Feminist critics, like Seldon (1993) have said that “black feministshave long been concerned with problems of identity, in which race and sexualityare interlocking systems of oppression” (p.
231). Another important feature isthe fact that they use motifs of interlocking racist, where sex and the socialclass are shown as ways of oppression. Black feminist portray black women ascomplex selves, showing their journeys from the condition of victims to therealization of personal autonomy or even creativity, besides family andcommunity personal relationships.
For the American people, radical Protestantism, Constitutionaldemocracy, and industrial capitalism are the white American trinity of values.In contrast, black American values emanate from a cyclical, Judeo-Christianvision of history and of African-Americans as disinherited, colonized people, avision their resilience of spirit and pursuit of social justice…anextraordinary faith in the redemptive power of suffering and patience (GUERIN,1992. p.210).
These values, themes, forms and character are present in theAfrican-American novel, especially because their writers have the consciousnessof being black and female in a white male society, sharing and escaping fromtheir own interiority.Toni Morrison (1931- ) as a black woman writer, shows how thestandards of the mainstream culture cause suffering and fracture in the livesof her black female characters, especially in The bluest eye (1970), wherethose standards cannot be reached, once they are alien to black people. Theracism inherent in both ideals destroys those who struggle to reach them,causing the inner destruction; sometimes this suffering leads to madness.In The bluest eye, black women are portrayed in relation to theinfluence they suffer from the white ones and from society in their search fortheir own selves. These black women are excluded from a universe of love andtenderness where the figure of man is a key element for their imprisonment inmadness, silence, sexual oppression and lack of hope.
Silent, desperate, andisolated, these women cannot escape a life of unfulfilled desires. The novelhas some of the recurring points that would become decisive in all Morrison’sfollowing works. According to Davis (1999) her characters exist in a worlddefined by its blackness and by the surrounding white society that bothviolates and denies it. The destructive effect of the white society can takethe form of outright physical violence, but oppression in Morrison’s world ismore often psychic violence. She rarely depicts white characters, for thebrutality here isles a single act than the systematic denial of the reality ofblack lives (p. 07).The characters – especially children – suffer the prejudice of thewhite ruling class and also feel the uncomfortable feeling of invisibilityimposed upon the black people reducing them to the condition of failures andoutsiders so that they lose the sense of respect for themselves and for theirown color, since they can never satisfy neither society nor themselves.In spite of The bluest eye being focused on black women and theirfamily, the white women have a strong and surprising role in the novel, sincetheir condition in society influences the behavior of the black ones once theyare representative of the ruling class and surprisingly are taken as models.
The first recurring role of white women is that of the movie star, and linkedto it that of the child movie star. Although these women are not characters inthe novel, they affect the black ones due to the mass circulation of theircondition and role in society. In the novel, children are always indisadvantage in relation to adults.
When Mr. Henry comes to live in thenarrator’s house he breaks this paradigm and greets Claudia and her sisterFrieda in a friendly way: “Hello, there. You must be Greta Garbo, and you mustbe Ginger Rogers” (The bluest eye, pg. 17). To win the girls he does some magictricks with some coins and gives them to the girls who at this point are happyand embarrassed by the apparent kindness. His attitude will echo some timelater when he wants the girls out of the house so that he can spend time withtwo prostitutes. The action of giving money reduces the children to thecondition of objects that can be bought converge to align their interactionwith the prostitutes under the condition of prostitution.
Money buys them somehow for a certain periodof time, besides, this incident suggests a way of mass circulation of femalecondition and role which in a negative way affects the attitudes of people withwhom they interact.3 The role of the moviestar woman represents an unattainable ideal of beauty since it is fabricatedand not totally real if compared to the daily life of the black women. It isthis ideal the black women in the novel seek, like Mrs. Breedlove did for awhile. In other to escape from reality she develops an obsession for the moviesand begins to reject her appearance as a black woman by wearing make up forwhite women, and straightening her hair. Her standards of female beauty,condition and role become the ones broadcasted by the cinema. The novel alsodocuments the effects of images of femininity, for even Mrs.
