Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye: A Cultural Semiotic Approach

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

The Cultural semiotic studies are in due course emerging as the pivotal area of study to whoever is entranced in ‘signs’- objects, symbols, images, words, and gestures; and ‘meanings’ it interprets. As Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye(1970) is rich in cultural signs and symbolic interpretations, this article aims to analyze how the cultural semiotic meanings in language describe the inner selves of the marginalized people of society and minorities especially female characters, are at centre undergo the psychological distress at a subconscious level and generate innate responses associated to certain uncommon craving by conceiving the image of a Caucasian woman with fair skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair (western signifying order) as the signs of attractiveness.

Key words: Cultural semiotics, Signs, Symbols, Images and Words.

Introduction

The title of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is highly significant as it directly leads to requisite of the cultural semiotic inquiry applying semiotic lens on the concept of beauty in American South where the background of the novel is set. Morrison’s narrative contains the symbolical elements in paramount as the words, colours, figures, characters and objects are used as symbols. Even though, this article concerns less interest in exploring the cruel treatment of ‘Whites’ on ‘Blacks’, it powerfully brings out the bi-cultural issues prevailing in White American culture through the idea of white measurement of women’s beauty and the psychological destruction of the blacks characters.

The novel revolves around the major character, a young girl Pecola Breedlove, who considers herself ugly and thinks blue eye would make her beautiful, is raped by her own father, bears a child that dies, and retreats into madness, believing that her eyes are blue. Maria Bring implies that the character of Pecola is based on a true story of a real girl whom Morrison met when she was 11 years old. This girl is a misappropriation and so her desire for ‘bluest eye’ sounds absurd but the prize she has to pay is unthinkable. She is rejected by her family and by her own community and becomes the scape goat of the white culture.

Cultural Semiotic signs in The Bluest Eyes

The language of Morrison is rich in demonstrating ‘symbolic forms of the white American society that constitutes its very culture’ in this novel. The house, seasons, marigolds, candy, dandelion, marigolds, colour, the blue eye, milk cup, clean kitchen, abstract feelings and the whole lot are used as symbols that brings out the cultural power functions of the white cultural society.

The house

The house symbolizes the difference found between the white community and the black community through the Dick and Jane well known primer: Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy…(TBE 3)

The first version of these lines is punctuated and spaced conventionally; Proper names and the initial letter of each sentence are capitalized. Here is the house it is green and white it has a red door it is very pretty here is the family mother father dick and jane live in the green-and-white house they are very happy…(TBE 4)

The second version contains no punctuation and captilizes only the first letters of the excerpt; the spacing between the lines has been reduced. The lack of punctuation shows some disorder in the world that could be orderly; however, the world is still recognizable.

Hereisthehouseitisgreenandwhiteithasareddooritisveryprettyhereisthefamilymotherfatherdickandjaneliveinthegreenandwhitehousetheyareveryhappy…(TBE 4) The third version is a repetition of the first but without punctuation and without division, and it demonstrates the utter break down of order among the Breedloves family. Thus the prologue of the Dick and Jane story versions of the novel symbolizes the three possible family situations: First Geraldine’s, a counterfeit of the idealized white family; futher down the McTeers, and at the bottom the Breedloves’. They are all manifestations of the social concept of the family. The family of Pecola’s is an antithesis of the standardized, ideal American white family and ultimately shows the utter failure of them to conform the white standard.

Seasons and Marigolds

The voice of the primer is followed by Claudia’s, the narrator, brief reminiscence about the period of the novel. It describes the division of each section of the text into four sections: Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer. Within each of these sections, the action that occurs is in direct contrast to what the seasons bring to mind. In the world of ‘inversions’, “Quiet as it’s kept there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941” (TBE 5) provides reader with sort of poetic plot summers, set in italics, revealing that the summer of 1941 Pecola bore her father’s child. Claudia and Frieda believe that if the marigolds do not grow, the life of the baby is compromised. No marigolds grew that summer, that Claudia, lost her innocence that Pecola lives although her father and child are dead. Dead symbolizes that there is no life for the Pecola’s baby by her father. This passage ends with “There is really nothing more to say — except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how” (TBE 6).

