Gender as reflected in literature gives readers pictures that apply, illustrate and reinforce norms and values accepted by society. Authors, whether they are aware of it or not, are themselves socialized into gender systems that are reflected in the themes, characters and plots of their texts. Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” presents gender as a theme that cuts across many social constructions in society.
She does not stop at the conventional and surface definition of gender as a social construction of the roles and norms of male and female, but shows how class, race and even gender subgroups deepen the hierarchies and power relations between different people in society. Though the main focus of her novel is the concept of beauty, the writer posits that beauty is determined by gender subgroups, race and class. In this essay, it is proposed that the concept beauty is a tool used by Morrison to illustrate the hierarchies and values created by race, class and gender.
To show the impact of race, class and gender on both the psyche of the individual and the collective consciousness of society, Morrison uses young black girls as protagonists and narrates their family experiences, making sure to highlight experiences which involve discrimination and oppression by gender, class and race. Though her narratives constantly switch personas, the writer notes that the first person narrative belongs to Claudia, who is often seen to defy the norms and values that Morrison presents.
The former is seen to defy the socialization of young girls into motherhood through the gifting of dolls, “I had no interest in babies or the concept of motherhood” (Morrison 15). Claudia also defies the convention of beauty, of fair-skinned girls with curly blond hair and blue eyes such as Shirley Temple, often despising the latter with a cruel and furious hatred, as seen in her treatment of the doll she received as a gift. Through this, a gender subgroup is shown, or perhaps, even a category which cuts across gender, which is race.
The novel illustrates the presence of gender and class hierarchies that may be structured on the basis of race or gender. Distinctions of white male, white female, black male, black female, white child and black child are presented. Hierarchies are illustrated and the relationships these subgroups have to one another are presented. Seen through the eyes of Pauline Breedlove, the black female is shown to serve almost all of them, “‘White women said, “Do this. ” White children said, “Give me that. White men said, “Come here. ” Black men said, “Lay down. ” (Morrison 93). The character continued to infer black women’s only power, which is as a parent to a child, “The only people they need not take orders from were black children and each other” (Morrison 93). Gender systems and hierarchies denote a set of norms and values that all these subgroups adhere to. For women, roles are the embodiment of these norms and values. Age, class and race are the determinants of such roles.
A young girl is expected to protect her virtue and help her mother. A housewife is expected to be faithful to her husband, perform domestic work, responsible for child-rearing, able to earn additional income for the family and continue the virtues she learned as a young girl. If a female would somehow not fit within the previously-stated norms, such as the case of Frieda, Claudia’s sister, she would be labeled deviant or, in Morrison’s work, ruined. Frieda relates the stigma and fear this label entails in her conversation with Claudia:
Miss Dunion came in after everybody was quiet, and Mama and Daddy was fussing about who let Mr. Henry in anyway, and she said that Mama should take me to the doctor, because I might be ruined, and Mama started screaming all over again…But why were you crying? I don’t want to be ruined. (Morrison 67) The image of ‘ruined’ in Morrison’s work is a source of so much anxiety for Frieda because of their perception of a ‘ruined’ woman, where here, Claudia shares the anxiety and fear in an image of her own, “ An image of Frieda, big and fat, came to mind.
Her thin legs swollen, her face surrounded by layers of rouged skin” (Morrison 67). Frieda is so terribly distressed at being ‘ruined’ that she and her sister strive to find ways to counteract this status or perhaps medicate it. She and Claudia urgently think, “But Frieda, you could exercise and not eat…Besides what about China and Poland, They’re ruined too, aren’t they? And they ain’t fat. That’s because they drink whiskey. Mama says whiskey are them up.
You could drink whiskey” (Morrison 67). In Morrison’s novel, being ‘ruined’ is equivalent to being a whore or prostitute, a woman generally frowned upon by society because of her type of work and her non-adherence to the values of virtue and chastity expected of women. This is illustrated through a reference to the character the Maginot Line, Poland and China, or to Pecola’s ignorance of their true profession, Miss Marie, Miss Poland and Miss China.
