The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

Female Subjectivity, Sexual Violence, and the American Nation in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye

Melissa R. Sande


The American 1960s, a long and chaotic decade of war, social change, and second wave feminism, is one that certainly extends thematically into the early 1970s. This essay will consider women’s writing of what I will term ‘the long 1960s’ to be broadly concerned with presenting decentering genealogies of the period, or narratives that bring the hidden, marginalized voices of the decade, to the centre. Specifically, this essay considers how Toni Morrison’s portrayal of gender, through a somewhat experimental literary form, is able to present such a genealogy. Morrison’s novel effectively questions how and why a silenced character like that of Pecola Breedlove might hide behind the notion of white beauty and what the consequences of such an action would be not only for Pecola, but for the community in which she lives.

While male writers like John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Simon and others dominated the American literary imaginary of the decade, exploring loneliness or the search for meaning in contemporary society, Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, published at the turn of the new decade in 1970, explores race, gender, and the aforementioned powerful notion of beauty and its social construction. Morrison began writing the novel in 1962 because the reclamation of racial beauty at that time forced her to question how the damaging internalization of racialized notions of beauty is able to consume and even break (especially young) women.1 Set in the Midwest during the Depression era, Morrison explicitly links this historical moment with the one in which she is writing, calling attention to the themes of hunger, wanting, and repression during the Depression as they repeated during the difficult battle that was the Civil Rights Era.

Selecting the year 1940 as the novel’s setting allows Morrison to highlight several important historical moments: first, the obvious Depression era in the United States, which, according to Michael Rogin, caused Americans to look past domestic concerns to what their role might be in a growing international debacle;2 and the efforts to sabotage black literacy (as marked by the Dick and Jane primers that begin each chapter of The Bluest Eye), beginning during Reconstruction and extending through Jim Crow. Rogin contends that issues of ethnicity and class were central to American politics from 1870 to the New Deal, but with World War II they became more exasperated and ‘provided the occasion for the emergence of the national-security apparatus’ (246). Because we see these issues framing Pecola’s story, and the tale of this small community in Ohio in which she lives, the novel easily ties to other works produced by women writers across the Americas responding to the 1960s. Plath’s The Bell Jar is also concerned with a war-time setting and its relationship to gender roles; similarly, Marie Chauvet’s Love, Anger, Madness, published in Haiti in 1968, draws readers’ attention to the effects of national politics on women’s experiences. In addition, writing about the 1940s and publishing the work in 1970, Morrison makes a connection between these two periods, perhaps similarly to what Jean Rhys does in her 1966 postcolonial novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, causing readers to ask whether racial and gender relations actually improve or change with second wave feminism or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Readers of Rhys and Morrison are forced to see the relevance of the themes both within the historical frame of the novel and in their current moment. Indeed Morrison’s critique seems to be that while 1940 inaugurates a literary demonstration against racism with the publication of Richard Wright’s Native Son, the 1970s were a time when ‘America had already begun to assemble nostalgic myths about suburban life during and after WWII’ (Werrlein 56). Morrison chooses to focus on the American myth of childhood innocence then as a means of exposing the ‘white nationalist hegemony’ that had helped to perpetuate it through several decades (Werrlein 56).

More important than Morrison’s paralleling two historical moments is her grappling with the sexual violence committed against protagonist Pecola Breedlove in the novel by her father, Cholly, and how this serves to constitute her subjectivity as a female. While the other authors mentioned here pose questions about where women who purposely participate in sexual autonomy fit into the nation’s narrative,3 Morrison proposes that readers look at the experience of a young girl who does not choose to participate in a sexual act, but is still ostracized from the community and the state when the act is done to her. Because this small community that surrounds Pecola in the novel acts as a microcosm for the nation, we are left to question what the implications are for Pecola’s belonging within and to American society. Additionally, while Sylvia Plath’s novel inaugurated the decade with questioning the role of women as producers for their nation in their roles as wives and mothers with The Bell Jar, Morrison closes the American decade by taking this question to the next level: why does childhood innocence represent national innocence in American culture? What does it mean to make Pecola the face of childhood innocence? Pecola Breedlove is of course demonstrative of what a child who completely lacks innocence, who is denied a childhood at all, might look like. Other children in the novel though also serve to deconstruct the myth of childhood innocence by way of their experiences of racial and gender discrimination, Claudia MacTeer being the best example as a young girl who feels the need to physically destroy white dolls she is given. The novel goes to great lengths in demonstrating that the relationship drawn between childhood innocence and national innocence is a construction of American culture that must be questioned.

The sociopolitical history of the 1960s as a whole is often proffered as a positive period of change. By the mid- to late-1950s, America’s Cold War print propaganda began focusing on the rising living standards and on ‘people’s capitalism’ or ‘classless abundance for all’ (Yarrow 3). College campuses began to host debates and protests over the draft, the war, and other political issues. The Civil Rights movement is frequently framed as a time of great positive change, despite the fact that that change did not come easily or quickly. Nonetheless, we frequently reflect on the 1960s as a period of progressiveness. Though feminist works like The Feminine Mystique or activism like Gloria Steinem’s inaugurated the women’s liberation movement, a frequent critique made of second-wave feminism is that it often failed to take into account race, and was mostly based on the experience of white women. Morrison focuses on gender disparity as informed by race in The Bluest Eye, presenting readers with a decentering genealogy of second-wave feminism: while white women were able to focus on how patriarchy was generally oppressive, black women in this text find themselves doubly oppressed by white men and black men. As narrator Claudia tells us, the three things that have greatly affected her are being a girl, being black, and being a child. We see the importance of childhood as young black girls, like Pecola, but even Darlene and Claudia, are oppressed not only by the white aesthetic, as well as white men and women, but also by black men, women, boys, and at times, even other black girls. Morrison makes race a central component of the discussion about gender, and is careful to make youth an important part of her look at oppression as well.

