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Existentialism, Beloved, and The Bluest Eye

Existentialism, Beloved, and The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison has written several novels, many of which show the influence of existentialist thinking; however, Beloved and The Bluest Eye both strongly illustrate all of the major existential themes. Beloved is a novel about a woman, Sethe, who escapes from slavery with her children. She is haunted both physically and psychologically by her experience, as evidenced by the scars she carries on her back from a severe beating, and the scars she carries in her mind from the horrible treatment she suffered. A few weeks after her escape, Sethe’s owner hunted her down to reclaim her as his property. Under the fear of capture, Sethe decided that for her children, death would be better than slavery. She killed her second-to-the-youngest child before she was stopped. Beloved is the story of Sethe, and how she must live with the ramifications of her terrible, necessary decision to kill her baby girl.

The Bluest Eye is a similarly haunting novel. It is the story of Pecola, a little ugly black girl trying to grow up in rural Ohio during the 1940’s. She is despised by white society because

she is ugly, black and female, and because she is the antithesis of all that white western culture idolizes: white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. On a disastrous parallel, Pecola is also despised by black society: the society whose support she needs desperately to counter white negativity towards her. Instead of receiving that life-giving support, Pecola is regarded as an ugly, passive, pitiful girl. Her mother, herself twisted by the ideals of white society, loves a young, white, blond child she cares for more than her own daughter. Her father loved her so much, he r…

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…son.” Michigan: Gale

Research Inc., 1994. 215-273.

Eiermann, Katharena. “Themes of Existentialism.” [

Philo/Existentialism/extheme.html]. 1996. 16 March 1997.

“Existentialism” [] (16 March 1997)

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York, New York: Plume, 1988.

—. The Bluest Eye. New York, New York: Plume, 1994.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Literature

Morrison’s Bluest Eye Essay: Self-Definition

In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, the struggle begins in childhood. Two young black girls — Claudia and Pecola — illuminate the combined power of externally imposed gender and racial definitions where the black female must not only deal with the black male’s female but must contend with the white male’s and the white female’s black female, a double gender and racial bind. All the male definitions that applied to the white male’s female apply, in intensified form, to the black male’s, white male’s and white female’s black female. In addition, where the white male and female are represented as beautiful, the black female is the inverse — ugly.

Self-definition is crucial, not only to being, but to creating. As Gilbert and Gubar so astutely note in The Madwoman in the Attic, “For all literary artists, of course, self-definition necessarily precedes self-assertion: the creative ‘I AM’ cannot be uttered if the ‘I’ knows not what it is” (17). One way of describing this work of self-definition is as “learn[ing] to understand what around and about us and what within us must live, and what must die” (Estes, 33). But female definition has not been this sorting out process of self-definition. Instead, it has been a static male definition “by default” or “by intent.” If the female is to create herself, she must begin with a process of self-definition whose first step is, of necessity, a negation of the hitherto established male definition of “female.” Virginia Woolf calls this “killing The Angel in the House” (PFW 286). Before she can say “yes” by creating a positive form she must first say “no” to the false positive form created by a patriarchal society. Before she can reclaim herself from the negative space of t…

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…s vital and true.

List of Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With the Wolves. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic.

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

—, Playing in the Dark. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Portales, Marco. “Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye: Shirley Temple and Cholly.” The Centennial Review Fall (1986): 496-506.

Rubenstein, Roberta. Boundaries of the Self. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1987.

Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women.” Collected Essays. Vol.2. London: The Hogarth Press, 1966. 284-289.

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