The Bluest Eye, Being Outdoors, and the Experience of Pain
by Michael Ducker, Adelphi University
Abstract: This essay analyzes Toni Morrison's debut novel The Bluest Eye (1970). Centering the attempts by the novel's characters to wrangle with the physical and psychological pain wrought by white supremacy and patriarchy, it analyzes the poetics of war, the potency of dolls as a ground for articulation of racial grievance, and complexities of the struggle for racial justice. Using Elizabeth Scarry’s book The Body in Pain as a springboard, it engages with the existing critical corpus on Morrison’s novels, and attempts to expand them in a manner that focuses on the difficulty of articulating an initially inarticulate pain.
In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry introduces her argument by asking the reader to imagine three concentric circles: “first, the difficulty of expressing physical pain; second, the political and perceptual complications that arise as a result of that difficulty; and third, the nature of both material and verbal expressibility” (1). A similar organizing principle could be used to illuminate the nature of the lives lived by Pecola and those around her in Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye. Such a focus on physical feeling may seem an odd way to begin a discussion of The Bluest Eye. As per the very title of the book, its most obvious concern is with a different sense—that of sight—and its political forms: appearance, dress, skin color, and so on. What I would like to argue, however, is that in addition to its reflection on sight and eyes, Morrison’s novel also fundamentally concerns itself with the varieties of the experience of physical pain. Sight is merely one of the means by which the narrative attempts to apprehend pain, as well as the object onto which Morrison focuses some of her narrative reflections.
In reality, however, it is pain and all its appendages with which The Bluest Eye is concerned; it explores at length and in a historically particular context the intersections of physical and racial pain. Such a focus is understandable for a novel that represents the experience of the offspring of a long line of physical, racial oppression, forged in the extreme and prolonged torture which was slavery. This paper will begin by trying to identify the pain experienced The Bluest Eye. Once such an identification has been made, it will attempt to explain how Morrison situates that pain historically and geographically, and finally, articulate the significance of the novel.
A truism about pain: it begs for treatment. A truism about treatment: it requires that the suffering individual express their pain, and needs an institution (be it family, hospital, or anything else) to hear that expression. Due to the importance of articulation and institution to pain, we should try to understand how pain is experienced when it can find no institution for treatment. Early on in The Bluest Eye, the reader is presented with the theme of outdoors: “Outdoors, we knew, was the real terror of life. […] Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition. […] [T]he concreteness of being outdoors was another matter—like the difference between the concept of death and being, in fact, dead. Dead doesn’t change, and outdoors is here to stay” (17-18). Although reference to the “outdoors” as an explicitly named object of the narrator’s reflection mostly drops out of the text after this initial mention, I would like to propose that by introducing it so early on, The Bluest Eye implores readers to keep it in the back of their minds as a threat of bare life that undergirds many of the experiences of characters throughout the novel.
What, then, is it to be outdoors in The Bluest Eye? I contend that being outdoors is necessarily related to the experience of pain. Outdoors, Morrison seems to suggest, is a metaphysical condition whose political analogue is the state of exception, bare life deprived not only of rights but also of acknowledgement from one’s community (whose supposedly “organic” unity is divided by the internalization of white standards of beauty and success). This state of exception, however, is not a typical one wherein the totalitarian sovereign executes its power in a supra-legal manner, but one wherein the democratic sovereign subtracts an individual from itself, placing him or her in a position to be denied any recourse for anything, where “there is no place to go [to]” to be relieved or receive reparations (17). Being outdoors means that pain and injustice cannot be treated, that one is denied access to the shelter of civilization, that one is denied even the thin veneer of legality and hospitality granted to those deemed second-class citizens by a racist political system.
Outdoors is a condition as well as a place, or perhaps more accurately, it is a condition with geographical horizons. While not synonymous with homelessness, it certainly suggests that one must move throughout the world in a manner that is not-at-home. The Bluest Eye wraps up in the single word of outdoors a summary of a condition of life wherein pain is an ever-present threat. The experience of pain is fundamentally that of the body being thrown back onto itself, out of its entanglement in law and history into a private ground where pain grasps for a language with which to apprehend and express itself. It is objectless and dispossessed, incapable of discharging its effects elsewhere besides through the creation of more pain. Like the outdoors, it reduces its subject to the physical level and removes him/her from history.
