Literary Analysis Assignment English !B
Beauty is only skin deep: A character analysis of Pecola Breedlove
In the simplest of terms, Pecola Breedlove is one of the saddest characters that Toni Morrison ever created. A writer known for her radical writing meant to promote the black’s status as a race, Toni brings with this novel a glaring epiphany of the society hypocrisy when it comes to beauty. What is pale and perfect and plump is considered beautiful: what is coloured and short is not.
Such is the plight of Pecola, who, over the course of the novel struggles to think of herself as beautiful, and in the end loses her faculties to it. None of this, however, was Pecola’s fault: she was simply a young girl looking for a place in a society that was too shallow to see her beauty: she was repeatedly berated by all those around her, which created a desperation to feel accepted, to conform to the standards of beauty that had been following her since she was born.
This paper is a detailed character analysis of Pecola, and an exploration how, in one way or another, and deep down, all women are Pecola, and going through the same tribulations that she did. Even after decades of advancement, the women of today, like Pecola, struggle to conform to the standards of beauty defined by their immediate society, which eventually takes a toll on not only their mental well-being, but also how they view society.
With the Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison criticizes the largely accepted standards of beauty in America, the base value of which was whiteness. Through the novel, she seeks to eliminate this very tendency which seems to diminish the importance of being black. The novel can be seen, in fact, as a beacon for women of colour everywhere, who often feel small and depressed about not being as pale or ‘white’ as others. Morrison expresses a point of pride in being black, and the underlying currents of it are felt throughout the pages of the book.
Pecola’s insanity started early on in her life, when she became old enough to realize how she was being compared to other women who were more beautiful than she was. Living under the constant pressure of trying to be physically perfect, Pecola started imagining that if she just achieved physical beauty, her life would improve drastically. This hunger, however, consumes her throughout her life and results in her losing her sanity.
Victimization is a common theme in her life, and if looked at broadly, the theme in the lives of women who are not up the society’s standards. Pecola’s low self-esteem and desire to become more beautiful come from the constant slurs directed her way by not only strangers, but also the people who she would consider family and friends. The bullying and berating are not just limited to verbal slurs, but also crosses into the territory of mental and physical harassment. At one point in the novel, Claudia punches Pecola in her face, and gets blueberry juice on her legs. At another point, Junior not only throws his cat in Pecola’s face, but also kills the animal right in front of her. Towards the end of the novel, however, come Pecola’s ultimate defeat: she is raped by her father.
Toni Morrison, through Pecola’s life, describes not only the life of a black woman struggling in a racist society, but the lives of women all over the world and beyond her time. Women who have had self-esteem issues stemming from physical imperfections will thus find Pecola relatable, since her victimization is a parallel of what some of them experience on varied levels. There seems to be no respite from the travails of life for them: in Pecola’s case, she might not have been ugly at all. She may have been berated only for the colour of her skin. However, the acts themselves were so traumatizing that she fell prey to self-deprecation, and dedicated her life climbing out of it. In fact, she even attributes her rape to a consequence of being granted her wish of having the bluest eyes, but at the expense of her own sanity. The bottom line here seems to say that life is hard when you are not beautiful, but it may be harder if you are.
Another recurring theme in the novel that corresponds with the feelings of numerous other women reading the novel at any given point of time is the feeling of self-blame and depreciation. Pecola believes that her victimization would stop if only she could get people to love her. She is also under the impression that her parents would stop fighting if she were prettier. This is the classic ‘it’s my fault’ psychology, only twisted and taken to the extreme. This is also what makes Pecola highly relatable: women struggling with beauty standards all across the world have repeatedly reported experiencing self-blame on many levels. Many believe that their relationships failed because they were not as pretty as other women, regardless of what or who the problem was. Such women are also more susceptible to violence, and to some level, accepting of it: they are often under the impression that accepting violence and insult would somehow compensate for them not being beautiful enough for their partners. This is also what we see in Pecola to various degrees in the novel: instead of concentrating on making herself stronger, both mentally and emotionally, she falls prey to the vicious circle of pleasing everyone by accepting that whatever went wrong could have been her fault. The desperation to be considered beautiful, added to the trauma of having to deal with supposed ‘crimes’ that she did not commit, builds up to the explosion in her mind towards the end of the novel.
This desperation started showing itself right from the beginning of the novel. In the very first chapter, Pecola drinks milk out of a Shirley Temple just so she can look at the latter’s face, thus fuelling her desire to emulate the latter. The fact that she is drinking milk is also a satire: she in internalizing, or consuming, the whitest substance that she could, just so she would become a little more acceptable to people who do not care how she looks.
