There were no books about me, I didn’t exist in all the literature I had read … this person, this female, this black did not exist center-self.
—Toni Morrison quoted in Jill Matus
We never shape the world. . . . The world shapes us.
—Toni Morrison, A Mercy
It is the urge to find a “person,” a “female,” a “black” like herself in literature that sculpted Toni Morrison into a writer. As a reader, she could only absorb what was provided to her by the books she read.1 So, it is only as a writer that she believed she could create what did not previously exist. As a reader, she had come across the special kind of knowledge of American literary historians and critics that held that “traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African Americans in the United States. It assumes that this presence—which shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of the culture—has had no significant place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture’s literature” (Playing 4–5). Only in her writer’s capacity could she challenge and attempt to refute such predominant but misleading beliefs. A world in whose eyes black females like herself were insignificant to the extent of being “invisible” shaped her identity as a reader. As a writer, she decided to shape her own world of fiction.
Morrison, the writer, wages her war against an absence, a void—an absence of sympathetic attention to the underdogs of a racist social order, a (near-)void of kindly interest in their world. So, her mission is to cast the hitherto nonexistent into a compelling existence, to bring the hitherto invisible into full view. And, perhaps the most imperceptible members of an already invisible black society in a race-segregated world are the little black girls, shrunk in stature by the crushingly diminishing combination of their skin color, gender, and age. Morrison clearly states her incentive to start writing: “to construct a fiction of a group of people ‘never taken seriously by anybody—all those peripheral little girls’” (qtd. in Duvall 31). Thus, as her first novel The Bluest Eye confirms, she is here to speak of “all those peripheral little girls” who otherwise remain invisible. And, in speaking of these girls, she sheds light on a painful paradox: while they experience their girlhoods mired in physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, as well as neglect, these girls, more often than not, are robbed of their girlhoods in a struggle for survival. The disturbed girlhoods of Toni Morrison’s disrupted girls most powerfully register her angry protest against a gender system that designates a woman a secondary rank and against a social system that effortlessly overlooks what befalls a poor (black) female child. Thus, in her world of fiction, Heeds are seduced into unhappiness; Jadines are brainwashed by the assumed superiority of white culture; Sulas need to fight back to survive; Pecolas are raped; Sorrows are preyed upon; Beloveds are murdered.
This article examines in particular Morrison’s first and last (to date) novels: The Bluest Eye (1970) and A Mercy (2008). Her first novel depicts what Jan Furman terms “black girlhood” and what Agnes Surányi calls “black female experience from childhood to womanhood” (12, 11). However, Susan Neal Mayberry contests such a one-sided view by pointing out that it is equally “the story of African American boys” (15), proceeding to show the usually overlooked portrayal in the novel of the masculine side of black existence in a white society. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that black boyhood/manhood mostly runs as an undercurrent to shape and present black girlhood/womanhood in the novel. In fact, the main contribution of Morrison’s first work of fiction lies, Missy Dehn Kubitschek avers, not only in expanding American novels’ treatment of racism and incest by reorienting it from a symbolic level to a more realistic one, but also in acknowledging the fact that the “destructive psychological effects of racism” (30) handicap children of color as much as they do the adults. Hence, Kubitschek continues, “Focusing on a twelve-year-old African American girl was an inherently feminist choice because few adult books up to 1970 had considered girls’ lives (especially those of black girls) important enough to be a novel’s central interest” (30). Furthermore, Michael Awkward says that by subtly revising Ralph Ellison’s Trueblood incest episode in The Invisible Man, Morrison is “taking Ellison to task for the phallocentric nature of his representation of incest that marginalizes and renders as irrelevant the consequences of the act for the female victim” (66), thereby carefully opening up a space for the female re/action. Thus, in writing The Bluest Eye, Morrison devises her own novel of, for, and about black girls.
As opposed to the neatly ordered world of the white Jane in the Dick-and-Jane primer, which loudly proclaims white bourgeois family values, The Bluest Eye concerns itself with the little known world of black girls like Pecola, Claudia, and Frieda. Claudia MacTeer narrates the tragic life of Pecola Breedlove. It has been widely noted by critics that the very name “Breedlove” heightens the tragic irony of Pecola’s loveless existence in a family that breeds hatred and violence.2 Despite being the only daughter of her family, little love or attention is forthcoming for Pecola. On the other hand, Claudia and Frieda receive some amount of love and attention, though in a crude manner neither desirable nor comprehensible to them at a younger age. It is only years later that the adult Claudia realizes that the hand which whipped them for small faults was also the same that did not let her die of a serious cold. These three girls of 1940s Lorain, Ohio, lead a difficult life of poverty and neglect. They attend a school where white or light-skinned girls are given preference, and the teachers, as much as the rest of the prejudiced society around them, are vitiated by a disgust for blackness and ugliness. Educators, shopkeepers, or so-called respectable “colored” people equally choose to add to these girls’ invisibility with their undisguised contempt for them. Girlhood in such circumstances is stunted at best and strangled at worst. These are tales of “growing up” which are thawed and/or thwarted. Therefore, although critics (Kubitschek, Pin-chia Feng, Phyllis R. Klotman, Geta LeSeur, [End Page 213] to name a few) more often than not view this work as a “bildungsroman,” Jennifer Lee Jordan Heinert says, “categorizing The Bluest Eye as a bildungsroman . . . is problematic because, while there are narratives of education and development in the novel, its narratives are unconventional and subversive. Furthermore, none of the characters in The Bluest Eye arrive at the conventional conclusion of bildungsromans: self-actualization and fulfillment” (12). While Pecola fails to fit into the frame of a traditional bildungsroman, Claudia vehemently rejects one imposed by the dominant culture; neither reaches the goal as set down by the conventions of the genre. Claudine Raynaud goes even further to call the novel an “anti-bildungsroman” because it not merely highlights the lack of self-fulfillment in the end but actually charts the “gradual descent into schizophrenia of the young black protagonist” (qtd. in Surányi 14). Morrison simultaneously uses and rejects, revises and problematizes a genre the coordinates of which do not accommodate the growing up of many young black girls.
