“The Bluest Eye and the Master Narrative” by Erin Tagomori

Posted: January 2, 2013 in Vol. 2: Fall Essays 2012

the_bluest_eyeAt the beginning of the semester, our class was tasked with naming as many novels as we could from the approved list of the literary canon. After completing the exercise, there were a few things that stood out from the list: the unevenness between the White men to women ratio, and  the lack of African American authors. As a female African American author, Toni Morrison goes against the grain and challenges us as readers to actively question the status quo by blurring the line between binarisms. In order to achieve this, Morrison conjures up feelings of compassion for the Breedloves by giving us a glimpse into their past. She shows a progression of how their personalities developed into their present states, which makes it difficult to judge them as either solely “good” or “bad.” In her novel, The Bluest Eye, Morrison deconstructs the “Master Narrative” by presenting an ideal standard of beauty and the damaging ripple effect of destruction it can have on a black family subjected to its unyielding rigidity over multiple generations.

Morrison shows how the Master Narrative affects those who don’t fit in as the victim (mainly through Pecola), how those exposed to it not only experience racism but also perpetuate the tradition through feelings of self-loathing (through Pauline and Cholly), and finally how people can fight against it (through Claudia). Although Pecola Breedlove is one of the main characters of the novel, The Bluest Eye is narrated by her peer, Claudia. One of the ways Morrison undoes the idea of the Master Narrative is allowing Claudia to be the voice of the novel. Since she rejects the Master Narrative as the only standard for beauty, she can be interpreted as the lone voice of reason amongst a brainwashed community. As such, one of the ways hegemony is displayed is through the lack of voice in minority narratives and Morrison illustrates this through Pecola’s lack of dialogue. The few speaking parts she does have make her questions more poignant because the only time she calls attention to herself with her voice is after she starts “ministratin” (31) and discovers that she’s able to create life. When she hears that you first need to be loved in order to make a baby, Pecola then vocalizes a question that she struggles to answer throughout the entire novel, “how do you get someone to love you” (32)? She speaks again time near the end of the novel when she asks for blue eyes from Soaphead Church after she determines that white skin and blue eyes are the standards of beauty and easiest to love. All the other times in between she tries her hardest not call attention to herself and in fact, aims to be invisible.

From the opening pages of the novel, characters are forced to deal with the hegemonic ideal that is impossible to live up to, especially by anyone not born white. Morrison illustrates the ideal standard of beauty with the simple sentence structure of the well-known “Dick and Jane” stories. From a young age, children use these words to practice how to read, but Morrison points out that they also become ingrained as a heteronormative mantra of acceptable behavior. “Family” is comprised of “Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane (who live) in the green and white house ” (1) with two pets: a cat and a dog. Dick and Jane’s family doesn’t account for the possibility of only having one mother and no father, or vice-versa. Neither does it address the possibility of having two fathers or two mothers, or worse yet, no parents at all. For this particular story, it focuses mainly on Jane which can directly be applied to how her life differs from the main character, Pecola Breedlove. Unlike Pecola, Jane has a plethora of options to choose from for attention. Her pet cat, her “nice, laughing” mother, her “big, strong, smiling” father, her pet dog, and her friend (who apparently miraculously sensed her loneliness and came over to play in nick of time). On the other hand, Pecola doesn’t wear red dresses and is shunned by her family and peers because she has an “ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike” (45). By using the Dick and Jane stories to begin her novel, Morrison goes on to repeat Jane’s quest for a playmate over and over like a broken record until the words are no longer separated by spaces or punctuation and they form an undistinguishable mass. This action suggests that the Master Narrative is such a forced hegemonic ideal that it doesn’t leave much room for any type of variation.

The Master Narrative relates back to the construction of the American Literary Canon because it, too, is a type of standard that doesn’t leave much room for diversity. In her literary criticism, Playing in the Dark, Morrison highlights “canonical American literature […] unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African Americans” (5). In the novels that do have African American characters, their makeup is questionable, at best. She charges that “race has become metaphorical- a way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far more threatening to the body politic than biological ‘race’ ever was” (63). Jim, a runaway slave created by Mark Twain has a “limitless store of love […] for his white friend and white masters” (56), as well as the “assumption that the whites are indeed […] superior and adult” (56). Morrison points out that this is problematic because Twain doesn’t spend time evolving his character for readers to see his human development. In other words, it’s impossible to relate to him as a fellow human being because he is presented as a sidekick to Huck’s grand adventure. He could be any black character since he’s only identified as a runaway slave. Jim’s presence is there to illustrate Huck’s personal development; Huck functions as the subject and Jim is an object.

