by Eliot White
I. Introduction: Theoretical Framework
Scholars and literary critics have been preoccupied considering the ways in which a literary text’s form bears upon its content. Or, put more philosophically, how does the object of literary analysis, the raw physical language of symbols on the page, communicate meaning and information to the subject, the observer, the reader? How the mind accesses the world through language and the mind has always been a concern of philosophers, going as far back as Aristotle. Aristotle proposed that humans intuit essences from objects and thereby are able to forge a direct connection, through language, between the mind and the world.
Plato espoused that our language is a representation, but is not in direct correspondence to the world outside of our mind, the perfectly objective or transcendental realm of truth or beauty. Descartes, often considered the father of modern philosophical thought, espoused a mind-body dualism whereby the mind was entirely disembodied from the flesh, and attached to a transcendent realm. A few centuries later, in mid-twentieth century literary studies, New Criticism’s interpretive practices were based on a conservative estimation of literature that removed any external influence upon the study of the text and pushed concentration and attention onto elements of form only. After structural theories of language gave way to post-structuralism, the ability of texts to convey real meaning from a real author to a real audience was further called into question, though the focus of scholarship was often largely still preoccupied with form. Only it was now the minute inadequacies of texts’ formal properties that were exposed. A kind of extreme philosophical relativism—a decentered reality—became vogue.
Indeed through this process of text production, Morrison thinks of herself a jazz musician, hitting the right notes and scales in sparsely, formally controlled bursts within a larger framework of the narrative, the point of view, the style, and the characterization.
In the last few decades after the heyday of post-structuralism, literary studies has begun to borrow insights from harder sciences, namely evolutionary theories of human development in sociology and anthropology (often called biocultural theory or sociobiology) and cognitive neuroscience (often referred to as cognitive linguistics or psycholinguistics). The insights from these methods provide the literary critic with direct empirical knowledge of how the brain interacts with the world, with texts, and with others based on the physiological, neural structures and chemical processes out of which all human minds arise. The linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson argue in their book, Philosophy in the Flesh, that it only makes sense that current philosophy and theory be situated within the most advanced scientific insights of the day and age. Not only is this reasonable, but the biocultural or neuroscientific perspective perhaps gives critics fresh tools with which to make meaning from interactions with texts, meanings and understandings that would not be possible.
Upon reading Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, what is most striking is the author’s technique and the improvisational nature of the text’s structure and form. Morrison, working from an embodied blues aesthetic, seems to adopt whatever perspective, point of view, or technique necessary to go where she needs to go in the narrative and to achieve complex and profound characterization. She employs many structural improvisations to tell this story, and in the end, the text is richer for it. But how can we engage with this technique and artistry on a deeper, more fundamental level than a simple stylistic analysis of Morrison’s prose and by making observations about her structure?
This paper will analyze the ways in which The Bluest Eye frames Morrison’s use of a blues aesthetic and jazz structure in terms of recent insights from cognitive psycholinguistics concerning the way the mind constructs an understanding of the world through the senses and language, largely working from the basis of the physical organization of the body and/or neurological structures and processes of the brain. To advance this argument, I frame Morrison’s work within the blues aesthetic, a creation of the larger Black Arts movement. Next, I discuss the jazz structure of the novel in terms of an embodied understanding of the world—how embodiment as a guiding principle for text construction impacts point of view, characterization, and what format the language takes on the page. Then, I parse out the specific uses of metaphor as aspects of the text that display a tremendous reliance on the mind’s inherently metaphorical cognitive processes of creating an understanding of environment and social reality through constructions that are rooted in bodily, physical experiences.
These insights will accumulate to not only reveal the improvisational inventiveness with which Morrison crafts the narrative world in The Bluest Eye, but will furthermore illustrate how embodiment intertwines with what she expresses thematically: the nature of absolute beauty being equated with the physical characteristic of blue eyes (or more “whiteness” more generally, which the blue eyes symbolically represent) is obviously damaging to Black Americans who cannot escape the pursuit of this “ideal” through their own sense of beauty and truth as constructed from the locus of a blues aesthetic or attitude, which is an understanding of the world rooted in the bodies, experiences, and culture of Black Americans.
