of African Theology. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985.

Parker, Bettye J. “Complexity: Toni Morrison's Women—An Interview Essay.” Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Ed. Roseann P. Bell, Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. New York: Anchor, 1979. 251-57.

Sawyerr, Harry. God: Ancestor or Creator? London: Longman, 1970.

Sokoloff, Janice M. “Intimations of Matriarchal Age: Notes on the Mythical Eva in Toni Morrison's Sula.Journal of Black Studies 16 (1986): 429-34.

Carl D. Malmgren (essay date spring 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5768

SOURCE: Malmgren, Carl D. “Texts, Primers, and Voices in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 41, no. 3 (spring 2000): 251-62.

[In the following essay, Malmgren studies the multicultural and polyphonic structures of The Bluest Eye with respect to the novel's concern with victimization and its causes.]

The Bluest Eye represents a remarkable undertaking, especially for a first novel. In terms of formal features, it might be described as a kind of narratological compendium. For one thing, the novel incorporates several different forms of textuality. It opens with three different versions of its epigraphic “master” text, several lines drawn from an elementary school primer. That is followed by an italicized “overture,” introducing the primary narrator, Claudia MacTeer, and the dominant motifs of the work—victimization and its causes:

It was a long time before my sister and I admitted to ourselves that no green was going to spring from our seeds. Once we knew, our guilt was relieved only by fights and mutual accusations about who was to blame.


The body of the novel is composed of two related kinds of texts, variously interspersed: four seasonal sections, narrated in the first person by Claudia MacTeer; and seven primer sections (employing various narrational situations), so named because each section is set off by an epigraph taken from the master primer. The end is a kind of coda, beginning “So it was” (204), in which Claudia reviews the outcomes of the narrative and rehearses its lessons. Linda Dittmar praises the architectonics of the novel as “a brilliant orchestration of a complex multiformed narrative” (140).


The novel is not only multitextual; it is also polyphonic. The seasonal sections are in the first person, but even they are double-voiced, aware of the difference between the experiencing “I” and the narrating “I.” In places Claudia speaks as the nine-year-old girl going through the experience, ignorant, for example, as to what “ministratin” is (28). Elsewhere, she switches to an adult perspective on the incident being narrated: “We trooped in, Frieda sobbing quietly, Pecola carrying a white tail, me carrying the little-girl-gone-to-woman pants” (31). And sometimes she speaks from the moment of the enunciation itself: “But was it really like that? As painful as I remember? Only mildly” (12).

The primer sections are, if anything, even more ambitious, in that they eventually make use of the full spectrum of what Stanzel terms “narrative situations.”1 The narrator assumes authorial position and privilege when she gives the reader a lecture on the lifestyles and values of the “sugar-brown Mobile girls” (82):

They go to land-grant colleges, normal schools, and learn to do the white man's work with refinement: home economics to prepare his food; teacher education to instruct black children in obedience; music to soothe the weary master and entertain his blunted soul. Here they learn the rest of the lesson begun in those soft houses with porch swings and pots of bleeding heart: how to behave.


From the same position, she reviews the history of the Breedlove's storefront apartment (33-37); in the following primer section, she moves successively through the minds of the members of the Breedlove family during a violent morning confrontation (39-46).

The primer sections devoted to Pauline and Cholly Breedlove and to Soaphead Church are, in large part, narrated figurally, with Pauline, Cholly, and Soaphead as the centers of consciousness. Those sections focus on the what and how of their featured protagonists' experiences. But even those sections are multivocal. Those figural presentations are frequently qualified by authorial interpolations or commentary; the Pauline section, for example, begins with the following explanation of her feeling of unworthiness:

The easiest thing to do would be to build a case out of her foot. This is what she herself did. But to find out the truth about how dreams die, one should never take the word of the dreamer. The end of her lovely beginning was probably the cavity in one of her front teeth. She preferred, however, to think always of her foot.


What follows is figural narration, a recounting of Pauline's perspective on the events of her life. To make that experience even more immediate, however, the narration shifts several times to quoted and italicized first-person dramatic monologue. Pauline speaks aloud, apparently to a Lorain neighbor, deputy for the reader:

That was the last time I seen real June bugs. These things up here ain't june bugs. They's something else. Folks here call them fireflies, Down home they was different. But I recollect that streak of green. I recollect it well.


