The Grand Inquisitor in The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye contains a number of similarities to Dostoevsky’s work, especially his The Brothers Karamazov. In Morrison’s work, a sense of polyphony resonates throughout the novel. In many instances, the author allows the narration to move from the vantage point of Claudia to that of a disembodied voice that closely resembles different characters within the work. Although it remains the voice of Claudia, the narration allows for the expression of the memories and thoughts of characters such as Cholly and Geraldine in a manner so distinctly their own that the narrative seems theirs, and not Claudia’s memories of childhood. Despite the undeniable presence and influence of Dostoevsky’s polyphonic style in The Bluest Eye, it seems that another aspect of The Brothers Karamazov plays a more pivotal role in Morrison’s work: the idea of communal guilt.
The theme of communal guilt manifests itself in a number of ways in Dostoevsky’s novel. The most obvious involves a situation such as Dmitri’s, where he comes to understand and accept his responsibility in the guilt of others; he understands that the Wee One cries, in part, because of him. A similar situation applies to Alyosha, except here, the emphasis is on the guilt of the seemingly guiltless. Alyosha understands his guilt—most of which stems from being a Karamazov—and, because of his understanding, he enters the monastery. The difficulty, however, lies in others’ discovery that Alyosha, too, shares in the communal guilt. He cannot do enough to save those around him, and in his imperfection lies his guilt. While these two serve as fine examples, the most subtle, and yet most potent illustration of communal guilt exists in the story of the Grand Inquisitor.
In the story told by Ivan, the Grand Inquisitor’s monologue to Christ reveals his acceptance of communal guilt. His awareness of the guilt of all prompts him to try to alleviate the guilt of the masses by placing it squarely on the shoulders of the clergy and the Church. By taking away people’s unwanted freedom, he removes their guilt and responsibility, thus allowing them happiness. This translates quite well in Morrison’s novel on a number of occasions, most notably in the letter to God from Soaphead Church.
After his conversation with Pecola, after hearing her request for blue eyes, Soaphead Church does two things: he has Pecola poison Bob the dog, and then he sits down to write. In his letter, Soaphead Church addresses God, and more specifically, he addresses what he perceives to be God’s shortcomings. The visible parallels to the Grand Inquisitor become evident as Soaphead Church begins his letter in much the same way the Grand Inquisitor begins his speech to Christ: he begins with mild criticism and a confession of his own wrongdoing. The mild criticism later blossoms into a condemnation of God’s methods for dealing with the people he has created, but the confession seems to be a means by which Soaphead Church distances himself from God. Just as the Grand Inquisitor eventually divulges that he and the Church have been working against Christ, in league with Satan, for the benefit of humanity, Soaphead Church writes how when he fondled the little girls, he was acting kindly: “Do you know that when I touched their sturdy little tits and bit them—just a little—I felt I was being friendly” (p. 181)? He goes on to argue that he did no real harm, and that no “nastiness” was involved, but even if he did hurt people in the past, at least he would someday die, and his guilt would end. Now, his true criticism of God begins.
Did you forget? Did you forget about the children? Yes. You forgot. You let them go wanting, sit on road shoulders, crying next to their dead mothers. I’ve seen them charred, lame, halt. You forgot, Lord. You forgot how and when to be God. (p. 181)
It seems that, like Ivan, while Soaphead Church accepts the existence of God, he simply chooses not to accept God’s world. In accepting Pecola’s request, and in having her feed the dog, he assumes the responsibility of her actions. Like the Grand Inquisitor to his flock, he holds Pecola’s blue salvation behind a simple task of obedience. If she does what she his told, Soaphead Church will grant her her blue eyes.
The same sense of communal guilt approaches Cholly, but it attacks him in a different manner. He feels sadly responsible for having created a child and for not having the ability to do anything to help her. “Guilt and impotence rose in a bilious duet. What could he do for her—ever? …What could a burned-out black man say to the hunched back of his eleven-year-old daughter” (p. 161)? His physical desire for Pecola stems from this guilt, as he approaches her calf to relieve its itch. At least in this, he could do something, he could relieve this small suffering. Unfortunately, because of the way he has been raised, and now, because of who he is, he causes his daughter more suffering, instead of helping her.
In the lines before this scene, the narrative allows a more macroscopic view of Cholly’s guilt. It describes the conditions under which he was raised and it holds them, at least in part responsible for his actions, specifically toward his children. “Had he not been alone in the world since he was thirteen, …he might have felt a stable connection between himself and the children. As it was, he reacted to them, and his reactions were based on what he felt at the moment” (pp. 160-161). The notion of a more universal, societal guilt finds its voice in these lines, and, in a more distanced manner, throughout the rest of the novel. What allows these people to live in the manner in which they do? In part, society’s inability to alter the situation, or its indifference toward the situation both share the burden of these people’s plight.
The novel, therefore, conveys a truly universal sense of guilt because of the many different strata of responsibility that exist in the work. Both societal and individual, personal guilt causes the strife found in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Individuals come to the realization that they play a part in the suffering of others, and in the extreme case, one man tries to shoulder the burden of God in order to help a little girl.