Ultimately, The Bluest Eye is about the violence done to the psychic and spiritual lives of Black Americans who are forced to operate in the world with a faulty worldview—one focused on the Western-centric, whiteness driven, abstract ideals of beauty and truth and reality itself—rather than a more universally accurate worldview of embodiment, being rooted in one’s embodied experiences, sensations, and understandings. It is masterful that in a short novel Morrison is able to disassemble the western-centric worldview based on abstractions, and demonstrate the effective alternative of the MacTeers’ embodied blues-oriented worldview.
II. Blues Aesthetic, Jazz Structure, and Embodiment
Larry Neal, a central black cultural theorist of the Black Arts movement, writes in a landmark essay: “The Black artist takes…that his primary duty is speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of Black people…these writers are re-evaluating western aesthetics, the traditional role of the writer, and the social function of art. Implicit in this re-evaluation is the need to develop a ‘black aesthetic’…the western aesthetic has run its course: it is impossible to construct anything meaningful within its decaying structure” (29). Neal asserts here that the Western aesthetic model, which is directly connected to Anglo-European ideals of “whiteness,” is defunct, muddled in the abstractions of poststructuralist thought. Likewise, in Lakoff and Johnson’s definitive work on embodied cognition, Philosophy in the Flesh, they frame their discussion of empirical scientific insights of neurology within a larger discussion of the Western philosophical tradition. Right from the beginning of this text, Lakoff and Johnson confront these traditions, submitting three fundamental concepts of cognitive science: “The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious, abstract concepts are largely metaphorical” (3). Then they go on to make their confrontation directly, stating “these three findings from the science of the mind are inconsistent with central parts of Western philosophy” (3).
In Neal’s article on the Black Arts movement, he quotes part of a poem called “Black Art” by Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), which underscores the visceral embodiment of the Black Arts movement and the Black aesthetic:
Poems are bullshit unless they are
teeth or trees or lemons piled
on a step. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. Fuck poems
and they are useful, would they shoot
come at you, love what you are,
breathe like wrestlers, or shudder
strangely after peeing. We want live
words of the hip world, live flesh &
coursing blood. Hearts and Brains
Souls splintering fire. We want poems
like fisting beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner-jews… (31).
Jones’ use of a viscerally physical language, detailing flesh, blood, teeth, peeing, brains, fisting, bellies, wrestlers, illustrates well the turn black artists were generally trying to take during the 1960’s and 70’s, making an aesthetic that challenged what they perceived to be the almost entirely abstract aesthetic of white “western” artists. Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, her debut novel, was published in 1970, just two short years after Neal’s influential essay was published, situating her first novel right within this time when the desire to innovate a unique African American aesthetic was at its peak.
In her essay on The Bluest Eye, Cat Moses notes Morrison’s Blues aesthetic as central to the success of the novel. She writes: “I…discern a female blues subjectivity in The Bluest Eye, a subjectivity constructed through African American oral traditions and [embodied] in the three whores’ speech, song, and laughter, and in Claudia’s aesthetic and her narrative voice” (624). Moses writes perceptively here on the inherent centrality of the blues aspect of Morrison’s work, while linking the aesthetic to physical, bodily characters and actions, specifically the whores’ laughter, singing, and sensuality. Moses goes on to say that this blues aesthetic also contributes much to the characterization of Claudia and her mother: “The cultural values and knowledge [embodied] in the blues and transmitted orally to Claudia enable her to develop what would much later come to be called a black aesthetic. Claudia does not, however, passively absorb this body of cultural knowledge and draw strength from it. She not only hears the blues, but she listens to and, more importantly, ‘sings’ the blues. Indeed, the blues define her storytelling voice and style” (Moses 629). Here we see that the blues cannot simply remain an abstraction to be “passively absorbed,” but it must be enacted physically through the body. It must be “sung” and given sensual life and shape through sound, and it is through this physical enacting of the blues that Morrison’s African American characters possess themselves, resisting possession by white culture. Indeed Moses writes that the “body is all that she owns and controls; thus, assertion of ownership and control is a courageous political statement” (Moses 629).
