Dr J. P. Aggarwal/The Aesthetics of Sexuality: Incest Theme in the Fiction of Toni Morrison

Dr J.P. Aggarwal

Assistant Professor

Lovely Professional University        

Toni Morrison created a sensation in the world introducing unconventional incest themes in her novels such as The Bluest Eyes and Beloved. For Morrison the incest themes are restorative, an attempt to restore a broken-down social order. In this study taboo sexuality is investigated to explore the traumas of the Blacks who suffered oppression because of age old slavery. Indeed, Morrison’s portrayals of incest and the age taboo are not entirely violent and regressive but depicted as examples of redemptive sex acts. The scenes of incest are symbols of the human dilemmas that result from social oppression. Each character is a representative of a   certain type of racial group, social class, or type of personality. Foucault in his famous The History of Sexuality (1976) investigated the various modes of sexuality and inspired the writers to take the themes of sexuality seriously. His main perception is historical. He opines that the history of sexuality over the past three hundred years has been a history of repression. Sex, except for the purposes of reproduction is taboo.

Theories of Julie Kristeva and Helene Cixous best define the subtleties of Morrison’s novels. Cixous introduced the concept of “writing the body” in The Laugh of the Medusa (1975), and created a sensation in the literary world. She demanded in her essay Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways out/Forays,”that women “write the body.” She averred that “Woman is body more than man is” (100). Men sublimate whereas women generally do not: “Women have not sublimated. Fortunately.”

SEXUALITIES: A POWERFUL TOOL TO CONFRONT THE SOCIETY

It is observed that “Sexuality” generally refers to a person’s sexual activities and sexual feelings. Sigmund Freud has given many theories about sexuality. The term can refer to person’s sexual desires, their feelings about sex, their sexual habits and their sexual identity. Freud says in his book The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (1938) observes thus:

“Freud also makes the point that people who are behaviorally abnormal are always sexually abnormal in his experience but that many people who are normal behaviorally otherwise are sexually abnormal also.” (562–563).

Sexuality is often used to describe how a person expresses his own sexual feelings. Sexuality includes how a person identifies himself as a certain gender, and it is considered distinct from sex as a biological construct. Interestingly female body is used as a tool in the novels of Toni Morrison. The present researcher has relied on objectification theory” to investigate and analyze the theme of sexuality in the fiction of Toni Morrison According to Fredrickson and Roberts, objectification theory defines” that many women are sexually objectified and treated as an object to be valued for its use. The sexual exploitation and victimization of African American women from the days of slavery to the present has led to media images and stereotypes of Black women as sexual aggressors and sexual savages.” (8) Bartky defines sexual objectification theory as, “a woman’s body is singled out and separated from her, she is viewed primarily as a physical object of male sexual desire.’’(8)

According to Objectification theory, Women become victim of men’s gaze, they are sexually oppressed and their entire process leads to their process leads to their abnormally and sexual dysfunction. They become depressed and the result is neurotic and anxiety and psychic pressures on their sensitive minds. In the novels of Toni Morrison these elements are abundantly found in the women protagonist. Morrison’s use of sexuality is to depict individuals and their social struggles and conflicts contributed in her writing. In my investigation therefore focuses on how Morrison uses sexuality to show what is “wrong” with society and it is interesting to observe how her characters attitudes and background are revealed through their sexual behaviour, which illustrates how sexuality is a result of social and cultural construction.

