The Fourth Face: The Image of God in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye

by Allen Alexander
The Fourth Face: The Image of God in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye
Allen Alexander
African American Review
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The Fourth Face: The Image of God in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye

Religious references, both from Western and African sources, abound in Toni Morrison's fiction, but nowhere Allen Alexander is an are they more intriguing or perplexing than in The Bluest Eye. assistant professor at And of the many fascinating religious references in this novel, the Nicholls State University in most complex-and perhaps, therefore, the richest-are her rep- Thibodaux, Louisiana, where

he teaches American,

resentations of and allusions to God. In Morrison's fictional

Southern, and

world, God's characteristics are not limited to those represented


bv the traditional Western notion of the Trinitv: Father. Son. and

~ oGhost. ~nstead, ~

l God possesses a fourth fice, one that ii an explanation for all those things-the existence of evil, the suffer- ing of the innocent and just-that seem so inexplicable in the face of a religious tradition that preaches the omnipotence of a benev- olent God.

Is Morrison's introduction of this fourth face into her fiction, then, a means of depicting evil, a redesigned Satan, if you will? It is true that in Morrison's fiction the fourth face at times is por- trayed as a reservoir of evil-for example, when the people of the Bottom in Sula believe "that the fourth explained Sula" (118), who for them is a manifestation of evil-but the fourth face is much more than a rationalization for all that ails humanity. When Morrison's references to God are taken in their totality, it becomes quite clear that her depiction of the deity is an attempt to human- ize God, to demonstrate how God for her characters is not the characteristically ethereal God of traditional Western religion but a God who, while retaining certain Western characteristics, has much in common with the deities of traditional African religion and legend.'

Though Morrison's model of God owes much to African tra- dition, a major part of her portrait is dedicated to exposing how traditional Western notions about God affect her characters. If The Bluest Eye can in any way be characterized as an initiation story, then a major portion of a character's initiation involves dis- covering the inadequacy of Western theological models for those who have been marginalized by the dominant white culture. But many of Morrison's characters, unlike Richard Wright in Black Boy and James Baldwin's John Grimes in Go Tell It On the Mountain, fail to follow Baldwin's admonition in The Fire Next Time to recognize the religion of the white majority for what it is and to "divorce [themselves] from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church" (67). In Morrison's oeu- vre, the characters who blatantly attack the norms of white soci- ety-for example, Guitar Bains in Song of Solomon-often seem ridiculously ignorant of their own heritage (Guitar does not know the reasoning behind Malcolm X's choice of last name [160]), and consequently their philosophy retains some of white culture's

worst characteristics-witness the vio- lence and genocidal hatred of the Seven Days. Sula is a character who

certainly rejects the norms of society, but it is not clear exactly which soci- ety-white or black, or both-she is rejecting. And then in The Bluest Eye

there is the sad case of Pecola

Breedlove, who falls prey to the false notions of white superiority espoused not only by the white community but also by her mother and Soaphead


With this portrait of Jesus, Morrison introduces us to one of the

shortcoming;^ of the Western model of God, nameF the problem of how a supposedly omnipotent and loving God can allow the existence of evil and suffering. Morrison reintroduces this model of an inadequate God, of a deity incapable of alleviating or unwilling to rectify the injustices of human society, as she recounts Cholly Breedlove's childhood. At a church picnic, Cholly watches the father of a family raise a watermelon over his head to smash it on the ground and is impressed with the man's god-like stance, which he sees as the opposite of the unimpres- sive white image of God: "a nice old white man, with long white hair, flow- ing white beard, and little blue eyes that looked sad when people died and mean when they were bad" (106).

