The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison
(Born Chloe Anthony Wofford) American novelist, nonfiction writer, essayist, playwright, and children's writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye (1970) through 2000. For further information on her life and complete works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 10, 22, 87, and 194.
Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, examines the tragic effects of imposing white, middle-class American ideals of beauty on the developing female identity of a young African American girl during the early 1940s. Inspired by a conversation Morrison once had with an elementary school classmate who wished for blue eyes, the novel poignantly shows the psychological devastation of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who searches for love and acceptance in a world that denies and devalues people of her own race. As her mental state slowly unravels, Pecola hopelessly longs to possess the conventional American standards of feminine beauty—namely, white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes—as presented to her by the popular icons and traditions of white culture. Written as a fragmented narrative from multiple perspectives and with significant typographical deviations, The Bluest Eye juxtaposes passages from the Dick-and-Jane grammar school primer with memories and stories of Pecola's life alternately told in retrospect by one of Pecola's now-grown childhood friends and by an omniscient narrator. Published in the midst of the Black Arts movement that flourished during the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Bluest Eye has attracted considerable attention from literary critics—though not to the same degree as Morrison's later works. With its sensitive portrait of African American female identity and its astute critique of the internalized racism bred by American cultural definitions of beauty, The Bluest Eye has been widely seen as a literary watershed, inspiring a proliferation of literature written by African American women about their identity and experience as women of color.
Plot and Major Characters
Ignoring strict narrative chronology, The Bluest Eye opens with three excerpts from the common 1940s American elementary school primer that features the All-American, white family of Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane. The first excerpt is a faithful reproduction, the second lacks all capitalization and punctuation marks, and the third dissolves into linguistic chaos by abandoning its spacing and alignment. This section is interrupted by an italicized fragment representing the memories of Claudia MacTeer, the principal narrator of The Bluest Eye. As an adult, Claudia recalls incidents from late 1941 when she was nine years old living in Lorain, Ohio, with her poor but loving parents and her ten-year-old sister, Frieda. Claudia's friend, Pecola Breedlove, is an emotionally impaired African American girl who comes from a broken home. The rest of The Bluest Eye divides into four separate time sequences, each named for a season of the year and each narrated by Claudia. Interspersed throughout the text are fragments in the voice of an omniscient narrator that discuss Pecola's obsessive desire for blue eyes and her parents, Pauline and Cholly; each fragment is introduced with different lines from the Dick-and-Jane primer. In “Autumn,” Claudia begins her narrative as the MacTeers take in a boarder, Mr. Henry Washington. At the same time, Pecola comes to live with the MacTeer family after Cholly burns down his family's house. Recounting their typical girlhood adventures, Claudia particularly remembers the onset of Pecola's first menses. The omniscient narrator intermittently interrupts with descriptions of the Breedlove's household, noting how the parents are unable to hide the violence of their relationship in the presence of Pecola and her brother Sammy. In the midst of the hostilities, Pecola constantly prays for blue eyes, believing that if she only had blue eyes, life would be better. In “Winter,” Claudia recalls the arrival at school of Maureen Peale, a lighter-skinned, wealthy black girl with green eyes whom the girls both hate and admire. When a group of boys harasses Pecola, Maureen temporarily befriends Pecola, but eventually turns on her, calling the darker-skinned and deeply hurt Pecola “ugly.” The omniscient narrator again interrupts and describes an incident involving Pecola and Geraldine, a socially mobile middle-class African American woman who loves her blue-eyed cat more than she loves her own son, Louis Junior. When Pecola is wrongly blamed for the cat's death, Geraldine quietly calls her a “nasty little black bitch.” Claudia opens the “Spring” sequence of The Bluest Eye with disparate memories about Henry Washington fondling Frieda's breasts, his subsequent beating and eviction by Mr. MacTeer, and a visit to Pecola's apartment. The omniscient narrator's descriptions of Pauline and Cholly's history predominate the rest of this section. The narrator relates events from Pauline's early life, her marriage, and how she became a maid for an affluent, white family. The narrator next recounts Cholly's traumatic childhood and adolescence. Abandoned almost at birth, he is rescued by his beloved Aunt Jimmy, who later dies when he is sixteen. After her burial, Cholly is humiliated by two white hunters who interrupt his first sexual encounter with a girl named Darlene. He flees to Macon, Georgia, in search of his father who is miserably mean and wants nothing to do with his son. Crushed by this encounter, Cholly eventually meets and marries Pauline and fathers her children. Years later, in Lorain, a drunken Cholly staggers into his kitchen, and overcome with lust, brutally rapes and impregnates Pecola. “Spring” concludes with a story about Soaphead Church, a self-proclaimed psychic and mystic, who counsels an unattractive black girl who wishes she had blue eyes. In “Summer,” Claudia resumes her narration, recalling how the gossip spreads regarding Pecola being pregnant with Cholly's baby. Near the end of the novel, Pecola finally narrates a story about her conversation with an imaginary companion concerning her new blue eyes and whether they are “the bluest eyes” in the world. In the last section of The Bluest Eye Claudia remembers meeting Pecola after Cholly's baby is delivered stillborn and accounts for the whereabouts of Sammy, Cholly, and Pauline.
