Saturday, July 9, 2011

Is There More to Maureen Peal?

I have always loved Toni Morrison's classic novel The Bluest Eye.  It provides a brilliant glimpse into the world of Black American womanhood in the early 1940s, showing how race and class intersect.  My only regret is that this great work has never come to life on the big screen, unlike Alice Walker's The Color Purple.  Like many people familiar with The Bluest Eye, I empathize with its protagonist, young Pecola Breedlove.  Her story is ultimately one of tragedy and the destruction of innocence.  However, there is one other character whom I believe is noteworthy.  Her name is Maureen Peal.  With all due respect to the author, I have always felt that Maureen is somewhat one-dimensional.  She is never fully explored and, after one chapter, is never mentioned again.  I often wonder, is there more to Maureen?  She is first introduced in The Bluest Eye as the popular new girl from a wealthy family, with light skin and braids described as "lynch ropes" hanging down her back.   Maureen is symbolic of colorism, the conflict between light-skinned Blacks and those of a darker hue.  She befriends Pecola for a short time, only to dismiss her later as being "black and ugly" during an argument.   It is clear that both Pecola Breedlove and Maureen Peal have something in common-they have both internalized Eurocentric beauty ideals.

Image Credit:  IKO (Fotolia)

Outwardly, they seem to be very different characters.  Pecola is dark-skinned, poor, and considered ugly.  Maureen is obviously of mixed race and considered beautiful.  But the two girls share the same oppressed mentality from opposite ends of the color spectrum.  Maureen feels a sense of smug superiority because of her fair, creamy skin and long flowing hair but there is little insight into who she is beyond that.   This is my only criticism of The Bluest Eye, which is, in my opinion, a true literary masterpiece.   Maureen is portrayed as an obnoxious girl with no redeeming qualities besides her brief kindness to Pecola, and even that is lost through the cruelty of her final words.  I would have liked to see Maureen develop more as a character, shattering the stereotype of the "uppity" light-skinned girl.  Being a woman of mixed race, I have personally experienced varying degrees of colorism myself.  As readers, we are only left with a hateful impression of Maureen, when it would have been satisfying to see her become a true friend to Pecola despite their differences.  After all, Maureen may be relatively privileged, but she is also a victim of the racist society around her, just not in the same way as Pecola.

She is not accepted for what she is.  Rather, she is accepted because of what she is not-that is, she is not like Pecola.   Her Caucasian blood and near-white appearance elevate her to the status of a princess in the minds of those who would just as soon ridicule her if she were darker.  She is blissfully unaware that her appearance is the ticket to all of the benefits she receives in life.  If she were like Pecola, her outlook would be much different.   It can also be argued that for all of the pain and torment Pecola endures, she is filled with more beauty than Maureen can ever dream of.   In the absence of privilege and physical beauty based on white standards, Pecola has constructed a rich inner world in which she attempts to find beauty in the smallest things.   Unfortunately, her imagination descends into madness in the end.

Perhaps one can say that Morrison created Maureen Peal as an empty, one-dimensional character to reflect the superficial society in which we live.   I prefer to view Maureen as a character who is frequently misunderstood.  Every time I read The Bluest Eye, I come away with a sense of understanding all the characters except Maureen.  She is a conundrum because she is both cruel and kind to those darker than herself.  Who is Maureen Peal?  The answer seems to lie in one's individual perspective.  The Bluest Eye contains something for everyone, including people who have little understanding of what it means to be a woman of color in America.

Who is Maureen Peal and what does she represent to you?   Please share your thoughts!

If you haven't had the chance to read other works by Morrison, I highly recommend you check out some of her lesser known works including Jazz, Sula, and Tar Baby among others.

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