Although this white image of God is woefully inadequate for Cholly, who, at least during this period of his life, embraces his African heritage, it is an image to which Pauline Breedlove clings, even at the expense of her daughter's psychic well-being. Pauline, though she has not enjoyed the quasi- middle-class lifestyle that Geraldine believes is the result of having sup- pressed her racial identity, still looks to white society-through films produced for and religion constructed around the tastes of the white majority-to provide the guidelines for her manner of living. Her acceptance of her poverty and suffering, reflected in her belief that " 'it don't make no difference about this old earth' "because " 'there is sure to be a glory' "(104), echoes the teachings of slave masters, who manip- ulated biblical passages to stifle dissat- isfaction among those they oppressed. Pauline has bought into the Western notion of linear history, an outlook that emphasizes the future and belittles the past.2

Pauline has also adopted the Western theological tradition of either- or thinking, of believing that the differ- ences between good and evil, righteous and unrighteous, believer and nonbe- liever, are clearly demarcated. This eth- ical orientation is reflected in her belief that she is "an upright and Christian woman, burdened with a no-count man, whom God wanted her to pun- ish" (37); and she rationalizes that her antipathy toward Cholly is sanctified by her God, for "Christ the Judge" demands that she make her husband pay for his transgression. Yet Pauline cannot think of "Christ the Judge" and "Christ the Redeemer" simultaneously because such a linkage does not fit the severely drawn categories of good and evil that she has inherited from the dominant white culture. To her way of thinking, "Cholly was beyond redemp- tion" (37). Pauline's religion, built upon such a rigid and unforgiving founda- tion, cannot tolerate the notion that a man like Cholly could be a blend of both good and bad, that he, quite sim- ply, could be human. Consequently, she never recognizes God's fourth face. She remains as detached from this con- cept as she does from her family and heritage. Pauline's belief system, whose either-or design requires its adherents to judge others, often by impossible standards, leads her to leave behind those persons, including her family members, whom she feels fail to measure up to her standards. She thus becomes an extreme individu- alist, a person cut loose from her cul- tural moorings.4

Though Pauline is not the only African American character in Morrison's fiction to try to mold herself in an image that she thinks will be more acceptable to white society (Jadine from Tar Baby and Ruth Foster from Song of Solomon are two obvious examples, as are Soaphead Church and Pecola in The Bluest Eye and Helene Wright in Sula), her name, which may be a direct reference to Pauline theolo- gy, and her central role in the psycho- logical disintegration of Pecola make her perhaps Morrison's most identifi- able example of this type. And one chief reason that she so aptly fills this role is her vision of God, which is so antithetical to the fourth-face image that is more central to her heritage. Pauline's adoption of the white soci- ety's notion of an ethereal God who judges humans from an alien perspec- tive contrasts with a strain in African American thought that has sought to put a human face on God. As Major J. Jones points out in his study The Color of God, this African-influenced theo- logical outlook envisions God as "nei- ther threat nor rival" to humans. Instead, "God is . . . the very basis or ground of the creature's fullest possible self-realization.. . . Black religious experience . . . is about being and becoming more human under God"

(22).Since this outlook suggests that one's humanity is inextricably linked to God, it follows that such an orientation would lead one to believe that perhaps the connection runs both ways, that God cannot be fully God, or at least a God to humanity, without also being in some sense human. This concept is not completely alien to Western theology, f~r

the Christian faith itself depends on the notion of God becoming a man in the form of Jesus, but, as Jones con- cludes, and as Morrison suggests in her fiction, the West has lost its connec- tion-through various factors, includ- ing, no doubt, Pauline influences on Christian theology-to this fundamen- tal idea of a link between God and humanity. Consequently, in white soci- ety God has been molded into an oth- erworldly presence who, despite Christ's role as redeemer of fallen humanity, regards human weakness, in the form of sin, as something discon- nected from the divine.