In her latest novel, Morrison does not limit herself to black girlhood alone but goes on to focus on all of those “peripheral girls”; any girlhood impeded by peripherality deserves the attention of a writer alarmed at the colossal waste of potential through a deliberate disregard. A Mercy is a rich web of intertwined tales of several girls from different backgrounds, unraveling the universal vulnerability of tender-aged girls to brutal disruptions. The main narrator is an adolescent slave girl named Florens, who has been given away by her mother to another master. Sorrow is an abandoned daughter of a dead ship captain and is constantly misunderstood and mistreated by people around her. Lina is a Native American girl who is uprooted from her own culture and is never at home in any other. Rebekka is a poor white girl in Europe who is a burden to her family and thus is sent away to an unknown suitor in a distant land merely to relieve them of their responsibility for her. Each of them, in a way, has suffered others’ displeasure and neglect from a tender age. Yet, they come from vastly different milieus and conditions, which become especially significant in a class-conscious, racist, prejudice-ridden society. Rebekka, by virtue of being white, is superior to others and is therefore considered to be more privileged; yet, Morrison takes us back into her past to reveal her unhappy, disrupted upbringing. Florens’s abandonment by her slave mother is as painful as that of Rebekka by hers. Hence, bringing together black, white, or brown girls in the novel, Morrison exposes and explores their amputated girlhoods.
Despite being divided by decades, these two novels unmistakably reflect Morrison’s continued concern for “girls interrupted.” Both novels present a number of ways in which girlhoods are aborted. The first novel shows America in the early-twentieth century whereas the latest recreates for us American society of the late-seventeenth century; interestingly enough, regardless of this temporal gap of centuries, the plight of girls is not fundamentally dissimilar. One of the major factors that affected their lives then and now is, of course, race. In a world of an unquestioned superiority of whiteness, blacks are viewed as wholly inferior. Thus, the very skin color of Florens and Pecola relegates them to a lower status. In the seventeenth century, before the full formulation of the American slave system, Florens is valued as little more than a mere object to be traded by her owner. She is bartered from her Portuguese Master, Señor D’Ortega, to Jacob Vaark. When her mistress sends her on an errand to a place some distance away, she is given a letter where Rebekka writes, “[This girl] is owned by me . . .” (Mercy 110); such statements of possession [End Page 214] dehumanize the girl. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she is about to be sold to the highest bidder. On the other hand, Pecola inhabits the post-slavery world and yet is seen as little more than a servant.3 She washes and dries the laundry of the rich white family in the beautiful lakeside house, and presumably does other cumbersome tasks to help out her mother who serves that family. Whereas Florens is owned by her master and mistress, Pecola is disowned by everyone she comes across. Her mother, Polly, has little affection for her; other black boys at school tease her for what they themselves represent (blackness and backwardness); the proud neighbor, Geraldine, refuses to see her black self in this black girl and contributes to Pecola’s psychological fragmentation; the white shopkeeper, Mr. Yacobowski, resents even having to touch her palm to take coins from her; later, when Pecola has gone mad in the wake of a terrible tragedy, her entire community rejects her. Florens is bartered; Pecola is battered.
These girls’ blackness signifies their otherness and their ugliness. When little Florens visits a native village while travelling to summon the blacksmith, she immediately alarms the brown-skinned villagers by her difference. In fact, her body is subject to a shameful inspection to check whether she has the normal organs in the normal places, which alone can confirm her humanness. Florens notes: “Naked under their examination I watch for what is in their eyes. No hate is there or scare or disgust but they are looking at me my body across distances without recognition” (Mercy 111, emphasis added). Similarly, when Pecola goes to buy candies from Mr. Yacobowski’s shop, she detects in his sight a “total absence of human recognition—[a] glazed separateness” (Bluest Eye 48, emphasis added). Nothing can convince these little girls of their otherness more than this utter lack of recognition of their humanity in the eyes of the other, mostly white, people. Similarly, the standards of beauty for them are also adjudged by their superiors. As Cynthia A. Davis reminds us, these black girls/little women live in a society where white-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty is deemed ideal (32). Thus, Shirley Temples and Mary Janes are popular to the extent of being used as trademarks on cups and candies. Pecola loves to drink milk from a Shirley Temple cup and eat Mary Jane candies only to be able to “handle and see sweet Shirley’s face” (Bluest Eye 23) or because “to eat the candy is somehow to . . . eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (50). Such urges are the result of the destructive power of what Kimberly G. Hebert calls the “lens of the dominant culture” that unequivocally demands that the blacks “see ‘blackness’ as white Americans [do], as abject, and themselves as its signifiers” (qtd. in Heinert 20). Believing in her abjection as a black, Pecola prays to God every night for blue eyes, with which not only will the world around her appear more beautiful to her but she too will appear more beautiful to the world around her. And she is merely a representative figure, reminding us of many other black girls who keep making wishes for similar things. Pecola’s character, Morrison admits, is based on a classmate of hers who too prayed sincerely for blue eyes, which never having been granted to her, she came to the somber conclusion that God did not exist. Maya Angelou too speaks of how ardently she dreamt of emerging one fine day from her false ugly self to the true radiant beauty with blue eyes and blond locks she really was and then she would look like “the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right in the world” (4). This longing for white standards of beauty, which finally made them look down upon themselves and made them also lose their self-confidence, is, Richard Andersen reminds us, what psychologists call “internalized racism” (27). Morrison protests against this “damaging [End Page 215] internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze” (Afterword 210) that force these painfully self-conscious creatures to look at themselves through others’ eyes. Explaining the Sartrean influence of this “Look” which makes one conscious of one’s Self at the same time as it confirms the existence of the “Other,” Wilfred Samuels and Clenora Hudson-Weems say: “When the response is shame, it is detrimental because it is shame of the self; overpowered by ‘the Look,’ I forfeit my being-for-myself and become a being-for-the-other” (18). Pecola, Morrison’s classmate, and the younger Angelou—each is aware of her Self only in knowing this marginalized position as the Other of the dominant (white) Selfhood. In the process, each does not learn how to assert her own selfhood and to avoid being defined by white societal standards.
