Importance of Identity in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye

Importance of Identity in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye

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The use of characters as symbols is a common literary device, and Toni Morrison employs it to great effect.  In Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, the central theme is the influences of the family and community in the quest for individual identity (Baker, 2008).  This theme is recurrent throughout the novel and she uses the characters of Pecola Breedlove, Cholly Breedlove, and Pauline Breedlove as symbols for it.  However, these characters are not merely symbols of the effects of the family and community on an individual’s quest for identity, they are also representative of the quest of the many black people that were migrating north in search of better opportunities.   

The Breedlove family is not a family in the social sense.  Essentially, they are a group of people living under the same roof, a family by name only.  Cholly (the father) is an alcoholic man who literally beats his wife Pauline and sexually abuses his daughter Pecola.  Pauline is a “mammy” to a kind, white family and she comes to love them more than her biological family for obvious reasons.  Pecola is a delicate, small girl who holds a very poor image of herself.  Because she does not live up to the world’s standard of beauty and have blue eyes, she believes herself to be ugly.  As a result, she prays every night that she will wake up with blue eyes. 

Brought up as a poor unwanted girl, Pecola Breedlove desires the acceptance and love of society. The image of "Shirley Temple beauty" surrounds her. In her mind, if she was to be beautiful, people would finally love and accept her. The idea that blue eyes are a necessity for beauty has been imprinted on Pecola her whole life.  "If [I] looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they would say, `Why look at pretty eyed Pecola. We mustn't do bad things in front of those pretty [blue] eyes'" (Morrison 46).  Many people have helped imprint this ideal of beauty on her. Mr. Yacowbski as a symbol for the rest of society's norm, treats her as if she were invisible. "He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see. How can a fifty-two-year-old white immigrant storekeeper... see a little black girl?" (Morrison 48). Her classmates also have an effect on her.  They seem to think that because she is not beautiful, she is not worth anything except as the focal point of their mockery.

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"Black e mo. Black e mo. Yadaddsleepsnekked. Black e mo black e mo ya dadd sleeps nekked. Black e mo..." (Morrison 65). Shouted by her classmates on such a regular basis, this scorn seemed not to penetrate anymore. As if it were not bad enough being  ridiculed by children her own age, adults also had to mock her. Geraldine, a colored woman, who refused to tolerate "niggers", happened to walk in while Pecola was in her house. "`Get out,' she said her voice quiet. `You nasty little black bitch. Get out of my house'" (Morrison 92). By having an adult point out to her that she really was a "nasty" little girl, it seems all the more true. Pecola was never able to get away from this kind of ridicule.

At home she was put through the same thing, if not worse because her family members were the ones who were supposed to love her. Her mother was not able conceal her obvious affection towards a white girl over her. One day as Pecola was visiting her mother at the home where she is working, Pecola accidentally knocked over a blueberry pie. Obviously burned by the hot pastry, her mother completely ignored Pecola's feelings of pain and instead tended to the comforting of her white "daughter".  "`Crazy floor, mess ...look what you...get on floor , my floor....' Her words were hotter and darker than the smoking berries. The little [white] girl in pink started to cry. Mrs. Breedlove turned to her. `Hush, baby, hush.  Don't cry no more'" (Morrison 109). Her mother viewed Pecola as an obstacle that had the potential to get in the way of her white charge's happiness and consequently her happiness. Her mother refused to show any love to Pecola because it might interfere with more important things. For a little girl, the love of her mother is the most important love she can receive. Without that, how can she think that she is worth anything at all? (Davis, 222)

Finally the rape by her father is the last evidence Pecola needs to believe completely that she is an ugly unlovable girl. While in most cases a father figure is one who little girls look to for guidance and approval, Cholly is the exact opposite. He hurts Pecola in a physical way that in one attempt measures up to the years of hurtful mockery. He took away from her the one thing that was utterly and completely hers.  After the rape, Pecola was never even remotely the same: She was so sad to see. Grown people looked away; children, those who were not frightened by her, laughed outright. The damage done was total.  She spent her days, walking 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 intent on the blue void it could not reach-could not even see- but which filled the valleys of the mind. In short, after the rape, Pecola went insane. Pecola's search for identity was defined by her everlasting desire to be loved. Her purpose in life was to be beautiful and as a result of that to be loved.  Her family and community made it impossible for her to ever be sanely content.

