Abstract: This paper intends to analyze the culturally and psychologically colonized African Americans in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and tries to dig out the elements that result in their self-loathing, self-contempt and the dilemma of their values and identity, beginning with a background introduction of the writer and the novel and a brief account of the theoretical perspective of postcolonialism.
Key words: The Bluest Eye; Postcolonialism; Cultural hegemony; Internalised racism
中图分类号:H319 文献标识码: A文章编号:1672-1578(2010)04-0018-04
The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s virgin novel,establishing her literary reputation as a renowned black writer. The novel recounts the tragic story of a little black girl Pecola living in a white dominated world and exposes the impact and damages done to the blacks by cultural hegemony implemented by the mainstream society, particularly the standards of beauty. Since its publication, The Bluest Eye has gained increasing attention from the domestic and the abroad. Though this novel was published more than thirty years ago, yet it is still endowed with profound meanings which deserve our rereading and study. Approaching from the postcolonial perspective, this paper intends to analyze the culturally and psychologically colonized African Americans in this novel, and try to dig out the elements that result in their self-loathing, self-contempt and the dilemma of their values and identity, beginning with a background introduction of the writer and the novel and a brief account of the theoretical perspective of postcolonialism.
2 Background of the writer and the novel
Born on February 18, 1939 in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison is considered one of the foremost figures in contemporary American fiction. She made her debut as a novelist in 1970, soon gaining the attention of both critics and a wider audience for her expressive depiction of African America. Her first novel is The Bluest Eye, followed by another eight novels, among which the most celebrated include Sula(1974), Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992). With her stories deeply rooted in the unique history, legends and reality of the African Americans, Morrison addresses such issues as black victimization, the emotional and social effects of racial and sexual oppression, and the difficulties African Americans face in trying to achieve a sense of identity in a society dominated by white cultural values. Her works are marked with many honors, among which the most prestigious are the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 for her giving “life to an essential aspect of American reality” in novels “characterized by visionary force and poetic import”(qtd.in (Cao) 5). However, the most important contribution Morrison makes for American and world literature, maintains Toming(338-339), is that “she has fictionalized――thus culturally carved out――a territory in which black people are not marginal anomalies but a genuine human society.” And this is clearly evidenced in her first novel, The Bluest Eye(1970).
The Bluest Eye was a product of its time. In 1957, only several years before Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye, the Civil Rights Act had produced historical advances in the freedom and dignity granted to African American citizens, but African Americans still found them discriminated against on all fronts――economic, religious, educational, political, and legal. They also began to notice that the culture industry produced a universal standard image of beauty, and that standard insistently excluded them. It was the image of blond hair, blue eyes, lighter skin that privileged. For decades within the American black culture, the black youth identified themselves with the white ego ideal. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that three social revolutions, namely America’s civil rights movement, London’s Cultural Revolution and the spread of Pan-Africanism, combined to launch the “Black is Beautiful” movement. As the winds of change blew through the US, black women was fervid in rejection of the doctrines of beauty adhered by white, and began to celebrate their own physical qualities. The “Black is Beautiful” movement challenged black people to reexamine the devastating psychic impact of white supremacy. It also demanded that black people embrace a diversity of black looks. Self-love was racial political agenda and “Black is Beautiful” was the slogan that empowered large numbers of women to stop imitating of white standards of beauty and instead, love themselves and all their blackness. In 1960s, the “Black is beautiful” movement was at its peak time. Morrison’s novel is part of this movement, which created a black community in which beauty was considered being as close to white as possible and its member must accommodate themselves to white standards of beauty. A person who matches this quality is “good” and is respected for being so. A person, who does not match the quality, is looked down upon as being dirty and ugly. The characters within The Bluest eye, all attempt to conform to the standards of beauty which anticipate Pecola――the heroine’s eventual breakdown.
