Lovely Professional University
Toni Morrison, the writer of The Bluest Eye, raised a voice against the sexual oppression of the Whites. Most of her themes are focused on the plight of the black women who suffered male domination and marginalization. The present paper will explore that the theme of rape in The Bluest Eye is not pornographic in nature but it is used as a redemptive tool to restore order out of chaos. The scenes of incest are symbols of the human dilemmas that result from social oppression. In Morrison’s world 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.
Keywords: Sexual oppression, male domination, marginalization, dilemma, patriarchal institution.
The present research paper deals with the traumatic journey of Pecola, one of the most representative protagonists of Toni Morrison’s famous novel, The Bluest Eyes published in 1970. Morrison challenges Western standards of beauty and demonstrates that the concept of beauty is socially constructed. In her article “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power”, Sandra Lee Bartky examines the construction of Western femininity by applying Michel Foucault’s theories about the production of subjectivity in modern societies. Foucault argues that “discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, docile bodies” (62) Pauline Breedlove, Geraldine, Maureen Peal, and Pecola are black characters who try to conform to an imposed ideal of femininity. Rape serves as an explicit theme in The Bluest Eyes as Morrison deals with gender, oppression, love, class and race. In the words of Gibson “They are absorbed and marginalized by the “cultural icons portraying physical beauty: movies, billboards, magazines, books, newspapers, window signs, dolls, and drinking cups” (20). The Bluest Eye is focused at living up to the standards of white beauty, and the injustice of being black in a white world.
Morrison got Noble Prize for literature for she raised a voice against the sexual oppression of the Whites; most of her themes are focused on the plight of the black women who suffered male domination and marginalization. The theme of rape is not pornographic in nature but it is used as a redemptive tool to restore order out of chaos. 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. Pecola is a twelve years old innocent black girl. She is a fragile and delicate child when the plot of the novel begins. Morrison has depicted her journey from innocence to her insanity in the most touching lyrical language. In many of her interviews, Morrison explains that she purposely tells Pecola’s story from other points to view to keep her dignity intact despite her rape by her own father Cholly. Morrison raised many questions as Pecola’s rape is symbolical and has to be understood in broader perspectives. The incestuous rape is nearly impossible for a reader to comprehend. While literary critics have postulated that the rape is the soul product of Cholly’s desolate past or an expression of his hatred of women. The tragic story of Pecola is not that of a girl but she is depicted as a representative of black community suffering from poverty, fear and oppression. The novel begins with her two desires; she wants to learn how to get people to love her. She has often observed her parents fighting in a brutal manner and she longs to disappear since the disorderly atmosphere of her home has made her restless. Claudia narrates parts of the Bluest Eyes from a child’s perspective and sometimes of an adult looking back. Like Pecola, she suffers from racist beauty standards, poverty and fear. Sandra Bartky in her famous article On Psychological Oppression (2006) makes it clear that she is taking over an analysis of racism from Frantz Fanon and applying it to oppressive relations between men and women. Bartky talks about oppressive relations between the sexes: stereotyping, cultural domination, and sexual objectification. Pecola lives in a world of fantasy and she believes that if she were blessed with bluest eyes, the people would change their opinion about her and instead of hating her, they would love her. Barbara Christian comments in her “A Promise Song” that Pecola’s story does not follow “the usual mythic cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, from planting to harvest to planting. Her will proceed from pathos to tragedy and finally madness.” (140). In the first section “Autumn” Morrison tells the story of Pecola, Ferida’s failure to plant marigold is mentioned thus:
We had dropped seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair. What is clear now is that of all that hope, fear, lust, love and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth. Cholly Breedlove is dead, our innocence too. (9)
Pecola’s tragedy and insanity are inevitable in the novel. The plot of the novel is loaded with illusions. In this very section Claudia provides the facts that the whole black community is in turmoil as she establishes the time, place and structure of the novel. There are so many hints given by Claudia suggesting the conflicts and confusions in the community. The readers are told that Mr. Henry “our roomer “has committed some unspeakable act. We are informed that “ old Dog Breedlove has burned up his house, gone upside his wife’s head, is now in the jail” (17) The Breed love are victims of a racist, class conscious society, they suffer extreme poverty and deprivation, the most insidious effects of racism as well as sexism are represented by the maliciousness of stereotypes. Claudia explains that although “the poverty of Breed love was traditional and stultifying, it was not unique. But their ugliness was unique” (17) Claudia observes thus:
The master has said,” You are ugly people”. They had looked at themselves and saw nothing to construct the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance…” (34)
The rape of Pecola must be investigated from the perspective of poverty, fear, dehumanization of the blacks and the inner conflicts of the black community. Morrison has discussed the rape scene as a case study in the novel. Its repercussions are not limited to Pecola alone but to all the black girls and women who were treated as the property of the whites.
