A number of structural patterns in nature and direction of the interactions that Toni Morrison portrays in The Bluest Eye stood out to me upon my first reading of the novel. Many of these interactions related to aggressive behaviors in more or less apparent ways. These individual aggressions, however, may have just attracted my attention due to a possible predisposition on my part for the corresponding patterns, in which case confirmation bias would have lead me to involuntarily ignore other aggressive behaviors contradicting them.1
In particular it seemed that it was often an older generation that acted aggressively toward a younger generation along the cascade of the at least three generations that the book traces upstream, as it were, into the past. What rendered this hypothesis consciously plausible to me was the relative impressionability and vulnerability of children, and their parents’ position of authority (Vissing et al.; Huntsman).
To minimize the influence of personal biases and thus solidify the empirical basis of further inferences, this term paper attempts to record aggressions in The Bluest Eye as comprehensively as possible and visualize them algorithmically to make any such flows of aggressions apparent, if they exist.
One hurdle in this respect is that aggressions can vary widely in their intensity, from China’s teasing of Marie (Morrison 39, 41), an adult, over the microaggression by Claudia’s parents on their daughters when “Frieda and [Claudia] were not introduced to [Henry] merely pointed out” (10), over Charles Breedlove’s traumatic experience when white hunters forced Darlene and him to have sex in front of them (116), to the two times that Charles Breedlove rapes his daughter Pecola (128, 158). Unfortunately, there are only few pairs of cases that can be ordered with respect to their intensity so that enough observers would agree with the order to call it objective. What is helpful in this case is that there are several established systems of classification of aggressions (see section 3) that allow us to assign categories to the aggressions, categories that are more readily distinguishable.
Another hurdle is that the representation of aggressions in the literary text is sometimes not straightforward. Action or dialogue may convey aggressions very directly, but it is also possible that an aggression, while very explicit for the victim, is only implied for the reader. One example is the scene at the “big white house with the wheelbarrow full of flowers” where Paulina Breedlove works as domestic aid. At the end of the scene, Pecola (together with Claudia and Frieda) is leaving while the family’s child asks who they were. Mrs. Breedlove evades the question, effectively denying her daughter in front of her (85).
Interior emotion or monologue may also be straightforward in its descriptions of aggressions, but in other cases, the victims themselves may not be aware of the aggressive nature of an interaction they experienced.2 Pecola’s encounter with Mr. Yacobowski, the owner of a candy shop, during which Pecola is the point-of-view character, is told in a quick alternation between action, dialogue, interior emotion, and a little interior monologue. She is unable to speak in his presence and sentences such as “His nails graze her damp palm” reveal her fear, or more precisely shame, as it is made explicit in the following sentence. Then she does feel a sense of vague anger, but only momentarily before it is replaced again by shame. Underneath lies Mr. Yacobowski’s aggression in his disrespectful and contemptuous behavior toward her. This is amplified by her identification with dandelions. She initially liked them, but after the experience acquiesces to popular opinion and decides that they—and by implication she herself—are weeds and ugly, whereby she blames herself for Mr. Yacobowski’s show of contempt3 (47–50).
Similarly, in the wide field of description and narrative summary, some aggressions are not themselves described or summarized but strongly implied as premise for the described. On page five already, Claudia describes first the travail she and her family put themselves through to collect “the tiny pieces of coal lying about” near the railroad tracks that lead to a steel mill. In the following paragraph, she describes their home as “cold.” Only a few pages later, she explains the concept of “outdoors” in more detail and mentions that “to be put outdoors by a landlord was one thing—unfortunate, but an aspect of life over which you had no control, since you could not control your income,” which highlights the discrimination of people of color on the job market. Taken together, these scraps of summary and description portray clearly the intersectional, multifaceted forms of aggression that Claudia’s family and community, and by extension people of color throughout the US, were (or are) exposed to, the aggression of racial oppression from whites and capitalist oppression from the owning class.
In the following, section 2 will first establish a reasonably precise definition of aggression as the term is used in this paper. Then, section 3 will introduce the three classification systems that will serve as guide for a qualitative analysis of the aggressions in The Bluest Eye. The distinctions in the textual representation of aggressions that I will observe will be explained in section 4. On this basis, section 5 will turn to observations on the process of applying these typologies to the text. The final section, section 6, will present the result, the graph, which will also answer my opening hypothesis.
The full annotated classification table that forms the basis for the graph is attached as appendix to the paper.
Polysemy, “the greedy habit some words have of taking more than one meaning for themselves,” (McKean) is a core feature of natural languages. The term aggression is certainly not an epitome of polysemy, like set or run, but in different contexts the intended meaning will also be subtly different. Hence, what this section seeks to establish is not an encompassing definition of aggression but one that will help describe the purview of this survey.
Requirements for such a definition are that it be specific enough to allow the reader to decide in most of the cases found in The Bluest Eye whether they constitute an aggression according to the definition; that it be inclusive enough to capture most of the aggressions that have significant effects on the characters; and that it be unencumbered by the difficulties associated with passing moral judgment on aggressors, since such an endeavor would go far beyond the scope of this paper.
Dictionary definitions such as (1) “An unprovoked attack; the first attack in a dispute or conflict; an assault, an inroad,” (2) “The practice of attacking another or others; the making of an attack or assault,” (3) “Feeling or energy displayed in asserting oneself, or in showing drive or initiative; aggressiveness, assertiveness, forcefulness. (Usu. as a positive quality.),” or (4) “Behaviour intended to injure another person or animal; an instance of this” (Oxford English Dictionary) are unfortunately alternately limited to aggressions between countries, too broad to be useful in this context, or entirely reliant on synonyms.
Within the academic literature, one popular definition appears to be the following: “Aggression is any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment.” (Baron and Richardson 7)
This definition makes five important choices: (1) that aggression is a behavior rather than an emotion, attitude, or motive4; (2) that the aggressor intends the aggression; (3) that it aims to harm or injure the victim; (4) that the victim needs to be a “living being”5; and (5) that the victim is motivated to avoid the aggression.
