The Bluest Eye is the story of eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove, a black girl in an America whose love for its blonde, blue-eyed children can devastate all others, who prays for her eyes to turn blue: so that she will be beautiful, so that people will look at her, so that her world will be different. This is the story of the nightmare at the heart of her yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment.
The number of books I've read in 55 years could stretch into many miles. I consider myself astute, intelligent and savvy in working with words, yet, whenever I read one of your books I feel perplexed and stunned.
When reading The Bluest Eyes I was enthralled by the pure beauty of your words and then, wham, felt cold water thrown on the pages as once again I grew weary of the violence, of the savage depiction of black culture, and my struggle to understand why your vivid images lack poignancy.
You make your point about the struggles, the hatred, the every day beating down and the difficulty of surviving, then you literally hammer it home until I feel bruised beyond healing.
No doubt you are a well deserving winner. But, also, no doubt I won't read another of your books.
The Bluest Eye is a searing and brutal story of African American lives in the first half of the 20th century. Incorporating several points of view and different stories, the emotional center of the story is Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who dreams of having blue eyes, believing they will make her beautiful. Morrison explores themes of prejudice, beauty and self-worth in prose that slices and burns, but which is yet somehow still beautiful. My favorite passage (it's long but worth reading):
"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 made 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." (page 205)
Pecola’s story is riddled with the ugliness of life and the tragedy of betrayal; through her, Morrison is telling us something about the desire for perfection and the striving for the superlative. There is so much going on in this slim novel that I cannot do it justice. Read it.
The first words of the novel may give us the whole story; it starts with the conclusion as it were, but as one coming freshly to this novel, not having read anything else beyond a short descriptive blurb about the subject matter, their meaning, was lost on me, though their poetry was not:
"Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby that the marigolds did not grow. A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody's did. Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year. But so deeply concerned were we with the health and safe delivery of Pecola's baby we could think of nothing but our own magic: if we planted the seeds, and said the right words over them, they would blossom, and everything would be alright. It was a long time before my sister and I admitted to ourselves that no green was going to spring from our seeds. Once we knew, our guilt was relieved only by fights and mutual accusations about who was to blame. For years I thought my sister was right: it was my fault. I had planted them too far down in the earth. It never occured to either one of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding. We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola's father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair. What is clear now is that of all of that hope, fear, lust, love, and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth. Cholly Breedlove is dead; our innocence too. The seeds shriveled and died; her baby too. There is really nothing more to say--except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how."
The voices of various characters involved in Pecola's life from the little girls who's home Pecola is taken into, to her own mother and father, take over the narrative and give their points of view; describing the histories of their own lives, they give us a better understanding of the how things came to be the way they end up for poor Pecola. One of the great strengths of the novel is that although we know it is a story which will end badly, and although we also know that the protagonists are likely to have harsh realities to contend with, it never drags us down into bleakness and despair. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Morrison's writing is never sentimental, but rather observant of the least detail that real life presents to us, and of how even when things are at their worst, there is always something interesting going on. We know of course that [The Bluest Eye] is a powerful commentary on racial hatred, but I would venture to guess that one of the reasons this novel has become a classic is because it carries a universal message. In describing how the beauty myth operates, she describes how humanity as a whole has sought escape from the harshness and vastly unfair playground that is life into this impossible ideal, which is bound to disappoint: "Along with the idea of romantic love, [Pecola] was introduced to another—physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion."
Something I liked about the book is the different angles she chooses to address with each character's story being told somehow. The way she has a distinct way of having multiple points of view is very interesting.
I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone. It is not for the faint hearted, because above all things, it is real.
READ THIS BOOK!
-Markaya Hill. Period 2
this isn't a novel for the squeamish. It's not a novel for those who want to maintain their distance from issues like race, gender, rape, ideals of beauty, poverty, and incest. Morrison drags you right down in the muck of Percola Breedlove's life and you're standing shoulder to shoulder with her through it all, which is an accomplishment in itself, since the point of view isn't even Pecola's, but her friend, Claudia's. And you will not only walk a mile in Pecola's shoes, but also in the shoes of the people who inhabit her life, and who play a part in her victimization.
This is the story of an ugly black girl. She knows she's ugly because she sees in everyone else's eyes. Her ugliness is why boys taunt and bully her at school. Why little girls won't play with her. Why her life at home is brutal, violent, and unpredictable. Why can't she live the life of a white girl, as in the Dick and Jane books? Why can't she live in a nice home, with a dog and cat, pretty dresses, and happy parents who will protect her? Why can't she be someone else? Why can't she have blue eyes and the life that comes with those eyes? Teachers and adults will be kind to her. She will have many friends. A golden paved road will lay itself before her and all will be better, shinier, happier.
