On August 31, 1997 professors of literature at Ohio University, Marilyn Atlas and Edgar Whan, came to Studio B in the Ohio University Telecommunications Center to record a discussion about the novel The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. They were joined by guest scholar Vattel (Ted) Rose of Ohio University. Here are the transcripts of the conversation.
Marilyn Atlas - Hi, I thought I would start today by telling you something about Toni Morrisons biography. She won the Nobel Prize in 1993. Her birth name was Chloe Anthony Wofford and shes a Midwesterner. She was born in Lorain, Ohio, a small town near the shores of Lake Erie, to George Wofford, originally from Georgia, and to Ramah. Morrisons maternal grandparents, Ardelia and John Solomon Willis were sharecroppers in Alabama. John Solomon had coal mined in Kentucky before moving with Ardelia to Lorain where Rameh, Morrison's mother, was born.
Her family was poor but very tight knit and she often is interviewed and in those interviews she talks about her family there love of music how the super-natural was interwoven with the natural. Her mother cleaned houses to help Morrison get through college. So she has very much a working class background, but she also sang in the church choir and was involved with her community and thats obvious when one reads Toni Morrisons books, how she picks up on that information.
She received her BA from Howard in 1953. Her thesis at that time was on Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, their use of suicide and characters, which I think is very interesting. She is very interested in the grotesque, in the macabre. Her life has always been academic and also it has been very much part of the publishing world. Shes helped lots of writers like Toni Cade Bambara, Gail Jones, Angela Davis, find their footing in the world of writing as well.
And this novel, the one we are talking about today, is written in 1970. Its set in Lorain, although the towns not mentioned by name and the young character just becoming a woman. Pecola Breedlove is a young, black girl and she becomes mentally ill because she feels having blue eyes or in other words, being Caucasian, more like Shirley Temple and Dick and Jane will save her from loneliness.
Claudia, the narrator, looks back at her sisters preadolescent self-remembering a long vantage comfort with themselves she says, We felt comfortable in our own skins enjoy the news that our senses released to us admired our dirt, cultivated our scars and that could not comprehend this unworthiness."
So Claudia, the narrator, becomes the healthiest characters and in some ways never buying into system. That what she was, was organically incorrect or organically wrong and what Morrison does in this novel is that she takes a look at the way society and the way education affects a young black girl, affects different types of families, situations, so that people have a big problem having self-respect and therefore having good lives. But I want to open it up to Edgar Whan and Ted Rose for comments. Im sure they will have lots to say and what we will try to discuss some of the beauty in the book and also some of the social importance. It was a first novel and a very, very brave novel.
Ted Rose - I will begin by picking up on your last point I think of the novel as indeed very impressive first novel. It is one that a more experienced writer than Toni Morrison was at the time, could be proud of. That is not to say that the novel is without flaws. Even Toni Morrison herself has admitted that, but nevertheless it is an extremely impressive achievement and one that deals with a matter of race in America, and how the pervasiveness of racism has such a corrosive effect. In this case black Americans, people who buy into a set of values that have been permeated throughout the society and many times wind up giving great value to characteristics, which they themselves do not possess, which results in self-loathing, self-contempt, and so on, and I think that this is primarily what the novel is all about.
Marilyn Atlas - I think that I agree so much that it is so centered on racism and yet she really talks about women and how that complicates the whole racist issue, because the women in this novel and it is very much a womans novel. Not all of Toni Morrisons novels are equally so, but she is always dealing with gender issues. Talks about how it is hard to be a female and negotiate self-love and growing up with kind of a double jeopardy of being both not at the top because youre a woman, not at the top because your black.
Edgar Whan - A black woman ran for Congress she said she got in more trouble being a woman than being black. I am amused when I hear about the blue eye because when I was in Turkey they have little pins with little blue eyes on them and people said this means good luck, but a little investigation showed us that we remember the days when the European people came through there with their blue eyes and also I think she would buy one of those pins.
This book is very heavy for me to read and as Rabbi Heshel once said to me, "Its a terrible thought to me that the color of my skin is an offense to another person." And you see this happen and this whole thing happened to her and this little girl ground to death by these things and you wonder what can be done you think, whatever it's not going to be easy you cant just simply, like the liberals say, tell that little girl I like you and thats fine. That wont work and I remember the kids, black kids in the 60s taught me an awful lot. They would say that they would much rather deal with George Wallace than with a liberal. I understand that now.
I think what ever it is it has to be hard work and I want to tell you one time we gave a contest here, to see who could write the best essay on Martin Luther King instead of just sitting around talking about the dream, I said well let's do something. So they wrote or we had an essay contest, which I was one of the graders and I picked this young girls paper to talk about. And what she said that there was three girls. She and her friends, had walked up the street in Columbus and they walked into a bar to have a beer. She couldnt tell it was a black bar. She sat at the table no one waited on them so they got the brew themselves and sat down and they drank their beer and everybody was dancing so she got up and danced with her girl friend and everybody stopped dancing.
So they sat down and this black guy came up and said would you dance with me? They danced together and when they sat down everybody clapped, so thats a such a moral to me; you cant simply say something the cat passed off. You would have to work on it and would have to work and understand each other and I think this well this novel says that you have to do something. Because she said in her afterwards to this story. In her afterwards she said a novel doesnt work because maybe readers remain touched but not moved it and concludes with very exceptions, this initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like the Pecolas life, dismissed, trivialized, misread and has taken 25 years to gain for her the respectful publication that this edition is.
