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Saturday, 11 March 2006

Review: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison (1970)

Frieda and Claudia MacTeer, 10 and 9 years’ old, are joined in the house of indifferent adults by Pecola Breedlove, whose father has gone into gaol. The adults are not so much indifferent, as overbearing and dismissive:

Adults do not talk to us—they give us directions. They issue orders without providing information. When we trip and fall down they glance at us; if we cut or bruise ourselves, they ask us are we crazy. When we catch colds, they shake their heads in disgust at our lack of consideration. How, they ask us, do you expect anybody to get anything done if you all are sick? We cannot answer them. Our illness is treated with contempt, foul Black Draught, and castor oil that blunts our minds.

In this unprepossessing environment the children can enjoy as much as they’re able to, which isn’t much. They can’t enjoy their mothers’ complaints, occasional illness, or even Christmas presents.

I did not know why I destroyed those dolls. But I did know that nobody ever asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Had any adult with the power to fulfill my desires taken me seriously and asked me what I wanted, they would have known that I did not want to have anything to own, or to possess any object. I wanted rather to feel something on Christmas day. The real question would have been, “Dear Claudia, what experience would you like on Christmas?” I would have spoken up, “I want to sit on the low stool in Big Mama’s kitchen with my lap full of lilacs and listen to Big Papa play his violin for me alone.” The lowness of the stool made for my body, the security and warmth of Big Mama’s kitchen, the smell of the lilacs, the sound of the music, and, since it would be good to have all of my senses engaged, the taste of a peach, perhaps, afterward.

Once upon a time the Breedloves lived in a store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio:

There is nothing more to say about the furnishings. They were anything but describable, having been conceived, manufactured, shipped, and sold in various states of thoughtlessness, greed, and indifference. The furniture had aged without ever having become familiar. People had owned it, but never known it. No one had lost a penny or a brooch under the cushions of wither sofa and remembered the place and time of the loss or the finding. No one had clucked and said, “But I had it just a minute ago. I was sitting right there talking to . . .” or “Here it is. It must have slipped down while I was feeding the baby!” No one had given birth on one of the beds—or remembered with fondness the peeled paint places, because that’s what the baby, when he learned to pull himself up, used to pick loose. No thrifty child had tucked a wad of gum under the table. No happy drunk—a friend of the family, with a fat neck, unmarried, you know, but God how he eats!—had sat at the piano and played “You Are My Sunshine.” No young girl had stared at the tiny Christmas tree and remembered when she had decorated it, or wondered if that blue ball was going to hold, or if HE would ever come back to see it.

Morrison’s prose is mesmerising. You can easily be tempted to reread a passage two or three times — it remains as fresh as the first time. While the lives of the Breedloves are unsatisfying and degrading, you take great pleasure in reading about their unhappiness, their ugliness, as each passage segues effortlessly into the next. Her writing seems to make no effort, to describe in the most natural way possible those things that set the Breedloves apart from the other people in the town: their poverty and ugliness. You can even see their faces in your mind’s eye, the prose is so enticing.

There’s an undying poetry in Morrison’s prose. The book is short, she sticks to her themes: the distaste that Mr. Yacobowski the general-store owner feels when confronted by a little black girl is balanced by Pecola's acceptance of the three whores: Miss Marie, Miss Poland and Miss China, who live above the Breedloves’ storefront. Claudia encounters them with similar acceptance: “'How come you got so many boyfriends, Miss Marie?'”

After the mayhem of the scene of the girls' fight with Maureen Peal and the subsequent discovery of their lodger Mr. Henry with two prostitutes, the chapter on proper black women balances the human drama with some satire. Geraldine is such a ‘colored person’ and not a ‘nigger’:

Geraldine, Louis, Junior, and the cat lived next to the playground of Washington Irving School. Junior considered the playground his own, and the schoolchildren coveted his freedom to sleep late, go home for lunch, and dominate the playground after school. He hated to see the swings, slides, monkey bars, and seesaws empty and tried to get kids to stick around as long as possible. White kids; his mother did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud. He belonged to the former group: he wore white shirts and blue trousers; his hair was cut as close to his scalp as possible to avoid any suggestion of wool, the part etched into his hair by the barber. In winter his mother put Jergens Lotion on his face to keep the skin from becoming ashen. Even though he was light-skinned, it was possible to ash. The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.

Violence is everywhere, the violence of people who know hatred and despair intimately. Even those who also know comfort seem to thrive on violence.

The story is perpetually dark, black-and-white, like Indonesian dancing figures. The darkness is perpetuated by characterising the history of Pauline Williams, and Cholly Breedlove, who she marries. This stick-figure, dark history is echoed by the children’s story that opens the novel and is used to open each chapter.

When Cholly was four days old, his mother wrapped him in two blankets and one newspaper and placed him on a junk heap by the railroad. His Great Aunt Jimmy, who had seen her niece carrying a bundle out of the back door, rescued him. She beat his mother with a razor strap and wouldn’t let her near the baby after that. Aunt Jimmy raised Cholly herself, but took delight sometimes in telling him of how she had saved him. He gathered from her that his mother wasn’t right in the head. But he never had a chance to find out, because she ran away shortly after the razor strap, and no one had heard of her since.

Cholly’s Aunt Jimmy dies from eating peach cobbler and during the wake he makes it with a young girl named Darlene. But he feels like a stick figure and reacts badly to all the mourners:

The next day was cleaning-out day, settling accounts, distributing Aunt Jimmy’s goods. Mouths were set in downward crescents, eyes veiled, feet tentative.
  Cholly floated about aimlessly, doing chores as he was told. All the glamour and warmth the adults had given him on the previous day were replaced by a sharpness that agreed with his mood. He could think only of the flashlight, the muscadines, and Darlene’s hands. And when he was not thinking of them, the vacancy in his head was like the space left by a newly pulled tooth still conscious of the rottenness that had once filled it. Afraid of running into Darlene, he would not go far from the house, but neither could he endure the atmosphere of his dead Aunt’s house. The picking through her things, the comments on the “condition” of her goods. Sullen, irritable, he cultivated his hatred of Darlene.

The story of how Elihue Micah Whitcomb became Soaphead Church is another cartoon of dark humour from Morrison’s pen. It’s not certain how his story fits in with that of the Breedloves but that understanding will no doubt arrive. We have faith in Morrison’s dialect and her choice of lives to strand into a compelling, single narrative.

He began to sink into a rapidly fraying gentility, punctuated with a few of the white-collar occupations available to black people, regardless of their noble bloodlines, in America: desk clerk at a colored hotel in Chicago, insurance agent, travelling salesman for a cosmetics firm catering to blacks. He finally settled in Lorain, Ohio, in 1936, palming himself off as a minister, and inspiring awe with the way he spoke English. The women of the town early discovered his celibacy, and not being able to comprehend his rejection of them, decided that he was supernatural rather than unnatural.

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