Told as a year in the life of one young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, the novel begins with the narration of Claudia, who, along with her sister Frieda and their parents, take Pecola into their home, because Pecola is a young victim of her parents’ constant physical and verbal fighting. Because even Pecola’s own mother has repeatedly called her ugly, she has a strong desire to change her eye colour from brown to blue; her thinking being that blue eyes, as they correspond to a notion of white beauty, can once and for all make her pretty in the eyes of others. Readers come to understand that Pecola’s ideas about beauty have been handed down. When her mother Pauline was young, she would go to the movies alone, and ‘Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another – physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought’ (Morrison 122).  Later, living with her husband Cholly and their two children, Pauline not only disengages from the children, only feeling happy when she is working for a rich, white family and spending as much time away from her own home as possible, but she also falls out of love with Cholly. Cholly has, over the years, become quite the drunkard, and his troubling childhood in which he was left with his aunt because his father wanted nothing to do with him, comes to be seen as part of his failing as a parent. When Pecola is busy doing dishes one day, Cholly rapes her. After a second rape that results in Pecola’s pregnancy, Cholly flees the town, as Claudia and Frieda plant marigolds in hopes that if the flowers bloom, Pecola’s baby will be born. The flowers, however, never rise above the soil, as Pecola’s pregnancy never comes to fruition.

The Dick and Jane Primers and the Cyclical Nature of the Novel

Morrison, like the other writers discussed earlier, is concerned with how much a given social system dictates and controls. For Rhys, writing about a post-Emancipation society in Jamaica, the system was an oppressive patriarchal one.

For Morrison, patriarchy indeed plays a role as readers see not only Pecola but Frieda abused by an older man as well. But this novel is primarily concerned with social dictates of white beauty in America and the damage they are capable of causing. The novel opens with William Elson and William Gray’s Dick and Jane primer, which comes to provide a contrast between Pecola’s experience of oppression and abuse with the national ideal of white middle class childhood. Other critics have pointed out the significance of these primers for the novel. Werrlein’s essay is similarly concerned with the difference between the ‘1940s models of childhood’ presented in the primers and the ‘local culture’ that pertains to Pecola’s story (56). Mark Ledbetter has argued that these vignettes create a ‘masterplot’ for the novel (28). Nancy Backes is concerned with the fact that the primers represent an ideal unobtainable even to the white middle class children that they were obviously intended for (47). I agree with Werrlein that the ‘masterplot’ posited by these primers is one that defines Americanness and the ‘parameters of innocent white middle-class childhood,’ but I also think Morrison goes even further than that (56). As the novel goes on, the primers begin to fall apart: words run into each other, the use of grammar dissipates until, by one of the final chapters of ‘Fall,’ it is no longer present. In other words, the primers begin to resemble the content and the form of the novel. In manipulating the primers this way and showing them fall apart alongside Pecola’s childhood, Morrison demonstrates just how tenuous and untenable these masterplots actually are. She also shows readers, by running these primers together nonsensically, how much they do not make sense in Pecola’s life, how opposite Dick and Jane are to Pecola Breedlove. Creating a parallel between their disintegration and that of Pecola’s childhood also shows the interdependence of these two narratives. Because the narrative of an innocent and pristine childhood for privileged white children defines itself against the experiences of a lower-class, African American Pecola, Morrison’s use of the primers indicates an interconnectedness of these two seemingly opposite stories.

The Dick and Jane stories originated with the pre-primer books, Dick and Jane, originally published in 1930, and the popularity of the texts grew into the 1940s. Werrlein aptly describes how the authors ‘characterize safe American childhoods that thrive in families that defy depression-era hardships with economic and social stability’ (56). Though the primers are not at the beginning of every chapter, a piece of one does precede the final chapter of the novel in which Pecola, arguing with herself, though she assumes she is speaking to a friend, addresses the fact that her father raped her. 4 The primer to this chapter is:


Readers are made to assume throughout the novel that if Pecola is unfamiliar with the Dick and Jane primers, she is at least familiar with something quite similar to them. How else would a child so young be so immersed in the ideals of white beauty and perfect middle-class childhood? The irony of this piece of the Dick and Jane narrative preceding this chapter is that while Pecola likely wishes herself to be Jane, she is quite her opposite. She has no friends. No one has ever come to play with her. In this chapter, the ‘friend’ that comes to play with Pecola is Pecola’s other self. The only ‘playing’ that this other self does with Pecola is to pester her about the rape. A strange moment occurs when Pecola admits that an additional rape had occurred when she was reading – shortly after the first rape in the kitchen. This was of course not part of the narrative of the rape scene from several chapters before.