Within the African tradition we see a substantially different representation of God. In African folklore God is often depicted as having very human-like qualities, not only regarding his appearance but also his personality and abilities. Whereas the Western tra- dition pictures God as a stoical figure who demands perfection from his cre- ation because of his own perfection, African storytellers have given God a human face, portraying him as a lov- able character with a sense of humor and a streak of fallibility. Julius Lester in his renditions of traditional African tion of that tradition: her family.

folk tales characterizes God as "an Obviously neither Baldwin nor

amateur" (13) who is trying his best "to Morrison sees a movement from an make the world look a little prettier" African to a Western sensibility as an

(3)but who doesn't "know what he's appropriate step for a productive and doing half the time" (23). This folksy authentic life.

God, a God who is seen not only as the

creator but also as the ancestor of

humanitv and who conse-

quently possesses many of

Morrison, in

the characteristics of his The question, then, imperfect creation (Sawyerr The Bluest Eye, arises: How does 95), is a far cry from the Morrison demonstrate the

depicts a God

West's omnipotent, infalli- qualities of an African- ble God who despises who, while inspired vision of God in human frailty. her fiction? Of course, no


There is little doubt, serious reader of Morrison's given Morrison's charac- certain Western work would begin an terization of Pauline, that analysis with the assump-


the author sees the values tion that there is a simple, of white religion as inap- has much in clear-cut answer to any propriate and ultimately question regarding her

common with

self-defeating guides for richly complex work, and her African American the deities of her portrayal of an African characters. Though she religious sensibility offers


does not vresent us with no excevtion. Her selection a charactir in The Bluest African religion of the fiurth face of God Eye who, like Baldwin's image underscores her John Grimes, is suspi- and legends commitment to demon- cious of the trappings of strating that this sensibility white religion, including those charac- is inherently attuned to the notion that teristics that have been absorbed by God is much larger than the image to African American Christianity, she which the divine has been confined by does portray characters who embrace Western theology. And a significant these trappings, such as Pauline and part of that largeness is built on the Geraldine, as less than admirable fig- belief that God is in some way respon- ures. In contrast to John Grimes, who sible-either as an active participant or senses that his parents' church has lost a willing spectator-in the tragedies something of value because it has that befall human beings. moved too far away from its African Such an idea is certainly not foreign roots, Pauline chooses her church pre- to the Western theological tradition, cisely because it is a place "where which is constructed on the foundation shouting [i]s frowned upon" (loo), a of a Judaic faith that sees God as many sanctuary from the passion that she so things, from protector to the engine despises. But ultimately both John and behind catastrophe. But in the Judaic tra- Pauline suffer from their association dition, there is typically a reason behind with these churches. John comes to God's decision to punish humans- regard the church as a source of dark- namely, their defiance of divine laws. In ness and oppression and thinks of God contrast to this belief that tragedy can as a "monstrous heart" (217) that con- ultimately be explained by human trans- sumes his joy and stunts his passion gression, traditional African religions for life. Pauline divorces herself from tend to understand tragedy as some- her African American heritage and in thing that happens regardless of what the process loses the closest manifesta- humans have or have not done.

This association of God with the existence of evil is a common element among several of the many variations of traditional African religions5

E. Thomas Lawson notes that within the Zulu tradition evil is not seen as "an independent, autonomous power" but as a force that draws its strength from three positive powers: the God of the Sky, the ancestors, and medicine (27).K. A. Busia finds a similar belief among the Ashanti, for whom nature is populated by the "malignant spirits of fairies and forest monsters" who "are subservient to the Supreme Being, from whom ultimately they all derive their power" (qtd. in Sawyerr 100).

