Much of this book centers around social pariahs, predominantly through the story of Pecola Breedlove, and the process by which their society casts them aside. Parallel to this process of not belonging, the author accentuates a hierarchy of personhood based upon another type of “belonging” – physical possessions and characters’ relations to them. Claudia maps out the social hierarchy determined by characters’ relations to property on pages 17-18, when she notes how Cholly Breedlove has propelled his family from the periphery of “renting blacks” into the wretched state of “outdoors.” When a character finds themselves “outdoors,” as Pecola does in this section, they are devoid of all possessions.
Some objects, illustrated in the case of Claudia and her doll, or the Breedlove’s sofa, are imposed upon characters involuntarily, standing as metaphors for the oppressive social restraints they endure. Whereas Claudia reacts to her doll with anger and destruction, though, rejecting its presence, the Breedloves simply seem to harbor an internalized resentment towards their furniture, but nonetheless accept it.
Later in the narrative, Morrison uses the term “belonging” to describe the ugliness that dominates the Breedlove household. She visualizes the ugliness contagion that originates from Cholly as a type of garment which each member of the family wears distinctly (39). Pecola comes to truly believe that the ugliness belongs to her, and like her family does the sofa, accepts her ugliness as a fact of her existence. Though she has brief moments wherein she expresses a sense of ownership and projects beauty, Pecola mainly sees her “ugliness” as a contaminant, and thus casts aside her beautiful dandelions as weeds (48). This action of discarding foreshadows the physical and spiritual destitution of Pecola’s character – as a result of constant rejection, she ultimately renders herself “outdoors,” unworthy of both belongings and belonging.
The dancing Samba doll in this set of chapters sets off the shooting with which the Invisible Man grapples to find meaning for the final part of this reading. The doll itself, however, has a specific meaning given by the Invisible man as demeaning. – we see recognition of symbols like this earlier in the text with the coin sorting iron figure in his room at Mary’s, and we are to understand through the horrified emotions and deep anger at the Samba doll scene that our protagonist recognizes that humiliation comes with these symbols. Throughout the Samba scene however, the narrator never directly says why the dancing slave doll is so offensive, instead using insights of the internal emotional state of the protagonist combined with our out of text context to let us craft together meaning in the symbol. The meaning of Tod Clifton’s actions therefore for us does not come completely from the text – it fundamentally relies on meaning we’ve already placed into the doll by knowing what it “is”. The causal chain is therefore supposed to continue from this – the doll is profane, so the action is profane. But this causal logic seen earlier in the text seems questioned by the Invisible man. In the previous reading, he says at the Brotherhood event, “was it that she understood that we resented having others think that we were all entertainers and natural singers? But now after the mutual laughter something disturbed me: Shouldn’t there be some way for us to be asked to sing?” (314) Can we make the symbol of a black man singing profane in this section? Can it become something else when approached correctly? And if so, can there be a situation where Tod Clifton is approaching selling the doll in a correct way? The invisible man doesn’t seem to think so – “I thought, seeing the doll throwing itself about with the fierce defiance of someone performing a degrading act in public, dancing as though it received a perverse pleasure from its motions” (431)” Just the doll dancing causes the problems for him.
Doing today’s reading, I noticed myself paying extra attention to the talismanic symbols with which the Invisible Man interacts. Some of these, like Brother Tarp’s mangled chain link, he elects to keep in his close possession. Others, like Mary’s shattered minstrel bank that he struggles to discard earlier in the book, seem to be thrust upon him. In this section, the protagonist’s relationship to the primary symbol, Clifton’s Sambo doll, is a bit more complex. At first he is appalled by it, and tries to defile it in the street, but ultimately, as it becomes linked with Clifton’s untimely death, it becomes symbolic of the inherently complicated consciousness of a black man. So, it is added to the Invisible Man’s collection, and when he is examining it at his desk, noticing the black, invisible string that makes it dance, he thinks, “It had grinned back at Clifton as it grinned forward at the crowd, and their entertainment had been his death…the life of a man is worth the sale of a two-bit paper doll” (435-436). Personal objects, and the agency with or without which they come into one’s possession, thus illustrate a projection of the static qualities as well as the development of literary character; one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.