- Troubling Survivorism in The Bluest Eye
This essay takes as its central concern the binary opposition between survival and victimization in order to problematize the very notion of survival as it has been constructed ideologically in the highly individualistic culture of the United States; that is, as the positive assertion of personal agency that allows one to overcome the passivity associated with victimhood. Drawing from Marilyn Nissim-Sabat's theorization of the victim-survivor binary and Elias Canetti's definition of the survivor, I propose survivorism as an ideology centered around claiming the identity of survivor through the denial of one's own vulnerability and discuss Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970) as a novel that, despite Morrison's hopes for it, participates in two of survivorism's most destructive aspects, as I identify them: the reliance on a sacrificial victim in order to assert one's survival and the inevitability of victim-blaming in order to believe in the myth of "deserved" suffering (and thus escape the guilt otherwise brought on by inaction against another's suffering). By appearing to suggest that the black family is the ultimate condition that enables or impedes the survival of black children (rather than larger structural conditions related to race and class divisions), The Bluest Eye perpetuates many of the myths about black families in circulation at the time of its publication and thus participates in the "blaming the victim" ideology that, William Ryan argues, has long allowed middle-class white America to shift its own guilt for the suffering of poor African Americans onto the victims themselves. Although the novel's plot revolves around the victimization of eleven-year-old Pecola, by offering narrator Claudia as an antithesis to Pecola who is able, at an even younger age than Pecola, to assert agency and establish subjecthood; by defining "survival" according to these terms; and by giving Claudia a voice that is apparently only able to develop as a result of Pecola's silence, The Bluest Eye reinforces survivorism.
While critical responses to the novel have engaged extensively with Pecola's victimization and scapegoating, they tend to celebrate Claudia's survival as evidence that resistance is possible while failing to probe the significant losses that survivorism (or the need to define oneself by triumph) entails for Claudia and the various other characters whose survival we witness in The Bluest Eye. [End Page 132] Speaking more generally, readings of US texts that feature child protagonists, particularly poor, ethnically marked children, evidence a compulsive urge to interpret the experiences of these children within the context of redemptive survival. These readings are directed by "the American way of seeing the world, according to which people are meant to overcome adversity and not cling endlessly to their sorrows" (Rosenfeld 123). Whether the topic is Sandra Cisneros's Esperanza from The House on Mango Street (1984), Sherman Alexie's Junior from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Frank McCourt's childhood self from Angela's Ashes (1996), or Jesmyn Ward's Esch from Salvage the Bones (2011)—to name a few best-selling, highly prized, and frequently taught examples—the response to these young characters overwhelmingly praises their individual resilience and strength in a way that undermines our capacity to fully respond, either affectively or politically, to the suffering of less triumphant members of their communities. A critical awareness of survivorism as an inherited, pervasive ideology ("a set of ideas and concepts deriving from systematically motivated, but unintended, distortions of reality" [Ryan 11]) helps the reader learn to honor the one who survives without blaming, depersonifying, or dishonoring the one who does not.
That Pecola of The Bluest Eye does not "survive" is not a controversial interpretation of the novel's events; Morrison herself, in a foreword written in 1993, refers to Pecola's "collapse," "destruction," and "psychological murder" (x). Morrison also states explicitly that "the extremity of Pecola's case stemmed largely from a crippled and crippling family—unlike the average black family's and unlike the narrator's" (xi-xii). Given that Morrison's expressed hope for the novel was that it would "lead readers … into an...