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ajnabi ([personal profile] ajnabi) wrote2010-05-07 04:20 pm

english final paper

The Paradox of Violence and Survival

In The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, violence is everyday and real. It is not the sensational fiction of unusual moments that are imagined out of privilege. The style of violence sometimes changes, but the violence itself does not. As Claudia says, "[the twigs of spring] meant only a change in whipping style. They beat us differently in the spring. Instead of the dull pain of a winter strap, there were these new green switches that lost their sting long after the whipping was over" (97).

In The Bluest Eye, Morrison shows how in oppressive conditions, violence becomes a survival mechanism even as it threatens to extinguish the possibility of survival. Morrison is relentless in portraying the workings of power under systems of racism, (hetero)sexism, ableism, ageism, etc. In this framework, people abuse those who they have power over and maintain a bitter distance from the more powerful people who oppress them because it seems to be the only way in which they can acquire a semblance of control over their own lives. They cannot fight back against the systems of power and the more powerful people who oppress them as easily or successfully, because they are so isolated and alienated, so they translate the feeling of powerlessness into violence against those whom it is easy to punish.

This is very clear in the ways in which the black male characters commit violence against black women and children. For example, Cholly Breedlove, a black man, takes out the violence and oppression he experiences at the hands of white society on the women in his life and his daughter. When the white men find fourteen-year-old Cholly and a girl his age, Darlene, having sex in the field, they laugh and jeer at him and tell him to continue, and so he does and rapes her. He hates her because he cannot allow himself to hate them. He hates himself, also, for only being able to simulate penetration, and not being able to actually go through with it: "He almost wished he could do it—hard, long, and painfully, he hated her so much" (148). As Morrison goes on to narrate,

Sullen, irritable, he cultivated his hatred of Darlene. Never did he once consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless. His subconscious knew what his conscious mind did not guess—that hating them would have consumed him... (150-151).

It is easier for Cholly to hate Darlene, who has "baby claws" covering her face (148) and is small and helpless in comparison to him, as he is small and helpless compared to the white men. Darlene is someone he can control and have power over, unlike the white men.

Cholly has no sense of parenthood. In his alienation, ironically, he was "truly free. Abandoned by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose. He was alone with his own perceptions and appetites, and they alone interested him" (160). Morrison explains further:

Having no idea of how to raise children, having never watched any parent raise himself, he could not even comprehend what such a relationship should be. Had he not been alone in the world since he was thirteen, knowing only a dying old woman who felt responsible for him, but [who was] so remote from [him], he might have felt a stable connection between himself and the children. As it was, he reacted to them, and his reactions were based on what he felt at the moment. (ibid.)

Cholly becomes selfish as a result of his abandonment and isolation. As such, he reacts to the memory of first seeing and falling in love with his wife, Pauline, when he sees his daughter, Pecola washing dishes and scratching her leg in a similar way that Pauline did that time. He rapes Pecola because she reminds him of Pauline back when things were better between them, and because it is easier to rape her than to confront the trauma of his "rape" by the white men. Just as he took out his hate on Darlene and raped her then, he rapes Pecola now. Claudia describes Cholly's rape of Pecola, saying, "his touch was fatal, and the something he gave her filled the matrix of her agony with death. Love is never any better than the lover... the love of a free man is never safe... The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover's inward eye" (206).

The translation of love into abuse and the posing of selfishness as love is further evident in Cholly's confusion of his rape of Pecola with love and tenderness. This is evident in how Cholly reacts to his confused feelings and covers Pecola with a quilt after he has raped her: "Again the hatred mixed with tenderness. The hatred would not let him pick her up, the tenderness forced him to cover her" (163).

Thus, it comes about that men justify the rapes they commit, the violence they perpetuate, with such conflicted feelings of tenderness and rage, and love that is inherently selfish as Claudia describes. Soaphead Church, a black man who comes from a family intent on preserving and increasing whatever strains of whiteness they have (167-8), justifies his rape of little girls by saying he loves them and appreciates their beauty. He clearly feels guilty for his behavior in a letter he writes to God, but defends himself by focusing on his rejection by his wife, Velma, and his various other feelings of social and personal alienation (179-180).

The chain of violence does not stop there. Black women in the book, too, take out their oppression on black children and other black women. Mrs. Breedlove, a black woman, wants to be respected in Lorain, the new town she and her husband have just moved to, and so she starts buying and wearing makeup and pretty clothes, and gets into fights with her husband over trying to acquire them. Ironically, "the sad thing was that Pauline did not really care for clothes and makeup. She merely wanted other women to cast favorable glances her way" (118). Through the movies, she learns and re-enacts possessive motifs of "love" and sorts people into categories of beauty based on normative, white standards (122). Eventually, "she comes into her own with the women who had despised her by being more moral than they" (126). This is evident in the way she, along with other more "respectable" people in the community, ostracize China, Poland and Marie, who are sex workers. Mrs. Breedlove also beats her children into submission and respectability (128) while caring gently and tenderly for the white child she is employed to take care of (127). It is with the white family that she is able to rest her maligned foot on their heavily carpeted floors (ibid.), and it is her white employers who give her a nickname (128), something (along with various other childhood associations) that she was denied.

In a similar vein, when Geraldine, a respectable colored woman, finds Pecola and her son, Junior, and her almost dead cat in her living room, even though she realizes that it was really Junior who must have (almost) killed the cat, she takes out her rage on Pecola instead, and blames her, because she is easier to victimize (91-92). She does not realize (or want to realize) that her son had been so violent to Pecola and the cat.

Black children, too, participate in the chain of violence. They form groups and cliques warring against each other. Pecola is at the bottom of this hierarchy of black children in Lorain, Ohio, because she is perceived as so reprehensibly ugly and thus internalizes it endlessly. Claudia and Frieda torment their white neighbors'' daughter, Rosemary (10), and the richer colored girl in their class, Maureen (62-63), but they cannot really affect them enough. As Claudia says, "But we had to do it alone, for none of the other girls would cooperate with our hostility" (63). Instead, their power comes out in the way that even though they like and want to be friends with Pecola, they cannot because she is so socially ostracized. Claudia realizes this later, saying,

We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used—to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. (205).

Finding strength in shared experiences of marginalization, and creating movements out of those shared experiences, is harder to do than perpetuating the violence of whatever privileges one does have. The very nature of a society where oppression is the norm is such that one will do whatever one can to keep one's power. Thus, a kyriarchy of oppression is created, and in order to maintain this system, people must be isolated and alienated from each other as much as possible. What better way to do this than through a chain of violence? Yet it is perhaps in exposing the brutal realities of oppression that Morrison creates a situation in which we, the readers, must see ourselves as participants in the system. Before a system can be changed, it must be exposed. As Morrison says in Memory, Creation and Writing, "my work... must make it possible to prepare for the present and live it out, and must do that not by avoiding problems and contradictions but by examining them; it should not even attempt to solve social problems, but it should certainly try to clarify them."

Works Cited:

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume, 1994.

Morrison, Toni. Memory, Creation and Writing. (source unknown??)