Tag: Self-awareness

Self-Awareness and Self Worth in The Bluest Eye

In the opening chapters of The Bluest Eye, I was struck by the way the characters’ self-awareness and senses of self worth are dominated by guilt surrounding race, gender, and appearance. From the first moment of Claudia’s narration, the italicized section of the prologue, we get a sense of her mind as one that seems to default towards guilt. She describes the fall of 1941, when she and her sister were unable to grow marigolds, writing “for years I thought my sister was right: it was my fault. I had planted them too far down in the earth. It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding.” This tendency to blame herself and put herself down appears throughout the section we read today, and it is a quality that Pecola seems to share, particularly with regard to her appearance. Both characters project their feelings towards white girls onto inanimate objects that are supposed to represent beauty. Claudia takes her anger (and perhaps jealousy) of white girls out on the dolls she destroys, and Pecola projects her longing to achieve white standards of beauty by compulsively drinking milk out of the Shirley Temple mug. Pecola’s self-awareness is inhibited by this longing—she upsets Claudia and Frieda’s mother by inadvertently drinking three entire quarts of milk just to “handle and see sweet Shirley’s face” (23). Later, the three girls feel so guilty and afraid of Mama’s anger that when Pecola gets her period, their first instinct is to hide it from their mother.

Defining interiority through sexuality in Fun Home

In Fun Home, Allison spends a majority of the first four chapters investigating her father through his actions, but instead of immediately compiling them to create a coherent person, she first breaks them down into pieces of a sexuality. While Alison acknowledges her father is defined by his actions, she attempts to form a character instead from what she sees as the similarities between her and him. We see this a few times, most notably on page 97, on which a blank box reads “It’s imprecise and insufficient defining the homosexual as a person whose gender expression is at odds with his or her sex”. She follows this with a panel where her back is turned, captioned “But in the admittedly limited sample comprising my father and me, perhaps it is sufficient.” The end of chapter four continues with this mirroring, with the two photographs of Allison and her dad respectively, taken in their twenties.

By using her own narrative of her own sexuality, Allison can find traits of what she can conceive as her own character and construct a new character out of those pieces. Passages that would at first to appear to be about her own narrative are really about her father. We see this with the panels on page 97, where a drawing where Allison’s sex is indistinguishable because of the direction she is facing is captioned with text describing the sexuality of her father – only through her own development can we reimagine what interiority could be contained in the exteriority of her father.

Disintegration of character and controversy in The Crying of Lot 49

“Now here was Oedipa, faced with a metaphor of God knew how many parts; more than two, anyway. WIth coincidences blossoming these days wherever she looked, she had nothing but a sound, a word, Trystero, to hold them together.” (87)

I found this passage very interesting to think about in terms of how the broader narrative of The Crying of Lot 49 and Oedipa herself, as a character, are constructed. Oedipa has traveled to so many strange places (from her home in Kinneret to universities, strip malls, strange theaters, and gay bars, among others) and had so many strange encounters with strange people (Dr. Hilarius and his “bridge,” Metzger and his Strip Botticelli, Nefstasis and his demon), and the only thing to “hold them together” (87) not only for her, but for us, as readers of the novella, is “nothing but a sound, a word, Trystero.” (87) We touched on this in class on Monday when we talked about how we experience the same coincidences and are led into the same controversies as Oedipa, but I think this concept can be further examined in terms of Oedipa as a character.

The same passage later continues:

“Here in San Francisco, away from all tangible assets of that estate, there might still be a chance of getting the whole thing to go away and disintegrate quietly. She had only to drift tonight, at random, and watch nothing happen, to be convinced it was entirely nervous, a little something for her shrink to fix.” (88)

There is an interesting parallel between the word disintegrate, which refers to Trystero, and the phrase drift … at random, which refers to Oedipa. If Trystero, as it increasingly seems, is “perhaps fantasied by Oedipa,” (88) then it is not Trystero that holds Oedipa and more broadly the narrative together, but rather Oedipa herself. The parallel then connects the disintegration of Trystero to the disintegration of Oedipa as the character she has been — a return to the “nervous” housewife she was before anything had happened. A later exchange with Mike Fallopian reflects the tension  that then arises from this tenuous characterization. “Has it every occurred to you, Oedipa, that somebody’s been putting you on? It had occurred to her. But like the thought that someday she would have to die, Oedipa had been steadfastly refusing to look at that possibility directly, or in any but the most accidental of lights.” (138) The “somebody” putting her on is herself, and so Oedipa is hesitant to realize that possibility, in the same way that we avoid thinking of death — for the fear that our lives are meaningless. Her hesitation could perhaps reflect on the reader as well, in that we are also reluctant to dismiss the Trystero controversy and the narrative we have become invested in.

