Discussion on Poverty, Religion, and the Pursuit of Identity in The Bluest Eye
The Bluest Eye is a book ahead of its time. Published in 1970, The Bluest Eye tells the story of an 11-year-old girl, Pecola who fervently wishes for beautiful blue eyes, in the hope that happiness love and acceptance would follow. Though many of the characters in the bluest eye possess dark and gloomy lives their stories shine a light on many of the problems modern society has today. Furthermore, Morrison uses this book as a vehicle to drive discussions on various controversial issues, such as poverty, religion, and the pursuit of identity. This paper will attempt to explore these topics by contrasting the events within the novel with current statistics, research and history, to see how closely The Bluest Eye mirrors our society.
Many of the African American characters in The Bluest Eye are poor. Poverty, similarly, to the cycle of negativity, affects people in more ways than one such as their behavior and brain development, further dragging them toward a life of unhappiness and un-fulfilment. Pecolas interaction with Soaphead Church highlights the inherently destructive nature of poverty. As various studies show, poverty has many negative effects on human psychology. In a series of experiments, researchers found that individuals “preoccupied with money problems showed a decline in cognitive function akin to a 13-point drop in IQ (similar to losing an entire night’s sleep)” (Sleek, Scott). In one of the experiments researchers ran, they found that rich participants tended to make less desperate choices, with rich participants tending to avoid high-cost borrowing while poor participants were quick to take loans, overborrowed, ran out of time faster, and ultimately left the lab with less money when the study was over (Sleek, Scott). Behavior like this is very similar to that of Pecola, as she exhibited less self-control when she encountered Soaphead Church. Desperate for blue eyes, Pecola was quick to fall for Soaphead’s deception, by heeding his command and feeding poisoned meat to the dog near the porch. The similarities continue, just as the poor participants ended up with less than what they had at the beginning of the study, after Pecola’s interaction with Soaphead she loses her mind therefore, walking away with much less than what she began with.
Identically in The Bluest Eye, Economic inequality continuous to cripple the African American community. Recent economic studies show that though the black unemployment rate has dropped from the height of 16.8 percent during the great recession, the African American community remains at the top of the unemployment ladder with a current unemployment rate of 6.6 percent. Overall “black families still earn less than all families nationwide” (Carolyn B. Maloney). The typical black family had essentially no wealth in the late 60s as they earned an annual income of about $2467 today that figure is 6 times larger at $17,409. Though an improvement, when basic needs such as food, paying for education, putting a down payment on a house and health insurance are considered there hasn’t been much improvement. Over the same period, the wealth of the typical white family has tripled to $171,000. One of the most important forms of wealth for working, middle-class families is home equity. Its importance is heavily emphasized within The Bluest Eye through the concept of the “outdoors”. Within The Bluest Eye the narrator says:
Knowing that there was such a thing as outdoors bred in us a hunger for property, for ownership. The firm possession of a yard, a porch, a grape arbor. Propertied black people spent all their energies, all their love, on their nests. (Morrison 17)
As Claudia explains, being put “outdoors” means you were homeless with nowhere to go. Within the black community in the novel, there exists an important difference between people who rent and those who own houses. As those who own houses are much safer and secure as they are not constantly facing the possibility of eviction and subsequent homelessness. Even though black people are lower class in The Bluest Eye, homeownership is a great way to raise one’s status in society. And this is true in the real world, as house ownership for white households are high, at 71.1 percent while house ownership for black households remain low and virtually unchanged from 1968, going from 41.1 percent to 41.2 percent. So, if a good solution to poverty is house ownership why don’t more African Americans own homes? The narrator describes the Breedloves current housing situation saying:
The Breedloves did not live in a storefront because they were having temporary difficulty adjusting to the cutbacks at the plant. They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly. (Morrison 18)
Here, Morrison clarifies that this living condition doesn’t represent a temporary housing situation. The Breedlove are poor, and they don’t even aspire to become homeowners. They are hopelessly acceptant of their situation and never take action to change the situation. Though this might be due to their perceived ugliness, which creates a feeling of hopelessness, in the modern society this feeling of hopelessness may stem from something else. By looking at an ever-increasing state of economic inequality, as well as a lack of growth within one’s community such as the African American community, one can begin to feel hopeless in trying to embark on economic ventures such as purchasing homes or beginning a business. The feeling of inadequacy may begin to weigh in and further halt any hope for possible improvement.