Breedlove’s sexualpleasure depends entirely on the ability to feel a power that comes from asense of herself as desirable. In the early days of her marriage when she hadpleasant moments of intimacy with her husband, the words she uses to describethose moments are deeply connected to the ideas spread by the wide screen:”When he does has an orgasm, I feel a power. I be strong, I be pretty, I beyoung” (The bluest eye, p. 101). Thus, she feels powerful only when submergedin flesh mainly because that was the kind of physical love she learned from themovies, where sex and power elevate women to a pedestal Mrs. Breedlove couldnever reach but in sex.
She also defines strength, beauty and youth solely in the termsshe has learned from films, and somehow so does Pecola, her daughter and maincharacter. Their standards become the ones created by mass white society. Thisinteraction of black women with mass culture creates a kind of colonization.Their beauty standards – if any after such a legacy of oppression was left -would not do anymore when compared to the ones of the ruling class whichcolonizes them especially concerning the loss of identity which represents submissionand lack of power.
The black women then, start to identify themselves and wishto be like those women who have “got the power,” who are beautiful. They wantto be accepted and loved like those movie stars. Ironically, the white moviestar women are also exploited and reduced to the condition of objects, however,the black women in the novel do not perceive this reduction.
When Mrs. Breedlove was pregnant, she still used to go to themovies, and along with “the idea of romantic love, she was introduced toanother – physical beauty. Probably the most destructive idea in the history ofhuman thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended indisillusion” (The bluest eye, pg.
97). Romantic love and physical beauty aredefined by what they exclude and both are destructive. However, Mrs. Breedloveafter two pregnancies ” was never able, after her education in the movies, tolook 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” (The bluesteye, pg.
97).4 In the book “TheAmerican woman” (1958), Dingwall analyses – during the boom of cinema – cinemaitself and consequently the presence of women in it and what it represents tothe imaginary of women in general, largely composed of housewives. Women likePecola’s mother, who is also a servant in a white family home; that was for along time the standard job and the most common role and condition of blackwomen in white society.
According to the writer, “the world of the movingpicture is a fantasy world, a world in which one can escape from the drabreality of everyday life and can oneself take part in the glamorous scenes thatare unfolded” (pg. 190). Going to the movies, Mrs. Breedlove escapes from herown self and maybe unconscious image of failure: black working class woman in awhite dominating society, poor, illiterate, handicapped, missing some of herfront teeth, and whose marriage is a disaster.
It is exactly in this period,the Forties, that the movies, according to Dingwall (1958, pg. 191), showswoman not as the civilized and patient American housewife doing her domesticchores and attending her church and club, but as a wild, wild woman who lives alife of barbaric splendour and sexual joys are The issue of physical beauty hasa major role in the novel because the black women not sure about their ownidentity and in parts, physical beauty is the cause of the dark episodes thatinvolve Pecola, for since her birthday her life has become an endless battlebetween her real appearance and her desire of having blue eyes, which are theultimate symbols of the hegemonic white beauty. While Pecola, who is a child,is the ultimate symbol of the black appearance, so rejected by white society.In the novel, the reader is constantly reminded of how ugly she is, and thatreinforces her desire to be beautiful, loved and accepted. Even her mother,right after her birthday puts her into a frame from which she will neverrecover: ” I used to like to watch her.
You know they babies makes themgreedy sounds. Eyes all soft and wet…But I knowed she was ugly. Head full ofpretty hair, but Lord she was ugly” (The bluest eye, pg. 100).
Because of being black, poor and considered ugly by everyone sheknows, Pecola grows up in humiliation, her only way out is to pursue beauty.She is scorned by the children from the school, by the owner of a market whereshe buys candies, by everyone, even by her mother whom she calls Mrs.Breedlove. She develops then a kind of obsession for the most loved child inher country, the child actress Shirley Temple. Pecola begins to drink milk severaltimes a day, as a ritual, in a cup decorated with the picture of the youngactress, besides, she also begins to eat some candies called Mary Jane, alsopictured with the image of a beautiful white girl. This “cannibal” ritual isdone everyday as a kind of transference of substance. When Pecola drinks thewhite milk in the cup containing the picture of the white actress ShirleyTemple, she is drinking the white color; she is denying her own self thatbesides being rejected by society it is also by herself, so she drinks thefeatures of what is culturally admired. Her real identity of a black girl isdenied by herself who is, like her mother, contaminated by the hegemonic whitestandard of beauty as a result of years of alienation and oppression that wipeout the black culture and its features.