In the space of a few pages, the narration shifts from authorial to figural to first person. In addition, the Soaphead Church primer section contains, in entirety, a formal and pedantic letter that Soaphead writes to God after his encounter with Pecola. And the last primer section consists of a schizoid dramatic dialogue between Pecola and her imaginary second self in which the two of them rhapsodize about the blueness of Pecola's eyes.

A number of critics have called attention to the multiple narrations (and multiple narrators) in the novel. Arguing that “the possibility of a bystander really being able to tell the whole story is implicitly obviated by the novel's shift in narrators,” Demetrakopoulos stipulates at least three narrators: Claudia, “the omniscient point of view,” and Pecola (35). Samuels says that Claudia “retells the story with the assistance of other, external narrators” (25). Dittmar argues that “Claudia covers a lot of ground, but she is not the novel's pivotal consciousness. She is a narrator, not the narrator” (143). The critical consensus seems to be that there are two main speakers, Claudia in the seasonal sections, and an authorial persona elsewhere. The authorial persona supplies the master primer text and uses it epigraphically and assumes the privilege of rendering the dramatic monologues of Pauline and Pecola in the primer sections (Gibson 21, 25, 30; Holloway 40; Byerman 450). In her afterword to the novel, Morrison herself refers derogatorily to her narrational doubleness, saying that it made a “shambles” of her text: “I resorted to two voices, […] both of which are extremely unsatisfactory to me” (215).

I argue (pace Morrison) that strong evidence, textual and biographical, exists to suggest that a single narrator, Claudia MacTeer, has composed the texts and created the voices and that my reading adds an important dimension to the meaning of the text.3 As noted above, Claudia's first person seasonal sections are double-voiced, shifting back and forth between the perspective of the nine-year-old and that of an older and wiser adult. The passage in which Claudia discusses her evolving relationship to white baby girls indicates the distance between these two perspectives:

If I pinched them, their eyes—unlike the crazed hint of the baby doll's eyes—would fold in pain, and their cry would not be the sound of an icebox door, but a fascinating cry of pain. When I learned how repulsive this disinterested violence was, that it was repulsive because it was disinterested, my shame floundered about for refuge. The best hiding place was love. Thus the conversion from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred, to fraudulent love. It was a small step to Shirley Temple. I learned much later to worship her, just as I learned to delight in cleanliness, knowing, even as I learned, that the change was adjustment without improvement.


Here is a discerning adult making nuanced discriminations. We know that she is significantly removed from the time of the events she recounts because her narration rehearses and implicitly repudiates (and therefore comes after) a love for Shirley Temple that itself came “much later” than her original hatred and sadism.

The text gives us no way to date Claudia's enunciation or to specify her adult age, but she has the mature voice and perspective of someone looking back from a distance, someone, say, in her mid-to-late thirties. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970, when Morrison was thirty-none years old. Like Claudia, Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio; like Claudia, she would have been nine years old in 1940-41, the year in which the events of the novel take place. Those similarities suggest that Claudia MacTeer is Morrison's persona in the novel, her fictional “second self.” Indeed, Morrison states in the afterword that the novel had a autobiographical origin, that Pecola was based on a real-life elementary school classmate who, out of the blue as it were, confided that she wanted blue eyes (209).

That is the (suspect) argument from biography, the old mimetic shibboleth about Art and Life being intimately related. But no substantial textual evidence supports that connection. As the passage above suggests, Claudia's seasonal sections demonstrate that she has the talent and insight to make the kind of discriminations that characterize the text as a whole and that she has the stylistic resources to rise to the lyricism found in various places in the novel.4 Most important, the Claudia sections articulate an ideological project that is carried out in great detail elsewhere in the novel: the critique of cultural stereotypes imposed by the dominant white culture. In terms of theme, then, the novel is seamless, univocal.5 In addition, Claudia is singled out as the MacTeer sister blessed with Imagination (just as Frieda is marked as the Executive, the one who makes decisions). In the “Autumn” section, for example, the girls are bored, and Claudia supplies an extensive list of possible activities for them: looking at Mr. Henry's girlie magazines or Bible, threading needles for the blind lady, searching through trash cans, making fudge, or eavesdropping at the Greek hotel (26-27). When the sisters are afraid that Frieda is “ruined” after she has been molested by Henry the roomer, Claudia comes up with the solution to their problem by concocting a highly fanciful line of “reasoning” that includes fat people, the three prostitutes, whiskey, and Cholly Breedlove (101-02). Those episodes reinforce the connection between Morrison and Claudia by suggesting that Claudia has the imaginative resources to invent alternatives, to impersonate various characters, to create fictional worlds.

