Booknotes: The Bluest Eye

One of my reading goals this year is to reread certain favorite books and see how I might respond to them differently — both as a reader and a writer.

I have been meaning to get back to ‘The Bluest Eye‘ for some time now, having read it in 1997 while in my twenties. Twenty years is a long time. I am a different reader, a different writer, and, definitely, a different person. And, though I remember enjoying this book the first time around, I was not prepared for the strong response I had with this latest read. Let me share a bit about why I think this is.

Most people of my generation in the West, particularly in the US, have either come to this 1970 novel during their school or college years. I came to it purely by chance as Toni Morrison only registered for me as a writer worth looking into after she won the 1993 Nobel for Literature. That said, I did not get around to reading this book till 1997 as I mentioned earlier. At the time, I was working as an engineer in England and had never been to the US (I moved to the US permanently in 1998). So, all my knowledge of race relations in the US was based on the Hollywood movies I managed to watch in India or the UK — which is to say, it was sketchy at best.

As happens with most big writing-related prizes, the winning writer’s works get renewed attention through new editions. This 1993 edition has a candid, thoughtful afterword by Morrison where she explains why she wrote it in 1970, what she had hoped to achieve, what she thought were her shortcomings as a first-time novelist, how it had not gotten much attention when it first came out, and so on.

With ‘The Bluest Eye‘, Morrison wanted to explore racial self-contempt and how that comes about in us. In the late-60s, when the idea of different kinds of racial beauty was just beginning to be properly articulated and accepted, she wanted to show, through the life of a twelve-year-old girl, Pecola, how concepts like “ugly” become personal and how they shape personality and, therefore, life. Throughout, Morrison has also scrutinized the effects of religion, shame, classism, colonization (of the mind), gender politics, incest, child molestation, etc.

[Side-note: Interestingly, I have a sense now of how Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning ‘The God of Small Things’ was influenced by Morrison’s novel — many similar themes and feats of language.]

As a girl from a poor black family, Pecola Breedlove belongs to the lowest social strata during the era of the Great Depression (1930s-1940s). Set in Northeast Ohio (another reason I wanted to reread this book as I lived in that region for three years myself), the story is narrated by another child about the same age, Claudia, so that we see Pecola through the eyes of someone with similar sensibilities who gets what’s going on but doesn’t fully understand it at the time either. Pecola, of course, doesn’t even get what’s going on because she has no sense of self whatsoever, other than the self she thinks she needs to be — a blue-eyed beauty — so she can be accepted and loved.

The one major difference between Pecola and Claudia is how the latter feels violent anger toward white beauty while the former reveres it — an interesting juxtaposition because, despite that difference (or perhaps exactly because of it) Claudia immediately notices Pecola’s yearning for such beauty.

This story is about all kinds of self-contempt, beyond racial, and how it can hook itself into a person from early childhood in unconscious ways due to the thoughtless/careless acts and words of others — whether these are intended or not.

To avoid dehumanizing those responsible for creating this kind of mindset in a child, Morrison has given us complex, layered characters who are, to me, almost Dickensian: the parents, Cholly and Pauline, both of whom had their own issues; the busybodies within the close-knit community; the narrator, Claudia, and her family, particularly her sister and mother; the child’s peers from school; and so on. I say “almost” because it is when describing the worst things that happen to or are done by some of these characters that Morrison surpasses Dickens’ pathos. Her truth is searingly honest but kind, and her kindness carefully extends to both the flaws and the virtues of these men and women. Dickens showed us who people are or can be; Morrison shows us who we are or can be.

There are so many scholarly articles about this novel that I am sure I cannot add anything new or different in terms of literary criticism. I can, however, share some of the writing that has slayed me.

On beauty standards and “ugliness”:

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.”

 

“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 it.”

 

Along with romantic love, she was introduced to another — physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap. She forgot lust and simple caring for. She regarded love as possessive mating, and romance as the goal of the spirit. It would be for her a well-spring from which she would draw the most destructive emotions, deceiving the lover, and seeking to imprison the beloved, curtailing freedom in every way.