Pecola knows only a life of traumas and rejection which reachesits peak being raped by her father who ironically interprets his attitude as anact of love for his daughter, which contributes to her emotional disintegration.Her rape occurs in her own house which increases its horror, and the writerdoes not use any metaphor to mask it. Pecola looks for help and tells whathappened to her mother who does not believe her or at least tries not to.Silent, isolated and pregnant of her own father, she eventually miscarries andremains childless, and starts to give signs of insanity, especially when shedecides to change the color of her own eyes from black to blue. She loses thesense of reality completely after visiting a kind of male urban wizzard, forshe believes he was able to make her dream come true. Pecola now can identifyherself with Shirley Temple and her blue eyes.
Shirley Temple also affects another little black girl but indifferent way. The only character who expresses her dislike for the youngactress is the narrator, Claudia. She, as a child does not understand thereason for hating that beloved girl, but believes that it is because theactress dances with an actor she, Claudia, considers in her fantasy, her uncle,friend, and father. She recognizes the diversity of feelings of herself and ofher world only based on white values which are emphasized by repetitivereferences to white dolls, children and movie stars.
As a child, the narrator wasfascinated by those images simply because they were appealing to anyone except forherself. She gets the habit of dismembering white dolls, but at the same timefeels embarrassed for her lack of feelings in relation to this attitude.Claudia seemed to know that those alien white images denied her reality byforcing her to judge herself based on those strange forms of appearance,experience, condition and role.
It is only as an adult that she understandsthat Shirley Temple cannot be neither loved nor truly imitated because she isonly a doll, an image who lacks a real self. However, Morrison shows thatPecola does not notice that, she does not want that condition of black little girlthat society has imposed upon herself, but at the same time, has taught herselfto hate it. She is a symbol of the victim in a society which reduces blackpeople to the condition of objects at the same time that makes them feel asinferior as objects and where “light-skinned women can feel superior to darkones, married women to whores, and on and on” (DAVIS, 1999, p. 14). According to Weever(1991), it is common in Afro-American women writers to show the suffering thatthe ideals of the mainstream culture can cause in black women, since these idealscannot be reached, being existentially alien to black people – for example, theideal of blond beauty or the ideal enshrined in the cult of true womanhood. Theracism inherent in both ideals destroys those who strive to achieve them, andthe inner destruction expresses itself in the form of striving for the ideal.
The standard of beauty that exalts the blond woman is everywhere in Americansociety. The black woman is thus, by definition, excluded from the beautiful(p. 97).
Both Pecola and her mother have similar understanding related tothe female condition and role they believe in, since their understanding comesfrom the movies, so that despite somehow recognizing themselves as victims ofthe white society, they face whiteness as good and desired, and the latter onefeels more at home as a servant in the house of a white family than in therundown house she shares with her violent husband, and children. At the houseof the while family, Mrs. Breedlove has the false feeling of being loved, forit is only those white people who gave her a nickname, Polly – her first nameis Pauline – something she desired all her life. As Byerman (1990, p. 57)states “her work in such homes makes possible a control in her life that isimpossible in her own existence as a poor black woman with a family sufferingunder the manipulations of that very white world she loves.” In the house of whitepeople, Morrison shows that Pauline feels surrounded by order, beauty, cleanliness,calmness, like in the movies, while in her own house she sees only chaos, uglinessand dirty things besides lack of peace.
The movie star women sell illusion of a glamorous life, but thereis another important group of women in the novel: that of those who sell theillusion of company and affection, the prostitutes. According to Ferguson(1986, p. 07), “in another biological role the woman sexual object is theopposite of the all-powerful woman on a pedestal: the sex object is man’s prey,the fulfiller of man’s sexual needs, a receptacle for his passions.” Reducingwomen to the condition of an object is common in patriarchal societies, and thefact that Morrison portrays the prostitutes as sensitive, funny, somehow naïveand kind is decisive to their relation to Pecola, since they are the onlypeople who do not reject the girl, but treat her in a tender way. This is alsoan alternative to the standard of victims that haunts this kind of character. Theyare portrayed as women who do their job without illusions, anger or guilt. Theyrespect only the innocents, like Pecola, and truly religious women, for theyunderstand that those kind of women have the same honesty and integrity they dohave.