THEME OF INCEST IN TONI MORRISON: PORTRAYAL OF BLACK ANGUISH

Incest is sexual activity between family members or close relatives. This typically includes sexual activity between people blood relations, for example Cholly in The Bluest Eyes rapes his own daughter Pecola shows that the women were used as a sexual tool in the hands of men either in the past or in the present. The Bluest Eye is the story of two sisters, and particularly Pecola who thinks that if she only had blue eyes, people would be nice to her. The story deals with the effects of low self-esteem, violence, drinking, poverty, abuse, incest and shame, which can all be linked, in one way or another, to oppression. The blacks are oppressed by the white society, the children suffer different kinds of oppression and lack of love from their parents, and in turn the children oppress one another. The story of the three girls illustrates how children who live in an environment of subjugation are affected and are forced to survive in the society

ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE OF TABOOS

Levi-Strauss believes that mythology has been one of the sub-field of “religious anthropology” (207) to suffer the most. Myths are still widely interpreted in conflicting ways: as collective dreams, as the outcome of a kind of esthetic play, or as the basis of ritual. Mythological figures are considered as personified abstractions, divinized heroes, or fallen gods. Toni Morrison was impacted by the anthropological theories of Lewis Strauss and used the tools of incest and taboos to depict the tyranny of the whites in her fiction. In The Bluest Eyes Pecola believes that it is her not being beautiful that causes her parents to behave badly. The same goes for other people she meets; it is as if she expects them to dislike her for her ugliness and her blackness. “Pecola‟s yearning for blue eyes – the white American standard of beauty – is an external manifestation of the internal need to be loved and accepted by the white community” (52).

Toni Morrison published her first novel The Bluest Eye in 1970, the plot of the novel is set in Lorain, Ohio. Claudia is a female child; Morrison found a touching way to explore the damaging effect of notions of beauty in America. Claudia is the main narrator, her voice is touching; she is pure, innocent, and possessing beauty. It reinforces the reader’s awareness of the tainted gaze of racism in American society. In Morrison’s world women are oppressed due to the reason of gender politics. Firstly, women are oppressed by the patriarchal institution of the social world. Secondly, being a black woman is a double burden. Thirdly, the brutal white society dehumanizes them, rapes them freely, and makes them morbid, sick and decadent.

Pecola is the main protagonist whose rape is the main focus of the writer which is symbolical of the tyranny of the Whites. Pecola is not a sane character, she is highly ambitious, restless and being a black girl suffers from the traumas of age old slavery and repression. Pecola approaches the brink of insanity due to her desire for “blue eyes”. She seeks the aid of a “spiritualist and psychic reader,” Soaphead Church. Pecola tells him that she cannot go to school anymore. She is too tired of victimization and she needs to have “blue eyes.”

Morrison too was always restless being aware of “racial self-loathing.” (.210) Morrison challenges Western standards of beauty and observes that the concept of beauty is socially constructed She is proud of being black, portrays positive images of blackness and focuses on the damage that the black women characters suffer through the construction of femininity in a radicalized society. The Bluest Eye is the story of Pecola Breedlove, a twelve-year-old Black girl living in poverty who is pregnant with her father’s child. Morrison uses the incest theme in the novel to call attention to social gender imbalances and the devastating consequences of incestuous rape. For instance, Madonne M. Milner in her famous article Lady No Longer Sings the Blues: Rape, Madness, and Silence in The Bluest Eye.” Published in 1985 reads the novel as a tragic version of the rape of Philomela myth what she articulates as “a sequence of rape, madness, and silence,” (176). Miner contends that Pecola “remains behind blue eyes, an inarticulate, arm-fluttering bird” (189). Pecola is obsessed with her ugly skin, her friends ridicule her for her ugly skin and she always dreams to have blue eyes like the Whites. By the end of the novel, she is driven mad by her desire to live up to White social standards of beauty

. Cholly’s rape of Pecola destroys “her vision of love and its potential,” explaining that “Following the rape, Pecola, . . . knows that for her, even love is bound to be dirty, ugly, of a piece with the fabric of her world” (188). Toni Morrison seriously connects sexual abuse with contemporary racial oppression. Pecola’s incestuous rape is an expected consequence of her racial discrimination, economic poverty and social segregation. This study explores how the incest theme in The Bluest Eye is used as an effective symbol for the trauma and oppression of Black women who suffered the horrors of slavery. Vickroy (1996) argues that Pecola represents “the neglect, exploitation, disempowerment and disavowal” of her African American community and that the novel is the story of the “oppressive social and familial forces” that result from colonization (91). The rape scene of Pecola is a case study of racial discrimination, “that subject is racial self-loathing” (84). Scott views incest in the novel as Morrison’s attempt to expose the even “darker” system of “racial Othering” that is woven into the fabric of American life; in the novel Cholly fails to “fulfil the role of father” as a result of this system of racial othering (87). To Scott, the rape “completes the dehumanizing and scapegoating of Pecola, confirming for the community her status as an “other‟ marked by immorality, ugliness, and blackness” (90).