The detail that Pecola was raped a second time while reading on the couch one day then makes a further connection at the end of the novel between the Dick and Jane primers and Pecola’s experiences, especially her experiences of sexual abuse. Because the Dick and Jane vignettes represent the white aesthetic, part of their repetition throughout the novel is to remind readers of Pecola’s obsession with white beauty. Indeed, all she wants is to have blue eyes, to be beautiful by white standards. The idea of Pecola’s reading of these primers, of her absorbing the white aesthetic so much so that it is all she can think about, is shown in this final scene, in which reading is directly correlated to the rape, to be as detrimental to Pecola as a young girl as is the sexual violence committed against her by her father.5 In other words, Pecola’s reading of and absorption of notions of white beauty is as destructive as the rape committed by Cholly. When readers are shown through flashbacks to Pauline’s youth that the white aesthetic first destroyed her, and then her daughter, we are reminded of this novel’s obsession with the cyclical nature of human behaviour, and how very destructive it can be. This then connects to Cholly’s experience of sexual violence when he was a teenager, and how it ruined him early on. Later, when he is a parent, he imparts the same kind of harm and ruination to his daughter, Pecola.

Narration and Literary Form

Beginning with a vignette about a perfect and happy family with a dog and a perfect green and white house, which, contrasted with Pecola’s story organized by the four seasons, demonstrates the extreme difference between socialized stories about white bourgeois and ‘ideal’ childhoods and the one we see Pecola experiencing. Claudia’s narration in the Autumn section dissolves into a third-person narration in the Winter, while also exploring counterpoint moments through the incorporation of Pecola’s and Soaphead Church’s perspective. The inclusion of flashbacks to Pauline’s early adulthood or Cholly’s childhood and teenage years, while the story simultaneously moves around the American Midwest, explains the complex web of events and geographical locations that all contribute to Pecola’s experience of childhood. Because Morrison spends so much time on the experiences that brought Cholly and Pauline to their present lives, I will elaborate on how critic Donette Francis’s notion of transgenerational time enriches my feminist approach to this text.6 The various narrators and points of view also demonstrate that Pecola’s seemingly unnarratable experience of sexual violence and trauma at the hand of her own father is the story of a community, born out of the participation of many more people than just her and her father.

With its organization around female subjectivity and the sexual violation that determines it in the novel, I seek to emphasize that through Pecola’s experience, and the experiences of so many others in the novel, the novel offers a decentering genealogy in that it brings to the fore the responsibility of the society and complacent people who enact injustices based on race and gender. Focusing on this one year in the life of a young black girl who is deliberately ignored and marginalized in her community, at school, even when she is buying candies,7 Morrison, similar to Chauvet and other women writers of the period, is bringing a powerless and often voiceless figure to the centre of attention. Morrison is scrutinizing a flawed system of gender relations, and by telling the story of every person involved, she makes readers aware that it takes an entire community, not just a single perpetrator, to drive to madness this young girl who has been led to believe (and allowed to continue believing) that beauty is only equivalent to being white and having blue eyes.

I do, however, contend that the novel offers hope and not just a bleak and somber conclusion. Though critics like Agnes Surányi highlight the ‘gradual descent into schizophrenia of the young black protagonist,’ we must also pay attention to the other young black girls in the text who are survivors of the racism and cruel disenfranchisement of their community: Claudia and Frieda MacTeer. Though angry, the girls use their anger in a productive way – to fight the boys at school who are abusive to Pecola and to defy Maureen Peal’s superiority complex because of her lighter skin tone. The sisters not only represent hope, but because they are constantly trying to thwart racism and to protect and defend Pecola, they represent action and movement forward. Morrison centres on Pecola Breedlove and readers bear witness to the tragedy of an entire family who imbibes themselves with the white aesthetic so much so that it destroys each one of them. However, with Frieda and Claudia, readers are given a glimpse into the hope offered by two young women who decide to defy the social power of white beauty. The story of the MacTeer girls verifies that with a strong support system like that offered by the MacTeer parents, who act when one of their children is abused unlike Pauline Breedlove, two young black girls need not fall victim to the demands of white beauty.

This contrast between Mrs. Breedlove’s and Mrs. MacTeer’s practices of mothering serves to further emphasize Mrs. Breedlove’s obsession with whiteness, an obsession that becomes cyclical in her family and is passed down to her daughter. Mae C. Henderson describes two theoretical perspectives on mothering in her essay, ‘Pathways to Fracture: African American Mothers and the Complexities of Maternal Absence.’ The first, termed the biological imperative, aligns most with Mrs. MacTeer. This perspective argues that, for some women, there is an ‘instinctive (innate) desire to mother above all else’ (30). The notion of ‘maternal instinct’ dominates this theory as well. We see examples of this when Mrs. MacTeer  takes Pecola into her home to save Pecola from her own family, or when Mrs. MacTeer feels compelled to take over the situation and avoid Pecola being embarrassed when she begins menstruating, dismissing all the other girls so that she may comfort Pecola and explain to her what is happening; or when Claudia remembers getting sick in the fall, and says, ‘So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die’ in reference to her mother (12).

