This post is part of a continuing series celebrating the 40th anniversary of Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye. See the full list of blogger roundtable participants here.
Quiet as it’s kept, not every character in Toni Morrison’s fiction is haunted. Or mad. Some of them stumble through their lives like the rest of us do, a little lost at times, but with both their legs, all their fingertips, and most of their sanity intact. I think of Denver at 124 Bluestone Road or Nel, Sula’s better half, or the sisters Milkman takes for granted in Song of Solomon. Having witnessed unspeakable trauma in their families and communities, these women are the survivors who live to tell the tale and reflect upon its meaning. They may not command as much attention as a mother who kills her own child, but they are among Morrison’s most extraordinary characters. We know their voices, even their mistakes and insecurities are familiar to us, because they are our own.
The survivors in The Bluest Eye are Claudia MacTeer and her older sister, Frieda. The blurb on the back of my book declares that this is “the story of eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove – a black girl in an America whose love for its blond, blue-eyed children can devastate all others” and really, who can argue with that? But The Bluest Eye belongs just as much to the MacTeer sisters. Claudia’s voice – her inquisitiveness, her vulnerabilities and fears – give shape to the narrative. Readers often forget that the story’s unfolding is based on her recollections of the year when the marigolds did not grow. In a passage that could easily be applied to the novel as a whole, Claudia observes:
But was it really like that? As painful as I remember? Only mildly. Or rather, it was a productive and fructifying pain.
Of course, Claudia is not merely an observer. Hers is a mediating voice that remains reflective and mature even as she recalls her years as a child. While Pecola descends into madness, broken by sexual abuse, neglect, and society’s disdain for her so-called “ugliness,” Claudia is also coming of age. She, too, is caught up in the “cultural engine that seems to have been designed specifically to murder possibilities” and, more importantly, she recognizes her own complicity in this cycle of racial self-loathing. Like Pecola, like every child in this Ohio town in the 1940s, Claudia negotiates an understanding of beauty and wholeness through popular culture; she is urged to consume the Dick & Jane Primers as easy as Mary Janes, to drink from Shirley Temple glasses and worship Clark Gable and Jean Harlow at the cinema.
How, then, does Claudia manage to survive while so many others do not? After all, isn’t her brutal desire to dismember blue-eyed baby dolls merely the inverse of Pecola’s desperate craving for love through self-mutilation? Confronted with the toy every grown person insisted was “her fondest wish,” Claudia tells us,
I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me. 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.
Claudia goes looking for the secret of the doll’s power and finds only absence. She cannot “love” the hollow plastic and metal and yarn, but she can’t help but be deeply conscious of its allure in a society that renders her blackness deviant, unstable, inconvenient.
But knowing this (and it’s nearly impossible to live in this country and not know this) does very little to prepare us for Claudia’s self-incriminating revelations at the end of the novel. There Morrison’s narrator acknowledges the extent to which her survival, and that of her entire community, was predicated on Pecola’s disintegration:
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.
All. All of us. All who knew her. I remember when I first read this, how resentful and unwilling I was to appreciate Claudia’s confession. Why should she shoulder any blame? Isn’t Cholly responsible? Or folks like Pauline, Geraldine, and Maureen Peal? And those damn Shirley Temple movies!
Now I marvel at how Morrison’s use of language, so cruel and repulsive at times, allowed me no room for self-serving pity. Claudia’s final thoughts, in particular, have forced me to consider the deeper, more lasting costs of what Morrison’s refers to as the “psychological tricks you have to play in order to get through.” We might survive the absurdities of racism, but at what cost?
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.
This kind of honesty is what I find most empowering about Claudia (as well the unconditional love of her “braver” sister Frieda). Forty years later, her message about living authentically continues to hit home – I’m “licensed,” but am I free? Am I being compassionate, or just polite? Because it is only by sharing stories like The Bluest Eye that we can begin to dismember oppressive belief systems in our own communities, to know that “there ain’t no hiding place” when it comes to life, and to never lose sight of the fact that the way we value ourselves also determines how we treat one another.
Morrison once remarked in an interview, that “everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book — leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity.” Do you agree with Claudia’s assessment about the way that she and the entire community contributed to Pecola’s undoing? What are your thoughts about Claudia as the narrative voice of The Bluest Eye?