Saturday, March 27, 2010

40 Years with Morrison's Blue Eyes

The Bluest Eye

Forty years ago, Toni Morrsion published her book, THE BLUEST EYE. I had not read it until recently, i.e. when I began to take courses again on world literature to renew my teaching certification. I had always assumed that the book was related to the classical documentary and experiment of the 1960s–a study related to the colors of children’s eyes and how the children with blue eyes were made to feel superior to those with brown eyes in one Iowa elementary school. It was carried out by Jane Elliot and tells a lot about how we determine our own power and our own definitions of respect and beauty.

http://www.janeelliott.com/

However, this book by Morrison, in fact predates that experiment and the blue-eye-brown-eye study by a generation or more in its incarnation. THE BLUEST EYE experiments with narration and retelling of tales with secondary narrations and three dimensional “I” or first person authors. It is also about a young black girl in Ohio, who wanted blue eyes.

It is written by the same noble-prize winning author of the book and film, BELOVED, also set in Ohio but a century earlier. In this book, THE BLUEST EYE, we are given choices as to how we evaluate a scene in time and how we decide what is beautiful and what is ugly.


1. Why do you think Toni Morrison begins The Bluest Eye with an excerpt from the Dick and Jane readers?


Several visions come to mind in answer to this question about the role of Dick ‘n Jane in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The shortest answer is that like the almost universal “blue eye” model of beauty, which the “I” narrator abhors but which is admired by Pecola Breedlove and others in the society where the “I” author grew up, the (Dick and) Jane Reader excerpts serve as model of a safe, happy and/or beautiful homewhich life in Ohio, America where Toni Morrison (and her first person narrator) grew up. In turn, there are throughout the work, The Bluest Eye, similar ironies repeated and which are mirroring the ideals, dreams and dashed hopes of the various characters in The Bluest Eye, i.e. as each character in the book actually lives out his or her “life condition’ on earth.

Instead of choosing to repeat a childhood memory of a non-fictional (childhood) reader which might extol a particular personal virtue of a famous (non-fictional) legendary and mythical character, such George Washington, Johnny “Appleseed” Chapmen, or even Sojourner Truth, the black female author ( first-person narrator) remembers (or conjures up) and an idealized family (i.e. the mythical household of Jane) in an idealized home, place, and during an indefinite time period in American history. Therefore, it should not be under-emphasized that the childhood memory of this narrator begins with fiction—and she continues to fight this fiction in a lifelong fight or struggle she has been having with American imagery and society.

The fictional tales of young Jane (of Dick ‘n Jane fame) selected from the children’s reader are repeated by the first person narrator at regular intervals. Likewise, her similar experiences as a child are repeated. Therefore, in preparation for what is to follow, three times at the beginning of her work, The Bluest Eye, the Jane family tale is repeated by Morrison. However, each time the Jane’s Family Narration is written down, it appears with different punctuation, spacing and fonts.

This simulates a cadence, sort of mantra or rote memorization of the Happy Jane tale. One can imagine children in a circle reciting the lines from the Dick ‘n Jane books making repetitions of the imagery or simply even drumming out the “Jane text” over and over. The repetition forces or pushes the related words, ideas, images, and concepts deeper and deeper into one’s brain as one is able to repeat faster and faster the mantra of Jane’s idealized world. Later, throughout The Bluest Eye, parts of the same (Dick ‘n) Jane Tale are repeated like the sudden return of a chorus or refrain (of either a song or) some advertising jingle—a jingle which is catchy and has etched its way permanently into either our author’s mind or memory.

Pecola Breedlove is one of the key characters in this childhood world described by the first-person narrator of her small town in Ohio , America , set in the early 1940s. Pecola sees herself as ugly, but the narrator cannot and will not describe Pecola as really, truly nor authentically ugly in her own eyes. This is because the “I” narrator describes ugliness as a personal choice, i.e. Pecola is only unlovely because she considers herself ugly and falls quickly into the abyss of seeing herself (and carrying herself) as others in the majority American community in that era had labeled as ugly at first glance.

