Recent theoretical work has examined the ways that the abstract idea of the bodiless citizen has marked women and non-white Americans as outside the boundaries of full citizenship, because the attention paid to the various markings of gender or race on their bodies precludes them from being categorized as the unmarked, representative norm. Peggy Phelan most clearly explains rhetorical and imagistic gender marking, in the process making a distinction between the invisible marking of abstract value and the visible bodily marking of difference: "The male is marked with value; the female is unmarked, lacking measured value and me.... He is the norm and therefore unremarkable; as the Other, it is she whom he marks" (5). As Deborah Tannen says, corporeally "there is no unmarked woman" because women's bodies and the choices they make in terms of appearance and self-identification in the public sphere always mark them in specific, gendered ways. Examining marking in light of political theory, Carole Pateman analyzes how the language of the Constitution, premised as it is on the idea of the social contract, accords the white male citizen the privilege of abstracting himself into the concept of the disembodied citizen, whereas women, in contrast, can never achieve this state of disembodiment because the sexual contract precedes the social contract. Drawing on such political theories, Lauren Berlant considers the corporeal implications of the theory of disembodied citizenship for racial and gendered subjects. When the abstract, disembodied citizen is figured as white and male, all others cannot embody such citizenship because they are hyperembodied by the racial and/or gendered markings visible on their bodies. Thus, women and African Americans, in particular, Berlant contends, have never had the "sign of real authority"; that is, "the power to suppress that body [i.e., the facts of one's historical situation], to cover its tracks and its traces" (113).
Considered in light of this division between the unmarked and the marked, the disembodied and the hyperembodied, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye can be read as a commentary on the artificial boundaries of citizenship, gender, race, and history. While the theories of Berlant, Pateman, and Phelan enable us to understand the marking of the boundaries of citizenship, race, and gender, the difference between marked and unmarked history needs some explanation. Unmarked history refers to historical narrative that features as its prime actor the deeds of the abstract, disembodied citizen. Once this history is marked as having cultural value, its centrality is soon seen as unremarkable; that is, as representative. In order to centralize this one story, however, others need to be shifted to the periphery and soon become remarkable only in their relation to the center. According to Priscilla Wald, what unmarked history leaves out "resurfaces when the experiences of individuals conspicuously fall to conform to the defini tion of personhood offered in the narrative," and Morrison's Breedloves are certainly conspicuous for their "ill-fitting selfhood." By carefully outlining the history of their exclusion from the "terms of full and equal personhood," Morrison demonstrates that this family's unequal position is a product not of their intrinsic inadequacy, but rather of the systematic reinforcement of a racial and gendered criteria for full citizenship (10). This critique, in turn, disrupts the official stories that feature the United States as a brave defender of democracy and staunch critic of racialized nationalism abroad.
In setting her story of the quest for and repercussions of Pecola Breedlove's desire for blue eyes and the unmarked whiteness they represent against the backdrop of World War II, Morrison recounts the history of this significant year from the vantage point of those who have been marked as peripheral in accounts of this era of American history. (1) More particularly, it is significant that Morrison sets her story during 1940-41, because this year, during which the United States decided to intervene in World War II, is an important watershed date for the initial positioning of the United States as the crusader against racialized forms of nationalism abroad. The marked foregrounding of anti-racialist U.S. foreign policy during this year permits the backgrounding of racialist national history. More specifically, as Hitler's crimes against humanity came into sharp focus, the United States' own conflicts over race purity were displaced, and receded into the background.
Throughout her novel, Morrison explores several such historical displacements by which something of lesser significance comes to occupy a central position and, thereby, effaces a more disturbing issue: The domestic support for racialized nationalism is overshadowed on the international front by the United States' intervention in the war against racialized nationalism in Europe; the economic threat of black male labor to white male ascendancy is transformed by lynching rhetoric into a sexual threat of black males to white womanhood; black exclusion from the national family, especially the thwarting of the black male appropriation of the breadwinner role, is superceded by the inclusion of the ideal black female servant into the white family; black economic inequality is refigured as the retardation of black male progress by the presence of a matriarchal kinship network. In each case, the original exclusionary practice is rewritten through a counternarrative of reversal or justification. Morrison skillfully and subtly inserts each of these peripheral histories into her novel through a particular metaphoric description: naming the prostitute Marie "Maginot Line," describing Maureen Peal's "long brown hair" as "braided into two lynch ropes," depicting Pecola as a scapegoat, and characterizing the public sphere as a hemmed garment.
Through these metaphoric allusions to larger historical issues, Morrison constructs her novel as a subtle interplay between its foreground history of the Breedlove family and its background history of the racial determination of American citizenship. In other words, Morrison eschews the dramatic foreground of national history for the undramatized background.
Much excellent critical attention has been paid to the foreground story of the Breedloves, (2) but few commentators have considered the background stories in the novel. Understanding the implications of Morrison's subtle historical references can aid the reader in interpreting Morrison's text, and is the key to discerning the range of the cultural critique Morrison is making in The Bluest Eye. On one level, the novel is the personal story of a little girl's identity crisis, symbolized by her cataclysmic desire for blue eyes, but, on another level, it is a story about a national identity crisis. More particularly, it comments on the crisis produced by the post-war revelation of the gap between the United States' self-image as crusader against racialized nationalism and its well-known support of a racial basis of full American citizenship.
Although the details of political and military history of the era are largely absent from the main stage of Morrison's novel, she encodes subtle references to this history in her naming of the three prostitutes--China, Poland, and Maginot Line. That these three women function as the only positive domestic influences in the life of Pecola Breedlove is ironic, because as prostitutes they represent the unsettling of domestic respectability. Through these characters who blur the line between the reputable and disreputable on the domestic front, Morrison then establishes a reference to the blurring of the line between the reputable and the disreputable on the international front. In national terms, the United States' involvement in the fronts of World War II establishes the nation's respectability abroad. In turn, the fallout from the war and the international scrutiny of racialized nationalism unsettle this respectability.
By focusing attention on its intervention on the international front in other nations' racial and ethnic conflicts, the United States can repress its own domestic racial problems and histories of oppression. This tendency to concentrate attention on the wrong front is signified through Morrison's bestowing the name Maginot Line on the prostitute on whom most of the town's respectable black women focus their anger. While the names China and Poland (3) signify the European and Asian fronts of World War II, Maginot Line (4) refers literally to the failed French border fortifications and metaphorically to the tendency to focus on the wrong front that historian Sidney Lens calls "the Maginot Line syndrome." There is much focusing on the wrong front in the novel: The townswomen concentrate on vilifying the prostitutes for denigrating black womanhood, but do not acknowledge the economic inequalities that foster prostitution in the first place; the prostitutes focus on hating the townswomen, but exempt from their sc orn the churchwomen who seem most to …