The novel begins with Claudia's voice: “Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby that the marigolds did not grow.” The second paragraph specifies that “we” comprises “my sister and I” (5). The novel ends with Claudia speaking for a more generalized “we”: “We are wrong, of course, but it doesn't matter. It's too late. At least on the edge of my town, among the garbage and the sunflowers of my town, it's much, much, much too late” (206). Occam's razor should dictate that what comes between the beginning and end belongs to her as well.

The problem is that the primer sections, which make up about two-thirds of the novel, refuse to say “I.” They contain almost no reference to the speaker's person,6 certainly no explicit identification of that authorial speaker as the grown-up Claudia MacTeer; therefore, no apparent linkage is evident between the primer sections and the seasonal sections. In addition to the thematic continuity I have mentioned there are other connections. For example, the substance, rhetoric, and syntax of part of Soaphead Church's letter to God is echoed in Claudia's coda to the novel. Soaphead indites (and indicts):

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.


Claudia reprises (and embellishes):

And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well-behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it the truth.


It is as if Claudia took the condemnation of African Americans she voiced in the persona of Soaphead Church and brought it to bear on the victimization of Pecola Breedlove.

More convincing than the rhetorical and stylistic echo is the explicit repetition of substantive commentary. In the cat primer section, Geraldine returns to her tidy home to find Pecola there and sees in the little girl only anathema:

She had seen this little girl all of her life. […] Hair uncombed, dresses falling apart, shoes untied and caked with dirt. [Little girls like this] had stared at her with great uncomprehending eyes. Eyes that questioned nothing and asked everything. Unblinking and unabashed, they stared up at her. The end of the world lay in their eyes, and the beginning, and all the waste in between.


In the coda, Claudia repeats that summary view of Pecola, but with a significant addition; she speaks elegiacly of Pecola wandering on the edge of town, “plucking her way between the tire rims and the sunflowers, between Coke bottles and milkweed, among all the waste and beauty of the world—which is what she herself was” (205).

But the most compelling evidence of linkage connects the primer section devoted to Cholly Breedlove with Claudia's coda. Having rehearsed Cholly's history, the primer section asserts that it would take a jazz musician to render the essence of Cholly's being, “its final and pervading ache of freedom. Only a musician would sense, know, without even knowing that he knew, that Cholly was free. Dangerously free. Free to feel whatever he felt—fear, guilt, shame, love, grief, pity” (159). The speaker continues for some lines detailing the contours and extent of Cholly's freedom and then links the “godlike state” of freedom Cholly enjoys to both his marriage to Pauline and his rape of his daughter. In her coda to the novel, Claudia insists that, despite what he did to her, Cholly loved his daughter, but that his touch was fatal because “love is never any better than the lover,” and “the love of a free man is never safe” (206). By using that epithet for Cholly and connecting it to his crime against his daughter, Claudia rehearses the argument spelled out in Cholly's primer section and makes it her own. Because we can link Claudia directly to the cat, Soaphead, and Cholly sections, it is possible to conclude that The Bluest Eye is entirely her composition, her achievement. Indeed, we can say that the eye in the title contains a multiple pun: it is at once the eye longed for by Pecola Breedlove, and the ‘I’ that author-izes the novel as a whole, the “bluest I” that witnesses Pecola's fate, Claudia MacTeer.


