PARTHENIA ONASSIS GRANT, Ph.D.
aka Ruthie O. Grant, Ph.D.

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Alienation and Estrangement of Women in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out

Ruthie Grant, Ph.D.

The devastation of racial images and its resulting estrangement from society that Pecola Breedlove suffers in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye capture the casual dismissal, alienation and estrangement, in general, of women in Virginia Woolf's novel, The Voyage Out.  Woolf’s novel is set during the Victorian era, whereas Morrison’s novel is set during the depression at a time when an African American could not buy a pair of blue eyes for love nor money.  Now, they can be bought for twenty bucks.  Moreover, there was no such thing as racial parity, whereas now, African Americans at least have a stab at it.  By the same token, a woman like Rachel Vinrance in Woolf’s novel, was dependent upon the goodwill of her family or her husband in that few employment options were available for middle or upper class women other than teaching or nursing.  In either case, both characters, from different time periods, races and classes suffer vastly different forms of alienation and estrangement from society.

Since no one taught black pride in public schools during the 30’s, Pecola's budding self-worth was brutalized and left to die by peers and adults alike who disparaged and made fun of her blackness while labeling her “ugly.” Moreover, in that Pecola was too young to have a fully developed or clear sense of her “self,” she saw herself through the eyes of others and believed it to be true.  By comparison, Rachel is already an adult who was doted upon as a child and, after her mother’s death, by her father and aunts.  As a result, her already fully developed sense of “self” remains intact even while attack by Terence, her fiancée, who feels it his duty as well as his right, as a superior male, to let her know how she fails to measure up in his eyes.  He has no qualms about telling her, "you're not beautiful ... Your mouth's too big, and your cheeks would be better if you had more color in them. But what I like about your face is that it makes me wonder what the devil you're thinking about? (Woolf 281)

Unlike Pecola, who literally shrank and withered under criticism, Rachel allows Terence's words to slide off her back.  Even when Terence tells her Aunt Helen, in Rachel’s presence, “Surely, Helen, you ought to have taught her by this time that she's a person of no conceivable importance whatever -- not beautiful, or well dressed, or conspicuous for elegance or intellect, or deportment. A more ordinary sight than you are. (Woolf 291), Rachel remains calmly unaffected and does not fall prey to jealousy of her aunt.  Perhaps one reason why Rachel is unaffected by Terence's comment is because she has an ally in her aunt, who shares with Rachel, her views of the human race while down playing and/or dismissing the wrong intent of others with excuses like, "It wasn't that they were cruel, or meant to hurt, or even stupid exactly ... " (Woolf 291).   On the other hand, Pecola has no such ally and no one to reaffirm her self-worth each time someone callously walks on her feelings with their boots on.

It is interesting to note that when Rachel does not want to attend a dinner with Terence, he accuses her of being "consumed with vanity" and of being "a monster of conceit" (Woolf 291). In reality, this is Rachel’s way of asserting her individuality and the freedom of not being beautiful bestows upon her, which she views as a gift rather than a curse, unlike Pecola, who sees her “ugliness” as a curse because it alienates her from society and leaves her lonely.  Rachel, however, makes the most of her loneliness and turns it into an opportunity.  She explains that, “a girl is more lonely than a boy. No one cares in the least what she does. Nothing's expected of her. Unless one's very pretty people don't even listen to what you say and that is what I like ... I like walking in Richmond Park and singing to myself and knowing it doesn't matter a damn to anybody -- I like the freedom of it -- it's like being the wind at sea. (Woolf 203).

Even the similarity between the ugliness of Picola and the secondary character, Hirst, Terence's roommate on the voyage, stands in stark contrast due to the difference in their class, race and gender.  For example, even though Hirst knows that he is not attractive to women and that people do not like him, he does not resort to self loathing, does not hate himself and does not lose his senses entirely by slipping into a world of total fantasy the way that Pecola to cope with incest and the harshness of a life of poverty and isolation. Even though Hirst and Pecola are both viewed as ugly by society, Hirst is able to overcome this disadvantage while Pecola cannot because Hirst is a well to do, educated, white male in male dominated, patriarchal society.  Moreover, Hirst has supreme confidence in his superior intellect, due to his education, which leads him to believe that "there will never be more than five people in the world worth talking to" and, of course, Hirst includes himself in that count (Woolf 147).  In fact, Hirst thinks so highly of himself he confesses to Helen that he is "going to be one of the people who really matter" (Woolf 147).  Hirst's ugliness, combined with his annoying and offensive personality is counter-balanced and offset by his impressive level of self esteem which, again, is directly linked to his social status and education as well as encouragement from his father.  Pecola has none of these strengths or assets to fall back upon since both of her parents, along with her teachers, treat her with the same distance, disdain, and disregard as her classmates and the community at large, with the exception of the prostitutes who live next door, who accept Pecola because she ingratiates herself by running errands for them.

            The only real allies Pecola has are the two MacTeer sisters who cannot serve as role models for her because they are the same age.  The MacTeers attempt to defend Pecola against an entire town who is insensitive to the pain and plight of a helpless little girl who lacks even the wherewithal to fight back when she is attacked without provocation.  It is the MacTeer sisters who defend Pecola against the boys at school.

