The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison is a tale of beauty, race and social ostracism. It takes place in Lorain, Ohio and centres on the destruction of a vulnerable little girl who believes herself to be ugly.
“What made people look at them and say Awww – but not for me?” – p15
Pecola Breedlove is convinced she is ugly; she is treated as such by the whole town. A fallacy that is reinforced whenever she reads about Dick and Jane and their sanitised, unrealistic life. Whenever she drinks milk from a Shirley Temple cup; or consumes Mary Jane peanut butter candies. She sees their blue eyes as a symbol of love, achievement, social capital.
Pauline Breedlove constantly calls her own daughter ugly, and compares her unfavourably to the little white girl where she works. Of course this is classic projection. Pauline feels ugly. Both Pecola and her mother have an obsession with beauty; though really it is societal acceptance they crave.
Claudia provides a violent, but in some ways healthier, contrast. She states that she’s “physically revolted by and secretly frightened of” Raggedy Ann dolls. Bouson argues that some characters, like Claudia, show how people can respond violently to shame. Claudia does this by rejecting the racist system she lives in and destroying the white dolls she is given. However, most characters in the novel pass on their shame to someone below them on the social and racial ladder.
The book was also written in response to the “Black Is Beautiful” movement.
“And so when people said at that time black is beautiful – yeah? Of course. Who said it wasn’t? So I was trying to say, in The Bluest Eye, wait a minute. Guys. There was a time when black wasn’t beautiful. And you hurt.”
“The novel tried to hit the raw nerve of racial self-contempt, expose it, then soothe it not with narcotics but with language that replicated the agency I discovered in my first experience of beauty.” – p168
The Bluest Eye is a deep, poetic tale seemingly woven from oral tradition, gossip, letters and memories.
One of the most beautiful chapters details Geraldine, very much a composite character. She is plain, sweet, a ‘good’ girl; yet nevertheless a tyrant and collaborator. The language is swirling and sensory. When Geraldine is described, scent (newspapers and vanilla), taste (butter cake) and touch (starched, paper) are all employed.
The novel is also social commentary.
The first few lines are sinister. It’s a tale that starts with barren earth, unfruitful seeds and a dead baby. There is an overlying threat of poverty; of being ‘outdoors’.
“…lead readers into the comfort of pitying her, rather than into an interrogation of themselves for the smashing.” – p168
“I did not want to dehumanise the characters who trashed Pecola and contributed to her collapse.” P168
Morrison explains but does not excuse the actions of the child abusers and molesters in her novel. There is a paedophile in the novel named Soaphead Church. Morrison explains his backstory and how he developed. There is a point where he writes a scathing letter to God, in which he chastises his Creator for letting Pecola near him. It is a good point. While he (unlike anyone else) chooses to help her (albeit in a twisted, self serving way) rather than molest her; society has pushed her to a point where he could. The loved, looked after kids of the town have been warned about him. No decent society should leave such a young girl so vulnerable to a predator.
When Frieda is molested by the family lodger, she tells her parents and her father picks up a shotgun. When Pecola is abused by her father, her mother beats her. No-one blames Frieda; she is a ‘good’ girl and therefore worthy of protection. Not as much as the Shirley Temples, or even the Maureen Peal’s of the world, but infinitely more so than Pecola.
Should You Read It?
“I wonder if the deeper reason for the ban is that The Bluest Eye makes some people uncomfortable.” – Laila Lalami
Yes. Everyone should, (although I would class it as a book for adults, not children).
If you want something cheery and redemptive then Morrison is probably not for you; but otherwise it will enrich your life.
In the End
One of the interesting criticisms of Morrison’s debut novel – aside from the laughable reverse racism accusations – is that it is too sad and that there is no hope. Now, taste and mood are valid concerns when choosing a novel. But the whole point is that in real life, some people don’t get happy endings. Pecola certainly doesn’t; the author is trying to invoke and illustrate our discomfort at that.
The town alleviate their own guilt through blaming the victim; the reader gets to feel uncomfortable. And should embrace that. Society routinely destroys the vulnerable with a thousand little cuts, and blames them when they cannot cope.