Now that we have defined Morrison’s work within the context of African American artistic production during the second half of the twentieth century, it will be important to define the distinction between a blues aesthetic and jazz form. For the purposes of this analysis, a blues aesthetic is the philosophical and artistic attitude toward the world that centers on the embodied experiences of Black Americans. It is this philosophical and artistic attitude through which jazz form, the embodiment of the blues, is created. Jazz form in this novel is characterized by fluidity of perspective, characterization, as well as a constant reworking and recapitulation of the plot that creates an improvisational narrative experience for the reader. In his essay on the development of African American musical forms, Paul Oliver defines a primary aspect of jazz to be “collective improvisation, with musicians responding to each others’ playing and performing in harmony” (359). He also expresses the deep interconnectedness of the origin of blues and jazz as musical forms, noting that “blues expression has become a significant aspect of jazz, the traditional twelve bar form used by blues singers being adopted by jazz musicians” (359).
Many scholars have written on Morrison’s inventive and non-traditional formal techniques, and they are correct in focusing on this especially innovative aspect of her work. Some consider her texts postmodern, poetic, or experimental. None of these are necessarily incorrect estimations, but I suggest the most accurate description of her work is that of an embodied jazz form. Indeed, when discussing her writing process and her admiration for Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! in an interview with the Paris Review, she effectively admits her obsession with novelistic form: “What is exciting about American literature is that business of how writers say things under, beneath, and around their stories…Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom! spends the entire book tracing race and you can’t find it…It is technically just astonishing. As a reader you have been forced to hunt for a drop of black blood that means everything and nothing. The insanity of racism. So the structure is the argument. Not what this one says or that one says…it is the structure of the book… (emphasis mine) I am fascinated with what it means to write like this” (“Art of Fiction” 10).
Furthermore, in this same interview—which was published in 1993, a year after Morrison published her conspicuously titled novel, Jazz—Morrison directly discusses the intentional appropriation of jazz-like technique in the crafting of her work. Though these words directly pertain to the novel Jazz, they can also be understood retroactively to apply to the earlier novels, especially The Bluest Eye and even Sula. Morrison states:
A kind of extreme philosophical relativism—a decentered reality—became vogue.
It is fine to follow a melody—to feel the satisfaction of recognizing a melody whenever the narrator returns to it. That was the real art and enterprise for me–bumping up against that melody…the jazzlike structure wasn’t a secondary thing for me–it was the raison d’etre for the book. The process of trial and error by which the narrator revealed the plot was an important and exciting to me as telling the story…I thought of myself as a jazz musician–someone who practices and practices and practices in order to be able to invent and to make his art look effortless and graceful. I was always conscious of the constructed aspect of the writing process, and that art appears natural and elegant only as result of practice and awareness of its formal structures. You must practice thrift in order to achieve that luxurious quality of wastefulness—that sense that you have enough to waste, that you are holding back—without actually wasting anything. You shouldn’t over gratify, you should never satiate. I’ve always felt that that peculiar sense of hunger at the end of a piece of art—a yearning for more—is really, really powerful. (“Art of Fiction” 14-15)
Here Morrison is clearly illustrating her commitment to fidelity with the improvisational nature of jazz, which ultimately leads to the variety of techniques employed in her fiction as an embodiment of the blues aesthetic. She mentions the “trial and error by which the narrator revealed the plot” through the practice of “thrift” in which prose achieves a “luxurious quality of wastefulness” (“Art of Fiction”). Indeed through this process of text production, Morrison thinks of herself a jazz musician, hitting the right notes and scales in sparsely, formally controlled bursts within a larger framework of the narrative, the point of view, the style, and the characterization. And she even suggests the way this formal presentation is rooted in the bodily, physical aspect of this creative experience for herself and for the reader, where she fosters “hunger at the end of a piece of art—a yearning for more” (“Art of Fiction”).
