Summary of the Novel
Claudia MacTeer is a young black girl growing up in the small mill town of Lorain, Ohio. Life for her is difficult because her parents are too busy to show loving compassion. Claudia often finds it necessary to fight for herself, because other children try to put her down while adults are too busy with their own affairs and only notice children when there is work to be done. Claudia finds a lot of her anger and aggression directed towards the little white dolls that she receives as presents. It seems to her that these white dolls are given more love and attention than a flesh-and-blood black child.
The lives of Claudia and her sister Frieda take an interesting turn when Pecola Breedlove is temporarily placed in the MacTeer home by county officials. Pecola’s father burnt down their home, and Pecola needs a place to stay while her father serves his jail sentence. Claudia and Frieda like Pecola because she is quiet and shy and responds to their offers of graham crackers and milk. The milk is brought in a Shirley Temple mug. Pecola and Frieda both love Shirley Temple and soon become involved in a discussion about her. Claudia finds it hard to relate to this topic, but nevertheless they enjoy each other’s company.
The Breedlove family soon comes together again and finds a different home in an ugly house on the corner of a forgotten street. We learn that the entire Breedlove family has serious problems with self-esteem. The Breedloves go through life believing in their ugliness. Pauline, or Mrs. Breedlove, devotes her time to fighting with her husband, Cholly, and taking care of a white family. Cholly, when he is not fighting his wife, spends his days drinking. Their children are either abused or neglected, and each child has coped with this abuse or neglect in a special manner. Sammy has already run away from home many times, while Pecola spends her time trying to be invisible. Pecola prays for blue eyes because she believes that if she were a beautiful girl, everyone in town would treat her nicely.
Pecola, however, is abused by almost everybody in the town. One day, she is brutally teased by a group of boys when she is unexpectedly saved by Frieda, Claudia, and a new girl named Maureen Peal. Maureen Peal is a beautiful, light-skinned girl that becomes friendly towards Pecola for a while. However, Maureen soon turns on the other girls, using her own beauty as a weapon against them. Pecola is also the victim of a cruel prank by a light-skinned boy named Louis Junior, who is resentful towards dark-skinned blacks.
The reader is shown how Pecola’s parents met each other. Pauline Williams’ dreams are dashed at an early age when she steps on a nail and develops a crippled foot. It is only when she meets Cholly Breedlove that she begins to feel the magic of life. However, when the newly married couple move to Lorain, they begin to drift apart from each other. Pauline takes solace in the movies, watching the pretty actresses and emulating their hairstyles, but she becomes uglier and uglier. Once she has two children, she begins to spend most of her days taking care of a white family so that she can at least keep the illusion of being beautiful.
Cholly also had a difficult childhood, having been abandoned by both parents. The only person who takes care of him is his Aunt Jimmy, but she dies while Cholly is still a young boy. At Aunt Jimmy’s funeral, Cholly meets another girl and they go off into a nearby field. Their kissing is interrupted by two white hunters, who order Cholly to make love to the girl while they watch. Cholly, shamed and humiliated, transfers this anger to the girl rather than the hunters. Soon after this incident, Cholly travels to Macon, Georgia, in search of his natural father. Cholly finds his father but is too afraid to introduce himself and runs away. Without his parents, Cholly lives a life of total freedom but is confused once he has children with Pauline. He is unable to understand how to love his children and deals with this confusion by drinking. One drunken night, he comes home and finds Pecola washing the dishes. When Pecola scratches her leg with her foot, it causes Cholly to remember when he first met this wife. The memory of tickling his wife’s foot, as well as his drunken state, are factors which lead him to rape Pecola.
After the rape, Pecola decides to go to Soaphead Church, the “spiritual advisor” of the town. Pecola asks him for blue eyes, and the man is moved. He decides to help the girl and deceives her into poisoning a dog that he hates, telling her that it would be a sign that God has heard her prayers. Once Pecola leaves, Soaphead Church writes a letter to God, telling Him that he has granted this girl her wish because God has obviously not been listening to her prayers.
Pecola’s pregnancy at the hands of her father causes a terrible scandal, and Pecola is thrown out of school. The town condemns Cholly but feels that Pecola must share some of the blame for not fighting back. When Claudia and Frieda hear about their friend, they decide to pray for her and sacrifice some flower seeds that they were going to use to make money. However, the seeds that the girls planted refuse to grow, and Pecola’s baby dies. Claudia and Frieda avoid Pecola afterwards, thinking that they had failed their friend. Pecola is left to wander the streets. She has been driven insane by the abuse and spends her time looking in a mirror and talking with her imaginary friend about her blue eyes. Claudia, now grown up, looks back at that time and understands that it was not her fault that Pecola had become insane, and it is now too late to help Pecola recover.
The Life and Work of Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931. Her birthplace was Lorain, Ohio, which also serves as the setting for The Bluest Eye. Her parents both moved to Lorain from the South in search of better living conditions. Young Chloe was influenced greatly by her parents and their never-ending quest to improve the lives of their children. The small community was also very supportive of others, and although she was a shy girl, she remembers fondly the support she received as a youngster.
Toni was an excellent student, with a particular fondness for literature. She graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in English and received a master’s degree from Cornell University two years later. At Howard, she changed her name to Toni and was an active participant in their drama club. She continued to love literature, however, and after receiving her master’s degree, she taught literature at Texas Southern University briefly before returning to Howard.
It was at Howard University that she met Harold Morrison, an architect, whom she later married. The Morrisons had two sons together but divorced in 1965. Morrison then relocated to Syracuse, where she became an editor for Random House. By 1967, she was a senior editor but still desired some sort of release for her creative energy.
She was active in writers’ support groups while at Howard but still had not published any works. In Syracuse, she decided to rewrite a short story she had written at Howard about “a girl who wanted blue eyes.” She was encouraged by a fellow editor, Alan Rancler, to turn this story into a full-length novel. The Bluest Eye was turned down by a few publishing companies before being printed by Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston in 1970. The book was given favorable reviews and established her as a talented new writer with a gift for language. A second novel, Sula, was published in 1973 and received a nomination for the National Book Award.
It was her third novel, Song of Solomon, that catapulted her to national prominence. Published in 1977, this novel also won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most famous novel is undoubtedly 1987’s Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize. The Bluest Eye, as well as Morrison’s other novels, have been studied in schools around the country. In addition to writing, Morrison has produced a play, taught and lectured at Yale, Berkeley, and Princeton, and edited anthologies and critical studies of African-American literature. In 1993, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first African-American woman to do so.
Estimated Reading Time
The 160-page novel is short but rather complex. While it is possible to complete the novel in ten hours, it might be necessary to review and reread the entire novel in order to gain a better understanding of Morrison’s use of structure. Teachers should probably allow extra class time for discussion, since there are some controversial scenes (such as Cholly’s rape of his daughter) that will provoke serious debate among the students.