Formal Structure and Music Theory in 'The Bluest Eye'
As Trudier Harris has pointed out, Morrison’s use of suppressed popular communicative forms – visual, oral, musical, and more – is an integral part of her uncovering “discredited” knowledge (Morrison’s deployment of the folk traditional-bearers and the transmission of popular memory, by Trudier Harris). What is more, Morrison has stated that her narrative “effort is to be like something that has probably only been fully expressed perhaps in music...” (Interview 408) and The Bluest Eye is the genesis of her effort “to do what the music did for blacks, what we used to be able to do with each other in private and in that civilization that existed underneath the white civilization” (Morrison, “Language” 371).
In fact, in referring to the ‘St. Louis Blues’ in The Bluest Eye, the song Claudia’s mother used to sing during her childhood, Morrison has chosen a blues that registers all of the central concerns of the story. Both the song and the novel exhibits a physical progression from an initial statement of loss to a concluding statement of resolution. Being the “Eye” of the title not only Pecola’s longing for blue eyes, but also a reference to the eye that Claudia takes at Pecola. That is to say, Claudia is the voice for Pecola’s blues and the community’s blues as well.
However, Toni Morrison uses “blues aesthetics” not only to develop the thematic level of the story, to recreate the memory of the past African American generations, but also to build the structural pattern of the novel. In the following lines, I will discuss the importance of the music in general, and of blues in particular, not only in the thematic realm as critics such as Cat Moses in his “The Blues Aesthetic in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye” (African American Review, Winter 1999) or Abdellatif Khayati’s “Representation, race and the “language” of the ineffable in Toni Morrison’s narrative” (African American Review, Summer, 1999) have done; but also in the structural realm of the book.
Before going any further, it is very important to introduce several basic concepts related to “musical theory” in order to understand future thesis statements. I will start by stating that from Mozart to Pink Floyd, from Litz to Aerosmith; the language of western music is based on the very same triadic harmony and the diatonic scale, using tonic, predominant, dominant, tonic movement for the most part. Before we go on, I shall explain what I just stated in that last sentence - chords that you use everyday in writing songs are usually built up of thirds. So, for example, a C major chord is made up of the notes C,E,G. Notice that the distance between the C and E is a major third, and the distance between the E and the G is a minor third. Now, a typical classical phrase (between 2-8 bars long) usually moves through the following four sections:
1. Tonic (this is where the key is established) The I chord. (ie. C in the key of C)
2. Predominant (this is where you move away from the tonic) the ii, iii, IV, vi and vii chords (dmin, emin, F maj, amin in the key of C).
3. Dominant (this is from where you should return to the tonic- the dominant begs to be resolved towards the tonic). The V (sometimes vii) chords.
4. Tonic. Back to resolution. This is where everything comes back home. Humans crave resolution. In every part of your life, you are trying to move yourself into a mode of resolution.
In order to provide a simpler example, I will picture an everyday life sketch. For instance, you wake up in bed in the morning (tonic), get up and do your daily chores (predominant), then you get home, have dinner, start feeling tired in the evening, and start feeling the urge of going to bed (dominant). Suddenly, or not so suddenly, you end up back in bed, comfortable and asleep (tonic). You have completed the cycle, and you will do it for the rest of your life. This is what music does. It imitates life in the same way the particular structure of The Bluest Eye does.
In fact, the novel opens in the first chapter with a writing in the style of a school child’s reading book “Here is the house. It is green and white” The reader soon finds it is a Dick and Jane reader, very common in the forties and fifties for teaching children not only how to read by using simple sentence structures, but also for teaching children the values of the dominant American culture. The story tells how “Mother, Father, Dick and Jane live” together and are happy together. They have a cat. The mother laughs happily. The father smiles at Jane. They have a playful dog. Jane has a friend who comes to play with her.
This idea leads us to what Bernard Bell in his The Afro-American Novel and its tradition defined as “Double vision”. In fact, the novel structure is set up on the one hand, with a Dick-and-Jane school primer, and on the other hand, with an alternative reality depicted through Pecola’s story. In contrast, the central problem remains that African American values are depicted as helpless in response to external assimilationist pressure.
