“I am not like James Joyce; I am not like Thomas Hardy; I am not like Faulkner. I am not like in that sense” (McKay 1). These words spoken by Toni Morrison accurately summarize the uniqueness of her writing in comparison to other authors' works of literature. A close reading of both The Bluest Eye and Beloved results in the discovery of common themes and techniques utilized by the novelist, Morrison, in order to achieve a sense of identity in the literary world. Although the themes and techniques Morrison makes use of are numerous in number, this paper is limited to the following: how families shape and constitute identity, cyclical patterns of life, and notions of community.
Looking first at The Bluest Eye, one must acknowledge that both parents of Pecola Breedlove are responsible for her eventual dysfunctional sense of identity. As a young woman, Pecola's mother, Pauline, finds solace at the movie theater. A virtual newlywed, pregnant and lonely, Pauline describes her time at the picture show as, “The onliest time I be happy” (Morrison, The Bluest Eye 123). Seeing such women as Jean Harlow on the large screen, Pauline attempts to mirror the Caucasian look, “I fixed my hair up like I'd seen hers [Jean Harlow] on a magazine. A part on the side, with one little curl on the forehead. It looked just like her. Well, almost just like” (123). In the same manner, Pauline's daughter is obsessed with the desire to have blue eyes, an Anglo characteristic.
Morrison depicts Pecola's yearning for blue eyes early in the novel. While at “Yacobowski's Fresh Veg. Meat and Sundries Store,” Pecola has three pennies with which she may purchase any candy available behind the display window (48). Pecola chooses the Mary Janes. The image on the wrapper is the face of a white girl, “Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort” (50). Morrison establishes the motive for Pecola's selection, “To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (50).
Pecola's admiration for unattainable physical traits not only stems from her mother's motion picture influences, but also from Pauline's treatment of white children in comparison to her own. This is best exemplified in the scene with the berry cobbler. Pecola, out of curiosity, lightly touches the pan that houses the cobbler resulting in the “splattering [of] blackish blueberries everywhere” (108). The cobbler, fresh from the oven, burns Pecola's legs when it spills. However, Pauline virtually ignores Pecola. Instead, she rushes to the assistance of the distraught “pink-and-yellow girl” (109), the daughter of the white people for whom Pauline works. The intimacy between the white girl and Pauline is further reinforced when the reader discovers that the young girl has an informal name for Pauline, “Polly” (109). Pauline, in turn, refers to the Caucasian child as “baby” (109). On the other hand, Pauline denotes her own daughter, Pecola, as “Crazy fool” (109), whereas Pecola calls her mother by the formal name of “Mrs. Breedlove” (107). Here, the dialogue represents more than just “spilled pie.” The reader is given no option but to overhear the dysfunction in this mother/daughter relationship. Pecola infers that if she embodies the look of an Anglo with blue eyes, she, too, may possess the love of her mother.
As for Pecola's father, Cholly, the reader learns that he is abandoned by his mother at a mere four days of age. Raised by his Aunt Jimmy, she, too, abandons him in death while Cholly is still a child, thirteen-years-old. Cholly attempts to reunite with his father whom he has never met. Yet, Morrison chooses to have Cholly's father hinder the meeting with abrasive words, “ . . . get the fuck outta my face!” (156). Due to his own upbringing, it comes as no surprise that Cholly is less than adequate as a father. “Had he not been alone in the world since he was thirteen . . . he might have felt a stable connection between himself and the children. As it was, he reacted to them, and his reactions were based on what he felt at the moment” (161). Thus, one reaction Cholly chooses to engage in, the rape of Pecola, has a detrimental effect on the sanity of his daughter. Cholly fuels the familial dysfunction instead of breaking the cycle of absent or neglectful parenting. What results is Pecola's hopelessness, “she flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly” (204). Pitied by the community, isolated from academic opportunities, and impregnated by her father, Pecola's identity has been reduced to nothing more than “searching the garbage”- a direct result of the fatalistic influences of the family (205).
In Beloved, Morrison reaffirms the notion of family shaping identity through the mother/daughter relationship of Sethe and Denver. When Sethe recalls her own past, the reader learns of her short-lived relationship with her mother, “I didn't see her but a few times out in the fields and once when she was working indigo” (Beloved 60). In a fleeting moment together, Sethe's mother reveals the brand on her body, a cross inside of a circle. Sethe questions her mother as to when she will be able to have a mark similar to her mother's not understanding the circumstances surrounding the branding. She simply loves her mother and wishes to mimic her in every way. Later, Sethe reveals her failed aspirations for being a good daughter. She explains that she “would have been [a good daughter] if my ma'am had been able to get out of the rice long enough before they hanged her and let me be one” (203). In contemplating the reasons behind her mother's hanging, Sethe reassures herself that it could not possibly be due to her attempting escape. For, “ . . . nobody's ma'am would run off and leave her daughter” (203).
Sethe's idea of motherhood leads to a literal slaying of her own daughter. She murders her first born daughter in an attempt to protect her from a life of slavery at the hands of Schoolteacher. This act, in turn, creates an unspoken distance between Sethe and Denver, her second daughter. Because of Sethe's violent conduct, Denver fears her mother and becomes a virtual recluse:
I love my mother but I know she killed one of her own daughters, and tender as she is with me, I'm scared of her because of it. . . . I'm afraid the thing that happened that made it all right for my mother to kill my sister could happen again. I don't' know what it is, I don't know who it is, but maybe there is something else terrible enough to make her do it again. . . . So I never leave this house and I watch over the yard, so it can't happen again and my mother won't have to
kill me too” (205).
Thus, Denver's paranoid behavior stems from Sethe's metaphorical smothering of her, a love that is too “thick” (164). In conversation with Paul D. regarding Denver's belligerent attitude, Sethe refuses to “hear a word against her” (45). Instead, Sethe explains the extent of her love for her daughter, “Grown don't mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. . . . I'll protect her while I'm live and I'll protect her when I ain't” (45). This protection equates into seclusion. Since her brief schooling with Miss Lady Jones', Denver has left 124 Bluestone merely twice, both times she is with her mother.
When Denver finally departs from the house alone to look for work, the walk into town is terrifying. “Under her headcloth her scalp was wet with tension” (245). She hears male voices approaching her and imagines they belong to white men. “Denver kept her eyes on the road in case . . . she was walking where they wanted to; in case they said something and she would have to answer them. Suppose they flung out at her, grabbed her, tied her” (245). This is learned behavior; Denver does not have personal knowledge of the harm inflicted by the white men. Instead, all that Denver knows and all that she fears emanates from Sethe's mothering.
The generations of abnormal familial interactions mentioned above are cyclical in nature. There appears to be no end and no beginning to the deviant behavior. Morrison supports this cyclical theme with various techniques in both Beloved and The Bluest Eye. For example, The Bluest Eye is divided into recurrent seasons versus linear chapters. “Morrison's notion of time as cyclical is based on the rhythms of nature: one season ends and another begins; the cycle repeats itself over and over in an almost invariable pattern” (Heinze 122). This leads the reader to believe that just as the seasons follow one another forever, so, too, will the dysfunction continue.
Time in Beloved is also circular. The skeletal portion of the novel is chronological: the novel begins at 124 Bluestone, time lapses, and the novel concludes at 124 Bluestone. However, the flesh of the novel consists of “rememories” (Rigney 74) and retellings. The reader learns of Paul D.'s journey from Sweet Home, Stamp Paid's past marital relationship with Vashti, and the source of Sethe's isolation while progressing further and further into the novel. Sethe struggles with “beating back the past” (Morrison, Beloved 73), and, therefore, has difficulty trusting the notion of time. For, as she explains earlier in the novel, “It's so hard for me to believe in it [time]. Some things go. Pass on. Some things stay” (35). This occurs for several characters in the novel as mentioned above. Yet, their shared stories combine to form a whole. The completeness of the circle becomes apparent when, at the conclusion of the novel, Paul D. “wants to put his story next to hers [Sethe's]” (273). Thus, when the two symmetrical circles are placed one on top of another, the two mesh and become one with no visible end and no visible beginning.
In addition, Morrison's mention of the marigolds in The Bluest Eye reiterates cyclical patterns of life forms. Marigolds are, in fact, annual flowers. They recur every year with the simple planting of seeds. Although there did not happen to be marigolds in the fall of 1941, that does not mean there never will be the presence of marigolds again. Just as Pecola's child, conceived from an incestuous relationship, “came too soon and died,” there is no assurance that future children will not be the product of such a harrowing situation (Morrison, The Bluest Eye 204).
