Set in Lorain, Ohio which happens to be the author’s hometown, The Bluest Eye tells the story of black eleven year old Pecola Breedlove, who yearns for her eyes to turn blue so that she can be as beautiful and beloved like all the blond blue-eyed children of America. (The Blurb)
Born to Cholly and Pauline Breedlove, Pecola had no chance in life, for she was born ugly to ugly parents. The Breedloves were ugliness personified; physically, spiritually, emotionally, economically and socially.
You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question…. And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.
And this ugliness permeates the novel because the Breedloves and the community in which they lived based their ideals of beauty on “whiteness.” The White was beautiful, bright, intelligent and superior to the black. Ultimately this pervasive belief also led to the ugly act that was perpetuated on Pecola by her father Cholly. Cholly’s rape of her daughter, springing from a deeply ingrained twisted kind of love, guilt and inadequacy, released Pecola from her ugliness, because for me, in the end, her hallucinating madness encapsulated her in a cocoon, shielded her from the real ‘ugly’ world,and made her see things with her ‘new blue eyes’ that no one was able to see. Her ‘insanity’ at the end of the novel allowed her to escape the real world where she could not be beautiful, to a ‘world’ that made her beautiful, accepted and loved because now she had the bluest eyes she had yearned for at the beginning of the novel and was now beautiful.. And that I think is her saving grace.
The abominable act of incest resulting in a pregnancy, was downplayed by the author and I couldn’t feel disgust at Cholly’s act, that he had done the unthinkable. I rather felt that the ugliness of Cholly had been robbed off on his daughter, making her more ugly to the community. Thus, as Claudia and her sister Frieda related, people did not feel any sympathy for Pecola, and discussed the scandal dispassionately.
“What you reckon make him do a thing like that?”
“Beats me, Just nasty.””Well they ought to take her out of school”
“Ought to . She carry some of the blame. How come she didn’t fight him?”
“They say the way her mama beat her she lucky to be alive herself.”
“She be lucky if it didn’t live. Bound to be the ugliest thing walking”
“Cant’ help but be. Ought to be a law two ugly people doubling up like that to make more ugly. Be better off in the ground.” p 189-190
Claudia and Frieda’s naive act of kindness, working a miracle to save Pecola’s baby by burying their savings and seeds came too late.
“We’ll bury the money over by her house so we can’t go back and dig it up, and we’ll plant the seeds out back our house, so we can watch over them And when they come up, we’ll know everything is all right.” P 192
Pecola’s baby did not live; and the marigolds died, just like the baby.
It was as if Toni Morrison had to make the Breedloves ugly in order to develop her storyline. Cholly, abusive and an alcoholic was rejected by his father and abandoned by his mother when he was four-day-old. This rejection was deep-seated, manifesting in his unstable and unhappy marriage and his eventual rape of his daughter. Pauline, Pecola’s mother lived the self-righteous life of a martyr, enduring her drunk husband and venting her frustrations on her children. A bit of an outcast herself with her shrivelled ‘ugly’ foot, she was unable to love her daughter Pecola. She was lonely, and her escape, a world of dreams. She was only in her element when working for a rich, white family, whom she adored more than her own family.
But The Bluest Eye is not only about ugliness. The novel is also about love, or the lack of it. Pecola found love in the least likely of places, in the home of prostitutes. Being shunned by the community themselves, ‘The Maginot Line’ and her friends accepted Pecola, gave her friendship and love, seeing not her ugliness, but the heart of a sweet child, yearning for love. The MacTeer girls, Claudia and Frieda, whose importance in the novel was not only limited to precocious narrators, also served as protectors of Pecola when other children played mean with her. However, their affection for Pecola only made them see themselves as superior to her. Their ‘beauty’ and ‘superiority’, when juxtaposed with Pecola’s ‘ugliness’ only made them feel wholesome.
“All of our waste which we dumped on her which she absorbed. 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 beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous…………..And she let us, thereby deserved our contempt” P 205
However, for me, the contempt was not Pecola’s but the MacTeers’ and the whole community, (including ‘Soaphead Church’, the fake prophet and paedophile, who gave Pecola her dream of bluest eyes) that failed to reach out to one of their own.
The Bluest Eye is also about poverty, racial self-hatred, racism, physical and verbal abuse, dreams and shattered dreams. With the Great Depression as the background, The Bluest Eye details an America, struggling within a cauldron of black cultural identity, and economic challenges. White supremacy was its best, and even the Blacks could not love each other. Among themselves, some led superficial lives and discriminated, feeling superior to the less fortunate among them. This is reflected in the life of Geraldine and her family who could not find it in their hearts to be charitable towards Pecola. The humiliation she went through in that house further marred her life, deepening her misery and inferiority.
This is my first time reading a Toni Morrison novel. And I was deeply affected by it, as is evidenced by my review. Though the author did not project Pecola as a developed character, for me, she remains my heroine. In her ugliness, I found her beautiful, of character and of heart. For she was a victim of cruel circumstances beyond her control and therein should lie our sympathy.
That said, I believe The Blues Eye is a profound novel worth the read, though the style of the author was not simple. There were about three narrative voices, the omniscient narrator, Claudia MacTeer and Pauline whose narrative gave us an insight and understanding of her background and her transient love she had for Cholly Breedlove.
About the Author: Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She is the author of several novels, including The Bluest Eye, Beloved (made into a major film), and Love. She has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize. She is the Robert F. Goheen Professor at Princeton University.