Any literature written in the United States or the original colonies is part of what is today considered American Literature. The variety of cultures that were welcomed into America gave way to a fantastic diversity in the types of literature it spawned. From the 1500s to today, America has delivered some of the finest writers of our time. The reason that American literature is unique is because America from it’s beginning had a special philosophy of life and freedom and reflected it in it’s writings.
The purpose of this paper is to study the quest for an ideal beauty in Toni Morrison’s famous work “The Bluest Eye”. She explores how Western standards for an ideal beauty are created and propagated among the black community. The novel not only portrays the lives of those who are dark skinned but it also shows how the standard of white beauty is imposed on black youth which drastically damage one’s self-love and esteem which in turn causes self-hatred. Morrison in this novel focuses on the damage that the black women suffer through the construction of femininity in a racial society where whiteness is used as a standard of beauty.
Toni Morrison is a well-known African-American woman writer of modern age. She is a celebrated American writer who has won several literary awards like National Book Critics Award, The Pulitzer Prize and The Nobel Prize. She has written seven novels so far and widely read by people all over the world. The works of African – American woman writers focus their attention on black audience. Under the influence of racism of European white civilization the blacks could not attain their identity or personality. She believed that for establishing their identity the African American should look into the black past and heart for a new vision and future instead of following racist European symbols and culture. A black artist does not live in solitude. The best art is political , it must effect change and improvement. It should be responsible to society and enlighten people. In her novel she writes in style asking the reader to participate in her story and ideas. She narrows down her audience to women. In her first three novels “the Bluest Eye” , “Sula” and “Beloved”, Pecola , Clandia and Frieda , are all black women and occupies central position in the story. She also believes that women have special knowledge about certain things which comes to them from the way the look at the world also from their feelings and imagination.
In the novel, Toni Morrison addresses a timeless problem of white racial dominance in the United States and points to the impact it has on the life of black females growing up in the 1930’s. Morrison started writing the novel in the mid of 1960s, but the idea came twenty years earlier when one of her classmates revealed a sad secret that she had been praying to God to give her blue eyes for the past two years. Morrison wrote this novel when the ‘Black is beautiful’ slogan movement was at the peak. She started to think why such movement was needed, ‘why although reviled by others, could this beauty not be taken for granted within the community? Why did it need wide public articulation?’
If an individual or group is constantly being put down, they themselves begin to believe it and consider themselves as inferior. She centers her story on an ordinary girl who is taught by her racial society that she is ugly to portray the cruel thoughts of society. For Pecola’s family, life was just one disappointment after another- Poor, black, and ugly and were left with no room for self-improvement. This ugliness that did not belong to them was always shadowing their lives; everywhere they looked the society shone back at them like a giant mirror portraying nothing but hideousness, a hideousness resulting from society’s prejudice and harsh standards against them. Morrison says that:
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. 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. (p.39)
The Bluest Eye provides an depiction of the ways in which internalized white beauty standards distort the lives of black girls and women. The superiority of white and their whiteness is made implicit through images like the white baby doll given to Claudia, the glorification of Shirley Temple, the consensus that light-skinned Maureen is beautiful than the other black girls, the worship of white beauty in the movies.. Adult women and the little girls hate the blackness of their own bodies. Mrs. Breedlove feels that Pecola is ugly. But Claudia remains free from this worship of whiteness, for her imagining Pecola’s unborn baby is beautiful. But once Claudia reaches adolescence, she too will learn to hate herself, as if racial self-loathing were a necessary part of maturation. Pecola suffers most from white beauty standards. She believes that if she possesses blue eyes, the unkindness in her life will be replaced by affection and respect. This hopeless desire leads ultimately to madness and barren life.