To better understand Cholly’s action of raping his own daughter, it is important to understand his past. Firstly he was abandoned by both parents. Cholly experiences genuine suffering, having been abandoned in a junk heap as a baby. He is violent, nihilistic, a victim of white oppression and domination. He is not free to love and enjoy. He represents a negative form of freedom. He is free to have sex and fight and even to kill. Cholly did not grow up in an environment where he was successfully nurtured. His father skipped town when he found out that he had impregnated Cholly’s mother, who then abandoned Cholly in a trash pile soon after he was born. Cholly was left to be raised by his elderly Aunt Jimmy. Although Aunt Jimmy genuinely cared for him, he had difficulty connecting to her as a real parent. He even thinks as a child that “when she made him sleep with her for warmth in winter and he could see her old wrinkled breasts sagging in her nightgown —then he wondered whether it would have been just as well to have died [in the trash]” (Morrison 132). If Cholly really saw her as a legitimate parent, then he would enjoy sharing a bed with her in winter. Sharing a bed with a parent is generally a pleasant memory for most children. Conversely, Morrison makes this moment between Cholly and Aunt Jimmy uncomfortable and loveless. Since Aunt Jimmy raised Cholly since birth, it would be expected that he would view her as his parent; however, his disgust of sharing a bed with her proves otherwise. Cholly is also affected by his nonexistent relationship with his birth mother. Aunt Jimmy openly tells Cholly that “his mama didn’t name [him] nothing. That nine days wasn’t up before she throwed [him] on the junk heap” (133). After this incident, Cholly “didn’t ask anything else” (133). Cholly understands from a young age that a parent/child relationship is not necessarily one that is filled with love. Cholly’s first example of parenting was to be left nameless in a “junk heap,” and then later to be coldly reminded of it by his surrogate mother (133). Cholly does not know the real definition of a successful relationship between a parent and child. Bakerman persuasively describes Cholly as being “set adrift by the death of his guardian, taunted and humiliated by white men during his first sexual encounter, […Because he] does not know about nurturing love, and feeling love, he is incapable of expressing it healthfully” (544). Bartky observes thus:
A person is sexually objectified when her sexual parts or sexual functions are separated out from the rest of her personality and reduced to the status of mere instruments or else regarded as if they were capable of representing her (28).
As people grow and mature, it is essential for them to have lessons on how to relate to others. Cholly never learned from a parent how to be a parent, and he did not learn from a first
lover how to love. He himself is a hopeless character who never received real love and affection from his natural parents, and he knows that he has given none to Pecola. The critic Vickroy writes that Cholly recognizes this: “because Pecola is like Cholly once was, small and impotent.” He begins to question why she should ever love him as a father, because he can offer her nothing. He considers that “if he looked her in the face, he would see those haunted, loving eyes. The hauntedness would irritate him, the love would move him to fury” (161).
The rape scene of Pecola has excited controversies among the critics of Morrison. Jones and Vinson observe that Cholly loved Pecola even though his” touch was fatal”, for the love of a free man is never safe”(206) Holloway observes that rape of Cholly is a “tremendous and overwhelming act of paternal violence, the rape of Pecola by her father indeed is diabolical” (44) Bayerman in his Beyond Racism observes that Cholly had been socially conditioned to view himself as an “object of disgust”, he could do nothing “ other than objectify Pecola, he exploits his daughter because his own exploitation makes it impossible to do otherwise” (59) Carmean says: “ At least he wanted to touch his daughter. Pauline Breedlove responds to the rape by beating Pecola,an act not less brutal than Cholly’s” (24) The famous critic Often observes thus:
“A profound expression of love, the rape is also an exercise of power, freedom, a protest against an unjust and repressive culture.” (24) 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 bothering” that is woven into the fabric of American life; in the novel Cholly fails to “fulfill 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).
It is quite ironical that Pecola expressed her anxiety to know the mysteries of love and life in the earlier part of the novel. She poignantly asked” How do you get somebody to love you?” (32). Pecola feels that she is unlovable as nobody loves her, she craves for the affection of her father to be raped by him. Pecola is highly vulnerable, sensitive, innocent and almost a child of Nature. Her innocence is smothered by her own father who suffers from self-contempt and loathing. She is a helpless victim of her father’s humiliating fury. Morrison depicts Cholly’s animalistic disposition prior to the rape scene thus:
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)
When he rapes Pecola, Cholly inflicts on her his own nihilistic feelings and humiliations. Pecola becomes a psychic wreck like Blanche of Tennessee Williams The Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche suffers because of her own false delusions and acts of perversions. Blanche is removed to the asylum at the end of the drama and the readers don’t pity her but the sufferings of Pecola are the consequences of false system and oppression of the whites. In the world of The Bluest Eye, an individual who is completely isolated, or outdoors, from both society and her community is unable to find success in any endeavor, and will ultimately fall victim to the world in which she lives. While describing Cholly Breedlove’s offenses against his family, Claudia explains thus:
There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors. If you
are put out, you go somewhere else; if you are outdoors, there is no place to go…Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life” (17)
To conclude, in the novel The Bluest Eyes, Toni Morrison uses the tool of rape to depict the cruelties of the whites, the insecurity of the blacks, their marginalization and sexual oppression. The rape of Pecola has wider implications. The novel illustrates how the story deals with a broken childhood and the loss of innocence due to a father’s “lust or despair”.
Bakerman, Jane S. “Failures of Love: Female Initiation in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” American Literature. 52.4 (1981): 541-564. Print.
Bartky, Sandra.On Psychological Oppression September, 18, 2006 Print.
Mermann-Jozwiak, Elizabeth. “Re-membering the Body: Body Politics in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory. 12.2 (2001): 189-204. Print.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Penguin Books, 1994. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Interviewed by Bonnie Angelo. “The Pain of Being Black.” Time. Time, 22 May 1989. Web. 30 Mar. 2009.
Vickroy, Laurie. “The Politics of Abuse: The Traumatized Child in Toni Morrison and Maguerite Duras.” Mosaic. 29.2 (1996): 91-110.