For Pecola Breedlove, the ultimate consequence of being outdoors is her descent into madness near the end of the novel, wherein her state of mind is such that her pain can only express itself in fragmented, conversational back and forth with herself that circles around the traumatic infliction of pain at the hands of her father without ever truly being able to comprehend and heal it. Thrust into the outdoors, she has been pulled out of school and shunted away from the public eye. In a cruel irony, Pecola is put outdoors by way of being hidden indoors. This is because being outdoors is not simply a condition of losing shelter as such. Being outdoors, in Morrison’s novel, consists of having one’s status as a subject protected by law or a member protected by community stripped away. It is not always literal shelter, but rather the shelter of recourse and redress.
This threat of pain and the work it does in the world is precisely that motive which is underlying the passages in The Bluest Eye that speak about the destruction of dolls. “Dolls we could destroy, but we could not destroy the honey voices of parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of our peers, the slippery light in the eyes of our teachers when they encountered the Maureen Peals of the world,” says the character Claudia MacTeer (74). The wall into which this desire to inflict pain runs is that of a patriarchal white supremacy, which through its violent policing of Black critique, denies people the right to relieve stress and pain by way of dialogue (whether that dialogue take the style of cool rationality or impassioned anger is of no matter to the repressive apparatus of whiteness that haunts Morrison’s novel.) Although some varieties of liberalism may abhor the suggestion that the infliction of pain upon whiteness may be necessary to delegitimize and overcome anti-blackness, the novel (and indeed the reality which conditioned its writing) seems to suggest exactly such a thesis. What the dolls allow Claudia MacTeer to do is stage an infliction of pain for mental relief; they give to experienced pain an object onto which it can be transferred. Dolls in The Bluest Eye are a symbol of that which is denied by the experience of being outdoors. They are, in other words, a piece of personal property through which pain begins to be defused, a first step towards the articulation of a demand for reparations and legal inclusion. The dolls are the front-to-be-assaulted of Claudia’s dual front resistance to white supremacy.
The dual front, an image borrowed from warfare, an important image for this argument, and one with genuine relevance to the images and ideas presented in the margins of The Bluest Eye. As Jennifer Gillan writes in her essay “Focusing on the Wrong Front: Historical Displacement, the Maginot Line, and The Bluest Eye,” Morrison gives three of the sex workers present in the text historically significant names: China, Poland, and Maginot Line. All three stand in relation to World War II. The most significant name, for my purposes and Gillan’s, is that of the Maginot Line. A failed French border that, despite receiving huge amounts of resources and attention, was ultimately irrelevant in defending France from Nazi invasion, the Maginot Line has come to refer metaphorically to “the tendency to focus on the wrong front.” For Gillan, the metaphorical Maginot Line of The Bluest Eye are the attempts of the Breedloves and others to “[attain] the material goods that will enable them to maintain the aura of citizenship” in a racist nation that works at every turn to exclude them (285). While it is important to note that some of these apparently futile fronts are not so much futile as they are the first steps in a complex march towards articulated demands, Gillan’s attempts to center Morrison’s poetics of the battlefront are still worth developing further. In that vein, I would like now to note that addition to arguably focusing on the “wrong front,” characters in The Bluest Eye are constantly being forced to work on dual fronts, neither of which are stable, and neither of which provide surefire defenses against the onslaughts of anti-blackness and misogyny.
