Childhood should be a time of great learning, curiosity, joy, playfulness and guiltlessness. The reality is that it can be a time of extreme vulnerability and dependency. The innocence and fragility of a child is easily manipulated and abused if not nurtured and developed. Family relationships are crucial in the flourishing of young minds, but other childhood associations are important too. These include school life, friends, play and peer-group.
Both novels portray these factors and their effects on the character formation of their subjects, to some extent and, show that growing up can be a painful process greatly accelerated by the events that the children encounter. Scout and Jem are the daughter and son of Atticus Finch, a widowed lawyer based in Maycomb, twenty miles from Finch’s Landing the family plot. They are a white, middle class family who have a black cook/housekeeper. Their story is written in To Kill a Mocking Bird, which was published in 1960. It’s author, Harper Lee, was a white woman who incorporated many of her own childhood experiences into the book.
She too came from a small, sleepy town in Alabama, her own father was a lawyer and her childhood friend was Trueman Capote, from whom she drew inspiration for Scout and Jem’s friend Dill. Perhaps the most influential of the events that occurred during Lee’s childhood was the Scottsboro Trials, where nine innocent young black men were accused of raping two white women. This was undoubtedly the inspiration for the climax of the novel, the rape trial of Tom Robinson. Lee wrote the novel in the late 1950’s at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in America. It was a time of great racial tension and trouble.
Over a decade later Toni Morrison, a black woman, published her novel The Bluest Eye. By this time the Civil Rights movement had affected great advances in the freedom granted to black people, but discrimination was still widespread. The popular culture of the time was seen to uphold a standard for female beauty, which was white, blond haired, and blue eyed. This of course precluded all black women and was the cause of the formation of the Black Pride movement. Morrison remembered an incident from her childhood, when one of her school friends said she wanted blue eyes.
She couldn’t, at the time, understand why her friend did not see herself as beautiful, but when she had grown up it became clear. Her friend had learnt racial self-loathing from an early age. This was to be the major theme of Morrison’s novel. It has a similar small town setting to that of To Kill a Mocking Bird. Lorain, Ohio (Morrison’s hometown), still struggled at the end of the depression, when money and jobs were scarce. In contrast to Lee’s novel though, it’s main protagonists the MacTeer and Breedlove families are poor and black and are trying to survive in any way they can.
While Scout and Jem’s father Atticus has a good job and they live in a nice house, Frieda and Claudia MacTeer and their friend Pecola Breedlove, the central characters in The Bluest Eye, live somewhat differently. Claudia describes their home: “Our house is old, cold, and green. At night a kerosene lamp lights one large room. The others are braced in darkness, peopled by roaches and mice. ” (The Bluest Eye, P. 5) Morrison impresses on the reader from the outset how the children were affected by their surroundings. She introduces a dark, almost menacing tone that permeates the book.
In contrast, Lee’s novel, despite also being set in a depression and featuring prejudice and gross injustice, is much lighter in mood, more sanguine in tone. Describing her town and its slow pace Scout comments: “There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people… ” (To Kill a Mocking Bird, P. 6) The narrator in each of the novels is a female, nine-year-old child, who is also a character in the book.
Morrison has chosen Claudia MacTeer, one of the witnesses to Pecola’s plight, as the first person narrator of the novel. This would have enabled her to show, from the child’s point of view, how their lives were impacted by the devaluing of their self-esteem by the harmful concept of believing the popular view of what was beautiful, and the rape of Pecola. Lee uses Scout Finch as her narrator and she too is written in the first person. This gives the reader an inside view of unfolding events in the novels, as Claudia and Scout appear to address you directly.
The children in each book are introduced in vastly different ways. Claudia is grown up and remembering back to her childhood and the nai?? ve thinking of her sister Frieda and herself. “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow”. (The Bluest Eye, P3) These opening sentences are shocking and alert the reader to the fact that a serious case of incestuous child abuse has taken place. The oppression of children is one of the themes Morrison deals with.