Within the belief systems of many African peoples God's kinship to evil far surpasses that of a source of origin. Evil not only derives its power from God but is allowed to flourish by God. Harry Sawyerr, who in the preface to his study God: Ancestor or Creator? stresses the difficulty of studying the African concept of God because of the vastness of the continent and the diver- sity of its population, nevertheless feels comfortable asserting that within African belief systems "the general well-being of man, as well as his dis- tress, are freely attributed to God" (ix). He supports this contention with evi- dence from his study of the Yoruba, for whom "evil forces seem to be more subject to the ultimate control of God. They can and often do destroy human life, but not without the permission of God" (49). This notion that evil exists because God allows it to was noted over two hundred years ago by Olaudah Equiano. In his autobiogra- phy, published in 1789, Equiano recalls traditions he learned as a child in Africa, and he writes that his people believed that God "governs events, especially our deaths or captivity" (27). This same idea can be found in the work of Zora Neale Hurston, who introduced into her fiction characters like Janie and Tea Cake of Their Eyes Were Watching God who combine an African sensibility with a belief that "all gods dispense suffering without

reason" (138). Janie and Tea Cake, caught in the destructive path of a hur- ricane, wonder if God "meant to mea- sure their puny might against His" (151). And later as she watches Tea Cake suffer from a rabid dog's bite, Janie concludes that "God would do less than He had in His heart" (169).

However, there is also a strain of African belief that sees God not as the source or master of evil but as a partici- pant in the universe's struggle against malignant forces. According to J. B. Danquah, the Akan-a cultural group which includes the Ashanti-believe that "Nana, the principle that makes for good, is himself or itself participa- tor in the life of the whole, and is not only head" (88). Since God (Nana) is thus viewed by the Akan as a part of creation rather than as a being apart from it, they see "physical pain and evil. . . as natural forces which the Nana, in common with others of the group, has to master, dominate and sublimate" (88-89). Within this frame- work of belief, God and humans are part of the same community, working together, like the people of the Bottom in Sula, against evil, not in a futile effort to eliminate it but in order to out- last it (118).

African perspectives on the exis- tence of evil are multiple and varied, but one idea that seems to link them is that an explanation for the presence of evil is unnecessary. Evil is a real pres- ence in the lives of African peoples, yet it is precisely because of the weight of evil on them that they steer away from metaphysical speculations about it. As James Cone, writing from an African American Christian perspective, con- tends, ". . . black reflections about suf- fering have not been removed from life but involved in life, that is, the struggle to affirm humanity despite the dehu- manizing conditions of slavery and oppression" (183).

One African folk tale that illus- trates this African belief that evil is not a riddle to be solved but a reality with which one must deal is the story of a woman who, after her family has died, an explanation for the tragedy that has beset her. As she searches the world fol God, she encounters people who ques- tion her motives, for they contend that " 'Shikakunamo [the Besetting One] sits on the back of everyone of us and we cannot shake him off!' " She ulti- mately fails in her quest, " 'and from that day to this, say the Africans, no man or woman has solved the riddle of this painful earth' " (McVeigh 48-49).

Morrison deftly works a similar sense of tragedy into The Bluest Eye, though one could well argue that in her fiction it is based as much on the inadequacy of the Western model of God as on African traditions. Though there is no shortage of suffering charac- ters in the novel, the Breedloves, like the woman troubled by Shikakunamo, or like Job in the Old Testament, seem uniquely chosen to wear the mantle of divine retribution: "It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear . . . ." The fact that they see support for the cloak "leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance" is an indication of just how much what white society values has distorted their own self-image, so much so that each accepts the ugliness "without question" (34). But even though the Breedloves' pitiful circum- stances seem to be largely attributable to human action, both in the form of a racist society and their own personal shortcomings, the odds are so great against them that it appears that the hands of "some mysterious all-know- ing master" are holding them back, or perhaps choking the life out of them in the same way that those hands strangle the life from "a tuft of grass [that] had forced its way up through a crack in the sidewalk, only to meet a raw

October wind" (48). In the world of the Breedloves, it seems that much more than human forces are working against them, that, in fact, "the earth itself might have been unyielding" to their survival (9).