Kevin M. Clark, in a summary of Lakoff and Johnson’s theories of metaphor and cognition, describes a few of Lakoff and Johnson’s key terms—framing, conceptual metaphor, and embodiment. They define framing as “mental structures we use in perception, understanding, and reasoning to make sense of the world” (128), conceptual metaphor as something that “involves the mapping of concepts and inferential structures from one conceptual or experiential domain to another” (129), and explain embodiment by saying “our conceptual systems and reasoning processes arise from and have meaning in relation to our embodiment—the nature of our bodies, our sensorimotor modes of functioning, and our subjective experience” (129). In the context of these technical terms from cognitive science, Morrison “frames” her exploration of whiteness and blackness in rural mid-twentieth America with the “conceptual metaphor” of jazz. She transfers the fluidity and harmony of jazz improvisation into the specific physical ways she uses language to construct her novel. Likewise, considering jazz as a conceptual metaphor, Morrison “embodies” the blues attitude that meaningfully operating in and understanding the world can be rooted in our bodies. These concepts therefore manifest themselves not only in the way Morrison builds her novel, but also in the themes she expresses through the lives of her characters.
Because much of this analysis is made possible through cognitive research, and because these cognitive insights operate within the framework of evolutionary views of human development, it is important also to consider why Morrison might be choosing the form and themes she does. Morrison, who strongly and always very openly identifies herself as an African American first, prior to considering her position as novelist in wider American culture, is definitely, competing in a productive way, with the dominant Western cultural narrative that has long defined Western literary cultural output. Brian Boyd, in his seminal theoretical work on the origins of art and story, On the Origins of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, writes that, “We can see authors as problem solvers with individual capacities and preferences making strategic choices within particular situations, by shaping different kinds of appeals to the cognitive preference and expectations of audiences—preferences and expectations shaped at both species wide and local levels—and balancing the costs against the benefits of authorial effort in composition and audience effort in comprehension and response” (396). Through this biocultural and rhetorical view of fictional text construction, I submit that Morrison utilizes the wider blues aesthetic and her specific jazz form, as a means of countering the dominant western-centric narrative of truth and beauty, calling into question a white-dominated worldview. By creating her novel in this mode, she is able to create cognitive structures and perspectives that allow Black people living in America, represented by Claudia and her mother in the novel, to have an operable worldview rooted in bodily life, while simultaneously showing the devastating effects of being Black and operating from a traditional Western abstract worldview, dominated by whiteness, represented by the tragedy of Pauline, Cholly, and Pecola Breedlove.
III. Narrative Parts, Point of View, and Characterization as Embodied by Jazz Form
In The Bluest Eye, Morrison constructs the novel through variety of temporal and focal viewpoints that develop in an improvisational, jazz-like manner. These viewpoints manifest as distinctive sections of the novel. Each of these narrative parts takes on a formal structure that emphasizes and expresses the blues aesthetic of the characters or some other aspect of theme. Two prologue-like sections prior to the start of the novel’s narrative proper operate to set up a theme, tone, and stylistic resonance that stretches throughout the novel; like a solo saxophone setting the first melody of a jazz piece that frames the rest of the musical competition, sets the tone and key and chord progressions that are available for use.
The first prologue includes the text of Fun With Dick and Jane, a children’s reading primer book that details the nice white lives of a happy, smiling, middle-class family. Dick and Jane have a dog and cat, they play, their mother laughs, and their father is big and strong. The story is part of a series of books that was widely used to teach American children to read from the 1930’s through the late 1960’s (Ward 18). Overwhelmingly, this story and its characters represented the American ideal of the traditional family, a mother and father in a heterosexual relationship, pleasant children, economic stability, and ultimately, the superiority of whiteness. Morrison breaks down this ideal in the first few pages, telling the story three times. The first iteration retains normal punctuation and grammar, the ideal intact. The second telling takes out the punctuation and capitalization, showing the slight breakdown of the ideal. The third telling shows the breakdown of the punctuation, capitalization, as well as spacing, so that the words run together as a string of nonsensical letters. The reader must struggle to make sense of it, even given the gradual breakdown. The physical language on the page becomes unrecognizably chaotic, signifying the breakdown of the ideal that Dick and Jane represents.
