ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
|Transcript||Audio||Low Bandwidth Video||High Bandwidth Video|
The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 13 - Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
Chapter 1. Morrison’s Politics: The Other Side of the 1960s [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: So, today we will talk about The Bluest Eye. This novel has a lot to do with the questions that John Barth was thinking about, in a very different register, in Lost in the Funhouse. This is, of course, the story of a little girl who is totally remade by a story that’s told to her, and I just want to point this out to you, on page 182 of The Bluest Eye. This is the letter that Soaphead Church writes to God explaining his action. He has, remember, tricked Pecola in to thinking that if something happens to the dog that he sends her out to feed, it will be a sign that God has answered her prayer for blue eyes. And, of course, what he has given her to give to the dog is poison. So of course the dog dies, and this convinces Pecola that her prayers have been answered, and it pushes her over the edge in to something like schizophrenia. But Soaphead is very satisfied with his work, and this is how he describes that work:
That last line, “meet and right so to do,” is from the Anglican liturgy, or may also occur in the Catholic liturgy. It refers to the Last Supper; “It is meet and right so to do” to commemorate Christ’s last supper with his disciples through the sacrament of the Eucharist. So, he makes that story he tells her, one, into a sacramental story, as if he is giving her God’s gift. But it is very patently a story, and we get that because he says “she will live happily ever after.”
So, what he has invited her to do is to fully inhabit the dream of the white aesthetic that her mother has absorbed through the movies and has used in naming her. Remember, in the novel we’re told that Pecola’s name is close to a name from the 1934 movie Imitation of Life, which has a complicated story. But it’s about race relations, and it features a little girl named Peola who ends up passing for white because she so hates the blackness of her mother. So, Pecola’s mother absorbed that white aesthetic, projected it on to her daughter, and her daughter finally so longs to inhabit that story that she goes to Soaphead Church. And this is how she ends up, and the cost of inhabiting that story is derangement.
If John Barth’s characters inhabit stories, stories that precede them in the world– Remember, this is why it’s important that the narrator of the first story in that collection is the sperm. The sperm comes already stocked with the phrases and patterns of prior literature. Well, Toni Morrison advances an analysis that is not so different. Pecola came into the world, essentially, through her mother and the society that surrounded her, stocked with the story of white aesthetics, the story that told her that she and her family were ugly and irredeemable. The quality of Morrison’s fiction could not be more different from the quality of Barth’s fiction, and I want to suggest to you that that’s because in Morrison’s fiction–this is her first novel begun in the early ’60s, published in 1970–in this novel, she is absorbing something from that ’60s culture, reflecting on it, that Barth kept very much at arm’s length. So, the abstract question of what kinds of narratives produce the identity of a person becomes for Morrison a political question.
Remember that divide I was describing in the 1960s political world, where some activists by the mid ’60s began to drop out of activism because they were convinced that it was more important to know themselves than to actually go and try to promote a positive program in the world. And there was the counterculture gaining steam, advocating a playful engagement with the world that would be uninterested in questions like the Vietnam War. “Turn your back on the war,” says Ken Kesey. Drop out. Drop acid; that’s the thing you should be doing. Well, the cultural politics of the late ’60s try to merge these two kinds of resistance to convention. So it merges the cultural focus of the counterculture–that’s why it’s called the counterculture; it produces a culture against the prevailing culture–and that politically activist body of thought coming out of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement in the ’60s. So, this produces a cultural politics, the cultural politics of the late ’60s and into the ’70s, and I would say even up through the culture wars of the 1990s.
This is the legacy of the 1960s in literature.
Chapter 2. Choosing a Form: Morrison’s Use of the Novel [00:07:16]
So, Morrison takes the insights of Barth, and she turns them to political purpose. One of our questions today is going to be: Why does Toni Morrison, in 1970, sit down to write a novel, instead of a tract? Why is she interested in literature, as opposed to something like sociology? She has such a strong and passionate desire for justice for African Americans. Why is literature her chosen venue? Now, I’m sure there are a thousand reasons, but we’re going to–I’m going to–bring some of them out of the novel that we can read right there. Just without going into biography or psychology, we’re going to think about how the novel presents itself as doing a kind of work in the world that Barth’s writing never tries to do. So, that’s where I’m going to go today.