Self-awareness in The Crying of Lot 49

After reading the first four chapters of The Crying of Lot 49, I find myself most drawn to Oedipa’s fascination with the play and how certain elements of the story, including names and events, seem to correlate to things happening in Oedipa’s own life. Three men dressed in black, for example, attacked a dozen Wells, Fargo men, similar to the three assassins featured in The Courier’s Tragedy. During a conversation with the director of the play, however, he states that the play exists not in a physical form but within the minds of those who have experienced the narrative (62). This doesn’t seem to be entirely the case, as certain elements from the story bleed out into the real world, blurring the line between fiction and reality. Oedipa’s personal reaction further complicates the matter, stating that she occasionally feels “the absence of an intensity, as if watching a movie, jut perceptibly out of focus, that the projectionist refused to fix” (10). It’s interesting to consider how the tension between Oedipa’s fictional reality and the reality of the play impact her character, and whether a state of self-awareness is an appropriate term to describe her character’s ability to recognize the uncanny nature of reality within The Crying of Lot 49.


Blindness and Anger

The buildup to the Brother’s story about sacrificing his eye is present throughout Chapter 22, culminating in the narrator’s proclamation starting on page 475 “he doesn’t see me. He doesn’t even see me. Am I about to strangle him? […] See! Discipline is sacrifice. Yes and blindness. Yes. And me sitting here while he tries to intimidate me. That’s it, with his goddam blind glass eye”. But before the eye or the notion of not being physically seen is even mentioned in the chapter, the narration is constantly littered with referenced to sight. They have “penetrating eyes” “eyes that were meant to reveal nothing” “eyes narrow” with suspicion and during the sarcastic rant Brother Jack “rubs his eyes”. The various characters language focuses on seeing or not seeing the crowd, and looking at each other’s reactions such as seeing Tobitt enjoy himself with the cigarette, but one recurring way they refer to sight is in knowledge and anger. Phrases like “there you see”, “didn’t you see” “now see here” etc., refer to understanding and knowledge, not literal sight, and they are frequently uttered when the characters are angry. The moments where they have more emotional, angry outbursts are filled with references to sight until the actual sight story is mentioned. The speech about not being able to physically see the narrator when they can’t see his point of view, and ending the argument and chapter with “I looked into his eye. So he knows how I feel. Which eye is really the blind one?” all pointed refer to these themes that were brought up in the prologue. It seems as though commenting on not seeing the other’s perspective is not enough to spark these feelings of invisibility in the narrator, they also always accompany scenes with anger, and the response isn’t just angry but violent. Here he thinks about strangling the brother and in the prologue he actually does strangle someone. Wherever there seems to be feelings of anger or violence, more emphasis is placed on “sight”

Constructing a Self/Character (by self and society)

After the explosion in chapter 10, the narrator ends up in the hospital where you he undergoes a metaphorical rebirth, which aligns with the new self and social/external awareness the narrator develops throughout the chapters that follow. The narrator is internally reborn, but at the same time and out of his control, the white doctors create/birth a racist nonperson/caricature, corresponding with the overpowering racist structure of society.

The rebirth language that Ellison has the narrator use closely recalls how a person and character (lines blurred here) is brought into existence.  The chapter opens with the narrator sitting in the hospital, extremely confused, unable to control his body and with no memories. He is like an infant: “My mind was blank, as though I had just begun to live” (233), and from there he begins to fill the mind. One doctor explicitly identifies what is going on: “We’re trying to get you started again” (232).

During the treatment, the white doctors take control over the narrator (a black patient), a metaphor for how white society oppresses black people and their personhood. One insists that “his psychology [is] absolutely of no importance” (236), seeking to eliminate the narrator’s self/personality/ interior life. This is an attack on the individual. Another suggests castration, a symbolic stripping of power completely by making impotent. Throughout this, the narrator cannot (both physically and metaphorically) participate in this discussion. The birth of the racist caricature/nonperson is most explicit when during electroshock therapy one doctor says “They really no have rhythm, don’t they? Get hot, boy! Get hot!” (237). The doctors use racist stereotypes and reinforces the racist treatment of society. To them, they have “started again” their version of a black person. As readers see later, this does not work, as the narrator resists and subverts white power.

Although he is not in control of his body, and the “self” that the racist doctors are constructing without him, the narrator has taken on a new awareness that grows as the chapter goes. The first step is started by the question cards held up to the narrator, in particular “Who are you?” (240) provokes more “inside” (240) him than “What is your name?” (239). Name is a label,  but “you” is an identity question. At first he fails to separate out an individual (“Who am I? I asked myself. But it was like trying to identify one particular cell that coursed through the torpid veins of my body” (240) from his body  (previously doctor also made same distinction (236) physically and neurally whole. but psychology not important part). Slowly, the character/ self of the narrator is built up, starting with personal history/ background (Buckeye the Rabbit question part), which is when “hit upon an old identity” (242). Continue questioning identity the narrator “lay fretting over my identity”(242) and “I wanted freedom… I could not more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the two things are involved with each other. When I discover who I am, I’ll be free” (243). This is a theme (self-discovery) continued later on in the book.