The second prologue starts with the sentence, “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941” (5), which Morrison italicized again to physically differentiate the language on the page from the rest of the regular text of the novel. By the second sentence the readers know the entire conflict and most of the plot of the novel. Pecola is a girl who is to have her father’s child, and “the marigolds did not grow” (5), which metaphorically signifies an impending tragedy. By the end of the two-page section, Morrison deepens the central metaphor of the marigolds that did not bloom by having Pecola narrate the projection of this natural, external phenomenon onto the experience of her baby’s death, and therefore, her own loss of innocence (6). Lakoff and Johnson argue that correlations “in our everyday experience inevitably lead us to acquire primary metaphors, which link our subjective experiences and [our] judgments…These primary metaphors supply the logic, the imagery, and the qualitative feel of sensorimotor experience to abstract concepts” (128). Furthermore the authors argue that the “fundamental role of metaphor is to project inference patterns from the source domain to the target domain” (128), meaning the local, physical schema is projected onto the abstract concept. In this brief prologue, we see Claudia as a narrator summarizing the narrative of the novel through metaphor: “It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding. We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt” (6). Morrison’s narrator is supplying the reader with a glimpse into “the logic, the imagery, and the qualitative feel” of her narrative perspective, looking back on these events from her childhood and projecting the minor tragedy of the marigolds not blooming to the larger tragedy of Pecola’s being raped by her father. The marigolds’ passage provides the simple, childlike “inference patterns” and uses them to interrogate the complex moral issues surrounding Pecola’s plight.
After looking at the implications of the two prologues, readers see the four larger sections of the novel, which are frames with the titles Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer, and which also have sub-sections utilizing several lines of the Dick and Jane prologue as a subtitle. Because a very close reading of the entire structure of the novel would take up far more space than this paper can afford, I summarize and describe the formal characteristics of these sections and subsections more generally, before turning again to some close observations of Morrison’s use of metaphor.
The marigold metaphor is especially important to the larger structure of framing the narrative chunks by season—the novel culminates with marigolds failing to bloom, which must take place at the end of Summer, the last segment. In addition to the connection to this central structural metaphor and the seasonal segments, the subsections within each season of the narrative vary in point of view and temporal focus according to the improvisational jazz form Morrison utilizes. Point of view and temporal focus have a unique relation to the embodied cognitive state of Morrison as writer and the reader experiencing the text. According to Mark Turner in his book The Literary Mind: The Origin of Thought and Language, there is “the basic human story of a person recognizing a story. In this general story, there is a recognizing agent who has a single spatial focus and a single spatial viewpoint…projecting the story of perception in space with a spatial focus and spatial viewpoint onto the story of perception in time gives us an agent with a temporal focus and a temporal viewpoint” (149). Morrison seems to be, through the constant shifts of viewpoint and temporal focus, tapping into the subconscious metacognitive way that the human mind accesses a narrative that we know is being told, especially considering the way the two prologues metaphorically prime the reader for what is to come. We are thus able to follow the various shifts and the improvisational technique Morrison employs.
The section titled Autumn consists of three main subsections. The first introduces the lives of Claudia and her sister Frieda, and their ambivalent relationship to their mother. Then we are told of Pecola staying with the family for a time, and of a boarder, Mr. Henry, who moves into their home. The section is told from Claudia’s point of view, and the narration embodies the perspective of a young girl. She doesn’t understand adult problems, she has a heightened emotional sense, and she is immature in her dealings with others. Formally, during this section, the prose is aligned left, not justified on both sides of the page, creating a kind of ragged edge along the right side of each page that mirrors the ragged, unsteady perception of a young girl seeing the complex world around her, trying to figure it out.
