‘How successful in your view, is Morrison at bringing the Characters and Scenes to life?’
The Bluest Eye is a novel set in America during the 1940’s. In the opening paragraph of this text, Morrison enlightens us with the graphic description of the patriarch of the MacTeer family, a black man who suffers the bigotry and oppression of the time, yet appears to remain unbowed. The narrator is Claudia, MacTeer’s daughter, who is obvious in the love and respect she has for her father. In the first sentence of the paragraph Claudia pays homage to her father, describing him with winter metaphors and similes.
She declares that ‘My Daddy’s face is a study. Winter moves into it and presides there.’ This symbolism alludes to everything in MacTeers’ face ‘closing’ in the winter season. Allied with this liberal use of sibilance, the father’s steely demeanour and wintry countenance is revealed in the similes, ‘His icy, intimidating eyes become like a ‘cliff of snow threatening to avalanche’ and ‘His eyebrows bend like black limbs of leafless trees.’ In the final sentence of the paragraph, Morrison’s metaphor of ‘And he will not unrazor his lips until spring, implies that this strong, silent sentinel does not speak or let down his guard until winter is done.
With the adept use of metaphors, Morrison then describes the daughter’s feelings she has for her father. Claudia is full of reverence and awe as she tells us of his ‘high forehead,’ which is ‘the frozen sweep of the Erie, hiding currents of gelid thoughts that eddy in the darkness’. Morrison presents the father as having an innate intelligence. His thoughts appear to be as ponderous and deep as the Great Lake, never still, swirling silently in an ever widening ripple of the dark, chilling, waters. These images of nature in winter, used by Morrison to describe MacTeer, suggest the father’s remoteness and his elemental power in the eyes of his beloved daughter.
The symbolism suggested by Morrison by utilising these images of the natural world in winter, convey the hostility of a society in which the father strives to maintain and protect his family. Morrison gives the father a fiercely protective streak to his character by bestowing on him the mantle of ‘Wolf killer turned hawk fighter’. It is certain that poverty and hardships are no strangers to this household when Claudia tells us that ‘he worked day and night to keep one from the door and the other from under the windowsills.’
The narrator further suggests that her father possesses God-like qualities, describing him as ‘A Vulcan guarding the flames,’ and that he instructs his family on ‘which doors to keep closed or opened for distribution of heat, lays kindling by, discusses qualities of coal, and teaches us how to rake, feed and bank the fire,’ further revealing not only the desperate need for the household to use economy in all things, but also reinforcing the image of a caring and protective father, guarding his family from the harshness of the cold, outside world. The symbolism suggested in the father being
likened to the classical god Vulcan conveys the ironic contrast between the father’s omnipotent powers in the narrator’s eyes with the humble task he is performing.
Morrison reinforces the notion of the wintertime suffering and poverty this family have to endure when we are told that the sisters ‘put pepper in the feet of their stockings,’ information which creates added sympathy for the girls’ situation. The further use of sibilance makes the reader shiver at the thought of the cold day ahead as the girls ‘stared through icebox mornings at four stewed prunes, slippery lumps of oatmeal, and cocoa with a roof of skin’. The assonance of ‘stewed prunes’, with its subsequent visual impact, only seems to compound their misery.
The narrative suddenly changes pace and the rhythm of the text quickens, suggesting agitation and excitement, with the arrival of a new girl in school. Claudia and Frieda feel threatened by the newcomer. She was ‘a someone who splintered the knot into silver threads that tangled us’. Morrison’s astute metaphor reveals the innermost insecurities of black children, who have been conditioned since birth to defer to white people, accepting their perceived superiority.
These black children have been so thoroughly taught to revere whatever is white, that they are in awe of a girl who is, in reality, not white but merely ‘high yellow’ and her eyes are dark green, certainly not blue. Maureen’s hair is styled with two brown, plaited braids that resembled ‘two lynch ropes that hung down her back’, this symbolism suggesting that to worship blindly that which is white is to put your head in a noose. Even the quality of her clothes threatened to ‘derange’ the sisters.
Claudia and her sister Frieda were unravelled as they ‘looked hard for flaws to restore our equilibrium’. They were determined not to adulate Maureen as the rest of the class had done, changing her name to ‘Meringue Pie’ to try and bring her down to their level. When the girls discovered Maureen had a dogtooth and was born with six fingers on each hand, their joy was unconfined! However, everyone did not share the jealousy and hostility they felt, for she was adored by the rest of her classmates. In this envy, which seemed to wholly devastate these two young sisters, Morrison has encapsulated the feelings of self distaste and low esteem that black children suffered because of the poor regard in which they were held during the racist society of the time.
In Claudia’s efforts to distance her from this seemingly perfect icon, she finds that she would really like to befriend her, even emulate her. After all, who wouldn’t want to be thought of as ‘perfect’? Here Morrison illuminates the situation with an apt example of an oxymoron in the phrase ‘dangerous friendship’ to describe the precarious nature of such a liaison. The childish reactions Morrison uses to illustrate the manner in which the girls react to the newcomer, offers the reader a universal empathy to which they can easily relate. This unfolding love/hate relationship was proving troublesome as Claudia herself projects dark thoughts towards her new ‘friend’. After having registered an
unearned haughtiness in Maureen’s eyes, she plotted ‘accidental slammings of locker doors on her hand’.
Morrison changes the mood of the story when, with a token gesture of friendship, Maureen offers to walk part of the way home with the sisters. Claudia responded with the typically adolescent phrase of ‘Free Country,’ which she affects with feigned indifference. The shortened syntax of the text reveals the sudden and totally astonishing change of direction in the relationship, allowing for a turning point in the story and perhaps, more significantly, a beginning of a more tolerant attitude between different and opposing cultures.
A heady feeling of joy at this newfound acceptance caused Claudia, Frieda and Maureen to throw caution to the wind and leave their galoshes behind in the cloakroom to dance through the muddy puddles. With Morrison’s use of a metaphor alluding to the anger engendered by inequality, Maureen had ‘pierced the shell of a deadening winter.’ The girls excitement in their newfound freedom was to be short lived when they turned a corner to find a ‘group of boys was circling and holding at bay a victim, Percola Breedlove’. The suffering and torment of another soul was about to begin………
The sense of pathos and sympathy engendered by the narrator is largely responsible for Morrison’s success in bringing the characters and scenes to life in this given text. Morrison’s deft use of language, layered with culturally inspired symbolism, expresses the opposing emotions of love and hate, succour and violence, acceptance and rejection. Through Morrison’s literary expression, Claudia and her sister are able to fight back against the forces that threaten to destroy them, not least because of their unity and strong family background. With their given premature wisdom, they come to realise that whilst beauty and acceptance seems to be judged purely in ‘white’ terms, they themselves are ultimately responsible for creating their own sense of self worth.