The novel explores the disastrous consequence of western notion of physical beauty on a young poor impressionable black girl Pecola. The idea is essentially racist it is dangerous because it equates white skin with personal worth and implies that those who do not have these features are not beautiful are thus inferior. Toni Morrison goes to extent that equating of physical beauty with virtue is one of the dumbest and destructive idea of western world and physical beauty has nothing to do with our past, present and future. It can damage one’s self image , destroy happiness and kills one’s creativity. This idea is worked out in terms of its devastating effect on a poor, luckless, loveless , black family called Breedloves. It focus on how whites and blacks in different ways help to push Pecola over brink of sanity. It indicts whole culture that has popularized these oppressive white standards through every available medium- from Hollywood movies to elementary school primers , drinking cups .
Inevitably color consciousness is a constant presence in text and together with economic status has a determining influence on how the characters view themselves and relate to others. There is a caste system within black themselves depending on lightness of their skin and economic means.
Pecola’s tragedy begins much before we find her praying for blue eyes- which are for her a symbol of white beauty. She accepts the conventional standards that she has absorbed uncritically from consumer society that surrounds her. But a more direct source of her obsession with blue eyes is her mother Pauline who in her younger days had given herself up to dreams fed by movies.
She was never able after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in scale of her beauty and the scale was one she absorbed in full from silver screen.. (p. 122)
Pecola when born was a right smart baby with eyes all soft and wet and her head full of pretty hair but in her scale of absolute beauty she was ugly. Pauline transmits both self contem0pt and obsession with physical beauty to her daughter. Later she achieve acceptance and respectability in the only way possible for a black women of her class by being an ideal servant in a rich household. The groundwork of her tragedy is laid. Her journey brings in contact with different characters whose attitude towards her shows them up. Her fragmented narrative gives us an opportunity to study these attitudes by giving us close-ups of their meetings with Pecola.
The episode of Pecola’s visit to Mr. Yacobowski’s grocery store for Mary Jane candies illustrates the dynamics of color prejudice in the novel. For him, Pecola is metaphorically as well as literally beneath his notice. Because he sees blacks in mass , he does not see individual beneath the skin color. Maureen Peal , high yellow dream child is tolerant of her. But once her superiority is challenged she proves to be no less hostile and insulting to her than black boys who have been tormenting her. And after she has fallen out with Claudia and Frieda she runs away screaming : ‘ I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly, black e mos. I am cute.’ The violence of blacks against blacks is evident. Geraldine’s hostility towards Pecola is even more pronounced when there is someone like Pecola to remind her of her blackness. Her sadistic son Junior had invited her to play in their house and later tormented by throwing his cat at her. She outbursts : ‘you nastily little black bitch: Get out of my house.’
Even more tragic is Pecola’s humiliation at hands of her own mother in fisher kitchen. The kitchen is space that Pauline has made for herself in white household and represents her complete subservience to white masters. Pecola’s leg gets burnt by hot liquid but Pauline adds insult to injury by beating her and turning her out of her kitchen. Ironically this expulsion takes place in presence of fisher doll child who represents what Pecola has dreamt of becoming. Moreover , mother’s silence about Pecola ‘s identity amounts to a virtual disowning of her own daughter.
The biggest irony is that her own father and mother themselves the victim of racial society completes the process of her humiliation. The mother accomplish this by withholding her love while the father’s love- ‘horrific love’ as it has been called , proves even more disastrous and all but pushes her over into inanity.’ Having being failed by most people around her including her own parents for her ugliness, Pecola is more convinced than ever before of her dire need for the miraculous gift of blue eyes , a gift she believes Soaphead Church can bestowed. Soaphead Church is sympathetic towards Pecola. His letter to god implies the unavailability of divine help in sorting out the color problem. In that sense, it ironically articulates the need to come to terms with it purely human terms.
The situation is not completely hopeless. The prostitutes are sympathetic to Pecola. But since the prostitutes are social pariahs their support to Pecola is not enough to sustain her ego. In time, according to adult Claudia ,they all join the band that learned to worship Shirley temple. At the end Pecola is left to flounder all alone busily trying to seek assurance from an invented friend that the eyes that Soaphead Church has given her are the bluest of all.