The value of virtue and chastity that women are prescribed to is embodied in the role of a virgin or legitimate wife, which the previously-mentioned women are most certainly not and are consequently stigmatized by the community. However, these women are aware and accept the stigma and fully understand their role prescription and label of ‘ruined’ as a choice they made, characterizing themselves as “whores in whores’ clothing, whores who had never been young and had no word for innocence” (Morrison 42).
Despite their self-prescription, stigma and community perceptions, these women are aware of their deviance and accept it, implying that they are aware and accept what is proper and appropriate, Their only respect was for what they would have described as ‘good Christian colored women. ’ The woman whose reputation was spotless, and who tended to her family, who didn’t drink or smoke or run around. These women had their undying, if covert, affection. ” (Morrison 41-42) Other works by female authors present this image of ‘good women’.
Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun” shows Louisa Ellis, who waits for Joe Dagget for 15 years to marry him and stays at home, sews and does housework all day and performs domestic work. She is characterized as meek, stiff, peaceful and virtuous (Freeman). Here, Louisa Ellis performs all the roles and tasks ascribed to a single woman. “A White Heron” also shows an image of a ‘good girl’ in the character of Sylvia, who follows her grandmother’s instructions, is quiet and complacent towards older men and keeps a secret within her girl’s heart (Jewett).
It must be noted however, that this image uses only gender as a category for prescription. This image is elevated to the level of race as a gender subgroup through Pecola Breedlove who alludes to her fondest dream of blue eyes (Morrison). The dimensions of this dream and how it is shaped by the previously-mentioned gender systems to the point of oppression and revulsion for oneself is almost horrific and pitiful. Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” may describe Pecola’s dream as one that: “Fester(s) like a sore— / and then run? (4-5), showing how much pain Pecola feels and experiences because of her unfulfilled dream.
She considers her brown eyes a sore, for the absence of her fulfilled dream of blue eyes is the presence of her brown eyes. The horror of her wish and the desperation of her yearning is expressed at the end of Morrison’s work, when all these gender systems, roles and values bear down upon her because of her father’s impregnating her. Her split personality or other voice in her head accompanies her new perception of having blue eyes, the bluest eyes, which makes her feel that she is above everyone else.
She no longer hides behind her ugliness as she did before (Morrison 28), but sees people unable to bear their own in the presence of the ultimate symbol and sign of beauty, that she alone possesses, the bluest eyes. Essay 1 Reflection When I gave into my emotions and intellect for this essay, I found myself to feel very strongly about Pecola’s situation and her perception of her own appearance and beauty. To think that she conceives the disdain and disgust that other feel for her and is able to project it within herself is almost traumatizing for me especially since I know how young she is.
Compounded oppression, bad family situation and victimization are features of her life that may make one almost think that her fate was horribly inescapable and her desire for blue eyes one that elicits deep sympathy. Discussing this with others and presenting my ideas on gender and how deep the scars of gender-based violence may run has given me insight on the historical and cultural relevance of Morrison’s work and how others’ works like Kate Chopin, Jewett and Freeman reflect this type violence. I would consider Pecola’s perception as an effect of violence.
Thinking about the story, I would think that Pecola’s innocence was still intact even after she was raped by her father perhaps through her own mind’s fierce denial, but her psyche was totally shattered when she received her wish of blue eyes. Relating this text to my courses on women studies and feminism, a deeper analysis would have shown the intricacies of race, class and gender and how the hierarchies created by these three based solely on oppressive social constructions can destroy whole countries, whole peoples of color and at the individual level, complete psyches and perceptions.
The scope and range of feminism tends to question everything and I wanted to do that but felt limited by the number of pages allowed. When someone would read my essay, I would hope that it would spark a little interest in re-examining texts and even his/her own perceptions on race, class and gender. I would say that my essay’s goal would be to spark insight in my reader about the world and society in terms of the three social constructions I mentioned.