Lina is another girl whose Native American identity marks her, through the eyes of white society, as primitive. She is a Native American whose village is wiped out by an epidemic while she is rescued. Placed under the care of Presbyterians, she is renamed Messalina and is ushered into a new culture. The irony in which the following statement is steeped is scathing: “Afraid of once more losing shelter, terrified of being alone in the world without family, Lina acknowledged her status as heathen and let herself be purified by these worthies” (Mercy 45). Thus, it is only the direness of her helpless situation that compels her to consider her rescuers “worthies” and herself in need of purification. Her Presbyterian caretakers teach her that her Native American culture is sinful. They condemn her for bathing naked in the river and for eating with her fingers, among other things. Nevertheless, remnants of Lina’s Native American culture are embedded in her psyche and cannot be excised. Instead, she adopts a hybrid culture that mixes aspects of white culture with her own to befit herself for the kind of life that has befallen her: a life in her own land amid people not her own; a life of hers owned and governed by others. She is sold to Jacob Vaark who, to his credit, never mistreats her. Notwithstanding the goodness of the master, life in his household before his wife Rebekka comes to join him is frighteningly solitary and boring; and to counter these evils, her “self-invention” as a creature different from what her native culture had made her worked. Even years after her service to this family, she is alarmed at the prospect of the widowed Rebekka’s death because that would leave servants without a master like her the most defenseless in the world, she being both “female and illegal” (Mercy 56). Morrison beautifully brings out the pathos of her situation: both Lina and beech trees have lived for years on Vaark’s property, but, as she realizes, “You [beech tree] and I, this land is our home . . . but unlike you I am exile here” (Mercy 57). Lina is an exile in her home; she is homeless in her own homeland. A great injustice is perpetrated against her when she is uprooted from her native culture and transplanted into a foreign one. Her consequent loss of identity is complete since we never know what her real name is and she cannot remember it.
Besides race prejudices and skin color, poverty keeps these girls low. Lina is penniless and therefore must serve others in order to derive some sustenance. Whether or not Rebekka treats Lina well, the latter must mutely keep serving the former; although in the very beginning, the two acquire a dislike for each other, they soon become good companions on a lonely farm; but later, after the widow Rebekka becomes a religious zealot and mistreats Lina, Lina can neither say nor do anything about it. Similarly, little Florens is expected to remain within the modest means of a dependent slave girl. Hence, her sporting habits of affluence by desiring to wear shoes is unsuitable for her. Wearing shoes is a [End Page 216] luxury for her; earlier her slave mother and later the mother-like Lina are worried about her wishes for such luxuries, for, after all, “as a result, Lina says, [her] feet are useless, will always be too tender for life and never have the strong soles, tougher than leather, that life [like hers] requires” (Mercy 2). Centuries later, small girls like Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola often cannot have their wishes fulfilled because of their paucity of money. When Maureen Peal buys Pecola an ice cream to show off her wealth and/or generosity, the MacTeer sisters conceal their embarrassment of having no money to buy ice cream by declaring that they did not really want any. Later, only upon getting some money from Mr. Henry, their tenant, can they buy candy for themselves. When Rosemary Villanucci, a more well-to-do neighbor, sits eating bread and butter in her father’s Buick, Claudia’s mouth waters for a slice; but rebellious as she is, she additionally wants to humiliate Rosemary and smash her vanity. That Claudia destroys the white dolls given to her as Christmas presents is especially noteworthy because those who buy her the expensive dolls can ill afford them. All the same, by giving her a white doll, they in some way realize their own unfulfilled desire for such a present as little girls. That explains the adults’ tearful accusations, “I-never-had-a-baby-doll-in-my-whole-life-and-used-to-cry-my-eyes-out-for-them. Now-you-got-one-a-beautiful-one-and-you-tear-it-up” (Bluest Eye 21). Later in the novel, when Pecola becomes pregnant with her father’s child, Claudia and Frieda decide to make a major sacrifice to make their wish for the birth of a healthy baby come true: they dig and hide their hard-earned money. Poverty has taught them to stoically accept when their wishes are thwarted. In fact, while directing our attention to Morrison’s “weak” class-consciousness and “immature” analysis of its role in her first work, Doreatha Drummond Mbalia concedes that “At least [Morrison] informs the reader that the MacTeers and Breedloves do not suffer simply because of racism, but because of poverty as well” (34).
Girls like Lina, Florens, Pecola, Claudia, and Frieda are viewed by white society as inferior because of their race, gender, and class. However, it becomes interesting when Morrison equally portrays the effect of poverty on the growth of a white girl. David Gates, in his review of A Mercy in the New York Times, deems Rebekka an “escapee from hell.” Rebekka belongs to a white-skinned family in Europe. Her father is a waterman and her mother works in others’ houses. Growing up in a riotous, poverty-stricken, waterside town, she has witnessed crudeness and cruelty, violence and vulgarity. Her town often hosts executions where eager crowds immensely enjoy the bloodletting. Such an atmosphere leaves deep scars upon Rebekka’s psyche. In her large family, daily survival is a cause of constant anxiety. As a result, she is not nurtured as she should be. In her society, religious dogma is far more important than the sensitive needs of a girl-child. By the age of sixteen, she knows that she will be given away to any man who offers to take her hand. Her poverty has left her with few options: she must ultimately be a servant to a wealthy family, a prostitute, or a wife. When she finally becomes a wife, she is effectively “sold” to her would-be husband because Jacob sends reimbursements for clothing and other expenses. It is only after setting foot in the New World that Rebekka’s social status and sense of herself improve. Here, although she labors on the farm as the wife of a man with moderate means, she is white and a landowner. Amid other whites in her hometown, she was merely a poor, exploitable girl, but in America, among brown-skinned natives and black slaves, she is the member of a “superior race” and their mistress. Thus, although she herself has once been virtually sold by her poor parents to her husband, she now [End Page 217] holds the power to sell Florens and Sorrow. If poverty marginalizes Rebekka in the Old World, her whiteness and her husband’s growing prominence and wealth empower her in the New World.
