The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel. It is set in 1940s America. The novel is largely based on a personal experience when one of Morrison’s childhood friends confessed her desire to have blue eyes. The author realized that how “implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing”.
The Bluest Eye talks about internalized racism, conventional beauty standards, and the consequences on individuals who do not meet these cultural merits.
Right at the beginning, we learn about Pecola, who is pregnant with her father’s baby. There is a mention of marigolds not growing, a symbolism that only unleashes itself in the end. Our primary narrator of the story is Claudia MacTeer. The MacTeer family takes Pecola as a foster child. Claudia, along with her sister, Freida takes us back and forth on Pecola’s journey.
It feels guilty to say that I ‘loved’ The Bluest Eye. Yes, each word was put to paper with care, the descriptions are genius, each phrase framed with a waterfall gorgeousness. But, how can I love something that is so truly gut-wrenching, filled with so much pain & grief?
A black female child, Pecola, is chosen to be this story’s protagonist for a reason: Morrison wanted to choose a character that is the most vulnerable of all the minorities, the three-way intersectionality inherent here (Black, female, child) is often ignored. She also did not want literature to simply skip over the part where Black wasn’t considered beautiful.
This novel makes you sit and question “What is truly ugly?” Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove’s desire (or rather obsession) to have blue eyes stems from her lack of whiteness, her lack of fitting in into conventional beauty. The standards still stand today. In fact, there are only additions – fit into this “ideal” body structure, have these kinds of eyes, those kinds of lips, this kind of nose. The details of our standards have become more minute, more visible, more internalized.
And it is not just the racism and conventional beauty standards that are talked about in The Bluest Eye. Morrison also emphasizes how Claudia hates dolls but is forcefully gifted them evoking a subconscious message to embody their “assigned” role of a caretaker.
Claudia also talks about this in heart-aching and heart-melting detail, when she tells us what she really wants for a Christmas gift: “I want to sit on the low stool in Big Mama’s kitchen with my lap full of lilacs and listen to Big Papa play his violin for me alone.” It painstakingly shows us all children want is love, compassion, and attention.
We see things from the beginning. Claudia, Freida, and Pecola don’t understand racism as kids – they find it mysterious, and are largely immune to its pointy paws: “What was the secret? What did we lack? Why was it important? And so what? Guileless and without vanity, we were still in love with ourselves then. We felt comfortable in our skins, enjoyed the news that our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness.”
They are made to understand this racism, internalize it, and live with it as they grow up – in slow, painful ways.
The wounded adults are the worst and the most difficult part of this story. We learn about Pecola’s mother, Pauline, and her father, Cholly. We learn about their journeys, their hurt, their traumas. In the end, the fact that there are no heroes and no villains in The Bluest Eye is what drives a reader insane.
Even Cholly, Pecola’s father who impregnates her and runs away, is humanized. The kids who bully Pecola face injustice at home themselves. Mrs. Breedlove (Pauline/Polly) is carrying centuries of racism trauma below her belt. The confusing series of Cholly’s thoughts before he rapes Pecola requires a strong stomach. It’s hard to accept.
But it’s a lesson worth learning: That humans behave the way they do because of their past. That their actions can be traced back and are thus humanized. That we all are heroes and villains. The issues we face are largely systemic than individual.
In the end, this trauma is what is given to vulnerable kids. They are never told the right things, never given all the information they need. So, Claudia and Frieda “sacrifice” their bike to save Pecola’s child, but it dies still. Pecola’s character never develops. She goes insane and a heartbreaking conversation is presented between her and her own deluded imagination, falsely believing that she has been granted blue eyes.
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