At the very beginning of her narration, Claudia spells out why she is composing The Bluest Eye; she wants to figure out what happened to the marigolds she and her sister planted in the fall of 1941: “It was a long time before my sister and I admitted to ourselves that no green was going to spring from our seeds. Once we knew, our guilt was relieved only by fights and mutual accusations about who was to blame” (5). The marigolds are, of course, metonymically and metaphorically connected to Pecola, so Claudia is asking “who is to blame” for what happened to Pecola, for her tragic fate. The end of the overture acknowledges that this is not an easy question to answer: “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how” (5). What follows is the first seasonal section, “Autumn.”

Claudia tells us that she must begin with how in order to get at why.7 Can we link those basic narrative questions with the shape her narrative takes? I have noted that the seasonal sections, narrated by a foregrounded first person, Claudia MacTeer, are quite different from the primer sections. She begins each section with a present tense epitomization of the season being recalled: “Nuns go by quiet as lust” (9); “My daddy's face is a study. Winter moves into it and presides there” (61); “The first twigs are thin, green, and supple” (97); “I only have to break into the tightness of a strawberry, and I see summer” (187). In each section, she then relates in detail one or two of her experiences during that season, partly from the perspective of a nine-year-old, who believes, for example, that drinking alcohol will keep her sister Frieda from being “mined”. These sections have irregular margins.8 The entire set-up—a first-person narrator, entries keyed to a particular time of year, the present tense, the perspective of the experiencing “I,” and irregular margins—suggests a particular narrative form, the diary.

The diary is a “primitive” narrative form, specifically intended to recount the how of experience. A diarist is someone who records events and is at the mercy of the seasons, the times, time. The seasonal sections, or diary entries, tell us what happened at that particular time. That Claudia uses seasons and not dates to identify the entries indicates, however, that the entries are retrospective, and therefore both selective and shapely. They are selective in that each of them focuses on encounters between the MacTeer sisters and Pecola Breedlove during that fateful year; shapely insofar as each encounter involves some kind of violence—verbal, emotional, physical—perpetrated against Pecola. The seasonal sections give us, in sum, an intimate, personal view of the how of Pecola's victimization.

The novel's epigraph consists of three versions of lines from the Dick-and-Jane primer—one regular, one without capitals or punctuation, and one without capitals, punctuation, or spacing. The standard critical reading of the three versions is that the first represents the life of white families, orderly and “readable”; the second, that of the MacTeer family, confused but still readable; and the last, that of the Breedlove family, incoherent and unintelligible.9 The primer sections of the novel use portions of that third version as “titles,” lines keyed to material presented in that section. The first primer section, for example, dealing with the history and condition of the Breedlove's seedy storefront apartment, begins



Subsequent sections use as epigraphs primer lines describing Dick and Jane's family, the cat, Mother, Father, the dog, and a friend of Jane's. The section following the epigraph focuses on that figure in Pecola's life but relates tales of misery that are an ironic counterpoint to the fairy-tale world depicted in the primer itself. Cumulatively the sections render in great detail the loveless “Breedlove version” of the primer text.

In terms of voice, however, the primer sections are very different from the seasonal sections. The authorial narrator here refuses to say “I,” except when impersonating one of her characters. She keeps her material at a distance from herself. The Soaphead Church section, for example, begins “Once there was an old man” (164)—as if to signal her objectivity and control. From a magisterial position, she reviews and highlights the biographies of Geraldine, Pauline, Cholly, and Soaphead. Narrationally, she ranges from authorial commentary to figural presentation to dramatic monologue. She even supplies the text of Soaphead's letter to God and the script of Pecola's schizoid “dialogue” with herself. She employs a wide spectrum of novelistic techniques and practices—including justified right-hand margins—to explain what happened to the members of the Breedlove family. The conclusion would seem to be that diaries can tell us how or what, but only novels, and the narrative resources belonging to them, can tell us why.10 Diaries render the experience of victimization; novels explain it. The absence of ‘I’ in the primer sections can be taken as a sign of the unwillingness of the magisterial authorial persona to call undue attention to herself. To answer the question why, the novelist must go beyond the personal and diaristic. She must become im-personal if she is to rise to true impersonation. To make sense of what happened to Pecola, Claudia MacTeer has to call upon all her talents as a novelist.