In The Bluest Eye, the opening excerpt from the Dick-and-Jane primer juxtaposed with the experiences of African American characters immediately sets the tone for Morrison's examination of a young black girl's growing self-hatred: American society tells Pecola happy, white, middle-class families are better than hopeless, black, working-class families. Victimized in different degrees by media messages—from movies and books to advertising and merchandise—that degrade their appearance, nearly every black character in the novel—both male and female—internalizes a desire for the white cultural standard of beauty. This desire is especially strong in Pecola, who believes that blue eyes will make her beautiful and lovable. At the same time, every African American character hates in various degrees anything associated with their own race, blindly accepting the media-sponsored belief that they are ugly and unlovable, particularly in the appalling absence of black cultural standards of beauty. In a sense, Pecola becomes the African American community's scapegoat for its own fears and feelings of unworthiness. Unlike Claudia, who possesses the love of her family, Pecola has learned from her appearance-conscious parents to devalue herself. She endures rejection by others who also value “appearances” and who ultimately share the same symptoms that characterize Pecola's insanity. Besides exposing the inherent racism of the American standard of beauty, The Bluest Eye also examines child abuse in terms of the violence that some African American parents subconsciously inflict on their children by forcing them to weigh their self-worth against white cultural standards. Cholly's rape of Pecola in effect culminates the psychological, social, and personal depreciation by white society that has raped Cholly his entire life. As his surname implies, Cholly can only breed, not love, and his brutal act against his daughter produces a child who cannot live. Finally, Pecola's longing for blue eyes speaks to the connection between how one is seen and how one sees. Pecola believes that if she had beautiful eyes, people would not be able to torment her mind or body. Her wish for blue eyes rather than lighter skin transcends racism, with its suggestion that Pecola wants to see things differently as much as to be seen differently, but the price for Pecola's wish ultimately is her sanity, as she loses sight of both herself and the world she inhabits.
Regarded by modern literary critics as perhaps one of the first contemporary female bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narratives, The Bluest Eye initially received modest reviews upon its publication in 1970. Commentators later claimed that they neglected the work because Morrison was unknown at the time. Since then, however, The Bluest Eye has become a classroom staple, and scholarship on the novel has flourished from a number of perspectives. A recurring discussion has focused on the novel's ability to replicate African American vernacular patterns and musical rhythms. Many critics have approached the novel in the context of the rise of African American writers, assigning significance to their revision of American history with their own cultural materials and folk traditions. Others have considered the ways The Bluest Eye alludes to earlier black writings in order to express the traditionally silenced female point of view and uses conventional grotesque imagery as a vehicle for social protest. Scholars also have been attracted to The Bluest Eye by its deconstruction of “whiteness” along racial, gender, and economic lines, while feminists have equated the violence of the narrative with self-hatred wrought by a wide range of illusions about white American society and African American women's place in it. In addition, some have examined the influence of environment on the novel's characters, identifying stylistic affinities with literary naturalism. Others have offered Marxist interpretations of the novel's formal aspects in terms of the ideological content of its representation of African American life. Acknowledging Morrison's achievement in the novel, critics have generally acclaimed The Bluest Eye for deconstructing a number of literary taboos with its honest portrayals of American girlhood, its frank descriptions of intraracial racism or “colorism” in the African American community, and its thoughtful treatment of the emotional precocity of prepubescent girls.
