Reading, The Bluest Eye: Mrs. MacTeer Rants!
It is obvious that the MacTeers are in need of money. First, it is 1941. Second, Claudia and Fredia covet Rosemary’s buttered bread. Mrs. MacTeer rants about how much milk Pecola consumes. Last, the MacTeers take in Mr. Henry as a boarder.
I must admit my first thoughts about Mrs. MacTeer as she passive-aggressively rants about Pecola were cynical but soon changed as I realized her need for a relief is never actualized.
….I don’t know what I’m suppose to be running her, a charity ward, I guess. Time for me to get out of the giving line and get in the getting line. I guess I aint supposed to have nothing. I’m supposed to end up in the poorhouse. Look like nothing I do is going to keep me out of there. Folks just spend all their time trying to figure out ways to send me to the poorhouse. I got about as much business with another mouth to feed as a cat has with side pockets. As if I don’t have trouble enough trying to feed my own and keep out of the poorhouse, now I got something else in here that’s just going to drink me on in there. Well, naw, she ain’t. Not long as I got strength in my body and a tongue in my head. There’s a limit to everything. I ain’t got nothing to just throw away. Don’t nobody need three quarts of milk. Henry Ford don’t need three quarts of milk. That’s just downright sinful. I’m willing to do what I can for folks. Can’t nobody say I ain’t. But this has got to stop, and I’m just the one to stop it. Bible say watch as well as pray. Folks just dump they children off on yo and go on ’bout they business. Ain’t nobody even peeped in here to see whether that child has a loaf of bread. Look like they would just peep in to see whether I had a loaf of bread to give her. But naw. That thought don’t cross they mind. That old trifling Cholly been out of jail two whole days and an’t been here yet to see if his own child was ‘live or dead. She would be dead for all he know. And that mama neither. What kind of something is that?
Mrs. MacTeer’s rant opens a lot of possible wounds while simultaneously creating some new ones. Her two daughters and Pecola can hear this rant. It is a method my mother used and I loathed her for it. Especially because when I got older I used to confront her directly and she would deny that she was talking about me. Then when I would point out how it was impossible for her to be talking about anyone else she would either get angry (which meant I was forced into silence) or change the subject. Incidentally, I am currently reading Doris Lessing’s autobiography Under My Skin and she points out something similar about mothers and rants that their children can hear.
I used that aspect of my mother which she herself described as ‘I have sacrificed myself for my children.’ Women in those days felt no inhibitions about saying this: most are too psychologically sophisticated now. She was the frustrated complaining woman I first met as my mother, but who has often appeared in my life, sometimes as a friend. She talks all the time about what a burden her children are to her, how they take it out of her, how much she is unfulfilled and unappreciated, how no one but a mother knows how much she has to give of herself to ungrateful children who soak up her precious talents and juices like so many avid sponges.
The point is, this kind of talk goes on in front of the children, as if they were not present, and cannot hear how she tells the world what a burden her children are, what a disappointment, how they drain her life from her. There is no need to look for memories of ‘abuse’, cruelty and the rest. [..] I do not believe that even robust and insensitive children remain unaffected by this assault on their very existence.
Then I think how Pecola may possibly serve as a relief valve for Mrs. MacTeer. An added bonus to charity, getting one’s own charity from an act of charity. What is Mrs. MacTeer’s relief value in all of this? The time is the Great Depression. She is black. Her family is black which would mean whatever opportunities or rations are offered to whites are offered less to blacks. In addition to this burden, she is a wife and mother. We hear very little to almost nothing of Mr. MacTeer.
Certainly if the girls were “playing nasty”, they did not deserve the switch. And it is in Mrs. MacTeer’s reaction that we see how she is conflicted by femaleness. Femaleness provokes both repulsion and compassion. When Mrs. MacTeer believes the girls are “playing nasty,” a euphemism that means exploring their curiosity concerning their sexuality/vagina, she is repulsed. So much so that she says to them that she would rather raise pigs. “‘What you all doing? Oh. Uh-huh. Playing nasty, huh?’” She reached into the bushes and pulled off a switch. ‘“I’d rather raise pigs than some nasty girls. Least I can slaughter them!’” It is as if the biggest crime of all is for girls to have an awareness of their sexuality.
However, when the crown jewel of femaleness, menstruation* is revealed, instantly, Mrs. MacTeer shows compassionate and is sorry for her harsh reaction. “Then she pulled both of them toward her, their heads against her stomach. Her eyes were sorry. ‘All right, all right. Now, stop crying. I didn’t know. Come on, now. Get on in the house. Go on home. Go home, Rosemary. The show is over.’”
At this point I am stumbling through with what point I originally wanted to make. Nevertheless, what resonates with me is the love/hate dynamic of mothers and daughters because of what seems to be a repulsion (surely brought on by social conditioning) and an innate love for oneself, the female. Mix that conflicting dynamic with an absence of a suitable relief value and a vicious cycle is perpetuated. Who bears the brunt of Mrs. MacTeer’s frustrations? The girls. How does that condition them for the future when/if they have to interact/raise/influence younger girls?
(*Please spare me the accusation that I am asserting that menstruation is the final and only definition of femaleness, thus implying that a hysterectomy or menopause excludes women-born-women from possessing femaleness. I am talking about one moment in time regarding an adult female character and three female adolescents). (Biologically speaking of course, I am in no way referencing gender).