Marilyn Atlas - Well a lot of the reviewers liked it I think that I dont find the novel all that flawed. I find it extremely brave and I think that what she does she takes to task a lot of things people were afraid to take to task in the 1970s. Like the education system is a culprit. That it is to blame for little girls and little boys who are not living in Dick and Jane environments with white picket fences and a puppy. That extra blame that kids feel and we know that now. I mean I think in 1997, we know that if we deal in the classroom as if all the children were from middle class happy families that we are going to further isolate the kids who need the most help and I think she also takes a look at the movie industry. she takes a look at the world of Shirley Temple. How come Shirley Temple gets Mr. Bojangles? Thats not nice, thats not fair. And she takes a look at the way the seasons, which ought to function to help things grow properly can be ruined and deadened by the force of culture. Because here in this town during that final spring, the novel starts in autumn and ends in spring, its kind of almost a backwards kind of cycle. That nothing grew, the flowers wouldnt blossom, something is awry with nature. It's almost like a early ecology novel.
Edgar Whan - Its also the year the war started, too.
Marilyn Atlas - Right! You cant do this and get away with it. It is a World War I novel. Its anti-war, anti-murder, it is very much pro-feeling good about yourself, so you can have a decent life .
Edgar Whan - One thing that they used to make a point of in the 60's, the fact that people were invisible on television, nobody, all the black ever did was play the piano; while someone else ran off with Ingrid Bergman. And I was 45 years old before I ever seen a black man kiss a black woman seriously on television . No engineers, they would have a safari going through Africa. A black guy would fall over the edge and a guy would look down and said "Oh, he was carrying the ammunition, no question about him." And this for black kids to see was enormously painful and its that, at least that is changing now.
Marilyn Atlas - And she names those issues, I think that she does it really well. she does it stylistically with a Dick and Jane reader and that functions for me because it makes you look at the words and makes you realize the harm of those words. The merging together, the making it into nonsense and yet the power because all the kids used to read Dick and Jane. They dont anymore, but they did.
Ted Rose - I think that includes African-American youngsters and I think that the whole point here is that many African-Americans youngsters, have gotten their values through such works. Again we talked about the fact that these values are inscribed in the society and it has been very difficult for African-Americans to take an oppositional position, when they are bombarded by these things, so that you have mentioned in the novel of the fact that many of the African-Americans youngsters wound up liking and loving the Shirley Temple doll and I think that is perfectly understandable.
Edgar Whan - Thats all they had, the only young woman they saw.
Ted Rose - But I think that it is also interesting to note that even Claudia changes her position, you remember the time when she destroys her Shirley Temple doll, but then she later on says something to the effect that she grew to love her.
Edgar Whan - She grew to love her. But thats why she survived because she didnt get trapped. I remember reading once about someone going American Indian.
Marilyn Atlas - But that is also why she was also so depressed. At the end of the novel though she has every reason to believe in her own youth and her own growing-upness, she is so depressed and part of that is because she has been co-opted because her instincts to murder that Shirley Temple doll wasnt all that bad of an instinct, but it was so inappropriate.
Edgar Whan - For goodness sakes its not killing people.
Marilyn Atlas - No, its not people, it really is a metaphor. Its saying this I cannot be and that is the only image of woman hood that I have. You know what I think of is the way those three prostitutes function in this novel. They are so out of culture that they are free and they are free to be organic.
Edgar Whan - Oh yes! Pecola talks to them you know its the only place in the book that I remember her saying very much.
Marilyn Atlas - Right, right! Can I just read you a little quote because I think that it is really beautiful and I think that it is to the point? Few adults, this is me, but I will give you the quote afterward. Few adults in Lorain feel worthy. Miss Marie, a prostitute, a woman with no status in Lorain, manages to feel pride. Her laugh portrays an inner landscape richer than Lorain where in 1941, the year Pecola goes mad, even the marigolds would not grow. Heres the way the narrator describes Maries laugh to the reader, so your getting this pre-world World War II horror, but not for the prostitutes who are so alienated from the culture.
That this is Miss Marie, "From deep inside, her laughter came the sound of many rivers, freely, deeply, muddily, heading for the room of an open sea."
So shes freed. Her absolute dismissal of Shirley Temple and the rest of the community that are beginning to love Shirley Temple, because they do not know how to hate her. Shes free to be organic, to run to an open sea and I think that is part of what Toni Morrison is saying. I mean there is a degree of violence here. I dont think that she is a proponent of murder particularly, this after all is a doll. But that as Claudia changes and grows up, I mean there are books written about women becoming more and more deprived. That they are braver preadolescence than after adolescence because they are afraid what it is personally going to cost them. So I dont think that the acceptance of Shirley Temple is necessarily a positive motion here. It is more an ironic one perhaps.
Ted Rose - Perhaps that was an interesting point of view I always wondered what it would be like to explore it further.
Edgar Whan - I was going to talk about an American Indian reservation, I was once out there and a woman came in one day and the people, all the Indian kids, are writing an essay on, "why Im glad the pilgrims came to America," which shows the sensibility of the white big nations establishment .
Marilyn Atlas - I think thats true. I think that when she is speaking, that when she says this on an interview "when I say people I always think of African-American people." Those are her people just like when we think of people, we think of our community. But at the same time because the book is so much about outsiders, people on Indian reservations. People who are immigrant kids, who also could not have necessarily what the middle class white culture said one should have just to be normal. Also really move toward this book empathizes with it. Its just a really, still an early statement that whats happening in the culture is not healthy, it is not ok, it needs to be changed.
Ted Rose - I think that there is no question about that. I also think that it is important to realize that many of the other characters who are perpetrators, if you will, of the evil or misdeeds, are themselves victims and I think that this is one of the important points that Toni Morrison is making because one wants to remember that in the very process of raping his daughter, Cholly Breedlove, you may recall that it becomes involved with an earlier incident of the first sexual experience when he is caught by these two white men and he is made to continue and hes humiliated and rather than have his hatred directed toward the men who are humiliating him he actually directs it toward the woman, Darlene because she is a witness of the humiliation.
