The sound of silence in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

Morrison demonstrates how imagining music in the mind’s ear can function in literature

There are moments in The Bluest Eye (1970) that exemplify Toni Morrion’s deft and purposeful use of music as a narrative tool. Set in 1940s Ohio, its narrator, Claudia, recounts the story of her childhood friend Pecola, whose deeply internalised notions of ugliness and beauty is framed by her longing for blue eyes. The events of the novel reveal how Pecola is a victim of abandonment by the community, situating her fate within a complex chain of experience that calls into question the expected structure of moral accountability. By evoking the sound of music that Claudia hears but not that heard by Pecola, Morrison emphasises the latter’s alienation from the value system that surrounds her in the novel as well as her degree of separation from Claudia’s story.

Morrison’s evocations of the blues situate the narrative within a particular mode of storytelling. Cat Moses’s characterisation of The Bluest Eye as a ‘blues narrative’ is predominantly concerned with likening the archetypal narrative of blues lyrics with to elements of Morrison’s plot: ‘The narrative’s structure follows a pattern common to traditional blues lyrics: a movement from an initial emphasis on loss to a concluding suggestion of resolution of grief through motion’ (p. 623). Moses goes further, describing the novel as Morrison’s blues, in which Claudia is a blues subject (the performative blues ‘I’) and her storytelling itself is in the ‘blues mode’ (p. 633).

Considering not just the written blues but the varying presence and absence of the aural blues provides an alternative frame of meaning through which to read the novel. Utilising the aural potential of a written medium such as print puts the novel in dialogue with a history of African American writing and criticism, from the epigraphic bars of song in W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk to Henry Louis Gates’ concept of the ‘talking book’ in slave narratives. Thinking about how music features diegetically in The Bluest Eye, such as when Claudia’s mother sings the ‘St Louis Blues’, is the clearest place to start:

If my mother was in a singing mood, it wasn’t so bad. She would sing about hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me times. But her voice was so sweet and her singing-eyes so melty I found myself longing for those hard times, yearning to be grown without ‘a thin di-i-ime to my name.’ I looked forward to the delicious time when ‘my man’ would leave me, when I would ‘hate to see that evening sun go down…’ ’cause then I would know ‘my man has left this town.’ Misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother’s voice took all of the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet (pp 23-24).

Here, the reader perceives the blues through more than lyrics: we’re encouraged to imagine its sound, through the poetic description of Claudia’s mother’s voice as she sings and the typography of ‘di-i-ime’. The meaning of the lyrics is transformed in Claudia’s mind by its delivery, a lament made desirable. Claudia’s immersion in the aural qualities of song is evidence of her inclusion in the meaning-making structures of the community, and her childlike understanding of the function of the blues (to make pain sweet) influences her reaction to other should-be painful revelations in the novel, such as Mr Henry’s inappropriate behaviour towards her sister. Describing the tone in terms of colour not only introduces a synaesthetic quality that reinforces the depth of Claudia’s perception but also creates a dialogue with Pecola’s yearning for blue eyes, the colourful description of Pecola’s mother Pauline’s childhood (p. 113) and Claudia’s peripheral understanding of the blues. In other words, the passage highlights how the semantics of the blues changes drastically with or without the aural, musical element. 

In comparison, when Pecola hears Poland – one of the friendly prostitutes in whose company Pecola finds comfort – singing ‘Blues Everywhere I Go’, it’s devoid of the depth that’s central to Claudia’s perception of the blues. The lyric itself is indented in the text, separated from the narrative, and the vivid aurality of Claudia’s mother is absent in the description of Poland’s blues, other than that her voice is ‘sweet and hard, like new strawberries’ (p. 49); later in the novel, at a point in which we’re fully immersed in Pecola’s desperate attempts at redemption, strawberries become a trigger for the narrator’s real and imagined memories of stormy summers like a Proustian madeleine (p. 185).

The other sounds made by the women are described vividly, especially those made by Marie, whose laughter ‘came like the sound of many rivers, freely, deeply, muddily, heading for the room of an open sea’ (p. 50) and who belches ‘softly, purringly, lovingly’ (p. 56). However, Poland is twice described as having ‘laughed without sound’ (p. 51), the second time even more abruptly than the first (‘Poland began to laugh. Soundlessly’, p. 53), emphasising the lyrics divorced from their tune, the soundless blues, that we experience (or don’t) through Pecola’s ears. The marked absence of evoked sound is linked to Pecola’s family trauma in the passage when Marie’s story of a past relationship leads Pecola’s train of thought to ‘the picture’ of her parents in bed together, and the disparity between Cholly’s painful ‘choking sounds’ and her mother’s silence: ‘Terrible as his noises were, they were not nearly as bad as the no noise at all from her mother.’ (p. 55)

Thematically, the lyrics of ‘St Louis Blues’ touch on the titular struggle with unattainable beauty standards in the lines:

Wasn’t for the powder and store-bought hair

The man I love wouldn’t go nowhere, nowhere

However, like in The Bluest Eye, the speaker’s insecurity is really a symptom rather than a cause. In her nods to the blues, Morrison draws on intertextual meanings that extend far beyond the world of the novel. However, in her varied use of imagined sound and silence, Morrison demonstrates how the mind’s ear can be as useful for crafting a narrative point of view as the mind’s eye. 

Further questions

How do the characters’ perceptions of sound compare with Morrison’s language of sight?

How important is it to consider the racialised history of orality and music in literature?

To what extend does the novel’s title direct the reader to hear and see the text in a specific way?

Bibliography

Morrison, Toni, The Bluest Eye (London: Vintage, 2016)

Moses, Cat, ‘The Blues Aesthetic in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye’, African American Review, 33.4 (1999), 623–37 <https://doi.org/10.2307/2901343>