Title: The Bluest Eye
Author: Toni Morrison
Publication Date: 1970
Library of Congress Call Number: PS3563.O8749B55
Unlike a few of the other books this year, and unlike some other participants, I hadn’t read The Bluest Eye before. I’d read Beloved, which is a very challenging book, but other than that, I’m not familiar with Morrison’s work. So, although I knew that this book was concerned with the racist beauty standard, that was really all I knew about it when I started reading. I’ve really struggled with writing this post and I know that in a lot of ways I’m just rehearsing what is most obvious about this book—but I take comfort in knowing that Morrison is difficult to write about. 😉 Anyway, bear with me here…
I’ve typed and erased a few sentences that try to give a general idea of what the book is about; it’s complicated enough to make a quick summary difficult. The title refers to Pecola Breedlove’s desire for blue eyes, indicative of her acceptance that her body, that of a twelve year old African American girl, is unacceptable. However, the novel is not about her wish for blue eyes; this is merely the culmination of everything that she has endured throughout the novel. And then, on the other hand, while Pecola emerges as the central character by the end of the book, the narrative does not spend most of its time on her directly. Rather, it comes at her indirectly, mostly through the perspectives and the backstories of other characters. Only at the beginning and the end of the novel do we see things from her point of view. In the edition of the book that I have, Morrison explains that the purpose of this structure was to steer the reader toward self-examination rather than pity, but that in her opinion this was not successful. However, the other effect of this strategy is that it gives the reader a look at how the simmering rage is passed down from one character to another.
The beauty standard is part of this, but it’s far from the only part. Morrison uses a sequence that reads as if it was lifted from a very simple children’s book to begin the novel and again, in pieces, as chapter headings: “Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy.” This idealized conception of a family, of course, contrasts strongly with the complicated and marginalized families we see throughout the novel. This functions both as a critique of privilege, playing as it does on cultural stereotypes about the family, and also introduces in a very simple way what will be complicated later, the need to be loved and valued. These things aren’t independent of each other, of course; the point here is that that which is privileged is understood as worthy of love, and the effects of these assumptions are seen in every character in the novel.
The first-person narrator for several sections of the book is Claudia, who is given white-skinned baby dolls, understands what such dolls represent, and rejects it:
I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me. … But the dismembering of the dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls. The indifference with which I could have axed them was shaken only by my desire to do so. To discover what eluded me: the secret of the magic they weaved on others. What made people look at them and say, “Awwww,” but not for me? (21-23)
Although this specific type of privilege is opaque to her, she is strongly and consciously aware of it, and she reacts with violence (and actually does behave violently toward a white girl early in the story. She indicates that this awareness and strong resistance will fade with age, but as a young girl, she does not feel the pressure to accept these standards and is honest about her rage and resentment at what she can easily recognize as an unjust and irrational beauty standard. This is the simplest form of rage in the novel, and while it still isn’t quite aimed at the appropriate target—after all, little white girls, and especially inanimate objects which represent them, aren’t the ones responsible for promulgating this standard—it’s much closer and, ultimately, much less destructive than the other ways that this anger plays out throughout the novel.
Later, briefly, we meet Geraldine, the mother of one of the children at school. She’s not described as being important for herself, but rather as an example of a type; the introduction to the chapter gives her life history in the plural. There is a certain amount of distance from the voice here—that is, I’m not sure that we really are supposed to see her one of an identical series of women—but rather, we understand that the constraints under which she operates, and her response to them, are shared by many women. These are women who live, essentially, a life of service; ultimately, their marriages also count as service. This is a deal which they accept, even if it’s not a totally fair one, but it comes with a house and a cat and security and some status. Geraldine is as sensitive to the issue of privilege as Claudia is, but unlike Claudia, she cannot openly express wrath over it. Rather, her attitude is aspirational. She encourages her son to play with white children, and distinguishes between the black children with whom he is allowed to play and those with whom he is not in explicitly racialized terms, although many of the differences she finds important are those of social class. It is important to her to maintain her own status, and she needs her husband and her son to help her with this. Although she has certainly achieved respectability, she feels she is always in danger of losing her status: “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” (87). She feels contempt for those she considers beneath her, but it’s also clear that she is not completely happy with herself and obvious that some of the same contempt she feels is reserved for her family. Basically, she turns her anger toward those she sees as lower status rather than the holders of privilege. This is internalized racism, but to describe in in such a neat phrase does not do justice to the complicated nature of her feelings. What can be easily observed and described, though, is how Geraldine’s son Junior hates her cat, because she loves it, and how he hates Pecola, first because she is dark and is known to be ugly, and then because the cat likes her. His rage is not as insightful as Claudia’s; he is angry because he understands that he is not loved more than a cat, and he too has been caught up in his mother’s worldview, but he does not understand it as clearly as she does.
Mrs. Breedlove is not quite the same kind of person as Geraldine, but we see a few similarities (she notes: “I didn’t even have a cat to talk to” (117)). She lacks status when she moves to Ohio, but she gains it by her association with a white family, even though it is as their maid. She uses her work to gain a secret life into which she can escape from her own chaotic family, and thus a vantage point from which she can look down on them. She loves the white family’s house and hates her own, she finds the white family beautiful and her own ugly, and ultimately, she punishes her children for not being like the little Fisher girl. Again, much like Geraldine, instead of being angry about poverty and status differences and racist beauty standards, she is angry with her family for not measuring up. Later in the book, we meet the loathsome Soaphead Church, whose hatred is stronger still.
Cholly, too, directs his anger against those whose status is below his. Interrupted by terrifying giggling white men with guns during his first sexual encounter, he suddenly hates the girl he is with rather than the men:
Sullen, irritable, he cultivated his hatred of Darlene. Never did he once consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless. His subconscious knew what his conscious mind did not guess—that hating them would have consumed him (151).
By this point in the book, we’ve seen this misdirected anger so many times that we are prepared for it. There is another reference to Darlene as “the one whom he had not been able to protect” (151). This is, perhaps, a partial explanation for his rape of Pecola; his reaction to her is “revulsion, guilt, pity then love. … The clear statement of her misery was an accusation. He wanted to break her neck—but tenderly” (161). He’s angry that Pecola seems so helpless and beaten-down, but his rage, again, is toward her, and thus he himself becomes her attacker.
So then, finally, there’s Pecola herself. The adults have all turned their wrath toward her, and she turns it on herself. Her desire for blue eyes does not surface until nearly the end of the novel and is really just the final symptom of her curling in on herself in response to the contempt heaped on her from all sides. It’s not the beauty standard that really causes it; she’s been constantly rejected by her family and by everyone else that she knows, and she’s been raped and impregnated by her father. By the end of the book, even Claudia and Frieda avoid her, for reasons strikingly similar to Cholly’s—“not because she was absurd, or repulsive, or because we were frightened, but because we had failed her” (204-205). At the end, she has nobody to talk to except herself, and even to herself all she can do is ask for reassurance of the one thing that she can cling to, her conviction that her eyes are now blue. It’s what I hinted at in the paragraph on Claudia, above—the problem is not actually the perceived lack of beauty but rather the lack of love and the idea that love comes from fitting into the molds described so succinctly in the text that heads all the chapters. Like all the others, she reacts with rage and violence, but in her case, her victim is herself.