The cyclical pattern of life continues in Beloved. Here, Morrison alludes to the twenty-eight day menstrual cycle of the female in order to reinforce the repetition of life. Sethe remembers her twenty-eight days of freedom, “ . . . twenty-eight days of having women friends, a mother-in-law, and all her children together; of being part of a neighborhood; of, in fact, having neighbors at all to call her own” (Morrison, Beloved 173). In the same manner, a woman who menstruates experiences twenty-eight days of freedom: freedom from cramps, freedom from bloating, and, most importantly, freedom from bleeding. Yet, on the twenty-eighth day, a woman sheds blood just as Sethe sheds blood. In terms of the novel, though, Sethe sheds the blood of her own children.
In remembrance of that horrific day, Morrison allows Sethe, herself, to recognize the repetition within her own life and question it:
. . . twenty-eight happy days were followed by eighteen years of disapproval and a solitary life. Then a few months of the sun-splashed life that the shadows holding hands on the road
promised her; tentative greetings from other colored people in Paul D.'s company; a bed life for herself. Except for Denver's friend, every bit of it had disappeared. Was that a pattern? . . . every eighteen or twenty years her unlivable life would be interrupted by a short-lived glory? (173).
Just as women must acknowledge the inevitability of monthly physiological changes, Sethe, too, resigns to the rhythmical patterns of her life, “Well, if that's the way it was- that's the way it is” (173).
In The Bluest Eye and Beloved, cyclical patterns of dysfunction in the family seem to dispel when there exists a close tie to the community. Pecola, in The Bluest Eye, finds shelter at the MacTeer household after her father commits arson. Not only is Pecola free from any incestuous attempts through this communal living arrangement, but also “Frieda and . . . [Claudia] stopped fighting each other and concentrated on . . . [their] guest, trying hard to keep her from feeling outdoors” (Morrison, The Bluest Eye 18-19). Furthermore, this kinship with the MacTeer girls protects Pecola from harm at the hands of her peers. While Pecola is being teased on the playground, Frieda and Claudia come to her rescue. The antagonists “buckled in confusion, not willing to beat up three girls” (67). A sound argument for the fact that there is strength in numbers.
Pecola's mother, Mrs. Breedlove, also finds comfort with the community. “She joined a church where shouting was frowned upon, served on Stewardess Board No. 3, and became a member of the Ladies Circle No. 1” (126). In Mrs. Breedlove's case, though, she utilizes the community as a means of escape: escape from Cholly, the “model of sin and failure,” and her children whom she “bore . . . like a cross” (126-127).
As for Cholly, although both his parents reject him, he is still able to find a father figure within the community, a man by the name of Blue Jack. After he quits school, Cholly meets Blue while working at Tyson's Feed and Grain Store. “Cholly loved Blue” (134). While at a picnic, Blue chooses to share the heart of a watermelon with Cholly. Blue's influences have a profound effect on Cholly, “Long after he was a man, he remembered the good times they had had” (134). Unfortunately, with the absence of community, positive childhood influences are not lasting as seen with Cholly and the rape of his daughter, Pecola.
The impact of the community is clearly defined in Morisson's Beloved. For the first twenty-eight days of her “unslaved life,” Sethe belongs to a community.
Days of company: knowing the names of forty, fifty other Negroes, their views, habits; where they had been and what done; of feeling their fun and sorrow along with her own, which made it better. One taught her the alphabet; another a stitch. All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day . . . . Bit by bit . . . she had claimed herself (95).
Sethe is blissful and anxious to celebrate. Yet, when ecstasy is mistaken for “uncalled-for-pride” by the community, their support falters.
Through repeated phrasing in close proximity, Morrison depicts the weakening of a once strong sense of community in the novel.
Ninety people who ate so well, and laughed so much, it made them angry. They woke up the next morning and remembered . . . and got angry . . . . 124, rocking with laughter . . . made them angry. . . . Now to take two buckets of blueberries and make ten . . . it made them mad. . . . It made them furious (Beloved 136-137).
Even Baby Suggs, the one to whom the community refers to as “holy,” recognizes that “The scent of their disapproval lay heavy in the air” (137).
The community's revulsion towards the perceived boastful celebrations of Sethe and her family leads to absolute abandonment. When Schoolteacher and his men approach 124 Bluestone, “Six or seven Negroes [who] were walking up the road toward the house . . . stood where they were” (148-149). No one attempts to warn Sethe of the danger that is nearing or assist in her escape. Instead, the community stands by silently. The silence becomes deafening once Sethe is led away for her crimes. Morrison addresses the reader at this point:
Was her [Sethe's] head a bit too high? Her back a little too straight? Probably. Otherwise the singing would have begun at once, the moment she appeared in the doorway of the house on Bluestone Road. As it was, they waited till the cart turned about, headed west to town. And then no words. Humming. No words at all (152).