If, then, God is, in Morrison's cos- mology, the agent behind much human suffering, do her characters' attitudes suggest that they respond to their plight in a way reflective of the African sensibility toward tragedy reflected in the tale of the woman seeking Shikakunamo? This is not the case with Pauline and Pecola, both of whom approach their pain in ways more in line with the values of white culture. Pauline molds her lifestyle to corre- spond to what the dominant culture applauds. And Pecola withdraws into herself, "peeping out from behind the shroud very seldom, and then only to yearn for the return of her mask" (35), which she puts aside only after believ- ing she has acquired a feature-blue eyes-that she identifies with the hap- piness that eludes her. Pauline and Pecola, in effect, attempt to deal with their circumstances by altering their sense of reality, not by attempting to maintain their authenticity as meaning- ful members of a larger community. They seem willing to exchange their personhood, and consequently their heritage, for models of themselves that only strengthen in their minds the cul- tural norms that make them hate their true selves.

In contrast to Pauline and Pecola, Cholly, though he is in many ways as tragic a figure as they are, seems to see the life-affirming values of his heritage, an insight that he discovers most mem- 3rably while thinking about the image 3f God while watching the man smash the watermelon at the church picnic:

It must be the devil who looks like that-holding the world in his hands, ready to dash it to the ground and spill the red guts so niggers could eat the sweet, warm insides. If the devil did look like that, Cholly preferred him. He never felt anything thinking about God, but just the idea of the devil excited him. And now the strong, black devil was blotting out the sun and getting ready to split open the world. (107)

The image that Cholly relishes is one :hat embraces the fourth face, one that ?ortrays God as much more than the pallid, antiseptic God envisioned by

white society. Cholly's God is dynam-

ic, complex, unpredictable, exciting,


The notion that God can be dan- gerous, something other than the benevolent grandfather figure that has been pre-eminent in the Western mind, might be unsettling, but Cholly appears to welcome the idea, perhaps because such an image seems much more realistic in a world that does not give the impression of being controlled by an omnipotent and loving deity. He sees this representation of God reaf- firmed at his Aunt Jimmy's funeral, where "there was grief over the waste of life, the stunned wonder at the ways of God, and the restoration of order in nature at the graveyard" (113). Here, the concept of evil, of pain and suffer- ing and those things that appear to contradict that which affirms goodness and life, is not an alien thought, nor is it something that overwhelms the funeralgoers and forces them into a state of nihilistic apathy.7 In contrast to the Western approach to the existence of evil, which has been marked by attempts to sequester or destroy it, these people, drawing from their African heritage, feel, as Morrison her- self has said about African Americans in general, "that evil has a natural place in the universe" and consequent- ly "they are not surprised at its exis- tence or horrified or outraged" (Parker 253).

Is there, then, no limit to the amount of evil one can tolerate without lashing out? Is not what happens to Pecola, particularly at the hands of her father and Soaphead Church, so horrif- ic and outrageous that some response against it is necessary? For Pecola, unfortunately, there is no one to respond but herself, and her lack of response-what some might call her acceptance of her situation--cannot be attributed to the African sensibility of which Morrison has spoken. Pecola has become so disconnected from her her- itage that her movement toward insan- ity is instead an indictment of the white cultural framework that has

become her guidepost for living.

But Morrison does not intend for us to conclude that the African sensi- bility toward tragedy is one of compla- cent and powerless acceptance. To the contrary, she suggests that the correct stance for one to take with regard to tragedy is not passively to give in to its inevitability but, like the people of the Bottom in Sula, to be actively engaged with it so that it can be "dealt with, survived, outwitted, triumphed over" (118). Yet Pecola is ill-equipped to out- wit and triumph over her tragic situa- tion. She lacks the cultural rootedness or the intestinal fortitude to outlast the forces that work to annihilate her per- sonhood. And in the end she accepts as her destiny the destruction of her true being in favor of an insanity-induced self-image that validates in her mind the inherent inferiority of her heritage.