Cholly Breedlove the father and eventually rapist of Pecola, is a bastard. He was born to an unwed mother; his father ran away the day of his birth and his mother abandoned him three days later.  This horrible beginning reflects his everyday views and actions. His mother attempted to leave him alone in the world. His father figure was an empty void in his life. After his legal guardian, his aunt, dies, Cholly decided that as an inner mission he needs to find his father to find himself.  To understand exactly who he is he needs to look into his past. A long search ends in an extremely disappointing - crushing- experience. As Cholly tries to explain his identity to his father, he becomes flustered, "The man's eyes frightened him. `I just thought... I mean my name is Cholly.'"  His father's face changes as he begins to understand. He shouts at Cholly, "Tell that bitch she got her money. Now, get the fuck outta my face!'" (Morrison 156).  This extremely embarrassing encounter with his father scars him for life.  His only image of a father figure is one who brings pain. Cholly's sexual history starts off painfully as well.  His first attempt at sex was scorned, mocked and watched by two white police officers. "The men had shone a flashlight right on his behind. He had stopped, terrified. They chuckled. The beam of the flashlight did not move. `Go on,' they said. `Go on and finish. And, nigger, make it good.' The flashlight did not move" (Morrison 42). These first two episodes left a huge impact on him that  eventually caused him to do something that would not have happened had he had proper guidance in those areas. Cholly's family (or lack thereof) and his community as a boy ultimately influenced the way he was as a man. Their effects on him molded his personality and as a result influenced his identity.

Another cause of his eventual downfall was the way the community perceived him. They treated him disrespectfully, talked about him behind his back, and made a mockery of his name. After Cholly attempts to burn his own house down, he earns a reputation as being a scoundrel. Who, "having put his family outdoors, had catapulted himself beyond the reaches of human consideration. He had joined the animals; was indeed, an old dog, a snake, a ratty nigger" (Morrison 18).  As long as society had an idea of who this man was and what he stood for, it was impossible for Cholly to rise above them. While it is hard to make a good first impression, it is near impossible to change that impression. With that in mind he could go nowhere but down.

Cholly's ultimate downfall, occur simultaneously with the rape of Pecola: The tenderness welled up in him, as he sank to his knees, his eyes on the foot of his daughter. Crawling on all fours toward her, he raised his hand and caught the foot in an upward stroke...His mouth trembled at the firm sweetness of her flesh. He closed his eyes, letting his fingers dig into her waist. The rigidness of her shocked body, the silence of her stunned throat, was better than Pauline's easy laughter had been. The confused mixture of his memories of Pauline and the doing of a wild and forbidden thing excited him, and a bolt of desire ran down his genitals, giving it length, and softening the lips of his anus. He wanted to fuck-tenderly. But the tenderness would not hold. The tightness of her vagina was more than he could bear. His soul seemed to slip down to his guts and fly out to her, and the gigantic thrust he made into her then provoked the only sound she made-a hollow suck of air in the back of her throat. Like the rapid loss of air from a circus balloon. With this final act, Cholly lost all humanity conceivable. His search for himself ended in destruction.

Pauline Breedlove, wife of Cholly, mother of Pecola, is a servant in a white household.  The times she was there working for this family without any reminder of her own failures were the only times that she felt truly happy . It was there and only there that she finally felt as if she were part of something successful.  In Pauline's search for her identity and ultimately her happiness, she learned exactly what she would have to sacrifice so that she could be content, as well as the difference between herself and the rest of society. The movie theater helped her realize the stark difference between her and other women. "Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another-physical beauty. She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty..." (Morrison 122). As Pauline learned what physical beauty was, she also learned for what  it stood.  In that time physical beauty was the ideal of Shirly Temple beauty, the equation of blond hair and blue eyes to beauty. It signified equality, happiness, worthiness, and overall comfort. If you were a white woman with those qualities living in northern America you were content, it was that simple. As Pauline learned these guidelines, she gave birth to Pecola and got a job as a black "mammy" to a white family.  She quickly learned that when she was in the company of her white family, who were equal, happy, and worthy in the eyes of society, it rubbed off on her and she felt as if she was part of all these positive virtues. On the other hand, the more time she spent with her own black family,  the more time she realized how ugly, poor, and unworthy they were.  It was as if  "the master had said, `you are ugly people.' They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance"  (Morrison 39).  In coming upon this realization, Pauline has a decision to make.  She could have stuck with her biological family, continued to be unsatisfied but be accepted as an equal, or she could completely give up on her own family and devote all her time, energy, and love on her white charges. To Pauline this decision is obvious and she makes it hastily. Without a second thought she mentally leaves her family in place for her "Perfect Life". However she fails to realize that by committing herself to a servant's life that's all she will ever amount to be - a black servant in a white world.

