For an artist or a child to wish to emulate who they read in novels or see on televisions is natural, but what is often overlooked in this singular, harmless behavior is a cycle, fueled by prejudicial forces, in which media representation both thwarts and is thwarted by an imperfect reality. In the works of Woolf and Morrison, this cycle is clearly illustrated, as the visible and direct effects of racism and sexism – evident in both the female writer’s limited access to the education, experiences, and economic freedoms of men and in a family’s dark tale of sexual and domestic violence – trickle into the psyche of the woman and begin to take the more insular, personal forms of limited consciousness and gendered and racial self-loathing.
For the novelist, a set of tools is needed to create a great work. The first tool would be experience, as one must create content – a setting and plot and climax not purely imaginative, but perhaps based loosely on the drama that is real life. The second tool would be education, as one cannot create content without learning the science of words. The third tool would be time, as one must have the patience for those stubborn words and viscous phrases to flow. And, the last tool would be security, as one must be comfortable in their finances so that their survival does not depend solely on their ability to work. All of these tools befit the belts of the handymen that are Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Rossetti and Swinburne and the like. But, as Woolf points out in A Room of One’s Own, tools are not for girls.
Through the character of Jane Eyre, Woolf gleans from Charlotte Bronte’s work a message of female isolation, in which only men can explore the wonderland that exists beyond the home: “’I longed for a power of vision… which might reach the busy world… regions full of life I had heard of but never seen: that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed…’” (68). Evident in Eyre’s lament is a message exclusively shared by women, in that the women of Woolf’s time were not granted the privileges of “experience and intercourse and travel” (70); instead, they share the tragic fate of the elderly woman on page 89, who looks back on important dates and is unable to recall the menial, servile tasks that consumed most of her “unrecorded life.” Bereft of the experience that often inspires the novelist’s work, Woolf argues that women are also deprived of the tutoring needed to convey their otherwise erratic, “uncivilized” (61) thoughts: “No one checked her. No one taught her,” Woolf says of Margaret of Newcastle, whom Woolf is convinced has untapped poetic potential, but, alas, her literary efforts are “jeered at” by men. Adding to these elusive concepts of experience and education is the idea of free time, a luxury to those who are trained to answer to the calls of men, for “interruptions there always will be” (78), as “women never have an half hour… that they can call their own” (66). Furthermore, it is not until Mrs. Behn, on page 64, works side by side with men, that she begins to experience the “freedom of the mind,” an event that Woolf explains by stating this truth: “intellectual freedom depends upon material things” (108). In searching for a room of one’s own to sit and reflect and write, the woman, therefore, must have the economic, educational, and experiential privileges of man. It is when these privileges are not granted that the prejudicial force of sexism prevails, permeating the canon and contributing to the tragic misrepresentation of women in literature.
Where the novel provides a sort of glimpse into the era in which it was written, much is amiss without the voices of women. Woolf refers back to the dangers of an “unrecorded life,” stating, “Indeed, since freedom and fullness of expression are of the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women” (77). Without female writers to look up to, and with only an incomplete, strictly male narrative to aspire to, the women of Woolf’s time are faced with a “perpetual struggle” (35) in which they are so hyper-aware of their grievances that it affects their state of being, or their consciousness. Double-consciousness, a term popularized by W.E.B. DuBois but applicable to any individual conflicted with warring ideals (such as the female identity and a sexist society, in this case), bleeds into the work of women, which Woolf alludes to on page 55, “Her mind must have been strained and her vitality lowered by the need of opposing this, of disproving that.” Because of the woman’s polluted psyche, she is starved of the freedom that allows male poets to write “free and unimpeded” (57), and thus, the cycle continues, as she is judged more harshly than the man, and even – ironically – by Woolf herself, for writing “angrily” or with interruptions. Charlotte Bronte is a prime example: her streams of consciousness are often jarred by an intruding thought, and she often writes with a sense of bitterness, though justified by her condition. Woolf criticizes Bronte’s writing for its undertones of rage and its foolish composition stating that “she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire.” Woolf’s statement is, though, an unfortunate truth that is revealed under the pressure of such a prejudicial force as sexism. The privilege of wholeness, as I have written about before, is not a luxury enjoyed by those with split consciousness; it can only be obtained when prejudice is obliterated and when the mind becomes, in Woolf’s words, “androgynous” (98). Meanwhile, though, and for the foreseeable future, the psyche of the female writer suffers: as long as she is robbed of the resources of men, she will be poorly represented in the canon, and the cycle continues.
