by Mikaela Karlsson, VI Form
Loving pets is human nature. Pets love unconditionally and make someone feel needed, as these domesticated, helpless animals are unable to survive without the care of humans. However, according to society, animals are not meant to take the place of a child in one’s heart and household. A mother’s love is supposed to be unequaled and unconditional, and an animal challenging this law of nature often results in psychological repercussions and an emotional response from the child. Geraldine’s love for her cat in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is similar toChantal’s mother’s love for her rabbit in Jessica Penzias’ “Death By Oboe,” and animals are abused in both stories as a result of jealousy and redirection of hatred.
Geraldine is a cold-hearted, middle class African-American woman who focuses her efforts on maintaining an immaculate and orderly household; she focuses all of her affections upon her cat. The cat occupies the full capacity of her adoration, and her only son, Junior, often feels neglected as a result. Her cold-heartedness makes it difficult for her to love, but “Occasionally some living thing will engage her affections. A cat, perhaps, who will love her order, precision, and constancy; who will be as clean and quiet as she is…The cat will always know that he is first in her affections. Even after she bears a child” (Morrison 85-86). Geraldine’s propensity to love the cat more than her son comes from her obsession with cleanliness, as kids are messy in many aspects of life. She addresses her son’s physical needs of comfort and satiety, so that he never cries, but she does not engage Junior emotionally, as the emotional aspect of having children is messy and to coo at her child would feel disorderly to her. The cat is unconditional in its love and is appreciative of her affections and efforts as it demonstrates with every purr. The cat lacks many flaws that are often so obvious in humans, and the cat is unable to see these flaws in humanity.
Junior manifests his neglect and hatred of his mother through the constant torture and abuse of the cat. Junior is well aware of the difference in his mother’s affection between himself and the cat, as it is made clear by her emotional disconnect with her son: “Geraldine did not talk to him, coo to him, or indulge him in kissing bouts, but she saw that every other desire was fulfilled. It was not long before the child discovered the difference in his mother’s behavior to himself and the cat. And as he grew older, he learned how to direct his hatred of his mother to the cat” (Morrison 86). Junior’s sadism is a direct result of his emotional neglect throughout his childhood. The torture of the cat that robbed him of his mother’s love assuages the pain of his neglect and hatred of his mother. His ability to redirect his hatred through the abuse of the cat keeps him sane, despite the insanity of his egregious treatment of the animal.
In “Death By Oboe,” Chantal’s mother loves her rabbit much like Geraldine loves her cat. Like Geraldine, Chantal’s mother likes cleanliness and whiteness, which are two things that thematically go together in The Bluest Eye. Chantal’s house is full of white furniture, carpets, and drapes that match her mother’s porcelain figurine collection, and “the corresponding hue of the rabbit’s fur caught the attention of Chantal’s mother one day at a pet store in the center of town. She had scooped up the rabbit and pampered him ever since. But jealousy over her mother’s preoccupation with the rabbit did not inspire Chantal to break into a grin; it was the fact that the cat belonged to John Malachuck” (Penzias 2). Chantal’s mother’s desire to keep a collection of porcelain figures that are just the right size and her need to have a pet at all times demonstrate that she is perpetually trying to fill a void in her life that cannot be met by her daughter. Her collection will never be complete, and she will always buy another pet once her existing one dies because she will always strive for that pristine image of cleanliness, purity, and order. While the story doesn’t explicitly state that Chantal feels neglected by her mother, the mentioning of her “jealousy over her mother’s preoccupation with the rabbit” is enough to suggest that she indeed feels neglected. The mother’s preference for the rabbit is evident in her reaction to its death: “Her mother’s reaction to her rabbit’s death had been no less extreme than if she had lost a child. Chantal watched as her mother lamented the death of her would-be sibling…In her acute state of hysterics, she did not overtly scold Chantal but merely disregarded her. Her mother decided to leave Chantal at home while she immediately drove to the center of town to buy a new pet” (Penzias 4-5).
Like in The Bluest Eye, the mother in this story shows more affection for her pet than for her child, and the child suffers emotionally. Chantal is often disregarded by her cold mother, who is one to return her slightly disproportionate porcelain gifts and cut up her old favorite dress, and exiled to her room to practice playing the oboe. Her mother’s neglect and Chantal’s resulting jealousy have sadistic effects on Chantal as well, as she grins with the death of the rabbit and redirects her anger towards the Malachuck cat. She is angered by John’s unapologetic reaction to the death of her rabbit and heartbroken by her crush’s insincerity, which leads to her killing his cat in revenge. While she didn’t abuse the pet that occupied her mother’s affections, she was not especially saddened by the pet’s death and fatally injured an animal out of redirected feelings of anger and jealousy, like Junior in The Bluest Eye.
A mother’s emotional neglect of her child and her proclivity for pets have lasting psychological effects. A mother is supposed to love her child unconditionally, and a mother’s love for her child should be unlike that of any other. Should a child feel replaced by a pet, fuming jealousy can often result, and this jealousy is manifested by violence and sadism in The Bluest Eye and “Death By Oboe.” It is human nature to love pets, as they lack human flaws and are unable to see the flaws in humans. It is only natural for a child to want to be loved by their mother, as is human tendency to redirect feelings of rage and envy.
Mikaela Karlsson is a VI Former from Framingham, Massachusetts, and she lives in Thayer House. She runs cross-country, plays ice hockey, and is an All-American in lacrosse.