Character’s Identification of Sexuality
Obedient Subordinates and Their Mutilated Egos in The Bluest Eye
Sara Ahmed quotes Michael FitzGerald in “Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character”: “[t]he original sense of charassein is ‘to inscribe or imprint,’ to produce something identifiable by marking an otherwise undifferentiated surface (…) ‘characteristic’ comes to encompass any distinguishing marks of feature by which something is known as what it is and set apart from others” (Ahmed “Problem of Character” 232). This notion suggests the function characters provide in a fiction; different characters react differently to identical social conditions, which enables the readers to contemplate on how a society influences individuals respectively. Therefore, reading a fiction is in a way assessing the society within it by observing and synthesizing how characters react to its influence. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is a collage of individuals’ response to a society that oppresses and degrades the black people. In this essay, I will analyze how two characters Pecola and Claudia are molded by the society to become docile subordinates and have their egos disfigured by it as they are forced to identify themselves with socially constructed reverence of whiteness.
Pecola is a character induced by the society to identify with and pursue unattainable white beauty; in course of her pursuit, she naturally develops an ego that submits to those who despise and oppress her. John Frow, in “Interest”, remarks that in a way “identification is always circular: the choice of an object of love is always in some sense narcissistic, and the relation to the other is thus preceded by and formed upon the ego’s taking of itself as an object of love” (Frow “Interest” 51). This comment seems to contradict the notion that Pecola tries to identify with the “white face (…) [b]lond hair, blue eyes” because she is well aware of her black skin, hair, and brown eyes; despite her recognition of herself, she drinks excessive amount of milk and eats Mary Jane candies (Morrison 50). Nonetheless, such realization and act of intaking external elements must be understood as a preparatory process of an unsuccessful identification. In Morrison’s society, there is only one characteristic worthy of loving, hence Frow’s expression “choice of an object of love,” which is whiteness: “all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl treasured” (Frow “Interest” 51, Morrison 20). Pecola is merely adapting the world’s standard of beauty, and in order to construct her ego as Frow puts as “by means of a series of identifications (…) the personality is constituted and specified” or as Adam Philips puts as “character is constituted by identification—the ego likening itself to what it once loved” (Frow “Interest” 49, 50). She knows that she is socially perceived as ugly and unnoteworthy, as exemplified in the candy shop owner Mr. Yacobowski “not [seeing] her, because for him there is nothing to see [from Pecola]” (Morrison 48). There are two options for her to construct an ego: either admitting that she is ugly and accepting her fate as a predetermined one just like her mother had with a self-sense of martyrdom or identifying herself with the socially constructed white beauty represented by Mary Jane and Shirley Temple. The excessive intake of milk with the Shirley Temple cup and overdramatized candy eating are both acts to ingest elements of whiteness and beauty inside her body. Such notion is supported in both content and style of the Mary Jane candy excerpt.
Enumeration of imperative phrases in the Mary Jane candy excerpt illustrates societal pressure on Pecola to follow beauty standards. When Pecola is ashamed and angry due to Mr. Yacobowski’s contempt for her ugliness, she reacts by “[remembering] the Mary Janes [candies],” for some reason the readers cannot comprehend yet (Morrison 50). Her thought process behind such reaction becomes apparent when she proclaims that by “[eating] Mary Jane (…) [she became] Mary Jane” (Morrison 50). Without doubt Morrison shows how Pecola unreasonably believes that she can make up to Mr. Yacobowski’s standards of beauty by intaking an element of Mary Jane and thus becoming more like her. Not only that, it implies Pecola’s less outright desire to satisfy the white gaze represented by Mr. Yacobowski, since she reacts to her anger and shame inflicted by Mr. Yacobowski by trying to become what he presumably desires. Morrison uses enumeration and striking diction to further accentuate Pecola’s chain of thoughts. In “eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane,” Morrison employs enumeration to describe the linearity of Pecola’s thought process in identifying herself with the socially constructed beauty. Moreover, the repeated phrases all resemble imperative statements, reminding the readers of the socially constructed concept of beauty and how the construction forces its subordinates to follow and live by its standards, as in: “Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (Morrison 50). As shown, Pecola is induced to identify herself with the white beauty, even though it is impossible for her to acquire whiteness and therefore also unable to perfectly fit in to the society.
