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In portraying this young girl, Morrison is faced with the task of maintaining the sense of the child’s innocence--that is, her acceptance of color ideology at face value--and demonstrate how that ideology destroys her. Pecola is presented always from a third person narrative point of view, either by the omniscient narrator or by the first person narrator, Claudia, until the last chapter of the novel, when she is given voice in a first person dialogue with her imaginary friend.
Pecola is first portrayed as she is seen by Claudia when she comes to live with the MacTeers as a "case" for charity. Pecola acquiesces to anything the girls want her to do. When she gets her period, she is shocked. When she finds out someone as to love her in order for her to have a baby, she wonders how to make someone love her. The second time we see her, she is lying in bed paralyzed with fear and aversion as her parents and brother fight viciously. As an eleven year old girl, she is the weakest member of her family and her society. She cannot act to end the domestic violence of her household, she cannot speak up to stop it, she can only try to disappear by an effort of the imagination. It is here that Morrison begins the portraiture of this child’s strong imagination. As her parents fight, she concentrates all her imaginative energy on disappearing, and can succeed in imagining all her body dissipated except for her tightly sealed eyelids. The focus on eyes is thus subtly introduced.
The next time the reader sees Pecola she is surrounded by a group of boys in her school who are taunting her by calling her ugly because she is black and by intimating her father’s inappropriate sexual freedom around her by saying he sleeps naked. Like her response to her parents’ violent confrontation, Pecola responds to the bullies by hunching her shoulders and attempting to make herself small. When she is unexpectedly rescued by Frieda MacTeer, she finds herself in the company of the beautiful because light skinned Maureen Peel. Her conversation with Maureen reveals her love of the cinema, a love presumably learned from her mother, and her admiration of European- American film stars. When Maureen turns out to be stringing her along only to accuse her of premature sexual knowledge in seeing her father naked, Pecola does stand up for herself. She protests her innocence. This is the first and last time Pecola resists her oppression.
Her next independent act is to go to Soaphead Church and ask for blue eyes. Her child’s logic--if beauty is blue eyes and God performs miracles, then I can ask God to give me blue eyes--is touching in its innocent trust of the truth of what she has been told. Her final image, wandering around town talking to her imaginary friend, is piercingly sad. Her only concerns are praising her blue eyes and pushing down the image of her father raping her and her mother disbelieving her story. She is tragically destroyed by taking the community’s internalized racism to its own logical extreme.
Morrison uses Claudia as a narrator only sporadically in the novel. She comes in and out of voice. She is a better taken care of child than Pecola, but only one step up. That slight advantage gives Claudia the ability to fight back against the color ideology of white beauty/black ugliness. Her age also is presented as a reason for her ability to see clearly through the falseness of color ideology. It is assumed that ideology needs time to work, and it has not fully taken Claudia in by the time she witnesses what happens to Pecola.
Claudia, as a narrator-character, is only subtly drawn. The reader is aware that her words are a recounting of the past. She is remembering the summer when she and her older sister, Frieda, found out that their acquaintance, Pecola Breedlove, was raped by her father and impregnated. From her mature point of view, she recognizes the crime was more than just that perpetrated by Cholly, but more pervasively, that perpetrated by the community against its own children. The community rejects the beauty of its own children, encouraging them to recognize the beauty standard of the dominant media--the Shirley Temple blonde and blue-eyed privileged image--as the only kind of beauty. Blackness is regarded as ugly; the blacker a person is, the more ugly. Claudia resists this color ideology, this internalized racism, vehemently. Morrison depicts the thinking of children in Claudia as at least temporarily clear-visioned. Claudia knows something is wrong with the message she gets that she is not pretty because she does not look like Shirley Temple. She is intensely curious about what makes the white doll so precious and investigates by tearing her dolls apart. Claudia senses that what happens to Pecola has happened on a symbolic level to all the African American children of her community. In this, her perceptiveness is sharp.
Morrison is careful not to portray a simple villain in Cholly. By giving his traumatic experience with racism during his first sexual exploration, Morrison enables the reader to see how Cholly has been hurt. Her portraiture of Cholly, however, is not a central concern in the novel. Therefore, it is done in too hasty a manner. While the reader is given a poignant narrative of Cholly’s childhood years up until the time he is inadvertently rejected by his father, the reader is not given an account of Cholly’s adult life with Pauline, his degradation by drink and gambling. Cholly’s adult life experiences also informed his final act of raping his eleven year old daughter. Morrison neglects these experiences in favor of depicting Cholly’s early years.