Bayerman (1990, p. 60) says that the prostitutes “are also primaryfolk figures in the novel. Even their names – Poland, China, Maginot Line -suggest largerthan-life characters.” Maginot Line entertains Pecola by tellingstories about old lovers and about the man she never sold herself to. Chinaspends time with verbal dueling trying to bring Maginot Line out of hersentimentality, while Poland is always singing the ‘blues’ and ironing clothes.Bayerman (1990, p. 60) states that these folk arts enable them to transcend theprivate obsessions of other characters. The world may well be a place of miseryand doom, but folk wisdom dictates the one adapts to circumstances rather thanresignedly move toward evasion or self-destruction.
Blues and folk tales implythat trouble is both personal and communal and that life is amatter ofadaptation and survival rather than resignation and death.The prostitutes are portrayed as women who do not have eitherhope, despair, anxiety, traumas or frustrations. They are presented inopposition to the condition of the movie star, since they are not faced asmodels to anyone. Morrison introduces these women confined in their home in oppositionto the movie stars who somehow are confined and exist only in the silverscreen.
In fact, there is a relation of visibility versus invisibility betweenthe female condition and role of the movie star, the prostitutes and Pecola.The latter ones doubly represent the idea of “the other” excluded and denied bysociety, the ultimate image of what society wants to hide, while the movie staris attractive and admired.The condition and role of the prostitutes and the blackwomen/child can be considered as twice “the second sex,” as it is described bySimone de Beauvoir (1980, p. 9; my translation): Nobody is born awoman but becomes a woman.
No biological, psychological, nor economic definesthe shape that the female human takes in society; it is the whole civilizationthat elaborates this intermediate product between the male and the castratedthat they call female. Only the mediation of another can constitute anindividual as the “Other.”The prostitutes like Pecola and her mother are definitely outside”the center of the system – excluded from ‘reality’ by race they are allimmigrants, gender, class, age, and personal history” (DAVIS, 1999, p.
14).However, the prostitutes refuse to submerge themselves into the depths ofsociety, they keep on going and face what life has left for them, while Pecolasubmerges in madness and silence, and her mother in silence and resignation.The black women in the novel have what Guerin (1992) called “tripleconsciousness,” since they understand what is to be “black and female within a whitemale society” (p. 210). Like many Afro-American feminists, Toni Morrisonexplores in her work motifs of interlocking racism, sexism and classoppression. She portrays black women as victims who – like in this novel – donot reach personal autonomy, especially due to the fact that in their own homesthe personal relationships are far from being supportive.
Pecola, her mother and the prostitutes are turned into theinvisible aspects of the ruling society; they are somehow ignored becausesociety has transformed them into failures, degenerated, ugly and insane women.They become visible for them only when they want to hide their own negativeaspect, so that they project themselves on the excluded. They doubly represent”the other,” for they are black, immigrants and female. Morrison portrays themas the antithesis of the American ideal of women widely spread in the movies:they are black in a society where the ideal of female beauty for a child is ablond, blue-eyed white “doll” called Shirley Temple, and for the women, GretaGarbo or Ginger Rogers are the symbols of successful and beloved women,opposite from Mrs. Breedlove and the prostitutes.
Morrison shows that the moviestar woman and child have a female condition and role that is unattainable to thecommon women; they are also a false myth that reduces, misinterprets and distortsreality causing everlasting disappointment for those who do not reach that level,once they are inappropriate or impossible models.The black female characters in The bluest eye are constantlybombarded by female condition and roles which exclude them and which do notprovide them with any sense that they really exist, so that they are injured intheir deepest selves. Claudia tries to escape from her suffering bydismembering Shirley Temple dolls.
Mrs. Breedlove swallowed the culturaldefinitions and rejects her own self and family for they do not fit into thehegemonic condition and role. Pecola turns to prayers and communion, pushing herselfto an imaginary world where her wish comes true.
But this world is the world ofschizophrenia that Morrison ironically shows as an extension of the traditionthat portrays women as schizophrenic and mad. The American patriarchal societyrepresses the gifts and potential of its black women and black citizens ingeneral, so that, women are driven mad by adoption of the ideals of the dominantculture, once they are inappropriate for black women.