The themes within the novel broke the mold on black literature. Drawing from her own experiences growing up in Ohio, Morrison paints a picture of inner torment and self-destruction as seen through brown eyes. Pecola Breedlove takes the stage as the main character. Narrated through many points of view, the story takes the reader on a journey through the lives of many of the influences on Pecola’s life. One such major influence is Polly, Pecola’s mother. Polly stepped on a nail at two years old and this accident completely frames her life. Useless in terms of entertainment or beauty, Polly finds comfort in watching films.
Each film further concretes her view of black as ugly and inane. “It was really a simple pleasure, but she learned all there was to love and all there was to hate,” (95). Polly eventually finds herself needing the volatile atmosphere of her marriage to give her life purpose. She has become a martyr - the woman who stands by her man with a damaged foot and sense of purpose. This influence on Pecola only furthers her self-image of ugliness. When combined with the story of her father, Cholly, Pecola’s external circle of family doomed her from the onset. Cholly’s story stems completely from the onset of puberty.
A ruthless group of white boys discovered Cholly during his first sexual act. The boys made him continue in the act while they stood and watched, taunting him with foul language and racial slurs. His slow transformation into a chaotic hater of women begins in that moment. “Cholly wanted to strangle her, but instead he touched her leg with his foot,” (117). According to Freud in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, this humiliation at the onset of the ‘oedipal stage’ solidifies Cholly’s sense of individualism. His loss of power and dignity will stay with him forever, and the novel presents that exact scenario.
This humiliation forms the entire basis for Cholly’s anger and sense of helplessness throughout the novel. During his younger years, Cholly searches for a sense of his personal identity outside of that incident. Soon enough, he finds himself in the hometown of Pauline (Polly). Inspired in those brief moments to make his life better, Cholly asks Polly to marry him. The decision will haunt Cholly for the rest of his life. He is not a man made for the family life. When Polly is pregnant with their first child, Cholly changes his ways and begins to drink less. Unfortunately, this change is short lived and he is, once again, back to his old self.
Cholly’s complete defeat essentially stems from that single act of utter humiliation as a boy. The married life has worn him thin. There is no sense of value or kindred spirits within the ugly storefront house. Cholly is as lost as Pecola and her mother. These happenings all have a great influence on the livelihood of Sammy, Pecola’s brother. Sammy runs away from home frequently, only returning to the family when absolutely necessary. “That boy is off somewhere every minute,” (148). The effect on Pecola herself spells the end of her normal life, if one can call it normal to begin with.
Cholly continues to lose himself in liquor and self-degradation. In the exact opposite of the Freudian theory for the ‘oedipus complex’, Cholly begins to see his daughter as the saving thing he has been searching for. The ugliness is repeated in the act, with Cholly not having a normal encounter. She tells her mother, who rather than being outraged at the injustice done her daughter, sees the loss of her status in life. The very existence of her cheating husband and disconnected family gives her a standard for misery. She can accurately gauge her unhappiness when everything Polly knows is dark and gloomy.
In Pecola trying to take away the husband in the picture, Polly stands to lose her framework. She beats Pecola for the admission. Pecola discovers she is pregnant by her father and begins to lose her tenuous grasp on reality here. All her life she has lived in ugliness and filth. Her mother prefers the attentions of the white child belonging to her employers, with her own children calling her Mrs. Breedlove rather than mama. Cholly prefers the bottle to bettering the family’s status or even health. The family home is one of a derelict storefront, no comforts or stability.
Cholly at one point even tries to burn the place down, beginning the history of Pecola and the MacTeer girls. The atmosphere Pecola grows in revolves in ugliness and distain - distain for herself, her race, her parents and even her own eyes. “Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs – all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured,” (14). Even gifts bring a sense of dirtiness to the girls’ self-image. The MacTeer girls have come to love Pecola as she presents no direct confrontation for them.
When they learn of the baby, the girls spend their own money on marigold seeds and plant them in the backyard, figuring if the marigolds make it, so will the baby. The ugliness of the situation is lost to them. In their simple world, the baby may turn out to be the baby doll they have always received at Christmas, only far better. In the end the marigolds die, as does the baby. These girls are the only ones who see the situation as all right. “More strongly than my fondness for Pecola, I felt a need for someone to ant the black baby to live – just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples and Maureen Peals,” (149).