Cholly is first presented as a drunken and lazy father and husband whose wife hates him intensely and who engages in continuous low intensity warfare with him. He and his wife brutally fight one another and in the first scene of his character portrait, he is knocked unconscious by his wife and wished dead by his son. Morrison quickly informs the reader of Cholly’s beginnings thereby humanizing the demonized image of the dysfunctional black man. As a child, Cholly is shown as sensitive and caring, tender in his desire to explore sexual pleasure with a girl named Darlene. This exciting and tender encounter is interrupted by the brutal joke of two white racists who force Cholly, a fourteen year old boy, to perform sex on Darlene for their viewing pleasure. Being powerless against the white men, Cholly turns his hatred onto one who is more powerless than he, Darlene, the person who witnessed his degradation, and who embodied it at the same time.
Cholly’s hatred of the weak and powerless--in his society African American women and children--resulted from the cycle of oppression. He was oppressed as a child and, never having found a way out of the system of oppression, he began to oppress those weaker than he. His rape of his daughter is depicted oddly as a failed return to tenderness. He sees her scratching the back of her leg with the toe of her other foot, a gesture just like the one her mother performed which initiated his love for her. In his befuddled state, he collapses his image of mother and daughter, he desires to protect and cherish her, and, at the same time, he cannot control his sexual desire for her. Instead of protecting and cherishing her, he rapes her and then leaves her lying in an unconscious state. The reader hears nothing more of Cholly except that he left, and perhaps before he left, he raped his daughter a second time, and then that he died in a work camp.
Pauline is first presented as an ugly member of an ugly family, fighting viciously with her husband, disregarding her children’s feelings, and giving all her love and care to the child of her white employers. Then, Morrison shows Pauline’s beginnings and the reader gains sympathy for her, sees the roots of her degradation by the institutionalized racism of the media which presents European beauty as the standard and epitome of beauty. The last picture of Pauline returns to the degraded version, a woman who is so psychically damaged by internalized racism that she severely physically abuses her daughter when she finds out her daughter has been raped. She adds insult to the injury of the abuse by not believing her daughter when she tells Pauline that the rapist was her father, Cholly Breedlove.
Morrison’s skill at character portraiture is especially evident in the history she gives to Pauline’s present manner of life. Her early adolescence was spent fantasizing about a vaguely kind man who would take her by the hand and lead her to happiness. This fantasy was evoked by the songs sung in her church depicting Christ as a sort of lover who leads the lost and lonely to wholeness and happiness. The lonely person passively accepts this leading; no active virtues are inculcated. Thus, Pauline was sold on an ideology of passivity, especially as it was gendered. As a woman, she had only to wait for a man to come along and take her into his care. This first false belief system got her married. The next two to which she was exposed were much more dangerous--the ideology of physical beauty and the ideology of romantic love.
As an African-American woman from the South living in the new culture of the north, Pauline went to the movies to escape her problems and ended up gaining more problems in the process. She learned internalized the ideology that there is one standard of beauty and it is white and economically privileged. She also learned that love is a possessive, individualistic, and private emotion, divorced from sexual pleasure and simple caring. Her marriage fell apart partially because of her inculcation into these two ideologies. The fact that she despised of her daughter, Pecola, also resulted in part from these two systems of belief.
Though a minor character, Soaphead Church deserves some analysis here since he is the catalyst for the final outcome of the plot. Soaphead Church is a flawed character he is not fully drawn; he is the repository of all the sickness of internalized racism; his insanity is drawn in unfortunate homophobic language; and he comes into the narrative only at the end of the novel, where Morrison attempts to give his full history in too short a space before continuing the narrative about Pecola.
Soaphead Church is the one demonized African-American character in the novel. He is a child molester who believes he is better than God. The source of his malaise is in his family’s long history of internalized racism. Since its inception in the early 1800s, the Whitcomb family practiced racial exclusivism in marriage practices, marrying only light skinned African Americans. In this depiction, Soaphead Church is an extreme version of another minor character in the novel, also cruel to Pecola, Geraldine.