Mrs. Breedlove, however, behaves in sharp contrast to Mrs. MacTeer. With her own children, Mrs. Breedlove is either absent or silent. She barely interacts with either of her children (after all, her son ran away countless times before he was a teenager), and she refuses to acknowledge the situation when Pecola reports the rape to her. Henderson writes that even when virtually absent as parents, ‘African American low-income mothers maintain ideals of mothering’ (29). Indeed, Mrs. Breedlove does this, as seen in her interactions with the little white girl for whom she is a nanny. She treats this little girl as if she were her own, exhibiting a caring, gentle attitude and paying close attention to the girl. When Pecola accidently tips a berry pie over in the white family’s kitchen, Mrs. Breedlove reprimands Pecola, ignoring the burns on her legs from the hot berries, and immediately assures the little white girl that she will quickly bake her a new pie. This demonstrates to the reader that Mrs. Breedlove is not an incapable mother, but she actively chooses to ignore her own children, who are outside the narrative of the white beauty aesthetic, in favour of white children, who better match her ideals.

Building Upon Relevant Criticism

This essay builds upon and extends other existent criticism on The Bluest Eye. Susmita Roye’s 2012 essay, ‘Toni Morrison’s Disrupted Girls and Their Disrupted Girlhoods: The Bluest Eye and A Mercy’ is concerned with Morrison’s thematics of ‘deprived and disrupted girlhoods’ across her oeuvre, focusing on Morrison’s first and latest novels. Roye’s most important observation is that by juxtaposing these two works, we see that ‘Morrison’s feminist ideology accommodates universal girlhood, crossing frontiers of race, class, culture, ethnicity, continents, and centuries’ (225). The argument Roye makes here is central to how I have conceived of this novel as one that offers a decentering  genealogy, to get at the experience of women who fall outside of national narratives or state-approved womanhood. I also contend, like Missy Dehn Kubitschek, that this is an inherently feminist novel, as it ‘focus[es] on a twelve-year-old African American girl…few adult books up to 1970 had considered girls’ lives (especially those of black girls)  important enough to be a novel’s central interest’ (30).

This essay nevertheless diverges from other critical treatment of Morrison’s literary form. Kubitschek, along with Pin-chia Feng and Phyllis R. Klotman, categorize the novel as a bildungsroman. Anne T. Salvatore argues that Morrison has fashioned, in this and other texts, like Sula and Beloved, a new bildungsroman, one that is more capable of representing the female protagonist and frequently pairs her with a non-ironic alternate anti-hero8. But as Jennifer Lee Jordan Heinert has written, categorizing the novel as a bildungsroman at all ‘is problematic because, while there are narratives of education and development in the novel, its narratives are unconventional and subversive’ and ‘furthermore, none of the characters in The Bluest Eye arrive at the conventional conclusion of the bildungsroman: self-actualization and fulfilment’ (12). In my reading, Morrison is revising the bildungsroman, as she highlights her protagonist’s complete lack of fulfilment in the end, as well as the lack of fulfilment that others around Pecola experience. Even the most hopeful and determined characters, Claudia and Freida, are disappointed when their marigolds do not sprout in the final chapter and Claudia notes that they ‘failed’ Pecola (204). And in the end, they cannot, as adolescents, make complete sense of what happened to Pecola, nor can they fathom why it happened. Morrison is experimenting with form and narration to try to more successfully convey the experiences of someone whose story falls out of the frame of nation-building.

Curiously, readers do not hear from Pecola throughout this novel. She is only briefly given a voice in the final chapter when talking with her other self about the blue eyes that she finally got. Though it may seem strange not to have Pecola narrate her own story, readers are likely denied direct access to Pecola as a means of illustrating that there is nothing to access. Early on in the novel, when Pecola gets her first period and she, Frieda, and Claudia fall asleep that night wondering how such an event leads to having a baby, Pecola asks the other girls, ‘how do you get somebody to love you?’ (32) When a deviant neighbourhood boy, Junior, throws his black cat at Pecola and traps her in his dining room, calling her his ‘prisoner,’ all Pecola can do is focus on the cat’s blue eyes: ‘The blue eyes in the black face held her’ (90). Because Pecola’s desire for blue eyes and white beauty rules her life, and because she has been brought up in a family and a community that is content to completely ignore her existence, she does not know love, and she doesn’t even care about the torment she receives from a cruel neighbourhood boy. Readers are not given Pecola’s voice throughout this novel because she simply does not have one. Her experiences of oppression, neglect, contempt, and scorn have taken that away from her.

The Backdrop of the American Midwest

Segregation and discrimination of African Americans was thought to be especially atrocious in the Midwest and Southern states after the American Civil War. This is the subject of ethnography by anthropologist Carol B. Stack entitled All Our Kin, in which the author explores a poor and distressed community of African Americans outside of Chicago in the 1960s. Her research is instructive to this essay in that she makes clear the necessity of family networks for the African Americans sustaining the hardships of this time period. She also discusses how men would more often rely on friendship networks to offer them solace after losing a job or facing some other similar struggle, while women tended to rely more often on kinship ties when they needed some form of support. Though Stack provides myriad examples of such in her work, providing case study examples of each, Morrison shows us something entirely different in the novel. The Breedlove family, ironically named such by the author for they breed nothing that even slightly resembles love, almost completely lack a support network of any kind, and certainly not one that coincides with that described by Stack. One might apply Benedict Anderson’s notion of the imagined community to discuss the twentieth century nation that excludes certain women from its narrative. In The Bluest Eye, we might also think of Anderson’s concept as applicable to family.

