Painful Love in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

June 18, 2019 by Essay Writer

When discussing Toni Morrison and her novels, it’s tempting to talk about race since her body of work addresses that subject in such powerful ways. However, in an interview, Morrison stated that she actually writes “about the same thing…which is how people relate to one another and miss it or hang on to…or are tenacious about love” (Otten 653). In her first novel, The Bluest Eye, Morrison tells the story of two families that are informed and affected by love in drastically different ways. While love is generally thought to involve pleasure, pain oftentimes is used in conjunction with love in the novel, modifying and complicating it. By situating pain and love in the same sentiment, Morrison seems to suggest that love, when at its most sincere and poignant, is tinged with some sort of pain. She examines the interaction between pain and familial and sexual love in her novel The Bluest Eye leading the reader to realize the different ways that love and pain interact with each other, and that love, by nature, is inherently painful.The novel begins in autumn, where Claudia, who has come down with a cold, talks about the routines and rituals in which her mother engages to make her better. The scene is full of potential pain: Claudia remembers that her mother’s hands were “large and rough” as she rubs Vicks salve on her small chest and that her younger self was “rigid with pain;” she remembers the misplaced anger of her mother as she talks to the vomit “calling it [her] name: Claudia” (11). The love Claudia’s mother displays for her is a complicated one, involving both care and chastisement, soothing and scolding. Claudia claims that she did not know that her mother was “not angry at [her], but at [her] sickness”, complicating her memory and the role her mother played in this scene, as well as in her childhood (11). In retrospect, however, Claudia realizes that the pain her mother caused her, the rough hands and the reprimands, were all manifestations of love. Claudia asks herself: “But was it really like that? As painful as I remember? Only mildly. Or rather, it was a productive and fructifying pain… So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die” (12). Claudia, though she remembers the pain of being weak and sick, also recalls that “feet padded into the room, hands repinned the flannel, readjusted the quilt, and rested a moment on [her] forehead” (12). While her time in bed was painful and humiliating, the care and love Claudia receives from her mother in particular made that pain an integral part of her sickness. Claudia experiences the pains of being sick in conjunction with familial love, making the acts of love she encounters all the more poignant and treasured. She remembers her mother’s hands, rough at first, then gentler later, tucking her in and checking her forehead for fever. By comparing the pain she experiences at the rough yet loving nature of her mother to the tenderness of the affection and emotion behind those actions, Claudia experiences her mother’s love more than the coinciding pain, as evidenced by her memories, which are more sweet in texture than bitter. Claudia remembers spring in her childhood as well, and how the pain of punishment changed. Her parents disciplined her and Frieda differently in the spring, using new saplings and branches still green from growth to whip the girls. Claudia informs the reader that “there was a nervous meanness in those long twigs that made us long for the steady stroke of a strap or the firm but honest slap of a hairbrush” (97). The mean, wet anger of her parents in the springtime makes Claudia yearn for another type of pain. She does not yearn for a soft pillow, a warm bath, or even the rough love of her mother’s weathered hands. Rather, Claudia knows that pain is inevitable because it accompanies her parents’ love for her and her sister. So, instead she develops a preference for pain, classifying autumn’s familiar pain as superior to spring’s newer, more unpredictable pain. Claudia, therefore, creates a sophisticated and complex hierarchy of pain, where the lack of pain is not an issue because lack of pain means lack of love, and Claudia would prefer the pain of love to the absence of either.Pecola’s experience with familial love is entirely different; it involves pain in a darker sense, and while it might be easier to discard Pecola’s situation as one of hatred or evil, love is still there, glowing weakly in the embers of her broken family. While the MacTeers protect and love their daughters fiercely, the Breedloves are not sure how to love their children, because they hate themselves. The Breedloves have always been told they are ugly and that perceived ugliness, oftentimes rooted in racial identity, simply breeds more ugliness and pain. In the book’s pivotal scene, Cholly Breedlove, rapes Pecola and, interestingly enough, we aren’t given Pecola’s perspective, but, rather, Cholly’s. By presenting us with Cholly’s viewpoint, Morrison is again emphasizing the significance and presence of love in the scene. By presenting the scene through his eyes, we can see Cholly’s intentions, fueled and informed by a desire to love his child. If the scene was presented to the reader through Pecola’s eyes, we would almost certainly be unable to see past the pain caused by the rape. So as Cholly sees Pecola washing dishes, looking defeated and browbeaten, he tries to love her the only way he knows how. Though he at first feels uncomfortable, eventually the “discomfort dissolved into pleasure. The sequence of his emotions was revulsion, guilt, pity, then love” (161). Cholly then rapes his daughter, trying to relieve her pain by replacing it with his love. The scene even causes Cholly some physical pain: “Removing himself from her was so painful to him he cut it short and snatched his genitals out of the dry harbor of her vagina” (163). Pecola internalizes the pain of the rape, eventually driven mad by her suffering and lack of agency as evidenced in her internal monologue and implicit split personality near the book’s close. She is robbed of the pleasure of sex and, instead, must experience the pain of rape, a violation by her father who is only trying to love her. Cholly’s love, in this case, breeds pain. In an interview, Morrison asserted that “sometimes good looks like evil; and sometimes evil looks like good,” but “evil is as useful as good” (Otten 664). For many readers, the evil of Cholly’s act disguises his underlying love for his daughter. However, Morrison wants us to consider the rape as a desperate act of love. Morrison explained her intentions behind Pecola’s rape by her father: “I want you to look at him and see his love for his daughter and his powerlessness to help her pain. By that time his embrace, the rape, is all the gift he has left” (Otten 654). As difficult as it may be, we must consider Pecola’s rape a perverted, highly misdirected act of love. Even Claudia recognizes Cholly’s actions as