The Bluest Eye is the novel written by the Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison in the year 1970. All Morrison’s texts have the subject matter similar to The Bluest Eye. Her novels discuss the experiences of the oppressed black minorities in isolated communities and the dominant white culture discouraging the healthy African American self-image. Generally, the major characters in Toni Morrison’s novel are black. Her writing is about the black experience and about the black minority, whose ethnic existence is threatened by the white society. Eventually, her main concern is to bring back black issues into general awareness (Racialization of Black Aesthetic in Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye). ‘The issues of ethnic inequality, black community and individual’s struggle in white society, as well as the empowerment of blacks through the realization of their rich inheritance continue to represent themselves in the author’s novels’. (Sugiharti, pp. 2-3).
Beauty is a characteristic of person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction. If this thing of pleasure or satisfaction is idolized, or constructed or politicized, the implications would be horrible. It seen in the novel The Bluest Eye how the beauty attributed to one on the basis of color leaves its adverse effect on the other. In the novel, beauty as constructed by one turns into bitter pills for others. The interference of the so called beauty standards into the human community create disharmony and produce an unhealthy attitude towards each other and self (Roddannavar, 2013, p. 2). The novel reveals the implications of white beauty standards on black community through the protagonist of the novel Pecola, who goes under her own black societal ill treatment in the name of color and eventually becomes insane. ‘In the novel she suffers the confusion, the start of puberty, bitter racial harassment, and the tragedy of rape. Through Pecola, Morrison exposes the power and cruelty of white, the definitions of beauty of middle-class American, for which Pecola will be driven mad by her consuming obsession for white skin and blonde hair and not just blue eyes, but the bluest ones. Pecola believes that people would value her more if she were not black. If she were white, blonde, and very blue-eyed, she would be loved. It is this kind of self-hatred and admire of whiteness as the standard of beauty that makes her became a victim of popular white culture and at the same time ruins her.’ (A miserable Black Girl-Analysis of the Theme in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye)
The Bluest Eye opens with a short ‘Dick and Jane’ primary reader story that is repeated three times. The first time the story is written clearly. In second telling, however, the text loses its capitalization and punctuation. By the third time the story has also lost its spacing. The novel then shifts to a short, italicized preface in the voice of Claudia MacTeer as an adult. She looks back on the fall of 1941 (The Narrative Strategies Used by the Writer in ‘The Bluest Eye’, p. 1). We find that this book will be the story of Claudia, her sister, Frieda, and their involvement with a young black girl named Pecola, pregnant with her father’s child.
Claudia MacTeer recounts the events of the year that lead up to her best friend’s, Pecola Breedlove’s, rape and the death of her baby. The year is 1941, and Claudia remembers that no marigolds bloomed that year. She thought it was because of Pecola’s rape by her father Cholly Breedlove that no marigolds bloomed.
In Part II: Autumn, Claudia’s memories go back to the fall of 1940 (one year before the marigolds did not bloom). Claudia and her older sister, Frieda, live in a home that takes in borders. Mr. Henry moves in and flatters the young girls by telling them they look like Ginger Rogers and Greta Garbo. Soon after that, a young girl named Pecola moves in with them, as ordered by the country. She will live there until the country can find a better home for her as her father, Cholly, burnt down her old home. Pecola and the two girls become friends and go through many experiences together, including Pecola’s first biological period.
In Pecola’s family, her parents, Pauline and Cholly Breedlove, have a bad marriage. Her mother always works hard, but Cholly always comes home drunk and beats Pauline. They yell and fight, and Pecola and her brother, Sammy, each look for an escape in their own ways. Sammy will frequently run away to get away from his family. Pecola, meanwhile, prays that her eyes will turn into a beautiful blue color. She thinks that if her eyes were blue, things would be different- they would be pretty and more than that she would be pretty. Pecola becomes obsessed in her quest for blue eyes.