These observations are valuable, but one of them critically limits the scope of the term. Although Baron and Richardson observe that the notion of intend is a problematic one to include since it is not externally observable, they argue that to exclude it would make it “necessary to describe the actions of surgeons, dentists, and even parents when disciplining their children as aggressive.” (9) As such, however, the definition would exclude a range of microaggressions—specifically many microinsults and microinvalidations, a distinction that will be explained in the corresponding subsection—from the definition, as they are often inflicted negligently rather than intentionally. These microaggressions have critical effects on many characters in the novel as well as in reality (Sue et al. 278).
To resolve this conflict, it should be observed that, firstly, in the cases of surgeons and dentists, the fifth criterion does not apply; evidently, their patients are more strongly motivated to undergo treatment than to avoid it.6 Optionally, changing the definition to say “predominantly motivated” would make this clearer, but introduce another potentially vague term. Secondly, categorizing the action of parents “disciplining their children,” whether verbally or physically, as aggressive does not seem to conflict with the notion of aggression when removed from its morally judgmental overtones, as I intend to do here. A verbal chastisement may often be legitimate despite its aggressive nature.7
Importantly, they also point out that omission of any mention of intent would remove from the scope of the definition any (intuitively) aggressive actions that were foiled. An imperfect example of this might be Claudia’s blow against Maureen, which missed. She instead, accidentally, hit Pecola (Morrison 56). None of this would intuitively strip the aggressiveness from the behavior. This argument, however, should not be read as an argument against the exclusion of intent from the definition in any form but merely against the exclusion of intent as sufficient condition for an aggression.
Consequently, I will describe as aggression in this text any form of behavior negligently or intentionally harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment, or the attempt thereof.
It should also be noted that the definition does not make mention of the precise nature of the perpetrator, so that it encompasses aggressions that are inflicted by groups rather than individuals that could clearly be pinpointed. Aggressions that will later be described as systemic or societal count into this category.
What the definition excludes, however, are aggressions toward or by inanimate objects. When Claudia dismantles her dolls, the aggression is not one against the doll but one that bifurcates into, on the one hand, a symbolic or at that point hypothetical rebellion against the societally dictated ideal of beauty that the doll represents and, on the other hand, a more concrete aggression against her parents, who may be irked by her lacking appreciation of their gift.8 Conversely, the perceived aggression of the doll against Claudia (“It was a most uncomfortable, patently aggressive sleeping companion” (Morrison 14)) does not count by itself constitute an aggression of this sort by is rather another indication of the systemic oppression that she perceives more subconsciously at her young age and that causes her heightened state of irritability and vexation with the doll.
Aggressions can have a physical and an emotional impact on the victim, though it is hard to imagine a physical aggression that does not also have an emotional dimension. When an aggression is effective purely on an emotional level, it can often be described as microaggression (Pierce et al. 65), some of which are “ambiguous and nebulous” as Sue et al. (272) described them, and thus “difficult to identify and acknowledge.”
Categorizations of aggressions that I have encountered in the literature have often been dichotomous, and Ramirez also observed that they can usually be divided into systems “focused to distinguish the form or mode of aggression [and] others interested in its function or goal,” whereby his own study is one of the latter kind (86). The description of the “function or goal” is one that scrutinizes the aggressor, while those focused on “form or mode” (the next subsection will introduce Buss’s system) concentrate on the aggression itself. What is missing is a typology of its impact on the victim. At least in the realm of microaggressions, Sue et al.’s system fills this void.
One taxonomy that is interested in the “form or mode” of the aggression and that is also referenced by Baron and Richardson in their book was proposed by Buss. Griffin, O’Leary-Kelly, and Pritchard (65) call it “the most widely recognized” typology of aggressions, and Google Scholar lists more than 1,400 articles that cite Buss’s book. The typology distinguishes three pairs of mutually exclusive modes of aggression, and thus captures eight types in total.
Physical vs. verbal: “Physical aggression … involves physical action on part of the actor, whereas verbal aggression inflicts harm through words.” (Griffin, O’Leary-Kelly, and Pritchard 65)
Active vs. passive: “Active aggression requires the actor to do something to harm the target, whereas passive aggression involves withholding something that the target needs or values.” (65)
Following from his observation about the different foci of taxonomies, Ramirez was able to integrate the systems he surveyed and strip redundancies until his new system again distinguished three pairs of alternative motivations or causes for aggressions. The terms are fairly intuitive: hostile vs. instrumental, Impulsive vs. premeditate,10 and proactive vs. reactive.
Hostile vs. instrumental: “Hostile aggression is an angry, unplanned act intended to harm another person,” whereas “instrumental aggression is conceived as a premeditated technique for obtaining a variety of objectives, such as some reward, profit, or advantage for the aggressor.”11
Impulsive vs. premeditate: “Impulsive aggression tends to pursue immediate gratification, without thinking or concern about consequences, delaying long-run costs,” whereas “premeditate aggression … is planned, purposeful, intentional and goal-directed.”
Proactive vs. reactive: “Proactive aggression enacts aggression as an effective means for obtaining external rewards and social goals, such as possession of objects (i.e., instrumental) or dominating people (i.e., person-oriented or bullying),” whereas “reactive aggression is a hostile reaction or response to any perceived harm, threat or provocation.” (Ramirez 87–93)
Unfortunately—and one can already recognize this in the definitions—the pairs are not entirely independent. Ramirez observes that the combination of instrumental, premeditate, and proactive and the combination of hostile, impulsive, and reactive are disproportionately common, based centrally on Polman et al.’s meta-analysis of empirical studies and corroborated by three more studies cited in the paper (93–94).
A more specific category is that of microaggressions. Sue et al., who developed a trichotomous taxonomy of microaggressions, describe racial microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” This concept can easily be extended to encompass any nonviolent slights that oppressed groups are exposed to. They distinguish three subgroups of microaggressions.
Microassault: “Explicit racial derogations characterized primarily by a violent verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior or purposeful discriminatory actions.”