The third recurring theme in the novel is that of hero worship: an emotion that women all across the world are only too familiar with. Throughout the novel, all female characters, whether big or small, consequential or inconsequential, grow up worshipping and trying to emulate one or the other actresses of the times. The common denominator among them, however, was that these were all white actresses. The situation, thus, lends itself to irony: a black woman trying to achieve the standards of such beauty as is biologically impossible. Pecola’s mother is a fan of Jean Harlow, and wears her hair the same way as the latter. Pecola, on the other hand, constantly tries to emulate the pale, skinny, and perfect Shirley Temple, going as far as consuming great amounts of milk just to see her face on the cup. Women who find themselves in the same predicament as Pecola will identify – they will be no strangers to the feeling of fantasizing themselves to be as beautiful as their favourite actresses. There desires are also sometimes accompanied by the want to change, if not all, at least some part of their anatomy, so they would be considered beautiful despite their very ‘obvious’ shortcomings.
The cycle of self-hatred in Pecola’s life is also noteworthy. Pecola was abused not only outside her home, but also inside it. The maternal figure is the one arbitrarily accepting all shortcomings in her child, and persuading him or her to climb out of it. Pecola’s mother, however, uses her daughter’s dark skin as a weapon to wound her emotionally and mentally, without realizing that it could not have neither her nor Pecola’s fault.
Moreover, Pecola’s desire to be beautiful is also seen as more of an indignant demand than a desperate cry fuelled by the spurns directed her way. In her own words, Morrison describes her efforts as asking, and not trying, as if Pecola were not entitled to be beautiful – ‘Here was an ugly little black girl asking for beauty’ CITATION Mor70 p 174 l 16393 (Morrison 174). Pecola’s desire to be considered beautiful is thus seen as the effort of a young black girl asking for something more than she could ever have, as if asking for more money.
The driving factors in Pecola’s life are the blue eyes themselves. Pecola’s heroine, Shirley Temple, has blue eyes, and these are the same type that she desires. In many ways, the blue eyes depict the supremacy of the race, based on which a nation, divided along the lines of colour and race, decides the commonly accepted power structure. This is depicted early on in the novel, when it starts with the description of the ideal white family—Dick and Jane and their loving parents. A contrast to Pecola’s own dysfunctional familial unit, this family represents what the contemporary America considered the perfect definition of life. It is also the way that a dominant culture expresses its supremacy, by teaching its young the difference between races, and cultivating the feeling of being superior to others early on in their lives CITATION Gre98 p 24 l 16393 (Grewal 24).
Moreover, this kind of education not only benefits the suppressor, but also leads to the victim supressing herself or himself as a person of colour. It encourages them to internalize, or conform to, the formally accepted standard of beauty – being white CITATION Gib89 p 20 l 16393 (Gibson 20).
Therefore, Pecola’s family was already under attack for their heritage and roots. However, what added significantly to the novel was their hero worship, and where they learned what constituted as beauty. Their idea of femininity was derived and absorbed largely from pop culture, in the depiction of women as perfect creatures with pale, flawless skin and thin waists bended to provocative angles. They were absorbed too deeply in the presentation of their favourite icons around them—on billboards, in movies and songs, and in pictures. Most of their definition of beauty did not come from an internal musing and consequent realization. Thus, in many ways, there was no way that they could be strong enough to love themselves, perhaps because their definition of love came from a movie depicting a perfect white man and an impeccable white woman living supreme lives CITATION Gib89 p 20 l 16393 (Gibson 20).
This is directly resonant, to a great extent, of the self-hatred that is common in black communities. The absence of black characters from major pop cultures, combined with the frequent attacks on the colour of their skin promotes the feelings of incapability and ineptitude, so much so that they often start despising their heritage because it made them different from their peers.
Black women, especially, often fall prey to this psychological trap. In their desperate effort to conform to the ideals of beauty, defined largely by white men and women, they start hating themselves for being black. They see themselves not through an internal mirror, but from the eyes of a person with skin tones fairer than they possess. In 1999, Taylor talked this kind of racism, also termed as racialized ranking that set blackness up as an affliction, or a condition to be avoided or despised. It sets being black as the sign of ‘depravity’ and a deeper ‘ugliness’ while forgoing the character of the person altogether CITATION Tay99 p 16 l 16393 (Taylor 16). This desperation to be loved by people eventually also leads women despising other women having the same skin colour as them.