Marilyn Atlas - And you have to really read the words around Cholly. I mean while he acted horrible and while we know the trauma of incest in our western world and what will happen to Pecola. I mean, we foresee the horror that is going to happen. Cholly is making a gesture of love as he, in his distorted world sees it, and we cant just dismiss that. He is moved, not by anger, hes moved because he doesnt know how else to comfort such a vulnerable girl and that foot image is the image of her mom during the time when they were attracted together.
So you get all this perversity but at the same time you get the since of love but he does not know how to love his daughter and even in the minister, Soaphead Church, he is a despicable character as you have here, but he still wants Pecola at some level to be happy. He gives her what nobody else can give her the elusion that shes okay, she has blue eyes. And hes not all bad. He ought to be all bad, but because he is not all bad we have to look at our own values and what we create that makes a character like that not all bad and I think that, that is part of her genius and it works in all of her novels but there arent just plain bad, underlined, absolutely horrible people, that it is more complicated.
Edgar Whan - He just did it to gratify his own ego he did not care for her he thought that this would be a new trick to do here someone else came to me with no redeeming characteristics at all.
Marilyn Atlas - He gives her what she wants thats nice.
Edgar Whan - Well, sure thats true, but was what he gave her good? He just about drove her mad, is what he did.
Marilyn Atlas - I guess we have to really think about that and talk about that. Do you think her madness is bad, period, or is she giving us a certain kind of freedom through madness here where she is?
Edgar Whan - If thats freedom for her, give me slavery.
Marilyn Atlas - I know! I mean I think I absolutely agree with you.
Edgar Whan - It's terrible, it's a terrible thing to happen to anybody and he did it. And he didnt care he just saw her as everybody else did, somebody to manipulate.
Marilyn Atlas - But he couldnt have done it with the of culture.
Edgar Whan - Well, I understand that, but he did but dont say that hes ok. You see, because a man could fall down and knock somebody down and kill somebody to save his own life.
Marilyn Atlas - No, I dont think hes okay simply like that. I think that he is a jerk. I think that he is awful. I think that he is really a bad human being.
Edgar Whan - But he did because he wanted someone to feed that dog. Thats all. You go out and feed that dog and get rid of her so she did.
Ted Rose - I think that he dismissed her entirely as a charlatan . I think there is a large element of that in him Here a whole matter of sexuality, you know that is involved with him as well as the character Henry whom
Marilyn Atlas - And look at his name Soaphead Church, I mean look at the system shes taking to task by that man.
Ted Rose - Right, and a very arrogant letter to God, reproaching him before having done his job so poorly.
Marilyn Atlas - Uh huh! And I think that he means that to some extent hes delusional. Henrys another character where you just want to smack him, but at the same time he is more of a weak character than a self-indulgent character.
Ted Rose - Yes, there is the danger of fastidiousness about him and I think that it has to do with a repressed sexuality in both him and Soaphead Church and that is not to say "soap suds" Church, but I think that there is a repressed sexuality in which the dealing with young girls you may recall, in very curious ways. Toni Morrison had a lot of characters who are grotesque characters in my judgement, many times Im reminded of Sherwood Anderson movies.
Marilyn Atlas - Oh yes. The Gargoyles in which the prostitutes are referred to in that content.
Edgar Whan - Reminds me of my life.
Marilyn Atlas - But I think thats the Anderson image of grotesque being the sweetest apples is always there. Its the ones that are really well formed they dont really taste quite as well as those that are really troublesome and there is, I mean these characters really do offer you a lot to think about.
Ted Rose - Oh, unquestionably.
Marilyn Atlas - To analyze.
Ted Rose - Without a doubt.
Marilyn Atlas - I was wondering, you know, in terms of the different family situations; are all the families totally dysfunctional? Claudias is probably the best.
Edgar Whan - Betsy is pretty good, you know she does not see her father hardly, does she? Remember, think of all the men in this novel, theyre all strange arent they?
Marilyn Atlas - Well, theyre not part of the family exactly.
Ted Rose - What about the time Old Blue served as surrogate father to Pecola?
Edgar Whan - Yes, your right, thats true. I forgot that. He was good, but his own father beats him and leaves him and they were men who just appeared to do damage and leave.
Ted Rose - Even that certainly is true, I can tell they have reservations well, I can tell you that they have reservations about placing Toni Morrison in with those who have been accused of bashing another black male. I think that Toni Morrison is a much more complex writer and while she has many characters who are distorted, misplaced and the like. I nevertheless think that she deals with them sympathetically.
Marilyn Atlas - Yes, I think so too.
Edgar Whan - She think much higher of Cholly than he does. I think that you pointed that out. She really favors him over that Shirley Temple doll.
Ted Rose - Yes, but Cholly I would be real careful about just dismissing him outright because he is a main character. He has a whole series of events in his life that help to explain his behavior.
Edgar Whan - He was certainly a product of his culture. Its like everything that breaths is
Ted Rose - And Pauline Breedlove is equally a victim. She finds refuge in the end, in the church, but she is a victim. You know the one scene in the novel that I think is particularly compelling is when Pecola goes to the home in which she is working and she is working for this wealthy white family and Pecola takes with her, Frieda and Claudia and Mrs. Breedlove has made this pie, this blueberry pie and Pecola winds up somehow knocking the pie over and you will recall how Ms Breedlove immediately smacks Pecola and then the white child of the family she is working for hugs her. And then we are told that she is very tidy, she cleans up and very, very carefully, she does not transfer that to her own home
Marilyn Atlas - No, and she is someone who is really the artist without the art object. Pauline is special. She loves the movies. She loves the aesthetics. She loves the kitchen she works in, she hasnt the means to transfer it. Therefore, what is hers, kind of like her daughter, she discards. And she loves what she really cant have. The familys house is not her house and that kitchen is not her kitchen so it is very sad.