Microinsult: “Behavioral/verbal remarks or comments that convey rudeness, insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.”
Microinvalidation: “Verbal comments or behaviors that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color.” (Sue2007 278)
These taxonomies by Buss, Ramirez, and Sue et al. are complementary, with the first one focusing on “form or mode” (Ramirez 86) of the aggression, the second on their “function or goal” (86) for the aggressor, and and the last on their impact on the victim. Apart from these differences, the first system appears to be the most broadly applicable one. I will explain some of the limitations of Ramirez’s taxonomy in section 5, as they are not immediately obvious. What is explicitly obvious, however, is that Sue et al.’s system only describes microaggressions, and many aggressions in The Bluest Eye are anything but “micro-.” While they may have ancillary aspects that fit one of the definitions, applying the category to the whole of such an aggression would be tantamount to a microinvalidation against the reader.
To reconcile these different systems, the applicable categories, and only these, will be listed for each aggression.
Just as aggressions can be taxonomically qualified, so can their representations in a literary text. The section on motivation already touched on some of the different contexts of aggressions in The Bluest Eyein action and dialogue, in inner emotion or inner monologue, and in description or summary—but what they all have in common is that they either denote actual aggressions (within the partially fictional realm) or hypothetical aggressions that take place on an embedded diagetic tier as characters, including the narrator, merely imagine them.
What they also have in common is that they are either exacted at or in the presence of their victim, or expressed in absentia, the latter mode making their effect and their actual victims more difficult to determine.
The first chapter, for example, sees a number of unnamed characters engaging in gossip and animadverting upon a woman named Peggy, who they describe as “trifling” and a “heifer” (Morrison 8). One of them avers that Henry left another woman, Della, because of a perfume she wore. Factuality of that assertion aside, they conclude that Henry was a “nasty” “old dog” not for leaving someone over such a trifling reason but for preferring someone’s natural over artificial odors. This, of course, creates an adverse social climate for Peggy or reinforces the existing one.12
The effects are even more insidious, however. At the conclusion of the dialogue sequence, Claudia reflects on the way she and Frieda perceived the conversation as children: “We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all their words, for we are nine and ten years old” (10). The prosodic qualities of the dialogue were primary to them, so she described it as a “gently wicked dance.” Thus Morrison shows how impressionable they are, bare of many of the conscious safeguards adults develop, when they are subjected to the normative influences that inform them that their body odors are noxious and need to be drowned in “violet water” (8), a readily homemade perfume, lest they earn the denigration of their community. This tendency of a societal ideal to imbue the community with self-loathing, here olfactorically, is reminiscent of the inimical ideal of visual beauty, whose deconstruction is very central to the novel. Many of the aggressions throughout the book are its product, just as the title alludes to it.
Another distinction that I would have found interesting but ultimately dismissed is that between the concrete and the abstract description of an aggression. Concrete would have been the aggressions portrayed in action and dialogue with fleshed-out individuals involved, while abstract would have been description that considers forms of aggression, and other narrative modes where forms of aggression are described in terms of groups or archetypes of people.
This distinction was of particular interest to me as it is a strong determinant in how people react emotionally to information. Many studies have shown that “people care more about identifiable than statistical victims” (Kogut and Ritov; Small and Loewenstein), which is a central problem in the organization of philanthropy to combat wide-spread hunger and desolation abroad. Potential donors concentrate their generosity on helping out a single, well-publicized individuals when the same donations could have saved scores or hundreds of lives of “statistical victims.” Moreover, not even further education about these victims’ situation helps; it merely reduces people’s readiness to donate to the individual cases (Small and Loewenstein).
Toni Morrison surely found herself faced with the same problem as these altruistic organizations, on the one hand wanting to emotionally captivate and move the audience, and on the other show that the conflicts she portrays were and are not individual cases but examples of all-pervasive scourges of society. Claudia even reflects on their comparative ease handing their plights so long as they remained abstract (Morrison 11).
Examples of concrete aggressions would have been Claudia’s parents neglecting to introduce their children to Henry; the white hunters forcing Darlene and Charles at gunpoint to have sex in front of them; and Claudia imagining herself and Frieda beat up Rosemary. Examples of abstract aggressions would have been the mention of “mothers [who] put their sons outdoors” (11); the description of Charles’s “dangerously free” state that enabled him to commit various kinds of abuse on people under his authority, whether hypothetical or not; and the statement that “the white-collar occupations available to black people” were few (135).
While these aggressions seemed to fit rather neatly into the category, many more were greatly more ambivalent and elusive when viewed through its lens. One one level, by merit of its being a work of fiction, all aggressions in the novel could be said to be abstract, made more concrete in countless different ways only in the minds of readers. On another level, the narration often intentionally equivocates here. When Claudia introduces the reader to her intersectional positionality, namely, to the ways their parents treated Frieda and her, to how the community treated them and their parents, and how society treated their community, all very succinctly on the first three pages before Mr. Washington arrives, she uses the present tense to aggregate flash backs that alternate between possible concrete examples, sometimes even direct speech, (e.g., “Frieda and I lag behind, staring at the patch of color surrounded by black” (5)) and clearly abstract descriptions (e.g., “When, on a day after a trip to collect coal, I cough once …” (6)), intermingled to an extend that the distinction becomes blurred. This mode of narration reminds the readers not to dismiss what they read as isolated incidents, but to extrapolate from them to the anguish and later trauma of Claudia’s whole ethnic group, class, and generation.
There are four reasons that I have encountered that precluded the applicability of a category to an instance of aggression in the novel: (1) the aggression was outside its purview, (2) the (single) aggression included several aspects contradictory in category, (3) insufficient information was given to make the decision, and (4) the aggression kept in such abstract terms that it could describe multiple concrete aggressions of contradictory types. While the latter two are results of the diegetic interpretation of the events, the first two are (at least partially intentional) limitations of the taxonomies.
