'The Bluest Eye': notes on history, community, and black female subjectivity

by Jane Kuenz

In Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, the Breedloves' storefront apartment is graced overhead by the home of three magnificent whores, each a tribute to Morrison's confidence in the efficacy of the obvious. The novel's unhappy convergence of history, naming and bodies--delineated so subtly and variously elsewhere--is, in these three, signified most simply and most crudely by their bodies and their names: Poland, China, the Maginot Line. With these characters, Morrison literalizes the novel's overall conflation of black female bodies as the sites of fascist invasions of one kind or another, as the terrain on which is mapped the encroachment and colonization of African-American experiences, particularly those of its women, by a seemingly hegemonic white culture. The Bluest Eye as a whole documents this invasion--and its concomitant erasure of specific local bodies, histories, and cultural productions--in terms of sexuality as it intersects with commodity culture. Furthermore, this mass culture and, more generally, the commodity capitalism that gave rise to it, is in large part responsible--through its capacity to efface history--for the "disinterestedness" that Morrison condemns throughout the novel. Beyond exempting this, Morrison's project is to rewrite the specific bodies and histories of the black Americans whose positive images and stories have been eradicated by commodity culture. She does this formally by shifting the novel's perspective and point of view, a narrative tactic that enables her, in the process, to represent black female subjectivity as a layered, shifting and complex reality.

The disallowance of the specific cultures and histories of African-Americans and black women especially is figured in The Bluest Eye primarily as a consequence of or sideline to the more general annihilation of popular forms and images by an ever more all-pervasive and insidious mass culture industry. This industry increasingly disallows the representation of any image not premised on consumption or the production of normative values conducive to it. These values are often rigidly tied to gender and are race-specific to the extent that racial and ethnic differences are not allowed to be represented. One lesson from history, as Susan Willis reiterates, is that "in mass culture many of the social contradictions of capitalism appear to us as if those very contradictions had been resolved" ("I Shop" 183). Among these contradictions we might include those antagonisms continuing in spite of capitalism's benevolent influence, along the axes of economic privilege and racial difference. According to Willis, it is because "all the models [in mass cultural representation] are white"--either in fact or by virtue of their status as "replicants ... devoid of cultural integrity"--that the differences in race or ethnicity (and class, we might add) and the continued problems for which these differences are a convenient excuse appear to be erased or made equal "at the level of consumption" ("I Shop" 184). In other words, economic, racial and ethnic difference is erased and replaced by a purportedly equal ability to consume, even though what is consumed are more or less competing versions of the same white image.

There is evidence of the presence and influence of this process of erasure and replacement throughout The Bluest Eye. For example, the grade school reader that prefaces the text was (and in many places still is) a ubiquitous, mass-produced presence in schools across the country. Its widespread use made learning the pleasures of Dick and Jane's commodified life dangerously synonymous with learning itself. Its placement first in the novel makes it the pretext for what is presented after: As the seeming given of contemporary life, it stands as the only visible model for happiness and thus implicitly accuses those whose lives do not match up. In 1941, and no less so today, this would include a lot of people. Even so, white lower-class children can at least more easily imagine themselves posited within the story's realm of possibility. For black children this possibility might require a double reversal or negation: Where the poor white child is encouraged to forget the particulars of her present life and look forward to a future of prosperity--the result, no doubt, of forty years in Lorain's steel mills--a black child like Pecola must, in addition, see herself, in a process repeated throughout The Bluest Eye, in (or as) the body of a white little girl. In other words, she must not see herself at all. The effort required to do this and the damaging results of it are illustrated typographically in the repetition of the Dick-and-Jane story first without punctuation or capitalization, and then without punctuation, capitalization, or spacing.