This powerful statement shows that at least someone recognizes a value in the black skin of the community. The MacTeers value something that holds no value in their small town. Whiteness is a prized possession. The lighter the skin, the better off the person is. As with the case of Maureen Peal and Rosemary Villanucci. Pecola goes to a local magic man, Soaphead Church, to ask him for blue eyes. She knows if she can only have blue eyes, her world will be a better place. Blue eyes see beautiful things, they are beautiful things, and everyone knows it. The dishonest magician steps all over the purity of her request.
Soapchurch tells her if she gives his nuisance of a dog a piece of meat as an offering, he will change her eyes to blue. He poisons the meat, using the girl to kill the dog, who is at her wit’s end. She gives the dog the meat and when it falls down dead, she runs off truly changed forever. Pecola loses all sense of herself in the end. She speaks to her imaginary friend about the blueness of her eyes, arguing over the depth of the color. The baby is soon lost and her father is long gone. Alone with her mother now, Pecola is moved to the other side of town.
She has not found her sense of self, a belonging to the community. She is completely on the outside. This shunning by the community offers each one of them a chance to have a miserable person to point at and say – at least that isn’t me. In coming to understand Pecola within the context of her community, the reader can visualize their need for her. She offers everyone a chance to point at something uglier than themselves and find relief. In terms of grasping the finer points of Pecola, one must look to her family to grasp the need for beauty in her life.
Shirley Temple represents all that Pecola can never have or be. Even when she finds the opportunity to do a simple task such as buy herself some penny candy, she is shunned because the storeowner, Mr. Yacobowski, hesitates in touching her black skin. His distaste for her is almost a physical object Pecola can feel and see. “She has seen it lurking in the eyes of all white people. So. The distaste must be for her, her blackness. All things in her are flux and anticipation. But her blackness is static and dread.
And it is the blackness that accounts for, that creates, the vacuum edged with distaste in white eyes,” (37). There is no peace offering for her, no single moment of acceptance or celebration. As Max Weber implies, this shunning and constant invisibility has a direct impact on Pecola’s sense of self. She is a non-human in the eyes of many of the townfolk. Her darkness of skin puts her in the darkness of shadow – people simply do not see Pecola most of the time. Her skin is too dark to touch, her family is to nasty to visit and her words are too childish to bear.
Regarding Cholly, the context of his own adolescence is vital in at least viewing the foundation for his actions. Without the background on his character, the reader would quickly find his actions murderous and grotesque. However, one is offered a unique opportunity to understand the story from his angle, one of destitution and consistent loss of dignity. His rape of Pecola is not excusable, but his motivations in searching for comfort and normalcy shed light on his chaotic actions. Cholly’s obvious connection to the Freudian ideas of sexuality and self-image are obvious.
This man seeks sexual encounters whenever he can, and women become his vehicle for hate. Again, he is the opposite of Freud’s ‘oedipal complex’, but in being so, the reader sees his influences on his family, and the world’s influence on him. The white boys’ ridicule made him who is in this novel. Finally, in trying to see the world from Polly mindset, the reader sees she has vilified herself so far, the reality is all but gone from her as well. The severity of her situation is important to her, giving her a sense of the ugliness as being innate and uncontrollable – simply how things are.
Mimicked in her acceptance of her employer’s daughter, Polly accepts the white goodness as equally as she accepts her own race’s badness. The MacTeer girls internalize the sentiment of the novel. The vilification of black skin affects everyone in the town. The Breedloves are seen as nasty people, blackest of black. When the world has offered only sparse living conditions and unequal opportunities, the community in question derives its own sense of purpose from the given construct. Much as Weber’s contention that one must consider the whole in order to grasp the part, the community is ugly and mean.
Their direct influence on the story of the entire cast of characters is obvious and true. Without such a negative stage, perhaps Cholly would have gone on to be a good father figure, Sammy may have stabilized and Pecola could have married for love and raised her babies in a loving home. Separated from the first introduction, the reader senses the desperation in their story, one without hope. In accepting their fate as the downtrodden from the very beginning, the people of Lorain, Ohio found salvation for themselves in the Breedloves.