Types of microaggressions are typically inapplicable to physical aggressions, which are not “micro-.” This is the most straightforward case of inapplicability.13
There were also cases where the categories of microinsult and microinvalidation seemed to overlap. The abovementioned microaggression of Claudia’s parents against her when they neglect to introduce their children to Henry Washington could be seen simply as microinsult for its “rudeness” and “insensitivity” toward their “identity” (quoting the definition). This very identity, however, is that of individuals whose “experiential reality” is that of conscious and “feeling” beings rather than fixtures, an experience that their parents treatment “negates.” Since the concept of the microinsult appears to be the more inclusive one, I would tend to categorize these aggressions as microinvalidations. Apart from this issue, the different types of microaggressions, according to Sue et al.’s system, were for the most part clearly discernible.14
Buss’s typology performed similarly well. There was only one problem that I encountered occasionally. The system only distinguishes physical and verbal aggressions, so behavioral aggressions would have to be counted as physical even though, to me, they appear more similar to verbal aggressions or possibly constituting a category of their own. I decided not to categorize them as either.
Finally, the classification according to Ramirez’s system was the most challenging and its results should be viewed with the greatest caution. One reason for this was surely that the assessment of the motives of aggressors—central on for this system—is often left to the reader. Although the narrator makes many of these motives explicit, she introduces the story with the words “But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” (Emphasis in original.) This refuge in how is certainly frequent as well, so that the why is sometimes open for debate.
Furthermore, the categories are, as mentioned above, interrelated, so that some categories already imply or preclude categories other than their counterpart. In particular the following three combinations are impossible according to the definition, although the intuitive meaning of the terms would in some cases leave room for some such aggressions.15
- An aggression cannot be hostile and premeditate, because hostile aggression has to be “unplanned.” By implication, premeditate aggression would have to be instrumental, but Claudia’s various actual or hypothetical, planned attacks on Maureen Peal (Morrison 48–50) did not serve the goal of obtaining any “reward, profit, or advantage.”
- An aggression cannot be instrumental and impulsive, because instrumental aggression has to be a “premeditated technique.” This seems intuitive, but only because it implies that any amount of premeditation, however short, satisfies the criterion. When Rosemary Villanucci spots Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola in the bushes around their house and immediately calls for Mrs. MacTeer (21), she probably has no clear conscious idea of what she is doing and why,16 but the definition would force us to assume premeditation.
- An aggression cannot be instrumental and reactive, because reactive aggression has to be “hostile.” However, anyone can readily imagine aggressions that are reactive in that they are a “response to any perceived harm, threat or provocation” and are yet not “unplanned.” When the woman of the “family of slender means” terminated Mrs. Breedlove employment and denied her the last outstanding salary as a form of inverse incentive to leave Mr. Breedlove, she surely planned this decision, yet it was clearly her reaction to Mr. Breedlove’s threatening impression on her.
Finally, there were also many aggressions that each have distinct manifestations for different victims. One example of this are the aggressions in absentia that were discussed in sec:representation, as they can easily be microaggressive to mere bystanders why creating a hostile environment for the intended victim. Another example are the fights between Mrs. and Mr. Breedlove (29, 96, …), which not only constitute violent aggression between the two of them but also left their children, who observed the fights, deeply traumatized. If the different aspects of an aggression appeared similarly important or likely, I often decided to split them up and classify them separately.
“Composite aggressions” is my term for aggressions that can be broken up into multiple or countless separate aggressions, limitations on the available data notwithstanding.
The typical case are societal or systemic aggressions. These types of aggressions are more or often less consciously perceived by the victims; pinpointing any original perpetrator, however, is greatly more difficult: “Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which, in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to destruction is sealed” (Morrison x).
This world that “in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair,” as Toni Morrison put it in the foreword of a 2007 print of her book, is introduced right from the start when the MacTeers have to collect “tiny pieces of coal” that have fallen off the coal trains—tedious work in the cold of winter—only to turn around and see the steel mill where the trains transport their never ending abundances of coal.
Other sections specifically indicate racial discrimination on the job market, in education, and centrally in the accepted ideal of physical beauty: “To be put outdoors by a landlord was one thing—unfortunate, but an aspect of life over which you had no control, since you could not control your income” (Morrison 11) or “They go to land-grant colleges, normal schools, and learn how to do the white man’s work with refinement: home economics to prepare his food; teacher education to instruct black children in obedience; music to soothe the weary master and entertain his blunted soul” (64) or “Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another—physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion” (95) or “The men studied medicine, law, theology, and emerged repeatedly in the powerless government offices available to the native population” (133) or “… among all the waste and beauty of the world—which is what she herself was. All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed” (163).
Especially the imposed ideal of beauty, for which you first had to be white and blue eyed, takes center stage and is viewed there from at least two perspectives, that of the Breedloves who accept it and are devastated by it, and Claudia, who from her early childhood onward wages war against it and tries to dismantle it—even literally at first and out of a motivation to find and understand it.17
In the graph below, individuals are indicated by oval vertices, groups of people or abstract entities by boxes. Every solid directed edge represents an aggression, while dashed edges represent hypothetical aggressions, which, of course, do not count as actual aggressions.
The graph is arranged using the dot algorithm, which has the property that it arranges the vertices in distinct ranks and minimizes edge lengths, which implicitly leads to vertices with more incoming edges tending toward the right and those with fewer tending toward the left: “An optimal rank assignment assigns integer ranks to nodes such that the sum of the ‘costs’ of edges is minimized. The ‘cost’ of an edge is the product of its weight and its length, where the length is the rank of its head minus the rank of its tail” (Gansner, North, and Vo 4).
This property is useful for assessing the overall “flow” of aggressions. In view of my hypothesis that aggressions are often handed down from the older generation to the younger, for example, the graph structure makes clear that I could not find a single aggression of a member of a younger generation on a member of an older one. Neither could I find any of a person of color on an individual white person. Furthermore, we can see that Pecola Breedlove has only incoming edges.
These observations are in line with the strategy of the author as explained in her 2007 foreword: “The project, then, for this, my first book, was to enter the life of the one least likely to withstand such damaging forces because of youth, gender, and race” and “The main character could not stand alone since her passivity made her a narrative void” (Morrison x).
