In his essay, “Reading as Construction,” Tzvetan Todorov states, “Novels do not imitate reality, they create it” (RC 67). That which encompasses the world of the novel is ultimately constructed, but in writing, the author seeks to reveal truths about reality. In her preface to The Bluest Eye, Morrison addresses the process by which she conceived of Pecola—“I was interested in something else. Not resistance to the contempt of others, ways to deflect it, but the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident” (BE ix). As such, her novel begins from an experimental perspective—Morrison creates Pecola to test the damaging effects societal oppression has on “the one least likely to withstand such damaging forces” (BE x). Termed by the author herself as a “psychological murder” (BE x), The Bluest Eye attempts to understand the process by which the opinions of society are integrated into a child’s selfhood, registering themselves as self-evident instead of adopted. This process that Morrison centers her novel around bears a striking similarity to the notion of the super-ego, a term which psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud describes in his book, The Ego and the ID. Freud writes, “as a child grows up, the role of father is carried on by teachers and others in authority; their injunctions and prohibitions remain powerful in the ego ideal and continue, in the form of conscience, to exercise the moral censorship” (SF 18). This ‘ego ideal,’ which Freud uses as a synonym for super-ego is in short, the internalized authority figure, whose morals a person adopts into a portion of themselves as that person integrates herself into society. It is important to note here that the super-ego is not consciously separate—that is to say, the effects of the super-ego are not acknowledged within the person as rules and ideas that society imposes. For instance, the sense of taboo and disgust that overwhelms when considering issues of incest is a form of censorship informed by society, but does not feel such—that knee-jerk disgust seems to arise from within.
Freud is not only present in Morisson’s novel through the theory of the super-ego—Freud’s notion of the unconscious is even more omnipresent. The conception of such a place in the mind was driven primarily by the need to explain the phenomenon of repression—that is, a person’s tendency to reject the traumatic and store any such experiences in a part of his or her brain where they do not have to confront them. However, the unconscious frequently manifests itself in a variety of ways: through parapraxis, dreams, and neurotic symptoms.
One scene of particular interest when considering the notion of the unconscious mind in fictional characters is that scene in which Pecola attempts to make herself disappear after bearing witness to another nasty fight between her parents. Morrison writes, “there surged in her the desire to heave, but as always, she knew she would not” (BE 45), and in doing so establishes a connection between physical sensation and mental emotional response. Pecola has no biological reason to vomit during this scene—at least none that the reader can know—she is not sick, but the urge to vomit plagues her. This is not dissimilar to Freud’s discussions of neurotic symptoms, because something inside Pecola’s mind forces her body to want to vomit, but Morrison informs the reader this is an entirely psychosomatic problem because Pecola knows she will not actually vomit. The act of vomiting can have a few implications—Pecola is reacting to something grotesque, perhaps the naked body of her father, which proves to be a sore point for the young girl in later chapters and as such becomes foreshadowing of her rape. Another theory looks at the role of vomiting as the opposite of consumption, one of the necessary acts for continuation of life. In retching, Pecola expresses the desire to expel that which sustains her, to empty herself of life. Pecola does indeed have a conscious death wish—“[Pecola] struggled between an overwhelming desire that one would kill the other, and a profound wish that she herself could die” (BE 43). Morrison’s wording here is very particular; she refers to Pecola’s inclination to see one of her parents perish as a ‘desire,’ but refers to her inclination towards death as a ‘wish.’ The word ‘desire’ has an element of erotic pleasure to it, and the death of a parent is something often attributed in Freud to a portion of the unconscious, a sexually driven entity. ‘Wish’ on the other hand contains a very passive element—a wish is something that comes true through wanting, but not through conscious action. Pecola is a passive character by nature of racial discrimination and societal gender norms, and so it is not a stretch to think that Pecola’s death wish is a conscious expression, while her desire for the death of her parents operates within her unconscious. The phrasing may initially make it seem as though Pecola is struggling between two different conscious wants, but Pecola’s own words after make it more clear that Pecola is not fully aware that she wants her parents to die. She begs, “Don’t, Mrs. Breedlove. Don’t” (BE 43) in response to Cholly’s threat that if his wife speaks at all, he will “split [her] open” (BE 41), killing her. If Pecola consciously wanted her father or mother dead, she would cheer on their vicious beatings like her brother—“Kill him! Kill him” (BE 44)—she would want her mother to say something, and garner her father’s wrath. Instead she asks that Mrs. Breedlove not continue the fight, asks that she not get herself killed, and in doing so confirms for the reader that the desire for her parent’s death is ultimately repressed.