The Bluest Eye was set in a small Midwestern town where Morrison grew up. The story is mainly narrated by a nine-year-old black girl, Claudia MacTeer and is focused on another black girl two years older, Pecola Breedlove, who wants nothing more than a pair of blue eyes, because she believes that the reason why she is despised and ridiculed is that she is black and therefore ugly, and thinks that if she possesses the bluest eyes in the world, the cruelty in her life will be replaced by affection and respect. Meanwhile, she continually receives confirmation of her own sense of ugliness from the community. Pecola’s parents have both had difficult lives, too. Her mother, Pauline, who has a lame foot and has always felt isolated, totally internalizes the European-American values and shows indifference to her daughter, but fulfills her own servitude by loving a white middle class’s home she cares and despises her own. Her father, Cholly, who has experienced being abandoned at his birth and humiliation during the first sex, becomes a wild and rootless man who incredibly rapes and impregnates his own daughter. Without the blood affections, Pecola finally goes quietly insane and withdraws into a fantasy world after the last blow of Soaphead Church who cheats her of being granted the bluest eye in the world by the almighty God.
3 A brief account of postcolonialism
“Postcolonialism (postcolonial theory, post-colonial theory) is an aggregative discourse that holds together a set of theories found among the texts and sub-texts of philosophy, film, political science and literature. These theories are reactions to the cultural legacy of colonialism. As a literary theory (or critical approach), it deals with literature produced in countries that once were colonies of other countries, especially of the European colonial powers Britain, France, and Spain; in some contexts, it includes countries still in colonial arrangements. It also deals with literature written in colonial countries and by their citizens that has colonized people as its subject matter.”
Postcolonialism, a kind of cultural study, covers at least four distinct areas: “(1) imperial cultures;(2) cultures of the colonized;(3) cultures of resistance that opposed imperialism, and;(4) relationship between First world metropolitan and Third World peripheral cultures”(Zhu 285). It generally deals with cultural identity: “the dilemmas of developing a national identity after colonial rule; the ways in which writers articulate and celebrate that identity (often reclaiming it from and maintaining strong connections with the colonizer); the ways in which the knowledge of the colonized (subordinated) people has been generated and used to serve the colonizer’s interests; and the ways in which the colonizer’s literature has justified colonialism via images of the colonized as a perpetually inferior people, society and culture.”
Postcolonial study is not restricted to the issues after the decolonizing cause, since all post-colonial societies are still subject in one way or another to overt or subtle forms of neo-colonial domination. The term should include periods of formal colonization to signify a continuing process of resistance and reconstruction. It covers not only the problem of pre-colonial countries and regions, but also the conflicts and inequality between different cultures in large, thus the contradiction between black culture as minor ethnical culture and white culture as main dominant culture is within the postcolonial study.
Edward Said's 1978 Orientalism has been described as a seminal work in the field, in which he states that white imagines an “Orient” and differentiates it from “Occident” ontologically; in the meantime, they make “Occident” observe “Orient” with odd and prejudiced eyes, by means of which, the white produce a new ethnicity of the “Orient”, and finally holds control of the alien.
By identifying the term of postcolonialism which describes cultures and psyches, I think that Toni Morrison’s works contain these characteristics and should be analyzed in the context of postcolonialism. To be clear, postcolonialism provides us, at present, with a forceful and convincing methodology to read and reread Toni Morrison’s works. I use postcolonialism as the mode of critique in which my paper takes roots because it offers the forceful approach to analyze her texts within the categories of culture.
4 A postcolonial study of the characters in the novel
4.1 The victims in the white cultural hegemony
Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony theory is practical in analyzing The Bluest Eye. Early at the beginning of 20th century, he began to keep cautious at the controlling power of capitalism and imperialism: on the one hand, the capitalism exploited other classes, nations and minorities politically and economically ensuing with their powerlessness in life and illegitimacy in history; on the other hand, it controlled the“Others”mentally through the cultural policy at an enormous scale.Those culture complex networks: schools,churches, parties,newspapers, mass media and civil organizations integrated the ideologies of different classes, colors, sexes, etc. and dominated the whole society. In this way, the capitalism completed its construction of a western white myth culturally, which meant the whole society was easy to reach a consensus with white culture and values.