However, to establish that there is at least in many cases a cause-effect relationship between the aggressions of the oldest on the younger and the aggressions of the younger on the youngest, the novel proper needs to be scrutinized again.
Firstly, there are two sentences that describe the process very succinctly: “When white men beat their men, they cleaned up the blood and went home to receive abuse from the victim. They beat their children with one hand and stole for them with the other” (Morrison 108).
Secondly, Toni Morrison also explains in her foreword that she “mounted a series of rejections, some routine, some exceptional, some monstrous, all the while trying hard to avoid complicity in the demonization process Pecola was subjected to. That is, [she] did not want to dehumanize the characters who trashed Pecola and contributed to her collapse.” To this end she did not just create Pecola’s parents as mere plot devices—a victim of delusions of a religious calling and an alcohol addict—but gave them extensive backstory that showed much of the how, and thereby some of the why, behind their callous and atrocious aggressions, especially against their children.
We are lead through both their childhoods and the early years of their relationship. We experience, proximately, the traumatic turning points of their lives. We even hear Paulina Breedlove’s voice and Charles Breedlove’s thoughts.18 This intimacy builds rapport and lets us empathize with them, so while we will still condemn their deeds, we can no longer “demonize” them, as Toni Morrison put it, and hence can no longer indulge in the complacent belief of having isolated the root cause of Pecola’s descent into madness.
What happened, then, is that we got a glimpse of the why behind their aggressive behaviors, a why that itself is born of aggressions and their resulting traumata. Hence, it becomes clear that the destructive force that caused Pecola to “literally fall apart” (Morrison xii), exacerbated by many of the same aggressions that already beleaguered her parents, was yet the aggregate of generations of oppression.
Below the table of the aggressions in The Bluest Eye. For typographic reasons, I had to resort of abbreviating the types of aggressions and their forms of representation in the text. The abbreviations are unique per column.
- hyp.: Hypothetical
- i.a.: In absentia
- phy., ver.: Physical, verbal
- act., pas.: Active, passive
- dir., ind.: Direct, indirect
- hos., ins.: Hostile, instrumental
- imp., pre.: Impulsive, premeditate
- pro., rea.: Proactive, reactive
- ass.: Microassault
- ins.: Microinsult
- inv.: Microinvalidation
Furthermore I chose to abbreviate “composite” as “com.” and “see above” as “v.s.” (vide supra).
|5||Rosemary Villanucci||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer||ver., act., dir.||hos., pro.||ass.||Rosemary Villanucci initiates a conversation with Claudia and Frieda MacTeer to tell them that they cannot enter her family’s car.|
|5||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer||Rosemary Villanucci||hyp.||phy., act., dir.||hos., pre., rea.||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer fantasize about physical retribution on Rosemary Villanucci.|
|5||Society||MacTeer family||com.||com.||com.||The MacTeer family has to collect coal scraps in view of abundance.|
|5||Adults||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer||ver., act., dir.||imp., rea.||ins.||Parents blame children for accidents and illnesses.|
|6||Mrs. and Mr. MacTeer||Claudia MacTeer||v.s.||v.s.||v.s.||Examples of the above.|
|7||Mrs. MacTeer||Claudia MacTeer||v.s.||v.s.||v.s.||The above explained in terms of synechdochical blame.|
|8||Unnamed person||Peggy||i.a.||ver., act.||imp., pro.||ass.||The conversation reveals a deep-seated disdain of someone called Peggy.|
|8||Society||Women||com.||com.||com.||The conversation reveals a societal pressure to wear perfume, a possible indication of self-loathing.|
|8||Unnamed person||Aunt Julia||i.a.||ver., act.||hos., imp., rea.||ass.||One of the interlocutors pretends that someone “floating by” harmed them.|
|9||Unnamed person||Bella’s sister||i.a.||ver., act.||rea.||ass.||An interlocutor raises a suspicion of self-serving motives merely due to someone’s prolonged absence from family members.|
|10||Mrs. and Mr. MacTeer||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer||ver., act., dir.||imp., pro.||ins.||Claudia MacTeer’s parents treat their children like inventory.|
|11||Charles Breedlove||Wife and children||phy., act., dir.||hos., imp.||Description of Charles Breedlove’s violence toward his family.|
|11||Abstract mother||Abstract son||com.||com.||com.||Aggression by mother on son used as abstract example.|
|11||Society||Claudia MacTeer’s community||com.||com.||com.||A comment that indicates discrimination on the job market.|
|12||Society||Claudia MacTeer’s community||com.||com.||com.||Threat of homelessness.|
|14||Society||Claudia MacTeer||com.||com.||com.||The doll, symbolic of the oppressive ideals of beauty, is described as “patently aggressive sleeping companion..”|
|14||Adults||Claudia MacTeer||pas., dir.||ins.||No adult ever asked her what she wanted for Christmas but were content to guess for her.|
|15||Claudia MacTeer||White girls||hyp.||phy., act., dir.||pre., rea.||Claudia MacTeer imagines cruelty toward “little white girls..”|
|15||People||Claudia MacTeer||ver., pas., dir.||ins.||Claudia MacTeer resents never being regarded as, maybe, adorable.|
|16||Mrs. MacTeer||Pecola Breedlove et al.||ver., act., dir.||imp., rea.||ass.||Mrs. MacTeer engages in an extensive tirade against Pecola over her consumption of great amounts of milk.|
|18||“My man”||Narrator||phy., pas., dir.||A blues song provides a lyrical description of the abandonment of a woman by her boyfriend or husband.|
|21||Frieda MacTeer||Claudia MacTeer||ver., act., dir.||hos., imp.||ass.||Frieda MacTeer insults her sister.|