In order to undo the way African Americans were treated as sidekicks in canonical American Literature, Morrison makes Pecola’s struggle as a little black girl trying to fit in with the white aesthetic of beauty the subject of The Bluest Eye. Pecola Breedlove and her family’s way of dealing with being black in a predominantly white America is the source of most of their dysfunction even if they’re unable to completely recognize it as such. Pecola thinks that having blue eyes (and light skin) will solve all of her problems because she equates blue eyes with “good” and her dark ones as “evil.” As with the Dick and Jane story, Morrison chooses to highlight two episodes that parallel each other and illustrates Pecola’s obsession with the white aesthetic. The first one is when Pecola drinks three quarts of milk and sends Claudia and Frieda’s mother into a ranting tizzy. Claudia notes that Pecola was “fond of the Shirley Temple cup and took every opportunity to drink milk out of it just to handle and see sweet Shirley’s face” (23). Although Claudia doesn’t spend much time on this instance and seems to make the comment in passing, given the context, the observation carries a lot more weight. Claudia’s mother made a big deal about how selfish it was of Pecola to drink so much milk, but I don’t think it mattered so much to Pecola what kind of liquid the cup contained. To Pecola, Shirley Temple, like Dick and Jane, was her model that defined the heternomative and she wanted that for herself. As Emma Parker suggests in her article,

 “[h]er sense of worthlessness is metaphorically represented as emptiness, as thirst, and she attempts to find meaning in her life, to fill herself, by imbibing white cultural values. The danger in this is first intimated when her love of the cup induces her to greedily drink most of the milk, thus depriving other members of the household, and ultimately culminates in Pecola’s descent into insanity” (616).

Although it wasn’t mentioned in this way, as was drinking the liquid from the Shirley Temple cup, Pecola was probably imagining consuming its contents would make her become Shirley Temple. Not only does she desire to look like Shirley Temple, but she tries to consume her persona to fuse with hers.  This assertion is supported by the second time she tried to consume white beauty by eating the Mary Jane penny candy. Although she had an “array of candies” (48) to choose from, she decides on the Mary Janes. “Each wrapper has a picture […] of little Mary Jane, for whom the candy is named. Smiling white face. Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes […] To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. […] Be Mary Jane” (50). Again, Pecola tries to “eat” Mary Jane’s image in order to take on the physical characteristics society has deemed “beautiful.”

Attempting to consume white standards of beauty is the method Pecola has chosen to respond to the Master Narrative because she lacks guidance from her parents who are just as negatively entrenched by it as well. To emphasize the pervasive influence of the Master Narrative, Morrison again uses the  section from the Dick and Jane story to mark the beginning of each chapter. Where the Breedloves live is offset by the Dick and Jane’s house that’s described as “green and white with a red door” and “pretty” (33). In contrast, the Breedloves live in a makeshift home that once functioned as a store. We find out later that they made their home out of the store because they “were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly” (38). This quote suggests that the Master Narrative didn’t only affect Pecola as a young impressionable girl, but had a more widespread damaging effect on her family as well. No one person or experience convinces them that they’re ugly, but  through many years of being treated poorly (like Cholly’s first sexual encounter with a girl being sullied by a couple of white men who humiliate him by making him feel inhuman and calling him a “coon” (149)) and being looked down upon (through Pauline’s failed attempts at striving to measure up to the white aesthetic displayed through popular culture despite her handicapped foot) caused them to slowly believe that it must be true. Initially, Pecola’s parents are portrayed as the exact opposite of Dick and Jane’s parents who seem to be the personification of everything positive, so it’s natural as a reader to immediately think of Pecola’s parents as bad. Pecola’s father is portrayed as a drunk, her mother as an antagonist, and they fight with each other all the time. By clearly setting up the binarism of good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable, Morrison then undoes it  by allowing Claudia to give Pauline and Cholly’s back-story to show that they were not born that way. Through their separate experiences of the Master Narrative, they allowed it to become a part of their lives, similar to the way they allowed themselves to “wear their ugliness” (38).

The problem the Breedloves face are consistent with Morrison’s contention in Playing in the Dark with her point that “blackness can be evil and protective, rebellious and forgiving, fearful and desirable” (59), instead of usually replacing “and” with “or” African Americans don’t only exist on a polarized spectrum of good or bad, nice or mean, and so on. Often times, like everyone else, they fall into a gray area, where they are sometimes good and sometimes bad. To only see the world in only extremes severely cripples the individual and ultimately affects humanity. With this novel, Morrison seems to be trying to show the entire spectrum of people’s makeup and relay to the reader that one action doesn’t completely define who they are. Rather, it’s what happens to them over the course of an extended period of time that shapes them into who they eventually become. Chances are you only see a snapshot of who the individual is and labeling them as “good” or “evil” is not all-encompassing. She especially illustrates this through Pecola’s parents, Cholly and Pauline, who are the victims and perpetrators of hegemonic ideals .