Perhaps one function of the mass deployment of these stories was in fact to raise hopes for a better future in order to counteract the oppressiveness of the present and, in the process, to delimit the chance of dissatisfaction or unrest and encourage unquestioning labor at the same time. If so, it also tempts, as these tactics always do, the opposite conclusion: The comparison of their lives to Dick and Jane's seemingly idyllic ones will breed, among those unaccounted for in mass culture's representations, resentment and class consciousness instead. That this is not the result for most of the characters in The Bluest Eye, as it is not for most people in general bespeaks the extent to which mass culture has made the process of self-denial a pleasurable experience.(1) Indeed, as I hope to show later, this process is explicitly sexual in The Bluest Eye and offers, particularly for women, the only occasion for sexual pleasure in the novel.

As noted above, interaction with mass culture for anyone not represented therein, and especially for African-Americans, frequently requires abdication of self or the ability to see oneself in the body of another. The novel's most obvious and pervasive instance of this is in the seemingly endless reproduction of images of feminine beauty in everyday objects and consumer goods: white baby dolls with their inhumanly hard bodies and uncanny blue eyes, Shirley Temple cups, Mary Jane Candies, even the clothes of "dream child" Maureen Peal which are stylish precisely because they suggest Shirley Temple cuteness and because Claudia and Frieda recognize them as such. But Claudia and her sister can recognize "the Thing that made [Maureen] beautiful and not [them]" (62) only in terms of its effects on other people. Despite knowing that they are "ricer, brighter," they cannot ignore how "the honey voices of parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of [their] peers, the slippery light in the eyes of [their] teachers" (61-62) all pour out to the Maureen Peals of the world and not to them. From the responses of other people to girls like Maureen and others for whom Shirley Temple is the model the sisters learn the fact of their own lack, variously identified as ugliness or "unworthiness," if not the essence of it. "What was the secret?" Claudia asks, "What did we lack? Why was it important? And so what?" (62)

Claudia's body, much more so than her sister's, has yet to be completely socialized in the process Frigga Haug calls "female sexualization." By this, Haug means both the production of feminity through the competent performance of feminine skills (including how to hold, move, and dress the body) and the reproduction of subordination within and on women's bodies as evidenced in the gradual "sexualization" of various body parts (for example, hair or legs) as girls mature. This process--inevitably modified, as The Bluest Eye indicates, by both race and class--results in bodies that are always the site of multiple discourses circling around and ultimately comprising what we call "femininity" or, as it is generally construed, "the sexual." Claudia's confusion about the source of her failure to arouse "honey voices" and "slippery light" indicates that, though she is catching on quickly, she has yet to experience her body as the alienated entity Haug describes. She is still at the level of sensation, not prohibition or enforced definition: Instead of "asking the right questions" about her sister's near molestation, for example, Claudia wants to know what it feels like to have breasts worth touching and to have them touched (79).

The innocence of this question parallels the delight with which Claudia revels in her own body's myriad substances and smells. While women like Geraldine are quick to dispatch with "funk" wherever it "crusts" (68), Claudia is fascinated with her own body's sometimes graphically nauseating materiality: She is captivated by the menstrual blood her sister hurries to wash away; she studies her own vomit, admires the way it "[clings] to its own mass, refusing to break up and be removed" (13); she abhors the "dreadful and humiliating absence of dirt [and] the irritable, unimaginative cleanliness" (21) that accompanies it; she remembers the year recounted in the novel as a time when she and Frieda "were still in love with [themselves and] ... felt comfortable in [their] skins, enjoyed the news that [their] senses released to [them], admired [their] dirt, cultivated [their] scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness" (62) that distinguishes them from Maureen and is already overwhelming Pecola.