The novelistic primer sections treat extensively those in Pecola's immediate family or those who come into immediate contact with her (Geraldine, Soaphead). They dwell upon the members of the African American community who act directly on her, implying that they are responsible for her fate, because they have embraced and internalized a set of values and ideas imposed upon them by the dominant white culture.11 Accepting an essentialist view of beauty that consigns them to invisibility and condemns them to self-hatred, they become the “instruments of [their] own oppression” (Gibson 21). Claudia very clearly makes that indictment of her race at several places in her narrative. An early example is her summary remarks about the Breedlove family:

You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, “You are ugly people.” They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.”


Leveling the same charge against Pecola's classmates (65), Maureen Peal (73-74), Geraldine (83-87), Pauline (122), Soaphead (168), and others, Claudia suggests that almost no one in the black community is able to resist that particular interpellation by the dominant white culture.

This near-total capitulation to white values, in combination with Pecola's awful victimization, leads many critics to see the novel as terribly bleak—in the words of Demetrakopoulos, “one of the darkest works I have ever read” (31). Commenting in the afterword on Claudia's conspiratorial opening words—“Quiet as it's kept”—Morrison herself says that the novel involves the “disclosure of secrets,” that “something grim is about to be divulged,” namely “a terrible story about things one would rather not know anything about” (212, 213). Dittmar worries that “the microcosm Morrison locates in her Ohio town includes few venues for anger directed beyond the black community and almost no potential for regeneration within it,” and concludes that the novel “does indeed seem overwhelmingly pessimistic, given its relentless piling up of abuses and betrayals” (140). Byerman argues that the “ideological hegemony of whiteness is simply too overwhelming to be successfully resisted” and specifies that even “Claudia, the strongest character in the book, cannot defy the myth” (449, 450).13

But if Claudia is the single narrator and the narrative is entirely her composition, then she has indeed resisted the power of “white mythology.14 In the first seasonal section, Claudia relates how, when she was a little girl, she dismembered white dolls to find out what made them beautiful and therefore lovable—to discover the essence of Beauty. All she found was sawdust (21). The text composed by the adult Claudia, The Bluest Eye, carries on the same discovery procedure on a grander scale; it undertakes the deconstruction and demystification of the ideology that makes those dolls beautiful: “And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us” (74, emphasis in original).

In that respect, Claudia's use of the Dick-and-Jane primer as master text represents a brilliant choice, for a primer is a basic tool of ideological indoctrination; it introduces readers to and inculcates the correct values,15 As one critic notes, “the act of learning to read or write means exposure to the values of the culture from which the reading material emanates. […] One cannot simply learn to read without being subjected to the values engraved in the text” (Gibson 20). The same logic adheres, of course, to reading the text that is The Bluest Eye; one cannot read it without being subjected to Claudia's discovery of “the unreality or emptiness behind the facade of [the white] construction of femininity” (Munafo 8). In that respect, her text constitutes a counterprimer, designed “to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals” (The Bluest Eye 190); it critiques and thus dismembers the values and iconography fostering that love.

Claudia suggests in the coda that her narrative originates partly in guilt and betrayal, that she and the other members of the black community “assassinated” Pecola by scapegoating her or by turning their backs on her. Her narrative tries to make up for that betrayal. If we compare the lines from the primer mastertext to the epigraphs for the primer sections, we discover that a silencing has taken place; there is no primer section for the following epitext lines: “See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane?” Jane (Pecola) has been effectively eliminated, erased, silenced. The eye is proverbially the window to the soul, to all that is unique, irreplaceable, essential, but Pecola's eye/I is not her own; it belongs to the dominant culture. As a result, she identifies herself with a lack, with what she has not. She is, in effect, self-less and invisible. As one critic notes, “Morrison's novel contains repeated instances of Pecola's negation as other characters refuse to see her” (Miner 187). Because she cannot speak for or defend herself, she is literally and figuratively silenced almost throughout the text, condemned to an “imitation of life.” As Morrison suggests in her afterword, the novel is built on a “silence at its center: the void that is Pecola's ‘unbeing’” (215).