In Part III: Winter, Claudia tells of a new girl, named Maureen Peal, who comes to their school. At school, children tease Pecola by calling her ‘Black e mo’ because she is dark skinned (Morrison, 1999). They mean that Pecola is even blacker than they are. It is absolutely a Black’s attack on another Black who shares brotherhood in his own community. Another same sort of incident takes place when Maureen meets Pecola. Maureen, the half white ‘high yellow dream child’ according to Claudia, befriends with Pecola and becomes kind to her in the beginning, but later turns into hostile due to some reasons. She yells from across the street,
‘I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos. I am cute!’ (Morrison, 1999)
The next section of the novel describes Geraldine, her son Junior, and their blue eyed black cat. The Bluest Eye, also talks of the ‘Mobile girls’, women who attempt to control and modify their blackness (Morrison, 1999). These are women who in order to hide their blackness, they straighten their hair, control their body odors, and learn to behave in a way to ‘do the white man’s work with refinement’.’ (Morrison, 1999). Geraldine is one such woman who moves to Lorain with her husband and son. She doesn’t nurture her son, rather cares for him. One day, her son Junior manages to get Pecola into his house and then throws a cat at her. The cat gets hurt because of his mischievous acts. He puts the blame on Pecola when his mother Geraldine enters the house. Geraldine takes a glance at Pecola,
‘She had seen this little girl all her life’ Hair uncombed, dresses falling apart, shoes untied and cakes with dirt. They had started up at her with great uncomprehending eyes. Eyes that questioned nothing and asked everything’ (Morrison, 1999)
Pecola reminds Geraldine her own black community in which she never wants to be existed. To her, blacks are ‘niggers’ (Morrison, 1999). Having well comfort middle class life, Geraldine does not want to slip down from the social hierarchy. She teaches her son how to deal with blacks and wants him not to risk their [her family’s] positions by having an association with ‘niggers.’
Geraldine takes an opportunity to release her anger. She abuses Pecola because she hates darker skinned blacks.
‘Geraldine, a representative of blacks who wish to ‘move up’ in the world and assimilate into white culture and acorn anything or anyone that reminds them they are black. Morrison sees this kind of person as problematic in the wake of the Civil Right Movement.’ (The Quest for an Ideal Beauty in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye)
In Part IV: Spring, Claudia tells of how Mr. Henry touched Frieda’s breast and then was beaten by their father. The two girls go to visit Pecola in her new house, a downstairs apartment. Above, there are three prostitutes, Marie, China, and Poland, whom Pecola often visits and talks with.
Then, Pauline Breedlove’s younger years are described. It explains how she would often go to the movies; Because of this, eventually, she became fascinated with Hollywood ideals of beauty. She saw famous movie stars like Jean Harlow as true representations of beauty, and anything straying from that was not deemed beautiful. In the novel, we see Paulin’s fondness for the white world. Paulin always wanted to live in her own ideal world: the world of white. She used to work at the white peoples house, cleaned their house and loved their children, but she never loved her own children because they were black in color who would remind her, her own color: the ugly color that would cut in her ideal white world. In one of the incidents, Paulin slaps and abuses Pecola for dropping the pie on the floor at Fisher’s home because she disturbs her clean, white world. She goes a step forward to console the weeping Fisher girl,
‘Hush, baby, hush. Come here. Oh, Lord, look at your dress. Don’t cry no more. Polly will change it.’ (Morrison, 1999, p. 107)
On the contrary, the treatment for Pecola was different; she,
‘Yanked her up by the arm, slapped her again and in a voice thin with anger abused Pecola directly’.’ (p. 107)
Pecola was deprived of all the love and affection that she had to deserve. She herself was a witness for shifting of love and affection to a white girl, who was, in fact, none to Pecola’s mother. Pauline always dreamt of having a light skinned child when she was pregnant. Before Pecola’s birth, she would talk to her in the womb and treat her as a mother should do. The close bond of mother and daughter comes to an end when Paulin gives birth to Pecola, who is ugly in color. She abandons Pecola as soon as she sees her,
‘But I knowed [sic] she was ugly. Head full of pretty hair, but Lord she was ugly.’ (p. 124)
Paulin doesn’t give her daughter unconditional love since she judges her daughter from physical beauty. Color stands as an obstacle between a mother and daughter’s relationship.
Then, the narration focuses on Cholly Breedlove’s background. He is abandoned by his mother and father and is raised by his great Aunt Jimmy, who later dies. Cholly has hatred against white people. This is so because, when Cholly was having sexual pleasure with a girl named Darlene, he was cut in by the two white men who forced him, a fourteen old boy, to perform the act of sex on Darlem for their entertainment. Since he was powerless then to encounter those men, he turned to the powerless Darlene, who was a witness for his humiliation. He thought Darlen might be pregnant, so he ran away to Macon, Georgia, to try and find his real father. He finds him, but discovers that his father is a drunkard and a gambler who wants nothing to do with Cholly. Cholly runs to Kentucky where he meets and marries Puline. They eventually have two children, Sammy and Pecola.
Once, Cholly comes home drunk one afternoon and sees Pecola in the kitchen washing dishes. She reminds him for a moment of his wife, Pauline, and in a bit of confusion and love, he rapes his daughter. He leaves her on the kitchen floor feeling ashamed and alone.