The older Claudia attributes this ease with her body to her youth and admits that she eventually succumbs to the pleasures of dominant discourse and its definitions of "femininity." Speaking of Shirley Temple, she says, "Younger than both Frieda and Pecola, I had not yet arrived at the turning point in the development of my psyche which would allow me to love her" (19). She goes on explicitly to equate "worshiping" Shirley Temple with "delighting" in cleanliness (22). The Bluest Eye suggests that this "development"--the sexualization of Claudia's body (changes both in it and in how she experiences it) and the simultaneous transformation of her psyche is learned and achieved through commodities like the Shirley Temple cups that proscribe appearance and behavior in accordance with the images they project. Claudia learns to "love" Shirley Temple when she learns to identify herself as Shirley Temple, as a complete person--limited as that is for women in our culture to some variation of "the sexual". Moreover, femininity and "the sexual" can be produced and reproduced as commodities, as Pecola's belief that she can simply acquire blue eyes indicates. The mass dissemination of these images of femininity in American society was and is among the primary mechanisms by which women are socialized and sexualized in this country. It is no accident that Morrison links many of these images of properly sexualized white women to the medium of film which, in 1941, was increasingly enabled technologically to represent them and, because of the growth of the Hollywood film industry, more likely to limit the production of alternate images.

The effect of the constant circulation of the faces of, for example, Ginger Rogers, Gretta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and, again, Shirley Temple is to reintroduce and exaggerate, as it does for Pauline Breedlove, "the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought" (97)--romantic love and physical beauty, each defined according to what they exclude and each destructive to the extent that they are made definitionally unavailable. After waiting out two pregnancies in the dark shadows of the silver screen, Pauline "was never able ... [again] to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty" which she had "absorbed in full" from the movies (97). Among these faces to which she can't help but assign a pre-determined value is her own, ironically made less acceptable by her Jean Harlow hairstyle because of the rotten tooth that contradicts it. In spite of the hope implicit in naming her after a fair character in a movie itself called Imitation of Life,(2) Pecola, too, is, according to her mother and apparently everyone else," |ugly'" (100). The consequences of this estimation, repeated as it is continually throughout Pecola's life, are, of course, obvious: When others--Mr. Yacobowski, her teachers, etc.--cannot or will not see her, then she ceases to be seen at all or sees herself in the iconographic images she can attain only in madness.

The horror of the industry responsible for generating and continuing these repeated, static, and unattainable images is not just that, in the process of appropriating standards of beauty and femininity for white women, it does not allow alternate images and standards to coincide--though such is certainly horrible--but that in so doing it also co-opts and transforms a history of communal and familial relationships it cannot otherwise accommodate. This co-optation was facilitated by the migration of African-Americans in the first half of this century and the end of the last to Northern, usually industrial, towns like Lorain, a process that accelerated the separation of families and friends as it removed them farther from whatever common culture existed in the rural South (Willis, Specifying 83109). In the absence of a network of community members ready to step in--as Aunt Jimmy's family and friends do--and make it their business to look after each other, blacks up north who feel isolated from their past and alienated in their present are more likely to look elsewhere for self-affirming context.

As Pauline Breedlove's history bears out, the culture industry is always quick to provide its notion of what this context should be and thus assure the dependence necessary for its own continued existence, even, indeed especially, at the expense of alternate cultural forms. Although she has few fond memories of her childhood, it is her early married life in Lorain that Pauline remembers as the "'lonesomest time of my life.'" She is simply not prepared for the kinds of changes wrought by her transplantation north:

"I don't know what all happened Everything

changed. It was hard to get to know

folks up here, and I missed my people. I

weren't used to so much white folks. The

ones I seed before was something hateful,

but they didn't come around too much...

Up north they was everywhere--next

door, downstairs, all over the streets--and

colored folks few and far between. Northern

colored folk was different too. Dicty-like.

