The novel The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, is the story of how two black families handle the ideals that have been placed upon society by white culture. The first family is the Breedloves. This family’s attitude is represented by Pauline, who is ashamed of her blackness and sees whiteness as the only thing that is beautiful. She hates herself for being black because she has been brought up to believe that she is inferior. She does not see herself as being equal to other members of society, but rather as someone who does not even belong amongst the beautiful white people.
She passes these ideologies down to her daughter, Pecola, which leads to Pecola adopting the same types of attitudes towards herself. Pauline can see viewed as a repressed black character, symbolic of the slavery-era, as she does not have any sense of self-worth and complete believes in her own inferiority. In contrast, the MacTeer family is symbolic of the progressive black family that was present during the civil rights movement.
They did not believe that they were inherently inferior to others, but saw beauty within themselves.
Claudia symbolizes this family, as she is proud of her blackness and even goes so far as to dislike others because of their whiteness. Claudia also acts as the narrator over parts of this novel, which symbolizes her being the voice of the other black people who have not yet learned to speak out against the repression that they suffer from. The differences between these two families and these two characters in particular is very important because it represents the differences between repressed African-Americans and proactive African-Americans throughout history.
Throughout this entire novel, Pauline Breedlove lives in shame. She is ashamed to be black and she truly believes that white people are inherently superior to black people. Not only has she always been an outsider because of her race, but she has also had to deal with a lame foot that gave her a sense of inferiority. She was often excluded from activities and did not have many friends growing up, and that caused her to believe that she was not as good as other people. It can be said that “As Pauline Breedlove’s history bears out, the culture industry is always quick to provide its notion of what this context should be and thus assure the dependence necessary for its own continued existence, even, indeed especially, at the expense of alternate cultural forms. Although she has few fond memories of her childhood, it is her early married life in Lorain that Pauline remembers as the “‘lonesomest time of my life.'” She is simply not prepared for the kinds of changes wrought by her transplantation north” (Kuenz). Since she was constantly looked down upon, she became a product of these other peoples’ beliefs and did not believe that she could reach the standards that white people in society had attained. Pauline’s obsession with movies furthers her isolation from the real world, as well as her affirmation that she is not worthy of attaining the good things in life. This is because these movies contain people who are thought of as beautiful in contemporary society and these beautiful people always end up happy. Since these ’beautiful’ people are such a large part of her life, she begins to believe that only beautiful people can attain romantic love and that since she sees herself as ugly, she will never have this. Pauline’s husband is a violent man and the two of them would frequently beat each other. Pauline would encourage this behavior from her husband as she believed that she was a martyr and that putting up with this behavior from her husband would lead to ultimate happiness in the afterlife. Because of her feelings of inadequacy, Pauline only felt as though she was contributing to society when she was cleaning a white person’s house. She absolutely loves the white woman’s house that she cleans and hates her own because of these deep rooted feelings of self-hated that she has carried around for her entire life. Pauline isolates herself into a fantasy world where she is living in a white world through her job as a housekeeper at a white woman’s house. She loves this work because it represents her being a part of white society, even if it is only in this form. Her job helps her to separate herself from the reality that she hates; the reality that she is a poor, black woman who is deemed ugly by white society. This also separates her from her family, which is ultimately what she wants because her family is much like she is in the reality that she is trying to escape. Pauline is truly a tragic character because she is looked down upon by society for her entire life and conditioned into believing that she is not worthy of being happy.
The most unfortunate part of Pauline’s negative attitude towards herself and her race is that these feelings of inadequacy are passed down to her daughter, Pecola. Pauline seems ashamed that her daughter is black as well, which leads to Pecola attaining these self-loathing attitudes. Pecola would blame herself for the fights that her parents would frequently have as she believed that “if she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, ‘Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes’” (Morrison 46). This shows that Pecola was conditioned to look down at herself from an early age. Pecola’s home life, which is largely influenced by her mother, causes her to accept that she is viewed as inferior and to go through life in this fashion. The family as a whole is like this as “no one could have convinced them that they were not relentlessly and aggressively ugly…You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction…And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it. Dealing with it each according to his own way” (Morrison 39). Through the actions of Pauline and her husband Cholly, Pecola believes that no one truly loves her because of how she looks. This continues the cycle that was started when Pauline was young and further dooms the family to a life of self-loathing and isolation from the rest of society as “Pecola’s parents, furthermore, are often powerless themselves, subject to the whites who employ them, victims of their poverty and the culture which invalidates them. In addition, they themselves have been physically or emotionally abandoned by their families- Cholly was rejected by both of his parents, Pauline was made an outsider because of a limp. Traumatized children themselves, they continue the trauma by denying their own weakness in their abuse of parental power, by instilling their own fears of impotence, and by calling upon their children to fulfill their own unmet needs“ (Vickroy). Both Pauline and Pecola can be best be summed up when the narrator says, “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different” (Morrison 46). Many of Pauline’s characteristics can be seen in Pecola, which leads to Pecola’s insanity later on in the novel.
