This passage is taken from the ‘autumn’ section and occurs during the description of the MacTeer’s family from the point of view of their youngest daughter Claudia, right after she declared her hatred for Shirley Temple. During this passage, Claudia describes a childhood memory of when she received a white doll for christmas. Incapable of understanding why the doll she receives is supposed to represent true beauty because of its blue eyes and light skin and why whiteness is considered to be superior and beautiful, Claudia challenges the idea that she is given by the community and the family she is surrounded by. She describes her unability to identify with the doll because its physical appearance is so different from hers and the way she strongly wants to understand why theses dolls represent an ideal of beauty even the black community has to embrace.
Thanks to a description seen through the eyes of Claudia and to various litterary techniques, Toni Morrison brings the character to life and helps us understand the difficulty of growing up and finding an identity under the pressure of beauty standards and internalized racism. Throughout this passage, the author strongly highlights the themes of beauty and internalized racism in the black community and especially in the lives of black girls and women and creates a strong contrast between two important movements in the extract, the idea of society which is seen trough the influence the society has on characters and through what an object is able to convey, opposed to the idea of individuality.
First of all, the passage is written by a first person narrator and is described through the eyes of Claudia as an adult which is very interesting because it gives the story she tells a sense of maturity and shows a reflection on past events that is very adultlike. Claudia as an adult uses her childhood memories to denounce internalized racism and its effects on the black community’s lives and the fact that reflection is present in this extract pushes the reader to believe Claudia. Because she is an adult who has been able to reflect on past events, the reader knows that what she describes aren’t only chilhood memories that are very spontaneous and emphasized by childlike naivety.
The use of first person narrative helps us to understand a particular aspect of the character as the reader is introduced to his thoughts, feelings and opinions. Through the use of first person narrative, the reader learns that Claudia is different from her society and from her family thanks to the descriptions of her feelings towards the doll, which are given trough her eyes. At one point in the extract, Claudia says ‘ I learned quickly however what I was expected to do with the doll’ which shows that it is the adult Claudia speaking and that although during the moment she described she did not understand, as an adult she now does. Now that she has become and adult, she is trying to denounce internalized racism by showing that even though children do not understand what it is and are not even aware of its existence, they are victims of it. Although the reader also knows what internalized racism is, the fact that the first person narrative directly introduces him into Claudia’s thoughts as a child pushes him to question and try to understand the values that are shared by the black society as well.
When Claudia receives the doll for chistmas, she immediately sees the importance the doll has for the society through the reaction of her family. For her parents, which are used by Toni Morrison to represent the values and ideas of the black community, Claudia should be found of her present because the doll represents what they believe beauty is. This passage creates a strong contrast between society and individuality and is very important to understand the society in which the characters live. Toni Morrison uses the past tense to show it is a flashback told by the adult Claudia who is making a reflection on the society that raised her. When he parents give her the doll, Claudia describes the sounds they make as ‘clucking’ sound which gives the impression that her parents are behaving like children when she does not, because she immediately knows that she is going to have to pretend she likes her present because she is supposed to.
There is a real gap between Claudia and her parents who are stongly influenced by the society, therefore between Claudia and her society which is emphasized by the contrast between the words ‘I’ and ‘they’ or ‘adults’ and by the fact that parenthood seems very far from Claudia wich is shown when she says ‘I had no interest in babies or the concept of motherhood’. The reader is immediately aware that Claudia’s parents give her this particular gift because they think it is what she truly desires, which shows that they share the exact same values as many others of their community and that they want to giver their daughter those values. They, as members of this society are absolutely fascinated by those dolls and the listing ‘adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs’ emphasizes the universalization of the fascination for these white dolls. As the reader feels bombarded by very numerous words, it shows how the society itself is attacked with values and standards of beauty that they end up sharing as well because of their omnipresence. Futhermore, the fact that Claudia quotes what her parents said with the exact same words (‘’ ‘here’ they said ‘this is beautiful , and if you are ‘worthy’ you maye have it’ ‘’) shows that it is a memory that is very clear in her mind and that she probably still remembers it because she was unable to understand it and interpretate it as a child.
White dolls are a symbol of beauty, values and standards that a whole society shares. They represent the society’s preference for white little girls, which is seen throughout the book, mainly thanks to Pauline Breedlove or the conversation about Shirley Temple. At some point in the novel, the reader cleary sees that Pauline Breedlove would rather take care of a little white girl than take care of her own daughter Pecola which emphasizes the idea that there is a real admiration towards white girls. Also, when Claudia, Pecola and Frieda talk about Shirley Temple, Claudia explains that she feels hatred toward her because she is the one who gets the attention of Bojangles, a man from the black community, because she is white. As well as white little girls, dolls represent beauty which is very important in a society where appearances are essential. Black little girl are ‘supposed’ and ‘expected’ to find the dolls beautiful only because the society decided that they represent beauty.
Toni Morrison uses Claudia to denounce internalized racism by allowing her to have her own individuality and question the values that her society shares. Although Claudia should enjoy playing with dolls because of her young age, the author shows the reader that she actually is a victim of racism which leads her to frustration. Claudia does not understand the fascination everyone shares for this doll which pushes ther to have a very negative reaction towards her gift. Her reaction is emphasized by the lexical field of resistance and rejection (‘uncomfortable’, ‘no interest’, ‘irritated’) which shows she has ideas that are totally different from her parents and the society because she hates what everyone else is found of. She even says that although the doll should have bring her ‘great pleasure’ it actually did ‘the opposite’, emphasizing her opposition to values that the society dictates. Because she only focuses on the physical appearance of the doll when she describes it as having ‘blue eyes’, ‘yellow hair’ and being ‘pink skinned’, listing the stereotypes of white beauty, we can see that she attempts to understand why the doll represents beauty. This is why she starts a quest to find out the beauty of the doll, emphasized by the verbs ‘to see’, to ‘discover’ and ‘to find’.
She begins to dismember the doll because she is curious but as she does not find beauty anywhere, a sense of frustration grows, frustration that will turn into cruelty. This feeling of cruelty creates a strong contrast between her and the society which clearly denounces racism : as a child, she is supposed to be innoncent but her violence, the result of internalized racism, shocks the reader. The passage from questioning to frustration and from frustration to cruelty is illustrated by a lexical field that becomes more violent : ‘ break off, twisted, cracked the back, splitting, dying’. The very violent simile ‘ dying lamb’ used to describe the sound of the doll can be seen as biblical reference. The lamb is a symbol of sacrifice in different religions which gives the reader the impression that the doll is sacrificed in order for her to understand, putting the doll in the situation of a victim and reinforcing Claudia’s violence. At the end of her violent behaviour, Claudia is still unable to find the beauty she has been looking for and ends up finding a ‘mere metal roundess’, symbol of repetition and the fact that her quest does not lead anywhere. This emphasizes the idea that beauty is something that has been decided by the society, something that you can see if you share the society’s values. Finally, her oppostion to white beauty standards is also seen trough her description of raggedy ann dolls that everyone loves. She gives her description connotation that are generally not associated with beauty, with the words ‘round moronic eyes’ and the metaphor ‘pancake face’.
Thanks to Claudia and a first person narration, Toni Morrison is able to denounce internalized racism in this extract of the novel. Through the description of society as being opposed to Claudia because they convey different values and ideas, the author shows two opposite point of view on beauty and whiteness. The point of view that is given by the society and that the majority of the people adopt and the point of view of a victim of internalized racism that tries to understand what are the sources of it. The extract is very significant in the novel because it introduces the important aspects of Claudia’s personnality, a very important character in the book as she is one of the main narrator of the story, meaning that we see an important part of the story through her eyes.