Edgar Whan - I would like to talk about this woman shes worked for, she married a man with a slash in his mouth instead of a mouth so how could she understand. I think thats good.
Marilyn Atlas - And then the other family we have is Geraldines family. She is the lightest of the African-American kids therefore feels she has status because of that. Is treated with both anger and status, ends up very, very cruel. The image with the cat, her mothers anger at the whole situation, so much displacement, real dysfunctional family.
Edgar Whan - She had total contempt for Pecola.
Marilyn Atlas - Yes right, simply because of color.
Edgar Whan - She was a nigger. She thought a different color was a nigger.
Marilyn Atlas - Color and class and it is also an indictment of middle-class African-Americans.
Ted Rose - And of course you have the young girl who is in school. Her name is Maureen.
Marilyn Atlas - Maureen, yes.
Ted Rose - And she seems to me is a replica, if you will.
Edgar Whan - But she was kind to Pecola, she took her ice cream.
Ted Rose - Only up to a certain point.
Edgar Whan - Well, no one else did that.
Ted Rose - Yes, but up to a certain point.
Edgar Whan - But then she says Maureen was not the enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred the thing to fear was the thing that made her beautiful. Everybody here seems to be blaming her. How can you be blamed for what happens under these conditions? I think thats true theres no seeing, no moral blame for what people do. Except just what else can they do?
Marilyn Atlas - Except characters like Claudia are thinking it through. Part of it is saying nobody is to blame, but she is also saying everybody is responsible.
Edgar Whan - There are three Claudias in the novel Theres the narrator and then the Ph.D. commentator that comes in and talks.
Marilyn Atlas - The older Claudia looking back.
Edgar Whan - The medium one then the fake child one. But yes, thats true.
Marilyn Atlas - Yes, Maureen Peal. The names are great in this book but Toni Morrisons names are always good. She is having fun, I mean part of this is very painful, but there is also humor here.
Ted Rose - Indeed, indeed.
Edgar Whan - This wonderful passage, "Pecola stood a little apart from us, her eyes hinged in the direction in which Maureen had fled. She seemed to fold into herself, like a pleated wing."
"Her pain antagonized me."
This is Claudia speaking, "I wanted to open her up, crisp her edges, ram a stick down that hunched and curving spine, force her to stand erect and spit the misery out on the streets. But she held it in where it could lap up into her eyes."
Thats good observation by the child.
Ted Rose - I think that, very interesting that, you know, the genesis of this novel, as you may well have read, is an incident that occurred when Toni Morrison was either in junior high or senior high. There was a young black school mate who expressed a desire for blue eyes and Toni Morrison said that she was absolutely appalled by that. Her initial response following the appalling (feeling) was one of anger, but she later on attempted to understand what it was all about and again as I said earlier, she came to realize how racism has permeated in about every facet of our national life and culture. So much so that many African-Americans even today I suspect that, some at least, who are less than satisfied with themselves and because of their difficulty is feeling that they are despised by others. And I think that Toni Morrison has set for herself the task of helping people to understand the complexity of existence and also accepting themselves.
Marilyn Atlas - And layered on top of that is these kids are growing up and becoming women and sexuality is this terrible, terrifying terrain for all the women here, because here they need to be objects they dont choose theyve got to make themselves attractive for other people.
Edgar Whan - Like every women,but what about every child, my granddaughter it breaks my heart you have to grow up and if you weigh over 110 pounds your no good and if you cant spray yourself everywhere and how can you face life then, I just dont know. You used to have to worry about that 97-pound weakling.
Marilyn Atlas - The pressure on teenage girls is so great and I think that you are absolutely right even if there white there is a lot of pressure, but if theyre African-American
Edgar Whan - It triples it, I understand.
Marilyn Atlas - It just doubles it.
Edgar Whan - But it is a personal hang up for young girls. Its just enormous.
Marilyn Atlas - Its not, its not just the kids. Its the grownups; I mean here is a section where the girls are talking about the Maginot Line, where the prostitute...
" You know. Like the Maginot Line. Shes ruined. Mama said so. The tears came back. An image of Frieda, big and fat, came to mind. Her thin legs swollen, her face surrounded by layers of rouged skin. I, too, begin to feel tears. But, Frieda, you could exercise and not eat. She shrugged. Besides, what about China and Poland? Theyre ruined too, arent they? And they aint fat. "
The whole centers around the Henry scene the whole fear of being touched in the wrong way, not the person doing it to blame, not saying no. But that you are ruined. That what people do to you ruins you and it is a real female kind of issue, but again were dealing with so much more in 1997 than we were in the 1950s.
Edgar Whan - She makes a point of going through these arent whores of golden hearts which I keep seeing that whole thing coming out somewhere the whore with the golden heart and it may be true you know.
Marilyn Atlas - No, their witty, their charming, they hate people. Theyre human. Theyre much more interesting and I think that they have a golden heart.
Edgar Whan - They seem happier than Mrs. Breedlove will tell you.
Marilyn Atlas - Oh, absolutely!
Edgar Whan - I dont know if this should be saved for a career day, but...
Marilyn Atlas - And that scene that we were talking about earlier with Polly. Pauline becomes Polly that diminutive. Shes no longer really a grown-up. Shes just a servant.
