. . . [I]f those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.
The narrator announces that the Breedloves live in the storefront because they are black and poor, and because they believe they are ugly. They are not objectively ugly. Though they have small, closely set eyes and heavy eyebrows, they also have high cheekbones and shapely lips. They are ugly because they believe they are ugly. The action that now unfolds takes place on a Saturday morning in October. Mrs. Breedlove wakes first and begins banging around in the kitchen. Pecola is awake in bed and knows that her mother will pick a fight with her father, who came home drunk the previous night. Each of Cholly’s drunken episodes ends with a fight with his wife. Mrs. Breedlove comes in and attempts to wake Cholly to bring her some coal for the stove. He refuses, and she says that if she sneezes just once from fetching the coal outside, he is in trouble.
The narrator comments that Mrs. Breedlove and Cholly need each other—she needs him to reinforce her identity as a martyr and to give shape to an otherwise dreary life, and he needs to take out a lifetime of hurt upon her. When Cholly was young, two white men once caught having sex with a girl. They forced him to continue while they watched. Instead of hating the white men, Cholly hated the girl. Because of this and other humiliations, Cholly is a violent and cruel man. The fights between him and Mrs. Breedlove follow a predictable pattern, and the two have an unstated agreement not to kill each other. Sammy usually either runs away from home or joins the fight. Pecola tries to find ways to endure the pain.
Predictably, Mrs. Breedlove sneezes, and the fight begins. She douses Cholly with cold water and he begins to beat her. She hits him with the dishpan and then a stove lid. Sammy helps by hitting his father on the head. Once Cholly is knocked out, Sammy urges his mother to kill him, and she quiets him. Pecola, still in bed, feels nauseated. As she often does, she wills herself to disappear. She can imagine each body part dissolving except for her eyes. She hates her ugliness, which makes teachers and classmates ignore her. For a long time, she has hoped and prayed for blue eyes, which will make her beautiful and change all the evil in her life to good.
Pecola walks to the grocery store to buy candy. She wonders why people consider dandelions ugly. She decides to buy Mary Janes, but she has difficulty communicating with Mr. Yacobowski, the store owner, who seems to look right through her. He does not understand what she is pointing at and speaks harshly to her. He does not want to touch her hand when she passes over her money. Walking home, Pecola is angry but most of all ashamed. She decides dandelions are ugly, whereas blonde, blue-eyed Mary Jane, pictured on the candy wrapper, is beautiful.
Pecola goes to visit the whores who live in the apartment above hers, China, Poland, and Miss Marie. They are good-natured and affectionate with her, and they tell her about their “boyfriends” (Pecola’s term for their clients). Miss Marie tells stories about turning one of her boyfriends over to the FBI and about Dewey Prince, the one man she truly loved. The narrator tells us that these are not hookers with hearts of gold or women whose innocence has been betrayed. Quite simply, these women cheerfully and unsentimentally hate men. They feel neither ashamed of nor victimized by their profession. Pecola wonders what love is like. She wonders if it is like her parents’ lovemaking, during which her father sounds as if he is in pain and her mother is dead silent.
This chapter portrays victimhood as a complex phenomenon rather than a simple, direct relationship between oppressor and oppressed. The Breedloves’ ugliness is one of the central mysteries of the novel. It cannot be attributed to their literal appearance (we are told that their ugliness “did not belong to them”), nor simply to the cultural images that indicate that only whiteness is beautiful. Instead, the narrator suggests, it seems
as though some mysterious all-knowing master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ . . . [a]nd they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.
While the use of the word “master” suggests a connection to the history of slavery, the Breedloves’ ugliness has been both foisted on them and chosen, an identity that is destructive but that still gives a sense of meaning to their existence. Mrs. Breedlove’s sense of martyrdom is similar. While it is clear that in some sense she consents to, and even chooses, the abuse she takes from her husband, it is also clear that this abuse damages her. The violence gives her life meaning, gives her days dramatic shape, and gives her the opportunity to exercise her imagination, but it is clear that these things are deeply wrong. The meaning she finds is senseless violence, the dramatic shape is tragic, and this exercise of her imagination is self--destructive. It appears that the will to make meaning out of one’s life can be a negative power as well as a positive one, especially if one’s life has been damaged by mistreatment.
This chapter also introduces the symbolic story that Pecola fantasizes for her own life. She decides that if she had beautiful blue eyes, her life would magically right itself. She wants blue eyes for two reasons—so that she can change what she sees, and so that she can change how others see her. For Pecola, these reasons are interchangeable because she believes that how people see her (as ugly) creates what she sees (hurtful behavior). While her brother has the option of running away from these terrible domestic scenes, Pecola, a young girl with fewer choices, believes she can change what she sees only by changing herself. There are moments when she temporarily succeeds in breaking the destructive connection between what she sees and how people see her. When she considers that dandelions might be beautiful, she implicitly recognizes that beauty can be created by seeing rather than by being seen. By the same logic, she could redefine herself as beautiful even without blue eyes. But her humiliation at the grocer’s store reinforces the old idea that ugliness is inherent and cannot be changed by a different way of perceiving the world. When the grocer looks at her with a blankness tinged with distaste, she does not consider that he is ugly—she only considers herself to be so. After she leaves the grocery store, she briefly experiences a healthy anger, but it gives way to shame. Pecola interprets poor treatment and abuse as her own fault. She believes that the way people observe her is more real than what she herself observes.
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