Analysis of Minor Characters in “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut
Minor characters may not be the center of action or attraction, but novelists can use them to supplement the understanding of major characters and the thematic purpose of the text. In his novel Slaughterhouse Five, published in 1969, Kurt Vonnegut depicts the fragmentation of the protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s life as he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after the brutality witnessed in the war. He uses a metafictive frame and the disrupted chronology in his satirical novel to consolidate his critical tone towards the glorification of war by the institutions and society as it masks the corruption and marginalization of veterans. Toni Morrison, author of The Bluest Eye published one year later, also employs a fragmented structure in her novel to explore the low self-esteem of the African American community as a result of the oppressive and dominant white ideology in American society, which she terms the ‘master narrative’. She describes the various backgrounds of characters related to the protagonist Pecola and her eventual insanity as she seeks the white ideal of beauty to comment on the distorted and destructive nature of the master narrative. Vonnegut and Morrison both utilize symbolism and manipulate narrative voice to construct minor characters; where Vonnegut uses the character of Roland Weary to criticize the glorification of war through the corruption of their innocence and empathy, Morrison utilizes the character of Geraldine to show the discrimination based on colorism that ingrains and furthers the cycle of self-loathing in African American society.
Both authors of the novels utilize symbolism and motifs associated with certain characters to establish the failure of their respective societies to support their marginalized members. In Slaughterhouse Five, the character of Roland Weary exemplifies the desensitization of humanity due to war through his association with weapons and the pornographic picture. This is demonstrated in the apparent casualness with which weaponry is treated in Roland Weary’s family, and the obvious obliviousness to the horror and pain it causes. Weary’s family uses a “Spanish thumbscrew in working condition – as a kitchen paperweight”, and Vonnegut uses the dash to indicate the violent clash in the connotations of these two objects, highlighting that the characters’ senses of pain have dulled.
Indeed, the imagery suggests that weapons of torture have simply been equated to tools rather than instruments that cause devastation, and Vonnegut uses the impartial mood to further reinforce the loss of innocence in the minor character of Weary. As a result, Vonnegut uses Weary to symbolize the lack of sensitivity and sympathy that is perpetuated by institutions like the government that promote war. The motif of the dirty picture also serves as a reminder of these qualities in Weary and thus these institutions. The picture portrays a woman and Shetland pony “attempting to have sexual intercourse”, which in itself is a grotesque image and suggest a twisted conception of relationships and intimacy. Although the narrator’s tone seems impartial while describing the picture, the author’s tone is clearly mocking when stating that the photographer argued the intention was to “make Greek mythology come alive”, suggesting the repugnant immaturity Vonnegut associates with Roland Weary’s character as he makes Billy “admire” it, and thus validates the artistry the photographer perceives. The allusion to Greek mythology suggests the totally irrational human aspiration to this union of different species, and exposes the blurred and faint physical boundaries of society.Thus, the motif of the dirty picture related to Weary demonstrates the contemptible atrocities like Dresden that also constituted warped views of physical harm in the war and the void of human sympathy in a society that trivializes war.
Although The Bluest Eye is not as satirical as Vonnegut’s novel, Morrison employs an ironic and critical tone in the symbolism and imagery relating to the character of Geraldine, who is used as a symbol for the entire class of similar women. In doing so, she clearly conveys the distorted ideals of the white master narrative that induce the harsh rejection of one’s own race and culture, commenting on the failure of American society to support its minorities despite its ostensible values of righteousness. Geraldine is portrayed as “sweet and plain as butter-cake”, which Morrison contrasts with the “nervous, shrill” adjectives used to describe black women without any white heritage and lower socioeconomic class. The simile incorporates a consonance that implies the pleasant image of women like Geraldine, but the bland adjectives and gustatory imagery highlights their essential lack of vitality and individuality despite her lighter color, a physical appearance with appealing connotations through the image of “sugar-brown”. This is in stark relief with the cacophonous albeit emotive diction used to describe “negro” women, and as a result the author shows the distorted perception of superiority that colorism causes within the African American community, and the ideal of a meaningless status in the community. This clearly affects Pecola’s self-esteem, as her encounter with Geraldine and Maureen further her desire to achieve this ideal, resulting in her tragic mental instability, evoking sympathy in the readers and thus a critical attitude towards the flawed society in the novel. The characters discussed in both the novels contribute to their purpose as social commentaries, as the minorities struggle against the authorities that dictate their fortunes.
