In The Bluest Eye, Morrison works with many themes, among them impoverishment, destructive mythologies, gender relations, and loss of innocence. Impoverishment is clearly tied not only to cultural and racial identities but also to familial values. Mrs. Breedlove works for more than one white family, but she respects only the Fishers, who satisfy her lifelong need for order; ironically, the order that she respects strips her of her marital status (as Mrs. Breedlove) and even of her Christian name, Pauline. She becomes “Polly,” the “ideal servant.” Impoverishment becomes more than a racial issue, however, as Morrison explores the differences among African American families. Only partly a racial issue, the contrast between the comfortable life of the half-white Maureen Peal, who is “rich” by Claudia MacTeer’s standards, is juxtaposed against the lives of Frieda and Claudia, whose mother bitterly laments the three quarts of milk that Pecola drinks and Claudia’s illness because such economic losses represent a hardship for the MacTeers.
Finally, there are the Breedloves, whose “blackness,” poverty, and familial values make them ugly. Geraldine, an African American woman groomed for property and family status, explains to her son the difference between “colored people” and “niggers.” When Geraldine finds Pecola trapped in the living room by Junior, she has her chance to demonstrate this distinction. Deceived by Junior’s lies, contemptuous of Pecola’s ugliness and filthiness, Geraldine calls Pecola a “black bitch”—slurring Pecola’s racial and feminine identity—and throws her out. Morrison’s authorial voice addresses these indignities and demonstrates that in a racist and impoverished culture, beauty and ugliness can be reversed. It is Claudia who sees that Pecola has been stripped of her beauty, but the reader sees clearly the ugliness of Geraldine and Junior, the insensitivity of Maureen Peal, and the unquestioned entitlement of the Fishers.
Morrison also addresses many destructive American mythologies, perhaps most powerfully the romantic mythology and the beauty mythology alluded to in her title The Bluest Eye. Mrs. Breedlove is destroyed, in part, by the romantic myth. As a young girl, she dreams of a “Presence” that will show up and know what to do. Cholly Breedlove, who accepts her and even makes her feel special about her crippled foot, plays a part in this mythology. They marry, and Cholly surprises her by being happy that she is pregnant. During her pregnancy, she goes to motion pictures, where she succumbs to her earlier romantic ideas and learns the American ideal of beauty as she watches Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. In the novel, Morrison says of the American ideas of romantic love and physical beauty that they are “[p]robably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.” These are the myths embedded in the Dick-and-Jane parodies that introduce subsections, and not surprisingly, Pecola Breedlove, like her mother, accepts the myths of romantic love and blue-eyed beauty. Pecola’s obsession with blue eyes begins with the Shirley Temple cup in which Frieda MacTeer brings her milk, and the obsession finally consumes Pecola in her madness, when she believes that she has attained the bluest eyes. Morrison’s characters demonstrate that such ideals cannot withstand the realities of human relationships.
In part as a result of the poverty and ugliness and the resulting disillusionment, gender relations fare poorly in The Bluest Eye. The central male, Cholly Breedlove, cannot imagine being content with one women for his entire life. He finds his solace in drinking, womanizing, and finally raping his daughter. The other men and boys in The Bluest Eye also offer little of the ideal. Mr. Henry, the MacTeers’ roomer, is run off for molesting Frieda. Soaphead Church, who also molests little girls, says of the men and women in his family, “Our manhood was defined by acquisitions. Our womanhood by acquiescence.” Even Junior and the other boys on the playground torment the luckless Pecola. Claudia and Frieda’s father provides a contrast of sorts to the other male characters, but he remains more an idea than a real human being.
Morrison’s women and girls are complex and varied. Some are types, such as Geraldine, the women of the church, and Maureen Peal. Others, such as Mrs. Breedlove and Pecola, are culturally impoverished by false values. Still others, such as Cholly’s Great Aunt Jimmy, are strong and decisive. Some are challenges to types, such as the three merry and misanthropic “whores”: Miss China, Miss Poland, and Miss Marie. These women pursue their pleasures without guilt, apology, or introspection. They do not question their value or their beauty. They find a kind of freedom in being outsiders in their culture. Unlike the women in Soaphead’s family, they acquire; they do not acquiesce. Loss of innocence does not concern them. Morrison says of them: “They were whores in whores’ clothing, whores who had never been young and had no word for innocence.”
Innocence, however, concerns Claudia. In her introductory monologue, she says, “Cholly Breedlove is dead; our innocence too.” Again, in her conclusion, she speaks metaphorically of “searching the garbage” for the “thing we assassinated.” She recognizes that the loss of innocence lies in the wrongness of acquiescing to the destruction of another, and she laments that the wrong cannot be undone.
Particularly characteristic of Morrison’s style are interior monologues and complex ideas embodied in common objects and in people. Through the interior monologues, Morrison uses the layout of the novel itself to convey part of the content. “Autumn,” “Winter,” and “Summer” begin with ragged right margins, indicating interior monologue, and end with justified right margins, indicating external narrative. “Spring” moves between ragged and justified margins, using the ragged right margins for Mrs. Breedlove’s interior monologues.
Complex ideas are woven into the very fabric of the objects in the novel. For example, embedded in “Autumn” is a sketch of the sofa in the Breedlove home; it is an irritating piece of furniture, torn by the delivery drivers. The Breedloves detest the sofa, even as they have to make time payments on it. It becomes the idea of the ugliness of the family, and it is, in fact, the place where Pecola is raped by her father a second time. Likewise, the marigolds that will not grow become, for Claudia and Frieda, the idea of barrenness and loss. Claudia speculates that the earth itself may be the problem. Similarly, Morrison’s people act as ideas. Geraldine becomes the idea of a sort of class brutality. Pecola becomes the idea of madness, caused by the myth of blue-eyed beauty. Shirley Temple becomes the idea, a sort of mythology, of blue eyes.