Western standard of beauty

The image of a Caucasian woman with fair skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair has caused the damaging influence among the characters of the black women in the novel. They are obsessed towards the white American standard of beauty which fail them to recognize their self-image and self-esteem. It is not just the cultural domination that prevails in the racist America but the emotional state like denial of love, humiliation, sense of shame, pain and loss interwoven with beauty that lead black women to psychological destruction. Pecola Breedlove is ultimately forced to long for blue eyes as her own mother Pauline Breedlove fails to nurture Pecola. Pauline loves the white family and their kids and condemns her own daughter considering she looks ugly as she hates ‘black self’. Its Pauline hatred behaviour and denial of love sow the seed so deep into mind of the poor Pecola which leads her to presume that ‘black is ugly’ and ‘white is beautiful’. Later several incidents added fuel to her idea of beauty. As

Raymond Hedin observes:

Pecola Breedlove is a young black girl driven literally insane by the pressure toward absolute physical beauty in a culture whose white standards of beauty… are impossible for her to meet, though no less alluring and demanding. Surrounded by cultural messages that she is ugly by definition, she can achieve peace only by retreating into schizophrenia…( 49-50)

Pecola never realised that she falls “under the spell of white cultural domination” (Ansari 120 ) and becomes a victim.

The Blue eye

Pauline’s harsh treatment towards Pecola causes the psychological distress which makes the young girl loses her self-esteem. She started hating her black self, yearn for blue eyes, she believes that the blue eyes will make her beloved by everyone around her. The blues eyes, she believes, are a panacea. It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes… were different… she herself would be different… If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, “Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes.”(TBE 46)

Feeling of rejection by her own parents gives intense pain in her little heart. The concept or idea of a certain image of white women has gone deep into her mind and it was more fueled by various people. The most poignant illustration of Pecola’s failure to act occurs in central scene in the novel, when she enters Yacobowski’s fresh vegetable, meat and sundries store to purchase the Mary Jane candy. She sees: “Mr.Yacobowski urges his eyes out of his thoughts to encounter her…his eyes draw back, hesitate and hover… he senses that he need not waste the effort of a glance. He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see” (TBE 48).

Objects and image like candy, Shirley temple cup, and movie screen actress as symbols of beauty: Candy and dandelion weeds as symbols of beauty and ugliness

Embarrassed and engulfed by shame, Pecola purchases the candy and leaves. Outside, she equates herself with dandelion weeds she passes. Like her, she thinks, they are ugly and unwanted. Although she allows her anger to surface for a brief moment, she is over powered by a tremendous sense of shame. She takes solace in eating candy, but, more important, in symbolically digesting the smiling picture of the blue-eyed, blond haired little girl that adorns its wrapper: “To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane”( TBE 50).

Milk cup

Pecola drinks three quarts of milk out of a Shirley Temple not that she loves to drink milk but she relishes looking at the Shirley Temple’s white face on the cup. She thinks that she can achieve the white beauty by gulping the milk along with Temple’s white face as well.

The movie Screen images of Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo

Pecola is not the only victim of the beauty but Pauline Breedlove too, she differs from her daughter Pecola only in the sense that the image she believes in comes from the movie screen rather than milk cup. Pauline’s only pleasure concerns from her identification with the movie screen images of Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo. Pauline finally gives up identity vicariously with these images when she bites into a candy bar and loses her front tooth.

Dirtiness versus cleanliness

Once the front tooth has gone, Pauline did not care to beautify herself, she settled down to just being ugly. Here ugliness causes her to discredit the value of her own life. She cleans for a white family but leaves her house in disarray. She feels, whiteness is goodness, and feels more at home in the white kitchen where she works than in the run down house she shares with her family. She tries to compensate for her lameness and putative ugliness by creating order whenever possible. Pauline escapes in the clinically clean kitchen and preoccupies herself with work as typical mammy figure, lavishing upon her employer’s blue eyed, blond haired daughter, the love which she is unable to give Pecola. Pauline behaves rudely towards Pecola, when she unintentionally spills a berry cobbler on the clean, white kitchen floor of the whites. Rather than attending to Pecola’s injuries, Pauline scolds her, showing more concern for the little “yellow girls” and the clean floor than for the comfort of her own daughter.

The little girl in pink started to cry. Mrs. Breedlove turned to her. “Hush, baby, hush. Come here. Oh, Lord, look at your dress. Don’t cry no more. Polly will change it.” She went to the sink and turned tap water on a fresh towel. Over her shoulder she spit out words to us like rotten pieces of apple. “Pick up that wash and get on out of here, so I can get this mess cleaned up.”(TBE 109)

The damage is profound and destructive. Koltman states that the action emerges from her affected vision: “Though her blurred vision of the pink, white, and golden world of the Fishers, Pecola learns that she is ugly, unacceptable, especially unloved” (124).