The instrument that finally pushes Pecola over the edge is Soaphead Church, a character who not only rejects his African heritage but who also relinquishes his identity as a human being in favor of the self-gener- ated delusion that he is in some sense a god. He is a hater of humanity, a self- professed misanthrope whose "disdain for people" ironically "led him into a profession designed to serve them," that of a "Reader, Adviser, and Interpreter of Dreams" (130). However, he "serves" others not out of a spirit of generosity but because of a selfish desire to assert his power over the innocent and weak. Into the lair of this preyer on humanity walks Pecola, who stands little chance of withstanding Soaphead. Instead of sexually molest- ing her, as he has been fond of doing to other girls, Soaphead assaults her psy- che, taking from her any knowledge of her true identity.

But is Soaphead totally to blame for Pecola's demise? From his seeming- ly peculiar perspective he is not, but is his view of the world really all that unique? It would be easy to conclude, given Morrison's consistently negative appraisal of Western theological mod-

els, that Soaphead, who is easily Morrison's most detestable character in a novel that is replete with them, repre- sents the worst side of white religion. Such a conclusion makes even more sense when one considers how Soaphead, following the path the West has laid down for God, severs himself from humanity. In this sense he could be seen as an allegorical figure. But Morrison is much too complex a writer to introduce such an obviously allegor- ical character into her work, and there is evidence in the text that suggests that Soaphead, far from being solely a human likeness of the white God, actu- ally embraces a theological perspective that is not far removed from that of the fourth-face notion of African tradition. Like the people of the Bottom, he believes that, "since decay, vice, filth, and disorder were pervasive, they must be in the Nature of Things," that "evil exist[s] because God had created it." But he also departs from the African perspective, rejecting the notion that evil is part of God's nature and instead believing that the deity "made a sloven and unforgivable error in judgment: designing an imperfect universe" (136). His adoption of this idea suggests that he still embraces the Western notion of dualism, the belief that good and evil exist as separate forces. His explanation for the exis- tence of evil, then, is not far removed from that of Western theologians who have struggled with the apparently contradictory notion that evil exists in spite of the presence of an omnipotent and benevolent God. Yet Morrison, ever conscious of complicating Soaphead's character, once again undercuts any idea that we might have regarding his one-to-one connection to any theological tradition, revealing that he sees God as something less than omnipotent, as a power so weak and incompetent that "Soaphead suspected that he himself could have done better" (136).

In the final analysis Soaphead's theology is schizophrenic, leaping back and forth between Western and African traditions, between different notions of the physical and metaphysi- cal. His perspective is thus an anticipa- tion of what will happen to Pecola, whose idea of self will teeter on the edge between reality and a reality- induced fantasy, a delusion that may have been locked into place by Soaphead but one for which the com- munity surrounding her-her family and friends and the messages thrust at her by white society-is also culpable. Pecola becomes the ultimate tragic fig- ure, who, in the words of Claudia MacTeer, took "all of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed (159). In this sense she becomes a Christ figure, one who takes on the ugliness (sin) of the world around her and consequently absolves others of their feelings of inferiority (guilt). But Morrison's final image of God is an aborted one: Unlike Christ, there is no resurrection for Pecola. In her world, "it's much, much, much too late" to keep hope alive (160)~~

Although there is no clear affir- mation of life in The Bluest Eye, the possibility of hope, though it seems far removed from the lives of the char- acters, remains for those who can rediscover the value of their heritage and reject the notion that they can suc- :eed only if they adopt the norms of white society. The experiences of Pauline and Pecola suggest that it is impossible for a character to adapt to white society without also sacrificing me's true self. In order to adapt, both Pauline and Pecola have to embrace the Western concept of dualism-of 2elieving that life is divisible, that good IS distinguishable from evil, that the past, present, and future are discon- nected. The failure of these two charac- :ers to retain their authenticity, to be ivho they truly are, suggests "that half I reality is insufficient for anyone" ILepow 364). In contrast to the efforts of Pauline and Pecola to separate themselves from