In other words, based only upon how Pecola carries herself, dresses herself and continually desires to be something different and more beautiful (like the character Jane in the book or the baby dolls with “blue eyes” marketed in the stores of the authors childhood) is Pecola actually to be identified as ugly. Ugly is as ugly does or lives, eh?

Naturally, the playfulness and (bad) behaviors of children often involve a lot of repetition and short pithy phrases or sentences. For example, the black bullies on the playground shout at poor Pecola one afternoon, “Black e mo. Black e mo. Yadaddsleepsnekked. Black e mo Black e mo ya dadd sleeps nekked. Black e mo.”[p.50] Soon these bad boys, who themselves were black and whose father’s possibly also slept naked, are seen dancing around Pecola as she puts her hands over her eyes—her eyes that she prays to God will become blue some day. They continue to repeat their pithy, hateful, and demeaning or humiliating refrain.

In short, words affect and hurt people from the earliest ages and the images of those words can be manipulated by others to mess with each of our minds and our opinions of ourselves and of others. Naturally, Dick ‘n Jane tales never had any naked children nor adults in them. Nor did they tell children how babies are made or how people suffer because of harsh (abusive) usages of words, phrases and images of beauty, i.e. phrases that are repeated over-and-over, so as to mess with our minds (or to permanently imprint certain concepts onto our brains) along with forgin world views about what is good, bad or desired and hated.

Dick and Jane stories may have been innocuous to some or to even many in mainstream America of the mid 20th Century, but the images portrayed in words and picture books were for the narrator an outrage and affront against the right of one to decide for oneself what beauty is. Quite obviously, any images portrayed in children’s readers affect children’s way of viewing the world. James “Jim” Morrison [not Toni Morrison] once sang and talked about a “child’s fragile egg-shell mind”, and this image provides a good description of the fragile mindset which poor-persecuted Pecola goes through life with.

2. What lessons, ideals, and themes are conveyed by this passage? (Think about notions of family, ownership, beauty, etc.) How do these ideas manifest themselves in the body of the novel?

The world of children and adults in this novel, The Bluest Eye, is a world where perpetrators and victims play out their roles and at time turns changing their roles within the society. Naturally, by taking ever broader views of (and snippets from) the adult characters’ lives, the author eventually reveals that the adult perpetrators in The Bluest Eye who victimize youngsters, such as the first-person narrator or her neighbor Pecola, were victims, too. They all became miserable and very-non-perfect adults (not like in the Dick and Jane stories) by passing through stages of suffering, dreams, and eventually the disappearance of childhood ideals and dreams. Finally, the adults settled for much less than even their childhood dreams and nightmares had led them to expect from life.

Let’s take the idea of beauty [discussed above] as an example. The first person narrator seems to be almost the only character in The Bluest Eye who is bothered by the idea of a doll having blue eyes. Her sister and many adults in her world swoon at blue-eyed dolls—even though they have brown eyes and are African American. In short, they appear to be victim’s of majority America ’s ideals of what beautiful baby’s eyes should look like, namely blue.

The ultimate-victim, Pecola, is the one, however, who voices her desire to have blue eyes—only then, she thought, could she ever see herself as beautiful. The author sees Pecola clearly as a confused and overwhelmed victim of a world-not-of-her-making. The first-person narrator, herself, is unable to persuade others to do, see or desire things as she wants. On the other hand, the narrator and her sister help perpetrate the isolation of Pecola at the end of the book by also blaming her a bit for her own fate. [On the other hand, they try to blame the unfortunate death of Pecola’s baby on their failed flowers planted in 1941.]

Meanwhile, Pecola’s mother appears to love the world of upper class white America (and the children of that world) more than her own children. This mother loves the world of white baby girls, white towels, and white spotless clean kitchens and homes—just like we see in the Dick ‘n Jane tales and in detergent commercials. However, she loves it not only because of the whiteness but because for her orderliness is so important. (In this way, the orderliness of Dick and Jane’s families and homes would have pleased her.)

