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

By Alexander, Allen | African American Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

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


Alexander, Allen, African American Review


Religious references, both from Western and African sources, abound in Toni Morrison's fiction, but nowhere are they more intriguing or perplexing than in The Bluest Eye. And of the many fascinating religious references in this novel, the most complex - and perhaps, therefore, the richest - are her representations of and allusions to God. In Morrison's fictional world, God's characteristics are not limited to those represented by the traditional Western notion of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Instead, God possesses a fourth face, one that is an explanation for all those things - the existence of evil, the suffering of the innocent and just - that seem so inexplicable in the face of a religious tradition that preaches the omnipotence of a benevolent 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 portrayed 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 humanize 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.(1)

Though Morrison's model of God owes much to African tradition, 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 discovering 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 oeuvre, the characters who blatantly attack the norms of white society - 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 violence 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 society - 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 Church.

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. …

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