their heritage, there are characters who seem to have an understanding that their lives in the past and the present have value. For example, the three prostitutes-China, Poland, and Miss Marie-who live above the Breedloves offer a counterpoint to Pauline, show- ing Pecola that their lives, no matter how much they are despised by others, have meaning because the women define themselves rather than relying on the judgments of outsiders. They make no pretensions about being any- thing other than "whores in whores' clothing" (48) and thus provide Pecola with a contrast to her mother, who tries to change who she is in order to fit white society's dictates. Whereas Pauline has done her best to squelch her own and her daughter's taste for the passion of life, the prostitutes, with their large appetites for the sensual, whether it be in the form of sex or food, show Pecola that the physical is a realm to be embraced rather than shunned. Marie makes even the dis- gusting seem beautiful to Pecola, who witnesses her belching "softly, purring- ly, lovingly" (49). That love might be associated with such physical crude- ness is an idea that Pecola could never have gotten from her mother. And it is Pecola's failure to embrace the image Marie provides that ultimately makes her susceptible to Soaphead's trap, for he exploits her tendency to divorce physical reality from her identity.

Much like the prostitutes, Mr. and Mrs. MacTeer seem largely uncon- cerned with fulfilling any roles pre- scribed by outside influences. They do not pamper their children the way that Pauline, trying to emulate the whites for whom she works, pampers "the lit- tle girl in pink" (87). Mrs. MacTeer often speaks harshly to her daughters, but Claudia realizes that "love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup" (14), fills her home. Their father also proves his love through actions rather than words, standing as "Vulcan guarding the flames" of the home fires (52). Though Claudia and Frieda do not always understand the words of their parents, they understand "the edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions" (16). Unlike Pecola, who must face Pauline's and Soaphead's acts of deception, Claudia and Frieda have the advantage of living with adult role models who place more value on action than image. Mr. and Mrs. MacTeer are soundly grounded in reality. Consequently, they are not drawn to the false ideals peddled by Hollywood and Madison Avenue which so distort Pauline's self- image.

Cholly, though there are aspects of his character that put him "beyond the reaches of human consideration" (18), has experienced and appreciated the value of his heritage through individu- als like Aunt Jimmy. He provides Pecola with yet another alternative to her mother, acting as a physical foil to Pauline's movement toward an image- driven existence. When Pecola recalls the sound of her parents making love, she remembers being appalled by Cholly's groans, yet as "terrible as his noises were, they were not nearly as bad as the no noise at all from her mother" (48-49). As imperfect as Cholly is, he is still more genuine than Pauline. His rape of Pecola is reprehen- sible, but he does not rape her mind the way that Pauline and Soaphead do. Claudia senses that Cholly really loves Pecola: "He, at any rate, was the one who loved her enough to touch her, envelop her, give something of himself to her" (159). The fact that this one gift given to Pecola is in reality a sexual assault on her body underscores just how horribly brutal her life is.

But perhaps the character who holds the most promise for living an authentic existence is Claudia, whose telling of the story is a sign in itself that she has come to recognize the value of rediscovering the past. It is Claudia, after all, who seems to be most in touch with reality, for she is the one who reconstructs it for the reader. Claudia understands that those who try to mea- sure their world with black-and-white scales and to find easy solutions to the drudgery of daily life are doomed to lose not only their grounding in their (16). The story she gives us is not one

heritage but also their grounding in that allows us to march straight toward

reality. Ultimately, the price such a the truth, for such a path would over-

person pays is the loss of one's self. simplify a world that is so full of evil

When Claudia observes her parents, and so far beyond explanation that it

she recognizes that their authenticity is need not be explained-it can only be

not based on the literal meaning of the "dealt with, survived, outwitted, tri-

words they speak but in the way they umphed over" (Sula 118). Claudia's

are spoken: "Sometimes their words narrative, which has a circular and,

move in lofty spirals; other times they some might say, elusive quality to it, is

take strident leaps, and all of it is punc- in itself a reflection of the image that is

tuated with warm-pulsed laughter- so central to her heritage: the fourth

like the throb of a heart made of jelly" face of God.