Morrison’s diction in the candy excerpt reveals Pecola’s obedience to the white beauty standards and a more furtive desire to satisfy her oppressors. Aforementioned list of imperative phrases is immediately followed by a surprising choice of word which Morrison expresses as “nine lovely orgasms with Mary Jane” (Morrison 50). The fact that this diction immediately follows the imperative phrases and depicts Pecola’s sensation shows how satisfied Pecola is to believe she is able to fit into the social order by identifying herself with the socially ideal beauty standards signified as Mary Jane. There is a metonymical equivalence between avoiding Mr. Yacobwski’s disapproving white gaze and experiencing orgasm, since it implies that Pecola not only wants to be unrejected but also actively wants to be desired sexually by the white gaze, thereby fitting into the society. This orgasm from candies lines up with the sweetness mentioned earlier in the book as the more light-skinned and therefore attractive Maureen enjoys a sweet of higher quality, ice cream, while Pecola does not. John Frow, in “Person”, mentions how this sweetness molds selfhood by quoting Nikolas Rose: “‘the self’ does not pre-exist the forms of its social recognition; it is a heterogeneous and shifting resultant of the social expectations targeted upon it (…) the pleasures and pains that entice and coerce it” (Frow “Person” 101). “[N]ine lovely orgasms with Mary Jane” and Mr. Yacobwski’s despising gaze act as “pleasures and pains” that mold Pecola into a subservient, degrading character that yearns to satisfy her oppressors (Morrison 50, Frow “Person” 101).
In contrast to Pecola’s obedience, Claudia’s ego is formed through two consecutive identifications that involve some, yet temporary, resistance: identification with disinterested social hatred and a more reluctant eventual identification with the white beauty, which eventually neutralizes her grievances towards her racist community. The white beauty doll excerpt shows how Claudia identifies her hatred with society’s disinterested violence towards her. Claudia is aware of the ideal white beauty and that she is not a part of it: “I hated Shirley [Temple] (…) because she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with me” (Morrison 19). Her hatred towards socially constructed beauty is exemplified when she destructs white beauty dolls. She deconstructs each doll by parts as in “break off the tiny fingers, bend the flat feet loosen the hair, twist the had around (…) [r]emove the cold and stupid eyeball” in order to discover “what it was that all the world said was lovable,” only to realize that there is no such beauty, but what is more, surprisingly no ego or humanness for a doll that is cherished for its beauty more than actual human being such as herself: “the thing made one sound—a sound they said was the sweet and plaintive cry ‘Mama,’ but which sounded to me like the bleat of a dying lamb, or more precisely our icebox door opening on rusty hinges (…) it would bleat still, “Ahhhhhh,” (Morrison 20). Oddly, her disassembly of the doll’s body part resembles the construction of ego in reverse order, as if she is deconstructing to find there is no such. Regarding individual and its ego, Frow writes that “in relation to the fragmented body of auto-erotism, the ego functions as a metaphor of unity, albeit a unity which is made up of sedimented identifications with and incorporations of others” (Frow “Interest” 51). In other words, the ego constructed through identification with others is a metaphor that supports the belief in unity of physical organs, endowing each limb a significance as a part of a unified body, a human individual. Drawing from Frow’s remarks, people’s belief that a whole, completed beauty resides within the white dolls is purely imaginary; such imagination undermines values of actual human beings such as Claudia. Here, Claudia discovers her society’s fetishization of whiteness, and the following disregard for actual human beings such as herself because people are obsessed with such socially constructed beliefs. In contrast to “the world” and its adults, Claudia, as a victim herself to the society’s disinterested violence to her existence, realizes that her hatred and urge for violence towards “little white girls” is “repulsive” and “disinterested” (Morrison 22). She notices that hating dolls might be ethically accepted but hating actual girls for their whiteness is inhumane and violent, indifferent from the hatred the society directs to herself for being black and therefore socially stipulated as ugly and unnoteworthy. Her understanding of her own traits in somewhat similarity to her unapologetic society’s hatred towards her and her friends leads to think of herself as “repulsive” and resort to “the best hiding place [which is] love (…) fraudulent love,” (Morrison 23). Thus, her identification with the social hatred leads her to evade from her white-hating former self and start accommodating to the socially constructed white beauty.
