Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. Set in Morrison's home town of Lorain, Ohio, the novel tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl convinced of her own ugliness who desires nothing more than to have blue eyes. On the first page of the novel, Morrison tells the reader in advance everything that will happen in the pages to follow. Indeed, Morrison alludes to the central event of the book in the first two sentences: "Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby that the marigolds did not grow." Morrison places importance not so much on what happens as on how and why Pecola Breedlove descends into inevitable madness.
Early reviews of The Bluest Eye were favorable, if subdued. Morrison, in an afterword to the 1994 edition of the novel, expresses her dissatisfaction with the reception the novel initially received: "With very few exceptions, the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola's life: dismissed, trivialized, misread." And it has taken twenty-five years for her to gain respect for this publication.
Critical attention to The Bluest Eye was also slow in coming. The subsequent publication of her novels Sula in 1973, Song of Solomon in 1977, and Tar Baby in 1981 increased dramatically the volume of studies on Morrison's work. Certainly, after Morrison's selection as a Pulitzer Prize winner following the publication of Beloved in 1987, critics turned their gazes back to her earlier novels, looking for the origin of themes and controlling images that found expression in Morrison's later work
In an early critique of The Bluest Eye, Chiwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi concentrates on the structure of the novel, noting the "triadic patterns," patterns that appear in threes, present in the work. Further, this writer examines the scapegoating in the novel, ranging from Geraldine's cat, to Bob the dog, and finally to Pecola herself. More recently, Terry Otten, in his book The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Tony Morrison, published in 1989, argues that the theme of The Bluest Eye is "failed innocence." Further, he believes that Morrison "depicts how American Society has substituted beauty for virtue." Likewise, Denise Heinze in her 1993 The Dilemma of "Double-Consciousness": Toni Morrison's Novels examines the ideas of beauty and ugliness in The Bluest Eye. She argues that the African-American community in the novel has internalized "the insidious and lethal standard of westernized beauty" symbolized by blue eyes. Finally, in a long article appearing in the winter 1994 issue of MELUS, Patrice Cormier-Hamilton takes as her subject self-realization. She writes, "A universal characteristic of Morrison's published novels has been her depiction of male and female protagonists failing or succeeding on the difficult journey to freedom through self-awareness."
Toni Morrison herself offers readers insight to her book in the afterword included in the 1994 edition of The Bluest Eye. She recalls how at the time she started elementary school, a young friend told her that she wanted to have blue eyes. Morrison writes, "The Bluest Eye was my effort to say something about that; to say something about why she had not, or possibly ever would have, the experience of what she possessed and also why she prayed for so radical an alteration. Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing. And twenty years later I was still wondering about how one learns that. Who told her? Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her."
Morrison also discusses the problems she had with...
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One of the more interesting characteristics of Toni Morrison's four novels—The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981)—is that each is a part of a whole. They reveal a consistency in Morrison's vision of the human condition, particularly in her preoccupation with the effect of the community on the individual's achievement and retention of an integrated, acceptable self. In treating this subject, she draws recurrently on myth and legend for story pattern and characters, returning repeatedly to the theory of quest as a motivating and organizing device. The goals her characters seek to achieve are similar in their deepest implications, and yet the degree to which they attain them varies radically because each novel is cast in unique human terms. Moreover, the theme of quest is always underscored by ironic insights and intensely evocative imagery. An exploration of these distinguishing qualities, technical and thematic, enhances one's appreciation of her achievement.
The Bluest Eye, Morrison's first novel, presents a failed quest culminating in madness. The young Pecola Breedlove searches painfully for self-esteem as a means of imposing order on the chaos of her world. Because a sense of self-worth and the correlative stability that would accompany it are unavailable to her in the familial or wider environment, she retreats to a subjective world of fantasy.
The novel is framed in several ways, first by the young narrator Claudia, then by chronological time. The story spans a year, moving through "Autumn," "Winter," "Spring," and "Summer." By means of the seasonal cycle and the fact that the girls are entering puberty, Morrison suggests a tale of growth and the eventual fruition of "Summer." The imagery of the prologue, however, immediately undercuts this promise.
Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby that the marigolds did not grow. A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody's did.… It never occurred to either of us that the earth may have been unyielding.
The newly matured Claudia realizes in retrospect that the environment was "unyielding" to both marigold seeds and Pecola Breedlove.
The familiar elementary school story of Dick and Jane provides another ironic frame for Pecola's circumstances:
Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the … house. They are very happy.… Who will play with Jane? See the cat.… See Mother. Mother is very nice.… Mother laughs.… See Father. He is big and strong.… Father is smiling.… See the dog.… Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane.…
For each segment of this idealized picture of secure family life, Morrison offers in counterpoint the bleak specifics of Pecola's existence: shabby home, bitter and hostile parents, and two encounters with animals that are death-giving to her spirit and sanity.
Her parents' problems forecast defeat for Pecola's quest before her birth, and the coming of children only gives them a target for their frustrations. The father's life is a study in rejection and humiliation caused and intensified by poverty and Blackness. He learns early to deal with his hatred against those who cause his impotence by turning it against those who witness it. The mother's love for him decays as insistently as specks appear in her untreated teeth and in proportion to his inability to fill the spaces of loneliness within her. She avenges herself on Cholly by forcing him to indulge in the weaknesses she despises and seeks redemptive suffering through enduring him. Neglecting her own house, children, and husband, she derives satisfaction only from the house in which she is a maid for it offers her a pathetically illusory sense of "power, praise and luxury." After all, she is conceived to be the "ideal servant" there. Gentle with her employers' children, into her own daughter she beats "a fear of life." Neither parent possesses a sense of self-esteem which might be communicated to the child. Their name—Breedlove—is almost too obviously ironic.
The abandoned store in which this family "festers together in the debris of a realtor's whim" can offer no gratification. The furniture, like the store, has the advantage of being affordable. The fabric of the sofa, like that of their lives, "had split straight across the back by the time it was delivered."
Morrison speaks often of...
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It used to be that black magazines like Ebony and Jet, barometers of the levels of black consciousness, earned advertisements for bleaching creams and hair-straighteners. Since the growth of black appreciation of natural color and texture and the advent of the slogan "Black is Beautiful," formed in protest to white standards of beauty, notices for bleaching creams no longer appear, although those for hair-straighteners still do. These illustrate the black woman's dilemma in a world where her white sisters are admonished: "Be a blond." "If you have one life to live, live it as a blond." Occasionally, one sees a black "blond" in the street or in the subway, vividly proclaiming the contradictions of her identity and...
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