Silently she winds through mounds of trash, herself smelling
mostly like coffee grounds and banana peels. The grind of
a diesel engine is the harbinger of an approaching garbage
truck. Coughing black fumes, the truck stops, drops a new
load of garbage in the dump, and drives away as we again watch
one disheveled little girl wander through the dump, singing
and muttering Dick and Jane stories to herself, believing
she has blue eyes. This scene of my imagination is how I envision
Pecola at the end of Toni
Morrison's bestseller The Bluest Eye, first published
Plagued with hegemonic constructions of desirability, Pecola
feels, of course, undesirable and, as a result, represses
her own personality and physical characteristics thus, in
effect, castrating herself. Like the famous Lacanian gap between
the child and the image in the mirror, or ego ideal, a gap
exists between herself and society's model of perfection.
This phenomenon pervades the female psyche and has been well
documented: in 1993, bell hooks published an article in Essence
magazine called "Appearance Obsession: Is the Price too
High?", and earlier, in 1991, Naomi Wolf explained the
same dynamic in The Beauty Myth:
Many [women] are ashamed to admit that such trivial concerns--to
do with physical appearance, bodies, faces, hair, clothes--matter
so much. But in spite of shame, guilt, denial, more and
more women are wondering if it isn't that they are entirely
neurotic and alone but rather that something is indeed at
stake that has more to do with the relationship between
liberation and beauty.
Beyond "wondering," Morrison asserts exactly this:
the reification of a female beauty and what constitutes desirability
precludes many from creating a healthy subjectivity because
they are caught in what Hélène Cixous calls
the "deadly brainwashing" of self hate. Certain
she is undesirable, Pecola remains silent and trapped under
a heavy veil of self-reproach, psychologically depleted. She
feels displeasure in her interactions with society, so she
withdraws from that society to create an elaborate fantasy
Unfortunately, this search for happiness can never be brought
to fruition because it is, as Wolf explains it, a delusional
molding of reality--an illusion--and not a shift in her way
of seeing--or liberation. Pecola is not free, can never be
free because she does not lead what Simone de Beauvoir terms
an "authentic existence." Her life is characterized
by avoidance and fantasy rather then confrontation and transcendence.
Morrison explains this deep damage to Charlie Rose in an interview
on December 13th, 1993:
Morrison: You learn . . . from society at large.
Morrison: Institutions. But more than that, at a
certain time, the self-loathing can be reinforced by one's
own family, one's own community. You know, that concept--the
concept of what is ugly can just be reinforced by the people
next door. I remember girls
who weren't blonde who were--who longed for that and felt
terrible about themselves. I mean, all this physical beauty
business is painful if you have to do what you do now, which
is cut yourself up in little bits.
Rose: Yes. Most of us have no idea the pain it causes
people because this society and the culture and the media
and the magazines and the television and all the commercials
bombard them with what it is to be attractive, and they
define attractiveness in our culture, and they define what's
good and what's bad so that all of a sudden, if you don't
look like that, you say, I don't like myself. How do I go
Morrison: It's death. It's interior death. You never
have an opportunity to develop what's truly valuable, which
is grace, balance, health, virtue, all those good things
each of us can be. But now you're going to worry, worry,
worry, about hair and skin color, how tall you are and how
What Morrison is talking about here is what P.N. Medvedev
and M.M. Bakhtin call the "ideological environment"
or what Louis Althusser calls the "ideological state
apparatuses." In sum, our values come to us filtered
through everything in our surrounding environment, everything
from the cups we drink out of to the dolls we play with.
For example, after Pecola comes to live with Frieda and Claudia's
family until the county "could decide what to do,"
Frieda brings Pecola some milk in a blue and white Shirley
Temple cup, and they engage in a loving conversation about
how "cu-ute" little Shirley is. Claudia thinks,
"I could not join them in their adoration because I hated
Shirley . . . what I felt at that time was unsullied hatred."