Readers come to understand that the Breedlove family barely fits the definition of such. They live in an abandoned store in town, just below an apartment occupied by three prostitutes. Early descriptions of the Breedloves describe a lack of a cohesive life together: ‘Each member of the family in his own cell of consciousness, each making his own patchwork quilt of reality – collecting fragments of experience here, pieces of information there’ (34). Even the furniture in their ‘home’ is described as ‘having been conceived, manufactured, shipped, and sold in various states of thoughtlessness, greed, and indifference’ (35). There are no cherished objects within the ‘home’ and the item described as the one living thing in the house is a coal stove, ‘In the morning, however, it always saw fit to die’ (37). Readers are told that the family chose to stay in such an environment because they believed they were ugly.

We gather more history on the family through flashbacks that occur throughout the novel. Cholly was, for example, abandoned by his father and left to live with an aunt. When he sets out to find his father, he locates him playing dice in a small town. He tries to explain that his name is Cholly, he is his father’s ‘boy,’ but is only met with his father shouting, ‘Tell that bitch she get her money. Now, get the fuck outta my face!’ (156). With Cholly’s experiences, we are able to see how this novel is cyclical. Without being provided a healthy and safe upbringing, Cholly is unable to provide one for his children. After the brief altercation with his father, Cholly finds himself trying to recuperate in an alley, holding back tears: ‘While straining in this way, focusing every erg of energy on his eyes, his bowels suddenly opened up, and before he could realize what he knew, liquid stools were running down his legs’ (157). Though he never has the same kind of quarrel with Pecola, his raping his own daughter is cause for the same kind of shame and humiliation his father forced him to feel. This flashback to Cholly’s meeting with his father ends with him sleeping next to the Ocmulgee River for the night, hiding, so that his father never knows that he caused Cholly to soil himself, much like an infant would. This short, final paragraph on the altercation is obsessed with the silence that surrounds Cholly: he ‘ran down the street, aware only of silence’ and ‘seeing only silent moving things’ he runs to the shallow water of the river’s edge (157). His day ends with ‘no sound, no sight, only darkness and heat and the press of his knuckles on his eyelids’ (157). Readers see that this traumatic experience being rejected by his father is what has pushed Cholly to silence. After all, within the present of the novel, Cholly barely speaks. His audible noises consist of drunken grunts. Similarly, after Pecola has been raped by Cholly, she is silenced as well: ‘She spent her days…walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear’ (204). Pecola’s hearing music that no one else does is an indication of her having gone insane after the experience of the rape. Thereafter, Pecola is not heard from again. She moves to the edge of town with her mother and is never heard from, only occasionally seen searching through garbage.

In his work, Anderson discusses scenes from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and takes issue with the presented image of Jim and Huck as American ‘brothers’ even though Jim remains a slave. Anderson is struck by the ‘imaginings of fraternity’ in a ‘society fractured by the most violent racial, class and regional antagonisms’ (203). We can think of the Breedlove family similarly. When Pauline first discovers she is pregnant, Cholly ‘surprised her by being pleased. He began to drink less and come home more often’ (121). Pauline actually stops concerning herself so much with her work as a housekeeper and begins taking care of her own home in anticipation of starting a family. But as we learn later in the passage, Pauline’s notions of happiness and beauty are dictated by what she has seen in the movies, not by anything real.9 The concepts that Pauline and Cholly had of family during her first pregnancy were not based on their actual experiences, such as Cholly’s being rejected by his father or sexually abused by a white man who finds Cholly in a field with Darlene as a teenager.10 One thing made explicit in the novel is that the Breedloves are an imagined community. They are not brought together by love or support. As was mentioned earlier, they stay together and they remain living in a storefront because all that truly unites them is their thinking that they are all ugly. When we discover Cholly’s upbringing and his being rejected by his own father, we see, furthermore, that instead of being a family, the Breedloves are people who remain together trapped in the cyclical nature of violence, abuse, and silence.

The novel begins with Claudia telling her own story, which is certainly meant to contrast Pecola’s disturbing story to follow, as well as Pecola’s inability to tell her own story. One of the first memories she details is of getting sick and being afraid of her mother because she ‘d[id] not know that she [was] not angry at me, but at my sickness’ and that Autumn will always remind her ‘of somebody with hands who d[id] not want me to die,’ even though as a younger child, she had always thought of her mother’s hands as too rough (11, 12). We also learn early on in this section of Claudia’s repulsion for dolls. She says, ‘I was physically revolted by and secretly frightened of those round moronic eyes, the pancake face, and orangeworms hair’ (20). She goes on to recognize that she was supposed to see these dolls as models of beauty, that even magazines and window signs, along with girls and women of any age, based their standards of beauty on these blue-eyed and yellow-haired dolls, but she did not. Pecola, however, bases her entire understanding of female beauty on these dolls. She is obsessed with having eyes like they do. The contrasting family stories demonstrate that Claudia’s family, one clearly based on caring, concern, and real connections to the other members, gives her the foundation to question the dolls, to not feel ugly or undesirable because she does not look like them.11 Pecola’s family, though, acts as an imagined community in the novel. Though they all imagine that some kind of communion exists between them, there is rarely actual communication or meaningful exchange. All that truly unites the Breedloves is a circle of violence, and oftentimes, complete neglect.