Morrison’s use of tautology in reasoning Claudia’s change in attitude towards white beauty illustrates absurdity that Claudia experiences when her ethical resolution is confronted by her unapologetic society’s impudence. Morrison rationalizes Claudia’s transition as “[w]hen I learned how repulsive this disinterested violence was, that it was repulsive because it was disinterested,” which is simply tautological (Morrison 23). What can be extracted from this reasoning in its face value are only that she is ashamed of her violence, and her violence was disinterested; what is more noteworthy is why Morrison repeats this statement tautologically. Her transition is what Frow would describe as a melancholic abandonment. When Claudia states that her past actions were “repulsive because it was disinterested,” it is apparent that she is also referring to her own self repulsive as well, and thus abandoning her past self to become what she is now. Frow quotes on Freud of how melancholia is “reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted away from it onto the patient’s own ego (…) [causing] a splitting of the ego, such that one part identifies itself with the abandoned object and is, in turn, judged and condemned by other part. The ego becomes the object of its own repudiation” (Frow “Interest” 52). Claudia states she had “[t]he indifference with which [she] could have axed [little white girls]” but “was shaken by [her] desire to do so” because she felt such impulse was “truly horrifying” (Morrison 22). As Frow points out, her ego is split into two parts which one desires to attack little white girls and the other that condemns it. So, despite Claudia’s personal ethical triumph, she melancholically notes that her “change was adjustment without improvement” (Morrison 23). Morrison’s use of tautology conveys two implications of this melancholia: one is that her transition is of ethical common sense, another is that such common sense is not being followed by the other party: the society. Claudia’s aggression merely mirrors the treatment she received from the society: “[w]hat made people look at them and say, ‘Awwwww,’ but not for me?” (Morrison 22). If her mirroring of how the society has been treating her is disinterested violence, undoubtedly the society’s racial discrimination towards her is also disinterested violence. The tautology accentuates how categorically unjust such violence is for anyone, which naturally leads to the realization that only Claudia, not the society, is repenting for what she had in mind. It shows that even when Claudia had refrained herself from such disinterested violence, the society has not done as she did, which is why Claudia concludes that her “change [is] adjustment without improvement” (Morrison 23). She notices her hatred towards actual people, especially whites, for their innate traits is unethical and therefore decides to accept their whiteness and tries to love them, but also recognizes that the ungrateful society would not return her favor. She condemns her past self for the same reason she would disapprove the society and give it only “fraudulent love” (Morrison 23). Ironically, her identification of her own hatred towards white girls with the society’s hatred towards herself leads Claudia to accept the socially constructed beauty, eventually identifying with it by worshipping the white beauty. In course of this identification with the socially constructed beauty in order to refrain herself from disinterested violence, she de-identifies with her past self and thereby disinterests her grievances against the racist society (Morrison 23).
At the end of the day, Pecola is driven mad as she cannot accept the fact that she was never allowed to be fully integrated to the society as she does not have white skin, blue eyes and blond hair, while Claudia is stripped from her anger and sense of resistance, thus neutralized. Pecola’s subservience is outright degrading, but Claudia’s submission is tragic. Claudia’s ethical resolution to refrain from disinterested violence that denies others’ identities is noble, but both the readers and Claudia herself acknowledge that her nobility and moral superiority will not be compensated. The two characters’ reaction to social injustice in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye shows how an unjust society abuses individuals not only physically and emotionally, but also existentially as it molds its people to become obedient and disfigures their egos in the course of forcing them to identify themselves with the socially constructed belief, which in this novel was reverence of white beauty.
Ahmed, Sara. “Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character.” New Literary History, vol. 42, no. 2, 2011, pp. 231–253., doi:10.1353/nlh.2011.0019.
Frow, John. Character and Person. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Vintage Books, 2016.