The second front on which Claudia MacTeer engages with the doll is a more defensive front, or perhaps more accurately an already overrun front in which covert resistance is the only means of warfare. The doll is not simply a generic vessel into which the disfigurations of pain can be transferred and rearticulated. It is also a specific commodity that carries with it and spreads a moveable feast of anti-black, patriarchal signifiers. “Blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned,” the dolls attempt to interpellate their owners into misogynistic anti-blackness of American life (47). Thus, when Claudia destroys these dolls, she not only unloads the psychic pain of living under a system of white supremacy that has been internalized even by the adults raising her, she also stages a political resistance to it on a micro-scale. Her actions are both a positive working-through and negative deconstruction. For this reason, although the MacTeer sisters ultimately have their resistances to the system of white supremacy worn down, they come through the process with their physical and mental well-being still intact. Pecola Breedlove, on the other hand, is not so lucky. Her experience of pain is that of an extreme, unabated trauma.
In their essay “White Linguistic Violence and Black Americans: A Textual Analysis of The Bluest Eye,” Muhammad Ismail Abbasi and Shaheena Ayub Bhatti argue that “Pecola engages in creative painful processes to endure the miseries imposed upon her by the system of discrimination.” Using psychological models to support their claim, they show how “The young girl has no moral or psychological support and her fighting parents and the dismissive social attitude of people forces her into alienation” (141). The two go on to explain that the primary source of this pain is white linguistic violence. I, however, would argue to the contrary that this linguistic violence is only a part of the issues afflicting Pecola. Subjected to pain as a result of the literal corporeal violence inflicted by her father and peers, Pecola suffers trauma and alienation on two different fronts. The first, adequately explored by Abbasi and Bhatti is the violent, racist vocabulary of whiteness that disrupts the formation of the ego in children of color. The second front on which Pecola’s relationship to the self, world, and language is assaulted is that of literal physical pain that short-circuits vocabulary and communicability. To plug this back into our pain-oriented analysis, let us briefly return to Scarry, who asserts that “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language” (4).
With this point brought to the surface, I would like to now circle back to Pecola’s madness. Her madness (I use this potentially retrograde term out of both an acknowledgment of my lack of psychiatric expertise and The Bluest Eye’s own refusal to objectify Pecola Breedlove in such scientific terms that would confine her to the limited articulations of the clinic) is such that communication becomes not only a purely private act, but a private act that occludes the possibility that pain may be adequately articulated even to oneself. What in popular semi-psychological parlance might be called repression, we can here recontextualize as a symptom of the collusion between being outdoors and the fallout that results from being debilitatingly subjected to physico-mental pain. That this physical pain is in part the pain of a pregnancy resulting from rape only makes it all the more insidious, as Pecola’s entire body turns toward the production of a new being that, for her and many of those around, carries the signs of the pain which has put her outdoors.
In her brilliant essay “‘Black and ‘Cause I’m Black I’m Blue’: Transverse Racial Geographies in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye,” Katherine McKittrick observes that “Claudia takes her anxieties and discomfort and cherishes Pecola Breedlove, as well as Pecola’s unborn child” (130). This connection between Claudia’s anxieties and her affection for Pecola points towards a new intersection regarding the topics of dolls, pain, cathexis, and geography. First, let us being by noting the symmetries that this connection involves: those between Claudia MacTeer and her dolls, between Pecola Breedlove and her unborn child, and finally between Claudia and Pecola. The relationship between Claudia and her dolls is the inverse of her relationship with Pecola. In both cases, Claudia is implicitly given the responsibility of taking care of an outsider to the MacTeer household. In the case of the doll, the outsider carries with it a whole host of the signifiers of whiteness. These signifiers insidiously attempt to dismantle Claudia’s sense of self. In an act of resistance, as I have argued, she turns the pain that doll inflicts on her back onto the doll, allowing her identity to persist, and creating the staging grounds for an incipient demand for justice.
Pecola, in contrast, is an outsider to be doted upon. As The Bluest Eye seems to insist, Pecola not only lacks the features valued by whiteness, she also bears the marks of trauma and rejection without attempting to articulate a resistance to it. As a result, Pecola becomes a container of non-whiteness, an alterity that is valued by Claudia for the fact it is outside of the system that attempts to cause her pain. Pecola, in short, becomes the metaphorical bird with a broken wing whom she can nurse back to health, as well as a reflection of her own assaulted Blackness that she can attempt to protect from whiteness.