Though some of what Stack writes about kinship ties in the Midwest applies to the Breedlove family, it is clear that readers are meant to pay special attention to what they lack. Stack describes, for example, the practice of ‘shared parental responsibility among kin’ in which African American women would share the parent role with other women in their families because they had to work so much to stay afloat (62). This sometimes extended to sharing the parental role with other mothers whom they may be close to, both emotionally and in physical proximity. Mrs. MacTeer takes Pecola into their house temporarily, not because of Pauline’s work schedule, but because Pecola was a ‘case’ or a ‘girl who had no place to go’ and her father ‘had burned up his house, gone upside his wife’s head, and everybody, as a result, was outdoors’ (16-17).  While Stack describes this time as economically difficult for African American families, coupled with the experience of prejudice, we see in the Breedloves not, for example, a mother who cannot spend time at home due to work, but a mother who simply wants nothing to do with her family and willingly allows work to take all of her time. Stack’s work can be summarized as a study of how family came to be an important and successful coping mechanism for African Americans living in the Midwest during one of the most trying moments for race relations in the country. The story of the Breedloves proves to be one in which family hinders several individuals already facing harsh racial (and gender) discrimination and reinforces feelings of ugliness and inadequacy for these people, especially for young Pecola.

Race and Sexual Violence

Before turning to scenes of sexual violence and abuse in the novel, I situate a (very brief) history of rape in the United States and the relationship the act has come to have with race and racialization. Estelle B. Fredman’s essay, ‘‘Crimes Which Startle and Horrify’: Gender, Age, and the Racialization of Sexual Violence in White American Newspapers, 1870-1900’ provides some necessary background on the subject. Fredman addresses early on the political implications for late nineteenth-century newspapers printing rape narratives: ‘they served to shore up white male privilege through constructions of dependent women and dangerous African Americans, groups that remained excluded from full citizenship rights because of their alleged incapacity for self-government’ (464). Thomas A. Foster explains that as far back as colonial Massachusetts, newspaper coverage of rape posed a threat to patriarchal order as ‘transient and marginal men who assaulted women’ were brought to the public’s attention (465).  It is worth noting that what Foster and Fredman both make clear is that victims of rape, as well as perpetrators, were seen as unable to defend themselves or self-govern, and were therefore excluded from the national narrative. I have addressed how the sexual autonomy of other female characters seemingly justifies their exclusion from the nation earlier in this essay. Morrison presents us with a character who is denied that decision and is ostracized in a similar way. The description of Pecola at the end of the novel living on the outskirts of town and silently picking through trash is testament to this exclusion.

Fredman contends that the white press of the late nineteenth century helped to racialize rape, identifying a violent, beastly black stranger as an assailant who often preyed on white women and children (473). Commentary on white men was limited; indeed most coverage was devoted to naming white men as infrequent exceptions, too ‘civilized’ to commit violent sexual crimes at all. The archetypal sexual assault then was a black man of a young, innocent white woman, an image that has been long-standing in the media portrayal of African Americans. However, absent from these narratives of sexual assault and violence are considerations of same-sex violence, or violence within the same racial communities. While Fredman comments that there was a brief period in the nineteenth century where attention was paid to southern black rape, it only served to further enforce the notion that rape was arguably only a problem in the African American community, deserving of little attention otherwise. It is problematic that this prevalent idea of rape as a ‘negro crime’ was presented by the press and asserted ‘white men as exceptional rapists but black men as natural predators’ because it removes white men from a discussion of sexual crimes in general (Fredman 472). These ideas, circulated in newspapers and supported by the state, served to disregard the cyclical nature of intra-racial rape and sexual crimes shown by Morrison in the novel.

Sexual Violence and National Narrative

The rape committed by Cholly of his own daughter is the most significant event in the novel: it speaks simultaneously to the exclusion of women (especially African American women) from the national narrative by the refusal of the state or community to address the violation immediately and seriously, as well as the fact that the cyclical nature of sexual abuse in the novel is ignored or attributed to class, when it actually speaks to larger issues of race and gender discrimination. Pecola’s story exposes that national narratives concerned with the Civil Rights and feminist movements of the 1960s fail to convey the horrific experiences of many African American women, whose contributions to either were often downplayed by African American men, who, feeling emasculated by white society as a whole, adopted overbearing patriarchal roles in their own communities, sometimes resorting to violence and abuse, or what Kobena Mercer describes as how ‘the repressed returns through the means of repression’ (‘Decolonisation and Disappointment’ 121-22).

African American women have had a long-standing feminist tradition that is not frequently considered – and was often overlooked by the feminist movement’s narrative. Nineteenth century activists like Sojourner Truth or Maria W. Stewart set the stage for the movement. In addition, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs was established in 1896, with the National Council of Negro Women following in 1935. Indeed there were myriad other committees and organizations founded in the 1960s alone. Of especial importance to the conversation here, though, was the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of 1968, founded by, amongst others, Francis Beal. Beal’s 1969 essay, ‘Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female’ appeared in the anthology entitled The Black Woman. In the essay, she discusses deep fissure between African American men and women: ‘It is true that our husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons have been emasculated, lynched, and brutalized. They have suffered from the cruellest assault of mankind that the world has ever known. However, it is a gross distortion of fact to state that black women have oppressed black men’ (4). Beal’s discussion here makes clear that a persistent problem in the African American community at this time was the blaming of women for the oppression and injustice often experienced by men, socially and economically. This goes a long way in explaining Cholly’s behavior towards not only Pecola, but Pauline as well, who he is often physically abusive to, seemingly for no reason at all.