The Bluest Eye is itself the text that counterpoints the missing primer lines. It makes “Jane” visible and gives her a kind of being; it is the attempt of Claudia/Morrison to make the silence speak, to give voice to the voiceless. As a child, Claudia herself is silenced: she notes that adults do not talk to children; they give them orders (10). Growing up means acquiring a voice, joining the world of discourse, something that Pecola is prohibited from doing. In a sense, then, Claudia makes up for her betrayal by lending her voice to Pecola, by speaking her through her story. In so doing, by giving a present to the absent, Claudia makes the absent present.

That line of argument recalls a basic idea that the narrative calls into question, the idea that beauty is an essence, that it is present to itself (Walther 777). Morrison's novel not only critiques that idea, but it also transvalues it. Claudia invites readers to imagine the very real beauty of Pecola's unborn baby, with “its head covered with great O's of wool, the black face holding, like nickels, two clean black eyes, the flared nose, kissing-thick lips, and the living, breathing silk of black skin” (190). As Munafo notes, “[t]his affirming vision of Pecola's unborn baby asserts black presence and reinscribes blackness as beautiful” (9). More important, Claudia insists over and over that we acknowledge Pecola's own beauty. At one point Claudia notes the pleasure that Pecola's smile gives her (106); elsewhere she frets that Pecola would never know her own beauty (46-47).16 Claudia's narrative exists, the coda informs us, to reveal “all the waste and beauty of the world—which is what she [Pecola] herself was. All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us” (205). The Bluest Eye renders both the waste and the beauty.


  1. I am referring, in traditional terms, to point of view. I use Stanzel's nomenclature because it is more exact (e.g., “authorial” is better than “omniscient) and less flawed (e.g., it does not rely on oxymorons such as “limited omniscience”).

  2. Insofar as the implied author assumes the right to insert this kind of commentary throughout the primer sections, we can say that their narrational dominant is authorial.

  3. Klotman notes in passing that Claudia is the sole narrator, but she does not develop that line of argument (123-24). Smith claims that Claudia narrates “the preschool primer with which the novel begins,” but that an “ostensibly omniscient narrator” recounts the subsequent primer sections (124). She does not explain why Claudia narrates one but not the others. Harris begins by suggesting that Claudia is the single narrator: “As storyteller, it is Claudia's job to shape the past so that it provides coherent meaning for the present audience” (16); “[a]s multivoiced narrator, Claudia must make sense of what has ravaged the community” (22). Later, she retreats from that position, referring casually to “the parts of the novel Claudia narrates” (24) and saying that Claudia “occasionally gets help from some of the members of her community” (23).

  4. Claudia's memory of being ill in the Autumn section: “But was it really like that? As painful as I remember? Only mildly. Or rather, it was a productive and fructifying pain. Love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup, eased up into that cracked window. I could smell it—taste it—sweet, musty, with an edge of wintergreen in its base—everywhere in the house. […] And in the night, when my coughing was dry and tough, feet padded into the room, hands repinned the flannel, readjusted the quilt, and rested a moment on my forehead. So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die” (12).

  5. Klotman says that “education by school and society is the dominant theme of The Bluest Eye” (123).

  6. I could find only one use of first-person pronominal forms in the primer sections (other than in direct discourse). It occurs in the Pauline section: “So she became, and her process of becoming was like most of ours” (126). The speaker is also clearly present in the following passage, which serves to date her enunciation in a way similar to Claudia's: “So fluid has the population in that area been, that probably no one remembers longer, longer ago, before the time of the gypsies and the time of the teenagers when the Breedloves lived there, nestled together in the storefront” (34). Like Claudia, the speaker remembers that time very well.

  7. Smith argues that both Claudia and the novel dodge the question why: “The Bluest Eye does not undertake to explain, for example, why black Americans aspire to an unattainable standard of beauty; why they displace their self-hatred onto a communal scapegoat; how Pecola's fate might have been avoided” (124). I argue that Claudia and her book answer all these questions.

  8. Dittmar is the only critic who notes the uneven margins, connecting them with orality, but not with a specific narrative form: “While such margins may serve to suggest the text's informal, possibly spoken origins, the mere use of this unusual device is attention-getting, especially given its recurrent suspension and re-introduction” (141).