No better than whites for meanness. They

could make you feel just as no-count, 'cept

I didn't expect it from them."(93) From this seemingly fragmented and hostile community, Pauline turns to day jobs in the homes of "nervous, pretentious" people and to the movies. Her attachment to the former is due in part to the fact that at the Fishers she can exercise the artistic sensibility that otherwise cannot find expression. As a child in Alabama and especially Kentucky, Pauline "liked, most of all, to arrange things. To line things up in rows--jars on shelves at canning, peach pits on the step, sticks, stones, leaves.... She missed--without knowing what she missed--paints and crayons" (88-89). But it is not until her job at the Fishers that Pauline can again "arrange things, clean things, line things up in neat rows.... [At the Fisher's] she found beauty, order, cleanliness, and praise.... It was her pleasure to stand in her kitchen at the end of a day and survey her handiwork" (101). Moreover, her job with the Fishers provides her with the semblance of acceptance and community she cannot find or create in her own home and neighborhood. They have given her the nickname she had as a child and tell small anecdotes about her. Mr. Fisher says, "'I would rather sell her blueberry cobblers than real estate'" (101). Finally, it is easier for Pauline to ignore the fact that both the name and the anecdotes are condescending and exemplative of her subordinate, and ultimately outsider, status in the Fisher household (as evidenced when Claudia feels "the familiar violence" rise at the little pink girl's question "'Where's Polly?'" [86]) than to do without the "power, praise, and luxury" (101) she finds there.

The other place she finds this "power, praise, and luxury" is, of course, the movies, and, unfortunately, it is to them that Pauline turns for help and validation rather than the few black women she has met in Lorain who, "with their goading glances and private snickers," were merely "amused" by her and her loneliness (94).(3) It is at the movies that Pauline learns to equate "physical beauty and virtue," where she "stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap." As she watches "'white men taking such good care of they women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses'" (97), Pauline finds it increasingly difficult to return to her own life and, as a result, "more and more ... neglected her house, her children, her man" (101). Like the Dick-and-Jane story, Pauline's movies continuously present her with a life, again presumably ideal, which she does not now have and which she has little, if any, chance of ever enjoying in any capacity other than that of "the ideal servant" (101).(4) In the absence of alternate images which might validate and endorse a kind of virtue not tied to physical beauty or ones offering competing definitions of beauty itself, and in the absence of a network of family and friends, especially women friends, whose own lives would provide a differing model and the context in which to erect her own, Pauline succumbs to the "simple pleasure" of "black-and-white images projected through a ray of light" and "curtailing freedom in every way" (97).

Images projected on the screen and mass-produced items curtail freedom in other, less obvious and brutal ways as well, although the effects can be due as much to what is not seen or experienced as to what is. Claudia, for example, fosters a brutal hatred for her white baby dolls not just because they don't look like her but because the gift of them is supposed to replace and somehow improve upon what she would really prefer for Christmas: the experience of sitting "on the low stool in Big Mama's kitchen with [her] lap full of lilacs and [listening] to Big Papa play his violin for [her] alone" (21). Instead of family interaction--and the touching, playing, and ritual storytelling that might accompany it--Claudia is supposed to pretend to be the mother of this "thing" dressed in "starched gauze or lace" and sporting a "bone-cold head" (20).

Similarly, Claudia hates Shirley Temple well enough because her socks stay up, but what really gets her is the presence in the films of Bojangles. This is the outrage: the rewriting of either a historical moment (the Civil War) or interpersonal relationship (an orphaned child and benevolent older friend) with her part edited or bleached out so that those few images of African-American life afforded space on the big screen are put there not as evidence or proof of the experience itself, but as a tactic for further erasure, denial, or revisioning of just that experience. Instead of the ideologically opportune sight of an older black man "soft-shoeing it and chuckling" harmlessly, aimlessly, with a little white girl, the world should be seeing her, Claudia, socks around her ankles, "enjoying, sharing, giving a lovely dance thing" (19) with her friend, uncle, daddy Bojangles.

It does not, however, and Morrison signals the effects of these oversights--of supplanting or having supplanted both one's appearance and one's history and culture-repeatedly in The Bluest Eye in details of sexuality, especially women's but, as the life-stories of Cholly and Soaphead indicate, not exclusively so. Mr. Henry, for example, when first moving into the MacTeers' home, greets Claudia and Frieda with, "'You must be Greta Garbo, and you must be Ginger Rogers'"(17), thus reducing them to type in a kind of objectification which in part, will make it easier for him later to molest Frieda. He follows this greeting with a gift of money, a gesture repeated later when he wants them out of the house so he can entertain two of the more colorful "members of [his] Bible class" (65), China and the Maginot Line. The exchange of money and the objectification of women as types converge here in such a way as to align his interaction with the two women and with Frieda and Claudia under the heading of prostitution.

