Survivor’s Guilt: Claudia and The Bluest Eye

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.

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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?

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15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wilhelmina Jenkins on June 28, 2010 at 2:08 PM

    Wonderful post. Claudia is an excellent narrator of this story. Pecola’s brokenness is obvious, but the brokenness that Claudia and the rest of us, all of us, regardless of ethnicity, carry with us as a legacy of slavery and institutional racism, is not always on the surface. Like a poorly healed wound, we can’t ignore it and hope for the best. We have to do the necessary work of opening the wound so that it can heal. This is still not an easy book to read, but 40 years ago, it really rocked the world. Thanks to all the writers participating in this roundtable.

    Reply

    • Hi Mina, thanks for your comment! Did you read the book when it came out? I’d love to hear more about your first reading. I didn’t pick it up until college and once I read it, I was just stunned (and a little irritated that I had not found Morrison sooner) but it was not a pleasurable experience. That would come later when I started teaching and re-reading the book….

      Reply

      • Posted by Wilhelmina Jenkins on June 28, 2010 at 5:41 PM

        I did read it when it first came out and it was stunning, in all meanings of the word.This was unlike anything I (or anyone else, for that matter!) had ever read. This was not the kind of writing that authors in the Black Arts Movement were publishing – strong Black community, struggle, etc. This was painful – I don’t think that reading this book for the first time could be pleasant for anyone. On subsequent readings, the beauty and expressiveness of the language can bring pleasure, but the first reading was a shock. And an acknowledgment that we were far more damaged than our positive rhetoric was reflecting.

        Reply

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by The Bottom of Heaven and The Bottom of Heaven, lindywasp. lindywasp said: RT @claudia_m: Latest Post: "Survivor's Guilt: Claudia and The Bluest Eye" http://wp.me/pjzwn-14I [...]

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  3. Posted by giovanna on June 28, 2010 at 5:21 PM

    fantastic review, claudia.

    Reply

  4. This IS a fantastic review. I love Claudia’s anger in this book. I love how she works through it, thinks about it, and wrestles with where it comes from and why it is directed towards people and thing. She is able to point out the things we might miss — the example of the country house child calling “Polly” while Pecola, her own daughter, calls her Mother “Mrs. Breedlove”is coming to mind — and that she feels rightly angry. Anger is so important. And that Claudia’s voice is used to position that anger not at a person, but at the Thing (as she calls it), allows us as readers to understand the situation in a more broader perspective… (and without making white folks feel shame or reprisal).

    Reply

    • I’m glad you called attention to that capital “T” – Thing, Holly. Morrison draws on a great range of strategies like this to emphasize how elusive and abstract these forces are (although they have very real effects). I think it’s wonderful.

      It would be great to talk more (here or in your post!) about whether or not you think Morrison’s refusal to villainize anyone – i.e. “making white folks feel shame” or even by humanizing a character like Cholly for instance – is ultimately a safer choice on Morrison’s part.

      Many of my students find this frustrating. They want Morrison to condemn people not just the standards and ideals they represent. I like to point out that there are many, many novels by black writers that already do this. And as Mina points out above, Morrison was moving against the tide of the Black Arts Movement in that respect. Still, a question worth exploring…

      Reply

  5. I loved the part about the Shirley Temple and the idea that Black girls turned their hate or envy into love for such things for fear of what their true feeling would bring.

    I think Claudia, or a girl was the best choice for a narrator. Back then adults adults didn’t pay much attention to children, even less if they were poor black and ugly.

    But Claudia could see Pecola. And to Claudia she wasn’t someone to gossip about. Pecola was a person with feelings.

    I think the only other choice for a narrator woud’ve been one of the prostitutes or maybe all three.

    I am glad I wasn’t first need to go polish up my post.

    Reply

    • LOL, Doret! I’m looking forward to your post. Now I’m trying to image how this novel would sound from the point of view of Maginot Line or one of the other prostitutes! We would lose the child’s point of view, but still, we would learn so much more about everyone else. Now that would be interesting.

      Reply

  6. [...] you stopped by The Bottom of Heaven lately?  Claudia has posted the first in a series of reflections on Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.  I’ll be contributing my [...]

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  7. I think Claudia does have a valid point in her assessment. If you have 1000 people telling you that you are Black – and therefore unworthy of love and incapable of beauty – and only one person saying the opposite…and then another 500 people who don’t say anything…it adds up and can destroy a little girl’s soul.

    Great post. Makes me nervous about writing mine. Eeeek!!!

    Reply

    • Thanks, Evelyn! No need to be nervous! I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.

      And I think those 500 people who don’t say anything are probably more damaging than the 1000 people who do. We’ve got to do better!

      Reply

  8. Posted by Xavier on July 5, 2010 at 6:01 AM

    This is a great great post and discussion. Claudia I wonder if you can say more about that word ‘dismember,’ which you focus on in Claudia’s narration and then expand upon to help us see our obligation to ‘dismember oppressive belief systems in our own communities.’ This Claudia reading Claudia moment is superb! That ‘dismember’ word fascinates me; it is such a cruel word, revolting perhaps. Yet its cruelty can be put to good use. For me, it looks so much like ‘disremember’ and has its root ‘member’ and suffix ‘dis,’ which I think can signal negation, reversal, removal, separation or expulsion. So I wonder, is the act to dismember always a gruesome act? Is the difficulty of the novel necessary in order to help us realize, what you rightfully describe as, “the way we value ourselves also determines how we treat one another.” I love your post!

    Reply

    • Awww, you’re awesome to pick up on my use of “dismember.” I guess I am sort of saying that yes, this kind of cruelty can be put to good use. When I looked back on the difference between Claudia and Pecola, I kept thinking that they are both participating in the same urge – a curiosity that involves the pulling apart and peeling back and cutting off.

      But with Pecola it is internalized and she looks inside herself and there’s nothing there to value because it doesn’t seem to match the objects of her desire. Claudia, on the other hand, is more complex (and a little more interesting) to me because she externalizes this on the white doll and it becomes a learning experience. She figures out that the person called “Claudia” and the “object” (the white dolls, other people’s opinions) are not one in the same and that’s how it is. Now, it gets even stickier when she tries to turn this urge onto actual people… so there’s always a danger in dismembering (and disremembering) when taken too far.

      Reply

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