The next section is titled with the section of the Dick and Jane story that says “HEREISTHEHOUSEITISGREENANDWHITE…ITISVERYPRETTY” (34). It briefly describes the grungy apartment where the Breedloves live and tells of the family’s strained interpersonal dynamic, which is not unintentionally antithetical to the section title’s ideal of the pretty house where Dick and Jane live. The narration has switched to the semi-omniscient third-person perspective and formally, the margins on both the left and the right are justified, creating the neat edges on the page that mirror the tidy, third-person narration.
The third subsection of Autumn retains the third-person perspective, but now tells the reader first about Pecola’s family’s grave dysfunction, of Pecola’s relationship to the three prostitutes that live above the Breedlove’s apartment. Again in this section the margins are neatly justified to match the evenness of the narration. The title of this subsection is “HEREISTHEFAMILYMOTHERFATHERDICKANDJANE” (38), whose focus on the ideal, happy family, which the neighbors’ lifestyles oppose entirely. Ironically, it is only around the prostitutes where Pecola feels some sense of belonging, not with her biological family, which also fails to live up to the ideal from the Dick and Jane stories.
The perspective in the first section of Winter has now shifted back to Claudia’s first- person narration, with the ragged, unjustified right margin. It tells of the foil character to Claudia and Frieda, a white girl with blond hair named Maureen Peel. The section offers a way of capturing Claudia’s emotional jealousy and hatred toward Maureen and her privileged white life. The next section utilizes a third-person perspective with justified margins. It tells of a “colored” family and makes a distinction between clean, well-mannered “colored people” and “negroes,” who have a bodily “funkiness” that the colored people deny in themselves (83). The shift to third-person allows the specific details of this family’s life, which are beyond Claudia’s limited knowledge and perspective, to be explored and scrutinized. Here Morrison is improvising with her structure and use of perspective to capture varying aspects of the larger narrative whole.
Point of view and temporal focus have a unique relation to the embodied cognitive state of Morrison as writer and the reader experiencing the text.
In the third major section, titled Spring, the first subsection follow the novel’s trend. Morrison utilizes Claudia’s first-person perspective, with unjustified margin, to tell of her reaction to her sister being groped by Mr. Henry, the boarder. Also, we travel with the girls to see from their perspective, and why Pauline despises Pecola in favor of loving her white employer’s child. The second section both follows the pattern so far and breaks it. It begins in third-person perspective and has a justified margin, telling the story of Pauline’s life growing up in the Deep South, prior to coming north to Ohio. Again titled with words from the Dick and Jane story, this section focuses on the ideal of laughing mother who is very nice, which is antithetical to Pauline’s tragic existence in the novel (110). Interspersed within the third-person narrative chunks are several sections that offer the first-person reflections of Pauline upon the development of her relationship with Cholly and their move to the north. Here again, Morrison improvises the narrative perspective and structure to achieve greater characterization and expression of theme, adding depth to Pauline’s tragic worldview, one that pursues a white ideal of beauty.
The next section of Winter follows the third-person narration and is titled “SEEFATHERHEISBIGANDSTRONG” again with words from the Dick and Jane prologue. It tells of Cholly’s upbringing, his troubled sexual past, and his pursuit of his biological father. The section culminates with a return to a scene in the adult life of Cholly, when he rapes Pecola after she scratches her leg with her other leg, the same maneuver which Cholly had found attractive in Pauline when they had first met. In addition to this second section, there is a third subsection that utilizes third-person perspective to describe the character of Elihue, also known as Soaphead Church, a pedophile and mystic seer who refers to himself as “Reader, Adviser, and Interpreter of Dreams” (165). Later, Pecola will come to Soaphead to ask him for blue eyes. He grants her wish, while getting her to poison his dog, Bob. The title of this part is fittingly titled,“SEETHEDOGBOWWOWGOESTHEDOG” (164).