The incident with Mr. Henry suggests one way the mass circulation of images of "femininity" negatively affects women in the area of sexuality by negatively affecting the attitudes and thus behavior of the people with whom they interact. The Bluest Eye, however, documents further the effect of those images on women themselves on the level of the body and in terms of how they understand and experience their own sexuality. For Pauline, for example, sexual pleasure depends entirely on the ability to "'feel a power'" (103) that comes from a sense of herself as desirable. In bed with Cholly, she drinks,

"I know he wants me to come first. But I

can't. Not until he does. Not until I feel

him loving me. Just me... Not until I

know that my flesh is all that be on his

mind... Not until he has let go of all he

has, and give it to me... When he does,

I feel a power.... I be strong enough,

pretty enough and young enough to let

him make me come." (103) Unfortunately, Pauline defines strength, beauty, and youth solely in the terms she's learned from film; thus, as the possibility of ever attaining them is foreclosed, so too is sexual pleasure. Confident that "'my Maker will take care of me,'" (104), Pauline reassures herself that "'. . . it don't make no difference about this old earth,'" (104), thus hoping to cash in on one dream in exchange for relinquishing another.

Sexual pleasure is no longer even a consideration for Geraldine and the other "sugar-brown girls" who have lost "the dreadful funkiness of passion . . . of nature . . . of the wide range of human emotions" (68) almost as a c sequence of moving north and away from family and towns like Mobile, Aiken, and Nagadoches, whose names "make you think of love" (67) if the girls themselves do not. Geraldine's desire to eschew inappropriate manifestations of black American culture by maintaining the "line between colored and nigger" (71) and thus to effect a bland respectability is connected in her portrait with a body that can give itself only "sparingly and partially": "She stiffens when she feels one of her paper curlers coming undone from the activity of love .... She hopes he will not sweat--the damp may get into her hair" (69).

Geraldine's concern is focused on her hair, that part of her appearance which, along with her fair skin, she can control and adapt most easily to standards of white beauty. One is reminded at this point of Pauline and her Jean Harlow hairstyle or China who, with a flick of the wrist, converts herself from one feminine type to another: One minute she has the "surprised eyebrows" and "cupid-bow mouth" of a starlet, the next the "Oriental eyebrows" and "evilly slashed mouth" (49) of a femme fatale. Pecola, however, whose ugliness "came from conviction," has no such physical qualities capable of altering and thus redeeming what she and her family perceive as her "relentlessly and aggressively" ugly appearance (34). Pecola, in fact, is all sign: To see her body is to know already everything about her or at least everything her culture deems important about her.

The depiction of her sexuality is thus correspondingly total: Pecola gets off eating candy--nothing new here, except that for her, orgasm takes the form of a curious transubstantiation and, ultimately, transformation: "To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane" (43). Unlike Claudia who cannot yet, in the words of Susan Willis, "imagine herself miraculously translated into the body of Shirley Temple so as to vicariously live white experience as a negation of blackness" ("I Shop" 174), Pecola not only can, but, from this denial of self and substitution of the store-bought image, actually gets in the process "nine lovely orgasms with Mary Jane" (43). Whatever pleasurable resources Pecola's own body may harbor are available to her now--and this at the early age of eleven--only to the extent that, like her mother, she can experience them as the alienated effects of another woman's body.

Most of the time, however, she cannot do this and, rather than reconcile herself, as her mother has, to the prospect of greater glory and bigger rainbows in the next world, Pecola opts instead to make a life of her own erasure and annihilation. As her parents and brother fight in the next room, she prays to God to "'make me disappear'" and then performs the meditation to do so:

She squeezed her eyes shut. Little

parts of her body faded away. Now

slowly, now with a rush. Slowly again

Her fingers went, one by one; then her

arms disappeared all the way to the

elbow. Her feet now.... The legs all

at once. It was hardest above the thighs.