Let me also point out that, like Pynchon, Morrison wants to imagine the novel as a medium that can hold the human within it. So, a second question that I want to get at today is, given that commonality–Remember, I ended my lecture on Pynchon by arguing that sentiment remained important in Pynchon’s work; despite all that word play, all that self-conscious irony of the story, all that humor at the level of names, what really finally mattered was not that search for meaning, but the moment when you could touch another human being. And Pynchon is interested in certain kinds of essences–like dandelion wine, or tears, or the sailor’s mattress–that hold in them, in suspension, the cycles and movements of human life.
Morrison has that same desire to hold the human in her fiction, and so this is one reason why Morrison chooses the novel. This is the first of the reasons: to hold the human in suspension in the novel. Now it takes a very particular form, and if you think to the passages about Pauline, there is the section on Pecola’s mother, Pauline, where we see large blocks of italics of her voice coming to us. This is a very obvious example of how that works in Morrison’s fiction. This is an effort to let the voice of the unheard speak through her fiction. So, why write a novel instead of writing a tract or becoming a sociologist or a politician? One reason, for Morrison, is that the novel allows the voices of the oppressed to speak in a way that they could not otherwise. This entails a certain assumption about her own position as a writer. She writes from within a black community she knows well. This novel is set in Lorain, Ohio, her hometown, and so she takes on that task because she feels she is equipped for it; she can speak in a communal voice or she can make her voice available for the voices within the community that she knows.
Now, how many of you have read Beloved? Ah, great. I usually don’t put it on the syllabus because I assume most people have read it. But, if you recall, this effort to recover the voice of the unheard is absolutely central to Beloved; it is the premise of Beloved. Toni Morrison found an account of a woman in a newspaper in the mid nineteenth century who tried to kill her children instead of allowing them to be recaptured into slavery, and she thought about what kind of story that woman would have to tell about her life, or what kind of story could be told about that woman that the papers, that historians, would never know and would never be able to recover. Fiction, because it is imaginative, gives you a way to get at what academics of the traditional kind cannot transmit about the past, but also, in this novel, about a life that is closer to her current moment, the moment of writing.
So, by including Pauline’s voice, she allows Pauline to begin to tell her own story of how she became married to Cholly Breedlove and how she evolved in to the fairly hateful woman that we see her to be when we see her as Pecola’s mother. You might find, and I have to admit I myself find, that particular example quite clunky in a literary sense. Why did Morrison suddenly turn to those italicized blocks? And, I don’t know if you read the– I think you have the postscript, the afterword, that Morrison appended to this edition of the novel. If you haven’t read it, I would suggest that you do. It’s quite interesting. She notes there that she herself is very unhappy with that section of the novel. She herself finds it clunky from the perspective of twenty years later. She writes the afterword in 1993. So, it’s unsatisfying to her, but there are more successful versions of it. And you see that, for example, when the women are gathered around Aunt Jimmy’s bed, and they’re talking as she is in her final sickness. And they’re talking with one another about their aches and pains. That’s one example of how those voices come into the novel. There are just many dozens of these examples, so any time you hear a character begin to speak, you have that sense that you’re hearing something that you wouldn’t otherwise hear if Morrison was not there to open your ear to it and to embody those voices. It’s one of the great strengths of her writing is that ability to embody the voice. So, that’s one reason why you write a novel instead of being a sociologist.
Another reason is to push the boundaries of what’s credible, to push those boundaries so far that you can see the abject very clearly in front of you within a literary form, and so she chooses Pecola as the ugly child. She seems to have no redeeming intelligence. She has no one who really loves her, except maybe a few whores who live above her house. She has no conversation that we really recall. She doesn’t say anything particularly witty. Probably what we remember her for is simply that desire to have blue eyes. We don’t really get inside her head, even, and so this is a place where Morrison’s desire to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves runs up against a wall. But she’s very interested in what happens when the imagination hits up against that wall. How far can we go towards inhabiting the subject position of an abject person? That’s what she’s testing in this novel. And she herself speaks of a silence at the heart of it, and that silence is in part the silence about Pecola’s experience of the rape, when she’s raped by her father. We don’t really get a sense of what she thinks, what she experiences. If you think again back to Barth, remember that quotation of silence at the very center of Menelaiad. So, Morrison is again engaging a problem that other writers are engaging at this time, but she’s setting it in a very specific historical moment with very specific historical and political connotations and implications coming out of her examination.
So, silence is at the heart, but it’s hedged around so that we can see it as a silence. So, extremity does that for her.