Chapter ends with the reborn narrator (a doctor: “You’re a new man” (245)) more aware of his self and self’s relationship with society. He asks “how shall I live” (246) which beyond a question of making a livelihood is a question of how he should live his life, figuring out self.


Edit later after class:

The newness of his self is implied (mock Bledsoe and Mr. Norton (248)) and identified by the narrator himself (“I was no longer afraid” 249). He also initially doesn’t recognise his self after rebirth (“alien personality lodged deep within me”) which brings up interesting questions about the subconscious and its relationship with the conscious. “Or perhaps I was catching up with myself and put into words feelings which I had hitherto suppressed” (reference subconscious). He identifies a singularity and multiplicity of person later “We, he, him-my mind and I- were no longer getting around in the same circles” 250.

Transparency and deceit

In chapters 4 to 5 of Invisible Man, the invisible man’s colleagues are described as “frozen in solemn masks”, singing “mechanically” (p.111) the songs white men love to hear black people sing. As the college is shrouded in deceits and lies – and its prime member Dr. Bledsoe most of all, the invisible man’s relationship to others is redefined through the lens of a dichotomy between transparency and deceit. As he becomes the only character to be completely transparent (to the point that Bledsoe does not even believe him, see “Don’t lie to me!” p. 139) he is made aware of the differences with those around him. His interior life may stay transparent to the reader, through the mechanics of the first person narration, but by the end of chapter nine, the subconscious nature of his previous dreams, starring his grandfather chasing and belittling him, take on a more conscious meaning as he starts “dreaming of revenge” (p.195).

The Self-Deceptive Internal Logic of Dr. Bledsoe

One of the most perplexing characters thus far in Invisible Man is Dr. Bledsoe, who seems to toe the line between self-awareness and self-deception. Dr. Bledsoe revels in his own personal belief that he pulls the strings; he is the masked puppeteer, the ultimate ruler dominating the school, “the king down here” (142). He seems so self-assured of his own power, a power that imbues him with a confidence in his own selfhood, differentiating him from other blacks and placing him at the top of the white power structure. Ironically, Dr. Bledsoe does exactly what the invisible man’s grandfather advised: he confesses, “I had to be strong and purposeful to get where I am. I had to wait and plan and lick around . . . Yes, I had to act the nigger!” (143). However, rather than utilizing deceit to rebel against the racist system, he only further perpetuates it by fooling both white and black people in order to propel himself into what he conceives as his own free power space, but is actually a crevice of self-deception he has carved out for himself. He warns, “When you buck against me, you’re bucking against power,  rich white folk’s power, the nation’s power” (142), failing to see that he is as much a victim of racism as other blacks and that his consistent two-faced actions that dictate his life only further embed him into the power structure that he believes he has escaped.

Isolation and Self-Awareness in Invisible Man

In the prologue and opening scenes of Invisible Man, I was struck by the narrator’s isolation, or his lack of relationships to other characters. In particular, the narrator’s awareness of and ostensible satisfaction with this isolation seemed distinctive. As the narrator discusses his invisibility and goes on to describe his “warm hole,” he posits himself as existing independently from regular human interaction. Until he later describes his grandfather, he does not highlight relationships to a family or community as primary parts of his sense of self. Instead, he opens by positing his lack interaction with others as essential to his existence, claiming, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3), but assuring the reader that being invisible has advantages. By describing himself as invisible, emphasizing his solitary life in what he calls a “hole,” and neglecting to describe his relationships to other characters in the opening of the novel, the narrator highlights his isolation as an important aspect of his character.

Self-Awareness vs. Archetypes

In Invisible Man, one aspect of character – self-awareness – seems to have an inverse relationship to another – archetypes (in particular as determined by societal and racial expectations); that is, as the character’s self-awareness increases, he conforms less to the archetypes imposed upon him. The scene that precedes the protagonist’s speech in Chapter 1, a sick game that provides entertainment value to the wealthy white men looking on, represents a physical manifestation of this character quality. Involuntarily made into the centerpieces of a spectacle, the fight scene unfolds as the protagonist and his fellow young black men blindly participate in the brutality, thereby fulfilling these predetermined roles. In the same way, Mr. Trueblood tries to justify his actions to Mr. Norton and the other white men who pay him off, but instead illuminates his total lack of self-awareness and responsibility, and therefore is rewarded for fitting an archetype of the immoral black man. The vet doctor, in contrast, reveals plenty of self-awareness, conducting himself with an unprecedented level of confidence, but is ultimately dismissed in the narrative because he fails to conform to the archetype of the unhinged black veteran.