She had to be real still and pull. Her

stomach would not go. But finally it,

too, went away. Then her chest, her

neck. The face was hard, too. Almost

done, almost. Only her tight, tight eyes

were left. They were always left. (39) The inability to make her eyes go away prompts Pecola's final disappearing act: The ugliness of her entire body is dissolved in and absolved by the blue eyes only she and her new "friend" can see. Her breakdown at the end of the novel is the last in a sexies of instances in which boundaries marking the space between inside and outside, self and other, sense and nonsense are broken, removed, or simply no longer perform their tasks. As the novel's prefatory Dick-and-Jane story turns from order to chaos with the gradual removal of punctuation and spacing, so too does the erasure of Pecola's body and sexuality lead to her madness and isolation.

It seems to me that it is at this point that we can begin to make sense of Morrison's notion of "disinterested violence" which she introduces first with Claudia and elaborates upon in her depiction of the three prostitutes, Cholly, and, by implication, the black community in Lorain, Ohio. After systematically destroying her baby dolls in order to "discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped [her]" (20) and then, finding this tactic unproductive, transferring "the same impulses to little white girls," Claudia "learned how repulsive this disinterested violence was, that it was repulsive because it was disinterested" (22). Michael Awkward argues that what Claudia feels is "repulsive" here is her own "failure to accept without question the standards of white America" (72), a reading which, while it has a lot of general application in the novel, seems to misdirect the focus of this passage. Claudia's self-incrimination is, it seems to me, more in response to her failure to feel enough for her white victims, to have the interest that would make her actions meaningful. Willis claims that Claudia's realization "that violence against whites runs the risk of being 'disinterested' . . . suggests that white people are little more than abstractions . . . [that] all are reified subjects" ("I Shop" 174). What Claudia realizes is that her violence cannot help but be disinterested, since even the little girls she thinks she wants to dismember are finally only representatives to her of the system she resents and wants to dismantle. "Disinterestedness," then, is the result of not seeing individual people and how their actions combine in ways affecting you; "disinterested violence," the prelude to "adjustment without improvement" (22), is possible precisely when the specificity of bodies, places, and histories is erased, as it is by commodity culture and those living under its aegis.

Though charming in their own way, China, Poland, and the Maginot Line are also condemned in The Bluest Eye for just this kind of refusal to take into account difference and history:

Except for Marie's fabled love for

Dewey Prince, these women hated

men, all men, without shame, apology,

or discrimination. They abused their

visitors with scorn grown mechanical

from use. Black men, white men, Puerto

Ricans, Mexicans, Jews, Poles,

whatever--all were inadequate and

weak, all came under jaundiced eyes

and were the recipients of their disinterested

wrath. (47-48; emphasis

added) Neither their hatred for men and the "mechanical" violence it spawns(5) nor Marie's love for Pecola, however, has much effect on either their own standing in the community or Pecola's life. Any power moves they think they are making by indiscriminately hating all men are probably negated by the fact that they do not take into account differences in race and class, factors supremely affecting their position vis a vis men, especially in their profession. Their kindness to Pecola is similarly disinterested in that, by failing to see her and her situation clearly, the three, in the words of Michele Wallace, "fail to understand victimization or the fact that [she] is in danger" (65).(6)

This failure is finally the community's as a whole, a fact Morrison repeatedly suggests by illustrating the extent to which as a group it too has "absorbed in full" dominant standards of value and beauty with little or no inspection of or reflection on the effects to itself or to its individual members. In her conversation with friends, Mrs. MacTeer jokes about "'Aunt Julia ... still trotting up and down Sixteenth Street talking to herself'" (15). The significance of this remark is not way apparent until the depiction of Pecola's breakdown is complete, and we are presented with a similar image of Pecola "walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear" (158). Lorain sees Aunt Julia as "'that old hag floating by in that bonnet'" whom the County will not "'take'" and whom the sight of will "'scare the living shit out of you'" (15). One of the women attributes Aunt Julia's fate to senility, but the designation "still trotting" implies she has been out there a while. Their inability or refusal to make sense of her actions, to put them in context, foreshadows their eventual scapegoating of Pecola and suggests that the town has an undiagnosed and unexamined history of producing women like Pecola, that her experience--and the extremity of it--is not an isolated instance.

