Review by Neo from The one thing you should know.
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, is widely regarded as a modern classic due to its compelling narrative and timeless social commentary. The novel was first published in 1970 and the story is set in 1940s post-Depression United States. The Bluest Eye is a story whose devastating subject matter and critical reflection of society, unfortunately, remain as relevant today as when it was written.
Was it an easy read?
Toni Morrison is often challenging to read and The Bluest Eye, despite being a relatively short book, is a long, intense read. The fragmented writing style and the change in narrators and narration styles throughout the novel require the reader to slow down often in order to follow the story. The novel isn’t needlessly confusing to read but quite a bit of concentration is needed to piece together the overall events of the story through various characters’ streams of consciousness, dialogue and narration.
A look at the characters
The novel centers around the lives of the Breedloves – parents Cholly and Pauline, their son Samuel and daughter Pecola. The Breedloves are a poor, black family who even by the standards of their community are extremely dysfunctional and thus marginalized. They are the kind of family which is viewed with strong disapproval, pity and even concealed shame by broader society because they are the embodiment of the most undesirable elements of their society. Cholly is a violent drunk, Pauline is an equally violent absentee mother, Samuel reacts to his dysfunctional parents by running away from home frequently while 11-year-old Pecola helplessly endures the abuse. The Breedlove family reflects poverty, violence, parental neglect, familial abuse, trauma and ugliness back at those who gaze at them and are thus the ideal vehicle for Morrison to provoke a sense of distress in the reader.
Pecola is a young, dark-skinned girl who prays to God for blue eyes because she believes that they will make her beautiful and stop the victimization she endures at the hands of her colorist family and community. She is the focal character of the novel but, interestingly, it is through the narration of other characters and not her own that we learn about her and hear of the tragic events of her life. This means that we never encounter her describing herself, her own feelings and experiences outside of the dialogue which she has with the other characters. This dialogue is also limited due to Pecola being a demure character that is often spoken over and dominated by others in dialogue as she is in all other aspects of her life due to her timid nature. Pecola represents the vulnerable innocent.
Furthermore, Pecola’s lack of a voice serves to show how her view of herself is solely based on how her society views her. She is repeatedly described as black and ugly by the majority of the characters in the novel, this description of her is the only one both Pecola and the reader receive throughout much of the book and it is certainly the most dominant portrait of the character. For long stretches of the novel we see Pecola only through anti-black, anti-poor, colourist and misogynistic eyes of her family and her community. Morrison utilizes this writing technique brilliantly to make us understand, without a doubt, why Pecola has internalized the hatred directed towards her. As readers we can never wonder why Pecola prays for Blue Eyes, by setting out to describe the how Pecola came to be obsessed with having blue eyes, Morrison makes the why quite clear.
The most sympathetic account of Pecola’s story is that provided by her friend, Claudia MacTeer. Claudia is a little black girl who is like Pecola in many ways but whose experiences are far less devastating. She and her sister, Frieda, are the only characters with whom Pecola shares a relationship with. They are consistently friendly towards her and do not mistreat her – which is a relief for the reader as one can begin to feel that Morrison is just taking a hammer to Pecola with no reprieve – and they also display empathy and genuine concern for Pecola in a way that we would expect the adults in the story to. Of course, the tragedy of the story is that the only people who humanize Pecola are also poor, black, girls who do not have the social or material power to protect her.
Morrison’s dance with race and white supremacy
Although this novel deals with many important themes, I think the theme of white beauty standards is an important one which I can analyse without spoiling the book. Claudia’s voice is particularly memorable to me as a reader due to her defiance against white standards of beauty. Although her family comes from the same socio-economic class as Pecola’s and everyone around her also suffers from internalized racism to varying degrees, Claudia is intuitively suspicious of the assumption of white supremacy and black inferiority. She becomes resentful of symbols of white beauty – such as a white, blue-eyed baby doll she is gifted by her parents and the child star Shirley Temple – due to how highly black adults around her value them.
A striking part in the novel is when Claudia interrogates why little white and light skinned girls, such as their school mate Maureen, are seen as more beautiful and therefore more valuable darker black girls like her and Pecola. Claudia comes to the profound conclusion that what we have to fear isn’t the arrogance displayed by her light-skinned school mate but “the Thing” or the system of white supremacy that determined that Maureen was beautiful and not them. In her own way she comes to understands that the power light people wield over dark-skinned people comes from something bigger than both groups – white supremacy.
Through Claudia, Morrison is able to reflect how commercialised white beauty standards and the lack of positive black representation in media wears down the self-esteems of even otherwise confident black girls and women. Morrison also makes a point to highlight how Pecola’s mother, Pauline, develops a deeper inferiority complex the more she indulges in watching movies starring conventionally attractive white actresses such as Jean Harlow. The novel does a brilliant job of portraying, in a dramatic fashion, the psychological harm racist conditioning has on black people and how they go on to perpetuate the violence and degradation they experience.
Ultimately, I think the cultural significance of this novel stems from this ability to show the strong connection between the politics of beauty and the inhumane treatment of people. Critique of narrow beauty standards is often dismissed as trivial and even self-indulgent. In this novel Morrison shows how conventional beauty is a currency through which people can gain social acceptance, empathy, attention, dignity and love. Although Pecola experiences multiple forms of marginalization and disenfranchisement, the hatred and devaluing of the body she exists in is what internalize the most. Colourism and racism affect Pecola’s quality of life to the extent that she believes that if she could alter herself to appear whiter all her suffering could come to an end – and to an extent she is right.
In the introduction, Morrison points to the fact that Pecola is vulnerable because completely dependent on external validation for her sense of self and that is what makes her a tragic future. However, the question arises, can a person be expected to develop a good self esteem in conditions of consistent degradation. In addition, would it have mattered if Pecola had not internalized the colourism she experiences? As a child she is at the absolute mercy of the adults around her and their dysfunction and bigotry – the character is a perfect prism through which Morrison personifies victim-hood. Pecola’s circumstances are extreme but all black girls can relate to some aspect of her experience, the MacTeer girls, for example, have present and loving parents but this does not protect them from being insulted for their dark skin by their peers.
Why Morrison’s humanised characters make it difficulty not to relate
It can be very easy for us as readers to only identify with the victim or those who support the victim and never see some of ourselves in the aggressors and their destructive actions. Morrison sets out to make this extremely difficult by humanizing characters who are responsible for destroying Pecola’s self image and ultimately her sanity. Cholly, Pauline and even the religious charlatan, Soaphead Church, all get detailed background stories. Pauline even narrates a large portion of hers – so the reader understand why they are what they are and how they themselves were socially isolated, emotionally neglected and victimized. Thus, it is not easy to distance ourselves from them. Morrison forces is to see how cycles of violence are perpetuated and, most importantly, makes us relate to the antagonists. This should not make us excuse their actions but reflect on our own bigotry and how there are Pecolas in our families, communities and societies who bare the brunt of it despite all the reasons behind why we’re dysfunctional.
The brilliance of The Bluest Eye stems from its ability to not only depict the injustice of anti-blackness but also the great tragedy of anti- blackness. In the foreword Morrison writes that often people are touched by literature but they are not moved. It is clear that The Bluest Eye was written to makes us uncomfortable and distressed in such a way that only confronting our own anti-blackness, colourism, misogyny and classism could bring us ease. It is a book that gives us a sense of the severe impact white supremacist beauty standards have on the quality of life of those they deem sub-human. As this conversation that should be about how our society uses white beauty as a measuring stick for humanity continuously gets steered towards red herring discussions about sexual attraction and romantic preferences, we need this rude awakening.