In The Bluest Eye, Morrison works with many themes, among them impoverishment, destructive mythologies, gender relations, and loss of innocence. Impoverishment is clearly tied not only to cultural and racial identities but also to familial values. Mrs. Breedlove works for more than one white family, but she respects only the Fishers, who satisfy her lifelong need for order; ironically, the order that she respects strips her of her marital status (as Mrs. Breedlove) and even of her Christian name, Pauline. She becomes “Polly,” the “ideal servant.” Impoverishment becomes more than a racial issue, however, as Morrison explores the differences among African American families. Only partly a racial issue, the contrast between the comfortable life of the half-white Maureen Peal, who is “rich” by Claudia MacTeer’s standards, is juxtaposed against the lives of Frieda and Claudia, whose mother bitterly laments the three quarts of milk that Pecola drinks and Claudia’s illness because such economic losses represent a hardship for the MacTeers.
Finally, there are the Breedloves, whose “blackness,” poverty, and familial values make them ugly. Geraldine, an African American woman groomed for property and family status, explains to her son the difference between “colored people” and “niggers.” When Geraldine finds Pecola trapped in the living room by Junior, she has her chance to demonstrate this distinction. Deceived by Junior’s lies, contemptuous of Pecola’s ugliness and filthiness, Geraldine calls Pecola a “black bitch”—slurring Pecola’s racial and feminine identity—and throws her out. Morrison’s authorial voice addresses these indignities and demonstrates that in a racist and impoverished culture, beauty and ugliness can be reversed. It is Claudia who sees that Pecola has been stripped of her beauty, but the reader sees clearly the ugliness of Geraldine and Junior, the insensitivity of Maureen Peal, and the unquestioned entitlement of the Fishers.
Morrison also addresses many destructive American mythologies, perhaps most powerfully the romantic mythology and the beauty mythology alluded to in her title The Bluest Eye. Mrs. Breedlove is destroyed, in part, by the romantic myth. As a young girl, she dreams of a “Presence” that will show up and know what to do. Cholly Breedlove, who accepts her and even makes her feel special about her crippled foot, plays a part in this mythology. They marry, and Cholly surprises her by being happy that she is pregnant. During her pregnancy, she goes to motion pictures, where she succumbs to her earlier romantic ideas and learns the American ideal of beauty as she watches Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. In the novel, Morrison says of the American ideas of romantic love and physical beauty that they are “[p]robably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.” These are the myths embedded in the Dick-and-Jane parodies that introduce subsections, and not surprisingly, Pecola Breedlove, like her mother, accepts the myths of romantic love and blue-eyed beauty. Pecola’s obsession with blue eyes begins with the Shirley Temple cup in which Frieda MacTeer brings her milk, and the obsession finally consumes Pecola in her madness, when she believes that she has attained the bluest eyes. Morrison’s characters demonstrate that such ideals cannot withstand the realities of human relationships.
In part as a result of the poverty and ugliness and the resulting disillusionment, gender relations fare poorly in The Bluest Eye. The central male, Cholly Breedlove, cannot imagine being content with one women for his entire life. He finds his solace in drinking, womanizing, and finally raping his daughter. The other men and boys in The Bluest Eye also offer little of the ideal. Mr. Henry, the MacTeers’ roomer, is run off for molesting Frieda. Soaphead Church, who also molests little girls, says of the men and women in his family, “Our manhood was defined by acquisitions. Our womanhood by acquiescence.” Even Junior and the other boys on the playground torment the luckless Pecola. Claudia and Frieda’s father provides a contrast of sorts to the other male characters, but he remains more an idea than a real human being.
Morrison’s women and girls are complex and varied. Some are types, such as Geraldine, the women of the church, and Maureen Peal. Others, such as Mrs. Breedlove and Pecola, are culturally impoverished by false values. Still others, such as Cholly’s Great Aunt Jimmy, are strong and decisive. Some are challenges to types, such as the three merry and misanthropic “whores”: Miss China, Miss Poland, and Miss Marie. These women pursue their pleasures without guilt, apology, or introspection. They do not question their value or their beauty. They find a kind of freedom in being outsiders in their culture. Unlike the women in Soaphead’s family, they acquire; they do not acquiesce. Loss of innocence does not concern them. Morrison says of them: “They were whores in whores’ clothing, whores who had never been young and had no word for innocence.”
Innocence, however, concerns Claudia. In her introductory monologue, she says, “Cholly Breedlove is dead; our innocence too.” Again, in her conclusion, she speaks metaphorically of “searching the garbage” for the “thing we assassinated.” She recognizes that the loss of innocence lies in the wrongness of acquiescing to the destruction of another, and she laments that the wrong cannot be undone.
Particularly characteristic of Morrison’s style are interior monologues and complex ideas embodied in common objects and in people. Through the interior monologues, Morrison uses the layout of the novel itself to convey part of the content. “Autumn,” “Winter,” and “Summer” begin with ragged right margins, indicating interior monologue, and end with justified right margins, indicating external narrative. “Spring” moves between ragged and justified margins, using the ragged right margins for Mrs. Breedlove’s interior monologues.
Complex ideas are woven into the very fabric of the objects in the novel. For example, embedded in “Autumn” is a sketch of the sofa in the Breedlove home; it is an irritating piece of furniture, torn by the delivery drivers. The Breedloves detest the sofa, even as they have to make time payments on it. It becomes the idea of the ugliness of the family, and it is, in fact, the place where Pecola is raped by her father a second time. Likewise, the marigolds that will not grow become, for Claudia and Frieda, the idea of barrenness and loss. Claudia speculates that the earth itself may be the problem. Similarly, Morrison’s people act as ideas. Geraldine becomes the idea of a sort of class brutality. Pecola becomes the idea of madness, caused by the myth of blue-eyed beauty. Shirley Temple becomes the idea, a sort of mythology, of blue eyes.
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.