Here, Morrison demands that the reader realize the impact of the community. The implications are that their vital retreat is a direct result of Sethe's aloofness. As the novel continues, it becomes obvious that a family closed off from the community is doomed to be consumed.
Although the Colored Ladies of Delaware, Ohio, are responsible for sparing Sethe from hanging. Sethe “made no gesture toward anybody, and lived as though she were alone” (257). For eighteen years, “Nobody, but nobody visited that house” (284). Even Sethe's friend, Ella, “junked her and wouldn't give her the time of day” (256). Sethe somehow endures, but Denver is the one who suffers “serious losses since there were no children willing to circle her in a game or hang by their knees from her porch railing” (12). In conversing with her mother, the catastrophic effect on Denver is evident as a direct result of the isolation, “I can't live here. I don't know where to go or what to do, but I can't live here. Nobody speaks to us. Nobody comes by. Boys don't like me. Girls don't either” (14).
It is Denver, though, who eventually reestablishes the connection between the outside world and her family. She realizes the desperation of the situation at home with her mother and Beloved and seeks the assistance of the community. The women rally around the young woman providing food and consolation. Mrs. Jones addressing Denver as “baby' . . . inaugurated her life in the world as a woman” (248). This, in turn, insinuates that “the personal pride, the arrogant claim staked out at 124 seemed to them to have run its course” (249). When word spreads that “Sethe's dead daughter, the one whose throat she cut, had come back to fix her,” the women decide to rescue her.
Thirty neighborhood women gather outside of 124 Bluestone and break the eighteen year silence through song. Sethe, hearing the voices, exits the house and observes from her porch. While there, Sethe notices what she perceives to be Schoolteacher riding down the lane. Determined to spare the lives of her children this time around, she resolves to attack “the man without skin” with an ice pick (263). Ella, a member of the community, interjects by putting “her fist in her jaw” sparing Sethe further years of heartache (265). Thus, without the presence of the community, Sethe, first, would have never left the security of her house. Second, Sethe would have never seen the white man and imagined he was coming for her children. Third, history would never have altered for Sethe without the assistance of the community. Seeing “Schoolteacher,” Sethe is given a second chance to protect her children without harming them. Thus, her attempt on the white man's life alleviates Beloved's ghost of all power she holds over Sethe. By preventing the actual act from taking place, the community not only remedies the present predicament, but also secures Sethe's future, a future free of guilt and detachment.
A final sense of community as Rigney suggests is the color of characters, “ . . . blackness itself is a mark to symbolize their participation in a greater entity . . . The marks are hieroglyphs, clues to a culture and a history more than to individual personality” (39). Thus, in The Bluest Eye, the reader is aware of Pauline's crippled foot. This, in fact, is what attracted Cholly to her. The mangled foot is not the result of a birth deformity, but rather a rusty nail, “it punched clear through her foot during her second year of life” (Morrison, The Bluest Eye 110). A white child would have had the puncture mark cleaned and dressed. However, the poverty to which Pauline belongs prevents medical attention and is representative of the black culture as a whole. A further example is Pauline's loss of her front tooth. Morrison describes this occurrence as “The end of her lovely beginning” (110). Pauline does not have the means to maintain the health of her teeth or to even replace missing teeth with dentures or the like. There exists no options for Pauline; she must live with the symbol of her blackness.
In Beloved, the marks of blackness are more obvious, a result of enslavement. Sethe recalls the branding of her mother, “Right on her rib was a circle and a cross burnt right in the skin” (Morrison, Beloved 61). She remembers pleading with her mother, “Mark me, too . . . Mark the mark on me too” (61). Her mother replies by slapping Sethe's face. Sethe remarks how she did not understand at the time, “Not until I had a mark of my own” (61). Sethe's mark is the choke-cherry tree scars on her back, a result of a brutal whipping. As Rigney concludes, these scars “represent membership rather than separation” (39). Membership that mandates a life of subhuman existence at the hands of the white man.
As previously mentioned, Morrison's creative palette of themes and techniques is vast and colorful. Her interweaving of familial influences, cyclical patterns, and the importance of community feed off of one another in both Beloved and The Bluest Eye. The reader is left with a feeling of having experienced the two novels in question versus simply acting as a passive spectator. Although Beloved and The Bluest Eye certainly stand alone, a comparison of the two further reinforces the irrefutable craft of Toni Morrison.