"Pecola picked up the laundry bag, heavy with wet clothes, and we stepped hurriedly out the door. As Pecola put the laundry bag in the wagon, we could hear Mrs. Breedlove hushing and soothing the tears of the little pink-and-yellow girl.
"Who were they, Polly?
Dont worry none, baby.
You gonna make another pie?
course I will
Who were they, Polly?
Hush. Dont worry none,she whispered, and the honey in her words complemented the sundown spilling on the lake. "
And the sun setting because what she is comforting is the individual who least needs the comforting in that scene. Her own kids, their friends, the strangers who in so many ways are that ruined pie or the potentially ruined pie. And of course Pecola will be. She just wants to shoo out, out of that pristine white environment and it is really terrible because one does see in the young Pauline so much more potential than that, really a different type of woman.
Edgar Whan - Shes got up north and found out, you find out a lot about the community in this book. Communities start and generally you If we have a community, Im not going to let Vattel in and Vattels not going to let Edgar in. So part of the community is keeping people out. When we talk about community everyone gets kind of fuzzy about it, but these are, I guess religion talks about total community and maybe democracy, everybody agrees, but were a long way from that. In a community, you give up things to join and you share things with others. We saw that reading these books. A lot of the time pain is shared by these communities. She makes the point the community let her down. How does this community let Pecola down? This is what Morrison keeps saying that in some ways her black community didnt take care of her. Is that true?
Ted Rose - I think that it is certainly true of the novel.
Marilyn Atlas - She died, I mean you think you have a baby, the baby lives, unless there is something organically wrong; there is nothing organically wrong here. Theres a healthy normal child who hates herself. Who just does not get what she needs and feels lonely.
Edgar Whan - I think that the community rejected the whole family. Isnt that true?
Marilyn Atlas - Yes.
Ted Rose - That is true.
Marilyn Atlas - And she was pregnant. A pregnant girl in a black community moving toward the middle class. Right?
Edgar Whan - Did he rape her twice or once?
Ted Rose - Twice.
Edgar Whan - Thats what I thought when she is talking to her imaginary person at the end she does admit it. Which puts another facet on this, changes his character a little bit doesnt it? I described the "Scarlet Letter law" to my students, theyre so dumb they think that they have to commit adultery twice, even once was enough in those days.
Marilyn Atlas - Its kind of like The Stranger. Its the second shot that counts. The first shot is an accident, but the second shot really does not do the murder, but it allows the person absolutely to have chosen the murder.
Edgar Whan - You could say that this person is --107-- it is clever of her to do that I just dont know why. But it isnt certain that she did it because the girl was making up things.
Ted Rose - Yes, but that is a distinction made between the two. I think that it is a minor thing its a small distinction, I think and I am not sure that, I have clear in my own mind the difference between the two incidents.
Marilyn Atlas - The first was almost in innocence and the second was, seemed to me, to be almost in guilt. He had done wrong and he was wrong and because one has done wrong one can do wrong because one has already been there so to speak. So, I think thats what she is kind of saying. That what you do even accidentally does, it names you, it maims you. I think that what she does hear is that she makes Pecola into a very Old Testament scapegoat. At least thats what Claudia sees her doing and let me read you a little bit near the end of the novel. It is really very beautiful the strong language.
"Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we usedto silence our own nightmares."
And this is about Pecola.
" And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength. And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word."
I think in that kind of language Claudia is feeling she is almost beating herself you know as one does in Jewish tradition on Yom Kippur. She is absolutely owning that Pecola died because of her and her world and the way that they put it together was wrong. Her madness, her escape from that life was, as Edgar said, a terrible, terrifying, useless, wasteful thing. But it was something created by the whole community that let the whole community to some extent say "Thats not us. We are not that. We dont do that. Were not like that." And she was just a little girl and therefore nature would not grow because the language was wrong, because the thinking around the incident was wrong. The community hadnt helped the little girl and they were guilty of that.
Ted Rose - And I think that is part of a reason that Claudia is, I think that is part of the reason Claudia feels at the end of the novel the way that she does and that the community had indeed let Pecola down and she is sad about that.
Edgar Whan - I want to go back to the passage is this in the sense that I said that if there were prisoners I would not be free, then I could understand that. In other words, were healthy only because she wasnt healthy.
Marilyn Atlas - I think that what you are saying is really similar to what Toni Morrison is saying. That the way that we use contrast, the way that we name things we do it to empower ourselves, but sometimes we disempower people who need our support. The other is something that we can use to destroy the other to make ourselves okay and maybe that is not necessary, that whole dialectic the one or the other. Maybe there is room for both, maybe the prostitutes arent so much different than the wives. Maybe all the women in the novel have problems. Maybe, the mulatto kids that think that they are so hot shot, really have the same issues of being partially African-American and therefore partially hurt.
Edgar Whan - They are part of the solution.
Marilyn Atlas - Yeah, they have rights. But they...
Edgar Whan - Thats the great melting pot. dont you know. They are melting into the pot.
Ted Rose - Some of this says something to the effect that Pecolas madness becomes a kind of embodiment if you will, maybe even a symbol of the madness of many of the other characters, although their madness is not fully developed.
Edgar Whan - Or the madness of the whole society.
Marilyn Atlas - Right, I mean look at her mother is she looses a tooth and therefore gives up on beauty. I mean thats absolutely taking the symbol as a whole, taking the part as if it stood for the universe. One isnt beautiful or not beautiful because one does or does not loose a tooth. And you know it is so much more; so much more complicated than that. But that absoluteness is very similar to you know just give me blue eyes, blue eyes, everything else falls into place. And it is extremely destructive. I mean all the families have problems nobodys innocent.
