Study Guide

The Bluest Eye

by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye Essay - The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison

Introduction

The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison

(Born Chloe Anthony Wofford) American novelist, nonfiction writer, essayist, playwright, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye (1970) through 2000. For further information on her life and complete works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 10, 22, 87, and 194.

Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, examines the tragic effects of imposing white, middle-class American ideals of beauty on the developing female identity of a young African American girl during the early 1940s. Inspired by a conversation Morrison once had with an elementary school classmate who wished for blue eyes, the novel poignantly shows the psychological devastation of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who searches for love and acceptance in a world that denies and devalues people of her own race. As her mental state slowly unravels, Pecola hopelessly longs to possess the conventional American standards of feminine beauty—namely, white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes—as presented to her by the popular icons and traditions of white culture. Written as a fragmented narrative from multiple perspectives and with significant typographical deviations, The Bluest Eye juxtaposes passages from the Dick-and-Jane grammar school primer with memories and stories of Pecola's life alternately told in retrospect by one of Pecola's now-grown childhood friends and by an omniscient narrator. Published in the midst of the Black Arts movement that flourished during the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Bluest Eye has attracted considerable attention from literary critics—though not to the same degree as Morrison's later works. With its sensitive portrait of African American female identity and its astute critique of the internalized racism bred by American cultural definitions of beauty, The Bluest Eye has been widely seen as a literary watershed, inspiring a proliferation of literature written by African American women about their identity and experience as women of color.

Plot and Major Characters

Ignoring strict narrative chronology, The Bluest Eye opens with three excerpts from the common 1940s American elementary school primer that features the All-American, white family of Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane. The first excerpt is a faithful reproduction, the second lacks all capitalization and punctuation marks, and the third dissolves into linguistic chaos by abandoning its spacing and alignment. This section is interrupted by an italicized fragment representing the memories of Claudia MacTeer, the principal narrator of The Bluest Eye. As an adult, Claudia recalls incidents from late 1941 when she was nine years old living in Lorain, Ohio, with her poor but loving parents and her ten-year-old sister, Frieda. Claudia's friend, Pecola Breedlove, is an emotionally impaired African American girl who comes from a broken home. The rest of The Bluest Eye divides into four separate time sequences, each named for a season of the year and each narrated by Claudia. Interspersed throughout the text are fragments in the voice of an omniscient narrator that discuss Pecola's obsessive desire for blue eyes and her parents, Pauline and Cholly; each fragment is introduced with different lines from the Dick-and-Jane primer. In “Autumn,” Claudia begins her narrative as the MacTeers take in a boarder, Mr. Henry Washington. At the same time, Pecola comes to live with the MacTeer family after Cholly burns down his family's house. Recounting their typical girlhood adventures, Claudia particularly remembers the onset of Pecola's first menses. The omniscient narrator intermittently interrupts with descriptions of the Breedlove's household, noting how the parents are unable to hide the violence of their relationship in the presence of Pecola and her brother Sammy. In the midst of the hostilities, Pecola constantly prays for blue eyes, believing that if she only had blue eyes, life would be better. In “Winter,” Claudia recalls the arrival at school of Maureen Peale, a lighter-skinned, wealthy black girl with green eyes whom the girls both hate and admire. When a group of boys harasses Pecola, Maureen temporarily befriends Pecola, but eventually turns on her, calling the darker-skinned and deeply hurt Pecola “ugly.” The omniscient narrator again interrupts and describes an incident involving Pecola and Geraldine, a socially mobile middle-class African American woman who loves her blue-eyed cat more than she loves her own son, Louis Junior. When Pecola is wrongly blamed for the cat's death, Geraldine quietly calls her a “nasty little black bitch.” Claudia opens the “Spring” sequence of The Bluest Eye with disparate memories about Henry Washington fondling Frieda's breasts, his subsequent beating and eviction by Mr. MacTeer, and a visit to Pecola's apartment. The omniscient narrator's descriptions of Pauline and Cholly's history predominate the rest of this section. The narrator relates events from Pauline's early life, her marriage, and how she became a maid for an affluent, white family. The narrator next recounts Cholly's traumatic childhood and adolescence. Abandoned almost at birth, he is rescued by his beloved Aunt Jimmy, who later dies when he is sixteen. After her burial, Cholly is humiliated by two white hunters who interrupt his first sexual encounter with a girl named Darlene. He flees to Macon, Georgia, in search of his father who is miserably mean and wants nothing to do with his son. Crushed by this encounter, Cholly eventually meets and marries Pauline and fathers her children. Years later, in Lorain, a drunken Cholly staggers into his kitchen, and overcome with lust, brutally rapes and impregnates Pecola. “Spring” concludes with a story about Soaphead Church, a self-proclaimed psychic and mystic, who counsels an unattractive black girl who wishes she had blue eyes. In “Summer,” Claudia resumes her narration, recalling how the gossip spreads regarding Pecola being pregnant with Cholly's baby. Near the end of the novel, Pecola finally narrates a story about her conversation with an imaginary companion concerning her new blue eyes and whether they are “the bluest eyes” in the world. In the last section of The Bluest Eye Claudia remembers meeting Pecola after Cholly's baby is delivered stillborn and accounts for the whereabouts of Sammy, Cholly, and Pauline.