loving, albeit years after the rape: “Cholly loved her. I’m sure he did. He, at any rate, was the one who loved her enough to touch her, envelop her, give something of himself to her” (206). Morrison goes on to say, “people do all sorts of things under [love’s] guise. The violence is a distortion of what, perhaps, we want to do. With the best intentions in the world we can do enormous harm” (Otten 652). While Cholly’s love is distorted, destructive, and harmful, it is still love. As he nibbles the flesh of his daughter’s leg and forces himself on her, he believes he is loving Pecola, not considering the pain he is inflicting upon her. In his attempt to relieve her pain, he tragically causes more.Since the book’s perspective is mainly that of a young girl’s, the idea of romantic or sexual love is both entirely unknown and equally appealing; Claudia, especially, is intrigued by the idea of loving a man and having a man love her. Even after she finds Frieda greatly distressed and emotional after being molested by Mr. Henry, Claudia can’t help but wonder what it was like to be touched by a man, disregarding her sister’s emotional state and asking candid questions about what the molestation felt like, even displaying displeasure that she “don’t have nothing to pinch” (100). Claudia searches for romance and pleasure in her sister’s pain, convinced it is there somewhere. Claudia finds suffering for love romantic and is unable to distinguish between the kind of love she envisions and the molestation that Frieda undergoes. Claudia finds Frieda crying and assumes that Mr. Henry hurt her physically, asking her sister, “What’d he do? Just walk up and pinch them?” (100). Claudia assumes that Mr. Henry’s “love” had to hurt Frieda somehow because love seems to be tightly bound to pain.Claudia’s notions about pain and love are also informed by the blues song her mother sings. As a child, Claudia hears her mother “sing about hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me times. But her voice was so sweet and her singing-eyes so melty I found myself longing for those hard times, yearning to be grown without ‘a thin di-i-ime to my name’” (25). While the song her mother sings is one full of sorrow and pain, the pleasure Claudia garners from her mother’s singing and the beauty of her voice cause Claudia to yearn for the kind of love that breaks one’s heart. In this moment, Claudia realizes the power and promise of love—if nothing else, it will break the heart and cause one so much pain, the only relief will be a song. Claudia longs for a romantic love so profound that it leaves her pain-stricken:“I looked forward to the delicious time when “my man” would leave me, when I would “hate to see that evening sun go down…” ‘cause then I would know “my man has left this town.” Misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother’s voice took all of the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet” (25-26). Claudia learns from her mother’s bittersweet song that true love is painful; the song is complex, speaking of painful things in a haunting and beautiful manner. Claudia—along with the reader—realizes the wonderful complexity of love lies in its complicated relationship with pain.Pecola is also ignorant of what love is, both sexual and familial. While she sits with the prostitutes that live above her apartment, Pecola muses on the nature of love, eventually turning to the only example of love she knows: her parents. “Into her eyes came the picture of Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove in bed. He making sounds as through he were in pain, as though something had him by the throat and wouldn’t let go…Maybe that was love. Choking sounds and silence” (57). The act of sex, something universally regarded as a pleasurable experience and something done out of love, is characterized as painful, even deadly. The procreation and pleasure of intercourse is lost in this scene, replaced with the dark terror and pain of looming suffocation and death. The painful noises that escape Cholly during sex with his wife remind Pecola of someone being suffocated. The pleasure of sex seems to be completely replaced with the pain of choking in this scene, leaving Pecola with the impression that love is a kind of asphyxiation—a very painful experience, indeed. This early description of Cholly’s love and sex causing more harm than good also serves to prophesize the circumstances surrounding Pecola’s rape, which involves the same convoluted relationship between love and pain.While Claudia and Pecola both experience love and the pain it brings, the relationship between love and pain changes significantly within these experiences. Claudia experiences love laced with a sweet pain. The pain that Claudia feels and anticipates is an intensifier—it augments the love, not changing it, but enhancing it. Claudia, because of the love she receives from her family, knows that love, at its most intense, can hurt profoundly. The pain caused by such intense love is appealing to Claudia, bittersweet and sublime. Pecola, on the other hand, experiences love in a far more sinister sense. Cholly loves his daughter arguably as much as the MacTeers love Claudia and Frieda, but the balance of pain and love is off in his exhibition. Whereas the MacTeers love so deeply that it hurts, Cholly loves in a way that causes pain. In the case of the Breedloves, pain does not serve to augment or enhance love, but rather engulfs and overpowers it to the point where the reader has difficulty seeing love because it is so heavily obscured by the pain it causes.According to Morrison, she began writing The Bluest Eye with the ideas of “beauty, miracles, and self-imagery” in mind (Otten 653). At its core, though, the novel is really a story about the extents and limits of love. The Bluest Eye depicts love as a series of actions or emotions that breed pain in some manner. The occasion for this painful love could be partially tied to the self-deprecating and racial issues that underlie the story, but to limit the relationship to a simple cause and effect would be to do Morrison’s portrayal of painful love a disservice. The love depicted in The Bluest Eye is important because, in some sense, it is ordinary. Suffering for love is not a new notion; the commonplace term “heartache,” in fact, synthesizes the two sentiments seamlessly in one word. The way in which Morrison presents such love, however, so that a rape can be interpreted as an act of love, is revolutionary. Both Claudia and Pecola experience familial and sexual love in starkly different ways, and both endure the pain that accompanies such love. The differences in their experiences lie in the interactions between love and pain—where one ends and the other begins.Works CitedMorrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, Inc., 1970. Print.Otten, Terry. “Horrific Love in Toni Morrison’s Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 39.3-4 (1993): 651-667. Project MUSE. Web. 22 November 2009.

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