Chapter 3. Complicated Sympathy: Cholly Breedlove [00:16:40]
I would argue that the third reason she uses the novel instead of a tract is to generate sympathy. And this, again, I was arguing, is part of Pynchon’s project. Usually, someone like Morrison is separate in people’s categories of contemporary fiction from writers like Barth and Pynchon. I am going to argue that they actually occupy much of the same space. What does sympathy look like in Morrison? Well, she sets herself a task that, I would say, is almost as hard as the task that Nabokov has set himself, and in fact maybe it’s even harder. Nabokov set himself the task of making us like Humbert Humbert. Now how many of you liked Humbert in the end? He’s getting less popular as the weeks go by. More of you seemed to like him when we were in the throes of reading his seductive voice. But Nabokov set himself the task of seducing us with Humbert’s voice.
Morrison, as part of this novel, sets herself the task of making us sympathize with a drunk who has no verbal capacities who rapes his own daughter. Now, does she succeed? Well, let’s take a look. On page 146, we’re a little ways into the story of Cholly Breedlove, and this is in the scene where he has just left the funeral of his aunt with a girl named Darlene. And they’re playing and flirting and making out in the field. She’s gotten her clothes dirty:
These little gestures that Morrison grants to Cholly in this scene–tiny gestures of tying the girl’s bow, leaning over her, concerned for her looks as she goes back to her mother, telling her–reassuring her–that she’s not dirty, and in a novel that is so full of demonized cleanliness his gentle assurance that her dress though stained, is not dirty in the moral sense–this is a mark of kindness, the mark of humanity. So, Morrison begins with small details like this to build up our sympathy for Cholly. It gets more intense when he meets his father in the city. This is on page 155. This is when he first sees him playing craps in the alleyway:
So, in this scene, we once again see that humane touching impulse. He wants to touch his father’s head, touch the sign of his father’s mortality, the fact that his father is growing older. He sees in his father’s body his own face, hands, voice, and we can feel that with him. And then, when he flees from that scene, finally, and soils himself, he becomes another one of those abject characters. And he goes to hide under a pier, finally bathes in a river at night. This kind of detail gives us two things: both the beginnings or another iteration of the reason why he becomes who he becomes, the drunk, the rapist, but it gives us more than that. It gives us a sense of his complexity. It makes us want to like him, and, in fact, by this point I would argue that probably most readers do like him at this point in the novel. Can Morrison sustain this to the very end? Well, in a way I want you to be the judge, but if we look on 206, I would argue that we’re beginning to see that effort. This is at the very end of the novel, speaking of Pecola:
For one thing, Morrison endows these sentences with a lyrical quality that makes us feel their power. But there’s one line she uses to describe Cholly that I think trumps all the others, and that’s this one about the love of a free man: “The love of a free man is never safe.” Safety is not exactly of value in this novel. If it were, the safe white household in which Mrs. Breedlove works would look a lot more appealing than it does. There is a certain safety for Frieda and Claudia in their intact household, but there, too, it is fraught with suffering. Their mother is cruel to them. She yells at them. Safety is not really to be had there, and the safety that is had comes at great cost.
When Cholly is described as having freed himself, earlier in the novel, part of that story which we don’t get explicitly is that he has learned to turn his hatred, finally, against the white men, symbolized by the white men who discover him making love to Darlene in that earlier scene. We’re told that initially he hates her instead of the white men, because hating the white men would undo him to such an extent he was not ready to see that oppression for what it was. Later in his life, we’re told, he kills three white men. We don’t know the circumstances, and at that moment, we’re told that he’s a free man.
Freedom, when applied to a black man, cannot be a wholly negative quality. In the context that Morrison evokes, of a society still plagued by the remnants of slavery, to call Cholly free can’t be to dismiss him. It gives a certain honor and weight to his anger. And to re-evoke that word, to come back to that word, in describing his love for the daughter he rapes, I think, is quite controversial. It suggests that there was some value in the thing of himself he gave to her. Now, this is not exactly what you’d want to call a feminist position, although Morrison certainly is I would say a feminist writer in the largest sense of that word. But what she has tried to do here, in keeping with the challenge that I think she must have set for herself, is to make us see Cholly complexly enough to sympathize with him even after he commits this crime. So she takes a certain kind of risk, but that’s why she does it. She wants us to see him in a sympathetic light.
