When Family is Not a Support

06 May

About a week ago, we had a class discussion about why The Bluest Eye’s Pecola is the only character to change her eye color, and why other insecure victims of racism, such as Claudia, do not also ask for blue eyes.  Both characters ask, to quote Claudia, “What made people look at [little white girls] and say, ‘Awwww’, but not for me?” (Morrison, 22)  Both girls know that their bodies are unsatisfactory for society’s gaze, so why does only one actually alter herself?  The difference comes in home life.  Claudia has genuine kinship at home.  She knows what it means to feel loved and can “think of somebody with hands who does not want [her] to die” (Morrison 12).  When relentless racism and hatred close in on her, she can look to her family for support and therefore does not deteriorate.  However, Pecola does not have this option.  In fact, she has none.  She is bombarded from every angle with the message that she is worthless and dirty.  Even her own mother, Mrs. Breedlove, writes that newborn Pecola had a “head full of pretty hair, but Lord she was ugly” (Morrison 126)  Because she is an entirely inadequate person in society, at home, and with herself, the only way she can survive is to change herself.  And so, she becomes blue-eyed Pecola, Pecola with just enough sick self-love to allow herself to live.

Claudia and Pecola’s distinct reactions to societal deprecation make me ask: what do we turn to when family is not a support?  How do different societal forces stand in for kinship?  And how productive are each of these forces?

One substitute for such bonds is violence.  Overcome with racial hatred from society and abandoned by both his father and mother, Cholly seeks bonds in violence to sustain him.  When the white men interrupt Cholly and Darlene’s sex, they leave Cholly mortified, ashamed, and, above all, violent.  “Sullen, irritable, he cultivated his hatred of Darlene.  Never once did he consider directing his hatred toward the hunters, such an emotion would have destroyed him.  They were big, white, armed men.  He was small, black, helpless” (Morrison, 150)  Here Cholly uses blame as a type of support, a justification that maintains the feeble structure of his pride.  Like Claudia and Pecola, Cholly can’t blame the white people, for that is unsafe.  And, like these girls, he can’t blame himself if he intends to survive this life.  And so, he blames Darlene, the only person he can safely blame.  Just as Pecola wants to kill her dark-eyed self, “Cholly wanted to strangle [Darlene]” and thus strangle the life out of this hate-spouting source that pushes him down down down into shame (Morrison 149).  I think it is fascinating and terrifying how such a positive force as love can serve, in many ways, the same function as violence.  What are the differences?  What makes one more sustainable than the other?

Looking back at Nguyen, I found striking parallels between support from familial love and support from the validation of feeling beautiful.  Nguyen writes that “beauty acts as a salve to the soul and that the beauty salon operates as an oasis amid the ugliness of war” (Nguyen).  With her references to a salon, she implies that beauty is artificial.  It can be cultivated when other supports, such as familial love, are lacking.  She later calls beauty a “redemptive force”, indicating that beauty (like familial love!) fills in where bits of self and soul are missing.  Where do these “self-gaps” fit into the love-violence dichotomy?  What about artificial beauty?  How is that a source of love and a bonding force if it is fake?


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

Nguyen, Mimi Thi. “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror. Signs 36, no. 2 (2011): 359-383.

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Posted by on May 6, 2013 in Uncategorized


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