Claudia continues: “We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. ” (The Bluest Eye, P3) With these words the second of Morrison’s major themes was established, that of internalised racism, i. e. how a race would begin to believe the stereotypes about themselves and imagine that their fair skinned neighbours are superior to them in beauty, morality or intelligence. By indirectly calling her ‘black dirt’, Morrison was showing us what Pecola thought of herself.
In contrast to this harrowing opening to her novel, Harper Lee introduces Scout and Jem in a lighter, chatty, and informal way. Nevertheless, she does refer indirectly to a frightening experience when Bob Ewell, the father of the girl who had accused Tom Robinson of rape, physically attacked both of them. “When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. ” (To Kill a Mocking Bird, P. )
It is interesting to note that both novels begin with a memory from childhood referring to a dreadful time and show the long-term effects this can have on the lives of those involved. Pecola’s pregnancy predominates Claudia’s early childhood memories, whilst Scout remembers the time when Jem suffered a broken arm and all the connotations that brought. As the main characters in these novels are children, it is understandable that the dominant parental figure is going to be the mother and this is the case for Claudia and Frieda.
Their father is within the family circle, but is portrayed as distant from the children. Similarly, the main parental interaction with Pecola and Sammy in the Breedlove household is from Pauline Breedlove. Cholly, their father, is a dominating force in the family, but in a more menacing way and he takes little to do with the children having no example to follow himself, as his own father had abandoned his mother. The Finch family, by contrast, is led by Atticus because the children’s mother is dead. He is the lynchpin of the family and most of the children’s experiences are shaped and guided by him.
It is not clear why Lee does not include a mother figure, but certainly their black cook Calpurnia adds richness to the story and is an influential character for Scout and Jem. Just as the family hierarchies are different, the interaction between the parents and the children are as well. We learn early in The Bluest Eye the kind of relationship Claudia and Frieda have with their parents. Claudia comments that: “Adults do not talk to us – they give us directions. They issue orders without providing information.
When we trip and fall down they glance at us; if we cut or bruise ourselves, they ask us are we crazy. When we catch colds, they shake their heads in disgust at our lack of consideration. How they ask us, do you expect anybody to get anything done if you all are sick? ” (The Bluest Eye, P5/6) Is this really as cold and unfeeling as it sounds? Their parents were burdened down with worries about money for food and the basic survival of the family. This spilled over into their dealings with the girls, which was almost detached giving the children no voice.
Certainly it had a major effect on Claudia and Frieda. When Pecola takes her period while staying at the MacTeer’s house, they try to deal with it themselves instead of going to Mrs MacTeer. When Claudia gets a chest infection she says, “No-one speaks to me or asks me how I am”. When she vomits over the bed and her mother complains that she didn’t try to avoid the bedclothes, she remarks: “My mother’s anger humiliates me; her words chafe my cheeks, and I am crying. I do not know that she is not angry at me, but at my sickness. I believe she despises my weakness for letting the sickness “take holt”.
By and by I will not get sick; I will refuse to. But for now I am crying. ” (The Bluest Eye, P7) In retrospect Claudia as narrator realises that whilst the experience may have been painful at the time, the care her mother gave her served to show her that she was loved and her abiding memory of that time was a positive one. “So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die. ” (The Bluest Eye, P. 7) Interestingly, when she is reminiscing she refers to her mother as ‘somebody’, with perhaps the same kind of detached affection she had been raised with.
Although their relationship with their father was distant, he reacted immediately on hearing that the lodger Mr Henry had abused Frieda. He beats her abuser up and actually shoots at him. Distressing and confusing as this experience was, (she heard someone say she was ruined but did not know what this meant, it showed Frieda that she was protected and cared for. Scout and Jem have a warmer more interactive relationship with their father. Scout tells us: “Jem and I found our father satisfactory: he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment. ” (To Kill a Mocking Bird, P. )
After reading the novel it is hard to agree that Atticus treated the children with ‘… courteous detachment’. Unlike the MacTeer parents, he talks to his children giving them a forum to air their views and build close relationships and also allaying their fears and worries when necessary. Scout and Jem would run to meet their father every night as he walked home from work and he would lift his daughter on to his shoulders and carry her home in this way. Would a ‘detached’ father allow his daughter to sit on his lap every night while he reads the paper as Atticus did?
