Comparative Essay on the Novels Mathilda, by Mary Shelley and The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
In the novels Mathilda, by Mary Shelley and The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison; both writers convey ideas around the effects of traumatic events caused by deep desires. In Mathilda, the majority of trauma faced is based around the incestuous love and desire Mathilda’s father feels for her which ultimately leads to his suicide and Mathilda’s lonely death. However, in The Bluest Eye, Morrison examines trauma faced by black people in America. She focuses on societies impacts on the way people view themselves and how trauma from bullying causes Pecola’s desire to change herself in order to feel accepted within society, whilst also dealing with the disturbing problems of her family around her.
In Mathilda, Shelley presents Mathilda as a “solitary” character after the death of her mother, which then leads to overwhelming feelings when her father returns shows her the affections she had desired, which causes confusion and leads to an incestuous relationship with her father. Mathilda’s family feels a resentment towards her due to the death of her mother which differs from The Bluest Eye because Pecola feels the same lack of love, but from society also, due to the complexity of racism during the 1940s. The traumatic event from the death of her mother has had significant negative impacts on the lives of Mathilda and her father, thus affecting their relationship poorly. The use of pathetic fallacy when describing her home as ‘desolate’ reflects the bleak, emptiness she feels without receiving the love she wants from her family, showing she if reflecting her internal feeling onto her idea of the setting. This is represented again later in the text when she enters herself into voluntary isolation after the death of her father; Mathilda has spent so much time alone, she finds comfort in loneliness. Mathilda feels like a burden to her family in the beginning of the novel, she says: ‘there were none to praise and very few to love’. This shows that she is aware of her family’s resentment towards her; ‘none to praise’ suggests that Mathilda tries her best to impress her family in order to feel loved but never receives the attention she desires – she has given up hope on receiving the affections she wants. This mirrors the feelings of Pecola in The Bluest Eye, both try to impress their families to gain affection. It is the lack of affection that causes Mathilda’s abnormal relationship with her father later in the novel when she refers to him as her ‘lover’. As the novel progresses her father begins to see Mathilda as a replacement for her mother, her father’s desire for her mother causes his hatred for himself – the deepest desires cause the deadliest hate. The relationship with her father makes Mathilda question her identity, not only within her family but within society: “Collective identification…evokes powerful imagery of people who are in some respect(s) apparently similar to each other.” (Jenkins, 2008). Mathilda doesn’t fit within a social group because of the abnormal relationship with her father so she questions her identity as a whole, which causes her inner conflict, similar to Pecola’s in The Bluest Eye. The term ‘collective identification’ accurately displays the contrast between what is expected of someone in society and how Mathilda does not conform to this by isolating herself both physically and emotionally. Shelley symbolises her own trauma in the disturbing themes within the novel: “The situation of Mathilda encrypts that of Mary Shelley herself as she experienced the deaths of her children while she tried to deal with Shelley’s intellectual abstractness and Godwin’s massive indifference to anything but his own financial troubles” (Rajan, 1994). Shelley does not receive that affection that she wants from her family which therefore reflects the emotionally starved life Mathilda has, Shelley is telling a story about herself through the novel. This supports Socrates’ idea: ‘from the deepest desires often come the deadliest hate’, because Mathilda’s desire for affection causes her to hate herself and her father’s desires for her causes him to hate himself, which causes Shelley to present Mathilda’s trauma in this way.
For Morrison, trauma manifests in the racism of American society. Pecola Breedlove begins to feel a self-loathing, due to the response of the people around her, which causes her to have a deep desire for ‘the bluest eyes’. The irony in her name; ‘Breedlove’ suggests she is loved either by society, or herself. This contrasts the reality; her race causes a lack of love from society and therefore causes her trauma. The use of irony conveys the contrasting experiences for white and black people in society. Pecola’s desire causes her to have a deadly hate for herself and constant feelings that she isn’t good enough for society. Morrison uses them as a symbol for racism to demonstrate the ideas of society on beauty during the 1940s. Pecola feels redundant in her family; this is made clear to her by her mother when Pecola visits her at work and she is hurried away: ‘Mrs. Breedlove yanked her up by the arm, slapped her again, and in a voice thin with anger, abused Pecola directly.’ Mrs Breedlove urges Pecola away as if she is ashamed of her, this supports the idea that lack of affection causes her to have a self-loathing and deep desires to change herself in order to impress the people, which links to Mathilda and the negative impact this also has on her psychological health. It says that Mrs. Breedlove ‘abused’ which conveys the aggression felt towards Pecola- the implied violence of the word ‘abused’ allows one to note the cold nature of Pecola’s family, similar to in Mathilda. Morrison makes the reader sympathise for Pecola to get them to understand that realities of racism in America, this causes an emotional impact on the reader as some may be able to relate to racism in modern culture and find comfort in Morrison’s efforts to gain equality within an unfair society. This lack of love from family is linked back to Mathilda in Shelley’s novel, as both characters feel like outcasts within their own families and therefore have negative opinions of themselves because of this. Pecola notices the response of her mother towards ‘the little girl in pink’, although the race of the girl is unknown, one assumes that she is white, thus leading Pecola to the conclusion that if she manages to get ‘the bluest eyes’, society will love her and therefore her mother will too: “the feeling of low self-worth after years of being put down is still perpetuating and is resulting in an ugliness this is constantly felt, if not directly seen”. (Smith, 2012). This assists the idea that when Pecola feels unloved in both her family and in society, she begins to feel as if she is no longer worthy of the love that she desires. This results in her low self-esteem which causes her mental trauma and reflects the thoughts of people facing racism in society. The references to self-worth in this analysis reflect the view of Pecola on herself and how others are able to manipulate the way one views themselves. This is shown again through the volatile relationship between her and Maureen Peal where she is made to believe she is ugly because of Maureen’s mockery, specifically to her appearance. Maureen leads Pecola to believe that she is trustworthy and when she offers to buy Pecola an ice cream, Pecola is shocked as she is so used to being treated differently to everyone else due to her race. Maureen manipulates Pecola into thinking she is different which traumatises Pecola even more when she finds out she thinks the same way as others in society. This once again refers back to the desire for blue eyes, supporting the idea that the views of others shape her view of herself – society has led her to believe that beauty is whiteness. The betrayal of trust made by Maureen enhances Pecola’s insecurities which makes her vulnerable and in need of constant reassurance from people. This is conveyed at the end of the novel when she constantly asks if her eyes are ‘blue enough’ or if they are ‘bluer than Joanna’s’ or ‘bluer than Michelena’s’. This links back to Socrates’ statement: ‘from the deepest desires often come the deadliest hate’, it is Pecola’s deep desires for blue eyes that cause her to hate herself. Morrison uses irony when using the colour blue as it used to represent beauty and it also represents coldness which is what Pecola faces because of segregation in society. Society is constantly putting the black characters in the novel down because of the view perceived by white people: black people were of a lower class than them; this is conveyed through some of the offensive language used by Morrison to demonstrate the harsh and traumatic realities of segregation in 1940s. Segregation was widely spread across the world and was what caused these negative views towards black people. This novel was set in a time period before the Rosa Parks’ bus boycott but was written after it. Morrison may have used the incident as motivation for her novel as she has felt inspired by Parks’ bravery and aimed to educate people in modern society on racism during this time period. Similarly, Mathilda feels segregated from other people because of the taboo situation with her father; both characters in both novels feel isolated from society.
Following on from this, in Mathilda, her father’s desire to kill himself causes Mathilda to hate herself as she believes she is to blame for his death. Mathilda feels as if she owes it to her father to punish herself for his death, this results in her living in voluntary isolation. One might say that it is Mathilda’s desire to impress her father and her father’s desire for her causes both of them to hate themselves. Mathilda blames only herself and places herself as the only cause for the death of her father: ‘I alone was the cause of his defeat and justly did I pay the fearful penalty.’ The lexical choice of ‘defeat’ suggests to the reader that it was almost as if Mathilda’s father was in a battle with his desires and the word ‘defeat’ shows that his desires have gotten the better of him. One would say that he feels ashamed of himself that he has been so weak to such an abnormal desire, which is what ultimately actually causes his death – guilt. This refers to Sigmund Freud’s theory on psychosexual stages of development, also known as the Oedipus complex; this describes a child’s feelings of desire for his or her opposite-sex parent. This self-conflict that Mathilda’s father has within himself is linked to the self-conflict that Pecola has about her race and her views on beauty in The Bluest Eye. Both main characters have a battle within themselves relating to their desires, these deep desires cause them to hate themselves and want to change, for Pecola it causes her to ask for blue eyes and for Mathilda’s father, it drives him to suicide. The reader is able to see that Mathilda blames herself for this traumatic event as she says: ‘I alone’. The use of ‘alone’ shows that she is taking full responsibility because she feels guilty and at blame for her father’s death: “The different manifestations of social isolation become more poignant when you consider the major importance our society attaches to personal relationships and a rich social life.” (Hortulanus and Machielse, 2006). By outlining the significance of personal relationships here, one is able to note that it is Mathilda’s personal relationships that cause her to be viewed as an outcast within society. Mathilda has an abnormal personal relationship with her father therefore meaning she feels isolated in society; this is also shown through when she says ‘I alone’. However, in contrast to this statement, it wasn’t the response of society that causes Mathilda to isolate herself, it was her own response to guilt and trauma that made her behave in this way. Although social groups have significant impacts on people within society, as proven in The Bluest Eye, it seems as if Mathilda had already been isolated before society for affect her. The trauma from her father admitting his true desires for her and the trauma of him then committing suicide confuses Mathilda, thus leading her to believe that the best thing for her is to enter herself into voluntary isolation. The act of committing herself to isolation seems punishment enough for Mathilda to balance with the death of her father, she convinces herself that this is the best way for her to make amends with her father despite him not actually being there. One might say that it seems as if Mathilda dramatizes her grief and that this extreme response, it seems as if Mathilda makes her life a performance; ‘For Mathilda, life and theatre are no longer distinct concepts: the world is a stage and life is a dramatic production.’ (Bunnel, 2013). This view on Mathilda links back to the idea that she is constantly trying to impress her family to feel loved – she wants to feel loved in order to help her to cope with her dramatic and traumatic life: ‘in a letter that is essentially an autobiographical memoir revealing her perception of the world as a stage, of her life as a theatre production, and of herself as an actress in that production.’ (Bunnel, 2013) This suggests that Mathilda’s trauma has caused impending psychological damage on her that causes her to crave attention from people that she did not receive from her family members – Mathilda wants sympathy and reassurance due to her guilt. The metaphor allows the reader to understand Mathilda’s thought process and allows them to try to understand her respone to the trauma – a crave for attention. Overall, it seems as if this traumatic event has caused Mathilda’s psychological health to deteriorate alongside her father’s, Mathilda is an example of the way sexual abuse can psychologically impact its victims, she demonstrates the effects that it can have on future relationships and the way it can cause people to view themselves. Thus, supporting the statement as it is desires of characters within the novel that cause Mathilda to hate herself.
Similarly, in The Bluest Eye, Pecola lives with the trauma and conflict within herself because of her deep desire to be beautiful which ultimately causes her to hate herself. Collectively, the people around her have been able to put Pecola down and make her believe that it is her race that makes her ugly; Pecola finds it hard to accept herself and feels distant from the people around her, just like Mathilda in Mathilda. Both characters are isolated from the people around them, for Mathilda this is physical isolation, whereas for Pecola this is an emotional isolation. The bullying that Pecola faces at school leads her to believe that she is ugly and causes her to have this desire to change herself in order to be seen as beautiful. Pecola only begins to see herself as ugly after people convince her that she is, at the beginning of the novel she is innocent and oblivious to herself being any less beautiful than the other characters in the novel. Not only do people view her as ugly because of her race, but they also view her as untrustworthy; this is demonstrated in the novel when she is wrongly blamed for killing a boy’s cat and is called a ‘nasty little black bitch’ by the boy’s mother. This is an example of the way Pecola was being put down because of her race, thus, leading to her desire to have ‘the bluest eyes’ because she believes that if she is white, she will be viewed differently – this pattern within the text is used to show the traumatic impacts of racism on its victims. This negative language (‘black bitch’) is Morrison’s way of demonstrating to the reader the effects of racism in America during 1940s. Martin Luther King was also a significant figure during this time-period due to his involvement in American Activism, his well-known speech; ‘I have a dream’ was delivered in 1963 where he called for an end to racism in America. This inspirational speech may have been a driving force for Morison to write this novel and encouraged her to educate people on the trauma of racism through her writing. Pecola feels isolated from the white people around her because she wants to fit in with society and they do not accept her, this is shown through her relationship with Maureen Peal. Maureen Peal is a white girl who is able to use and manipulate Pecola because of her race, she knew that Pecola would be in search of her approval in a bid to be accepted by society, Morrison uses this as a way of showing what happened during the period of segregation in America. This false hope that Maureen gave to Pecola made her desire to change herself stronger, therefore making her self-conflict worse; Pecola is tied between wanting the bluest eyes to be perceived as beautiful and staying loyal to her roots. Blue eyes symbolise beauty within society, Maureen represents everything that Pecola wants to be and by Maureen being nasty to her is Morrisons way of showing that Pecola has set unattainable goals for herself – Morrison is trying to encourage other to accept themselves via her writing. Pecola knows that she will never truly be accepted by society until she has these blue eyes which is why she desires them so deeply: “As Gurleen Grewal also argues, merely perceived ‘ugliness’ to beautiful blackness ‘is not enough’ for such counter-rhetoric does not touch the heart of the matter: the race based class structure upheld by dominant norms and stereotypes.” (Sugiharti, 2018). It is clear to see that norms and stereotypes have significant impacts on characters in both novels; neither of them seem to fit into the mould society has deemed to be correct. Suggesting that, despite Pecola’s belief that if she was white she would be beautiful, it will still not solve the problem of her low self-esteem, this is because she has been shunned by so many that this type of trauma has caused long term psychological damage for her.
In both novels, one is able to see that although trauma is experienced in different ways it still ultimately has the same negative psychological impacts on the victims. Both characters in the novels experience their own kind of trauma caused by hate which once again links back to Socrates statement: ‘From the deepest desires often come the deadliest hate’ and this leads to both of them feeling isolated and alone.
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