Ted Rose - And Polly also, we are told, takes on a very interesting position or posture. Its something to the effect that Cholly becomes her crown, the means by which he is going to achieve her crown. But Pecola is a cross without a crown, in other words, Pecola is to be endured, if you will. That is a tragedy that Mrs. Breedlove must accept, but she knows that there is no reward in the end. I find it extremely painful in the novel many times to read. It's beautiful but painful as well.
Edgar Whan - Maybe you all can explain this to me, "The idea of physical beauty is probably one of the most destructive ideas in the history of human thoughts," she says. You see this, in a sense, could be that she just talked about beauty and ugliness, but she does not mean physical beauty here. Shes talking about physical ugliness. Is it that the trouble with this statement?
Marilyn Atlas - I think that it is talking about models. I mean the European woman is the cats meow. Well that leaves them out of the world of woman. I think that she is talking about the ridiculousness of that.
Edgar Whan - OK.
Marilyn Atlas - Maybe there ought to be some kind of organic form.
Edgar Whan - Probably some of this connects to Pecola, but thats because she wasnt ugly.
Ted Rose - I think that the point is that she is physically unattractive. The point is made at one point that her nose is a bit smaller than the others were who were attractive. I think that all her characteristics do indeed make it all.
Edgar Whan - Thats what I noticed was that she was not hanging her head.
Ted Rose - Thats because she has excepted what society has imposed on her.
Edgar Whan - But then thats, actually she is ugly because of this ideal physical condition.
Ted Rose - Right. Right. And we were told the same about Cholly.
Edgar Whan - But when she is born her mother says she has nice hair, but shes ugly.
Ted Rose - Yes.
Marilyn Atlas - Well if she looked like her mom, if she looked African-American, she would be ugly to Pauline who mother did not quite look like a movie star.
Edgar Whan - Welcome to the world, you puppy.
Marilyn Atlas - But it was self hate, when you find your own child ugly, its because you dont like yourself. Because you somehow need that child to represent something that you are not.
Ted Rose - Also, I want to make a mention of this point. We have talked about the characteristics of whites as if there is universally agreed upon ideal beauty, but I think that one has to talk the somatic norm image and I am constantly talking about this in a class that I teach which is called Images of Blacks in the American Mind and I tried to get students to understand it. There is a somatic norm image even about whites: blond, blue eyes and a certain height and so on, is what is preferred.
Edgar Whan - And Adam and Eve are pictured often with long blond hair and Jesus looks like Danny Thomas.
Marilyn Atlas - Well, this is a Wold War II novel. I mean the Jewish Holocaust. I mean the whole idea of there being a race worthy and everybody else should be willing to drop dead to make this race survive and live. But that section you know, shes a bird. Theres a lot of bird images. And this is also near the end when she is mad, and her madness you know, much madness is divided sense.
Emily Dickinson has really brought to roost here that what she is doing is that she is rationalizing her behavior in her life, hearing other voices because she needs them. Its not that different than what the other characters are doing it is just an exaggeration of that and we get the image of her when the baby dies and she is kind of alone.
"After the gossip and the slow wagging of heads. She was so sad to see. Grown people looked away; children, those who were not frightened by her, laughed outright."
You are asking who killed her she was totally isolated.
"The damage done was total. She spent her days, her tendril, sap-green days,.."
Remember that this is a very young girl and really Toni Morrison is feeding you with that information.
"...walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear. Elbows bent, hands on shoulders, she flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly. Beating the air, a winged but grounded bird,..
She did have the wings, she had all the elements like you were saying Edgar, she was not ugly, she had the elements but she didnt pull them together. She did not know how, she didnt have permission from the larger world or her own.
"... intent on the blue void it could not reach--could not even see--but which filled the valleys of the mind.
So in this valleys of the mind again you are getting this organic image the Pecola is not a worse off Pecola. She is sad for us. She will soon be dead and we do not like dead because we are scared of dead. But what she does is she creates an audience for herself. She creates other voices that could finally hear her. Shes got blue eyes and she plays that again and again and wants praise for them. In some ways it is a crazy Pecola and then there is no way on a earthly level we want this. But Pecola finds a way to get what she thinks she needs.
Edgar Whan - She has to go out of this world, she cant get it here so she makes her own world.
Marilyn Atlas - Right. She cant get it in this world.
Edgar Whan - I love this passage too:
"The master said, you are ugly and they looked around and saw support for this observation from every billboard, from every movie, every glance. Yes they said that you were right they took the mantle of ugliness into their hands threw it as a mantel over them and went about the world with it ."
And everywhere you turn there it is that even a blond Jesus, though many people are changing that issue. The thing about it is that there is nothing we can do about it except just I dont know.
Marilyn Atlas - Well, part of what we can do about it is, I mean look the questions she asks when she is mad:
Maybe my eyes arent blue enough thats why Im not loved?
Maybe we can stop being so absolutely competitive that, that there is got to be a line and theres got a be a pecking order and we do this all the time at the university too. I mean when you have three weeks worth of projects youve got to rank them. Maybe theyre all good in their own way and the ranking makes people crazy. I mean it helps the person on top who feels very good about himself or herself, but the other two, leave the third in line, feels perhaps unnecessarily bad and wants bluer eyes when perhaps eyes are not an issue and certainly blue isnt an issue. You know her madness is asking cultural questions.
Ted Rose - Well, I think so and I would like to say in response to the point made by Edgar that I think that, that there is something that, that one can do or maybe the people can do and certainly when the flow of being black is beautiful someone has described her as being over compensatory. Now it is a response to a real I think that, that the bottom line message there is that one must accept oneself because one is not going to be anything else.