The first part of Summer, the last seasonal section, returns to the initial narrative perspective, that of Claudia’s first-person narration. This section describes Claudia and Frieda’s selling of marigold seeds that summer, as well as well as her girlish perspective on Pecola’s pregnancy. The narrative reveals that Pecola is shunned, withdrawn from school, and that Pauline beats her upon learning of the pregnancy; all this being quite contrary to her the way she comforted her white employer’s child after Pecola dropped a pie on the floor of the kitchen. The next subsection in Summer, titled “LOOKLOOKHERECOMESAFRIEND” (193), proves to be yet another improvisation of form and perspective from Morrison. For most of this subsection, which is also the last in the novel, Morrison writes a dialogue between an unnamed “friend”—whose lines are disguised through italics–and Pecola. They mostly discuss how beautiful her new blue eyes are. It slowly becomes apparent over the course of this dialogue that Pecola has gone insane and that this “friend” is a figment of her imagination. The section ends, after a break of a few lines, with a brief two-and-a-half-page return to Claudia as a narrator. Although this time, Claudia as an adult looks back in time over the whole narrative and sequence of events, and the margins are justified on both the right and the left. Claudia’s girlish ragged margin has faded with the added reason that adulthood and temporal remove brings to her perspective.
In the last paragraph, Claudia turns again to the metaphor of the un-blooming marigolds in the “unyielding” soil of the second prologue, bringing a strong sense of unification to the whole narrative; indicating that it is Claudia who has been recreating all of these narrative sections from her temporally removed, adult perspective. It is this narrator who says, “This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers…when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong of course, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late” (206). Morrison here again points to the tragedy of Pecola, Pauline, and Cholly’s life, which has been hampered by the presence of the Dick and Jane ideals of whiteness and the lack of a bodily and sensually grounded blues stance to life, as embodied in Claudia and her mother. Indeed, when Claudia listens to her mother singing the blues as a child she thinks:
…her voice was so sweet and melty I found myself longing for those hard times, yearning to be grown without ‘a thin di-i-ime to my name.’ I looked forward to the delicious time when ‘my man’ would leave me, when I would ‘hate to see that evening sun go down…’ ‘cause then I would know ‘my man has left this town.’ Misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother’s voice took all the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet. (25-26)
Turning back to the beginning provides conclusive insights in this exploration of narrative techniques. In the second italicized prologue, Morrison’s narrator speaks to us, saying “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how” (6). Morrison clearly makes known her intention to turn to the stuff, the material and structural aspects of language and story to invert norms and narrative expectations about Black people living Black lives, which for so long in American history were defined by their relation to whiteness and western-centric thinking. Furthermore, at the end of the novel, Morrison gives us a final articulation that forms a triumph over whiteness as ideal perfection: she tells us “love is never any better than the lover” (206). Love for the experience of being rooted in a Black body is central to the freedom of the jazz form. In a 1993 Paris Review interview Morrison gives credence to the fact that in the long historical perspective, love and jazz and freedom are tangled up in the African American experience:
…when the ex-slaves were moving into the city, running away from something that was constricting and killing them and dispossessing them over and over and over again, they were in a very limiting environment. But when you listen to their music–the beginnings of jazz–you realized that they are talking about something else…It’s as though the whole tragedy of choosing somebody, risking love, risking emotion, risking sensuality, and then losing it all didn’t matter, since it was their choice. Exercising choice in who you love was a major, major thing. And the music reinforced the idea of love as a separate space where one could negotiate freedom…Obviously jazz was considered…too sensual and provocative, and so on. But for some black people jazz meant claiming their own bodies. You can imagine what that must have meant for people whose bodies had been owned, who had been slaves as children, or who remembered their parents’ being slaves. Blues and jazz represented ownership of one’s own emotions [emphasis mine]. (“Art of Fiction”)
It is this heritage, this long historical perspective taken by Morrison in The Bluest Eye, that allows, despite the tragic ending for the Breedloves, some semblance of sanity and freedom for Claudia, a storyteller embodying a blues aesthetic who “takes refuge in how” by creating an improvised, jazz-like narrative that is able to consider life’s unconditional pain and suffering as “not only endurable, but sweet.” And, of course, the only way Claudia can find expression for this blues outlook is through the bodily metaphor: eventually emotion, abstract “pain” becomes a desirable flavor, “sweet.”
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Eliot White is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English program.