Poverty is not always the lack of something tangible, it could be lack of intangible yet valuable assets such as love, emotional support and confidence. The Breedlove family exemplify this sort of poverty. By looking at the Breedlove family one can see they lack a lot of the integral basic, and foundational characteristics of a family such as love, emotional support, and confidence. Furthermore, when this knowledge is combined with recent studies on the effects of poverty in the earliest years of childhood, one can further comprehend Pecola’s subsequent madness. A study by the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that a lack of parental support during childhood is associated with increased adult depression and chronic Health Problems. The researchers analyzed responses from 2,905 adults from the ages 25-74. The participants were asked on the available emotional support from mothers and fathers during childhood with questions such as “how much could you tell her or him about the things that’s were bothering you?” and “how much love and affection did she or he give you?”. Furthermore, depressive symptoms as well as chronic health conditions and self-esteem were assessed through the survey. The results of this study showed that a lack of parental support in childhood is associated with increased levels of depressive symptoms and chronic health conditions (such as hypertension, arthritis and urinary problems). Similarly, Pecola’s lack of parental support was a strong influence in her deteriorating mental state and self-esteem. Her father, Cholly Breedlove is hardly present in Pecola’s life, in addition he rapes her. Her mother, Pauline Breedlove is harsh and cruel towards Pecola. To Pauline, a small white girl is more deserving of her motherly love than Pecola who is her daughter. Pauline gives no love to Pecola, instead she forces Pecola “toward respectability, and in so doing taught her fear: fear of being clumsy, fear of being like their father, fear of not being loved by God, fear of madness like Cholly’s mother’s” “fear of growing up, fear of other people, fear of life”(Morrison p.128). The intense poverty in not only a lack of money but also parental and emotion support contributed to Pecolas self-hate and thus her fall to madness. Similarly, to the Breedloves economic poverty, Pecolas mental state is weak, depressed and declining. Pecola’s mental state represents a mental condition shaped by generations of familial deterioration.
Religion is a tool, due to this it can be used to enrich lives with purpose and fulfilment, but it can also be used to disfigure lives as well. In the Bluest eye it is used for the later as it has completely stripped the identities of the African American characters and left them as hollow shells of their former selves. Due to the incompatibility the western theological model of religion with the African American characters, they are forced to follow an inappropriate and ultimately self-defeating guide to happiness (Alexander). Western theology contains the belief that good and evil exist as separate forces, that God is inherently good and always will be, as well as that the source of evil is from another place or entity entirely. Due to this, Western theology fails to address the evils the characters face. This is very different from Morrison’s belief, to her “evil exists because God had created it” (Alexander). Morrison expresses this belief in the bluest eye when she describes the Breedlove family saying:
It was as though some mysterious, all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people. They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. ‘Yes,’ they had said. ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it was a mantle over them, and went about the world with it. (Morrison 39)
The description of the ugliness alludes to something otherworldly. As Alexander points out, “it seems that much more than human forces are working against them” (Alexander), for “the earth itself might have been unyielding” (Morrison 9) to their existence. Due to their environment, the Breedlove are forced to believe they are ugly, they accept it further supporting their self-hate.
Other incompatibilities between the western theological model and the African American characters are highlighted with Soaphead Church. Morrison uses Soaphead Church to underline how easily religion can be used as a tool to justify evil. The journey towards purity is a strong theme within Western theology. Believers often partake in various activities, to purify themselves from sin. Soaphead uses this belief as a justification for his inappropriate behaviour. The narrator says
His sexuality was anything but lewd; his patronage of little girls smacked of innocence and was associated in his mind with cleanliness. He was what one might call a very clean old man” (Morrison 166)
Soaphead claims to be a “very clean old man” (Morrison 166) due to his attraction to little girls. His sexual attraction to young girls is nothing more than a deluded attempt to purify himself, both racially and spiritually. Soaphead highlights the contradictory nature of Western theology, by using it to justify his paedophilia as an act of purity. Similarly, Western theology has been historically used to justify and support other evils such as imperialism and slavery. Through the spreading of Christian doctrine, European nations like France, Great Britain and the Netherlands sought to educate and reform African culture. During the late 19th century, European nations increasingly fought for global power, in an attempt to influence and change nations regionally, culturally and politically. To do this, nations like Great Britain and France needed a justification for expansion and Western theology in the form of Christianity, served as the perfect guise by which Western governments justified the exploitation and conquest of African nations. Morrison expertly underlines this intricate feature of deception within religion with a spineless character like Soaphead church who effortlessly wields religion as a crutch which can be used to validate his insidious actions.
Literature is an imitation of human life and action. It often is a reflection of human society. Not only does it reflect the society, but it serves as a mirror through which individuals can look at and sometimes within themselves, to see a need for a positive change. Through this definition, one can see how much of a masterpiece The Bluest Eye is. Morrison’s discussion on poverty, religion, and the pursuit of identity within The Bluest Eye has highlighted a lot of issues plaguing our society. Her characters have served as mirrors in which many can relate and work towards a better future for themselves and their community. Through her maybe one day a work of literature could accurately reflect the story of happy, fulfilled and thriving African American community.
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