As a society, the Western world has always held some particular ideals about beauty and appearance. One can observe them anywhere: on television, on billboards, on books, on paintings, on photographs. These ideals, especially when it comes to women, usually do not vary but slightly from the following archetype: the young, attractive white woman, seen on posters and magazine covers across the United States. With such prevalent and persistent ideals, it follows that other ideals differing from these will occupy a much less prevalent place in the collective consciousness. To observe those unfamiliar ways while one is accustomed to the norm can likely come as a shock; or even a fright. Knowing this, one must then ask: what becomes of those who fail to adhere to societal expectations? An examination of this question forms an important part of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a novel detailing the lives of the parents and children of an African-American community. As a result of their race, they live in perpetual conflict between their natural identity and the standards of conventional society, struggling to resolve the two. Through her characters, Morrison shows how a desperate desire to reach acceptance at any cost can lead to dangerous—and even uncanny—consequences: the complete and tragic repression of the true self.
To determine why such a transformation of the self is so disturbing, one must examine the meaning of uncanniness. Psychologist Sigmund Freud provided the following thoughts on what he dubbed the unheimlich, or “uncanny”—that which “on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight.” (Freud, 224-5) With Freud’s ideas in mind, The Bluest Eye presents an example of uncanniness early on in the story with one of its characters, Claudia MacTeer. She relates her experiences with traditional children’s dolls, of the white and blue-eyed sort: when receiving them as presents, she expresses an intense aversion to them, preferring to ruthlessly disassemble them instead of admiring their supposed beauty. In reading of Claudia’s distaste for the dolls, one gets a sense that a large portion of this dislike stems from the dolls’ artificial, forced aesthetic of beauty. As she tells it, “[the doll’s] hard unyielding limbs resisted [her] flesh […] the tapered fingertips on those dimpled hands scratched […] the starched gauze or lace on the cotton dress irritated any embrace.” (Morrison, 20) Though the adults in her life expect Claudia to love and cherish the dolls, she finds herself unable to look past their idealized, yet unrealistic aspects; or as Freud might see it, the uncanny artifice of otherwise familiar qualities. Thus, Claudia’s interactions with her dolls more clearly become an uncanny experience: a struggle between the apparent humanity of the doll and the repressed artificiality that she cannot ignore. Through this introduction, the novel sets a thematic precedent for these characters’ pursuit of their perceived ideals of beauty: failure to reconcile their own personal beauty with societal expectations.
Though Claudia does reject the strange and unfamiliar ideal the doll presents, she proves to be the exception to the rule: she is encouraged to accept the dolls by those from whom she receives them, to the point of anger and even sadness when she instead takes to their maiming. Her society’s unusually strong feelings to such a deceptive doll indicates an uncanny level of attachment to the ideal of beauty that it represents; as Claudia relates, the doll-gifters “used-to-cry-[their]-eyes-out” for the chance to have one of their own. (Morrison, 21) They hold this attachment in spite of the fact that they obviously do not share the ideal the doll embodies: the white-skinned, blue-eyed girl. Such unusual expectations can be linked to Freud’s writings as well. He described a psychological “double”; a sort of extension of the ego that contains, among other elements, “all the unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in phantasy, all the strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed”. (Freud, 236) The last part of his statement is crucial—the novel often focuses on its characters’ unfulfilled expectations and desires. Its use of multiple points of view serves it well in this regard; aside from Claudia observation of adults’ desire for the white-skinned doll, the novel also shows another character’s (named Pauline Breedlove) fascination with movies and the starlets within (the novel specifically cites Jean Harlow as an example). At this point, the third-person narrator notes that “in equating physical beauty [of the actresses] with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap.” (Morrison, 122) Because Pauline cannot reach the conventional beauty that the movies present her with, she allows the “double” of her desires to consume her with self-hatred—a substitution of her own ideals of beauty in favor of those the double represents. And here is where the uncanniness of such a substitution becomes apparent: Freud writes that “[the double’s] quality of uncanniness can only come from the fact of the ‘double’ being a creation dating back to a very mental stage”, a quality that becomes unsettling due the divorce between the current self and early expectations (Freud, 236). Viewed through Freud’s lens, then, one can interpret the novel’s characters’ fascination towards the white ideal of beauty as an extension of this particular brand of uncanniness. By allowing their standards to be influenced by their “double” to such a large extent, they effectively remove themselves from their own personal identity and replace it with the “double” instead, making the pursuit of the double’s ideals uncanny and unnatural. Because they grow up surrounded by standards they cannot reach, they arguably find themselves inferior as a result, leading them to desperately latch on to facsimiles as removed from reality as a children’s doll.