"As long as she looked the way she did, as long as she was ugly, she would have to stay with these people. Somehow, she belonged to them. Long hours she sat, looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike. She was the only member of her class who sat alone at a double desk...Her teachers had always treated her this way. They never tried to glance at her, and called on her only when everyone was required to respond. She also knew that when one of the girls at school wanted to be particularly insulting to a boy, or wanted to get an immediate response from him, she could say,"Bobby loves Pecola Breedlove! Bobby loves Pecola Breedlove!" and never fail to get peals of laughter from those in earshot, and mock anger from the accused."
And Pecola Breedlove clings to this ideal of beauty, nonsensical as it sounds, because she lives in a world where beauty is defined by how white you are. From the dolls that black children are given, to the kindness shown to those frail little white girls by adults who treat their own children like burdens. There is a heirarchy within the black community, and Pecola sees it. And not just Pecola, but her friends, Frieda and Claudia. When Maureen Peel, a "high yellow dream child" enrolls at their school, it becomes confirmed that whiteness is beauty. Teachers smile at her "enchantingly," black girls stepped aside when she needs to use the sink in the bathroom, boys don't tease her. Children flock to sit with her during lunch. Frieda and Claudia are filled with hate, envy, fury, and a passion of emotions they can't deal with all contained within this child with "sloe green eyes, something summery in her complexion, and a rich autumn ripeness in her eyes. " Her pretty dresses and fancy shoes "[threaten] to derange" the girls.
How is it possible for them to deal with these message and remain sane and healthy in this context? How? In an important scene in the novel, Pecola is being bullied by a group of boys (see page above) and Frieda breaks up the gleeful group. Maureen (walking home with Frieda and Claudia that day) sweetly grabs Pecola's arm and starts talking with her like they're best friends. The two sisters believe perhaps they may have underestimated Maureen all this time, perhaps they too have judged her by her looks . When the girls bicker over some small thing, the girls are stunned when Maureen reverses herself and reiterates the very things said to Pecola by the boys. She scampers off, telling the girls she is beautiful and they are ugly.
And here is where you can see the difference between the two girls: Pecola and Maureen. Where Pecola is brutalized by life, Maureen feeds off the anger and rage. She grows stronger with every attempt to squash her. When Maureen runs off after she's done a bit of bullying:
"Pecola stood a little apart from us, her eyes hinged in the direction in which Maureen had fled. She seemed to fold into herself, like a pleated wing. Her pain agonized me. I wanted to open her up, crisp her edges, ram a stick down that hunched and curving spine, force her to stand erect and spit the misery out on the streets. But she held it in where it could lap up into her eyes."
But Maureen and Pecola don't have the same life. Though Maureen's isn't a picture perfect home, Pecola's home life is worse. Her father is an alcoholic, her brother is a habitual runaway, her mother lives vicariously through the white family by which she is employed, and domestic violence is the norm.
When Pecola is raped by her father, who is in a confused, drunken state of mind, any chance she may have had to survive is minimized exponentially. Pregnant, still black,, and still condemned, Pecola pins all her hopes and dreams on those blue eyes that hold the key to her happiness. How far will she go to get them? What will happen if she does? Why would a child believe herself to be ugly simply because she is black? Why would a community hold those same values?
You will find yourself asking yourself these very questions and more with each turn of the page. You will think long and hard about the standards of beauty in America, and about the black women who are considered beautiful. Interesting how many of them seem to be half-white, or very light skinned blacks. Women like Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, and Thandie Newton. In 40 years, has it changed all that much?
Oprah herself has covered racism within race many times. It is a pervasive issue that never seems to be resolved. And it makes itself at home, not only in the Black culture, but in the Mexican-American culture as well. Latinos regularly categorize beauty dependent on not only how white they are, but in the "whiteness" of their features. To possess Mestizo physical characteristics isn't a good thing.
Another character in the novel, Geraldine, is a black woman who has consistently tried to dilute her blackness. She is determined to set herself apart from the rest:
She has explained to [her son] the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud...The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.
The afterward written by Ms. Morrison is also a must read. In it, she tells of her inspiration of the novel (a friend of hers in middle school wanted blue eyes), the problems of executing the point of view, her struggle with technique and so on. She says:
"The Bluest Eye was my effort to say something about that; to say something about why she had not, or possibly ever would have, the experience of what she possessed and also why she prayed for so radical an alteration. Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing. And twenty years later I was still wondering about how one learns that. Who told her? Who made her feel it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her."
Toni Morrison was awarded the Novel Prize in Literature in 1993 and the national Book Award Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1996. Some other books she has written: Beloved, Sula, Tar Baby, and Song of Solomon.
Like all of Morrison’s novels, The Bluest Eye is difficult to read because of the visceral responses it elicits and the difficult, unpleasant, and downright horrifying facts it forces us to face. Morrison’s writing never fails to help me understand what life is like for someone who is very different from me, and it pushes me to explore my role as a young white woman in a culture that breeds contempt for women and people of color. It’s rarely easy, but it is always worthwhile.