Edgar Whan - But you have to see of course, instead of a melting pot, but that is a very dangerous idea. They say, well, shes just melting. These middle class blacks are just trying to be white. In this melting pot, wed all be the same. Thats not true any more. And I think thats one of the healthiest things that happened around here in many years. You can be who you are. I remember I quoted Dick Gregory a couple weeks ago when he said to me when he was up at our place. He said, "I dont want to be loved, I want respect. go around to the back door and get a pair of shoes. I want your respect." And I think that is another thing that he said, "Dont disrespect me." That is really a more powerful thing in someway in that the is kind of a churning liberal thing.
Ted Rose - And again, you know I think the most corrosive effect of racism has to do with the internalization of those around you. The white in you is preferred, it is better, and so on.
Edgar Whan - thats one thing that you can do is make sure that people understand this, when many are black lawyers. Youre not going to get any more because of this ideal of a melting pot, everyone has to have the same chance. I really think that is where you have to see. Kids never saw a black firm its hard for me to realize what you grow up with and to be invisible thats true isnt is?
Ted Rose - Oh it is. No question about it.
Edgar Whan - And the wonderful book called "Look Out Whitey, Black Powers Gonna Get Your Mama." Do you know that one?
Ted Rose - No.
Edgar Whan - Its wonderful. And then Ingrid Bergman, that guys playing the piano and the other guy runs off with Ingrid Bergman and hes sitting there playing the piano. Thats the way it is. It always goes smile, open the door let somebody go off you are always just serving in that, thats a terrible, terrible thing. But thats changing that is one of the few, to me, one of the most helpful because it is a matter of image that rigid beauty essence.
Marilyn Atlas - You know one of the things that you just said Edgar is that one of the things that this novel does it makes you realize that how very much it takes characters like Pecola dont get what they need. And they need respect.
Edgar Whan - Yes, there is not question about that.
Marilyn Atlas - But, I think that Toni Morrison maybe also saying that they need friendship. Thats where Claudia and the community business really becomes powerful. If you look at the beginning you know she uses that Dick and Jane primer all the way though. During the very last section, this is the part that she uses the Dick and Jane primer and she puts all the letters together so that they are nonsense.
"LOOKLOOKHERECOMESAFRIENDTHE FRIENDWILLPLAYWITHJANETHEYWILLPLAYAGOODGAMETHEYWILLPLAYA GOODGAMEPLAYJANEPLAY"
And she creates a world that is nonsense playing when she is giving us that dialogue. Part of what Pecola is doing is she is creating a world that she is trying to make real. She is almost compulsively saying, "Is this real, is this enough?" But she is also creating a pretend friend because there are no real friends in this book for her.
Edgar Whan - Its another, of course that everybody knows is that not until about six years of age before anyone notices this do they? They never noticed that they are a different color until someone tells them. Just like in the Bible you dont know that you are naked until someone says it. How else would you know that you are? You find out that you are naked and you get embarrassed. Its a funny period in life, I remember when the kid finally says, "Im black and I didnt know that." Thats true. Its the division I think that its going to do this country in. I do fully believe that its a great flaw in our society and it extends to other things, too. And it just keeps I just think that what you say is true. I think you can do some things, but I am very hopeless about it , I hate to say .
Marilyn Atlas - See I dont see this as a hopeless book and I actually differ with Toni Morrison and with a lot of the critics in the terms of her ending. I see that Claudia may sound really negative, but its almost a letting, a letting out of bad feelings, because she the narrator of this book. She wrote this book, she named the issues. She understood the problems. She couldnt necessarily heal the mistakes, but yet like even though this summer things wont grow in Lorain, Ohio. You get the sense that things are going to grow. I mean this book going to be created and I am not so pessimistic. I think things do change, maybe the world doesnt change, but individuals change. They find a place, not necessarily Pecolas place. Claudia changes through the novel and she writes a novel.
Edgar Whan - Yes, but you criticized her when that she changed and started to loathe...
Marilyn Atlas - That part of her, that part of her. You know but that is only a small part.
Edgar Whan - Even her mother couldnt put the facts together. She is an exception, but she grew and others didnt. You have to give up something too
Ted Rose - And I think that there is some significance also in the fact that as the book ends it was spring. As Marilyn pointed out much earlier it begins in autumn rather than spring as many a books would begin. What happens is that Pecolas child dies and the marigolds did not grow, but nevertheless there is the possibility of growth not only is there the possibility there is the fact that growth will resume next year.
Marilyn Atlas - Come again.
Ted Rose - Indeed.
Edgar Whan - Just the fact of half the people living in that kind of like, swimming like fish in that water of racial superiority. Its not hard to blame her, you just dont know.
Ted Rose - I think many manage to escape some of the most destructive aspects of that situation. I guess that this is where Ralph Ellison comes in because he said the African-American experiences not characterized solely by misery, unhappiness and racism. People do live.
Marilyn Atlas - And obviously Claudia has survived years beyond her childhood or she could not have narrated this text from the point of view that this text is narrated. She is just sad and she does not understand why these kind of sacrifices have to take place and why she herself is complicit in that.
Edgar Whan - But just as a book I dont think that the is different but somehow this child has ground up like a hamburger.. and it happening everyday as we speak too. This happens to people who are I say the laws of class I can see running blood of people who of people who are also fat or have abnormalities. People are cruel in junior high school who are so cruel to other people as I was, we all were and it is just really bothersome to me.
Ted Rose - I would like to direct attention perhaps even without comment to a passage Marilyn had read in the previous paragraph earlier toward the end of the novel. Claudia is speaking and she said, "
We tried to see her without even looking at her,"
and this is Pecola, of course that she is talking about,
"and never, never went near. Not because she was absurd, or repulsive, or because we were frightened, but because we had failed her. Our flowers never grew. I was convinced that Frieda was right, that I had planted them too deeply. How could I have been so slovenly? So we avoided Pecola Breedloveforever."