However, overriding the differences of their skin colors, one factor that makes all these girls equally weak and vulnerable is, of course, their sex. Being females, they are all equally subject to the “promise and threat of men . . . where [their] security and risk lay” (Mercy 96). As a girl, Rebekka has to constantly take care to “escape from the leers and rude hands of any man, drunken or sober, she might walk by” (Mercy 76), and when she is placed in a household to be trained for domestic service, she lasts there only four days; she has to constantly fend off her master’s unwanted sexual advances. Likewise, Sorrow is regularly “taken” by the sawyer’s two young sons either behind cupboards or in unfrequented places. Even when she is brought to the Vaarks household, she remains easy prey as she, once again, becomes pregnant, although it is unclear who the father is. Lina is also shabbily treated by a man she once loved and briefly lived with. He, however, merely uses her to satisfy his sexual needs; later, she is beaten and thrown out. Little Florens is given away to Jacob Vaark because her mother senses that this man is good-natured; and so, there is a faint possibility of her daughter being treated decently in his household. Otherwise, as she knows through her own bitter experiences, there is little protection for girls/women anywhere. In The Bluest Eye, Claudia and Frieda do not want to go anywhere near Soap-head Church because he entices young girls in order to abuse them. But, by far the worst fate befalls Pecola who is raped by her father. All these girls (excepting the MacTeer sisters who are strongly protected by their parents) are easy targets for men; their tender age, coupled with their utter defenselessness, leaves them vulnerable.
Evidently, family life (or lack of it) plays a major role in shaping these girls into what they become. Of course, in Florens’s case, it is her abandonment by her slave mother that leaves her deeply scarred and permanently deprived of a nurturing family life. She cannot understand what must have forced her mother to part with her in such a manner; the childish impression that her “minha mãe” preferred her brother to her remains with Florens forever. And it is the painful awareness of having been rejected by her own mother that engenders in her a hunger for love and attention, making her ripe for exploitation; this seriously hampers her growth as a strong, self-confident human being. On the other hand, Lina loses her family to a deadly disease. The death of her family practically pronounces the death of a world—the world she knew and loved before she is brought into a wholly unfamiliar milieu: “Solitude, regret and fury would have broken her had she not erased those six years preceding the death of the world” (Mercy 48). She re-invents her/Self to adjust to the new way of life, fighting loneliness, guilt, and a profound sense of loss. Her lack makes her sensitive to others’ lack; and thus, when she sees little Florens for the first time, her maternal instinct comes to the fore and she takes her under her wing. Sorrow is another girl whose lack of a family stunts her psychological growth. Daughter of a dead ship captain with no other kin, she is left at the mercy of one and all. A sawyer’s family rescues her and later gives her away to Jacob Vaark. She is named Sorrow because she was abandoned, and she is shunned because of the supposed troubles she brings to others. The sawyer’s wife considers her a burden; Rebekka is frustrated with her slovenliness at work; Lina considers her the embodiment of bad luck. Very few seem to notice the sorrows of Sorrow. Without roots in the love and comradeship of a family life, the girlhoods of Florens, Lina, and Sorrow remain malnourished. [End Page 218]
If a lack of familial geniality is Florens’s, Lina’s and Sorrow’s despair, then the looming presence of a distorted family bond is Rebekka’s and Pecola’s tragedy. Rebekka’s childhood, as already discussed, has been unhappy, unprotected, and unwholesome in an unloving family. It is only after her marriage with Jacob Vaark that she discovers some amount of affection, peace, and security. However, the starkest example of a miserable family’s woeful influence in disrupting girlhoods is seen in Pecola’s case. The Breedloves breed little or no love. Whatever slight affection once existed between Cholly and Pauline has long evaporated by the time their children start drawing breath. Pecola and Sammy grow up watching their parents copulating as well as fighting violently. Despite having a family, Pecola’s loneliness is acute. Her father is a drunkard who feels no shame walking about naked in front of his children. Her mother is a self-righteous woman who plays the martyr in the family’s dysfunctional dynamic but the irony is that she showers more affection on her employer’s child than on her own. Her brother is no companion to her because he never thinks of including his only sister in his plans for escaping from the claustrophobic atmosphere of home. Pecola is arguably the most fragile member of her family. Cholly is a “dangerously free” man who flouts social and moral constrictions at will to get what he wants. Polly feels a sense of self-worth and undue satisfaction with the appreciation she receives from her employer. Sammy dreams of escaping his horrible home-life and finally does. This is not a viable option for a female child like Pecola, whose dream is to vanish or to somehow magically acquire blue eyes, which, she thinks, will make her more lovable. Neither desire is possible. And, of course, her rape by her own father is the most provocative instance of disrupted girlhood in the novel. The unpalatable truth is that Pecola is raped by both her parents: Cholly rapes her physically and Polly, to borrow Furman’s words, “ravishe[s] the child’s self-worth” (18). Instead of protecting this vulnerable girl from harm, her family greatly contributes to her final psychological breakdown.
