I recently read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. What a masterpiece! I wanted to take the time to talk about themes that I feel made this book exceptional. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. I also compare these themes to Thoreau’s Walden, and the Duty of Civil Disobedience as he also critiques his own race and society much like Morrison.
The theme of classism is undoubtedly present in The Bluest Eye. Morrison writes, “…Sits in a 1939 Buick eating bread and butter…We stare at her, wanting the bread” (12). The quote shows class differences through poverty, but her use of the 1939 Buick set the year which was a brilliant writing technique. Morrison shows poor Blacks living conditions with“…takes us along in the evening to the railroad tracks where we fill burlap sacks with the tiny pieces of coal lying about” (12). Poor Whites did it too, but she wants the reader to focus solely on Black families. Morrison ties in race and class with lines like, “Being a minority in caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weakness and hang on” (18). She effectively uses very negative language to describe poorer Blacks, but she uses very nice and respectful language for the ones who own homes.
She also shows strong emotion toward her identity and race with lines like, “The big, the special, the loving gift was always a big, blue-eyed Baby Doll” (19). At times, it felt as if she hated being female as well. Morrison writes, “I had no interest in babies or the concept of motherhood” (20). However, I found race and self-hatred themes of interest with, “They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly. (34). They believed they deserved their social position because of their race and features. The author then speaks to the era when she writes, “Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud” (71). When she describes the different class’s homes, it shows a real social and racial divide in how they saw each other. She also addressed the need for light skin with lines like, “Except for an occasional and unaccountable insurgent who chose a restive black, they married “up” lightening the family complexion and thinning out the family features” (133). One of the most powerful lines in the story was, “I felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live-just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls” (148). She didn’t hate Whites for being White. She critiqued how Black Americans craved the lighter tone because that is what society taught.
I see the same themes in Thoreau’s work regarding class and race, but he speaks from a Transcendentalist viewpoint in that every many had a duty to work for his own status. He wrote, “I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both North and South” (Walden, and the Duty of Civil Disobedience). He speaks to subtle masters as if to say that White society’s need for status controls their actions. Thoreau is trying to make a case for simplicity when he writes, “By the words, necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it” (Walden, and the Duty of Civil Disobedience). His disdain for society is clear when he writes, “It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday’s liberty for the rest. Some show their kindness to the poor by employing them in their kitchens. Would they not be kinder if they employed themselves there?” (Thoreau).
He also introduced the theme of nature to support his idea that all of mankind was a part of it. It had everything a man needed for survival if he wanted to work for it. Like Morrison, Thoreau also talked about owning property which both authors seemed to infer that it elevated your class. He wrote, “In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal” (Thoreau). Thoreau also believed it was his right to use civil disobedience, and his use of slavery and personal liberty were just two of his examples. He writes, “But the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these, and where the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous expenses” (Thoreau).
Both Morrison and Thoreau are critiquing their own races and societies for very different yet similarly understood reasons. In the 1850s, slavery and social status led him and many followers toward a path of civil disobedience to bring about a change in all races and social classes. He preferred an honest life that was possible, he felt, with hard work. He critiqued religion, government, and even White communities who allowed injustice to continue be it for slavery or unnecessary war. Morrison critiqued Black society through her character’s inability to understand beauty through blue eyes. She also critiqued family dysfunction and socioeconomic differences within her race.