Writing the Survivor by Robin Field explores how rape novels place survivors at the heart of narratives of sexual violence rather than the perpetrators. In this blog post, Field reflects on the power of Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye, to mark its 50th anniversary.
The Bluest Eye was released on October 29, 1970. Toni Morrison’s masterful first novel received accolades in Kirkus Review, which called the book a “quiet chronicle of garrotted innocence.” Morrison’s novel about three little Black girls was “perhaps the least likely, least commercially viable story one could tell at the time,” according to Hilton Als in The New Yorker. As Morrison’s literary star rose, The Bluest Eye was recognized for its nuanced depiction of racism and the fetishization of white beauty standards. The novel is now often taught in high schools and universities; but with its popularity comes criticism. The novel appeared on the American Library Association’s “Top 10 Most Challenged Books” list as recently as 2014 for content deemed too graphic for impressionable young people—for Morrison’s novel depicts the rape of a Black girl by her father, the birth and death of her baby, and her fall into madness.
Morrison’s first novel also inaugurates a new genre of American fiction called the rape novel, which I describe in Writing the Survivor. Before 1970, most depictions of rape in American fiction offered the perspective of the perpetrator enjoying the violence and pain he forced upon a woman. The rape novel instead portrays rape as a violent crime enacting physical and psychological damage upon the victim-survivor. By focusing upon the person harmed, rather than the perpetrator of the violence, the rape novel challenges long-standing misconceptions about rape and disallows a voyeuristic gaze that turns sexual violence into pornographic titillation.
One notorious example of this pornographic voyeurism appears in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), where the Black father Jim Trueblood salaciously describes raping his daughter to a transfixed white man. In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes back against “the male ‘glamour of shame’ rape is (or once was) routinely given”. Pecola, the eleven-year-old raped by her father Cholly, is driven mad by her father’s assaults and her mother’s refusal to believe what happened. Morrison demonstrates the predominant understandings of rape in the 1970s that blaming the victim for her trauma is easier than trying to understand it. This attitude is epitomized by the reaction of Pecola’s community, as the adults say, “[Pecola] carry some of the blame” and “How come she didn’t fight him?”. Such reactions, coming so quickly on the heels of the rape scene that leaves a young girl unconscious on the kitchen floor, underscore how the trauma of rape can be compounded by the callousness of others.
As a rape novel, The Bluest Eye replaces the pornographic titillation seen in novels such as Invisible Man with the pain of the violated victim-survivor. Yet Morrison, like other authors in the mid-twentieth century, still uses the perspective of the rapist, Cholly, during the scene of the assault. Morrison later recognized the problematics of omitting Pecola’s consciousness, writing in the Afterword of the 1993 edition that the novel does not “handle effectively the silence at its center: the voice that is Pecola’s ‘unbeing.’ It should have had a shape—like the emptiness left by a boom or a cry”. Like Maxine Hong Kingston, who portrays another voiceless rape victim in The Woman Warrior (1976), Morrison focuses upon the community’s reaction to the rape. “[T]he victim,” writes Morrison, “does not have the vocabulary to understand the violation or its context.”
The words and the contexts come in the 1980s, when the first-person perspective of the rape victim speaks from the pages of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) and Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989). Through reading the harrowing details of sexual violence, readers in the 1980s learned to resist rape myths and support victim-survivors through their processes of physical and psychological recovery. In the 1990s, stories of incest—such as Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1992) and Sapphire’s Push (1996)—implemented complex narrative strategies mimicking certain aspects of traumatic memories. In the twenty-first century, with compassion and understanding for female victim-survivors fully established on the page, the rape novel begins telling the stories of the men and boys who have been raped.
Morrison’s The Bluest Eye begins with the words, “Quiet as it’s kept…”. Certainly in 1970, the victim-survivor’s story of rape and incest was rarely told with compassion and honesty. Fifty years later, the rape novel as a genre has created community through shared stories and urged social change through education and activism. Today, this activism appears off the page as survivors of all genders have spoken out against perpetrators of sexual violence. Tarana Burke’s phrase “Me Too” has created a community of victim-survivors and an activist movement, about which she recently tweeted “every one that cares about the lives of survivors and wants to bring an end to sexual violence can #acttoo.” Quiet no longer, thanks to the revolutionary words of Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye.