The Blues Aesthetic in Toni Morrison's the Bluest Eye

Article excerpt

The blues aesthetic is an ethos of blues people that manifests itself in everything done, not just in the music. (ya Salaam 2)

Readers of Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, are often so overwhelmed by the narrative's emotional content--the child Pecola's incestuous rape, ensuing pregnancy, and subsequent abandonment by her community and descent into madness--that they miss the music in this lyrically "songified" narrative. [1] Morrison has stated that her narrative "effort is to be like something that has probably only been fully expressed perhaps in music... " ("Interview" 408). The Bluest Eye is the genesis of her effort "to do what the music did for blacks, what we used to be able to do with each other in private and in that civilization that existed underneath the white civilization" (Morrison, "Language" 371). The catharsis and the transmission of cultural knowledge and values that have always been central to the blues form the thematic and rhetorical underpinnings of The Bluest Eye. The narrative's structure follows a pattern common to traditional blues lyrics: a movement from an initial emphasis on loss to a conclud ing suggestion of resolution of grief through motion. In between its initial statement of loss and its final emphasis on movin' on, The Bluest Eye contains an abundance of cultural wisdom. The blues lyrics that punctuate the narrative at critical points suggest a system of folk knowledge and values that is crucial to a young black woman's survival in the 1930s and '40s and which supports Claudia's cathartic role as storyteller. The lyrics also illustrate the folk knowledge and values that are not transmitted to Pecola--information without which she cannot survive as a whole and healthy human being.

In traditional blues songs, the singer is the subject, the I who tells her (or his) own story. In The Bluest Eye, however, Claudia tells Pecola's story. Except for a few fragmented lines of dialogue, Pecola remains silent within Claudia's narrative. Much of the critical discourse on the novel has focused on the relationship between voice and empowerment, and on the problematics of a narrative that silences its dispossessed protagonist while seeking to empower the dispossessed and to critique power relations. This essay addresses the apparent contradiction between The Bluest Eye's silenced protagonist and its traditionally African American equation of voice with empowerment by situating Claudia's narrative voice within African American oral traditions and a blues aesthetic. I posit Claudia as the narrative's blues subject, its bluest "I" and representative blues figure, and Pecola as the abject tabula rasa on which the community's blues are inscribed. I assert that, rather than singing Pecola's blues, Claudia "sings" the community's blues. Claudia bears witness, through the oral tradition of testifying, to the community's lack of self-love and its transference of this lack onto the abject body of Pecola.

In the first section below, I address the initial reference to a specific blues song in the novel by discussing the lyrics and structure of "The St. Louis Blues" as representative of traditional blues. I then lay the foundation for a discussion of The Bluest Eye as a blues narrative. In the ensuing section, I build upon this foundation to discern a female blues subjectivity in The Bluest Eye, a subjectivity constructed through African American oral traditions and embodied in the three whores' speech, song, and laughter, and in Claudia's narrative voice. Finally, I position Claudia's subjectivity within a blues aesthetic and her voice within the oral tradition of testifying.

The earliest reference to a specific blues in The Bluest Eye follows the scene in which Mrs. MacTeer harangues the girls after Pecola consumes what Mrs. MacTeer deems more than her share of the milk in the refrigerator, and it precedes the narrative of Pecola's first menstruation. This reference to the blues, then, forms a bridge between childhood (the milk consumption represents Pecola's effort to consume--and become--Shirley Temple) and womanhood. …