Only in her work-world, i.e. as full-time maid in White America’s suburbs, does Pecola’s mother feel happy with her life. The only thing she occasionally seems to miss is the love of a man—not the love of the child, Pecola. When the child Pecola is raped by her father, her mother seems to blame her (even as the father is permanently chased from the community). Throughout the book Pecola’s mother joins with those beating her down over the years and making her feel more and more ugly. Finally, the mother finds escape in the orderly description of final judgment in the church she attends. In this way, she always feels a bit better than the crowd around her. However, she never realizes how much of a victimizer she is in the eyes of her own child and in the eyes of the first-person narrator. This could because seeing her child as a victim would have made her world less orderly than it actually appeared to her, i.e. in her world view or imaginations as organized maintainer of good house keeping in another parallel white universe.

Likewise, the father, Cholly Breedlove, was a man who had had only one woman in his life who had helped him—and this woman wasn’t even his mother. (It was his distant aunt.) Decades earlier, his real mother had abandoned him and later ran away from her small farming town in the South. Meanwhile, his father, too, had abandoned him even earlier, i.e. while he was still in his mother’s womb.

When Cholly was a teen, he finally went looking for his father in Mason , Georgia , but his father did not recognize him—although they had the same eyes and appearance. Rejected and dirty, Cholly made his way North—only to come across his wife-to-be along the stretch heading to Ohio , where he hoped to get a good job at a steel mill. At the time he met her, she was the apple of his eye and just the kind of organized and resourceful woman any man of his generation desired to marry.

Until Mrs. Breedlove met Cholly, though, she had been waiting for life to happen. From this uncertainty, she had wanted to be rescued and taken to some better place by someone who did not take notice of her handicap, a foot damaged in a childhood accident years before. Cholly was this friendly and good-natured man, who did not see her as a “cripple”. However, when Mrs. Breedlove moved North she could not make friends as easily as Cholly did. As a matter of fact, she often walked to the tune of a different drummer and never felt comfortable in the black communities of Ohio where she and Cholly lived, i.e. under the apartment, where the town whores lived.

Eventually, in search of appreciation, in search of idealized cleanliness, and ideals of beauty (and order in a home), Mrs. Brredlove fell in love with her job taking care of a family that could both afford and appreciate her home economic skills. She felt particularly good when fighting and putting people down, e.g. yelling at Cholly, saying bad things about the prostitutes, and carrying all her suffering and burdens on her sleeve for the whole city to appreciate.

Likewise, the mother of The Bluest Eye first-person narrator had her own ideals and ran the home her own way. Sadly, this mother, too, had the nasty habit of saying things to make her children and others lose their sense of self-confidence or self-worth. That is, far too often, this mother-figure could hardly say a good word about anyone, either. Like, Mrs. Breedlove her sense of self was lifted higher often by looking down at others, i.e. with a holier-than-thou attitude. When one of the friendlier town prostitutes invited the children to drink some root beer and sit on her porch, the narrator and her sister would eventually tell this lady-of-the-night what their mother had told them, i.e. never to eat or drink with those evil women. Soon a bottle of root beer was thrown at them.

In short, the world is filled with either good or bad people, either good or bad ways of living a life, and either good or bad ways of treating others. Early in her narration, the “I” author, like her mother, seems to have a black-and-white view on everything. Only later, when Morrison switches to third person or fully omniscient narrations of the lives of Pecola’s parents as youth in the South, do we hear in the narrator’s voice become a bit more tolerant in her description of these adult characters. In this case an opportunity for a bit of empathy from the parent’s side is possible for the plight of Pecola. This is evidently because the first-person narrator is more interested in telling most of the tale sequentially to some degree. This attempt to maintain a narration level of a child’s means that the voice of a child will be more obviously adversely effected more directly by learned behaviors in the society of victims and perpetrators of small-town America than is the older third person narrator who tells the tale of the parents of Pecola when they were children and teens.

This, more neutral voice, intends to give a bases for empathy—empathy which the father, Cholly tries on occasion to offer his daughter—but he does not know how to voice such empathy. This leads Cholly to touch the evere-victimized Pecola in a way that becomes a crime—a rape. However, in this seduction, Pecola senses what she is often missing—a sense that someone finds her pleasing or beautiful.

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