Like her daughter, Pauline Breedlove falls victim to the pressures of the Master Narrative. Although our first glimpse of her is that of a bitter, confrontational woman who picks a verbal argument with her husband first thing in the morning (40), Morrison spends time undoing our negative first impression by stripping away her hard exterior as an adult and exposing her as a young girl to be an insecure daydreamer who struggles with the same pressures with the white aesthetic as her daughter. An injury she received from a young age left her foot deformed and she allowed its perceived ugliness to eventually shape her life. After marrying Cholly, they moved to a new area where women were more concerned about their physical appearance and she was exposed to movie stars on the silver screen. Rather than trying to consume their beauty like her daughter, Pauline tried to fit in by wearing high heels, which made her handicap much more pronounced. As Malin LaVon Walther  pointed out in her article, “in trying to conform to the ‘look’ of a white movie star, Pauline has denied the fundamental physical reality of her body. She is black and pregnant, and has no physical characteristics to identify her with” (778). Her feelings of inadequacy began to seep into other areas of her life, it began to sour her once happy marriage, and eventually mutated it into the violent, angry mess described when we first met the Breedloves in the store. By showing us her history and progression of self-loathing into adulthood, Morrison cultivates sympathy for Pauline by giving insight to her difficult life. Pauline blamed a lot of being on the receiving end of discrimination and experienced isolation because of her limp and chipped tooth, but Pauline failed to fully realize that she only felt ugly because she failed at fitting into the accepted standard of beauty. Although she loves her children, she is unable to love them completely because they have her dark skin and brown eyes. She doesn’t love her own self so it’s impossible for her to love her offspring, Pecola and Sammy. She finds a job babysitting white children and treats them better than her own. The majority of her back story is italicized which symbolize an inner monologue of thoughts that she has with herself. Consistent with the idea of minorities having a lack of voice, she learns to internalize what she thinks and how she feels so none of her experience gets articulated to her children. All they see of her is an angry, spiteful woman who prefers to spend time with the white families she cleans and they can only assume that she loves her own family less because there’s something wrong with them. They have no clue about her own feelings of self-loathing, but it gets inherited anyway through the example she sets by preferring the white children over them and by being exposed to white standards of beauty throughout their culture.

Unlike Pauline, who lives in her own world of order and service to the white aesthetic, Cholly Breedlove is a lot more complex. In the early pages of the novel, we find out that he has raped and impregnated his daughter Pecola, tried to burn down their home, and was depicted as a “dog” (17) and a “drunk” (40). An immediate reaction to all of these charges would be horror and to tack on another label like “monster,” but Morrison shows that although his actions were wrong, he made them with skewed intentions. He was so damaged by the time he raped Pecola, from being abandoned by his mother and dehumanized by a group of white men, he did it to remember what it was like to feel something. It was noted near the end of the novel that Cholly was the only one who loved Pecola “enough to touch her” (206). In the closing pages, it’s implied that contrary to popular belief, love is not always a “good” thing. It depends on the person and their collective experiences that define what it means. For Cholly, he didn’t really have much of an experience or understanding of what love was because he was mistreated all his life. When he tried to love his daughter, he did it in the best way he knew how so it’s difficult to judge his actions.