Vonnegut and Morrison develop their consideration of the misguided glorification of war and destructive nature of the master narrative respectively through the characters discussed, especially through the manipulation of narrative voice. The corruption of innocence in Roland Weary is explored through the focalization that frequently portrays him as child-like and exposes his distorted sense of justice, illustrating the ridiculous method and ideals of warfare. The third person point of view in the free indirect style throughout Slaughterhouse Five is focalized when Weary is aiming to kick his spine, which Vonnegut portrays as a “tube” with “important wires” in it – the objectification and childish, simple diction in the image conveys the characters’ child-like perceptions and indicates Weary himself does not fully understand the consequences of his actions on Billy’s health. Thus, though Weary retains the naivety of young age, he has lost his innocence, which Vonnegut highlights in order to lament the glorification of war in society. This is further emphasized when Weary, who as we have seen through the motif of weapons evokes disgust and vulgarity, “dilated” upon the “virtue”, “magnanimity” and “imperishable honor” that him and the Scouts upheld in his mind.
The focalization contributes to the character’s passionate imagination through the lexical cluster and hyperbole of the three nouns, creating an intense irony since Weary is clearly delusional and has a warped sense of justice. Vonnegut once again demonstrates his distorted sense of sympathy through the focalization due to the colloquialisms and expletives when writes that Weary thinks he saved Billy’s “God-damned hide”, which contribute to the ironic perception of Weary and his warped sense of compassion as a result of the harsh conditions in the war, reinforcing the notion of the futility of war since it perpetuates the corruption of innocence. Toni Morrison also depicts the misguidedness of her characters as they disparage certain members and aspects of their community without acknowledging their own deeply flawed personalities and ideologies. By using the third person omniscient narrative voice that constantly shifts to a limited omniscient point of view, Morrison displays Geraldine’s total lack of human empathy, commenting on her misconception of superiority and the resulting cycle of self-loathing among blacks in the African American community. They are portrayed as intolerant, since the metaphor in “wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away” symbolizes their battle against the fundamental quality of their black culture and personality.
The focalization through Geraldine shows that this quality is strongly repellant and is in fact something dirty, as the motion of wiping indicates cleansing, and Morrison depicts the sad rejection of one’s own personality and in fact self-effacing as a result of the master narrative and its discrimination against blacks. Geraldine is seen to perpetuate this cycle as she not only explicitly tells her son Junior not to play with ‘negro’ children, but she does not “talk to him, coo to him, or indulge him in kissing bouts” although every other need is met. Clearly, she has become incapable of human sympathy because of her unconscious self-loathing, and the natural motherly nature has faded because she restrains herself from strong emotions symbolized by the “Funk”, a colloquial term that thus conveys the playfulness and liveliness of people in the African American community. Her lack of affection, emphasized by the list of three and the flamboyantly loving imagery and diction that contrasts the previous objective and restrained narrative voice, results in Junior’s own feelings of spite and lack of sympathy for humans and animals as he does not hesitate to hurt Pecola and the cat. Thus, Geraldine’s character clearly represents the consequences of colorism and striving to maintain its status by distancing oneself from the truth and the past, causing self-hatred in oneself and others that leads to the lack of human empathy and morality. This impact of colorism is similar to the effect of sending immature boys to fight in the war as portrayed in Vonnegut’s novel, as both the minor characters represent the loss of humanity’s innocence and empathy due to society’s false ideals.
Both the novels comment on the destructive effects of society’s dominant ideologies on the psychological state of the minor characters by highlighting not necessarily their development, but their symbolic meaning. Both Weary and Geraldine are characters that evoke disgust and pity at the same time, and thus the authors question both the individual’s tendency to deceive oneself and perpetuate oppressive and twisted perceptions, as well as the effect of the environment and society that surrounds them and plants these seeds that eventually degrade their morality and innocence. Although the novels were published set in a similar time period, they address distinct issues; while Morrison is much more focused on the domestic issues of America and its failure to support its own citizens because of the superficial ideals, Vonnegut centers the conflict on the individual’s battle with the traumatic psychological consequences of war, and the futility of it. However, each of them explore these themes through a post-modern, fragmented approach to criticize the projection of a façade of righteousness that belies the corrupt national institutions that marginalize their citizens and contribute to the deteriorating human condition.
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