Colour

The colour white symbolizes purity, godliness, cleanliness and beauty. The colour consciousness is predominant to every black including Pauline, Pecola, Cholly Breedlove and every white like Mr.Yacohowshi, Maureen Peal, Geraldine and lot more in the White America. Racial discrimination in the white community upon the black is not ceases but it mounts like a heap. The most damaging interracial confrontation that poor Pecola and her father Cholly Breedlove encounter was unthinkable. They constantly experienced rejection, humiliation and brutalization.

Cholly Breedlove hates his ‘self’. As a result of oppressing his feelings, he becomes as evil as possible, even to the point of raping his own daughter and burning his own house. Behind this ‘bad nigger’ persona lays history of distortions of the principal relationships and rituals of life. He is abandoned in junkyard by his mother, who was never certain of the identity of the father. His first sexual encounter is interrupted by White man whose derisive comments render him impotent. His search for the man he believes to be his father ends at dark alley dice game when the man chases him away, believing he came only for money. Such events make him both anti and asocial. He hates the girl of his sexual humiliation rather than the white man because she was witness to his powerlessness; he has no sense of socially acceptable behaviour because he has been denied primary socialization, he is incapable of appropriate father’s behaviour because he has no parents.

The most perverse act of his life, the rape of Pecola, is a product of his confusion and love. Having learned that he is nothing but an object of disgust, he, like Pauline, can do nothing other than objectifies Pecola. Each of them exploits her as their own exploitation makes it impossible to do otherwise.

In the larger community, objectification is also common. White store keepers, light skinned children, and black middle-class adults all see this black child as- piece of filth repugnant yet necessary to their own sense of cleanliness. Pecola, as Royster points out, “is the novel’s central scapegoat” (35). For Cynth A. Davis, “Pecola is the epitome of the victim in a world that reduces persons to objects and then makes them feel inferior as objects. In this world light –skinned women can feel, superior to dark ones, married women to whore, and so on and on” (330).

Cholly’s incestuous act made Pecola to live a fettered life for no fault of her own, Pecola’s pregnancy becomes evident, she is expelled from school and scorned by the community. Even her mother scolds her, not Cholly, responsible for the rape and puts her daughter out. Pecola’s essential invisibility symbolizes her status as object within the community and her family. When she remains estranged and alienated, she is more obsessed with a thought of acquiring the blue eye. Haunted by the belief that if she had blue eyes, her fate would have changed completely. Desperate and confused she visits a West Indian preacher called Soaphead Church to see if he can give her the blue eye which she always wanted. Soaphead, an unscrupulous creep who’s crazy enough to believe his own miracles tells Pecola that God will give her blue eyes, and he makes Pecola to have blue eyes at least in her own mind. Before she leaves the house, he uses Pecola get rid himself of a mangy old dog that spends its days on his door step, he gives Pecola poisoned meat to feed the dog and its response will be a sign of death that alone will get her wish fruitful. Pecola watches in horror as the dog stumbles around the yard and dies.

Madness

Pecola slowly lapses into madness and develops an imaginary friend who, she exclaims, loves her and her blue eyes. She falls farther and farther from reality. By the fall, Pecola’s baby also dies. Pecola is obsessed with having blue eyes and believes that the acquired blue eyes have turned her black body to white. To her, these changes are the mark of perfection and ideal beauty. She becomes the African-American community’s scapegoat, just as the African –American community is the scapegoat for White America.

Conclusion

Morrison’s narration of The Bluest Eyes deals with ideas of racism, white standard of beauty and the white American culture in the 1930’s. This article mainly reflects how Morrison’s language uses the cultural power that functions among the blacks and the semiotic space of white society that symbolizes the fascination and contentment to the poor girl like Pecola and other blacks in the novel who become the ultimate victims of the White culture. In general, the ideal white beauty is one of the critical cultural hindrances to blacks throughout their history in America. They build a low esteem and lose their identity due to their subjugation in the White culture which lead to psychological distress. Though the present state of Afro-Americans is far better than then, the most remain only as aliens in the American white soil.

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