American Perception in The Bluest Eye
Cleanliness is a very delicate concept. When there is so much as a small contaminate, what is considered clean is muddied by filth and “nastiness”. Therefore, things that are “dirty” and “clean” are separated to make sure that the neatness of what is clean is preserved. With black skin being seen as “dirty” and white skin as “clean”, the separation of the two groups to maintain the social order in the United States is justified. In this instance, Toni Morrison tells of the Breedlove family, a fictional Black American that struggles to find cleanliness as their lifestyle, appearance, and how they are perceived socially is “dirty”. Through the characters that we follow, the author Toni Morrison tells of how the opposing pillars of cleanliness and filth illustrate the struggle of black people in America to “clean up” to change how they are perceived in the eyes of white America. However, the yearning to be accepted by white society is purposefully unattainable to those that are inherently a part of it, and fitting the mold will cause you to lose your shape.
Trying their best to uphold the white perception of cleanliness, many get caught up in how well they perform for this cleanliness for white people. Pauline Breedlove falls into this as a maid for a white family on the other side of town. When performing her whiteness for them, she feels that “power, praise, and luxury were hers in this household [and they] gave her what she had never had — a nickname — Polly. It was her pleasure to stand in her kitchen at the end of a day and survey her handiwork” (Morrison 128). In a world of white cleanliness, Mrs. Breedlove indulges in the illusion between her and her employers. Even within the time constraints of the workday, she gets to experience what life is like for white people and is even given a thoughtful nickname as a sign of closeness to her host family. However, her children are not afforded the same luxury. They have no choice but to coldly call her “Mrs. Breedlove”, an ironic title for your biological mother. Pauline has made a conscious effort to keep “this order, this beauty, for herself, a private world, and never introduced it into her storefront, or to her children. Them she bent toward respectability, and in so doing taught them fear” (Morrison 128). On the one hand, it can be surmised that the more maternal treatment that the white family receives from Pauline is a symptom of her internalized racism and willingness to sacrifice her personal life for the comfort of white people to be seen as more “clean” or “palatable”. But, on the other hand, it could be argued that the exhaustion of keeping up with the pristine image to cater to white people leaves Pauline too exhausted to take care of her family and their business. Such is a problem all too common to black and brown communities. Though survival through “cleaning” yourself is necessary at times, many minority groups believe that giving the impression of cleanliness individually is better than finding ways to uplift their communities. Black Americans uphold this ideal to their detriment.
Even when cleanliness in behavior is expected of the black community to get ahead, there are still many obstacles in their way. “The sofa, for example. It had been purchased new, but the fabric had split straight across the back by the time it was delivered. The store would not take the responsibility” (Morrison 36). The sofa represents the failure for minorities to get ahead despite taking the same step to success as their white counterparts do. Though the couch would be a symbol of success and a sign of a house well made, the gash in the back of the couch represents the scars that racism has on the prosperity of Black Americans. They try to live up to this ideal but being a second-class citizen bars them from realizing it fully. The American dream does well at selling the idea of everyone being able to succeed but this goal, though achievable, can be marred by racism. With this big gash behind the couch, their efforts to present cleanliness and get ahead are quashed. This new couch was supposed to represent from them a clean and comforting home but the furnishings “were anything but describable, having been conceived, manufactured, shipped, and sold in various states of thoughtlessness, greed, and indifference” (Morrison 36). What you invite into your home permeates your consciousness. The items in your home inform your mood and outwardly reflect how you live your life to others. The treatment of the furnishing in the Breedlove household is telling of America’s history of disenfranchising black people. Like the dilapidated furnishing, black slaves were shipped across the Atlantic to America with no regard for where they were from or where going. On the other hand, the European population that had settled in the United States had settled voluntarily. The luxury that comes with cleanliness — even in cultural lineage — is only afforded to those that automatically fit into it.
When consistently and actively consumed, the Western ideal of cleanliness can be accepted by even those that do not fall into it. When you submit to these learned behaviors, you feel a sense of belonging to cleanliness and therefore more comfortable taking up space in society. For example, the Breedlove’s older cousin Claudia can embrace the ideals of femininity as a result of her mastering the act of being clean (Kuenz 423). She goes on to exemplify her adherence to these standards to her younger cousins by showing her appreciation for Shirley Temple, a girl who at the time was upheld a what it means to fall into this image of cleanliness. In this way, she passes on the sentiment that femininity when presented in this way is “clean” and a commodity that can be earned by those that don’t already possess it. This is where the idea that Pecola believes that she can simply acquire blue eyes stems from (Kuenz 424). She falsely believes that since this physical feature is propped up and used to be seen as more valuable in society’s eyes. It is just a consequence of the image but out by the media to assert uniform sexuality and femininity on women. The purposely rigid definition of what is clean actively keeps many people out.
