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Toni Morrison The Bluest Eyes

08 Dec 2016Literature Essays

One of the impressive qualities of literature is its ability to excite imagination of readers with the help of the textual medium by vivid depiction of events and by finding a way to make readers feel with the characters of the books and stories as if reliving their experiences. And if the theme of a book is sad, or outright tragic, a masterful writer can achieve an especially strong effect on the audience in order to draw our attention to certain problems that surround us. In this connection, the theme of racism, hatred, and violence in our society belongs to the list of those often tragic topics, and the famous African-American writer Toni Morrison (born in 1931) in her novel “The Bluest Eye” uncovers exactly such sad aspects of the racial problems in the American society.

That this writer, who was the first African-American women who received the Nobel Prize in literature (Beaulieu 2003, p.18), is capable of an insightful analysis of the chosen theme is clear from the fact that, as Morrison herself suggests in the afterword, “The Bluest Eye” is to a certain degree an autobiographical account, if not in the specific details of the novel characters` experiences, but in the general familiarity of the author with the difficulties of the time described in the book (the narrator of the story – a nine a nine-year-old girl Claudia - is of the same age as Morrison was in 1941 when the events took place, and lives in the town where Morrison grew (Haskins 2001, pp.11-14).

Now, with these observations in mind, we should not be surprised that in the Morrison`s novel there are numerous motives and symbolic elements. Still, perhaps one of the most important of such motives is the general theme of the loss of innocence, which in the book may be applied to the protagonist of story - a black girl of eleven years old - but which from the larger point of view is characteristic of the whole issue of racism and its social consequences. Let us take a closer look at the ways in which this particular topic is presented in the novel.

First of all, we should briefly overview the plot of the story in order to place the analysis performed by the author into a proper context. Sisters Claudia and Frieda MacTeer live with their parents in the town of Lorain, Ohio, during the end of the Great Depression, which immediately suggests that harsh social circumstances would put to test many aspects of human relationships in the novel. The protagonist of the story, Pecola Breedlove, appears as a boarder taken in by the MacTeers after she had had family problems as her farther had attempted to burn their house.

As Pecola returns home, she is reintroduced to her troubled existence as she is being taunted by her peers, suffers from the conflicts and violence between her parents, and gets raped by her father. After having lost her baby, and after being raped for the second time by her father, Pecola goes mad. During all these events, Pecola is assured in her ugliness, and believes that if she only had blue eyes, like some other girls do, people would love her and her life would be happy. In the end, as her sanity fails to withstand the suffering and violence, Pecola begins to believe that her dream has been realized and that she indeed has the bluest eyes.

As we can see, the main characters of the Morrison`s novel are little girls, whose age and emotional fragility make them the most vulnerable potential victims of the evil that lurks in society. It is their innocence, although manifested in different ways, that is shown by the author to be so valuable, and the violent loss of which, in both literal and figurative ways, is so irrevocably tragic due to the emotional devastation that accompanies it. In particular, Pecola may be viewed as a scapegoat, whose passivity enables other people, such as for instance the girl`s own father, to use her in the pursuit of satisfaction of their inferiority complexes, and to act on her in accordance with impulses stemming from their psychological problems.

At the same time, due to the way Morrison narrates the story about Pecola through points of view of other people, this black girl remains somewhat distant for readers, both in terms of our understanding of all of her emotional experiences and of her deep-felt motivations, which on one hand increases our sense of her isolation, and on the other hand, according to the author, helps preserve dignity of Pecola (Morrison 2000).

As a side effect of the separation of the protagonist and the narrator in the story, Morrison achieves yet another effect, namely that readers can compare passive innocence of Pecola, who longs to be loved and when confronted with family problems wishes to disappear, with Claudia, who is innocent in her protests against commandments of adults to children, and in her refusal of the way black people idealize white beauty. In essence, Claudia is innocent as long as she remains tolerant and sincere towards her peers, and avoids the adoption of the widespread self-hatred among many African Americans.

However, what is different about Claudia`s situation is that she has a stable family, and enjoys a loving atmosphere, which leaves place for our optimism that even in hard times integrity between people is nevertheless possible. Alternatively, if we take into account the relations between Claudia and her sister with Pecola, it can be as well seen that even people living in favorable circumstances are not immune form the disturbing influences of racism and violence prevailing in society.

Indeed, on several occasions Claudia has to protect Pecola in both direct and indirect ways, for instance when boys harass her, or when upon learning about Pecola`s pregnancy Claudia and her sister want to find a way to avoid the rejection of her baby by the community. Thus, Claudia also plays an important role in the novel as she combines the presence of hope in her character with her immediate involvement into tragic events of Pecola`s life. Arguably, this fragile balance reflects a crucial quality of innocence as such, which may be defined as a human ability to withstand hardships, and remain sensitive and caring (Morrison and Taylor-Guthrie 1994, pp.60-66).

Of course, as in many works of literature there are various levels of meaning, the theme of the loss of innocence in the novel “The Bluest Eye” may equally be viewed not only in an abstract but in a direct way because of the ubiquitous presence of accounts of sexual experiences of different characters in the story. As the result of those revelations, the author depicts the period of the sexual development in an abusive environment as potentially very traumatic. Besides, these are parents of children who must be blamed for a large portion of the emotional burden that accompanies sexual experiences of their children.

For one, aside from the terrible rape of Pecola by her father, the experience of Frieda, who is living with a suppressed fear of becoming similar to prostitutes, demonstrates that the lack of parental guidance makes the accommodation by girls of their sexual concerns much more difficult, and puts them into emotional dilemmas that might be avoided. This problem is yet another addition by the author to her exploration of the complex theme of innocence as an inpidual, emotional, and social conception.

References:

  • Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press, 2003.
  • Goring, Paul, Hawthorn, Jeremy, and Mitchell, Domhnall. Studying Literature: The Essential Companion. A Hodder Arnold Publication, 2001.
  • Haskins, Jim. Toni Morrison: Magic Of Words. Millbrook Press, 2001.
  • Morrison, Toni, and Taylor-Guthrie, Danille Kathleen (Ed.). Conversations With Toni Morrison. University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
  • Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Plume, 2000.
  • Raimes, Ann. Keys for Writers: A Brief Handbook. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

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