06 April 2017

Review: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

In a story probably as about as different from the below as you could get, here's my review of Jago & Litefoot, Investigators of Infernal Incidents: Series Twelve.

Trade paperback, 216 pages
Published 1994 (originally 1970)

Acquired August 2004
Previously read October 2004

Reread September 2014
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

If you have the kind of facebook friends I have (literature academics), you may remember a few years ago when a bunch of articles trended with titles like "Reading Novels Makes You More Empathetic" and "Reading Novels Makes You a Better Person" and so on. (Here's an example from Scientific American.) This was the scientific study-backed version of something previous posited by the literary critic Elaine Scarry in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence in 1998, in an essay called "The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons."

Scarry argues that human beings are actually really quite terrible at imagining what it's like to be a different human being, and that this has dangerous, real world consequences: "The human capacity to injure other people has always been much greater than its ability to imagine other people. Or perhaps we should say, the human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our ability to imagine other people is very small. […] But there is a place—namely, the place of great literature—where the ability to imagine others is very strong" (45-6). Literature, she argues is all about imagining oneself as another person: "literature at least holds out to use the constant invitation to read about others, not only other ethnic groups within one’s own country but the great Russian or German or Chinese writings; and universities are, in their departmental organizations, still structured to encourage this cross-country imagining" (47). We might be able to easily think of novels that have created empathy in notable ways, such as how Uncle Tom's Cabin created empathy with the plight of slaves.

But Scarry isn't as optimistic as she might initially seem, because she goes on to argue that
we must recognize severe limits on what the imagination can accomplish. One key limit is the number of characters. […] Presented with the huge number of characters one finds in Dickens or in Tolstoi, one must constantly strain to keep them sorted out; and of course their numbers are tiny when compared with the number of persons to whom we are responsible in political life. […] For this, literature prepares us inadequately, since even secondary characters (let alone second hundredth or second thousandth characters) lack the density of personhood that is attributed to the central character. […] Literature—even when it enlists us into the greatest imaginative acts and the most expansive compassion—always confesses the limits on the imagination by the structural necessity of major and minor persons, center stage and lateral figures. (47)
You might access the plight of the urban poor better if you read Oliver Twist, but though you now better empathize with Oliver himself, you empathize no better with the vast majority of the characters in the novel, some of whom can remain quite one-dimensional.

Therefore, the best literature (according to Scarry) turns this bug into a feature. "Literature […] is most helpful not insofar as it takes away the problem of the Other—for only with greatest rarity can it do this—but when it instead takes as its own subject the problem of Imagining Others. The British novelist Thomas Hardy is a brilliant explicator of this problem. […] Hardy maximizes the imaginary density of a person, then lets us watch the painful subtraction each undergoes as she or he comes to be perceived by others" (48). According to Scarry, we inhabit Tess's world for most of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but then we jump to someone else's perspective and see how they look at Tess so shallowly, missing most of what constitutes her: that is "painful subtraction." Suddenly Tess becomes a secondary character in someone else's story, and we discover how easy it is to not empathize with someone eminently deserving of empathy.

All of this is a long-winded introduction to the fact that I would argue that The Bluest Eye belongs to the same category of novels as Scarry claims for Tess. It is not just designed to make us empathize with other persons, but takes as "its own subject the problem of Imagining Others." The book is all about Pecola Breedlove, but for most of the novel, we never get a scene written from her perspective. All of our empathizing with Pecola must be done without the benefit of interiority. When we finally do go inside Pecola, it's to find out she's fallen apart: there are two Pecolas, and she/they utterly believe they finally have the blue eyes that will make them attractive.

If anything, the structure of The Bluest Eye emphasizes what we might call "painful addition." We switch back and forth between Claudia's narration about her relationship with Pecola Breedlove and flashbacks seemingly told by an omniscient narrator that tell us more about Pecola and her family. Even though Claudia is the best friend Pecola has, each flashback makes it clear that there's so much about Pecola that no one knows, not even her. We learn about how the terrible home life of the Breedloves made Pecola the way she was, then about how Pecola's mother became the way she was, then about how Pecola's father became the way he was. When we finally see the rape of Pecola by her own father, it's from the perspective of her father. We are made to understand why he does what he does. Yet, as the novel makes clear, no one other than the reader (and, to a lesser extent, Claudia) will ever have this level of understanding of these characters. Pecola, as Morrison says in her afterword, is the hole at the center of the novel.

In a sense, we know nothing about Pecola. But in creating painful addition, Morrison makes us see how horrific it is that we know nothing about Pecola.

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