Major Themes

In The Bluest Eye, the opening excerpt from the Dick-and-Jane primer juxtaposed with the experiences of African American characters immediately sets the tone for Morrison's examination of a young black girl's growing self-hatred: American society tells Pecola happy, white, middle-class families are better than hopeless, black, working-class families. Victimized in different degrees by media messages—from movies and books to advertising and merchandise—that degrade their appearance, nearly every black character in the novel—both male and female—internalizes a desire for the white cultural standard of beauty. This desire is especially strong in Pecola, who believes that blue eyes will make her beautiful and lovable. At the same time, every African American character hates in various degrees anything associated with their own race, blindly accepting the media-sponsored belief that they are ugly and unlovable, particularly in the appalling absence of black cultural standards of beauty. In a sense, Pecola becomes the African American community's scapegoat for its own fears and feelings of unworthiness. Unlike Claudia, who possesses the love of her family, Pecola has learned from her appearance-conscious parents to devalue herself. She endures rejection by others who also value “appearances” and who ultimately share the same symptoms that characterize Pecola's insanity. Besides exposing the inherent racism of the American standard of beauty, The Bluest Eye also examines child abuse in terms of the violence that some African American parents subconsciously inflict on their children by forcing them to weigh their self-worth against white cultural standards. Cholly's rape of Pecola in effect culminates the psychological, social, and personal depreciation by white society that has raped Cholly his entire life. As his surname implies, Cholly can only breed, not love, and his brutal act against his daughter produces a child who cannot live. Finally, Pecola's longing for blue eyes speaks to the connection between how one is seen and how one sees. Pecola believes that if she had beautiful eyes, people would not be able to torment her mind or body. Her wish for blue eyes rather than lighter skin transcends racism, with its suggestion that Pecola wants to see things differently as much as to be seen differently, but the price for Pecola's wish ultimately is her sanity, as she loses sight of both herself and the world she inhabits.

Critical Reception

Regarded by modern literary critics as perhaps one of the first contemporary female bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narratives, The Bluest Eye initially received modest reviews upon its publication in 1970. Commentators later claimed that they neglected the work because Morrison was unknown at the time. Since then, however, The Bluest Eye has become a classroom staple, and scholarship on the novel has flourished from a number of perspectives. A recurring discussion has focused on the novel's ability to replicate African American vernacular patterns and musical rhythms. Many critics have approached the novel in the context of the rise of African American writers, assigning significance to their revision of American history with their own cultural materials and folk traditions. Others have considered the ways The Bluest Eye alludes to earlier black writings in order to express the traditionally silenced female point of view and uses conventional grotesque imagery as a vehicle for social protest. Scholars also have been attracted to The Bluest Eye by its deconstruction of “whiteness” along racial, gender, and economic lines, while feminists have equated the violence of the narrative with self-hatred wrought by a wide range of illusions about white American society and African American women's place in it. In addition, some have examined the influence of environment on the novel's characters, identifying stylistic affinities with literary naturalism. Others have offered Marxist interpretations of the novel's formal aspects in terms of the ideological content of its representation of African American life. Acknowledging Morrison's achievement in the novel, critics have generally acclaimed The Bluest Eye for deconstructing a number of literary taboos with its honest portrayals of American girlhood, its frank descriptions of intraracial racism or “colorism” in the African American community, and its thoughtful treatment of the emotional precocity of prepubescent girls.

Principal Works

The Bluest Eye (novel) 1970

Sula (novel) 1973

The Black Book [editor] (nonfiction) 1974

Song of Solomon (novel) 1977

Tar Baby (novel) 1981

Dreaming Emmett (play) 1986

Beloved (novel) 1987

Jazz (novel) 1992

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (essays) 1992

Rac-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality [editor and author of introduction] (essays) 1992

*The Dancing Mind (speech)...

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Criticism

Keith E. Byerman (essay date June 1982)

SOURCE: Byerman, Keith E. “Intense Behaviors: The Use of the Grotesque in The Bluest Eye and Eva's Man.CLA Journal 25, no. 4 (June 1982): 447-57.

[In the following essay, Byerman compares the use of grotesque literary conventions in The Bluest Eye and Gayl Jones's Eva's Man, highlighting its suitability to African American literature as a vehicle for social protest.]

