Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Why Losing a Tooth Matters: Shirley Jackson's "The Tooth" and Toni Morrison's the Bluest Eye

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Why Losing a Tooth Matters: Shirley Jackson's "The Tooth" and Toni Morrison's the Bluest Eye

Article excerpt

Captain Ahab, from the moment he lost his leg, was plunged into the depths of a psychological abyss that rendered him unable to function anymore as an emotionally healthy human being. Similarly, over the past few decades, we have come to understand that amputee victims of war can fall victim to such an extreme state of depression that it renders them all but helpless to confront their wartime demons. Clara Spencer and Pauline Breedlove have likewise been involved in a vicious struggle within which the missing body part is not a limb but something instead so small as a tooth, and yet the consequence of that loss leaves them just as much driven to the depths of emotional destruction as where we find so many amputee victims and indeed the tortured Ahab himself.

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IN SHIRLEY JACKSON'S "The Tooth" and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, there is a focus on a particular part of the body that one might not assume could carry the full weight of symbolism. One envisions that an author might be more inclined to explore the meaning behind, for example, a missing limb such as what Herman Melville did by having Captain Ahab first lose his leg to a whale and then live in a state of perpetual torment. The condition is not so much unlike what the amputee victims of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer as they endure the anguish of first having had a limb blown off and then having to figure out what to make of the rest of their lives. For many, the results are not only the consequences that are obvious health issues--such as comparably high rates of arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease--but also the not so easily detectable consequence of psychosocial illness.

A version of that illness is also at the heart of Jackson's and Morrison's works. It is not a missing limb that those authors explore to find meaning. Instead, their focus is on a part of the body that is rather small in size and thus, one might assume, would be the least of the body parts that could render any significant pronouncements about the human condition. Jackson's story was published in 1949, Morrison's novel in 1970, and at first glance, it seems that the two works have not very much in common, except that they each have a character who loses a tooth. Upon further analysis, the reader might even be inclined to conclude that, while a tooth has indeed been lost in both of those works, the authors are making points, with their respective characters' missing teeth, that are in no way alike. In Jackson's story, Clara Spencer loses her tooth and that factor provides the vehicle for her to imagine a better life for herself, while in Morrison's novel Pauline Breedlove loses her tooth and the new world she had previously imagined winds up being destroyed. As different as those consequences might seem, there are actually more similarities than differences between the two women in spite of the fact that one is a black woman living in the Midwest, Ohio in particular, and the other is a white woman in the far reaches of New England, specifically the state of Vermont.

Before losing her tooth, Pauline would go to the movies and, the victim of an abusive husband, she would use those "picture shows" as her means of escape, envisioning herself as one of the glamorous women up there on the screen even though Morrison has already explained in great detail just how unattractive the entire Breedlove family actually is. That author goes from one physical feature to another, beginning with

    the eyes, the small eyes set closely together under narrow
   foreheads. The low, irregular hairlines, which seemed even more
   irregular in contrast to the straight, heavy eyebrows which nearly
   met. Keen but crooked noses, with insolent nostrils ... and their
   ears turned forward.... It was as though some mysterious
   all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear.
   (38-39) 

Needless to say, the "master" who supplies the "cloak of ugliness" is not so "mysterious" at all. …

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