The theme of self versus other was pervasive throughout both Julio Cortazar’s “Axolotl” and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. In comparison, both protagonists have poor, confused concepts of self, and both measure themselves against unusual norms, which they cannot really compete with, and thus, set themselves up for a certain type of non-orthodox identification.
Ultimately, it could be argued, they really are not able to be true to themselves, in any healthy way. Thus, they are attempting to identify with “others” who are seen in their respective worlds, as being more dissimilar. However, there are differences in how both the characters acquire this, and the varying narrative techniques of the two authors help in this respect.
First, differences in author technique impact the themes in both stories. Toni Morrison has written a detailed novel, told from another’s viewpoint. Morrison thus delves further, in more detail, into the thought processes, of both her main character and others in the tale.
However, in contrast,. “Axolotl” is a short story by Cortazar and as such, doesn’t provide such variety in thought and action by the main character. As the saga is also recounted in the third person, although a very dramatic event, it’s thereby presented in a more straight forward factor, although also more mystical.
First, Pecola Breedlove, is never even loved by her own parents. This young girl’s life in 1940’s Ohio is told through the eyes of another young, black girl named Claudia. It quickly becomes clear to the narrator that Pecola’s circumstances are worse than her own, in white America. For the
Breedlove family is poorer, and Pauline, mother of Pecola, is most unkind to her own family as they do not compare favorably with the white family for whom Pauline works as a maid.
In addition, Pecola’s father is neither supportive nor caring, really, although she never gives up trying to win his affections.. In fact, he is a drunkard, and eventually rapes his own daughter. Pecola actually gives birth to his child, who dies soon after birth. Nevertheless, Pecola had always tried to create identity and seek love from Cholly, her father, despite the futility there. She says, “We loved him. Even after what came later, there was no bitterness in our memory of him.” (Morrison 16)
Next, it becomes apparent that Pecola thinks that if she could only be beautiful, she would have a better life. Like her mother, Pecola longs to be pretty, although her mother is seen to be quite attractive, for a black woman. In order to acquire the desired pulchritude, Pecola actually wishes for blue eyes, like some other whites, and like the popular child star, Shirley Temple.
Then, following attendance at the local Soaphead Church, a preacher there tells the young girl he has the power to turn her eyes blue. Pecola then actually begins to think that this has happened, and now she will be loved by all, because of it. However, because she experiences no caring from neither family nor schoolmates, and she is lied to, regarding her eye color, she experiences a mental breakdown. She has truly become a victim of her very own world, unlike Claudia, who is still loved by her family, despite her race.
As Pecola seeks beauty, identity and love, she finds it in a different form, upon viewing dandelions, and then finding herself an identity as an angry person. As Pecola attempts to find beauty in her perceived ugly world, she also finds disappointment here. She walks down the street and finds a clump of dandelions, which she initially finds lovely.
She speaks, fondly. “Dandelions”. (Morrison 50) However, since they fail to look at her and don’t return her affection, the girl is then disappointed and bitter. She thinks, ‘They are ugly. They are weeds.” (Morrison 50) As she is dwelling on these feelings
of distress, she trips herself on the sidewalk. Her rage is now fierce. Toni Morrison describes how Pecola finds self-validity in this ire. The author writes that Pecola is now feeling that “. . .There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth.” (Morrison 50) Hence, the only shred of self identity she is able to claim for herself now, is one of a sad and destructive anger.
Thus, a true theme of perception and isolation is present in The Bluest Eye. One who is not loved perceives this and cannot return love to others. This is her identity, or lack of it, which began with her very parents’ perception and lack of caring for her. This type of family neglect is not brought out in Julio Cortazar’s tale of “Axolotl”.
Next, Julio Cortazar’s short story “Axolotl”, is told by a man who has been turned into an axolotl, a type of salamander, after spending much time looking at axolotls in an aquarium. There is no mention of a dearth of love from others as with Pecola, but he too, as a Latino, is part of a minority, as is Morrison’s young girl. Living in Paris, he may feel somewhat of an outcast, as Pecola felt, in her locale.
However, Pecola does not identify herself really with any other human or being, yet the unnamed man in Cortazar’s short story makes this connection. He sees the salamanders as living beings, just as he is. So, then he suddenly and fantastically finds himself looking out of the glass at himself, through the eyes of a lizard. Yet he doesn’t completely break down, as Pecola did, although it can be argued that he possibly had a break with reality. However, he is still feeling better about things, unlike Pecola, through this association.
Even as an axolotl, the man still observes the being he was, and hopes the human will pen a tale of the individual who becomes an axolotl. In contrast to Pecola’s story, the man feels some communication and unity. However, like the Morrison tale, Cortazar wants his audience to comprehend that reality is truly experienced through another’s eyes, to some degree.
Self identity and identification with others are the story’s primary emphasis. Thus, the man as observer notes initially that he self-identifies with the larvae, on his first look at the aquarium. He actually felt a secret connection, although he couldn’t come up with a rational explanation for this.
He does note that the animals possess hands, and some other features, as humans do, though not nearly as evolved. Here, one could wonder whether or not, if perhaps, as a Modern Latin American man, he feels that his identity is lacking, is lost, and is not authentic, just as the character in the Morrison story.
Yet, the reader is left not sure whether or not the unbelievable has occurred. So, is he now ensconced within the body of the axolotl? Has he turned into the animal, or have they merged? He tries to figure this out, and states the following:
those eyes of gold without iris, without pupil. I saw my
face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the
tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my
face drew back and I understood. (Cortazar 8)
Lastly, the visitor indicates that he has less future need now, to return as often to the aquarium, because of this inexplicable relationship. He takes comfort in the idea that maybe the “man” will tell their stories. He actually believes that they have communicated with one another.
And in this final solitude to which he no longer
comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is
going to write a story about us, that, believing he’s
making up a story, he’s going to write all this about
axolotls. (Cortazar 9)
Therefore, it should be clear to readers that the theme of self versus other was indeed prevalent in both Julio Cortazar’s “Axolotl” and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. For since both characters are confused regarding their own identifies, and they both relate to impossible, seeming implausible norms, they may be ensuring that their individual self identities will not be anything usual or normal.
Some may see Pecola as being more tragic in this instance. However, surely, they are not really able to grasp a true and healthy reality. Both individuals have self identified with beings and worlds very unlike themselves and their own realities. This sometimes actually happens, and sometimes it’s different in each individual.
Nevertheless, the reading of these two works reminds the reader how truly vital to human happiness are the abilities to both self-identify and to also relate to others, and how they may or may not be interrelated with one another. Thus, both authors have effectively presented through their characters, the need for humans to focus on the search for identity of and with self and others..
Cortazar, Julio. Blow-Up and Other Stories. New York: Pantheon, 1967.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Random House, 1970.