Each family which fails to protect its daughter from (or, instead itself, ironically, contributes to) an aborted girlhood is embedded in a larger social context. These families do not exist independently of the world around them. In spite of being European whites, Rebekka’s family does not symbolize a nurturing space for a child’s healthy psychological growth. As members of the underclass, day-to-day survival is all that they are concerned with. Pecola’s family has even less claim to stability which is so difficult to develop in a society where blacks are constantly dehumanized by the dominant culture. Additionally, the grievous after-effect of institutionalized slavery, which disallowed and dislodged the very concept of a “black family,” cannot and must not be ignored. Social norms appear to permit certain kinds of injustices: thus, if Rebekka’s parents think nothing of taking their little daughter to witness public executions, it is the social system that generates such bloodlust; if Sammy never thinks of helping his sister, it is, in great measure, society’s fault for its devaluation of girl-children who are often deemed not to deserve, desire, or achieve freedom from domestic suffocation. Morrison’s (implicit and/or explicit) reproach, therefore, is not confined to one evil character but is aimed at an entire social system that perpetuates and sustains such vices. The bartering of Florens in exchange for a debt owed to Vaark condemns the commodification of humans; the attempted erasure of Lina’s history censures the vanity of the conqueror; the violation of Pecola denounces the victimization of the weak by the strong. [End Page 219]
And yet, a disillusioned Florens, a culturally transplanted Lina, a prejudiced Rebekka, and an insane Pecola do not constitute Morrison’s final word on disrupted girlhood. Her protest is undoubtedly voiced by these figures of interrupted girls-turned-women, but it becomes more effective when she portrays girls who surmount such interruptions to move ahead. The same blackness of skin that keeps Pecola cowed makes Claudia and Frieda more self-assertive; the unlovable ugliness that breaks Pecola incites Claudia to destroy beautiful white dolls. When Maureen Peal insults them because of their darker skin and thus their supposed ugliness, Pecola believes her and withers away. In contrast, Frieda and Claudia shout back invectives at the snobbish girl, although inwardly they acknowledge that Maureen is indeed “cute.” Whereas Pecola simply accepts the fact that she is insignificant and ugly, Claudia wonders, “What was the secret [that we were despised and Maureen Peals of the world were adored]? What did we lack? Why was it important? And so what?” (Bluest Eye 74, emphasis added). The angry defiance in her final words—”And so what?”—signals her reluctance to silently accept dominant society’s social norms. Claudia, whom Duvall wittily calls “the portrait of the artist as a young woman” (29), instinctively realizes that she needs to fight back and is furious with Pecola for not doing the same. Infuriated with Pecola’s spineless behavior so easily instigated by others’ comments, she wants to “ram a stick down that hunched and curving spine [to] force her to stand erect” (Bluest Eye 73). Another time, when Pecola is surrounded by black boys who badly tease her, Frieda goes to attack them. Both sisters refuse to brook insults and Claudia explains their actions: “We had defended ourselves since memory against everything and everybody, considered all speech a code to be broken by us, and all gestures subject to careful analysis; we had become headstrong, devious and arrogant. Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves” (Bluest Eye 191). Pecola instead craves attention from others, and it is hardly forthcoming to a black ugly girl. And this difference shapes their contrasting attitudes towards the world. As Jill Matus rightly points out, Pecola responds with shame to the same incident to which Claudia reacts with anger. How this difference in reactions, namely shame and anger, finally affect these two girls is explained by Matus thus: “If anger helps to maintain distinctions between what belongs to the self and what must be kept outside it, shame disturbs those distinctions by distorting responsibility and encouraging self-blame” (45). Hence, Claudia, for her Christmas present, desires an intense emotional experience that will purely be her own (“belongs to the self”) and destroys the white dolls that merely proclaim priorities of another culture not her own (“what must be kept outside”). In contrast, Pecola longs for blue eyes and fails to see her own worth. Pecola internalizes the world’s judgments about her whereas Claudia (and Frieda) strives to analyze those; Pecola sees herself through other’s eyes, but Claudia and Frieda see themselves through their own. Admittedly, Claudia survives only after making an “adjustment without improvement” (Bluest Eye 23). Growing up, Claudia realizes that she might only slightly resist but never completely reject the dominant culture around her. Thus, she accepts without internalizing. Pecola, on the other hand, thoroughly internalizes white standards, and in order to be accepted, she too makes an adjustment. Her adjustment, however, has detrimental effects that lead to her doom. Claudia’s adjustment is from open hatred to the desire to preserve her sense of self; Pecola’s adjustment is worse because it involves an impossible transformation from an abject black girl to a valued, beautiful white girl with dazzling [End Page 220] blue eyes. Claudia, Gurleen Grewal says, “unlearns her way into an enabling selfhood” (37) while Pecola learns to evade and consequently erase her selfhood.
Similarly, in A Mercy, Florens and Lina learn to survive instead of giving in. Lina, as already mentioned, re-invents herself to adjust to her new life. She too internalizes much of the teachings of her white owners, though not to the extent of losing an objective distance to judge their actions. Thus, she compares Jacob Vaark’s attempts at farming with what she has seen earlier. Although the soothsayer of her tribe once declared, “It was [the European invader’s] destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples” (Mercy 52), she thinks there are exceptions. She admits that there is a superiority of morals and judgment in the Vaarks’s fencing their cattle, tilling their land, or hesitating to kill pigs mindlessly. She continues to live after the death of her world and grows powerful enough to be almost equal in Jacob’s and Rebekka’s eyes, in supervising the Vaark farm (though only for a time). Florens, on the other hand, is gentle and pliant. However, she does not forgive her minha mãe for her abandonment. Later, when the blacksmith she loves baselessly accuses her and cruelly abandons her, she actually gathers the strength to assault him in a blind rage. Once that anger cools down, she makes the effort to write her story on the walls of Jacob’s abandoned new house with the rudimentary literacy skills she learned from a Catholic priest. She does not feel shame in admitting: “the dark is me . . . Is my home” (Mercy 113). Thus she declares that she is “Slave. Free. I last” (Mercy 159), her final words unambiguously expressing her intention to “last,” to survive in the face of all reproofs and rejections.