|21||Rosemary Villanucci||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, Pecola Breedlove||ver., act., ind.||ins.||Rosemary Villanucci exploits a situation possibly to gain recognition from the adults, to harm Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, or to feel confirmed in her possibly unfavorable opinion about blacks generally.|
|22||Mrs. MacTeer||Frieda MacTeer||phy., act., dir.||imp.||Mrs. MacTeer beats Frieda.|
|23||Frieda MacTeer||Claudia MacTeer||ver., act., dir.||hos., imp.||ass.||Another slight slight by Frieda against her sister.|
|28||Society||Breedloves||com.||com.||com.||The white-dominated culture confirms the Breedloves in their belief in their own ugliness.|
|29||Paulina and Charles Breedlove||Paulina and Charles Breedlove||phy., act., dir.||rea.||A fight between the Breedlove parents.|
|29||Paulina and Charles Breedlove||Pecola and Sammy Breedlove||act., dir.||The fight is also aggressive towards their children.|
|31||White hunters||Charles Breedlove, Darlene||phy., act., dir.||hos., imp., pro.||A description of Charles Breedlove’s trauma.|
|34||Any girl at school||Bobby, Pecola Breedlove||ver., act., dir.||Teasing of “Bobby” (or anyone) as an example of mean-spirited behavior between children other than Pecola that is yet abusive toward her.|
|36||Mr. Yacobowski||Pecola Breedlove||dir.||hos., imp.||ins.||A complex experience reveals a very hostile kind of disrespect that Pecola is exposed to.|
|39||China||Marie||ver., act., dir.||imp., pro.||ass.||China fat-shaming Marie without hurtful intent.|
|40||John Dillinger||Random people||hyp.||phy., act., dir.||ins., pre.||A description of a violent bank robbery.|
|41||China||Marie||ver., act., dir.||imp., pro.||ass.||Another sizeist comment from China in conjunction with a probably jokular racist aspect.|
|43||China, Marie, and Poland||Men||com.||hos.||Several descriptions of aggressions against men, at one point referred to as “vengence..”|
|48||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer||Maureen Peal||ver., act., dir.||hos., rea.||ass.||The sisters tease Maureen Peal.|
|49||Claudia MacTeer||Maureen Peal||ver., dir.||hos., imp., rea.||ins.||Claudia MacTeer counters an invitation from Maureen Peal discourteously while not turning it down.|
|49||Claudia MacTeer||Maureen Peal||hyp.||phy., act., dir.||hos., pre., rea.||Claudia MacTeer fantasizes about damaging Maureen’s fur muff.|
|50||Bunch of boys||Pecola Breedlove||ver., act., dir.||pro.||ass.||Several boys mob and insult Pecola Breedlove.|
|50||Frieda MacTeer||Woodrow||phy., act., dir.||pre., rea.||Frieda MacTeer hits Woodrow with a book.|
|51||Claudia MacTeer, Bay Boy||Bay Boy, Claudia MacTeer||ver., act., dir.||imp., rea.||Claudia and Bay Boy insult each other.|
|53||Maureen Peal||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer||ver., pas., dir.||ins.||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer are disappointed over not getting to eat ice cream.|
|53||Society||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer||com.||com.||com.||At a movie theater they see a picture of a white actress smiling down at them.|
|55||Claudia MacTeer||Maureen Peal||ver., act., dir.||imp.||ass.||Claudia MacTeer employs one of her stock insults against Maureen Peal.|
|56||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, Maureen||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, Maureen, Pecola Breedlove||ver. and phy., act., dir.||hos., imp., rea.||A wild, nonsensical quarrel ensues, and they again use “black” as insult.|
|57||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer||Pecola Breedlove||ver., pas., dir.||Yet the sisters are irritated by Pecola’s self-loathing and fail to comfort her.|
|59||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer||Rosemary Villanucci||hyp.||pas., dir.||hos., pre., rea.||ins.||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer plan on making Rosemary Villanucci jealous.|
|60||People||Marie||ver., act.||ass.||A description of the slander the three prostitutes are exposed to.|
|61||Henry Washington||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer||ver., act., dir.||ins.||Henry Washington lies to the sisters.|
|64||Society||Certain type of women||com.||com.||com.||A description of the established educational obedience “brainwashing” Geraldine and others went through.|
|65||Certain type of women||Husbands||pas., dir.||pro.||Denial of love for their husbands.|
|67||Geraldine||Blacks, Junior||ver., act., dir./ind.||pro., pre.||ass.||Geraldine distinguishes between colored people and “niggers..”|
|70||Junior||Pecola Breedlove, cat||phy./ver., act., dir./ind.||hos., pre.||Junior devises a complex stratagem for hurting Pecola and his mother’s cat at the same time, possibly killing the latter.|
|72||Geraldine||Pecola Breedlove||ver., act., dir.||hos., rea.||ass.||Geraldine insults Pecola and leaves her thinking she believed|
|75||Parents||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer||phy., act., dir.||rea.||An abstract description of the beating of children.|
|76||Elihue Micah Whitcomb||Young girls||phy., act., dir.||pre., pro.||The narrator apparently already knew of Elihue Micah Whitcomb’s crimes|
|76||Henry Washington||Frieda MacTeer||phy., act., dir.||pro.||Henry Washington’s transgression on Frieda|
|77||Parents||Henry Washington||phy., act., dir.||rea.||The MacTeer parents’ retaliation against Henry Washington|
|77||Frieda MacTeer||Rosemary Villanucci||phy., act., dir.||rea.||A description of Frieda’s actions against Rosemary Villanucci.|
|80||Marie||Claudia and Frieda MacTeer||phy., act., dir.||hos., imp., rea.||Marie throws a bottle more or less at the sisters.|
|82||Society||Blacks||com.||com.||com.||An explicit mention of segregation.|
|83||Frieda MacTeer||Pecola Breedlove||ver., act., dir.||imp., rea.||inv.||Frieda expresses lacking trust in Pecola.|
|84||Paulina Breedlove||Pecola Breedlove (et al.)||ver., pas., ind.||ins.||A girl calls Mrs. Breedlove “Polly” in front of Pecola.|
|84||Paulina Breedlove||Pecola Breedlove (et al.)||ver., act., dir.||hos., imp., rea.||ass.||Mrs. Breedlove insults Pecola.|
|85||Paulina Breedlove||Pecola Breedlove (et al.)||ver., pas., dir.||ins.||ins.||Mrs. Breedlove fails to claim motherhood of Pecola.|