Going back to the comparison on the formal level, between the structure of the novel and “music aesthetics”, it is important to note that the narrator in the second chapter speaks with the voice of the past, of her childhood. She remembers how she and her sister experienced hearing of the rape of Pecola by her father. She and her sister attempted in their child’s logic to counterbalance a crime against nature on one level (incest) with the proper growth of nature on another level (the marigolds).
It was the fall of the year 1941, when there were no marigolds. The narrator reports that everyone thought were no marigolds because Pecola was having her father’s baby. The narrator says she and her sister were too preoccupied to notice that no one’s marigold grew that year. She and her sister hoped for magic though at the end nothing good happened for Pecola.
The narrator compares the planting of marigold seeds in the black dirt to Pecola’s father “dropping his seeds in his own plot of black dirt”. Now, Cholly Breedlove is dead and so is the innocence of the narrator and her sister. Pecola’s baby died just as the seeds did. The narrator ends, “There is really nothing more to say –except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how”.
In fact, taking “refuge in how” as Toni Morrison states at the beginning of the story is very relevant in order to understand how she conceptualised her ideas about the novel with the help of music. As I have stated before, in music as in life, the interesting thing is that, if it wasn't for the predominant function (the daily activities, job, conflict), you wouldn't get tired. Instead you would become bored, and the dominant (just before sleepytime) and final tonic would be really unsatisfactory. The conflict in the predominant begs to be moved onto the dominant, which can then be resolved back to what it originally was. It's what drives our lives, the novel and the music on.
In the novel realm, Toni Morrison repeats the same pattern: she moves the action from the tonic part of the story (the remembrance of Claudia childhood when the marigold did not grow), through a predominant part which would be the tears and sorrows Pecola had to go through, towards an imminent dominant. In fact, in chapter eleven, an important character is the main cause which determines the development of the action towards the ending of the novel. That is to say, towards dominant.
In chapter eleven, Morrison introduces a new character who has only made a brief appearance at the store where Claudia and Frieda go to buy chips and candy early in the book. It is Soaphead Church, a child molester who lives behind a candy store. Soaphead’s main function in the novel is to give Pecola’s the final push towards insanity. He accepts her request for blue eyes and arranges a cruel sacrifice which he tells her will give her blue eyes.
In addition, Toni Morrison ends up with a masterly assembled resolution similarly close to the resolution we stated before in music theory. In fact, the author goes back to the original tonic as the final chapter is but another remembrance of Claudia’s childhood: She remembers the summer when she and Frieda received their seeds. They had waited since April for them to arrive. If they sold all the packets for five cents each, they would receive a new bicycle. They spend every day walking around town trying to sell their seeds. They would be invited in and given cool drinks and they would half listen to what the people were saying. Little by little, they heard that Pecola was pregnant by Cholly. Several rumours even partially blamed Pecola for the rape. Mrs. Breedlove injured her senseless and people said it was amazing Pecola even survived.
Morrison also ends the novel by giving voice to Pecola Breedlove. However, she never names Pecola in this last chapter. She is an unnamed voice and the reader is left to surmise that it is Pecola who is speaking about her blue eyes. At this point of the narrative, Pecola is insane, yet she is happy with the companionship of her imaginary friend who recognises the beauty of her bluest eyes.
Consequently, we have finally completed the formula influenced from music aesthetics used by Toni Morrison. Tonic, predominant, dominant and resolution are exemplified in the first two chapters of the novel where memories come from Claudia’s mind and the two final chapters when Claudia’s remembrance portrays a Pecola pushed towards insanity.
It is then, at the end of the novel, when we come to the following conclusion: music provides a deep level on introspection in the culture, lives and memories of the African American community. For instance, in the final chapter, Morrison is using Lorain, Ohio as a microcosm for the larger U.S. Society. However, The Bluest Eye also suits other formal purposes. In fact, Toni Morrison depicts human lives as they are, complex, yet inspiring; difficult, yet beautiful. Because whether in music, in our lives or in the novel, the “why” is not important any more. It is the “how” which still makes the difference and it is perhaps, due to the cyclic pattern masterly crafted by the author, that this book could be considered as a masterpiece not only because of its content, but also because of its form.
Abdellatif Khayati: “Representation, race and the language of the ineffable in Toni Morrison’s narrative” on African American Review (Summer, 1999)
Cat Moses: “The Blues Aesthetic in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye” on African Amerian Review (Winter 1999)