The Theme of Family and Relationship as Seen In The Color Purple and The Bluest Eye.
The concept of fractured family life and familial separation is a recurring theme in African American literature, going back as far as the slave narratives of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Slavery affected all aspects of their family life as the forceful and unnatural separation meant normal family relations were difficult to maintain. In Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ we see this idea reflected in Celie, the story’s protagonist’s and family are strongly incorporated into both stories.
Celie is initially deprived of familial love due to being separated emotionally from her mother and physically and sexually abused by who she considers to be her father and being physically from her sister and children, yet by the end of the novel she successfully rebuilds a larger and more complete family around herself. Despite the hardship that Celie goes through there are moments where she relies on the warmth and care of her new family to guide her out of these situations. For example, Celies relationship with Shug is not only romantic but also almost sister like in regard to her protectiveness and the wise advise she gives her; Shug teaches Celie how to stand up to her abusive husband and gives her the confidence to stop fearing him, she has to learn to “say whatever come to mind, for git about polite”. This contrasts with the protagonist from Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’, whose fractured family structure results in a fragmented self by the end of the novel. Pecola never rises to defeat her oppressors by the end of the novel like Celie does, in this story she is perpetually attacked and put down for being an ugly, black little girl. In Toni Morrisons world there is no place for someone as ‘unlucky’ as Pecola, someone who not only is at the bottom of the societal hierarchy but who unfortunately also cannot fall on their family’s support. The tone is much more defeated and somber than in The Color Purple because of this.
Pecola’s mental destruction at the end of the novel comes because of both her internal racism and her incestuous sexual abuse inflicted by her father. Both protagonists are victims of rape from paternal figures, and in Celies case it is one of the main factors for her disdain towards the male sex in the novel. The use of rape has a significant impact when looking at its literary relevance in Afro-American context, its importance refers all the way back to slave narratives. Rape was usually characterized as another way that white slave owners show ownership over their slaves, it was common for white slavers to rape their own slaves fully knowing that the people they were raping were in a relationship with other slaves under their ownership. From early in Cholly’s life he is a victim of white oppression, he is forced to have sex for the amusement of two white people while jeeringly called a “coon”. The trauma inflicted by the two white men has a detrimental effect on his attitude towards sex later in his life, he develops an ignorant and twisted view of love and on how to appropriately love his daughter. This frustration leads him to rape her. This is remarked by Claudia at the end of the novel when she says that “that love is only as good as the lover, and therefore Cholly’s love killed her”.
Meanwhile in the Color Purple, Alphonso here shows ownership over Celie by raping her; he knows full well that there is nowhere for her to turn to for help, he psychologically isolates her by saying that she “better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy”. Alphonso plays to the stereotype of the abusive or emotionaly absent black father, a stereotype that is embedded in our minds which, according to John and Harriette McAdoo’s article on the dynamics of African American family roles, is due to an “economic isolation, enslavement” and “the constant racism they deal with”. The effect of racism on black father figures is more emphasized in Cholly’s character than in The Color Purple due to his greater characterization in the novel, Alphonso is used more as to be a basic antagonist to Celie than to be given any depth. Pecola’s internal racism arises from societies hate for black people. This internally racist society mirrors how Cholly is oppressed and carries this oppression on to his children, their self-hatred originates from their ancestors being made to believe that they were inferior. This is carried on throughout generations as a sort of twisted heirloom that these African Americans subconsciously pass to their children. In Pecola’s case her internal racism can be directly traced to her mothers infatuation with these glamourized white actors, these movie stars make her and her daughter feel unattractive.