Morrison often uses fractured psyches to signify either resilience or stunted psychological growth. In each novel, we come across one psychologically disturbed girl: Pecola in The Bluest Eye and Sorrow in A Mercy. However, before discussing these two evident cases of schizophrenia,4 let us briefly focus on another kind of latent schist self: Pauline Breedlove.5 Susan Willis comments, “Polly Breedlove lives a form of schizophrenia” (86) in dreaming of a different life beyond her reach at the movies or in her employer’s house. Richard Andersen too draws our attention to the “psychic split between Pauline and Polly” (33) because the same woman who is an intimidating presence at home, barring any intimacy with her own daughter to whom she remains “Mrs. Breedlove,” is also the approachable, doting, mother-like figure to the little white Fisher girl who feels free to call her “Polly.” The very fact that the white family gives her a nickname, Trudier Harris explains, claims Pauline’s love and loyalty. Nicknames have tremendous value in black communities in making an individual feel a sense of belonging to his/her larger group. Thus, Harris says, “Without a nickname, Pauline feels unclaimed by her [black] family in any special way” (72), whereas a white family gifts her with the sense of belonging she never previously had. No wonder then that the shrewish Pauline at the storefront metamorphoses into the obedient Polly at the lakeside villa. One might say that Pauline’s “re-inventing” herself into Polly is her manner of resilience after her deprived and derelict girlhood, but that is far from true. In suddenly becoming a pious, church-going woman with such gusto, she tries to purge herself of the days of her ignorant desires to resemble Jean Harlow or Greta Garbo. At the same time, by recasting herself as the perfect servant for an affluent white household, she is indirectly indulging her dreams of a different world. In transforming into Polly, she does not resist the dictates of her supposed superiors; on the contrary, she absorbs them without question, and instead resists and refuses to attend [End Page 221] to the small demands that her own “black” family has on her love and care. She considers herself so much a part of the “white” world—albeit as the most peripheral figure—that she banishes her own family to the periphery of her thoughts. Pauline finds happiness in losing her Self in Polly.
Pauline’s daughter too seems to find her happiness only after losing her mind (i.e., her sane self). Raped by her father and maltreated by her mother, avoided by her friends and forsaken by her community, she resorts to an imaginary companion to communicate with. It is with this companion, who speaks to none and to whom none speaks, that Pecola discusses the miraculous fulfillment of a long-cherished wish: Soaphead Church has finally given her a pair of blue eyes. This might almost be seen as the state of perfect happiness for Pecola: a once-ugly girl has turned beautiful in her own eyes; a once-rejected girl should now become highly acceptable to one and all, though, in her mind she thinks, others turn away their faces from her out of envy. In fact, S. P. Swain and Sarbajit Das see Pecola as one of Morrison’s black women characters who “suffer from agonizing alienation and remain fragmented and disintegrated at the outset [but] attain integration and wholeness at the end” (90). Refuting that view, it is best to remind oneself what the narrator/author herself says: “The damage done was total” (Bluest Eye 204), highlighting the irrevocability of Pecola’s insanity. She has borne the waste of her community to gift them cleanliness, and in shouldering such an immense responsibility, she is left shattered and her girlhood forever disrupted. Often seen near the town’s garbage heap, shaking her head and flailing her arms, she is compared to “a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue void it could not reach—could not even see—but which filled the valleys of the mind” (Bluest Eye 204). Such a “bird” making a constant “futile effort to fly” (204) can hardly be said to have enjoyed the flight of fulfillment. Moreover, Roberta Rubenstein rightly brings to our notice that Pecola always lives another’s version of reality and views herself through others’ eyes, first, through that of her community and society, and later, through that of her imaginary friend: “Never able to achieve existence in her own eyes—her own ‘I’—she exists only in the image reflected by others—by other eyes/I’s” (Rubenstein 130). Such an “I”/eye-less individual, who thus lacks both a self and a vision, can never hope to achieve an integration of self. Instead, her “I” suffers a tragic schism that through her warped psyche grants her the desired blue eye/s. Indeed, “Pecola’s passage in the novel is from repeated shaming and humiliation to dissociation and madness” (Matus 46), not from incompleteness to completion. Thus, when Surányi mentions that whereas Pecola has no voice from the beginning, she finds two voices in the end, the hopefulness in such a note is suspect: if earlier Pecola had no voice, then her subsequent disintegration into fractured voices merely pushes her further away to the brink of peripherality (hence inaudibility), her madness confirming her status as a rejected outsider in an already marginalized black community. And this is all the more pathetic since now, of all times, she, in her mind, considers herself more acceptable to society due to her attainment of blue eyes. Earlier, Pecola, sans her imaginary blue eyes, bore the brunt of white society’s contempt and black society’s self-hatred; now, Pecola, with her imaginary blue eyes, is seen even more as an object of shame and ridicule. Not just the community but the text also benefits from Pecola’s downward spiral into lunacy. Michael Awkward observes that once Pecola’s schizoid double-voicedness emerges, both the narratorial voices (Claudia’s and the omniscient narrator’s6) appear to lace together; in other words, the novel’s narratorial schizophrenia is cured through [End Page 222] Pecola’s schizophrenia (Inspiriting 95). Therefore, although the doomed protagonist of the novel degenerates into socially unacceptable (indeed detestable) incoherence, the novel forcefully achieves the goal it has set for itself in the beginning, namely, finding out the “how” of events, whereby the more difficult “why” is also gradually answered and thus the novel finally surfaces, making greater sense than it promises at the start. The pattern of “making sense” that the novel has exhibited throughout is starkly thrown into relief by Pecola’s not making sense, which adds to the power of its poignancy.