Morrison characterizes Cholly's disinterestedness as the condition of being "dangerously free. Free to feel whatever he felt--fear, guilt, shame, love, grief, pity. Free to be tender or violent" (125). Her depiction of him traces the source of this freedom to his loss of mother, father, community, and home and to the feeling that the history of people and events extends as far as his interest in them:

. . . Cholly was truly free. Abandoned

in a junk heap by his mother, rejected

for a crap game by his father, there

was nothing more to lose. He was alone

with his own perceptions and appetites,

and they alone interested him.

(126) Paradoxically, this is a state that allows him to see Pecola more clearly than probably anyone else in the book (with the exception of the adult Claudia) and to love her in spite of what he sees, but does not allow him to interact with her in any form other than "reactions based on what he felt at the moment." Cholly sees his daughter washing dishes and sees also, in her stooped frame, "an accusation" against him. Unlike others in town, though, he sees "her young, helpless, hopeless presence" (127) and "loved her enough to touch her, envelop her, give something of himself to her" (159) where no one else would.

In the four examples cited above, disinterestedness is occasioned specifically by the inability to place people and events into contexts that would flesh out experience and thus make obvious the limitations of present actions or beliefs. It becomes steadily more difficult for characters in The Bluest Eye to do this because they are either separated from the supportive networks that would encourage it and (or as a result) because their placement in American culture does not sanction accurate representations of what that context would be. The result is a community of individuals who are, at times, painfully alienated from each other as each is divided within him-or herself. Pecola's split consciousness at the end of the novel is a literal representation of this doubleness(7); it affects other characters also as distortions or denials of self, but denials and distortions approved and fostered in popular iconographic representation.

An explicit formal project of The Bluest Eye, then, is to rewrite the specific stories, histories, and bodies of Africa-Americans which are quickly being made invisible in commodity culture and which, if written, will make disinterestedness and its unproductive or damaging results impossible. Morrison acknowledges this project in so many words when she says she wrote The Bluest Eye because she wanted to read the story it would tell. The novel's shifting focus and point of view, its willingness to let different people speak and not to reconcile contradictory explanations and claims where they arise is indicative of Morrison's preference for telling all sides of Pecola's story rather than hammering home one of them. In this, she is like other black women writers who, according to Mae Henderson, "through their intimacy with the discourses of other(s) ... weave into their work competing and complementary discourses--that seek to adjudicate competing claims and witness concerns" (23). It would be to miss the point, then, to read 7he Bluest Eye looking to assign blame. One of the great virtues of the book is its capacity to empathize and to allow its readers to empathize--something not possible in the absence of history and context--with all of its characters, perhaps especially those who seem most irredeemable: Cholly, Soaphead Church, Pauline.

Finally, though, since The Bluest Eye and this project of representing African-Americans focuses most specifically on the histories and bodies of black women, the novel's alternating perspective reproduces formally their complicated subjectivity in particular. As she shifts from young girl to older woman to black man to omniscient narrator, Morrison seems to move her examination of Pecola's life back and forth from the axis of race to that of gender. This process allows her in turn to move through the story as both insider and outsider in what Mae Henderson calls a "contestorial dialogue" involving "the hegemonic dominant and subdominant or [after Rachel Blau Du Plessis] 'ambiguously (non) hegemonic' discourses" (20). At one point Morrison writes as a black person among other black people speaking to a white audience, at others as a woman among women speaking to men. The movement between these positions allows Morrison to "see the other, but also to see what the other cannot see, and to use this insight to enrich both our own and the other's understanding" (36). Of course these categories can be separated only artificially since, as Valerie Smith notes, "the meaning of blackness in this country shapes profoundly the experience of gender, just as the conditions of womanhood affect ineluctably the experience of race" (47). By doing so here, however, Toni Morrison enables the reader to witness structurally the complexity of black female subjectivity as she writes it back into a culture whose social and economic mechanisms would otherwise try to write it out.