            Unlike Rachel, Picola is totally estranged from her mother and community, who despise her blackness, uglness, poverty, and functional illiteracy.  As a result, Pecola cannot help but despise herself.  Moreover, self-hate is inevitable since Pecola's parents are too busy fighting with each other to pay attention to their daughter.  In fact, all her father cares about are his needs, while all Pecola's mother cares about is being an impressive maid to her white boss whose praise she lives for.  To add insult to injury, Picola’s mother lavishes what affection she does possess on the little blue-eyed daughter of her boss.  For instance, when the two MacTeer girls go to visit Pecola at her mother's job, Pecola's mother displays vicious contempt, scorn, and disregard for her daughter and the MacTeer girls for knocking over a dish, while cooing and soothing the little blue-eyed girl, who is close to the same age as the other girls. 

In lieu of her total alienation, one is not surprised that Picola later deludes herself into believing that if she can somehow possess a pair of the bluest eyes that this distinction will make her special enough for people to love her, maybe even her mother?  After all, her mother, Mrs. Breedlove, treats the little blue eyed girl at work better than her own daughter.  In fact, she does not even permit Pecola to call her mother.  Pecola must address her as Mrs. Breedlove.  This act orphans Picola and severs the mother-daughter relationship thereby confirming to Picola that she is indeed so ugly that even her own mother is ashamed to claim her.   

Precisely because Pecola is so young and impressionable, she does not have the knowledge nor does she own the wisdom to distinguish who she is from how she looks. As a result, each time Pecola is maliciously taunted, verbally attacked, discarded by her mother in favor of her blue-eyed charge, or molested by her father, Pecola internalizes it all, utterly destroying any possibility of making a healthy transition into adulthood.  Instead, Pecola loses her "self" entirely as she lapses into madness and multiple personality disorder, believing that she now has the bluest eyes of them all and is the envy of the town.  The tragedy began by the Breedloves' acceptance of their own ugliness as a family unit: "No one could have convinced them that they were not relentlessly and agressively ugly ... Their ugliness was unique" (Morrison 38). With the exception of the father, Cholly, whose ugliness "was behavior" -- Mrs. Breedlove, Sammy Breedlove, and Pecola Breedlove -- "wore their ugliness" (Morrison 38).  Since Pecola's parents had already bought into a negative self-concept before she was even conceived, their acceptance of their ugliness is the only legacy they can bequeath to Pecola.  Thus, as a child, she quietly imitates the way that her family hides behind their ugliness.

It is interesting to note the irony of Pecola's family name: Breedlove, in that they breed everything but love.  Bryan D. Bourn points out that the family lives "in a society that does not 'breed love.'  In fact, it breeds hate "hate of blackness, and thus hatred of oneself."  In contrast, Bourn points out the significance of Claudia McTeer's last name (the young narrator in the novel) in that "the MacTeer girls are the only ones who shed a tear for Pecola."  Claudia says "we listened for the one who would say, 'Poor little girl,' or 'Poor baby,' but there was only head-wagging where those words should have been" (Morrison 148).

Morrison uses the metaphor of marigolds that will not grow, even though the MacTeer girls planted them with all of their good intentions, hoping for the health and safe arrival, into a hostile world, of Pecola's unborn child.  When the marigolds die, right along with Pecola's baby, the narrator comments: "I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruits it will not bare ..." (Morrison 149).  Morrison is referring the natural selection of nature in not sustaining defective life forms (i.e., an inbred child, conceived through incest, is at high risk).  Bourn also believes that the implications of the dead marigolds has to do with the fact that "Pecola, like so many other African-Americans, never had a chance to grow and succeed because she lived in a society ('soil') that was inherently racist, and would not nurture her."

            Bourn makes a powerful argument against racism and majority standards of beauty in his concluding thoughts about The Bluest Eye:

Morrison speaks to the masses, both white and black, showing how a racist social system wears down the minds and souls of people, how dominant images of white heroes and heroines with blue eyes and wonderful lives show young black children that to be white means to be successful and happy, and then they look around at their own lives of poverty and oppression and learn to hate their black heritage for keeping them from the Dick and Jane world.  Morrison does not solve these problems, nor does she even try, but she does show a reflection of a world that cannot call itself right or moral.

Although Rachel is inherently immune to racism, she does confront the limitations and restrictions placed on her by the an oppressive, male dominated, sexist society where women are discouraged from pursuing a higher education, disenfranchised from voting, and not even expected to participate in meaningful conversations at the dinner table. Hirst, who is considered the intellectual heavy weight of the group, tells Terence that all women are "stupid ... there can't be two opinions about that" (Woolf 96).  Of course, Hirst is unsure how much of this is "due to lack of training, and how much is native incapacity" (Woolf 141), but he is blatantly clear that the stupidity of women is commonly accepted among white males in his society.

