The narrator tells the history of Soaphead Church, a self-declared “Reader, Adviser, and Interpreter of Dreams” in Lorain’s black community. A light-skinned West Indian, he was raised in a family proud of its mixed blood. His family has always been academically and politically ambitious, and always corrupt. Family members have always tried to marry other light-skinned people, and, if unable to do so, they have married one another. Soaphead Church’s father was a sadistic schoolmaster and his half-Chinese mother died soon after he was born. Born Elihue Micah Whitcomb, Soaphead Church soon learned the art of self-deception and developed a fascination and revulsion for dirt and decay.
Soaphead married a woman named Velma, but she left him two months afterward. Next, he pursued the ministry but soon discovered that the profession was not right for him. He studied psychiatry and other social sciences, took different jobs, and finally came to Lorain. He rents a back room from an elderly lady named Bertha Reese, and his only hardship is her old dog, Bob, which disgusts him with its runny eyes. Soaphead buys poison to kill the dog but is too repulsed to go near it.
At this point, Pecola comes to ask him to give her blue eyes. He is touched by this request—his own attraction to whiteness makes it easily comprehensible. He knows he cannot help her, but he tells her to give meat—which he has secretly poisoned—to the dog. He tells her that if the dog reacts, her wish will be granted. The dog convulses and dies, and Pecola runs away.
Soaphead then writes a rambling and incoherent letter to God in which we learn more about his understanding of his life. He still feels rejected by Velma, who left him “the way people leave a hotel room.” He describes his love for the newly budding breasts of young girls (we have already been told that he is a pedophile). He remembers two girls, Doreen and Sugar Babe, who let him touch them in exchange for money and sweets. He tells God that he did not touch Pecola and brags that he has rivaled God by granting her wish—she will not literally have blue eyes, but she will believe she does. Soaphead closes his letter and thinks lovingly about all the miscellaneous objects he has collected. He is asleep when his landlord discovers her dead dog.
Like Geraldine and Pauline, Soaphead Church is another example of how the worship of whiteness and cleanliness can deform a black life. His mixed blood gives him a false sense of superiority, which he maintains with delusions of grandeur. Indeed, he half-convinces himself that he can work miracles and that he has a direct line to God. His disgust at human physicality leaves him isolated and lonely and leads him to direct his sexual impulses toward young girls. The narrator ironically describes him as “a very clean old man” instead of a dirty old man, and the implication is clear: his obsession with bodily purity has made him more perverted than simple lust would have.
While Pauline and Cholly are described with sympathy despite their many flaws, Soaphead Church is more of a parody than a multidimensional character. He is labeled as a type, a misanthrope (or people-hater) who prefers objects to people. The narrator comments ironically that like many misanthropes, Soaphead chooses a career that puts him in direct, intimate contact with people. When Soaphead is given the chance to narrate his own story, in his letter to God, he is not made more sympathetic, as Pauline is when she narrates her story. Instead, he becomes still more absurd, using pretentious and frequently melodramatic language, blaming God for his own failings, and justifying himself with hypocritical claims of good and pure intentions. He writes in ridiculously precise and detailed prose, saying of his claim to possess God’s power that “it was not a complete lie; but it was a complete lie,” as if there were a meaningful difference between the two.
Soaphead’s hypocrisy is made all the more venomous by the fact that he is well-educated. Labeling himself a “misanthrope” and reading the writings of other misanthropes make him feel as if his behavior is somehow acceptable and even intellectually justified. When he reads works of literature, he remembers the parts that reinforce his own predilections and ignores the parts that challenge them. His hypocrisy is also associated with his religious pretension—his false claim to know God’s will even though it is clear to those in the ministry that he does not have a genuine spiritual calling. Much like Pauline’s religious sense of martyrdom, Soaphead’s relationship with God is an indirect way to express frustration with his life. As a general rule, the religious characters in this novel tend to be the least loving. Soaphead Church is the most extreme example of loveless religiosity.
Soaphead is made into a parody not only to make obvious to us that he is a bad person. Through his character, Morrison also wishes to critique yet another deceptive method of dealing with racial self-hatred. While education may seem to be an escape, the Western education that Soaphead’s family has received reinforces and even exaggerates their self-denial and perversity. While religion may be an escape, it also promotes self-denial and encourages a dangerous, delusional self-righteousness. True freedom and happiness, Morrison suggests, come from a feeling of connectedness with one’s own body, not a denial of it.
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