Morrison gives insight of Cholly’s state of mind before and after his act of abuse, “evidence of his conflicted emotions.” Cholly was dead drunk when he returned home; Morrison describes the anguished self of Cholly immediately prior to the rape:

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 accomplish that would earn him his own respect, that would in turn allow him to accept her love? (161-62)

Morrison had a passion to depict women that are real and not just contrived to live in a world without racism, sexism, and a society that does not uphold white ideals over blacks.

Indeed, Morrison is interested m studying women that are real. Instead of creating women that fit into an ideal, she gives us realistic women who believe in particular ideals that are unrealistic. From a young age many of Morrison’s women are led to self-destruction by their belief in master narratives that bring about their self-destruction. Pauline and Pecola Breedlove exemplify the wrongs done to blacks by white ideals. The portrayal of sexuality in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. (2002) affirms that incest is “an expression of anger and frustration” (90). He contends that Cholly “is angry at himself, angry, perhaps, at the society he lives in, and he is frustrated by his powerlessness” (90). He further argues that Cholly “displaces his self-hatred, his guilt and impotence, ‟ onto his innocent daughter” (90). All these critics conclude that the exposure of Blacks to sustained racial and economic oppression is used as an explanation for what is perceived to be socially defunct, harmful, even monstrous sexual behavior. Morrison still admits that the aspects of “woundability” that Pecola experiences may be a problem for all young girls

Morrison wrote the novel The Bluest Eye (1970 to depict the traumas of the Blacks, she observed thus:

The extremity of Pecola’s case stemmed largely from a crippled and crippling family—unlike the average black family and unlike the narrator’s. But singular as Pecola’s life was, I believed some aspects of her woundability were lodged in all young girls. (211)

It is pertinent to note that Pecola suffered from the negative traits of character. Geraldine is a middle class black woman in the novel who observed negative traits in Pecola. Geradline   represses her black characteristics which are not ‘fitted’ to white femininity as she strives “to get rid of the funkiness” ( 64). She also rejects Pecola when she sees her in her house as Pecola seems to embody all the negative aspects of her views of black girls:

She looked at Pecola. Saw the 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 had been walked down into the heel on the shoe. … (,71-72).

The American society is at the crossroads and the total decay is imminent. Nature itself is out of joint. Contrary to the natural order of the fall season, where “marigolds” should bloom, Pecola is said to be having her father’s baby and “the marigolds did not grow” (5). Pecola’s rape and loss of her innocence symbolize the disintegration of the American moral order and the rule of destructive forces. Morrison aptly avers thus:

Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair. What is clear now is that of all of that hope, fear, lust, love, and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth. Cholly Breedlove is dead; our innocence too. The seeds shriveled and died; her baby too (6)

The circumstances that destroyed Pecola’s future is a mirror of the larger cultural impediments that would lead to her ultimate fate and set the house that America built on fire.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) evokes the trace of rape experienced during slavery. Morrison is not concerned with the trauma of any specific individual, but the collective suffering of the larger black community. The theme of rape is visualized as the ultimate signifier for the black people. Sethe is a Black woman who desperately struggled to imagine a future in which her children could escape the bondage of slavery. Once Sethe encountered with her mother on her way to Sweet Home and showed her a mark under her left breast, a mark that would reminded her of the event when she was hanged and tortured. The mark symbolized her slavish indignity. Sehte was haunted throughout her life as she felt dehumanized. Sethe had also witnessed the killings of a large group of slaves. Morrison represents the bodies of slaves, male and female treated as the property of Whites. As a result of this objectification of slave bodies, there was no question as to their human rights and they could use and abuse the bodies for their sexual pleasures. The bodies of women were objectified, because their offspring would supply additional slave bodies for the increase of capital for their slave owners. Toni Morrison’s Beloved excavates the inner landscape of the Black women. Julia Kristeva gives the psychological analysis and observes that Morrison is using the objectification as a tool to depict the traumas of the Black women. Bhabha uses Morrison’s Beloved to depict the horrors of slavery and sexual oppression. In Beloved, the house is haunted by the ghost of the daughter who had been killed as an infant by her own mother. The ghost returns to avenge the injustices of slavery which forced the mother Sethe to commit the infanticide, and in the novel Sethe, reconstructs the narrative of the murder bringing to light what is unnamed and unmentioned. The return of her daughter Beloved through Sethe’s reclaiming and renaming her, signifies the return of Sethe’s life and the freedom from the past that haunts her.

The traces of rape in Beloved most often appear in one or two sentences that reveal the existence of the trauma, Nan tells how she and Sethe’s mother “were taken up many times by the crew” during their passage 62). The next sentences reveal that Sethe’s mother had a child as a result of being “taken up,” confirming that these words signify rape. Sethe’s mother and Nan were repeatedly used for the sexual gratification of the crew; Sethe’s mother was so much disgusted by the horrible experience that she abandoned the resultant child. Morrison wrote about the complete objectification of a slave woman’s body by the white men who enjoyed “playing checkers” with slaves, as Baby Suggs had called it, moving people around as if they were objects. In Beloved, Sethe discovered that the white Schoolteacher treated a black woman as a piece of property. She was not a mother, only the breeder of more slaves. Sethe began to understand her marginalized status; she was not valued as a woman because of her black skin signified darkness and evil. Her function in society was to serve the white man only and her body was for use and sexual abuse,   Sethe tries to justify her attempts to kill her children at the end of the novel. She wants Beloved to understand why she took this monstrous act. Sethe articulates her inner trauma thus:

That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing—the part of her that was clean. . . . (251)

Sethe killed her child to save him from the possession of the Schoolteacher. Her two sons had run away when she grabbed the axe to try to kill all of her children. Sethe suffers eternal plight when Beloved, her dead child reappears as a ghost, she quits her job to stay with her day and night, not realizing that the person she thinks is Beloved is an incubus come back to haunt and torture Sethe. Her words were heard by all who had settled into the community of black freed slaves:

Here in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love our flesh. They despise. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just soon pick „them out. No more do they love the skin on your back. ( 89).

Beloved is loaded with the images of rape, murder and sexual abuses. Morrison depicts the ideals of the white oppressor, murder, rape, sexual assaults were common incidents and all the Black women struggled to face the powerful forces. There are horrifying sexual scenes in the novel. Morrison depicts the heartrending episode of the breast milk of Sethe. The nephews of Schoolteacher stole Sethe’s breast milk much as they might have done to a pregnant cow. Elila is locked up and repeatedly raped by father and son for a year by saying, “You couldn’t think up . . . what them two done to me” (Morrison 119). Ella labels her sexual assaults an abomination, and uses them as a benchmark against which she measures other abusive behavior. Sethe’s husband suffers mental disintegration as he witnesses the rape of his wife notwithstanding the horror of the forced suckling. Sethe is often raped by the crew.

To conclude, the scenes of sexuality are common in Beloved depicting the internal volcano of revenge and hatred of the Blacks. Sethe’s relationship with Paul D., “the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry” (17) re-establishes her body as a site of pleasure. Sethe kills her daughter so that no “gang of whites [would invade] her daughter’s private parts, [soil] her daughter’s thighs” ( 251). Sethe believes death to be a kinder alternative than rape; that worse than death is the fact that “anybody white could take your whole self . . . [and] dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up (251).