4.1.1 Pauline’s self-loss
The devastating effects of dominant white culture is embodied first in Pauline, Pecola’s mother. In American society, it is argued that by reproducing the ideological hegemony of the dominant white culture, the mass media helps to legitimate the inequalities in class, race, gender, and generational relations of commercial purposes. Before Pauline has any children, she would go to see movies, the most direct carrier of the dominant culture. From the film, she absorbs the white Dick-Jane mythology: “White men taking such good care of their women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses with the bathtubs right in the same room with the toilet” (Morrison 97) and notices that all the black are depicted as the ugly, funny and idiotic foils to beautify the white males and females, who have been long regarded as the white standard of beauty. She admires Jean Harlow and even fixed her hair up like she had seen hers on a magazine. She accepts the white standard of beauty unconsciously and gradually loses her black identity under the influence of the mass media. Patrick Bryce Bjork(44) argues, Pauline “finds an outlet for her repressed creativity by replacing her youthful orderliness with the ‘perfection’ of Hollywood’s silver screen” in order to escape from her miserable situation of blackness. However, the negation of her blackness only increases her alienation and ontological instability.
Afterwards she becomes a responsible servant in a rich middle class white’s house. In the Fisher home, she finds beauty, order and cleanliness. She looks at their house, smells their linen, touches their silk draperies, and loves all of it. Besides, in the Fisher house she has dominion over creditors and service people, those “who humiliated her when she went to them on her own behalf respected her, were even intimidated by her, when she spoke for the Fishers. She refused beef slightly dark or with edges not properly trimmed. The slightly reeking fish that she accepted for her own family she would all but throw in the fish man’s face if he sent it to the Fisher house. Power, praise, and luxury were hers in this household.”(128) In a word, she finds psychological satisfaction there. She hates the ugliness of her house, her family, herself and blames it on being black and poor. Instead, she aspires to the polished copper and sheen of the kitchen she works in where everyone is clean, well-behaved, and pretty. For her, any violation of that paradise by anyone, even her daughter, amounts to a crime. For instance, one day, Pecola went to the Fisher’s house and accidentally knocked over a hot pan of blueberry pie and dirtied the floor. Instead of comforting her daughter who had been burnt, Pauline immediately smacked her and scolded her a crazy fool before she comforted the scared Fisher girl. As Susan Willis says of Pecola’s mother: “The tragedy of a woman’s alienation is its effect on her role as mother. Her emotions split; she showers tenderness and love on her employer’s child, and rains violence and disdain on her own.”(Gates 192) In order to keep her marginal footing in the white world, she gives up her family and retreats into the world of snow-white beauty and order in the Fisher’s home, thus cuts the final link to her racial identity. By depicting the totally distorted maternal relationship, Morrison exposes the devastating impact of dominant white culture on the identity of black women.
4.1.2 Pecola’s self-contempt
Morrison believes, in fact, the worst of the situation has not been the white society’s commercialization of the white standard of beauty but the acceptance and internalization of this standard by blacks. Under the predominant white society, beauty is as much a political as an aesthetic concept while ugliness is not merely a matter of appearance, but also a manifestation of an inner ugliness, a spiritual and moral failure, if not an innate evil. “That which was ‘white’ was extolled and infused with connotations of benevolence and superiority, while that which was not white was debased and associated with malevolence and inferiority.”(qtd.in (Peach) 25) As a poor black girl, Pecola inevitably suffers contempt when measured by this standard, which eventually devalues her sensitivities and contributes to her marginalized existence. As Ania Loomba says, “For the white, the black other is everything that lives outside the self. For the black subject, however, the white other serves to define everything that is desirable, everything that the self desires”(144). What little Pecola finds is that people around like the light-skin girl rather than the dark-skin girl. Therefore, she attributes her misfortunes to her blackness――ugliness, and then only to turn to praying for the blue eyes may she look pretty and charming. Her yearning for the bluest eyes is the very desire of beauty that white culture designated as a virtue: “Adults, older girls, shops, magazine, newspapers, and window signs―all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured”(20). In this social structure where one culture colonizes another culture, the non-white culture is subordinated in the dominant white culture. African Americans try to identify with the white culture through the internalization of the white dominant value system. And it is also the mass media of the white culture that form Pecola’s blue-eyes fantasy. Pecola worships the film star Shirley Temple and drinks excessive milk in Shirley Temple Cups merely for approximating to her. The pure white milk is a cultural code for the little Pecola. Her striving for white beauty is also shown in another scene in which Pecola’s “luxurious” purchase of all Mary Janes sugars indicates her desire for her trait. The sugar, in her view, in any case, “identifies the Mary Janes”(49) “To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eye, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane, be Mary Jane.”(50) Pecola’s destruction is mainly caused by the dominant white culture, which produces psychological mutants in the process of internal colonization.
