In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the characters are exposed to unfavorable situations related to sex. A short scholarly essay called “The Bluest Eye Theme of Sex” discusses how the major male characters, Cholly Breedlove, Mr. Henry, and Soaphead Church, are attracted to young girls who ultimately become victims.
Cholly sexually assaults his daughter Pecola, Mr. Henry touches Claudia’s sister Frieda inappropriately, and Soaphead acts upon his sexual desires towards children, particularly young girls. This connection highlights a subtle aspect of the novel – racism. The characters’ sexual behaviors and the destruction of their familial and personal lives are deeply influenced by both racism, specifically the adoption of “white ways,” and early encounters with sexuality. An example of these “white ways” is demonstrated when a neighbor of Claudia and Frieda prohibits them from entering the Greek hotel lobby.
Claudia’s reaction towards a certain person is filled with a mixture of desire and anger. She and her companions are captivated by this person’s bread but are also motivated to strip away her arrogance and eliminate any sense of ownership that she holds. Claudia anticipates the moment when this individual will emerge from her vehicle, giving them an opportunity to physically harm her, leaving visible marks on her usually flawless skin. In response to their aggression, she believes the person will cry and plead with them, even offering to expose herself. Though unsure of how they should respond if this offer were to be made, Claudia and her companions understand that it is a significant gesture, symbolizing an act of vulnerability. However, they counter it by asserting their own pride and refusing to accept such a proposition.
Claudia is angry at her neighbor’s arrogant behavior and wants to harm her as soon as she leaves her car. Claudia connects her neighbor’s attitude to her whiteness and wants to leave visible marks on her skin to ruin her complexion. Claudia also mentions that the woman, out of desperation, may cry out and propose exposing herself. It is concerning that such a young child like Claudia comprehends the concept of sexual abuse.
The woman’s proposal leaves Claudia uncertain about her emotions, but she feels compelled to decline in order to assert her pride. Claudia recognizes that sexually manipulating someone establishes a power dynamic, as she acknowledges the value of what is being offered to her – something intimate and personal – if the woman were to expose herself. While the woman’s dignity and pride have been taken away, Claudia believes that her own pride has been heightened. Similar to other characters in the novel, sexual abuse is employed by abusers as a means of asserting power.
Little does the white race know (especially white men) that they have so recklessly used sexual abuse as a means of humiliation and intimidation. Additionally, in this novel, the “white ways” have posed a threat to the black community by repressing their sexuality. These repressive measures were employed in an attempt to eradicate imperfections within the black population and to establish blacks as inferior. The tactics employed included shaming blacks for their sexual desires and deeming them as animalistic in their behavior.
Whites, due to repression of their own sexual desires, displayed a cruel and distorted behavior. An illustration of this can be seen when Pecola experiences her first menstrual period and becomes aware of her ability to conceive. In this context, the young neighbor, Rosemary, observes the girls engaging in inappropriate activities and promptly informs Claudia’s mother. Coincidentally, Pecola is dealing with the aftermath of her menstruation and is caught trying to hide her blood-soaked pants. Claudia’s mother reacts angrily and punishes all three of them (27-31).
White people teach young black girls to feel ashamed of the changes in their bodies and sexuality, as well as keep their reproductive functions a secret. This parallels the notion that a girl is deemed “ruined” upon losing her virginity, implying shame associated with sex. Consequently, white individuals hinder healthy and normal sexual development for black children. Moreover, this repression highlights the contrasting characters of M’Dear and Soaphead.
The novel depicts M’Dear as a fearless and comfortable doctor who handles people’s bodies without any unease. In contrast, Soaphead is disgusted by physical contact with others and strives to disconnect himself from his African-American background. He goes to extreme measures to avoid interactions with fellow humans. Ironically, he only finds solace in the company of young girls whom he perceives as innocent and pure. He even takes it to the extent of describing their physical taste, using it as an excuse for his inappropriate conduct.
The saplings’ buds were tempting me to touch them, almost commanding me to do so. They were not shy at all, as one might expect. They reached out towards me, specifically towards me. I couldn’t resist, as you may remember, I couldn’t keep my hands or my mouth away from them. The taste was a mixture of salt and sweetness, similar to slightly unripe strawberries that were covered in the light saltiness of sweat from days of running and hours spent jumping and skipping. When I touched their solid little buds and gave them a small bite, it felt like I was being friendly towards them. I felt playful and friendly, not like what the newspapers had claimed or what people whispered about.