Morrison undoes whether or not Cholly is a “good” or “bad” person by unraveling Cholly’s painful history, which begs the question of who is there to blame. Should Cholly be blamed for Pecola’s pain? If so, then who is to be blamed for his pain? The pain that came before him? Morrison points out that the issue is much more complex because fault goes further and much deeper than just a few generations. The motives that governed his actions were far removed from the ones that governed Claudia and her sister’s decision to “make a miracle” and sacrifice the money they would’ve received from the seeds by planting them instead. Symbolically, the seeds also figuratively represented Cholly’s sperm, so I think the impulses run parallel. From a young age, Cholly was so ignored and unimportant, he was free to be his own person. Freedom is one of the founding principles of our nation and it is never used with a negative connotation. After his Aunt Jimmy dies, he no longer has anyone to look out for him. For awhile he makes it his purpose to find his father because I think he’s the only thing that ties him to this world. However, when he finally confronts him, Cholly is unable to articulate why he travelled all that way to see him and the man dismisses him. Now without anything or anyone to ground him, Cholly freedom is crippling to him because he’s truly alone in the world. “free even to die, the how and the when of which held no interest for him…Abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose” (160). The freedom had an adverse effect on him, instead of liberating him, it made him more invisible. None of his actions seemed to ever have any consequence because no one cared enough to react to them. So when he saw his daughter standing at the sink and scratched her foot with her toe the way Pauline did when he first met her long ago, he reacted to what he saw since “his reactions were based on what he felt at the time” (161). He was so detached from life because of his freedom, he wasn’t able to understand how morally wrong it was to rape his own daughter. Similarly, for Claudia and her sister, “nobody paid us any attention, so very good attention to ourselves” (191), the only audience they had was themselves so they impulsively did what they wanted to do at the time, which was try to help Pecola as much as they could. Morrison makes it difficult to judge either acts when she illustrates how arbitrarily those actions were decided upon. More so from Cholly’s perspective, she spent time on developing his character from a sweet, caring boy who loved eating watermelon (134) and tried to retie Darlene’s ribbon to help prevent her from getting “whupped” by her mother for getting dirty. (146) He evolved into an impulsive murderer of white men (159) and father who raped his daughter (163).

The final example of how Morrison undoes the Master Narrative is through Claudia, who seems to be the only character that has any voice, whatsoever. As the narrator of the novel, her perspective is mixed with a child’s honesty and an overarching clarity that only comes in hindsight after living through certain experiences.  Claudia is confronted with the same pressures of the Master Narrative as Pecola, but unlike her, Claudia goes against the grain and questions its authority over her life. One Christmas, she receives a “blue-eyed Baby Doll” (20) and destroys it. Although she is unable to clearly articulate why she did it, other than because it disgusted her, like the Dick and Jane story, the doll was a physical representation of the Master Narrative. The adults not only gave her a prescribed standard of what was consider “beautiful,” but also began to try and groom her for the expectation of her gender role: motherhood. Although Claudia admits that she does learn to “worship” (23) iconic figures like Shirley Temple much later on in her life, she’s able to see the pervasiveness of the white aesthetic from a very young age and have enough strength to question its existence. As she narrates the ending of the novel, we learn from Claudia that Pecola believes that she has obtained blue eyes because she has lost her mind. Through her clear perspective of hindsight as an adult looking back, Claudia is able to articulate that ironically, Pecola was the one who made others feel “beautiful” when they “stood astride her ugliness” (205). This idea implies that she became a pariah who absorbed the entire community’s feeling of self-loathing and at the expense of her own sanity and well-being, helped to lighten the load of the white aesthetic.

I maintain that the novel’s conclusion, albeit a sad one (for Pecola), ended with a bit of hope (for the community). Pecola’s  presence “on the edge of town, where you can see her even now, once in a while” (205) serves as reminder for people to never forget her story. Although she no longer has her sanity, to her understanding her eyes were made blue by Soaphead Church’s magic, and logically speaking she should now be “beautiful.” Ironically, her blue eyes are not enough and make her more invisible than ever. Her constant paranoia about her eyes cause a physical and psychological break from reality until she finally takes up residence on the periphery of civilization. On a wider scale, the people of Lorain can see Pecola and see a little bit of themselves in her, all of her blackness and vulnerability as a fellow human being. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison asserts that she is “interested in… the strategies for maintaining the silence and the strategies for breaking it” (51). As she later points out that African Americans were noticeably absent from the pages of American literature, and their history made up a plethora of untapped knowledge. By making an African American family’s struggle to live up to the impossibly high standards of the white aesthetic the subject of an entire novel, she ensures that we as readers won’t overlook their experiences or forget them. Morrison causes readers to feel sympathy for Cholly’s character despite knowing that what he did was morally wrong. In this way, she deconstructs our socially constructed way of binary thinking on more complicated issues of rape and cultural hegemony which make this novel impossible to forget. Although it may be too late for Pecola, the reader can feel hope at the end of the novel knowing that healing can only come about when you are able to remember and articulate the past in order to move forward with your life. The Bluest Eye also serves as a reminder for others that an alternative to the white aesthetic exists.

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. Print.

Parker, Emma. “‘Apple Pie’ Ideology and the Politics of Appetite in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” Contemporary Literature, 39.4 (1998): 614-643. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2012.

Walther, Malin LaVon. “Out of Sight: Toni Morrison’s Revision of Beauty.” Black American Literature Forum, 24.4 (1990): 775-789. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2012.

Written for Prof. Amy Nishimura’s ENG 440: Major Author


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