Toni Morrison, author, professor, editor, and speaker, has penned novels, works of nonfiction, children’s books, and other works. In 1988, she won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her novel Beloved. Morrison’s work has been instrumental in opening doors for a mainstream readership of African American literature. Her works are known for their exposure of racial issues through strong characterization, difficult themes, and varied points of view. The Bluest Eye, her first novel, is based on the memory of a childhood acquaintance’s desire for blue eyes.
One of Morrison’s common themes is community versus the individual. This theme confronts race issues through the consideration of the individual as other and the examination of a community’s unwillingness to provide for or support the oppressed. Early in The Bluest Eye, Claudia MacTeer relates how she and her sister Frieda learn about their community. Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. . . . We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre.
In listening to this “dance,” the girls learn how to behave, what to believe, and how to view the individuals in the community. Pecola’s pregnancy, specifically, is related through this communal gossip.
Another community issue is intraracial tension. Maureen Peal, the wealthy light-skinned girl who temporarily befriends Pecola, and Geraldine, the light-skinned Southern mother of Junior, personify the issue of skin tone. Their denunciation of Pecola reflects the rejection of African Americans through white oppression.
Family is the strongest example of community in the novel. While the MacTeer family protects Frieda from Mr. Henry’s advances, more important is the contrast between the MacTeer parents and the Breedlove parents. Claudia’s father protects his child, while Cholly Breedlove is his daughter’s predator.
Pauline and Cholly blame segregation from the broader community, because of poverty and racism, for their life choices. Furthermore, the community’s lack of concern for Pecola or her baby is another example of a failure of responsibility. Many of the adults blame Pecola for her pregnancy, and only Claudia and Frieda seem to care about Pecola’s baby. The cruelty of the women in the community extends to their condemnations of the baby. She [Pecola] be lucky if it don’t live. Bound to be the ugliest thing walking. . . . Can’t 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.
Claudia remembers that we were embarrassed for Pecola, hurt for her, and finally we just felt sorry for her. . . . I believe our sorrow was the more intense because nobody else seemed to share it. . . . [W]e listened for the one who would say “Poor little girl,” or “Poor baby,” but there was only head-wagging where those words should have been.
At the end of the novel, Pecola is left wandering, both literally and symbolically, on the edges of the community that has rejected her.
One distinction between community and individual is self-hatred. Morrison explores this through Pecola’s desire for blue eyes, through Claudia’s hatred of blond-haired and blue-eyed white icons, and through the variety of characters. The Breedlove family member’s self-hatred stems from their belief that they “were not relentlessly and aggressively ugly.” Cholly, alone, is ugly because of his actions.
Another critical concern is the novel’s narrative form. Morrison begins the novel with a passage from an old-fashioned elementary-school primer. This passage presents the typical white family as Dick and Jane, who live in a nice home, have solid parents, and enjoy life. Pieces of this primer are used as a contrast to start most chapters. Immediately following is a brief reminiscence from Claudia, providing basic thematic concerns. The rest of the novel is broken into the four seasons that pass as Pecola’s story is revealed, intertwined with Claudia’s observations. The chapters in each section vary in point of view: first-person, omniscient, and objective.
Claudia’s chapters are always first-person, but in some chapters, she tells the story as a child. The chapters about Pecola also are often presented in first-person; however, she is further victimized because she is never the narrator. Instead, through the words of others, she is pitied (by Claudia), overlooked (by her mother), raped (by her father, Cholly), used and manipulated (by Soaphead), and objectified (by insanity).