Despite making conscious efforts to strive for social cleanliness, the realization that it will never be attainable for the characters also takes a toll on them physically. When you do not fit into Eurocentric beauty standards, your appearance is often automatically perceived as less than or inferior. Many minority women are on average are born miles behind in this quest to be perceived as beautiful. From a young age, Pauline never had a shot at being “perfect”. When she was two years old, she was struck in the foot by a dirty nail. This “left her with a crooked, archless foot that flopped when she walked” (Morrison 108). To most, Pauline’s injury would make her imperfect and therefore “unclean”. However, since the effect, if the injury is relatively inconsequential, there is still a shot at being seen at least relatively, as clean. With the weight of beauty standards so heavy on women and girls of color, you are given two options: chase the unattainable ideal of “cleanliness” in how you look through the white perspective or surrender to the fact that you will never be greatly considered as beautiful. Mrs. Breedlove chooses the latter. We later see that a tooth of hers falls free as a response to “severe pressure, and the tooth fell free, leaving a ragged stump behind. But even before the little brown speck, there must have been the conditions, the setting that would allow it to exist in the first place” (Morrison 114). Pauline had grown accustomed to the idea that she will never be clean enough to attain what is considered beautiful. As a result, she does not continue to “clean up” her image and just starts to let herself go. She realized that the “conditions” that her tooth was under would not let it thrive. The same could be said about having the dominant white culture dictate the lives of non-white people in America. The environment that minorities are confronted with every day does not lend well to this type of lifestyle. Minorities must constantly barter having good standing in white culture with decisions that make sense for the very different lives they lead as second-class citizens. Letting this aspect of society’s controlling nature go is liberating but can come at a price.
As seen in Cholly Breedlove, the trauma that the black community has faced in the past can traumatize future generations thus rendering them unable to build a “cleaner” future. Cholly, unfortunately, was given a life of hardship right from the beginning. Abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose. He was alone with his own perceptions and appetites, and they alone interested him” (Morrison 159–160). With a childhood like this, it is hard to discern what is “clean” and what is “dirty” because it was never shown to him. Honestly, having an example of a nuclear with loving parents would have been a great start for Cholly. When you grow up in a home with no one to show you, love, you have no idea what it looks like. Living in a messy space can be stressful. But the idea of even beginning to clean the mess you made serves to be more daunting. Like a filthy room, Cholly feels as though the mess that was made from his younger years cannot be made clean. He lets this generational trauma continue when discussing the relationship that he has with her daughter, Pecola. He questions her love for him by asking: “How dare she love him? Hadn’t she any sense at all? What was he supposed to do about that? Return it? How?” (Morrison 161). This, however, does not absolve him of his wrongdoings, but instead, explains them. Mr. Breedlove does not know what familial love is. He has only experienced in kind of love with his wife. Cholly mistakes love for what he does to his daughter because that is how he has shown love to his wife and that is the only way that he knows. Doing this to her daughter Pecola has taken her innocence away and has made her viewed as “unclean” by the members of her own community. Against her will, she is muddied and is counted out of the race to achieve what is clean. No matter how hard this ideal is pushed, there is always to be a speck of dust that “contaminates”.
Throughout the novel, Morrison uses each of the characters in the story to focus on the problem with adhering to white ideals as a black person. Their allegiance to this out-of-reach standard can cause them to abandon their black peers to get closer to this ideal. Most fall at the wayside but even when achieved, it awards no individuality in thinking or expression; This is doubly so for women of color. Since what it means to be clean does not take people of color into account, it fails to give leeway to the struggles that they face daily. Anything not white is “dirty”. Anyone nonwhite will never be “clean”. The definition of clean in this case is Eurocentric is inherently exclusionary to people of color.
Kuenz, Jane. “The Bluest Eye: Notes on History, Community, and Black Female Subjectivity.” African American Review, vol. 27, no. 3, [Indiana State University, Saint Louis University, African American Review, African American Review (St. Louis University)], 1993, pp. 421–31, https://doi.org/10.2307/3041932.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. London Vintage, 2016.