On how self-contempt gives rise to self-hatred, which is then directed outward to others, perpetuating it further into the larger society:

They had extemporized a verse made up of two insults about matters over which the victim had no control: the color of her skin and speculations on the sleeping habits of an adult, widely fitting in its incoherence. That they themselves were black, or that their own father had similarly relaxed habits was irrelevant. It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult it’s teeth. They seem to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds — cooled — and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path. They danced a macabre ballet around the victim, whom, for their own sake, they were prepared to sacrifice to the flaming pit.

Morrison writes about this in the afterword too:

I knew that some victims of powerful self-loathing turn out to be dangerous, violent, reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over. Others surrender their identity; melt into a structure that delivers the strong persona they lack. Most others, however, grow beyond it. But there are some who collapse, silently, anonymously, with no voice to express or acknowledge it. They are invisible. The death of self-esteem can occur quickly, easily in children, before their ego has “legs,” so to speak. Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which, in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to destruction is sealed. . . And if you have the emotional strength and/or support from family and friends, the damage is reduced or erased. We think of it as the stress (minor or disabling) that is part of life as a human.

And, on the relationship between the oppressors and the oppressed:

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. 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, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.

Along similar lines, here’s how Cholly (Pecola’s father), as a teenager, felt towards his oppressors:

Never did he once consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him … His subconscious knew what his mind did not guess — that hating them would have consumed him, burned him up like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke.

And, oh, the language, the language, the language. Whether she’s writing in colloquial, speakerly, or aural voices, Morrison always brings us right into the hearts and minds of each character so that we are in the middle of everything. And it isn’t simply about how she assembles and arranges the words. Morrison knows how to work in the interstitial silences, where to leave just enough unsaid, so that readers readily invest appropriate emotional energies. The narrative is fragmentary as we go back and forth in time and across characters’ points of view. This, too, is done masterfully because it allows us to enter the world from different angles and become more a part of it.

Interestingly, when the book first came out, some critics had not been happy with how Morrison had used language, complaining about how she had “simplified” it for a particular audience. Nearly fifty years on, however, this narrative reads as fresh as if it was written yesterday.

There are metaphors and similes here that made me reread them right after I’d just read them and then go back and reread them after I’d finished the book — e.g.

. . .when the quarrels about who gets what had seethed down to a sticking gravy on everybody’s tongues. . .

and this extended one:

This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live.

This jazzy bit about how children listen to grownups talking:

Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. 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. The edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions 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 truth in timbre.

This sensual part about how Pauline, Pecola’s mother, falls in love with Cholly, Pecola’s father:

When I first seed Cholly, I want you to know it was like all the bits of color from that time down home when all us chil’ren went berry picking after a funeral and I put some in the pocket of my Sunday dress, and they mashed up and stained my hips. My whole dress was messed with purple, and it never did wash out. Not the dress nor me. I could feel that purple deep inside me. And that lemonade Mama used to make when Pap came in out the fields. It be cool and yellowish, with seeds floating near the bottom. And that streak of green them june bugs made on the trees the night we left from down home. All of them colors was in me. Just sitting there. So when Cholly come up and tickled my foot, it was like them berries, that lemonade, them streaks of green the june bugs made, all come together. Cholly was thin then, with real light eyes. He used to whistle, and when I heerd him, shivers come on my skin.

And then, this bit of universal wisdom:

Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but 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 glare of the lover’s inward eye.

If all of the above has not convinced you to read or reread this novel, I don’t know what will.

I have an unread Morrison on my shelves: ‘Sula’. And there is this weird, inner tussle which other readers will understand: I want to go straight to reading it so I can continue living in Morrison country but I also want to save it to be discovered at another time in my life when I will need to immerse myself again in Morrison’s language, world, wisdom, and, yes, hopefulness. Because, no matter how sad all her stories may be, there is always a kind of hope that keeps flickering in all of the darkness.

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