The psychologically broken Sorrow, in contrast to Pecola, is resilient. Left alone on board a ship whose crew is dead or gone, she, like Pecola, invents someone to counter her loneliness. Thus comes into existence “Twin” who calls Sorrow “Captain.” “Having two names [is] convenient since Twin [can’t] be seen by anybody else” (Mercy 114). Sorrow is expected by her rescuers and later by her masters (the Vaarks) to complete certain chores but is always found wanting because she often leaves her work behind to wander. Every time Twin calls her to play or talk, Sorrow joins her to enjoy a kind of freedom that is unknown to Lina or Florens; “Twin [is] her safety, her entertainment, her guide” (Mercy 117). Whereas Pecola’s imaginary companion is there to assure her of her acceptability in society, now that she has acquired blue eyes, Sorrow’s “identical self” (Mercy 114) helps her at times to defy society’s rules of behavior; Pecola flees from her real self in discussing with her friend her new-found beauty, while Sorrow goes away with Twin to rediscover her own thoughtful self. Hence, while the former changes herself in hopes of becoming a valued member of her community, the latter resists the changes society attempts to impose upon her. Moreover, whereas Pecola remains in need of her invented friend for the rest of her life, Sorrow no longer feels the need of Twin’s company once she has her baby daughter to look after. Instead of Twin’s, she is now at her baby’s beck and call, leaving all chores to attend to her needs. This is her second baby. Pecola and Sorrow each lose a child to premature births. We do not know whether Pecola ever speaks of her dead baby to her friend, but we find Sorrow regularly going with Twin to the stream (where she thinks her baby was drowned) to look for her baby. When her second baby is born and it lives to cheer up its poor mother, Sorrow changes and is cured of her madness. Perhaps, in a way, the death of Pecola’s baby signals the death of her sane self; the birth of Sorrow’s baby heralds her re-birth. Whereas Pecola’s self splits into two, Sorrow’s split self welds into a complete whole, and thus the new name she assumes, “Complete,” is most befitting. “Sorrow” is the doleful name given to her by her rescuers; so, besides Lina, Sorrow is the other character in the novel whose former name we never come to know. However, while (Messa-)Lina remains with all the negative connotations of this given name (reminding one of the infamous greedy, lustful, unscrupulous Empress of Claudius), Sorrow refuses to languish under the burden of her ominous name. Disregarding all obstacles to her healthy growth as a human, “Sorrow” decides to metamorphose into “Complete.” In giving herself a new name, she exercises her own agency and exerts her will to counteract the shortcomings of an interrupted girlhood and emerge into a complete womanhood and motherhood.
Perhaps no discussion of the resilience of interrupted girls is complete without considering the fierce independent-mindedness and hardiness of Morrison’s whores.7 Morrison herself gives us adequate information and/or insight into the unenviable girlhoods of these characters who have grown up to become disreputable women. They, despite being pushed to the very fringes of society, fight back the oppression of hypocritical respectability in their [End Page 223] singular manner. A Mercy presents white-skinned whores and lowly women like Anna, Abigail, Dorothea, Lydia, Elizabeth, and Judith; in The Bluest Eye, we meet Poland, China, and Miss Marie (who is also called the Maginot Line). Morrison’s whores are “whores in whores’ clothing” (Bluest Eye 57), without any pretense to meekness or furnishing sentimental excuses for their moral fall. So, the three women are as free in their discussion in front of twelve-year-old Pecola as they are in each other’s company. Since they refuse to internalize social dictums, be these of the white or of the black community, they do not perceive any hindrance in warmly receiving the ugly girl, who is otherwise mostly treated as an outcast. On the other hand, in A Mercy, when one of the whores, Anne, tries to speak of her love for propriety by saying that she did not like rude words or behavior, others simply laugh out aloud and make fun of her. Even there, these women do not hesitate to discuss adult affairs in front of the ten-year-old Patty who is the daughter of one of the whores. Life has taught them to be tough and they do not shy away from these hard lessons. While the honorable section of the society insists upon a code of false modesty, they violate such restrictions, defy such codes, and expose the banal human nature, serving commonplace needs of the human body. When respectable mothers like Mrs. MacTeer teach their daughters that women like the Maginot Line are “ruined,” these slandered women merely laugh and express their impatience with such dual standards. For, after all, to them, the respectable housewives who surrender their bodies to their husband’s physical pleasures behind the curtain of so-called decency are no better than “sugar-coated whores” (Bluest Eye 56), performing the same base function as they do but without the courage of their honesty. Similarly, the fallen women that Rebekka meets on board the Angelus during her passage from Europe to America dare to live, embrace meaninglessness, and celebrate randomness, while believing the other set of women “deeply, dangerously flawed” (Mercy 96). These women are a counterbalance to all those women circumscribed and interrupted by strict social expectations, and as Grewal explains, they serve as “gargoyles” to keep clean and dry the social architecture with its pillars of marriage and family (38). These anti-conventional women in Morrison’s novels “embody a positive, oppositional space” because the “body/bawdy imagery characterizing these women is radically opposed to bourgeois norms” (Grewal 37). In creating this objectionable “oppositional space,” Morrison is not setting down Chinas, Polands, Dorotheas, and Lydias as examples for other girls to follow but is hinting by highlighting their resistive attitude that a certain amount of opposition to oppression is possible. Morrison’s whores are interrupted girls who have grown into resilient women.