At the end of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, the little black girl Pecola, a victim of incest, is pictured talking to herself in a mirror about her imaginary blue eyes. At the end of Eva's Man, by Gayl Jones, Eva is describing, in increasing incomprehensible...

(The entire section is 4009 words.)

Madonne M. Miner (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Miner, Madonne M. “Lady No Longer Sings the Blues: Rape, Madness, and Silence in The Bluest Eye.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, pp. 176-91. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Miner links oral storytelling traditions to the process of self-definition in The Bluest Eye, exploring the intersections between Pecola's narrative and mythic accounts of Greek goddesses Philomena and Persephone.]

Robert Stepto begins a recent interview with Toni Morrison by commenting on the “extraordinary sense of place” in her novels. He notes that...

(The entire section is 6083 words.)

Ruth Rosenberg (essay date winter 1987)

SOURCE: Rosenberg, Ruth. “Seeds in Hard Ground: Black Girlhood in The Bluest Eye.MELUS 21, no. 4 (winter 1987): 435-45.

[In the following essay, Rosenberg discusses several aspects of The Bluest Eye that differentiate Morrison's novel from earlier fictional accounts of African American girlhood, including descriptions of first menses and mother-daughter interactions, “colorism,” and the emotional precocity of pre-adolescent girls.]

Little black girls learned their lessons in self-authentication from autobiographies of such artists as Mahalia Jackson, Maya Angelou, and Bessie Smith, which explained how, in spite of immense obstacles, one might...

(The entire section is 4589 words.)

Michael Awkward (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Awkward, Michael. “Roadblocks and Relatives: Critical Revision in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.” In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay, pp. 57-68. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988.

[In the following essay, Awkward considers the ways Morrison has incorporated and manipulated the works of earlier African American writers in The Bluest Eye in order to express and validate specific types of African American female experiences whose cultural significance those texts often deny.]

In “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” Toni Morrison insists that ancestors play an essential role in individual works in the...

(The entire section is 4820 words.)

Trudier Harris (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Harris, Trudier. “Reconnecting Fragments: Afro-American Folk Tradition in The Bluest Eye.” In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay, pp. 68-76. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988.

[In the following essay, Harris examines the influence of African American folk traditions in The Bluest Eye with respect to the relation between communal patterns of survival and coping and the shaping of individual character.]

The Bluest Eye is not only the story of the destructive effects of inter- and intraracial prejudice upon impressionable black girls in the midwest; it is also the story of Afro-American folk culture in process....

(The entire section is 4316 words.)

Thomas H. Fick (essay date spring 1989)

SOURCE: Fick, Thomas H. “Toni Morrison's “Allegory of the Cave”: Movies, Consumption, and Platonic Realism in The Bluest Eye.Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 22, no. 1 (spring 1989): 10-22.

[In the following essay, Fick analyzes the themes, structures and characters of The Bluest Eye in relation to Western literary and philosophical traditions, as primarily represented in T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland and Plato's “Allegory of the Cave,” and their significance to African American economic and social conditions.]

Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), is an unusually effective exploration of racism in...

(The entire section is 6942 words.)

Vanessa D. Dickerson (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Dickerson, Vanessa D. “The Naked Father in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.” In Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy, edited by Patricia Yaeger and Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, pp. 108-27. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Dickerson analyzes the “doubled” identity of fathers—characterized as at once both “familiar” and “unknowable” to their daughters—in The Bluest Eye, focusing on the way Cholly's familiarity with Pecola causes not only his daughter's demise but also his own.]

In Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970), the nine-year-old narrator Claudia McTeer...

(The entire section is 8104 words.)

Shelley Wong (essay date summer 1990)

SOURCE: Wong, Shelley. “Transgression as Poesis in The Bluest Eye.Callaloo 13, no. 3 (summer 1990): 471-81.

[In the following essay, Wong isolates a two-fold process in Morrison's narrative method in The Bluest Eye that transgresses conventional boundaries of signification and then reconfigures the material to form a new order of signification.]

In the opening pages of The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes that since the “why” of Pecola and Cholly Breedlove's situation is “difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how” (9). This admission, hardly the admission of a lack of technique or craft, is, instead, Morrison's admission that...

(The entire section is 5795 words.)

Doreatha Drummond Mbalia (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond. “The Bluest Eye: The Need for Racial Approbation.” In Toni Morrison's Developing Class Consciousness, pp. 28-38. Selinsgrove, Mass.: Susquehanna University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Mbalia traces the narrative development of racism as the primary focus of The Bluest Eye in order to account for the novel's structural limitations.]

In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison's emphasis is on racism. Specifically, she investigates the effects of the beauty standards of the dominant culture on the self-image of the African female adolescent. The role of class, the primary form of exploitation experienced by...

(The entire section is 4628 words.)