This is what a novel can do. It requires that lyrical quality of voice; it requires the buildup of history, and it requires, in this scene, the return to that precise language. So, a very common literary technique–we see it all the time in the things that we read together–is to return to the terms you used in an earlier moment to ring the changes on those terms again, to use that word. Well, that’s what Morrison uses to produce this sense of value in Cholly at the end of the novel. In this sense it participates or is in conversation with a tradition of the nineteenth-century novel in America. So, one of the most prestigious novels of the nineteenth century is of course Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a hugely successful novel, abolitionist novel whose aim was to create a sense of the slave’s humanity for white readers so that white readers would become inspired to the abolitionist cause. What was repulsive about that novel to someone like Morrison is the starched white virtue and the starched white culture to which the African American characters in the novel were recruited. So, in that novel, their humanity and the sympathy that that would evoke from the reader depended on their looking as white as possible, and therefore there was this great privileging of the light-skinned black in that novel and a sense of Christian value redeeming the darker-skinned characters. They needed it–more, it seems, than the light-skinned characters–so the darker your skin is in Uncle Tom’s Cabin the more religious you are. So it’s a whitewashing of the African American figure. So, Morrison takes something of the sympathetic project of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and that tradition of the nineteenth-century novel, but she transforms it by making us sympathetic to someone like Cholly who Harriet Beecher Stowe would put so far outside the pale of humanity we wouldn’t- he wouldn’t even be visible on her screen. So, this is her project.
Chapter 4. Negativities: The Other Engine of Narrative [00:31:15]
Sympathy, however, relies on some darker and more ambiguous techniques that Morrison is also committed to, and one of those is what I’m going to call negativity. Morrison is very careful–in this novel, especially–to talk about what people are not. And you see an example of this on page 55, when she’s describing the prostitutes. This is after she’s been telling stories–Miss Marie has been telling stories–to Pecola about her husband.
“Whores in whores’ clothing.” That’s the negativity, one version of the negativity. It refuses all those conventional stock stories of what whores can be in the novel. So, the very first instance of it singles out the novel: “They did not belong to those generations of prostitutes created in novels with great and generous hearts,” and so on. But all those other versions are equally fictional types of prostitutes. So she rejects the stock literary cupboard of stories about prostitutes. “They were whores in whores’ clothing.” There is an assertion of their opacity right there. They are opaque to literary embellishment. They are what they are; they just are whores. But the negativity, the repeated “nors”–neither were they this, nor were they that, they were not this, they were not that–it is a kind of engine of narrative. And it limns the place where they might come to stand in and of themselves, without embellishment. So, the effort to help us to sympathize with marginal characters–Cholly Breedlove, prostitutes–is an effort at limning a space where they can stand in and of themselves, and it creates narrative for us to sympathize through. It creates a credibility for her voice; it creates a sense of where they can occupy a space, these characters. What’s more, Marie, as we know, is the one person who really tells stories in this novel. So Morrison also gives her a special gift as a character, a gift that Morrison’s own gift echoes. She’s allowed to tell stories for Pecola’s delight. She’s the only one who does that sort of thing for this child.
Pecola herself, though, is the ultimate negativity, and this is on 205. You can see how this works. This is in the middle of that page.
Pecola is the embodiment of the negative, so she represents all that the community does not want in itself: the excess blackness, the ugliness that the white aesthetic says can’t be changed or redeemed. She represents the poverty that they all strive to escape, or at least keep a bit at bay. So, Pecola as the negativity is–through the whole novel, in the structure of the whole novel–the absence that keeps the narrative engine working. It has to keep working because she’s always there as the negative pole waiting to be touched–even in the least bit–by the narrative’s revelation.
So she embodies that, the desire to know another person, which, in Menelaiad, if you’ll remember, is Menelaus’s undoing. He diddles on and on, his voice asking, “Why? Why? Why’d you choose me, Helen? Why? Why do you love me?” He can’t take any answer, and it makes him ridiculous and it ruins his marriage. That effort to know another person is much more than a diddling on, in Morrison. That effort to know another person isn’t by definition put off limits, in Morrison. The effort at trying is far more honored. The alienation from self which produces a kind of irony and a pleasure in humor in both Barth and Pynchon, that self-consciousness that you see in both novels, is not a source of humor in Morrison because the alienation is produced by an unjust society. It’s not a laughing matter. It’s not so much the universal human condition as it is in Barth, to be alienated from yourself. The self-alienation that Pecola embodies as the negative is the product of oppression, racial oppression. If there is an opportunity for humor in Morrison’s work, it’s not going to come from that fountain of irony.
