Actually, I just re-read Toni Morrison’s THE BLUEST EYE. I read it back in the late 80’s, and wanted to go back and revisit the characters this winter. It’s probably the book that has had the most impact on me both personally and professionally.
Right now I’m in the middle of BELOVED, and then I’m moving forward with JAZZ. But I wanted to post something a lot of people may or may not know about. It was something that I didn’t know about until I read BELOVED. Morrison describes the use of an iron bit as a torture device used for slaves. Though it’s painful to read, not to mention comprehend that human beings would ever do something like this, I think it’s important to know.
Below is an excerpt from a web site that goes into far more detail.
Morrison writes candidly of “the iron bit” (70) in describing Paul D’s slave experience, and carefully details the horrific nature of its use as a torture device. Marilyn Sanders Mobley writes of Paul’s “personal stories of enduring a “bit” (69) in his mouth – the barbaric symbol of silence and oppression,” (196) outlining the item’s cold, constraining capabilities. Morrison uses the symbol of the bit, carefully woven into the novel’s interchange between Sethe and Paul D, to represent Paul D’s slave experience, and, taken on an allegorical level, to represent also the slave experience in general. Her introduction of the bit into Paul’s “rememories” ushers in comment on the iron’s structural qualities, i.e. “how offended the tongue is, held down by iron,” (71) indicating the metal’s constraining, unyielding nature. The author’s inclusion of rich imagery in explaining the bit to the reader aids in delineating the iron’s less obvious characteristics aforementioned. She writes of “The wildness that shot up into the eye the moment the lips were yanked back,” (71) a reminder of the metal’s unyielding, thoroughly rigid conformation and related effects. Immediately following, Morrison affirms “Days after it was taken out, goose fat was rubbed on the corners of the mouth but nothing to soothe the tongue or take the wildness out of the eye,” (71) thus reinforcing the concept of metal’s hard, unyielding nature. Essentially, the metal symbol of the bit becomes the slave experience through the shared characteristics of metal. Rigidity of the slave experience, represented by the metal in the bit, with Paul’s “own mouth jammed full of iron” (96) earns its own symbolic explication, as does slavery’s physical and mental constraint, itself discussed by Trudier Harris as “confining them in bits” (330). Even more importantly, the context of Paul’s “licking iron” (72) generates the symbol’s analogous context with slavery, as Paul literally cannot speak to Halle, whom he discovers freshly delusional as a result of witnessing Sethe’s rape. The animalistic nature of slavery reveals itself in the metal bit’s confining nature, with Paul kept from communication with his friend and forced into inhuman silence by the rigidity of the cold metal. The bit renders Paul incapable of sharing his friend’s grief, itself brought about by the nephews of schoolteacher, themselves representative of slavery.