The larger portion of this scene that is equally important to the realization of Pecola’s unconscious contains Pecola’s attempt to disappear. This is an incredibly odd act, in which Pecola’s pleas to God, that she might disappear, manifests in loss of limbs. Because this occurs within the context of the written world, what might be to a real person a sort of meditative process—something entirely in the mind—becomes a very literal loss of limbs for Pecola; “her fingers went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow” (BE 45). This is no longer a simple death wish—Pecola is not satisfied to die with her body in tact, to experience the death of the soul, but instead requires and entire dismemberment both corporeal and mental. She doesn’t want to be an existence passed, she wants to have never existed. Such a desire once again bears a striking similarity to Freud’s description of Thanatos, the Death Drive. The Death Drive is one of the most primordial drives within a human being and almost impossible to detect—it is, just like Pecola, not simply a desire to die, but a desire “to return to the inanimate state” (BP 32), similar to how energy attempts to balance itself within a chemical reaction. The theory behind the Death Drive is that at a cellular level, which then manifests itself in the deepest depths of the unconscious, the body wants to return to a state of low energy or inaction.
Pecola is able to work through the disappearing of every body part except her eyes. This is significant because the eyes for Pecola are representative of her super-ego in that they absorb the brunt of her societally imposed conception of the world. Pecola wants blue eyes because blue eyes are a mark of whiteness, which is loved in her society and praised as a thing of beauty. This can be read through Freud as well—Pecola does not say to herself, “I want to be white,” she thinks of her eyes and says “I want them blue” (BE 174). Pecola cannot admit her own desire to be white and beautiful, to become the antithesis of her own ugly existence—those feelings are repressed and merely leak through her desire for blue eyes. However, because they exist, Pecola is a person that consistently denies herself. Her desire for whiteness coincides with a desire to erase all that defines what blackness has been impressed on her to mean within society—her poverty, her appearance, her family; all are detestable to her on some level.
Another scene that bears mentioning is the final pages of the novel, in which Pecola speaks with someone about her newly-acquired blue eyes. Who exactly Pecola speaks to is immediately in question and the most likely answer is that Pecola is speaking to herself. One conclusion is that the trauma Pecola internalized from years of oppression compounded by the rape committed by her own father necessitated the need for Pecola to section off portions of her mind. The unconscious is the resting place of traumatic memories, but Freud never discusses what happens when all of a person’s life is trauma. The narrator makes the reader aware that Pecola’s physical presence remains in the world but claims she has “stepped over into madness” (BE 206). The narrator sees Pecola, “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” (BE 204); this account suggests the destruction of Pecola’s conscious mind. There is nothing to Pecola now but neurotic symptoms—expressions of desires that still remain within Pecola unconscious. This is particularly interesting because the conversation Pecola has with the other person implies that Pecola has convinced herself on some level that she has blue eyes—she has deluded herself into believing things in her life are better and violently refuses to admit to being raped by her father. Thus the conversation takes place between what is left of Pecola’s conscious mind and a portion of Pecola’s unconscious. Morrison hints at this through the second speaker’s tendency to backtrack and question Pecola. This other speaker continually brings up the subject of her father, even though Pecola is loathe to acknowledge him within this perfect world she has constructed for herself—the world in which she possesses blue eyes and her father has never touched her inappropriately. Furthermore, the other speaker makes Pecola doubt the blueness of her eyes, implying that this representation of Pecola’s unconscious knows that Pecola is still black.
Ultimately, Morrison succeeds in portraying a destruction of the mind and the complete rejection of selfhood within Pecola and seems to take cues from Freud in order to portray such.
SF = Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. The Ego and the Id. New York: Norton, 1962.
BE = Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Vintage Books, 2016.
BP = Freud, Sigmund, 1856-1939. Beyond The Pleasure Principle. New York :Liveright Pub. Corp., 1961.