John Bishop (essay date summer 1993)

SOURCE: Bishop, John. “Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Explicator 51, no. 4 (summer 1993): 252-55.

[In the following essay, Bishop comments on the ironic implications of Pecola's name in The Bluest Eye with respect to ideals of beauty.]

Many writers have noted the importance of names (and the act of naming) in Toni Morrison's novels but, surprisingly, no one in print has noted the ironies surrounding the name of Pecola Breedlove, the central character of The Bluest Eye.1

“I just moved here. My name is Maureen Peal. What's yours?”

“Pecola.”...

(The entire section is 1361 words.)

Harihar Kulkarni (essay date summer 1993)

SOURCE: Kulkarni, Harihar. “Mirrors, Reflections, and Images: Malady of Generational Relationship and Girlhood in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Indian Journal of American Studies 23, no. 2 (summer 1993): 1-6.

[In the following essay, Kulkarni interprets Pecola's fate in The Bluest Eye through Jacques Lacan's theory of the mirror stage of psychosexual development, tracing the origin of Pecola's sense of inferiority to Pauline's self-image.]

The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison's The Waste Land. Like Eliot, she too, in a limited sense, presents bleak, wastelandish human conditions characterized by grotesque environment which, like the earth...

(The entire section is 3549 words.)

Jane Kuenz (essay date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Kuenz, Jane. “The Bluest Eye: Notes on History, Community, and Black Female Subjectivity.” African American Review 27, no. 3 (fall 1993): 421-31.

[In the following essay, Kuenz shows the relationship between images of mass culture and identity development by focusing on its detrimental effects on the subjectivity of the African American female characters in The Bluest Eye.]

In Toni Morrison The Bluest Eye, the Breedloves' storefront apartment is graced overhead by the home of three magnificent whores, each a tribute to Morrison's confidence in the efficacy of the obvious. The novel's unhappy convergence of history, naming, and...

(The entire section is 6496 words.)

Edmund A. Napieralski (essay date fall 1994)

SOURCE: Napieralski, Edmund A. “Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Explicator 53, no. 1 (fall 1994): 59-62.

[In the following essay, Napieralski compares and contrasts the narrative elements of The Bluest Eye with those of the classical myth of Oedipus.]

In addition to the popular myths that she uses in The Bluest Eye to criticize society—the Dick and Jane Story and Pauline Breedlove's Dreamland Theatre—Toni Morrison also incorporates characters, incidents, and themes that recall classical myth. In her article, “Lady Sings the Blues,” Madonne M. Miner has explained how Pecola's rape by her father recalls Philomela's by Tereus and Persephone's...

(The entire section is 1508 words.)

Mark Ledbetter (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Ledbetter, Mark. “Through the Eyes of a Child: Looking for Victims in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.” In Literature and Theology at Century's End, edited by Gregory Salyer and Robert Detweiler, pp. 177-88. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Ledbetter examines the characteristics of the victims in The Bluest Eye and the reader's response to them, investigating the ethical dimensions of writing and reading the novel.]

…
And then last night, I tiptoed up
To my daughter's room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there …
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her...

(The entire section is 4601 words.)

Lynn Scott (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Scott, Lynn. “Beauty, Virtue and Disciplinary Power: A Foucauldian Reading of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Midwestern Miscellany 24 (1996): 9-23.

[In the following essay, Scott correlates Michel Foucault's theories about the workings of power in modern societies with Morrison's exploration of American racism in The Bluest Eye, demonstrating Morrison's contention that racism has less to do with exclusion than with the pressure to assimilate to cultural ideals of beauty and virtue.]

In that young and growing Ohio town whose side streets, even, were paved with concrete, which sat on the edge of a calm blue lake, which...

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Allen Alexander (essay date summer 1998)

SOURCE: Alexander, Allen. “The Fourth Face: The Image of God in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.African American Review 32, no. 2 (summer 1998): 293-303.

[In the following essay, Alexander explores Morrison's representation and allusions to a deity in The Bluest Eye, contrasting Western notions of the divine with African perceptions of the same, which traditionally associate the deity with evil in this world.]

Religious references, both from Western and African sources, abound in Toni Morrison's fiction, but nowhere are they more intriguing or perplexing than in The Bluest Eye. And of the many fascinating religious references in this novel,...

(The entire section is 6734 words.)

Carl D. Malmgren (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Malmgren, Carl D. “Texts, Primers, and Voices in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 41, no. 3 (spring 2000): 251-62.

[In the following essay, Malmgren studies the multicultural and polyphonic structures of The Bluest Eye with respect to the novel's concern with victimization and its causes.]

The Bluest Eye represents a remarkable undertaking, especially for a first novel. In terms of formal features, it might be described as a kind of narratological compendium. For one thing, the novel incorporates several different forms of textuality. It opens with three different versions of its epigraphic...

(The entire section is 5768 words.)