Have all of the characters found their identity? Pecola Breedlove yearned for blue eyes. At the end of the book she believes that she has those blue eyes. She believes that people treat her funny because they are jealous of her blue eyes and she has learned to happily accept that. Pecola yearned for the acceptance and love of society seen through her eyes. No matter if thatacceptance and love were really there, she thought it was  and therefore was able to survive. "I [Soaphead Church], I have caused a miracle. I gave her the eyes. I gave her the blue, blue, two blue eyes... No one else will see her blue eyes. But she will. And she will live happily ever after"  (Morrison 182). Pecola found herself only by going insane.  Although Pecola is not accepted by society for reasons she does not understand, she puts her exclusion from society into terms she can comprehend.  Society influences her identity. They mold her into what she becomes by not giving her the guidance and approval she needs.  In the same way, Cholly found himself separated from the community.  After the realization of the perception the community has of him, he is demoralized and does an act of inhumanity.  He could not live with the realization of the monster he had become and he disappeared. As a man he did not know who he was. In a sense he needed an act that would completely set him apart from the rest of the rational world for him to find himself. He sanely found himself as Pecola insanely found herself.  They finished with varying results. While Pecola was separate but content, Cholly was separate and unsatisfied.  Pauline, on the other hand, chose an identity she could be content with.  She had an option to become two very different people and she chose the one that seemed right for her.  Her distorted  view of reality made it seem that the choice she made was accepted in society, and would allow her to increase her status in society.  However, her overseer saw it and described it in actuality. "We could never find anyone like Polly. She will not leave the kitchen until everything is in order. Really, she is the ideal servant" (Morrison 128).  This twist of perspective shows how Pauline is really accredited.  Are they satisfied with what they have found?  It seems that the only truly satisfied person is Pauline. Pecola is not content, she will not ever be. Her father took away that option. Cholly is not satisfied.

He can not handle the naked truth that he is a beast, and therefore retreats from society.  Pauline, though looked down upon by society was somehow satisfied with her identity. Her twisted view of  reality made her believe that she was accepted as an equal in society.  The Breedlove family are representatives of the black rising community in the north.  Pecola a "dismissed, trivialized, misread" ( Morrison 216) child, was representative  of the younger Black population. While her ending does not conform to societies norm her story does. Cholly was a misunderstood Blackmale adult. He was a part of the generation that started the Black community in the north.

For Cholly, the responsibilities of that were too great and he therefore needed to withdraw from society.  Pauline was representative of the part of the Black --- that tried too hard to conform to the White culture. She found what she was looking for and was able to convince herself that she was happy, but she did not really have a place where she truly fit in.   The Breedlove family is a black family living in the 1940s.  They have to deal with the same problems, situations, and dilemmas as do the rest of the rising Black community in the north.   The Bluest Eye tells their story.

Works Cited and Consulted

Baker, Amanda. "Toni Morrison and The Buest Eye" 2008 Web. 19 May 2015.

Bayles, Martha. "Toni Morrison's Fiction" Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Roger Matuz. Michigan: Gale Research Inc., 194-213.

Davis, Cynthia. "Self, Society, and Myth in Toni Morrison's Fiction." Draper 222.

Draper, James P., ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. "The Bluest Eye" Michigan: Gale Research Inc., 1994. 215-273.

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

Steiner, Wendy. "The Clearest Eye." Draper 239.

Stone, Joanna. "Morrison proves to be moving and eloquent." The Tech, April 24, 1992: 11.

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