In this novel, ugliness is attributed to poverty and blackness, as in the case of the Breedloves. The family features can be contrasted with the description of a doll to demonstrate the beauty scale. As a manifestation in Western thinking of an inner ugliness is a spiritual and moral failure and that which was ‘white’ (or Anglo, male ,Christian ,wealthy )was having connotations of benevolence and superiority. While that which was not white was debased and associated with malevolence and inferiority
They were poor and black […] their ugliness was unique. No one could have convinced them that they were not relentlessly and aggressively ugly.[…] Their eyes, the small eyes set closely together under narrow foreheads. The low irregular hairlines, […], heavy eyebrows which nearly met. Keen but crooked nosed, with insolent nostrils.(p.28)
The ‘ugly’ conviction directly affected Pecola. “Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, but teachers and classmates alike” (p. 46). She reduced to believe that she was ugly because her family believed that they were all ugly. There is a scene in the story where some boys, who are black , in her school are making fun of her on the playground and talking about how her father sleeps naked. This shows that not all of the racist acts in the novel are by whites. This is one of the examples in the novel that involves racism among black characters as well. However, Pecola mistakes their teasing for something personal.
“That they themselves were black, or that their own father had similarly relaxed habits was irrelevant. It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth,” the text reads, and then goes on to describe how this behavior was fueled by their “cultivated ignorance” and “self-hatred”. But Pecola believes that her own ugliness was the cause of the teasing, she suffered from self-pity. She believes that
“if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different….If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly, Pecola’s father, would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove, too” (p. 46).
Pecola’s desire for blue eyes is imaginative and is based on one insight into her world: she believes that the cruelty she witnesses is connected to how she is seen. If she had beautiful blue eyes, people would not want to do ugly things to her. The accuracy of this insight is affirmed by her experience of being teased by the boys—when Maureen comes to her rescue, it seems that they no longer want to behave badly under Maureen’s attractive gaze. Pecola and her family are mistreated because they have black skin. By wishing for blue eyes rather than white skin, Pecola indicates that she wishes to see things differently. By blinding herself she can only then receive this wish.. Pecola is able to see herself as beautiful only at the cost to see accurately both herself and the world around her.
The Bluest Eye ends with Claudia’s indictment of the society which that ‘this soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live.’ (p.200 ) The novel thus comes full circle to the images of infertility with which it began, and this search for a whole self is finished. It seems through the action of the novel that Pecola’s doomed quest is but a heightened version of that of her parents, of Church, and of countless others in her world. Having inherited the feeling of inferiority from her parents and community, Pecola is brought up with “a fear of growing up, fear of other people, fear of life” (p. 100).
Bell Hooks also addresses this destructive opinion in black people’s minds that disconnects them from the reality: “Like Pecola, […], black folks turn away from reality because the pain of awareness is so great”
Throughout the entire novel, the theme of whiteness as a standard of beauty is reflected. The title itself is a window into the desire Pecola has, “A little black girl yearns for blue eyes of a little white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment.” (p. 204) . Pecola simply wish for blue eyes so that she too look beautiful, but at the end of the novel she sees through her blue eyes, that her wish has also caused her mental deterioration. Ignored by her teachers, other adults, classmates and ultimately raped by her father, Pecola experiences all forms of ugliness, retreating finally into her mad yearning to be the opposite of her self—that is, a white child, like the universally beloved Shirley Temple, with the blondest hair and the bluest eyes. Pecola’s death represents what happens when a society pushes its unachievable standards onto a miserable person. Pecola’s insanity was result of her father raping her, result of meeting Soaphead Church and result of the world telling her she was invisible and ugly. Pecola is a representation of desire to be beautiful, loved and respected by all. Perhaps this novel shows a dictum which is clearly expressed by Calvin Hernton: ‘if you are white you are all right; if you are brown you can stick around; but if you are black….get back’.