(1.) For more on this analysis of mass culture see, among many others, Adorno and Horkheimer's work in Arato and Gebhardt, Fredrick Jameson, or Tonia Modleski. (2.) I take it then, that Maureen's guess is oorrect, that Pauline does name Pecola after the movie' black daughter and even then getting it wrong: The daughter's name is Peola, not Pecola. (3.) It is not the case, however, that the kind of community support Pauline needs is simply unavail in Lorain. When Cholly bums their apartment, for example, Pauline's own daughter Pecola is taken in immediately by the MacTeers and, in spite of Mrs. MacTeer's raving about the amount of milk Pecola drinks, is cared for as a matter of oourse. (4.) Morrison's referenco to Imitation of Life, then, is quite specific and damning: Both versions o the film finally take as a given the black woman's status as servant in the white woman's household. A recent television screening of the original version was introduced optimistically as the story of women who must "hide their friendship" by masquerading as mistress and maid. While Sirk's version problematizes as it foregrounds the story's racial thematics, it counteracts much of its own insight by concluding with an image of the fair-skinned black daughter being reincorporated into the white family, sans mama and the "problems" her definite blackness presented. (5.) "On one occasion the town well know, they lured a Jew up the stairs, pounced on him, all three, held him up by the heels, shook everything out of hi3 pants pockets, and threw him out of the window (6.) Wallace also argues that "in district contrast to the variety of maternal images in the book, these women neither nurture nor protect children" and that, by including them in the text, Morrison "seems to questlon the self-involvement of traditional modes of black female creativity, as well as [pose] a general critique of more recent feminist strategies of |man-hating' and |self-love'" (65). not sure what exactly she means by "the self-involvement of traditional modes of black female creativity," but I think the characterization of the three prostitutes is more complex and ultimatel more endearing than Wallace admits. When it comes time to name who "loves" Pecola, for example, the narrator--now definitively Claudia--cites Cholly and the Maginot Line. (7.) Awkward argues that Pecola's "schizophrenia" is a "coded intertext of W. E. B. Du Bois's discus of a Black |double oonsciousness' in The Souls of Black Folk"(12).

Works Cited

Arato, Andrew, and Eike Gebhardt, eds. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Continuum, 1982. Awkward, Michael. Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women's Novels. New York: Columbia UP, 1989. Haug, Frigga, ed. Female Sexualization: A Collective Work of Memory. Trans. Erica Carter. London: Verso, 1987. Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. "Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition." Wall 16-37. Jameson, Fredric. "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture." Social Text 1 (1979):135-48. Modleski, Tonya. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Routledge, 1984. Morrison, Toni. The Blues Eye. New York: Washington Square, 1970. Smith, Valerie. "Black Feminist Theory and Other Representations of the Other." Wall 38-57. Wall, Cheryl A., ed. Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989. Walace, Michele. "Variations on Negation and the Heresy of Black Feminist Creativity." Reading Black Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. 52-67. Willis, Susan. "I Shop Therefore I Am: Is There a Place for Afro-American Culture in Commodity Cultu Wall 173-95.--. Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.

Jane Kuenz is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Duke University. In addition to her work on Toni Morrison, she has published and presented papers on theories of cultural identification at Walt Disney World and women's poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.


Publication Information: Article Title: 'The Bluest Eye': Notes on History, Community, and Black Female Subjectivity. Contributors: Jane Kuenz - author. Journal Title: African American Review. Volume: 27. Issue: 3. Publication Year: 1993. Page Number: 421+. COPYRIGHT 1993 African American Review; COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group