Soaphead is unaware that he may be contributing to the suffering and resentment of these children, just as he himself experiences. This notion exemplifies the stream of consciousness writing style. Within his fragmented thoughts, Soaphead consistently reminds himself – rather than attempting to persuade others or a higher power – that he is not the monstrous individual others perceive him as. He also frequently assures himself that his interactions with the young girls are harmless and amicable, albeit cautiously, as he tries to convince himself and manipulate his own emotions.
When individuals tell a terrible lie to a loved one, they often try to lessen the seriousness of the lie or convince themselves that it wasn’t really a lie. Soaphead takes this idea further by not only trying to elevate himself above a specific social group but also aspiring to become like God. “That is why I changed the young black girl’s eye color for her without physically touching her. I fulfilled her wish for blue eyes.”
Not for pleasure, and not for money. I did what You did not, could not, would not do: I looked at that ugly little black girl, and I loved her. I played You” (181-182). Soaphead has completely lost his sense of self and now views himself as a figure that competes with God and has earned the right to take on the Lord’s responsibilities. Soaphead boldly states God’s mistakes and in a very cynical manner, says that he has done what God cannot and has not done. This includes his attempt to give Pecola blue eyes. Strangely, his method consists of poisoning, ruining the life of another in order to please someone else.
Soaphead believes that by being an ineffective miracle-worker, he can separate himself from humanity and become a celestial being, closer to God but also his adversary. The oppressive nature of white society is responsible for Soaphead suppressing his identity and sexual desires. The more he conceals his “blackness,” the more virtuous he believes himself to be. As a result, he denies his thoughts, emotions, and heritage. Cholly Breedlove, too, falls victim to the harmful influence of “white ways,” experiencing cruelty, neglect, and sexual exploitation.
Cholly was born unwanted and abandoned, facing mistreatment from both his parents. His early experiences with sex have a lasting impact on him and his family’s lives. One instance involves Cholly and Darlene, a girl he was attracted to, being discovered by two armed white men engaged in sexual activity in the bushes. Rather than intervene, the men use their flashlight to draw attention to the act, ridiculing Cholly and coercing him to continue. Despite feeling humiliated and powerless, Cholly is left with no choice but to comply and engage in further sexual activity with Darlene.
The men, while standing there, engage in snickering and growling words of encouragement towards Cholly, deriving their own sick amusement from it. This particular image, where the glare from the man’s flashlight intrudes upon their privacy, acts as a representation of rape. It is at this vulnerable age that Cholly feels violated and stripped of his dignity. The men’s taunts and sneers inflict trauma upon him, haunting him for the rest of his life. At a certain point, Cholly develops a deep disgust and hatred towards Darlene, both during the act and in its aftermath. He becomes sullen and irritable, solely focused on cultivating his hatred for Darlene, never once directing his animosity towards the hunters.
Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless…. He was, in time, to discover that hatred of white men—but not now. Not in impotence but later, when the hatred could find sweet expression” (151). Because of Cholly’s immediate response to repress his anger, Darlene becomes the object of his hatred. Instead of hating the white men, he redirects his anger towards Darlene, who is vulnerable and in front of him. Even though Darlene had no involvement in their deliberate humiliation, Cholly is unable to confront or express his anger towards the two white men.
The consequences could have been dire and even deadly if he had challenged or called out the white men on their wickedness. This demonstrates the significant influence that the white race had on blacks. In Toni Morrison’s “Afterword” of The Bluest Eye, she carefully parallels the success of her novel to Pecola’s life. She explains that the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was similar to Pecola’s life – dismissed, trivialized, and misread. It has taken twenty-five years for her to gain the respectful publication that this edition represents.
Extensive time has been devoted by scholars to analyzing Morrison’s lyrical novel, resulting in the deserved acknowledgement of both Morrison and Pecola. The novel explores significant themes including the belief that beauty is synonymous with whiteness, along with racism, love, family, and ultimately sex. In this novel, sex is a theme that is universal and multifaceted. It encompasses emotions of awkwardness, violence, dishonor, humiliation, and occasionally pleasure—albeit rarely.
- Shmoop Editorial Team. “The Bluest Eye Theme of Sex” Shmoop. com. Shmoop University, Inc. , 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.
- Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Penguin Press, 1970.