The character of Elihue Micah Whitcomb (Soaphead Church) is introduced. ‘Soaphead, like Geraldine, is struggling with blackness and finds Pecola an easy target for his self-loathing’ (Fultz, 2003). Pecola visits him one day, and asks him to make her wish come true of having blue eyes; Thinking that he is the only one to help her, Soaphead, born half white (a black with light white skin), feels superiority complex and would like to play God to give justice to a helpless black girl. He tricks her into poisoning an old, sick dog that he hates. He tells Pecola that if the dog behaves strangely, then that is a sign from God that her eyes color would turn into blue the next day. After Pecola feeds the dog the strange meat (poisoned), she sees that the dog chokes, falls down and dies. Horrified, she runs out of the house.
In Part V: Summer, Claudia tells of how she and Frieda learned from rumors and gossip that Pecola was pregnant by her father. They overhear adults talking about the child and how it will probably not survive. Claudia and Frieda seem to be the only ones who want the baby to live. They make a promise to God to be good for a whole month and plant marigold seeds that will serve as a sign for them; when the seeds sprout, they will know that everything will be all right. However, the readers already know that ‘there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941’ and that nothing turns out right for Pecola (Vaidyanathan, p. 144).
The next chapter is a deranged dialogue carried out between Pecola and herself in which she discusses her new blue eyes, questioning if they are the ‘bluest eyes’ in the world. We also discover that Cholly has raped his daughter more than once. Her madness, then, appears to be a defense against the pain of living her life.
The last voice in the novel is Claudia’s, now an adult looking back, trying to assign blame for the tragedy of Pecola. She tells us that Pecola’s baby died soon after birth and Cholly is dead as well, that Mrs. Breedlove still works for white folks, and that Pecola spends her days talking to herself and picking at the garbage in a dump. The novel closes with an indictment of the community and the culture:
And now when I see her searching the garbage-for what? The thing we assassinated? I talk about how I did not plant the seeds too deeply, how it was the fault of the earth, the land, of our town. I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruits it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late. At least on the edge of my town, among the garbage and the sunflowers of my town, it’s much, much too late (p. 204).
The novel The Bluest Eye is important for many reasons, ‘This novel came about at a critical moment in the history of American Civil rights.’ (A miserable Black Girl-Analysis of the Theme in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, p. 1). It was written ”. during the years of some of the most dynamic and turbulent transformations of Afro-American life’ (p. 1). Published in the midst of the Black Arts movement that flourished during the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Bluest Eye has attracted considerable attention from literary critics-thought not to the same degree as Morrison’s later works. With its sensitive portrait of African American female identity and its astute critique of the internalized racism bred by American cultural definitions of beauty, The Bluest Eye has been widely seen as a literary watershed, inspiring a proliferation of literature written by African American women about their identity and experience as women of color. Scholars also have been attracted to The Bluest Eye by its deconstruction of ‘whiteness’ along racial, gender, and economic lines, while feminists have equated the violence of the narrative with self-hatred wrought by a wide range of illusions about white American society and African American women’s place in it. In addition, some have examined the naturalism. Others have offered Marxist interpretations of the novel’s formal aspects in terms of the ideological content of its representation of African American life. Acknowledging Morrison’s achievement in the novel, critics have generally acclaimed The Bluest Eye for deconstructing a number of literary taboos with its honest portrayals of American girlhood, its frank descriptions of intraracial racism or ‘colorism’ in the African American community, and its thoughtful treatment of the emotional precocity of prepubescent girls (The Narrative Strategies Used by the Writer in ‘The Bluest Eye’, p. 4).
A miserable Black Girl-Analysis of the Theme in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. (n.d.). 1.
Fultz, L. P. (2003). “Toni Morrison Playing with Difference”. 58. Chicago: Illinois Up.
Morrison, T. (1999). The Bluest Eye. London: Vintage.
Roddannavar, P. J. (2013). Representation of Self-hatred in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. 2. Gulbarga, Karnataka, India.
Sugiharti, E. (n.d.). Racialized beauty: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. 2-3.
The Narrative Strategies Used by the Writer in ‘The Bluest Eye’. (n.d.). 1,4.
The Quest for an Ideal Beauty in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. (n.d.).
Vaidyanathan, G. (n.d.). TONI MORRISON: THE BLUEST EYE. Agra, India: Lakshmi Narain Agarwal.