Elihue Micah Whitcomb, known as Soaphead Church, is nauseated by the sickly old dog, just as he is nauseated by most people. Yet he is comfortable with the realization that he is a misanthrope, for he realized his disdain for people at an early age. Paradoxically, however, he has dabbled in professions that have placed him squarely in their midst. For a time, he was an Anglican priest, then a social caseworker, and now he is a “Reader, Advisor, and Interpreter of Dreams,” a career choice that promises him a little money while guaranteeing him a minimal amount of close contact with people.
Reared in a family that believed their academic and intellectual achievements were based on their mixed blood, Soaphead Church cultivated habits and tastes that separated him from all things African. His skills in language and self-deception have allowed him to palm himself off as a minister and faith healer. People come to him asking for basic needs: love, health, and money.
Pecola Breedlove, however, has a unique request: blue eyes. Surprisingly, her request is logical to Soaphead. To him, she’s a “pitifully unattractive” child, and blue eyes would definitely be an improvement. He feels sorry for Pecola, but not because of the recognition of his exploitative profession; rather, his pity is borne out of the impotence of not being able to give her blue eyes, which he believes she should have in order to be beautiful. Soaphead is not sorry that she has been brainwashed into thinking she’s ugly; he is simply sorry that Pecola is indeed an ugly child and is doomed to eternal ugliness because of her coarse African features. His pity for her, however, does not preclude his seizing this opportunity to rid himself of his landlord’s mangy dog. Thus he tells her that she must make an offering to God, handing her a piece of rancid raw meat, on which (unbeknownst to Pecola) he has sprinkled poison. He tells her to feed the meat to the mangy dog on the porch. If nothing happens to the dog, God will not give her blue eyes. If the dog behaves strangely, however, God will give her blue eyes the next day.
At this point, we have met Maureen Peal, Geraldine, and now Elihue Micah Whitcomb, three examples of blacks who make it their life’s work to deny their blackness. All of them have found Pecola ugly, and all of them have victimized her because of her strong African features. Pecola is not alone in equating black features with the word “ugly”; everyone, with the exception of Claudia and her older sister, Frieda, seems to feel the same way. Thus we have Morrison’s blanket condemnation of white society’s insistence that only white features are acceptable and pretty, and for black America’s endorsement of that fraud.
Fels Naphtha a popular cleaning product.
dicty-like black slang for snobbish, or haughty.
Clark Gable an American film actor (1901–1960) who personified his era’s notion of the virile, adventurous American male. He won an Academy Award for It Happened One Night (1934) and is best known for his portrayal of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939).
Jean Harlow Hollywood’s prototype for the American blonde bombshell, Harlow (1911–1937) went on to reign supreme in the films of the early 1930s and starred opposite Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932) and China Seas (1935).
drays low, sturdily built carts with detachable sides for carrying oversize loads.
muscadine a musky grape grown in the southeast United States; often used for making wine.
gandy dancers workers on a railroad section gang; they are probably named because of the movements made while using tools from the Gandy Manufacturing Company.
asafetida bags small bags often used in folk medicine, filled with a bitter, foul-smelling mixture from the roots of various Asiatic plants and worn around the neck in order to ward off disease.
slop jar an indoor container that takes the place of toilets, especially for night use or for people too ill to walk outside to an outhouse.
Anglophile a term applied to someone who has an enormous admiration for and devotion to things British.
De Gobineau a French diplomat and social philosopher (1816–1982) whose racial theories became a philosophical justification for Nazi “ethnic cleansing.” His most famous work, Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, states that the Aryan race is superior to all other races. His theory of racial superiority has been thoroughly refuted, of course, and is considered worthless by modern anthropologists.
met his Beatrice Beatrice (pronounced Bay-ah-tree-chay) was the ideal woman, beloved by the poet Dante and the symbol of divine and ideal love. She leads Dante through one portion of the Divine Comedy.
sealing wax a combination of resin and turpentine that is used for sealing letters.
misanthrope a person who hates and distrusts people.
pomaded with soap lather using soap lather as a hair-grooming product.
Hamlet’s abuse of Ophelia Ophelia is in love with Hamlet, who treats her with alternating contempt and tenderness. She is a tragic character, driven mad by unrequited love, and drowns herself after Hamlet mistakenly kills her father.
Christ’s love of Mary Magdalene According to the Gospels, Mary of Magdala was cured of seven demons by Christ (Luke 8:2) and was at the foot of the cross when he was crucified (Mark 15:40). According to popular tradition, Mary Magdalene was also the woman who, on two occasions (Luke 7:37–38 and John 12:3), washed and anointed Jesus’ feet, drying them with her hair. She has become symbolic of repentant sinners.
Gibbon Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) is best known for his six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In this work, which covers a time span of thirteen centuries, Gibbon espoused the view that the decline and fall were inevitable because of the withering of the classical tradition of intellectual inquiry. He blamed this trend, in part, on the rise of Christianity. His negative treatment of Christianity and his bitter irony made the work a subject of controversy.
Othello, Desdemona, Iago characters from Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello the dark Moor marries the fair, blonde Desdemona and is deceived by the villainous Iago, who falsely accuses Desdemona of being unfaithful. In a fit of jealousy, Othello kills her.
Dante an Italian poet (1265–1321) best known for his Divine Comedy, which details his vision as he progresses through Hell and Purgatory, escorted by the poet Virgil, and is guided to Paradise by his lifelong idealized love, Beatrice, who leads him to the throne of God.
Dostoevsky a Russian writer (1821–1881) whose works combine religious mysticism with profound psychological insight. He is best known for his Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
Greater and Lesser Antilles The whole of the West Indies, except the Bahamas, is called the Antilles. The Greater Antilles include Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. The Lesser Antilles include the Virgin Islands, Windward Islands, Leeward Islands, the southern group of the Netherlands Antilles, Barbados, Trinidad, and Tobago.