Whereas the fathers in both novels are proactively destructive towards their daughters, the mothers of Pecola and Celie show an unintentional absence and coldness towards their daughters. Celie’s mother is bedridden at the beginning of the novel and is oblivious to her daughter’s rape by her husband. Alphonso takes advantage of his wife’s sickness by using it as leverage over her daughter, meaning her mother unwittingly aids Alphonso. Celie almost blames her for this at one-point remarking “that (she) used to get mad at her mammy” but realizes that “she couldn’t stay mad at her” on account of her sickness. Her mother’s absence in her life meant she had to deal with the trauma alone, and this loneliness and anger made her numb to the world. “Then I started to feel nothing at all”. Mrs. Breedlove is cold to her daughter, choosing to treat her employers with more warmth than her own family. Mrs. Breedlove’s internal racism and lack of self-esteem in addition to her abusive relationship with husband makes her take refuge to her white employers, pretending to be a part of their family. This makes Pecola feel even more inadequate, her want for blue eyes becomes even stronger. Both novels push the boundaries of what it means to be a family, unorthodox family structures are presented and at some points even promoted in the novel. Take the three prostitutes in the bluest eye, despite being scorned for their profession they find strength in each other and fought back at the society that hated them so. “Black men, white men, Puerto Ricans…all were inadequate and weak…they took delight in cheating them”. Their individuality appeals to Pecola the outcast, being the only other group of people so universally scorned they can empathize with her, or at least understand her enough to “not despise her”. Morrison’s use of laughter in chapter three also parallels its use in The Color Purple, laughter among women is used to show the strength of their sister like relationship. The ability to laugh when faced with horrific and unfair situations makes laughter a sort of rebellion. Sisterhood has a large importance throughout The Color Purple, the connection between Celie and Nettie is important narratively, as is the sister hood between Celie, Shug and the other women in the novel. Despite having much to fight over, most of them met each other through mutual lovers, they put aside any negative feelings they may have had for each other and band together to provide unconditional support for each other.
There are many instances of domestic violence in both novels, conflict between men and woman in families often manifests itself as domestic violence. Her father, who is very often drunk, hits her mother. Consequently, these ritual and terrible fight have a detrimental effect on Pecola’s health. It can be seen in the passage where she prays God to make her disappear during one of her parents’ fight “Please God…Please make me disappear”. This desire of vanishing demonstrates self-destructive and almost suicidal tendencies, to her her ugly, poor black life is of no value to anyone, not even herself nor her parents. Domestic violence and abuse is similarly used in The Color Purple, verbal and physical abuse is a constant in Celie’s life. The man she married forces her to raise his two children from another marriage, despises her, and physically and verbally abuses her. Celie is continually told she is skinny, ugly, and got nothing. When Shug first meets Celie she says, ‘You sure is ugly’. Celie is miserable with, a man who wanted to marry her sister Nettie and has only accepted her in marriage as her father said she could work for him “like any man”. I think it was Morrisons and Walkers goal to portray domestic violence as a byproduct of the black oppression, their bloody and violent history has made them violent among themselves due to them not being able to channel this aggression at their superordinate oppressors. This is especially true in the Bluest Eye due to the significance of Pecola’s rape and its connection with white oppression, the white men who forced her father to have sex in front of them all those years ago have made him bitter and angry at his powerlessness then. The white people’s cruelness long outlives them or their victims, due to their violence affects their victim’s entire legacy.
The Dick and Jane motif is used ironically throughout the novel as a way of showing the individual shortcomings of Pecola’s family that result in their family not working. The Dick and Jane motif in The Bluest Eye reminds us of the persuasiveness of the happy, middle-America myth of the perfect family, which did not exist in black culture, and especially not in the case of Pecola’s family. The use of repetitious phrases foreshadows this family ruin and the unsettling family dynamics. In the introduction of ‘The Bluest Eye’ an excerpt of the Dick and Jane novel is repeated, while the sentence structures slowly deteriorate showing their failing family. Just as the Dick-and-Jane primer teaches children how to read, this novel will be about the larger story of how children learn to interpret their world. But there is something wrong with the Dick-and-Jane narrative as it is presented here. The paragraph that these sentences comprise lacks cohesion. It is unclear how each individual observation builds on the last. In the same way, the children in this novel lack ways to connect the disjointed, often frightening experiences that make up their lives. The substance of the narrative, though written in a quite cheerful manner, is also disturbing. Though we are told that the family that lives in the pretty house is happy, Jane is isolated. Not only do her parents and pets refuse to play with her, but they seem to refuse any direct communication with her. When Jane approaches her mother to play, the mother simply laughs, which makes us wonder if the mother is, as we have been told, “very nice.” This draws a parallel with Pecola’s neglect from her mother and others throughout the story, the dick and Jane motif shows the audience exactly what is failing in their family. When she asks her father to play, her father only smiles. The lack of connection between sentences mirrors the lack of connection between the individuals in this story. The innocent way the text is presented mirrors how their family glosses over their own problems, they do not understand their own children nor is that their constant infighting abnormal. “Sammy screamed, “Kill Him! Kill Him!” Mrs. Breedlove’s looked at Sammy with surprise. “Cut out that noise boy””. Although they are good parents, the McAteer’s whip their children, complain about burdens and barely make ends meet financially, exploding the Dick and Jane myth that a successful family has to follow its glorified image. Mrs. Breedlove wanted her family life to disappear and is happiest when she is working for the white family that employed her, without any reminder of her failures. Similarly, Pecola wants to disappear and become invisible during her parent’s violent fights, she often “struggled between an overwhelming desire that one would kill the other, and a profound wish that she herself would die”. Sammy physically disappears as he runs away from home frequently, something Pecola is incapable of doing due to her gender. Experiences transferred Pauline into a product of hatred and ignorance, leading her to hold herself up to unrealistic standards that she could not attain.
In conclusion, family relationships and dynamics are used in The Color Purple to develop and strengthen the character of Celie as without the sisterly support from Shug and the rest of her friends it is certain that she would have never gotten either the strength nor the confidence to fight her oppressors; whereas the lack of strong family relationships in The Bluest Eye are the cause for Pecola’s unhappiness and self-hatred. Healthy family dynamics early on in life also account for how healthy they are socially, due to constant years of abuse in her developing years Celie grew up scared, unfeeling and vindictive. “You told Harpo to beat me, she (Sofia) said…I say it because you do what I can’t…Fight.” shows how defeated Celie is, her powerlessness has her seek out ways to hurt her friend simply to show she has some influence. This is also seen in Shug’s character when she says “And when I come here, say Shug, I treated you so mean. Like you was a servant. And all because Albert married you. And I didn’t even want him for a husband”, showing that this is a situation that many black women find themselves in. After creating a family for herself from the vast array of their husband’s mistresses and ex-partners she can grow and strengthen mentally, to the point where she can fight against her abusive husband and even make peace with them by the end of the novel.
Family, in addition to economic status and class, is one of the most defining features of someone’s foundation. Pecola’s upbringing was one if neglect and despair, she is psychologically abused by the degrading conditions under which she and her brother, Sammy, live as they watch their parents abuse one another. Her mother’s love of whiteness causes her to see herself as inferior, and is what I consider the root cause of her black shame. Here we see the significance family has in shaping people, Pauline lost herself in movies that affirmed that she was ugly for being black and in turn she is able to pass down these feelings subconsciously to her children. Due to Pecola’s submissive nature and incredible ugliness she never fights back against the society that hates her, nor does she try and find a surrogate family that will treat her properly. The closest she gets is her brief encounter with the Frieda family, in contrast to Pecola’s household there is love throughout their house. Because of their mother’s strengths and examples, both Claudia and Frieda are able to fight back against the forces that threaten to destroy them psychologically. Both girls resent the fact that not only white society but also black society values the light skinned children of the world. They realize that they must create their own self-worth in this world of beauty to which they don’t belong. This is a lesson that Pecola never learns and ultimately forces her to create and retreat into an unsatisfying world she has made up one in which she finally has her blue eyes.
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