Aside from the degrading and difficult work of the steel mills, which obviously cause Cholly to drink more often, or come home and just fall asleep instead of spending time with Pauline and the children, we discover towards the end of the novel that Cholly has experienced sexual degradation at the hand of a white man. This scene from his youth speaks further to the cyclical nature of sexual violence in the text. Having experienced this as a young adult and never having addressed the trauma of it, Cholly repeats the same behaviors with his own daughter.

At the funeral for his Aunt Jimmy, Cholly runs off into the woods with another teenager, Darlene, with the intention of having sex with her. As Darlene cries out, ‘staring wildly at something over his shoulder,’ Cholly turns around to find two white men staring at them as they are naked under a tree. When he ‘jumped, trying to kneel, stand, and get his pants up all in one motion,’ Cholly discovers that the men have long guns and flashlights pointed at his rear (147). Holding him at gunpoint, they tell him to ‘get on wid it, nigger’ and ‘make it good, nigger, make it good’ (148). When the men finally get distracted by a barking dog in the distance and leave Cholly and Darlene in the woods, Cholly begins dressing himself in silence and instead of feeling badly about what had just happened, he feels hatred for Darlene, even wanting to strangle her. It is as though Cholly immediately blames her for what has happened. Afterward, we follow Cholly as he goes about his chores the next day, never mentioning to anyone what happened to him that night.

By literally being silent about the violence, it is as though Cholly is making an effort to deny that it ever occurred. This sexual violence also equates with other kinds of violence perpetrated against African Americans at this time. Because they know they are free to do so and that they would never be held responsible for their actions, the white men physically stand over Cholly and force him to have sex with Darlene as they watch and giggle. When they hear their dog barking, they casually wander off to locate it, still chuckling about the sex act that they just witnessed. At other points in the novel, white characters shamelessly mistreat Pecola, or the MacTeer sisters, like light-skinned Maureen Peel, for example, because they know they will get away with it. The shame is then seemingly absorbed by the victim, which explains why Darlene covers her eyes, disengages emotionally from what she is being forced to participate in physically. Seeing how this scene in many ways silences Cholly is an integral part to understanding how his misplaced shame and anger is able to then drive him to do the same to his daughter.12

Morrison’s Decentering Genealogy

'There were no books about me, I didn’t exist in all the literature I had read…this person, this female, this black did not exist center-self.'

(Toni Morrison)

Morrison’s necessity to write African American women into American literature derives from her critical attention to the canon as a whole, and her conclusion that other critics and literary historians have contended that ‘traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uniformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first Africans and then African Americans in the United States’ (Playing in the Dark 4). Furthermore, she contends, that it has previously been assumed that ‘this presence – which  shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of the culture – has had no significant place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture’s literature’ (5). This novel, like so many of her others to follow, offers a story which challenges dominant beliefs of white culture, and places all narrative focus on the usually marginalized and ignored figures. Most importantly, Morrison also draws attention to another too often marginalized subject: sexual violence against women, especially African American women. In the conclusion of the novel, readers see that Pecola is further ostracized from the community because, to no fault of her own, her father raped her. Similar to what Donette Francis professes at the conclusion of her chapter on rape and sexual abuse, ‘Love in the Age of Sex Work, Secrets, and Depression,’ I am not intending to assert that this fictional work is a substitute for or on par with actual human experience. I do however contend that in many ways it is reflective of history and society, and Morrison often makes clear in her criticism the relationship between American politics and social injustices and how she chooses to write her novels. While work like Michelle V. Rowley’s 2011 Feminist Advocacy and Gender Equity in the Anglophone Caribbean: Envisioning a Politics of Coalition is a social science project which explores gender equity within developing societies by analyzing reproductive rights, projects implemented by the U.N. in the Caribbean, etc., analysis of literature born out of similar concerns still complements our feminist investigations of the past and present. In addition, rereading texts like Morrison’s from the perspective of current feminist criticism allows us to fill in existent critical gaps in feminist thought and to think through how significant novels like Morrison’s inform our present political moment.

Morrison’s focus in this work on the past and how it greatly informs the present resonates with Chauvet’s novella and Rhys’s as well. Like them, Morrison employs the notion of trans-generational time ‘by re-chronicling and reconstructing the past… [in order to] explore the sociocultural mechanisms of daily life responsible for females’ apparent defeat’ (Francis 7). This is how the novel’s obsession with cyclical human behaviour (what was done to Cholly and Pauline is what they end up doing to their own children) broadly connects to other feminist novels of the time. For Chauvet, Haiti’s past haunts its present, but for Morrison, the sexual abuse inflicted on Cholly or the misguided experiences of youth for Pauline come to be the experiences of the next generation. Francis contends that the use of trans-generational time in fiction ‘demonstrates how current and future generations learn the defeats of their elders’ (7). In the case of Pecola, a young girl who has been given no support system and has always been considered ugly and ignorable even within her own family, she does not learn the defeats; she simply repeats the same patterns. Pecola, like Pauline, falls victim to the white aesthetic so much so that it ultimately defeats her. The possibility and optimism for young women of the next generation in this novel to learn the defeats of the previous generation and to practice ‘remembering in an attempt to possibly chart better futures’ lies solely with Frieda and Claudia. The marigolds that they plant for Pecola become a metaphor for Pecola’s unborn child. When the flowers do not sprout, consequently, Pecola loses the baby before it can come to term. In the final lines of the novel, Claudia narrates:

I talk about how I did not plant the seeds too deeply, how it was the fault of the earth, the land, of our town. I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. The soil is bad for certain    kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late. At least on the edge of my town, among the garbage and the sunflowers of my town, it’s much, much, much too late.(206)

Here Claudia first acknowledges that she understands the entire community is to blame for the tragedy that is Pecola. She says the ‘entire country’ was hostile to the marigold flowers that she planted that year. In other words, beyond the town, the state as well is to blame for Pecola’s marginalization, for her being allowed to wither away. Certain people will not be nurtured; certain people will not be recognized as belonging to the state, in Claudia’s summation. Claudia makes sure to point out that when this happens, our greatest folly is to blame the victim and to claim they had ‘no right’ to be alive in the first place. She makes note of the fact that this kind of thinking is wrong, but in the instance of Pecola Breedlove, it is too late to correct it, as the damage is already done. The white aesthetic and the cycle of abuse she is involuntarily brought into have already destroyed Pecola. While these concluding lines are devastating, and are mournful of Pecola, they also indicate that Claudia has learned from the mistakes of the previous generation, including the rejection of the white aesthetic, and that she recognizes the error by the town and the larger nation in ignoring the plight of a young black girl exposed to sexual violence before she is even a teenager. Because the novel ends with Claudia’s observations and lessons learned, and because she is narrating and imparting such to readers, to a large audience, the novel ends on an encouraging note for the next generation of young women.


1 See Morrison’s in-depth discussion of this theme in her introduction to the Vintage International edition of the novel, published in 2007.

2 Morrison’s use of this time period and its accompanying implications for Americans who were questioning their global role links to other female writers of this time, like Sylvia Plath, who uses a nameless Russian female character in The Bell Jar to question what womanhood looked like outside of the United States.

3 Marie Chauvet’s protagonist Claire in the novella Love is perhaps the best example of a character practicing sexual autonomy, though Plath’s Esther Greenwood can arguably be seen in the same vein as Claire.

4 Interestingly, this scene in which Pecola argues with herself is the only time in the novel that the rape is directly acknowledged by Pecola.

5 Carol Boyce Davies’ notion of the ‘politics of location’ identified in Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject is instructive here. Davies situates agency amongst themes of racial, gender, and sexual boundaries (amongst many others) and explains that black women’s analysis of these themes has demonstrated the multiplicity of the individual subject. The moment of connection between rape and reading in the text is somewhat meta, in that Morrison is injecting herself as author into the fiction in order to establish writing as a means of identity creation. This connection is also important, though, because it demonstrates the dismantling of the idea of a unitary subject. When rape is connected to the act of reading, Pecola’s obsession with the white aesthetic (and her reading of it in the Dick and Jane primers) informs her sense of self as much as the abuse does. One is as dangerous to her destruction as the other.

6 This concept appears in Francis’s 2010 book, Fictions of Feminine Citizenship.

7 When Pecola goes to buy candies from Mr. Yacobowski’s store, she senses a ‘total absence of human recognition – the glazed separateness’ (48).

8 Salvatore’s essay is ‘Toni Morrison’s New Bildungsroman: Paired Characters and Antithetical Form in The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved.’ Journal of Narrative Theory 32.2 (2002): 154-78.

9 In this passage, it is noted that, ‘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, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen’ (122).

10 I will discuss this scene in greater detail later, especially as it relates to Pecola’s sexual abuse by Cholly.

11 This scene is especially interesting in that even Claudia’s mother desires the white dolls—she is upset when Claudia dismembers them because she herself wanted them as a child. However, even while participating in desiring something related to impossible white beauty standards, Mrs. MacTeer has not disowned her own blackness and beauty—or her daughters’.

12 The rape scene is complicated by other emotions from Cholly as well. He has a strangely awkward feeling of love for Pecola right before the rape—he looks at her and remembers Pauline as a young woman—and that feeling becomes so powerful that he rapes his own daughter. And, as mentioned above, there is shame, but also a complete lack of understanding of parental love.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Boyce Davies, Carole. Black Women, Writing, and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Francis, Donette. Fictions of Feminine Citizenship: Sexuality and the Nation in Contemporary Caribbean Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Fredman, Estelle B. ‘‘Crimes Which Startle and Horrify’: Gender, Age, and the Racialization of Sexual Violence in White American Newspapers, 1870-1900.’ Journal of the History of Sexuality 20.3 (2011): 465-498.

Heinert, Jennifer Lee Jordan. Narrative Conventions and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Henderson, Mae C. ‘Pathways to Fracture: African American Mothers and the Complexities of Maternal Absence.’ Black Women, Gender, and Families 3.2 (2009): 29-47.

Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Roye, Susmita. ‘Toni Morrison’s Disrupted Girls and Their Disturbed Girlhoods: The Bluest Eye and A Mercy.’ Callaloo 35.1 (2012): 212-227.

Stack, Carol B. All Our Kin. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1974.

Surányi, Agnes. ‘The Bluest Eye and Sula: Black Female Experience from Childhood to Womanhood.’ The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison. Ed. Justine Tally. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 11-25.

Werrlein, Debra T. ‘Not so Fast, Dick and Jane: Reimagining Childhood and Nation in The Bluest Eye.’ MELUS 30.4 (2005): 53-72.

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