Scout reminises: “I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory … when I crawled into his lap every night. ” (To Kill a Mocking Bird, P. 19/20) Undoubtedly the most destructive relationships from either novel are dealt with in the Breedlove family. Both parents abused their children in one form or another, be it mental cruelty or physical and, ultimately sexual abuse. They also abused each other.
The relationship between Pauline and Cholly, which began well, became a violent one. Cholly and Mrs Breedlove fought each other with a darkly brutal formalism, that was paralleled only by their lovemaking. Tacitly they had agreed not to kill each other. ” (The Bluest Eye, P. 32) The effects of this fighting left Pecola fearful and withdrawn and she prayed that she might disappear. Apart from the introduction to the book, we first meet Pecola when she is placed in the MacTeer household because her father had burned their house down and the family had nowhere to go. Pauline Breedlove thought of Pecola as an ugly child and the behaviour she demonstrated towards her was a reflection of this.
She described her thus: “A cross between a puppy and a dying man. But I knowed she was ugly. Head full of pretty hair, but Lord she was ugly. ” (The Bluest Eye, P. 97/98) The one relationship that should have nurtured Pecola, instead left her feeling insecure and unloved. She grew up believing she was unlovable and as everyone seemed to cherish blue eyed, blonde haired girls, she started to dream of having the blue eyes that would help people to love her. The damage done to her self-esteem was reinforced powerfully by an incident in Pauline Breedlove’s workplace.
Pecola had to go to the house were her mother was housekeeper to collect some washing. The daughter of that comfortable home was blonde with blue eyes and Pauline doted on her. When Pecola accidentally spilled a berry cobbler on the floor, burning her legs in the process, her mother reacted violently: “In one gallop she was on Pecola, and with the back of her hand knocked her to the floor. Pecola slid in the pie juice, one leg folding under her. Mrs Breedlove yanked her up by the arm, slapped her again, and in a voice thin with anger, abused Pecola directly… ” (The Bluest Eye, P. 84)
But perhaps the worst thing about the whole incident was that as Pecola, Frieda and Claudia walked away they could hear Pauline console and comfort the pretty little white girl. The attitude of Calpurnia, the black cook in Lee’s novel is very different from Pauline Breedlove. She has not favour them because of the colour of their skin and has no hesitation in doling out discipline to Scout and Jem when necessary, with the full trust and backing of Atticus. Harper Lee has purposefully written this character as an intelligent and self assured black woman who knows her own worth as a person.
Later in a reflective moment Pauline said she loved the children but that: “Sometimes I’d catch myself hollering at them and beating them, and I’d feel sorry for them, but I couldn’t seem to stop. ” (The Bluest Eye, P. 96) Pecola herself gives us a hint of the sexual abuse to come when she is walking home from school with Claudia, Frieda and Maureen. The latter asks her if she has ever seen a naked man. Pecola is described as ‘agitated’ and says: “Nobody’s father would be naked in front of his own daughter. Not unless he was dirty too. ” (The Bluest Eye, P. 55)
Maureen had not mentioned her father, so obviously something had been happening at home that is only hinted at. Her eventual rape by Cholly, disbelief from her mother and the resulting pregnancy and loss of the baby are what tip Pecola over the edge into madness. She goes to see a local ‘healer’ and requests blue eyes and she believes him when he tells her that her wish has been granted. Her only resistance to the abuse she has suffered has been to withdraw from a terrifying world into one of her own making. The very adults who should have been her protectors failed this poor, powerless little girl in every respect.