Morrison’s deep concern for deprived and disrupted girlhoods is reflected across the spectrum of her work. Be these girls the Florenses and Sorrows of the seventeenth century or the Pecolas and Claudias of the twentieth, their feminine vulnerability is more often than not cruelly taken advantage of. Sorrow is an easy target for men’s lasciviousness; Pecola is repeatedly raped by her own father. Besides their sexual identity, factors like race, poverty, and family upbringing play a crucial role in obstructing these girls’ progress. Each of Morrison’s interrupted girls is an open indictment of the society that remains blind to the perpetration of injustices. By writing about creatures in whose fate nobody takes interest, the author is deliberately bringing marginal figures to the center of attention, thereby rescuing them and their tragic tales from a willful collective blindness and amnesia. Reiterating distasteful truths registers Morrison’s protest against a deeply [End Page 224] flawed social/gender system that deems several secondary, and rings a caveat against a highly partial viewing policy that makes many invisible. Critics have widely noted and appraised Morrison’s endeavor at bringing black (and/or colored) girlhood to the forefront. This paper, by juxtaposing the first and the latest of her novels, bears witness to the fact that Morrison’s feminist ideology accommodates universal girlhood, crossing frontiers of race, class, culture, ethnicity, continents, and centuries. Brown, black, or white, if the girls are privileged/prevaricated by the racist ideology of their times, then one and all of them are victimized by the sexist bias of their society. Enlarging the scope of the ethos and influence of a writer of Morrison’s stature, this paper has attempted to both capture the universality and fathom the depth of her creative vision: if the “bluest eye” refers to the “saddest I,” then a “mercy” talks of the mercifulness inherent in and deserved by humans; if “the bluest eye” is the ultimate metonym for the white gaze that pins down the Other into an unlikeable stereotype (the definite article slamming doors shut with a final decisiveness), then “a mercy” emerges as a promise of myriad possibilities of human salvation (the indefinite article subtly hinting at one among many). Hence, Morrison’s world of fiction is often black but never bleak. If the disturbed girlhoods of her disrupted girls express her anger, then brave endeavors by some of these girls to survive their amputation constitute not only a message of hope but also an agenda of action. Morrison’s remonstration is expressed through both “interruption” of her disrupted girls and their courageous leap beyond it.
Susmita Roye, who completed her research at the University of Bristol in the UK, teaches at Delaware State University. Her publications have appeared in English Studies and South Asian Research, as well as in such volumes as Postcolonial Indian Fiction in English and Masculinity and Subaltern Vision: A Study in Postcolonial Indian English Novel.
1. This, of course, is not to suggest that Morrison’s African American heritage did not play any role at all in her development as a writer. In many ways, her being raised in an African American milieu and her family’s pride in their heritage helped to shape her aesthetic viewpoints and interests as much as what was not provided for her via white literature.
2. All critics (Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu, Marc C. Conner, Wilfred Samuels, and Clenora Hudson-Weems, among others) say that “Breedlove” is an ironical name, the pathetic irony more potently proven in a father raping his own daughter. In other words, Pecola is the victim of the cruel irony of this name. The Breedloves are said to breed self-hatred instead of love. However, to me, Pecola Breedlove is the one (if only) Breedlove who actually breeds love, though not in a way beneficial for her own self. She is, as Awkward famously puts it, the “scapegoat” of her society. Claudia says: “We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think that we had a sense of humor. . . . Even her waking dreams we used—to silence our own nightmares. And she let us . . .” (Bluest Eye 205, emphasis added). Pecola’s sacrifice almost makes her the Christ-figure in the novel (see Allen Alexander). And is not Christ’s the ultimate love imaginable and comprehensible to humans? In embracing others’ guilt to make them feel relieved, in absorbing others’ filth to make them feel clean, in embodying others’ weaknesses to make them feel mighty, has not Pecola (albeit without realizing) expressed a love that has rescued, in a way, her self-hating community from self-destruction and has it not shamed conscientious observers like Claudia who realize the high price Pecola pays for this strange kind of love which is not narrow like everyone else’s to merely raise one’s own image in one’s eyes, but unconsciously is of a far wider scope that silently embraces her entire people?
3. Pecola, of course, does not work as a servant in the novel. But she often helps her mother, who works as a servant with a white family, with her chores; therefore, Pecola’s “reception” in that white family (if any at all) is nothing better than that of a servant whose labor is needed to get a task done and who is then dismissed.
4. Admittedly, “schizophrenia” is a very weighty psychological term, which, many may argue, does not even correctly or adequately serve as an explanation of these girls’ psychological conditions. Therefore, in many places, the word “fractured” is instead used to describe Polly’s or Pecola’s or [End Page 225] Sorrow’s condition. Nonetheless, it needs to be pointed out that critics like Susan Willis, Claudine Raynaud, Richard Andersen, Agnes Surányi, S. P. Swain, and Sarbajit Das have described the schist selves of these characters thus.
5. Readers might wonder why grown-up women like Polly Breedlove should feature in an article about “girls.” Earlier in the article, we have met Lina and Rebekka, but neither Lina nor Rebekka is a girl when we meet them in the novel. And yet, I discuss their issues, problems, and resolutions, peeping into their past (as Morrison frequently does in the novel and wisely keeps drawing our attention in that direction to make us realize the enormity of their achievements as women in the present). Thus, just as characters like Lina and Rebekka are being given the privilege, the girlhood of Polly (and of the whores later in the essay) is also briefly considered, particularly because Morrison uses the same device in her first novel to give us glimpses of Polly’s (and the whores’) disturbed girlhoods. Without delving into their girlhoods, we cannot appreciate their womanhood.
6. Mbalia, however, would argue that the novel has three narrators: “Claudia the child, Claudia the adult, and an omniscient narrator” (39).
7. Bringing in Morrison’s whores might seem unnecessary in an article discussing “Disrupted Girls and their Disturbed Girlhoods,” where my main argument is that many of these girls overcome such traumatic girlhoods to bloom into strong self-reliant womanhood. But we need to remember that neither is Polly nor are the “whores” outside this category: Polly and Morrison’s “whores” not only share a disrupted girlhood with other girl-characters in the selected novels (like Pecola or Florens), but also have stepped beyond these limitations to give full play to their abilities and carve out a niche for themselves in a world that appears to have nothing but contempt or pity for “black girls” like them. Therefore, to me, it would be both an injustice to these characters and an unfortunate overlooking on my part as a critic if I were to totally leave them out of the picture.
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