So, is irony dead in Morrison? Well, maybe. If we see irony in Morrison’s work, it’s in the specific local language of the characters, and I would submit to you that where we see something funny, it’s always with a tinge of darkness, as in Claudia and Frieda’s mother when she complains. I don’t know if you remember this scene when she complains about Pecola drinking all the milk. She goes on and on and on in this baroque aria of indictment and it’s funny, and what we’re told about this mother is that on her grumpy days this is what she does. She complains about the whole world until she’s got everything covered, she’s covered every complaint she could possibly have, and then she sings. And the fact that she turns to singing after having done that suggests a kind of continuity, that there is an operatic, artistic quality to the complaining. And Morrison gives it to us in her voice, and that is the kind of pleasure that Morrison’s novels give us; that’s the kind of humor that her novels give us. It’s not going to be the funny, sad situation of the perpetually alienated Ambrose. It’s going to be a woman in her kitchen who’s out of milk now, doesn’t know where she’s getting the next quart, and yet, and yet, uses that verbal facility to make something in its place, in the place of the milk that’s not there, something to entertain her daughters as they listen.
Chapter 5. Reading, Rape and Race: Poison in the Canon [00:42:56]
So, there is a deeper, even darker side, I would suggest, to the generation of sympathy in Morrison’s novels. And that’s the last point I want to make for you today, and I think we can see it most–well–I’m going to show you one example, and then quick flip to the more important one. On 176, when Soaphead reaches for his ink to write his letter to God, a bottle of ink, we are told, was on the same shelf that held the poison. Writing and poison are extremely close in this novel, and–what’s more–something like reading and being raped are very close to one another. And you can see this on 200. In the conversation between Pecola and her alienated other self, that other voice keeps prodding her about a second rape, the second time, keeps saying “the second time.” We are not shown that in the narrative, so why is this something that enters in to it here? The other voice says to her:
This is a weird moment. You could read that as an odd detail. She really means that there was a second rape and it happened not when she was sleeping, although she had said that before, but when she was reading on the couch. But I think there is a darker meaning to this, that it’s actually the act of reading that is folded into the act of being raped. And this is not, I think, foreign to the whole setup of this novel, that reading of that little passage, because of course, as you will have noticed, you have the Dick and Jane primer at the beginning of each chapter made into nonsense by being run together. So, remember in the first few pages of the novel you have “Here is a house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty” and then mother, father, Dick and Jane. This is the white aesthetic embodied in the primer. The message is that when you learn to read you are imbuing yourself, imbibing the white aesthetic. If you are a young black girl learning to read, you are bringing into yourself a deadly kind of poison, and it’s the poison that destroys Pecola’s mother and Pecola herself in her desire for the blue eye. The primer is run together so that we can see how it becomes nonsensical in the context of Pecola’s life.
But there is a profound indictment of reading, and so you have to ask yourself what kind of reader does Morrison want? And this, I think, has a complex answer. It is not just that Morrison wants to indict a certain kind of reading on the Dick and Jane model. It’s deeper than that. In her Nobel-Prize-winning speech, she writes about her ideal reader. Actually, I think it’s either in one of her essays, or in that speech. She writes about her ideal reader being what she calls “the illiterate reader.” By that she means the reader not stocked up already with the imaginative inventory of the Western canon, a reader who instead has some sense of an oral tradition. But there is more to it than that, to imagine a reader who is that poorly prepared to meet a novel of the ambition that Morrison’s novels embody. If you read Beloved without knowing how to close read the way we do in class, it’s extremely hard to get a lot out of it. There are very difficult passages in that novel. She learned a lot from Faulkner. That’s one of the ways that she learned to incorporate voices into her novel in a way that they would sit by themselves, seemingly unmediated by a narrator. She learned a lot from Virginia Woolf. She wrote her MA thesis on Woolf and Faulkner, on suicide in Woolf and Faulkner, so she herself is highly educated, deeply trained in the modernist avant-garde, and yet she looks for a reader that has rejected all of that that she calls on so skillfully.
Reading is such a vexed activity for Morrison that she represents both reading and writing as something like the equivalent of being the victim of rape. That pushes the idea of sympathy into another register altogether. It’s a text that is essentially theorizing itself as reaching out to you–not in the sense just of making you feel like Cholly’s an okay guy, that he’s human and not some monster–but actually reaching out to you and doing to you what Cholly did to Pecola. That’s an odd thing to do to your own book, so I want you to think about the kind of reader that Morrison imagines, and what her novel is trying to do with and to that reader. I will come back to some of these themes when we talk about Woman Warrior on Wednesday.
[end of transcript]Back to Top
|mp3||mov [100MB]||mov [500MB]|