Full review at The Book Lady's Blog
"I have said "poetry." But "The Bluest Eye" is also history, sociology, folklore, nightmare and music. It is one thing to state that we have institutionalized waste, that children suffocate under mountains of merchandised lies. It is another thing to demonstrate that waste, to re-create those children, to live and die by it. Miss Morrison's angry sadness overwhelms. "
The novel’s title, “The Bluest Eye” is based on how Pecola wishes for blue eyes–that she feels she might be considered more attractive and more likeable if she had blue eyes.
Here is an example from the book (Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove are Pecola's constantly-fighting parents):
“It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different. Her teeth were good, and at least her nose was not big and flat like some of those who were thought so cute. If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, ‘Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes”.
It was hard to read about Pecola’s downward spiral and her thoughts that life would be better if only she was beautiful.
As a Caucasian I can’t say I’ll ever come close to understanding the African-American experience, but it’s books like this that help, and it seems just as important to read in 2016 as it was in 1970, if not more so. Morrison’s writing is also honest and unflinching, and is never idealized. She does not make excuses or pleas for pity, she simply tells it like it is, even when it includes some pretty horrible acts against young girls. She shows children growing up in poverty, and a case where a mother and father have both abandoned a boy, and we see just how damaging that is, and how hard it is to break the cycle in the following generation. (“Having no idea of how to raise children, and having never watched any parent raise himself, he could not even comprehend what such a relationship could be.”) She tells the story in fragments that have to be stitched together by the reader, which she said in the Forward (written in 1993) ‘didn’t work’, but which I thought was highly successful. I was certainly touched and moved.
Oh and p.s., I love the fact that the character Pecola is named after a woman in the 1934 movie ‘Imitation of Life’, which is a great film.
The question of whether it is appropriate reading for high school students was recently raised and I honestly don't know what I think. I guess I wouldn't not let them read it, but I read Lolita in high school and found it very disturbing and I think I would not have liked this then either, whereas now I find both books beautiful if tragic in parts. I would say, I don't think high school is when you can get the most out of it, but perhaps there would be some students for whom it would act almost as a life preserver, letting them know they were not alone, perhaps allowing them to tell someone something similar had happened to them. These things being almost epidemically common. Also, I think there is a value in letting high school students know the literature can be this real and raw, can really talk about life, can say things people don't usually say out loud. So while it might be shocking and upsetting to some kids, it might be a window to escape through for someone else. Let them read it. The shocked kids should be shocked that such things happen, but they do happen and by the time one is fifteen, one is old enough to begin to contemplate the difficult stuff in life, and lucky if one only has to think of it as a social issue.
This book had my heart clutching, and my hands rolled into tight balls. There was a lot of emotion swirling around, painful emotions that wouldn’t go away even after I closed the book. There was anger and confusion folded in together. There were people I wanted to hate, but just couldn’t bring myself to hate them, and I don’t understand why.
Most of all, I think The Bluest Eye asked questions. It prompted me to ask questions. Why do we have a preconception of what beauty means? Why do we feel that we need power to survive? How do we lose our innocence as children? Why do we draw thick lines between us, always looking for differences, but never our similarities? Why the need to claim one as the superior?
I found it very emotionally gripping.
This is not a happy read: essentially, the book deals with
Speaking as a white person, grokking systemic racism is hard to do. This book definitely helps in turning intellectual understanding into a glimpse of, well, grokking.
As her first novel, Morrison herself suggests that at the time of her writing this, she was not advanced enough to handle the language, and therefore, finds it somewhat clumsy. The book I read was incredibly rich and deep, inspirational and chilling.
We find one narrator of the story, a little girl named Claudia, retelling the events surrounding another black girl in her small Ohio town, and the horrible things that Pecola had to endure. Described by nearly every character in the novel as "ugly", Pecola's only wish is to have blue eyes, so that she can attain the societal expectation of "attractiveness". Pecola comes from a warped, unsupportive family, which thereby shapes her viewpoint and feelings about her own life.
One thing Morrison does so effectively in her novels is to switch narrators whenever she sees fit. At times, Claudia tells us the story; at others, a third person narrator allows us to soar above the story and get more important information that a little girl may not be privvy too. At at times, we even learn about the events of the story through women who merely gossip the story. The effect allows us, the reader, to garner more informaton, some of it in personal ways, to allow us a grander sense of this story.
Morrison's literature, in every sense of the word, challenges the reader at every turn. This is not a book to skim through. Because of her writing, and her writing style, she is able to make grand stories out of the most ordinary people; to give voice to those characters in literature most often overlooked or marginalized in our culture. Morrison must keep writing to allow those voices to ring clear, and add to the cacophany of voices that make America as strong as it is.
The novel tells the story of, primarily, Pecola Breedlove a young black girl who prays for beauty. Her wish even extends to wanting blue eyes instead of the brown that she has been born with. The novel, which switches from narrator to narrator each chapter, also focuses on the story of Pecola's mother, father, 'grandmother', schoolmates and two children who take her in during part of her life.
The novel is a bit disjointed at places and the constant change of narrator takes a bit of getting used to but the writing is clear and the story 'enjoyable'. This book is on the syllabus for the Yale course - 'The American Novel Since 1945'.