TONI MORRISON AND SEXUALITY AS A TOOL

Morrison’s famous novel Sula (1974) aims to show how a sexist society and an unequal balance between the sexes in the community. In Morrison’s fiction, sexuality is part of the social construction of gender. In Sula, women are portrayed either in terms of being concentrated around the home and the family. Nel and Helene see sexuality as part of marriage Eva the desexed matriarch, Hannah the promiscuous woman fail to form healthy sexual relationships. Sula refuses to act like a “good” woman and who sleeps around, not wanting to settle down and have babies. Morrison uses sexuality as a tool to depict the inner anxieties of women. Sexual behaviour serves as an indicator and an expression of gender codes. In Morrison’s narratives, gender is linked to oppression to elucidate the role of the oppressive males who use their sexuality as a tool to suppress their victims. Entering adulthood and married life, Nel becomes the dull individual, her mother has successfully shaped, whereas Sula becomes a sexual predator. .When Sula betrays Nel’s trust and sleeps with Jude, she is pushing Nel into a void of despair and loneliness: “Nel marries Jude out of sheer pity for his plight, but when she loses her husband to Sula’s careless seduction; she knows that she will have no other men” (72).

BLACK IMAGE OF SEXUALITY: RAPE CULTURE OF TONI MORRISON.

Rape involves sexual penetration of a person by force. Rape is committed overwhelmingly by men and boys, usually against women and girls. But in the novels of Toni Morrison rape is used effectively. In black culture, rape and their sexualities symbolize the persecution of the blacks by the white. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye and Sula are analyzed from the American perspective. There are of course a number of examples of sexual abuse and oppression to be drawn from Morrison’s works, like the abuse of Sethe in Beloved (1987). However, the oppression of Sethe serves to illustrate the systematic oppression through slavery carried out by the white members of society. The rape of slave women by their masters was primarily a weapon of terror that reinforced whites’ domination over their human property.

Rape was an act of physical violence designed to stifle Black women’s will to resist and to remind them of their servile status …. Whites’ sexual exploitation of their slaves, therefore, should not be viewed simply as either a method of slave-breeding or the fulfillment of slaveholders’ sexual urges. (29-30)

WORKS CITED

Primary source

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

…. Beloved. New York : Penguin, 1999. Print.

….Sula. New York : Penguin, 1973. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Subject in/of/to History and His Story.” A Poetics of Postmodernism : History, Theory, Fiction. Ed. Linda Hutcheon. London: Routledge, 1988. Print.

SECONDARY SOURCES

Brooks, K.. “Women’s sexual self-efficacy and communication: The role of body image” American Psychological Association Journal, Toronto, Print.2009.Print.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Workings ofthe Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s

Writing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1991, Print.

Bass, Ruth “Mojo”. In Alan. Dundes (ed.), Mother Witfrom the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990,380-87.Print.

Broad, Robert L. “Giving Blood to the Scraps: Haints, History, and Hosea in Beloved”.

African American Review 28(2):1994. 189-196.Print.

Davis, Christina “Interview withToni Morrison”. Presence Africaine 1998.145: 141-150.Print.

Cash, T. F (2004). “Body image in an interpersonal context: Adult attachment, fear of intimacy, and social anxiety”. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 89-103. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Subject in/of/to History and His Story.” A Poetics of Postmodernism : History, Theory, Fiction. Ed. Linda Hutcheon. London: Routledge, 1988. Print.

Horvitz, Deborah(1989): “Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved”. Studies in American Fiction 17(2) (Autumn): 157-167.

House, Elizabeth(1990): “Toni Morrison’s Ghost: The Beloved Who is Not Beloved”. Studies in American Fiction 18(1): 17-26.

McDowell, Deborah E. “‘The Self and the Other’: Reading Toni Morrison’s Sula and the Black Female Text.” Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Ed. Nellie McKay. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1988.Print.

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