Notes 1. Any serious student of Western and African religions knows that the conceptualizations of God within fairly similar theological traditions can differ dramatically. My intent in this essay is not to exam- ine the competing models within closely related traditions but to explore how Morrison presents the differences between general models of two distinctly different traditions: the Western and the African. Though my study is limited to the images of God present in The Bluest Eye, other studies have dealt with this topic in relation to some of Morrison's other novels. See Vashti Crutcher Lewis for a comparison of Shadrack's role in Sula to that of "a divine river spirit" or "a West African Water priest who represents and speaks for a river god" (92). See Janice M. Sokoloff for an examination of Eva Peace's god-like role in Sula. And see Lauren Lepow for an exploration of Valerian's role in Tar Baby as "the image of a white man's god" (368) and an analysis of the religious connotations of Son's name.

  1. Maxine Lavon Montgomery has made this same point with regard to the people of the Bottom in Sula, arguing that "Western linear history" is "a distorted version of reality that keeps the townsfolk reaching out in vain for a future that persistently eludes their grasp" (128).
  2. Patricia Hunt discusses Sula's parabolic qualities, which she sees as part of Morrison's critique of either-or thinking.
  3. As Trudier Harris has pointed out, Pauline's separation from the African American community is underscored by her "attachment to the rich white family for which she works in Ohio when they assign her a nickname-Polly" (20). Harris contends that Pauline's acceptance of the nickname is a subversion of the tradition of nicknaming that has been a central feature of the African American community.
  4. Though most scholars argue that African traditional religions tend to associate evil with God in some way, at least one writer, Gwinyai H. Muzorewa, concludes that "African traditional religion holds that all good comes from God and that evil was not created by God" (19).
  5. The contrasting images of a white and a black God envisioned by Cholly are part of a larger pat- tern of inversion present throughout the novel. See Jacqueline de Weever for a discussion of this pattern in The Bluest Eye and Sula.
  6. According to John S. Mbiti, in many African religions God "is brought into the picture primarily as an attempt to explain what is otherwise difficult for the human mind" (45). In contrast to Western reli- gious traditions, within which the existence of evil is typically blamed on the sinful nature of humans and a spiritual being who stands in conflict with a benevolent God, practitioners of African religions tend not to divorce God from the problem of evil.
  7. Pecola's symbolic connection to Christ and her failure to triumph over her circumstances is illus- trative of Morrison's drive to stress the failure of white theological models for her African American characters. Deborah Guth has uncovered this same theme in Beloved, in which "the hostile dialogic interaction between" Christian symbols and the circumstances of African American characters "leads to a total polarization that exposes the terrible inadequacy of the Christological model to contain or clarify the teleology of black historic reality" (90).


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Though the traditional theological models of white society may adversely affect others of Morrison's characters, Pecola is by far the one character whose life seems most vulnerable to the whims of those who have bought into the Western tradition. At every turn Pecola is confronted with attitudes and images based on the myth of white superiority that reinforce her tendency toward self-hatred. When Pecola encounters Mr. Yacobowski, a white man whose religious sensibility, "honed on the doe-eyed Virgin Mary," is alien to the world she inhabits, she is struck by "the total absence of human recognition" on his face (42). But such blatant expressions of racial inequality are not limited to the white characters, who are noticeably few and far between. Geraldine, a black woman who is said to have suppressed her racial identity by getting rid of "the dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions" in order to appease the white man's "blunted soul" (68), treats Pecola as not only a nuisance or blight, as does Mr. Yacobowski, but as a threat to the "san- itized"-i.e., anti-black-environment that she has constructed around her son. As Pecola is thrown out of Geraldine's house, she sees a portrait of an Anglicized Jesus "looking down at her with sad and unsurprised eyes" (76), an image of a God who seems either incapable of helping her or com- plicit in her suffering.

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