In contrast, non-conformist or free thinking women like Rachel, Aunt Helen, and Evelyn (a young lady staying at the hotel) find themselves frustrated by the mandatory frivolous and superficial conversations women are expected to have while in the company of men.  In fact, Evelyn's openness and honesty frightens the men around her, causing some to flee in confusion -- like Hirst.  Helen makes an appeal to Hirst regarding the need to get in touch with "what people feel, although they generally try to hide it. There's nothing to be frightened at.  It's so much more beautiful than the pretense -- always more interesting" (Woolf150).  Hirst, however, is too much of an arrogant intellectual and anti-feminist to get in touch with his emotions, which he considers feminine.  He, in fact, criticizes others who happen to be "quite frank about their passions, where we are not" (Woolf 186).  Ironically, the most revealing and honest passage in the novel is Rachel's conversation with Terence about how intimidated she is by Hirst's intellect.  Terence tells her,

[t]hat's a thing that never ceases to amaze me ... The respect that women, even well educated, very able women, have for men ... I believe we must have the sort of power over you that we are said to have over horses. They see us as three times as big as we are or they would never obey us.  For that very reason, I am inclined to doubt that you'll ever do anything even when you have the vote ... Consider what a bully the ordinary man is (Woolf 196).

In that women in the new millennium still have not attained economic and political parity with men in American, one might consider Virginia Woolf’s character a visionary of sorts.  Moreover much can be attributed to the “respect” that many women have for men who do not respect them.

Rachel is fortunate to have a progressive aunt who is caring enough to be concerned about her brother's neglect of Rachel's education.  Picola, however, has no such relative or helping witness to explain the inhumanity she suffers or to look out for her future.  Certainly, the MacTeer girls cannot explain it to her; they are too young.  Rachel’s Aunt Helen, on the other hand, provides wonderful, thought provoking books to stimulate Rachel’s mind out of a sincere desire "that Rachel should think ... nor did she encourage those habits of unselfishness and amiability founded upon insincerity which are put at so high a value in mixed households of men and women" (Woolf 113).  Thus, under Aunt Helen’s wise and loving tutelage, Rachel's personality blossoms and expands into something beautiful, even to herself.  This invaluable gift broadens Rachel's world-view from the stunted restrictions of her over-protective father and the good intentions of her other aunts.  As a result, in the exotic surroundings of South America, Rachel finds her eyes opened wide and her soul filled with sudden wonder at the world as she becomes thrilled by the possibility that "all knowledge would be hers [as] the book of the world turned back to the very first page.  Such was her excitement at the possibilities of knowledge now opening before her" (Woolf 160).  Rachel's "exercise of reading left her mind contracting and expanding like the mainspring of a clock as she found herself, for the very first time, pondering the meaning of life" (Woolf 114).  No such avenues were open to Picola, a functional illiterate, who had no teacher or mentor to guide her to the world of books, which might have been her salvation.

For Rachel, it seemed anticlimactic that her trip-of-a-lifetime should end in tragedy for Rachel, who had only just begun to discover the mysteries of life. I think that Rachel's tragic end is not so much a sign of personal failure as the price she had to pay for the freedom and liberation she experienced on the voyage out. Had she survived to marry Terence, she would, no doubt, have been coerced into giving up the spiritual connection she enjoyed through her music: There would be no piano concerts on stage, nor open discussions among men and women about the things that mattered most, or that might make a difference in the world (like the women's group that Evelyn wanted to establish). The enlightenment Rachel encountered on the voyage opened her mind to possibilities beyond being a mother and wife. Surely, had she lived, those possibilities would have been lost in the limitations and drudgery of that job. Ironically, it was Hirst -- ever thankful that even though he was born ugly, at least he had not been born a woman -- who cogently summed up the dichotomy that women of that time period faced.

Just consider: it's the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all those thousands of years, this curious silent unrepresented life. Of course we're always writing about women -- abusing them, or jeering at them, or worshipping them; but it's never come from women themselves ... Doesn't it make your blood boil?  If I were a woman, I'd blow someone's brains out (Woolf 201).

     In the polite society that Rachel grew up in, women did not blow anyone's brains out. Instead, they lived lives of quiet desperation, deadly depressions, or they simply gave over to some unknown fever, like Rachel, never to recover.  Perhaps the bliss of the unknown that beckoned was brighter than the frustrating future awaiting her that was sure to be fraught with far too many road blocks, restrictions and limitations to be worth the voyage back.  Ultimately, both Rachel and Picola fall victim to a society that alienates and estranges them from full participation and the growth of their spirits and souls.  One succumbs to physical death while the other becomes a victim of soul murder by a heartless society.  Picola’s soul dies due to lack of love and acceptance while Rachel dies of despair that she will be denied the pursuit of knowledge, enlightenment, music and the friendship of free spirited women like those she discovered on the voyage out.

Works Cited

Bourn, Bryan D. "Portrait of a Victim: Toni Morrison's 'The Bluest Eye'" www.Aninja's Toni

Morrison’s Web Page

Morrison, Toni. "The Bluest Eye." New York: Washington Square Press, 1970.

Woolf, Virginia. "The Voyage Out." New York:Penguin Books, 1992.

 


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