To return to the question of being outdoors, the genius of Morrison’s work is that it illuminates the homology between the metaphysical condition of being outdoors and the material, political condition of 1940s Ohio. Laurie Vickroy, in her essay “The Politics of Abuse: The Traumatized Child in Toni Morrison and Marguerite Duras,” points out that “The community in which the Breedlove family lives also projects its own sense of devaluation onto the Breedloves, dismissing them for being ‘low’, ugly outsiders, when actually they are merely extreme examples of the larger group’s own abasement by white culture” (3). While acknowledging the historically specific political stakes of the Breedloves’ situation, Vickroy also attempts to analyze how it fits into a larger picture of the politics of abuse.
The true strength, however, of both Vickroy’s paper and The Bluest Eye is in how they clarify the composition of a particular abuse by showing the forms of historically specific pains from which it is constructed. It is from this analysis that the reader can come to view the Breedloves not as just another troubled family torn apart by intra-familial abuse under the strains of patriarchal white supremacy, but one that is in fact the “epitome of [the] devalued community” in which they are situated (2). For this reason, it is significant that Morrison provides historically significant background stories for Pecola Breedlove’s parents. They are not only perpetuating abuse as a result of a historically-disembodied propensity for violence. Rather, they are reenacting patterns and expressions of their own traumatic, sociologically specific pasts. To understand the pain Pecola is experiencing, The Bluest Eye seems to suggest, we must understand a genealogy of familial and communal pain. This is why the notion of being outdoors is political as well as metaphysical: it is the result of people being violently subjected to systems of oppression which, like abuse and poverty, reassert themselves in a viscous cycle.
To close out, I would like to once again return to Scarry, who writes that “when pain is transformed into an objectified state, it is eliminated. A great deal, then, is at stake in the attempt to invent linguistic structures that will reach and accommodate this area of experience normally so inaccessible to language” (6). The Bluest Eye is precisely such an attempt to invent linguistic and narrative structures for a pain rarely acknowledged by the United States. It does so not only to bear witness for the sake of a future-oriented, backwards-looking conception recording of justice that says “Look how far we’ve come since then!” In creating linguistic and formal expressions for pain, The Bluest Eye also aims to ease the legacies of suffering and pain that continue to this day. By mapping the genealogy of pain, abuse, and trauma, The Bluest Eye carefully articulates free-floating pain, sculpting it into a work of art that both shocks us with its stark representations of pain and boldly points us towards ways that we might begin to demand a justice, a treatment for that pain. The eponymous bluest eye may be that of whiteness, but its powers are reduced by novels like Morrison’s, which freeze into place the barbarism of our society and forge the hammers that might one day smash it to pieces.
Abbasi, Muhammad Ismail, and Shaheena Ayub Bhatti. “White Linguistic Violence and Black Americans: A Textual Analysis of the Bluest Eye.” Journal of Research in Social Sciences, vol. 5, no. 1, 2017, pp. 135-144. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.adelphi.edu:2443/docview/1869030354?accountid=8204.
Gillan, Jennifer. “Focusing on the Wrong Front: Historical Displacement, the Maginot Line, and The Bluest Eye.” African American Review, vol. 36, no. 2, 2002, pp. 283-298. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.adelphi.edu:2443/docview/209798444?accountid=8204.
McKittrick, Katherine. “‘Black and ‘Cause I’m Black I’m Blue’: Transverse Racial Geographies in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” Gender, Place, and Culture, vol. 7, no. 2, 2000, pp. 125-142. Taylor & Francis Online, http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.adelphi.edu:2048/10.1080/713668872.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Vintage, 2007.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford UP, 1985.
Vickroy, Laurie. "The Politics of Abuse: The Traumatized Child in Toni Morrison and Marguerite Duras." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 29, no. 2, 1996, pp. 91-109. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.adelphi.edu:2443/docview/205365855?accountid=8204.