Othering and The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is rife with examples of othering, and the internalization of being an other. However, one of the character’s experiences with her identity as a black woman caught my eye in particular, Pauline. She is the mother of Pecola, a character to whom more space is given in the novel, but has a chapter of her own during which we are walked through her relationship with Cholly, the birth of her children, and her eventual change in perception of herself. Eventually Pauline develops an acceptance of the role she is given as a black woman, after her absorption of movie ideals, ” She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty” (Morrison, 122). Pauline applies this scale to herself as well, devastated when she cannot live up to the ideal because of a lost tooth, and then settles into the role of a dedicated servant for white people, while maintaining a sense of superiority over her children and husband.

However, the reader may ask, after defying a white woman and showing great autonomy throughout her life, why does Pauline give up her ability to determine herself and accept her othering? How is this autonomy translated into a loss on the part of the reader, who feels saddened at the end of her story (at least this reader does)? I am not content with the answer that Pauline does not make a choice but bends to the Law of the Father and continues in her expected role, her supposed biological fate, which she has been socially conditioned to expect. It is her defiance of a white woman, and her great fulfillment in her later roles, which lead me to believe they are choices, and that Toni Morrison is tackling a very layered concept of othering through this character.

A useful framework for understanding othering is provided by Mary Canales, originally intended for nurses, but very applicable here. She takes what seems to be two contradictory elements of othering, that we use it to separate ourselves from others, but also to define ourselves and concludes that, “The self is only known through Others, and how Others are “marked” and “named” depends on the role taking of the self. How the Other is perceived, and how this role taking is enacted, has consequences for how the Other is defined” (Canales, par.10).

It is through the process of othering her white, female, employer that Pauline begins to come to a different understanding of herself. Although originally quite confused with her employer, “ who don’t know what a good man is, and say out of one side of her mouth she’s thinking of your future but won’t give you your own money” (Morrison, 121). Pauline does not understand that her employer has different standards for her partner, sees his main duties as providing for her. Neither does she understand her employer’s disgust of a woman working to support her family, and is surprised by the condemnation she  has for the very physical relationship (both sensual and abusive) between Pauline and her husband Cholly.

However, analysis further develops when we consider Canales’ separation of forms of others, which can be seen through Pauline’s decisions in The Bluest Eye. She separates othering into the realm of exclusion and inclusion. Exclusion is demonstrated, not only by the white employer to Pauline, but from Pauline to the white woman. She seeks to ” organiz[e] previously unorganized persons into a social group” (Canales, par. 20). Pauline’s confusion demonstrates that she had not yet fully assimilated to the Law of the Father and racial supremacy, and finds this concept finally at the movie theaters, as mentioned above. This completes the exclusionary form of othering in Canales’ framework, which is the creation of a non-existent “norm”, or the imagined attributes associated with a group that no one truly exemplifies. Pauline is then devastated at her realization that she cannot live up to this ideal.

While this exclusionary othering is used as subjugation, Canales presents us with a second type, that of inclusion, which is when an individual recognizes an other but instead seeks to understand their perspective and  thus, “their own actions can be directed according to perceived individual and group attributes, rather than prejudices and stereotypes” (Canales, par. 57). While no future white employer of Pauline’s engages in this type of othering, Pauline herself does step into the shoes of her white employers, but not as Canales’ presents by gaining their prejudices of those considered her own kind, and willfully bending to the constructed imaginary presented to her.  After absorbing the movies Pauline proclaims her child as ugly, despite her pretty features (126), beings to, “hold Cholly as a model of sin and failure” (126-7) despite her previous acceptance of him as a good man despite these same faults, adopting the Christian discourse espoused at her Church as her ruling principle, and excelled greatly, to the pleasure of white people and herself, in this role.

Toni Morrison does not present us with a character who can bridge any gaps between those on opposite ends of the created racial hierarchy, she seems to agree with other scholars that othering cannot be, or for the very large part is not used to bridge people but only create animosity among those subject to it. Many of her characters in The Bluest Eye come to great misfortune and suffering through their attempts to rise to the top of the hierarchy or subvert it. However, through Canales’ framework, we can understand how othering might be used to dismantle that system of organization and subjugation. The successes and criticisms of both approaches will be discussed in a future blog post.


Canales, Mary K. “Othering: Toward an Understanding of Difference.” Advances in Nursing Science, 22(4). June 2000, p.16-


Morrison, Toni. “The Bluest Eye.” Vintage International: United States, 1993. Print.

Pyke, Karen; Dang, Tran. ” “FOB” and “Whitewashed”: Identity and Internalized Racism Among Second Generation Asian

Americans.”  Qualitative Sociology, 26(2). Summer 2003. p. 147-172.


~ by ladyellysa on March 16, 2012.

One Response to “Othering and The Bluest Eye”

  1. When you say that Pauline accepts her role as a black woman, I think you need to qualify that statement a little more and state that she accepts her abjected position in the American social order? In any case, this is a solid post – thanks!

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