|86||Her family||Paulina Breedlove||ver., pas., dir.||ins.||Mrs. Breedlove’s foot injury is met with indifference.|
|86||Her community||Paulina Breedlove||pas., com.||ins.||Mrs. Breedlove was left out of social activities.|
|87||Her community||Paulina Breedlove||pas., com.||ins.||Creative outlets were not offered to her as a child.|
|92||Her new community||Paulina Breedlove||ver., act., dir.||imp., rea.||ins.||Heckling between black women.|
|93||“Family of slender means”||Paulina Breedlove||pas., dir.||pro.||ins.||Mrs. Breedlove has to work for a family that takes their own problems too seriously.|
|93||“Family of slender means”||Paulina and Charles Breedlove||ver., act., dir.||ins., pre., rea.||A conflict ensues over Charles Breedlove turning up at their house.|
|95||Society||Paulina Breedlove||com.||com.||com.||Mrs. Breedlove is confronted with what is regarded as physical beauty.|
|96||Paulina and Charles Breedlove||Paulina and Charles Breedlove||phy., act., dir.||Fights between Paulina and Charles Breedlove|
|97||Doctor||Paulina Breedlove||ver., act., ind.||ins.||Insulting comments from a racist doctor.|
|98||Paulina Breedlove||Pecola Breedlove||act., dir.||com.||Paulina Breedlove has perceived Pecola as ugly from birth, which Pecola surely picked up on.|
|98||Paulina Breedlove||Charles Breedlove||act., ind.||Mrs. Breedlove engages in vengence through subtle force on Charles Breedlove.|
|99||Paulina Breedlove||Rest of the family||pas., dir.||Mrs. Breedlove neglects her family.|
|100||Paulina Breedlove||Children||phy., act., dir.||Mrs. Breedlove resorts to beating and disproportionate punishment.|
|100||Paulina Breedlove||Charles Breedlove||ver., act., ind.||Mrs. Breedlove points out her husband’s faults, but not to help him but to use him as negative example for her children.|
|102||Charles Breedlove||Paulina Breedlove||phy., act., dir.||imp., pro.||Practice by Charles Breedlove that may constitute rape depending on Paulina’s perception of it.|
|103||Mother||Charles Breedlove||phy., act., dir.||ins., pre.||Charles Breedlove’s mother places him on junk heap as baby.|
|103||Aunt Jimmy||Mother||phy., act., dir.||rea.||Mr. Breedlove’s aunt beats his mother.|
|103||Aunt Jimmy||Charles Breedlove||phy., pas., dir.||Mr. Breedlove’s aunt exposes him to noxious odors.|
|103||Aunt Jimmy||Charles Breedlove||ver., act., dir.||imp., rea.||ass.||Mr. Breedlove’s aunt calls him “foolish..”|
|104||Aunt Jimmy||Charles Breedlove (mother and father i.a.)||ver., act., ind.||rea.||ass., ins.||Mr. Breedlove’s aunt shames his heritage by constantly insulting his mother and father.|
|108||Everyone except Black women and children||Black women||com.||com.||com.||An abstract description of women being commanded around.|
|108||Black men||Black women||act., dir.||An explicit description of aggressions being handed on.|
|108||Men, probably||Black women||act., dir.||Implication of molestation.|
|113||Girls||Girls||ver., act., dir.||ass.||Girls engage in “a serious kind of making fun..”|
|114||Charles Breedlove, Jake||Darlene, Suky||act., dir.||imp., pro.||ass.||They two boys throw grapes at the girls.|
|116||White hunters||Charles Breedlove, Darlene||phy., act., dir.||imp., pro.||Charles Breedlove and Darlene are forced at gunpoint to have sex in front of white hunters.|
|120||Conductor||Charles Breedlove||ver., act., dir.||hos., imp., pro.||Insults from a conductor are used as exmaple for a descrition of them similar to forces of nature.|
|122||Aunt Jimmy||Charles Breedlove (mother i.a.)||ver., pas., dir.||ins., pre., rea.||Mr. Breedlove’s aunt further shames his mother and heritage by never telling him her name.|
|123||Samson Fuller||Charles Breedlove||ver., act., dir.||hos., imp., rea.||ass.||Mr. Breedlove’s father behaves rude and insultingly toward him.|
|125||Charles Breedlove||Anyone under his authority||hyp.||com.||com.||com.||Abstract description making mention of various aggressions.|
|128||Charles Breedlove||Pecola Breedlove||phy., act., dir.||imp., pro.||Mr. Breedlove rapes his daughter.|
|132||Whitcombs||Themselves, each other||act., dir.||com.||The Whitcombs are afflicted with some sort of partial self-loathing of their native roots.|
|133||Society||Natives||com.||com.||com.||It is stated that only powerless government offices are available to the native population.|
|133||Whitcombs||Anyone||com.||com.||com.||Those of the family in government offices are described as corrupt and lecherous.|
|134||Elihue Micah Whitcomb’s father||Elihue Micah Whitcomb||phy., act., dir.||ins.||Elihue Micah Whitcomb’s father uses violence for education and discipline.|
|135||Society||Blacks||com.||com.||com.||Few white-collar occupations are available to blacks.|
|136||Elihue Micah Whitcomb||Young girls||phy., act., dir.||pre., pro.||A description of molestation, possibly rape, of young girls.|
|138||Elihue Micah Whitcomb||Bob||phy., act., ind.||ins., pre., rea.||Elihue Micah Whitcomb has Bob, the dog, poisoned.|
|138||Elihue Micah Whitcomb||Pecola Breedlove||act., dir.||ins., pre., rea.||Elihue Micah Whitcomb tricks Pecola into performing the poisoning.|
|149||Random people||Pecola Breedlove||i.a.||ver., act.||pro.||ass.||An example of victim blaming.|
|149||Random people||Pecola Breedlove||i.a.||ver., act.||hos., pro.||ass.||People insult the Breedloves and the unborn child as ugly.|
|149||Random people||Pecola Breedlove||pas., dir.||The community shows a complete lack of empathy.|
|154||Paulina Breedlove||Pecola Breedlove||pas., dir.||ins.||Mrs. Breedlove is said to avoid looking at Pecola.|
|158||Charles Breedlove||Pecola Breedlove||phy., act., dir.||pro.||Mr. Breedlove’s second rape of his daughter is revealed.|
|162||Random people||Pecola Breedlove||com.||com.||com.||People avoid Pecola or laugh at her.|
|163||Society||Pecola Breedlove||com.||com.||com.||A description of figurative waste having been dumped on Pecola Breedlove.|
|164||Society||Pecola Breedlove||i.a.||ver., act.||ass.||An abstract form or victim blaming is exposed.|
