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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 in 1970.

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 world.

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.
Rose: Institutions.
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 change myself?
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 short.

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 and Persephone.

May 2001

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