The novel depicts this kind of radical racism in a scene between Geraldine and pecola. Geraldine, despite being a black woman, is too far gone to accept her black heritage. Blinded by her ideals of feminine beauty, she sees in Pecola what she despises in herself, and considers to be the common shortcomings of all black women. Her image of Pecola is how she thinks all black women look – shabby and poor. Pecola, to her, was the very embodiment of everything the society despised—a torn black dress, matted hair and plaits undone, cheap shoes with wads of gum stuck in between them CITATION Mor70 p 71-72 l 16393 (Morrison 71-72). Her image of what black people constitute is so astute that she takes it upon herself to distinguish between a coloured person and a black one. To her, coloured people were ‘neat and quiet’, whereas the ‘niggers’ were ‘dirty and loud’CITATION Mor70 p 67 l 16393 (Morrison 67).
Morrison depicts not only the treatment of the blacks towards themselves, but also the society’s treatment of white, fair skinned people, which was radically different. This is evident through the character Maureen, who is a fair-skinned girl, which affects the treatment of her teachers towards her drastically CITATION Mor70 p 47-48 l 16393 (Morrison 47-48).
Morrison describes, in her words, how Maureen had everything that Pecola had ever wanted. The teachers and students considered her impeccable and beautiful. In fact, she ‘enchanted’ the entire school. Even members of the black community treated her differently than they treated their own people—teachers smiled at her when she spoke, boys did not trip her in the hallway; even the black girls bent over backwards to impress her by letting her use the sinks in the washroom first CITATION Mor70 p 47-48 l 16393 (Morrison 47-48). This contributes, indirectly, to how inconsequential Pecola feels in comparison—being berated by strangers and family alike.
Pecola’s story is one all women can identify with. In fact, today is not just the black women who can relate to Pecola, but also white ones. Despite being born into the commonly accepted criteria for being beautiful, both black and white women have to struggle to doctor themselves into the perfect body. They are required to ‘discipline’ themselves into becoming perfect beings who will be accepted as beautiful. Thus, no matter what the time, and what the skin colour, women of times have always struggled with their body images and beauty standards. This paper is not directed towards just black women, or just white women, but towards all women, who struggle with not fitting into the mould of the perfect woman that society prepares without thought and consideration for action CITATION Bar88 p 71 l 16393 (Bartky 71).
Pecola’s sad ending, thus, was not her fault. In fact, she is absolved of any responsibility since it was not a crime for her to be black. It was societal standards who started in her a craving to be considered accepted and to be loved. All she needed was love from her home, and an education in strengthening herself against the crude remarks that society made against her. Had that been the case, she would have been the very embodiment of Claudia, who, very early on in the novel, defined herself as being immune to both white dolls and Shirley Temple CITATION Mor70 p 58 l 16393 (Morrison 58). Though she too fell prey to the traps of society later on, but one does wonder whether Pecola’s fate would have been different had she been as immune as Claudia.
In fact, it can safely be said that all women are Pecola. As mentioned, all of us struggle to conform ourselves to the standards of society. Our basic nature of being human is what drives our desire to be loved and accepted by all. In such a case, if we face rejection just because of the colour of our skin, or our physical attributes, it comes as a blow to our self-esteem. What we instead need to understand is that no matter what we accomplish, we will be observed however society wants to observe us: as objects, as ugly, and even worthless. The cloud of judgement and hypocrisy is such that one cannot comprehend where to start lifting it.
The novel is a lesson in strength, and a resounding parallel to the story of women spread out over time. Throughout history, women of all races have been victimized for not being able to conform to society’s definition of being beautiful, not only in different cultures, but also often in their own. However, Morrison’s novel is not a lament—it is a rebellion against the very society that has been keeping women down. Pecola may have lost her sanity, but in doing so, she imparts immense knowledge and courage to the thousands of women who have been part of her journey. In a way, she teaches them to be all that she never could be, or was allowed to be—strong, independent, and free of the shackles of commercialized beauty and judgemental society.
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Gibson, Donald B. “Text and Countertext in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 1.1-2 (1989): 19-32. Print.
Grewal, Gurleen. Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Boston: Louisiana State University Press, 1998. Print.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Penguin, 1970. Print.
Taylor, Paul C. “Malcolm’s Conk and Danto’s Colours; or Four Logical Petitions Concerning Race, Beauty, and Aesthetics.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1999): 16-20. Print.