Another factor to consider is Claudia MacTeer’s possible unreliability as narrator. However, the implications, if any, are not clear to me. The chapters that are narrated from a first person perspective, moreover, are set in ragged right in the two editions I have at my disposal, possibly to indicate the inchoate nature of a child’s worldview. In these chapters, Claudia assumes an internal focalization on her younger self, while she, or the narrator, seems greatly more perspicacious and self-aware in the chapters set in regular flush left and right. ↩
Just possibly, the act of consuming the Mary Janesa brand of sweets with the “smiling white face” of a girl named Mary Jane on them, with “blue eyes looking at [Pecola] out of a world of clean comfort” ay be akin to a vorarephilic sexual experience for Pecola, which would turn the act of buying them into an intensely intimate endeavor to begin with. (Her milk binge from the Shirley Temple cup might be interpreted in a similar vein.) This interpretation is reinforced by the description of Pecola’s eating them as “nine lovely orgasms with Mary Jane” (Morrison 50). ↩
On the diagetic level, I will later introduce the hypothetical aggression, which is merely imagined or discussed, not actualized. ↩
Luckily, the edge cases of who can be considered “living” will be of limited importance for this paper. ↩
Cases where a guardian decides in favor of a surgical procedure against the will of a child or a senile elderly person may constitute an edge case but may also be covered by the vague reference to “motivated to avoid.” ↩
To avoid the connotational baggage in cases like this, one might opt for alternatives like “assertive” or “forthright.” ↩
This lack of appreciation, of course, was owed to their own role in perpetuating this societal ideal that ran counter to Claudia’s and, moreover, through the microaggression of never asking her for her own wishes. ↩
Examples—borrowed from Baron and Richardson—for the indirect case are “hiring an assassin to kill an enemy” (physical, active, and indirect) or “failing to speak up in another person’s defense when he or she is unfairly criticized” (verbal, passive, and indirect). The other modes are fairly self-explanatory. ↩
Premeditate as adjective seems to be a neologism along the lines of such words as aggregate or separate, possibly coined to avoid having to break the parallelism with “premeditated” as the only participial adjective. “Premeditative” seems to apply more to the agent than to the act. ↩
The distinction into hostile and instrumental aggression is a controversial one, albeit widely adopted. Bushman and Anderson (275) make a strong case for its limited applicability, and I will refrain from applying it in cases that appear ambiguous. ↩
One aggression where I decided to make an exception to this rule was the scene where young Charles Breedlove and Jake throw grapes at Suky and Darlene (Morrison 114) because the physical aspect of these small, light objects pelting their clothes seemed negligible compared to the humiliation of being treated in such a way, especially in view of the one-sided nature of the playful fight. ↩
In addition, it was a very interesting experience to apply the three categories, which have previously been used to describe racial (Sue et al.; Solorzano, Ceja, and Yosso; Pierce et al.) and LGB microaggressions (Burn, Kadlec, and Rexer; Silverschanz et al.; Thurlow; Nadal et al.), to microaggressions by parents who use their authority irresponsibly at times, a phenomenon that Toni Morrison may well have used as extensively as she did in order to build an empathetic bridge for readers who themselves suffer few oppressions and are not conscious of the oppressions their class or ethnic group exacts. Most of them will remember situations from their childhood where they have been wronged and felt powerless against the aggressor. ↩
Another problem was that hostile aggression has to be “angry” according to the definition, while in the book aggressions that would intuitively fit that classification are often motivated by hate or disgust rather than anger. Since this may well be just due to imprecise wording in the definition, I chose to ignore this distinction. ↩
The reason may be that she derives personal satisfaction from seeing the two of them beaten by their mother or that ostensible confirmation of their “dirty” (Morrison 21) nature accords with the “values” her parents instill in her. ↩
There is no beauty to this physical beauty for her, she merely went “from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred, to fraudulent love,” which were “adjustment[s] without improvement” (Morrison 16). Ergo her assessmentdisillusioned itselfthat all romantic love and physical beauty “originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion,” because such was the modus operandi of all she ever got presented as “beauty” by society. On the final pages, however, she acknowledges a new kind of beauty, reminiscing about who Pecola was: “And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us” (163). ↩
The section from page 86 onward contains several blocks set in italics and narrated by Paulina Breedlove in the first person. The section from page 103 frequently reveals thoughts and feelings of Charles Breedlove, a clear internal focalization. ↩
Google Scholar. “Buss: The Psychology of Aggression. – Google Scholar.” Web. 30 Aug. 2013.
Huntsman, Leone. “Parents with Mental Health Issues: Consequences for Children and Effectiveness of Interventions Designed to Assist Children and their Families.” Pandora Electronic Collection (2008). Print. Pandora Electronic Collection.
McKean, Erin. “Erin McKean: The Joy of Lexicography.” 2007. Web. 30 Aug. 2013.
Oxford English Dictionary. “aggression, n.” Web. 30 Aug. 2013.
Small, Deborah A., George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic. “Sympathy and Callousness: The Impact of Deliberative Thought on Donations to Identifiable and Statistical Victims.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 102.2 (2007): 143–153. Print.
Solorzano, Daniel, Miguel Ceja, and Tara Yosso. “Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students.” The Journal of Negro Education 69.1/2 (2000): 60–73. Print.