While the direct effects of sexism on Woolf’s white, upper-class Englishwomen are unfortunate, the characters in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye face a reality that is much more hopeless and futile. Though Morrison does not focus much of the novel on direct interactions between white and black, it is obvious that the issues faced by Pecola, Cholly, Polly, Claudia, and Frieda link back to racism. This is most evident in Cholly’s story, in which he was having sex with a young girl named Darlene in some bushes, only to be caught by two white men. From early on, Cholly’s life has been guided by an enduring power struggle – Black boy versus white man – indicated in Morrison’s juxtaposition of the two: “They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless…” (150). This same struggle can be translated to something more material: economic hardship. Given that this story was set right after the Great Depression, it can be implied that the Breedlove family, given their race and their backgrounds, were affected by the changing times. Living in the dull, gray home with rip-off rented furniture, an oppressive air of “joylessness” (36) pervaded the house. Manifesting in physical violence, Cholly’s experience as a victim, affected by the crude gawks of white, male perverts and later by lasting financial struggles, transformed him into an oppressor, as he and his wife continually abused each other, creating a climate so turbulent that their daughter Pecola, “restricted by youth and sex, experimented with methods of endurance,” at times wishing she were dead (43). The most horrific effect of these forces on the Breedlove family, though, lies in the swift, callous fading of Pecola’s innocence, as she becomes pregnant with her father’s child. These effects are visible; Pecola’s scars are visible, her growing stomach is visible, the wounds inflicted on each of her parents are visible, and the shamble of a house she lives in is a visible sign of the cycle of poverty in which she hopelessly exists. These direct effects, like those that Woolf described, not only limit the access Morrison’s characters have to a brighter future, but they work to warp society’s view of the Black community, leaving its members to face detrimental, far more psychological effects.
What was first revealed in Cholly’s violent transformation can now be identified as internalized prejudice. The image, then, that is painted of Black men in books like Morrison’s is often one of abuse or infidelity; in an attempt to preserve what little power they have, these men often suppress a weaker class: Black women. Due to the intersectional forces of both sexism and racism, women in Morrison’s work are accurately described as “mules,” (40, 138) as Claudia’s mother put it and as characters in other Black feminist works have put it, such as Janie Crawford’s grandmother when she said, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world,” in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. As beasts of burden, mules carry heavy loads, and it is this symbolism of the mule that is common in novels that describe the Black female experience – novels that tell tales of women who are faced with similar burdens: “Everybody in the world was in a position to give them orders… when white men beat their men, they cleaned up the blood and went home to receive abuse from the victim” (138). Whereas men like Cholly perceive themselves to be at the pit of power struggles between black and white, it is the women, Morrison asserts, that ultimately bear the brunt of the burden.
What is most dangerous, though, is when this internalized prejudice on behalf of the man is coupled with an unhealthy idolization of white values on behalf of, in this case, the women. Modeled by her mother, who escapes reality through the “power, praise, and luxury” of the white Fisher house (128), Pecola begins to show signs of what can be identified as self-loathing; feeling “poor, black, and ugly” (38), she longs for the blue eyes of Shirley Temple and white baby dolls. It is made clear, through the voice of the narrator, that this is unnatural, as Claudia detests the dolls, asking, “What made people look at them and say, ‘Awww,’ but not for me?” (22). On the playground, Claudia’s question is answered. Black is an insult (65, 73), as the girls revere Maureen Peals, the “high-yellow dream child” (62) and the boys respect a bully cut from similar cloth – a boy whose mother had “explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers” (87). While racial prejudice is internalized by Black men and converted to sexism, it is also internalized by more privileged, lighter-skinned members of the Black community and takes form through colorism: the oppression of darker-skinned individuals within minority groups. In line with colorism are the hegemonic beauty standards that dominate conversation among Black women, who obsess, in addition to light skin, over smooth “edges” (83), thin silhouettes, and the upkeep of their domestic havens. As Pecola is neither light-skinned nor beautiful nor domestic, she, as a girl, is placed “outside” from the very start, feeling the “immutable inferiority” (210) of alienation and a subsequent “fear of growing up, fear of other people, fear of life” (128). The psyche, therefore, of Pecola, is highly vulnerable to the forces which sparked this ugly chain reaction of self-loathing. Because whiteness is valued in Pecola’s society, members of her community strive to become the Shirley Temples and Maureen Peals of the world – if they achieve lightness and beauty, perhaps they may restore a balance of power. But, like the women Woolf describes, inferiority is inevitable, as “the Thing to fear was the Thing that made [Maureen] beautiful,” not Pecola or Claudia or Frieda. The “Thing” to fear is the cycle, fueled by prejudice, that robs Black men and women of social and economic power and discourages them from taking pride in their own identities.
Through their chilling, honest works, Woolf and Morrison acutely capture the cyclical nature of oppression as it transcends time. Because she has no legacy, no tradition that exists in the canon, the female writer struggles to garner the trust from her readers and the confidence in herself to mend a split consciousness. Because all forces are against her, and because her community has turned against itself, Pecola is essentially doomed, as she will never be the blue-eyed girl on TV. The psyches, therefore, of the Shakespeare’s sisters and the Pecolas of the world are damaged – as women and minorities continue to be refused the same opportunities as people of power, they will suffer, metaphorically and internally, the same fate as Shakespeare’s sister and Pecola and even Woolf herself: death, breakdown, rape – demise.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. London: Vintage, 2016. Print.
Woolf, Virginia, and S. P. Rosenbaum. A Room of One's Own. Oxford: Published for the
Shakespeare Head by Blackwell, 1992. Print.