Later, Claudia discusses her feelings about the Christmas
dolls she sees, "[A]ll the world had agreed that a blue-eyed,
yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child
treasured," but Claudia finds herself defacing the doll,
loosening the hair and twisting the head, further reifying
"the detrimental effects of certain cultural beliefs
upon unsuspecting individuals." She resists what Pecola
and Frieda had already been indoctrinated into; however, it
is not long before Claudia too succumbs to the dominant ideology:
[I wanted] to discover what eluded me: the secret magic
they [pretty little girls] weaved on others. What made people
look at them and say, 'Awwwww,' but not for me? The eye
slide of black women as they approached them on the street,
and the possessive gentleness of their touch as they handled
them . . . It was a small step to Shirley Temple. I learned
much later to worship her, just as I learned to delight
in cleanliness, knowing, even as I learned, that the change
was adjustment without
Catastrophically, Claudia realizes that the dismemberment
of the dolls, and the desire to dismember their living counterparts,
is not the real horror; the real horror lies in the submission
to ideology, the submission to lessons learned from little
things like Mr. Henry's nicknames for her and Frieda: Greta
Garbo and Ginger Rogers.
Later, when Claudia fights with Maureen Peel, Maureen runs
away screaming, "I am cute," Claudia notes:
We were sinking under the wisdom, accuracy, and relevance
of Maureen's last words. If she was cute--and if anything
could be believed, she was--then we were not. And what did
that mean? We were lesser.
Reflecting back, Claudia comes to understand, "And all
the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not
worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing
that made her beautiful and not us." That "thing"
(capital t, italicized) is ideology as it exists in society
and infiltrates the mind.
But Claudia is only a narrator of this tale; Pecola is the
focal point. Morrison's description of her family, the Breedloves,
and their living conditions further illustrates why Pecola
is so easily indoctrinated into dominant ideology, "The
Breedloves did not live in the storefront because they were
having temporary difficulty adjusting to the cutbacks at the
plant. They lived there because they were poor and black,
and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly,"
relentlessly and aggressively ugly.
You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly;
you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you
realized it came from conviction, their conviction. It was
as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each
a cloak to wear, and they had each accepted it without question.
The master said, "You are ugly people." They had
looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict that
statement; saw, in fact, support for it leering at them
from every billboard, every movie, every glance. "Yes,"
they had said. "You are right."
Pecola is a convict in the prison of ideology, and tragically
she learns this ideology from watching her parents: she accepts
the cloak passed to her and wears it without exception.
Her mother, Pauline, is an especially detrimental influence
as she herself has been brainwashed in the hypnotic radiance
of the silver screen. Pauline wears her hair like Jean Harlow
while her own teeth are rotting out of her head, and she names
her daughter, Pecola, after a character in a film.
Eventually, she begins working for the Fisher family as a
housekeeper where she can have the beauty, cleanliness, and
order she so desires. She cleans, bakes blueberry cobblers,
and lines cans up in neat rows for the Fisher household while
neglecting her own family.
The Fisher world and the film world are the world of the
Dick and Jane primer that introduces each chapter of the novel.
As Michael Awkward explains, Morrison juxtaposes that mythical
ideal world to the real world experience of the Breedloves
and thereby "dissects" or "deconstructs"
the "bourgeois myth of ideal family life" and reveals
how "wholly inapplicable" that myth is to "black
American life." For instance, unlike the supposedly smooth
world of the Dick and Jane primer or that of the Fisher household,
Pauline and her husband, Cholly, communicate only through
their fights, and Pauline constantly warns her children not
to be like their father.
As center of this vortex, Pecola dreams of running away and
leaving all the pain that encompasses her existence, but she
feels trapped by her ugliness, linked to these people. She
stares in the mirror trying to figure out the "secret
of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised
at school, by teachers and classmates alike."
Then slowly it happens: she begins to pray for blue eyes;
she eats Mary Jane candies to become the little girl on the
wrapper; she consumes quarts of milk from the Shirley Temple
glass. But her frenetic activity is futile as she realizes
her own mother prefers the pink and white Fisher girl, and
her own father rapes her: the final defilement.
Pecola descends into schizophrenic insanity, enlisting the
services of Soaphead Church, a faith healer, to give her the
blue eyes she desires and, as a consequence, the love she
desires. Unable to resist the hegemonic ideology, the same
ideology that told her the flowers she loved, dandelions,
were weeds, Pecola "would never know her own beauty."
Instead she idles in front of the, aptly named, Dreamland
Theater wishing she were Betty Grable.
By the end of the novel, we watch her wander through the
garbage dump, herself a piece of waste. As Madonne Miner reminds
us, Pecola now represents an ancient archetype; she has been
degraded by the same sequence--rape, madness, silence--that
degraded the mythical women who inspired her story, Philomela