Naturally, the novel’s discussion of these different levels of beauty ends up being significantly racially charged. After all, most of the characters are African-American, and the constant comparison to the white ideal of beauty all but directly states that their race is undesirable and unattractive. As a result, not only do they end up replacing their personal ideals with a set of uncanny foreign ones, this role reversal makes their original identity something undesirable, to be kept out of sight—in other words, uncanny in its own right. And of all the novel’s characters, none so effectively exemplify their aversion to their “uncanny” race than Pecola Breedlove. Her discontent with her physical appearance forms the crux of the novel’s themes; a tragic example of society’s rejection of the unconventional. The novel most often demonstrates the racial element of beauty through her. At one point, she suffers harassment from a group of boys about the color of her skin. In the narrator’s words: despite the boys being black themselves, “it was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth.” (Morrison, 65) Through this scene, Morrison not only shows Pecola’s suffering as a result of her unappealing “blackness” (setting up later resentment for it), she also provides additional examples of others rejecting their race and culture as something to be despised, lashing out against their own. For Pecola, this discontent rises to such extremes that she goes to great, impossible lengths to escape it. The story’s title itself alludes to the fervent extent of her desire; she wants nothing more than “blue eyes” of her own, so she may “rise up out of the pit of her blackness” and finally feel like she belongs in the world. (Morrison, 174) It is such a simple, heartfelt wish, but nonetheless an impossible one. Such is how Morrison points out the inherent tragedy of Pecola’s existence—hers and of those who similarly suffer for circumstances beyond their control, unable to let go of the uncanniness their own skin and selves represent to them.
In the same vein, the conclusion to Pecola’s tragic arc shows the ultimate consequence of the rejection of the true self. After she experiences a traumatic episode of parental rape, the novel makes additional use of its multiple points of view to tell a chapter from her perspective. It indicates that afterwards, Pecola has come to believe that she truly does have blue eyes; and that she is treated strangely because of this change, rather than because of the rape incident. A viewpoint so divorced from reality suggests that Pecola’s latest experience was the proverbial last straw that broke her. In a desperate attempt to escape her woeful life, Pecola’s mind gave in to a fantasy that would protect her and finally let her achieve her heart’s desire. Morrison’s method here is particularly effective in showing Pecola’s unsettling final situation; not only is her delusion uncanny by nature of its conviction and its implausibility, but it plays into Freud’s writings about the eyes and the uncanny. He posits that an eye injury is particularly uncanny, believing that “anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind, is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated”, and thus is particularly frightening and inconceivable, therefore uncanny (Freud, 231). And while Freud’s theory may sound farfetched by modern standards, it applies surprisingly well to this particular example. By having her character impose upon herself such a dramatic alteration to her eyes, Morrison deliberately invokes uncanniness upon Pecola’s plight, prompting the readership to feel both sympathy and horror at the lengths to which Pecola will go to reach her ideals of beauty. The connection in this particular example goes even further—much like how castration results in the loss of something important, so too has Pecola lost something by rejecting her self and believing in her blue eyes: her grasp on reality. An extremely high cost, to be sure, yet one whose severity drives home the danger of self-repression—the true end result of divorcing from one’s identity completely and embracing an illusion.
Freud, Sigmund. The ‘Uncanny’ Trans. Alix Strachey. N.p.: n.p., 1925. Print.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Vintage, 2007. Print.