And I've been thinking about Pecola Breedlove.
Pecola is the heroine (?) of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. An eleven year old African American girl, Pecola attempts to escape the devastating reality of her life by fantasizing about having blue eyes, imagining that her ugliness (both existentially and physically) would be assuaged if only she looked different. Pecola retreats further into her obsession after an act of unspeakable abuse and is left at the end of the book mad and alone, comforted only by an imaginary friend.
Morrison has said that she wanted The Bluest Eye to serve as a lesson on how to treat other human beings - and the book works as a cautionary tale of Schadenfreude gone too far. In the novel, she provides Pecola with really only one sympathetic shoulder, the narrator Claudia. The rest of the characters - first by their outright taunting of Pecola and later by their complete withdrawal from her - practice that most human art of Schadenfreude, about which Morrison writes:
Pecola is somewhere in that little brown house she and her mother moved to on the edge of town, where you can see her even now, once in a while. The birdlike gestures are worn away to a mere picking and plucking her way between the tire rims and the sunflowers, between Coke bottles and milkweed, among all the waste and beauty of the world - which is what she herself was. All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us - all who knew her - felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used - to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.Surely there is a great gulf between our random acts of Schadenfreude and a community turning its back on an exploited child. But the story of Pecola is instructive, I think, for the way in which Morrison captures the relationship between the antagonizer and the antagonized, the way in which she shows us how our own goodness, happiness, and purity feel that much more sanctified when we dump our badness, sadness, and guile on someone else. Ultimately, Morrison reminds us that our tacit consent or even outright happiness at someone else's misfortune is not a victimless crime.
Why do we invest so much emotional capital in comparing ourselves to others, and rejoice when we think the comparison is to our advantage? What does this tendency say about us and our own insecurities?