To get her message across, Morrison has taken Pecola’s story to an extreme conclusion. One of the interesting contrasts between the novels is that The Bluest Eye is notable for its complete absence of humour, fun and play in its main characters. This absence of the most basic of childhood pleasures is stark. No doubt this was a deliberate omission on the part of Morrison to add to the tragic mood of the book. The elements of play are mentioned, for example, at Christmas Claudia describes getting a doll. However, this is used to show how subtly the standard of beauty was impressed onto the minds of black children from very young.
All the dolls were white and had blue eyes. Claudia was able to resist this indoctrination but other children, like Pecola, obviously could not. The result is that the novel could not be termed as an easy read and is quite depressing. On the contrary, Harper Lee paints a very ‘normal’ picture of childhood. Scout, Jem and their friend Dill are regularly described as acting out characters from books they have read, playing football or just reading. The elements of play are mentioned in the novel too, Jem buys a twirling baton for Scout and a miniature steam engine for himself.
The language used by the characters in the books is another major difference. Claudia, Frieda and Pecola speak in dialect, which reinforces their colour and to a certain extent their poverty. By contrast Scout and Jem are very literate children whose diction is very precise, having being brought up on proper and concise language from babies. “Jem and I were accustomed to our father’s last-will-and-testament diction, and we were at all times free to interrupt Atticus for a translation when it was beyond our understanding. ” (To Kill a Mocking Bird, P. 35)
A point to note is that it is easier for Atticus to place importance on a good standard of education than it is for the MacTeers or the Breedloves, because he has been able to provide Scout and Jem their basic needs. ) One of the most notable characters in terms of diction in Lee’s novel is Calpurnia. She is atypical of the black person in both books. Lee does not write her in dialect until she visits her home church, where she reverts to it. This puzzles Scout and Jem and they quiz her on this. Her answer is illuminating: “Suppose you and Scout talked coloured-folks’ talk at home – it’d be out of place, wouldn’t it?
Now what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church, and with my neighbours? They’d think I was puttin’ on airs to beat Moses. ” (To Kill a Mocking Bird, P. 139) Lee is making the point that speaking in dialect does not mean that a black person is less intelligent. Calpurnia chooses how to speak to suit the company she is with. Another notable difference in the novels is the influence that other adults have on the children. The children of Morrison’s book have no real verbal interaction with any adult other than their own parents and as we have already seen, these are scant indeed.
Other adults are mentioned, for example the shopkeeper who sells Pecola sweets and the mother of a boy from her school, but their attitudes only serve to denigrate this little girl. Lee’s novel has incorporated a rich variety of adult life that regularly interact with Scout and Jem, from Mrs Dubose, the terminally ill old woman to Miss Maudie the neighbour who serves as a confidant to Scout. These all, in their own way, serve to develop the thinking and morality of the children. The absence of this role in The Bluest Eye seems to emphasise the vulnerability and powerlessness in its characters.
The novels The Bluest Eye and To Kill a Mocking Bird could be described as social novels as they deal with issues, which were exceedingly relevant to what was happening in society as a whole, and both authors wanted to comment on that. They also dealt with the more vulnerable in society, the children. Toni Morrison tells us in the Afterword to the book that her aim was to address the issue of racial self-loathing and she chose the weakest member of society, a little black girl, to portray this.
She is successful at achieving her aim, writing a gritty and disturbing story, which is depressingly sad to read and very tragic, but extremely powerful because of that. She doesn’t present a balanced view of childhood, i. e. her lack of ‘play’ is almost total in the book, but I believe she does this deliberately in order to get her stark message across. In contrast, Harper Lee’s novel tells a different story, from a white perspective and easier circumstances. She portrays childhood in a more balanced, and easy to read way.
The character of the narrator Scout is infused with wit and humour and she paints pictures of lazy summer days at play, while still managing to deal with the rape trial and its aftermath. Her characters develop throughout the novel by a series of moralistic encounters with neighbours and family, until by the end of the novel Scout realises that they have learnt so much and remarks: “As I made my way home, I though Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra. ” (To Kill a Mocking Bird, P308) Lee certainly gets her point across but does so in a gentler, less harrowing way.