So I suppose even if they would have confronted people then they would have had to deal regularly with their own failure or failure is to help her along.
Edgar Whan - So in other words there is also poverty dimensions not just race. Part of the reason was that they are poor and poverty We have to have something we can look down on, something we can pound on. That is what depresses me is human nature.
Marilyn Atlas - The MacTeers are poor too, but they hold it together. They support each other, even though Mrs. MacTeers really blows it when her daughter starts to menstruate. Generally you see her as loving even though she doesnt like it. She likes milk from the Shirley Temple cup.
Edgar Whan - Oh yeah! She was aware of all of it, she was OK.
Ted Rose - She is compassionate.
Edgar Whan - She helped her when she got her first period.
Ted Rose - Bear in mind now its when she is commenting on the fact that Pecola has drunk so much milk then Pecola begins to menstruate.
Marilyn Atlas - Because shes poor, because shes poor.
Ted Rose - Right. But then you will notice that once she, Mrs. MacTeer realizes what is happening to Pecola she becomes very passionate and compassionate, is a better term.
Edgar Whan - Dont you find it interesting that everybody has to have someone to look down on. Isnt that a human trait that depresses you?
Ted Rose - Yes of course.
Marilyn Atlas - I think its a cultural trait, Im not sure its a human trait.
Edgar Whan - Excuse me I do, I will just generalize. I think that it is a... for instance poor people say well at least Im not a hippie, there is always some group that you have to be better than, otherwise who are you and I think that some people serve. I have had classes where one guy volunteered to get an F, somebody has to take the fall and nobody asked Pecola but she took it.
Ted Rose - Yes. She certainly did.
Edgar Whan - But somehow it is a terrible tragic flaw in this. The first thing that you do is look around, of course we know them, we know about professors; most people say we probably become adjusted. But you just have to do it and to see this acted out on this basis it is really one of insanity. But just what can you do? Sure we could be better, I know that.
Ted Rose - And of course you have that in the character Soaphead. You know he is a mulatto and much is mad of the fact that his family
Marilyn Atlas - Yes thats right. Thats definitely a mulatto. Well because one of the things that I think that she is saying is white education for African-Americans isnt so helpful sometimes. It doesnt really function, they learn to speak English well, but they are not necessarily using it to be good and moral integrated human beings.
Ted Rose - So what I think of the work is a wonderful achievement by Toni Morrison again I think that it is particularly a work of wonder.
Edgar Whan - Thats a metaphor that people can understand you can say I want blue eyes; we know what that means. I want to be like somebody else. Then you can see that people but as I say it just breaks my heart at what to do about this.
Marilyn Atlas - Well its a wonderful book and it leads to other great, great books.
Edgar Whan - I read with one of the novels but you recommend that I read other novels.
Marilyn Atlas - I recommend that you read everyone.
Edgar Whan - Do you recommend one too?
Ted Rose - Im sorry.
Edgar Whan - Do you recommend that I read some more of her?
Ted Rose - Oh absolutely.
Edgar Whan - OK.
Ted Rose - Absolutely. I think that we would be deprived if you did not read her.
Edgar Whan - I did read one other.
Ted Rose - I recommend Song of Solomon.
Edgar Whan - We might be a better man that we could use a little of.
Ted Rose - Did you read the Song of Solomon?
Edgar Whan - Yes. I think that I read one of which the title..
Marilyn Atlas - By Song of Solomon her reputation really took off, that is one that she really won a lot of prizes for and people went from Song of Solomon backwards to Sula and The Bluest Eye. Sula made people crazy because it was such a strong interesting, arrogant young woman. I loved Sula I think that its really a pearl, perhaps one of her best poetic novels. But every one is good in its own way, often she stays with the main cast.
Edgar Whan - All right, you have sold me.
Marilyn Atlas - Read all of her including her non-fiction. She is really great.
Edgar Whan - I must say that the edition that I got at the library has an afterward in it which is a graduate paper she wrote her own book But if you go to the public library there is a little book, 1970, there is an afterward in it
Marilyn Atlas - Shes also commented on Sula. I love her introduction to Sula which is about place. She doesnt start it with World War I and she comments in the Michigan Quarterly about how she had used that introductory chapter which is about the bottom, the geography of the place, mostly because she was afraid if she entered with character to fast people would be turned off and it wasnt her choice. And I told her when I met her. I was lucky enough to meet her. But I loved that introduction. she goes I dont like my articles. She is just a person and a totally great one. She is asked to comment so much she can hardly help but do it.
Edgar Whan - She said that if I could tell you I would not have to dance.
Marilyn Atlas - Thats right. She is an important person. She is teaching at Princeton now and the undergraduates that have her are very, very lucky.
Edgar Whan - That sounds pretty cultural designed, I hope she can straighten them out.
Marilyn Atlas - Well Im sure she does the best she can. Its a big job.
Ted Rose - I think that her reputation is well-earned and I continue to look forward to each new book.
Marilyn Atlas - Yes, absolutely. And there all different. I think for some people, Jazz, her last novel is the hardest to get into, because it is about characters you really dont want to identify with you dont really want to think about. I mean it's this kind of...this middle age couple, of the man having an affair with a teenager who he ends up killing. Who wants to think about this stuff? And yet the more you think about it the more you realize again it is all of our lives. That we are all a part and parcel of these kinds of issues and these kind of problems.
More Toni Morrison resources
Community Reconsidered home page
Wired for Books home page