4.2 The blacks with internalized racism
In the American society of this particular novel, racist attitudes are so harsh, so pervasive, and so damaging that the blacks are forced at times to turn racism in upon themselves and seemingly agree with some of the conditioning, internalizing the messages of racism. Internalized racism has caused them to accept many of the stereotypes of blacks created by the oppressive majority society. They have been taught to be angry at, ashamed of, anything that differs too much from a mythical ideal of the middle class of the majority culture - skin that is "too dark," hair that is "too kinky," dress, talk, and music that is "too loud." They are made to place higher value on members of their group who appear whiter, and denigrate those who have darker skin, kinkier hair, or other "less white" features. They are made to criticize or verbally attack each other, using the racist messages, or even to physically attack or kill each other, playing out their rage about racism at one another.
Evidence can be found firstly on Geraldine, a respected middle-class black woman. She is light- skinned but her fear of being black is enormous and is willing to do anything to differentiate herself from darker ones. Pecola happens to be the embodiment of all that Mrs. Geraldine takes pains to eliminate, so the unexpected visit of Pecola in her house disgusts and irritates her, both for Junior’s being together with Pecola and for, most importantly, Pecola’s reflection of her past which causes crisis in her psyche. As a milk-brown lady, colored middle-class woman, the blackness, and funkiness of Pecola are what she can’t bear, so she drives the girl out of the room with such harsh words, “Get out,”“You nasty little black bitch. Get out of my house.”(92)
Another character who demonstrates the superiority of whiteness and dangerously affirms intra-racial acceptance of the world’s denigration of blackness is Maureen Peel. Maureen’s light skin and sloe green eyes make her influential, winning her preferential treatment from and the admiration of teachers and peers. Even when she meets Pecola, she claims her predominance by taunting, “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black emos. I am cute.”(73)
In fact, internalized racism can be found easily in every corner of the community that Pecola lives in, witnessed by women’s condemning women, Cholly’s violence at petty and weak things, Pauline’s belittling her husband and the black community’s striding on Pecola. Like Pecola’s family, many families in their community move here from the south to the north, trying hard to get better economical life and higher social status. The social norms, which the American white ideology imposes on them, make them believe that only white people could enjoy high social position and are instilled into their minds as early as childhood. They think they cannot live happily and successfully as the white people because of their black identity. They show their illusory superiority to those with darker appearance, or lower economical and social status so as to neglect the indisputable fact that they are black themselves. Pecola is considered as the blackest and poorest person in the community, and thus she suffers many unfair treatments. She is ignored and despised at school, by teachers and classmates. Black children deflect their self-hatred by verbally assaulting her; lighter-skinned blacks, children and adults proclaim their superiority by alternately patronizing and attacking her. “The poignancy of Pecola’s victimization arises not only from the racism that Pecola must encounter on the way to self-hood but also from the intra-racial conflicts related to color, firmly rooted in the white racist myths of beauty, subscribed to by black culture.”(Samuels and Hudson-Weems 12)
5 Concluding remarks
This paper focuses on the characters in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from the postcolonial perspective and maintains that through the description of the miserable experience of a black girl Pecola, Morrison shows to the readers that the humanity of the black people in this novel has been distorted under the pressure of cultural and ideological colonialism, as well as exposes the erosion of the white cultural hegemony and the damaging effects of internalized racism. This cultural hegemony influences the cultural awareness of African Americans and leads them to the conscious of double-identity outsider which greatly impacts the African American tradition and put their culture and literature on the edge with chronicle ignorance, as well as influence their ethnic solidarity and corrupt their self-esteem and self-confidence. Through this particular novel, Morrison tries to awaken the self-consciousness of African Americans to resist the adverse effect of the dominant white culture and to construct the actively firm cultural identity of themselves.
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