Claudia, in comparison, is depicted as a much stronger character. She narrates parts of the novel and does so from two different points of view. At times, she narrates from a child’s point of view, which shows an innocent view of an imperfect world. In this world, she is an outsider, but she unknowingly fights for equality. Pauline can learn a lot from this child, as she does not conform to the ugliness that society has unfairly placed upon her, but rather works towards attaining something better for herself. At one point in the novel, Claudia is given a white doll rather than a black one and she proceeds to destroy the doll as it is not what she wants. Claudia is able to be brave in the face of adversity because she has not yet learned that society looks down upon her because of her color. She is young and naïve enough to believe that all members of society are equal, which is something that all of society can learn from her. While many of the other black characters in this novel hate themselves because of their color, Claudia embraces herself for what she is, as she has not learned this self-hatred as of yet. Much of Claudia’s ability to remain positive comes from her home life, as her mother was very supportive of her and did not allow her to fall into the same cycle of negativity that Pauline let Pecola fall into. Claudia does not believe that the white system of defining beauty based on the color of one’s skin is the correct way to do things and, therefore, she does not believe that she is ugly simply because she is black. She has the self-esteem that many of the other black characters lack and this makes her a very important character in this novel. While Pauline is symbolic of white society repressing blacks, Claudia is symbolic of black culture emerging from this repression and becoming its own entity. She represents being proud of who you are, even if you do not fit the mold that society has placed upon beauty and self-worth. Through her mother, Claudia is able to obtain the belief that she is not powerless against the repression that white society has placed upon her, but is rather deserving of being treated better. She does not simply accept that way things are as being normal, but rather openly questions and lashes out against them in a hope that things may someday be different. She feels as if she deserves all of the things that have been denied her by the white dominance over society, which was a growing sentiment among black people in American society during this time period.
Much of Claudia’s confidence comes from the stable home life that she enjoys and the love and support that she receives from her mother throughout this novel. Pauline’s family members all wish that they were someone else, while Claudia’s family embraces what they are and attempts to change the way that society treats them. The stability that is present in Claudia’s home life is what allows her to look at the world in this manner, as she is not told that she is inferior to other from an early age. The entire Breedlove family is symbolic of the self-destructive nature of black society during this time period. They believe that they are inferior and, therefore, they act as such. They see whiteness and the only way to be beautiful, which causes them to believe that they can never be beautiful because of how they were born. The Breedlove family is used to depict the view that whiteness leads to beauty. This is a viewpoint that has affected many black women over the centuries because the idea became so entrenched in American culture, but “Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is strongly influenced by the 1960s Black Power era in the United States and the Black Power activists’ questioning, in their view, of the hegemonic construction of Western cultural ideas and ideals, especially those which diminish black people (Jimoh). This flows into other aspects of society as well, as due to whiteness being beautiful, it is viewed as being superior. The two families are exact opposites of each other and Morrison is attempting to show this contrast during this novel. This novel states that for every strong, black figure in society, there is a self-loathing one that is conditioned into believing that she or she can never be as good as white person. Pauline Breedlove loves her boss’s little white girl more than she loves her own daughter, which is very symbolic of the self-hatred that her family is plagued with. She cannot love herself because she sees whiteness as the only thing that is worthy of being loved. Claudia’s mother, in contrast, teaches Claudia that she is perfect just the way she is, which is something that sticks with Claudia throughout her life. Claudia, through her role as narrator, tells Pecola’s story, which can be used as a model for black children of how not to act. Where the Breedlove family can be seen as the past, where black people in the United States were slaves and were not viewed as being human beings by many white people, the MacTeer family can be symbolic of the civil rights movement in the United States in their belief that all people were created equal. In this novel, the Breedlove family largely silent which is symbolic of the fact that many people did not have a voice against this repression. It has been said that “much of the critical discourse on the novel has focused on the relationship between voice and empowerment, and on the problematics of a narrative that silences its dispossessed protagonist while seeking to empower the dispossessed and to critique power relations” (Moses). This means that the MacTeer family, and specifically Claudia, works as the voice for those who do not have the ability to speak up.
Pauline and Claudia are pretty much exact opposites of each other. While they are both black, they have entire different attitude about their blackness and about what it means to be black. Pauline sees herself and her family as being inferior to white people because white is beautiful and black is ugly in her eyes. She has been isolated for her entire life and does not believe that she deserves happiness because she is not white. Claudia, on the other hand, is able to be happy with who she is because of the way she is raised and does not see blackness as a negative. She is symbolic of the civil rights movement in the United States because she stands up for herself and is proud to be black and this attitude is what makes this novel such an important piece of literature.
Jimoh, Yemisi A. “The Bluest Eye”. The Literary Encyclopedia. 11 September 2003. Viewed 29 August 2006. http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=1425
Kuenz, Jane. “The Bluest Eye: Notes on History, Community, and Black Female Subjectivity”. African American Review. Volume 27. Issue 3. 1993. P 421.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1970.
Moses, Cat. “The Blues Aesthetic in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye”. African American Review. Winter 1999. Viewed 29 August 2006. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2838/is_4_33/ai_59024884
Vickroy, Laurie. “The Politics of Abuse: The Traumatized Child in Toni Morrison and Marguerite Duras”. Mosaic. Volume 29. Issue 2. 1996. P. 91.
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