  9. See Ogunyemi 112, Klotman 123, Wong 472. Wong argues that the primer lines depict each character as “maintain(ing) himself in a self-enclosed unity” and thus enact “the very conditions of alienated self-containment which underlie [white bourgeois] values” (471, 472).

  10. Structurally, the number of primer sections increases in the latter half of the novel, as if, having made the how of Pecola's victimization clear, the narrative chooses to focus on the why.

  11. The argument that “by acting in ‘Bad Faith,’ Pecola remains responsible, in the final analysis, for what happens to her” (Samuels and Hudson-Weems 15) is, therefore, flat-out wrong.

  12. In her afterword, Morrison warns specifically “against the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze” (210). See, in this regard, Guerrero; and Miner, 184-88.

  13. Cf. Dittmar: “Individual characters may not participate in [positive] change; certainly Claudia, for all her adult retrospection, provides no empowerment” (142).

  14. Cf. Rosenberg: “Claudia's ability to survive intact and to consolidate an identity derives from her vigorous opposition to the colorist attitudes of her community” (440); and Munafo: “Claudia says no [to the idea of whiteness], and in so doing she retains a sense of self-affirmation” (9).

  15. Powell also argues that the primer is “a highly significant beginning,” but for a different reason: “it points to the fact that all Afro-American writers have, willingly or not, been forced to begin with the Master's language. The Dick-and-Jane reader comes to symbolize the institutionalized ethnocentrism of the white logos” (749).

  16. In her afterword, Morrison describes her response to the classmate who wanted blue eyes as follows: “although I had certainly used the word ‘beautiful,’ I had never experienced its shock—the force of which was equaled by the knowledge that no one else recognized it, not even, or especially, the one who possessed it” (209).

Works Cited

Byerman, Keith E. “Intense Behaviors: The Use of the Grotesque in The Bluest Eye and Eva's Man.College Language Association Journal 25.4 (June 1982): 447-57.

Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie A. “Bleak Beginnings: The Bluest Eye.” Holloway and Demetrakopoulos 31-36.

Dittmar, Linda. “‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’: The Politics of Form in The Bluest Eye.Novel: A Forum on Fiction 23.2 (Winter 1990): 137-55.

Gibson, Donald. “Text and Countertext in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 1.1-2 (1989): 19-32.

Guerrero, Edward. “Tracking ‘The Look’ in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” Black American Literature Forum 24.4 (Winter 1990): 761-73.

Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991.

Holloway, Karla F. C. “The Language and Music of Survival.” Holloway and Demetrakopoulos 37-47.

Holloway, Karla E. C. and Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos. New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison. Contributions in Women's Studies, Number 84. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

Klotman, Phyllis. “Dick-and-Jane and the Shirley Temple Sensibility in The Bluest Eye.Black-American Literature Forum 13.4 (Winter 1979): 123-25.

Miner, Madonne M. “Lady No Longer Sings the Blues: Rape, Madness, and Silence in The Bluest Eye.Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 176-91.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970; rpt. New York: Plume, 1994.

Munafo, Giavanna. “‘No Sign of Life’: Marble-Blue Eyes and Lakefront Houses in The Bluest Eye.LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 6.1-2 (1995): 1-19.

Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. “Order and Disorder in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Critique 19.1 (1977): 112-20.

Powell, Timothy B. “Toni Morrison: The Struggle to Depict the Black Figure on the White Page.” Black American Literature Forum 24.4 (Winter 1990): 747-60.

Rosenberg, Ruth. “Seeds in Hard Ground: Black Girlhood in The Bluest Eye.Black American Literature Forum 21.4 (Winter 1987): 435-45.

Samuels, Wilfred D. and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Stanzel, Franz. Narrative Situations in the Novel: “Tom Jones,” “Moby Dick,” “The Ambassadors,” “Ulysses.” Trans. James P. Pusack. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1971.

Walther, Malin LaVon. “Out of Sight: Toni Morrison's Revision of Beauty.” Black American Literature Forum 24.4 (Winter 1990): 775-89.

Wong, Shelley. “Transgression as Poesis in The Bluest Eye.Callaloo 13 (1990): 471-81.


Essays and Criticism