The Bluest Eye tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young African American girl immersed in poverty and made “ugly” by the American culture of the early 1940’s that defines beauty in terms of such actors as Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, and Shirley Temple. Her mother beats and abuses her, and her father rapes and abandons her. Toni Morrison introduces the novel with a two-page parody of the Dick-and-Jane reader; the monotonous sentences of the reader repeat with increasing speed until the words run together. The parody is followed by a one-page interior monologue from the main narrator, Claudia MacTeer, who sets the scene for the four sections that make up the rest of the novel: “Autumn,” “Winter,” “Spring,” and “Summer.” The subsections are introduced by run-together lines from the Dick-and-Jane parody.
“Autumn” begins with Claudia MacTeer’s bleak sketch of her own home and impoverishment and moves toward Pecola’s brief stay with Claudia’s family after Cholly, Pecola’s father, burns the Breedlove home. While staying with the MacTeers, Pecola begins to menstruate and learns that she can now have a baby if some man loves her. “Autumn” ends with a sketch of three misanthropic “whores” who, unsentimentally, provide Pecola with the little warmth that she experiences.
“Winter,” a shorter section of the novel, begins by sketching the face of Claudia and Frieda’s father and then sketching his nakedness, which the daughters see accidentally. Because Mr. MacTeer’s nakedness is nonthreatening, it leaves Claudia and Frieda more astonished than offended. In contrast, the section ends with Pecola’s misery in the home of Louis and Geraldine, elitist African Americans who regard people such as Pecola as trash. Pecola has been lured into the home by their mean son, Junior, who promises to give Pecola a kitten. Once there, Junior, who is jealous of his mother’s blue-eyed, black cat, throws the cat in Pecola’s face and locks her in the room. When Junior discovers that Pecola likes the cat, he hurls the cat against the wall, leaving it unconscious when Geraldine arrives home. Junior blames the cat’s near-death on Pecola, and Geraldine, enraged by Pecola’s impoverished ugliness, calls Pecola a “black bitch” and tells her to get out.
“Spring,” comprising almost a third of the novel, begins with Claudia’s father beating up Mr. Henry, their roomer, for fondling Frieda, another scene contrasting the father-daughter relationship in the Breedlove family. Most of “Spring,” however, focuses on flashbacks to the earlier lives of Mrs. Breedlove and Cholly. In Mrs. Breedlove’s narration, she traces the loss of her romantic illusion and recollects the details of making love with Cholly in their youth. Her section ends shortly after her recollection of an orgasm. In Cholly Breedlove’s narrative, Morrison avoids interior monologue but uses an external first-person perspective to reclaim Cholly’s history in Georgia as an infant abandoned by his insane mother and reared by his Great Aunt Jimmy. Though Cholly’s story includes his marriage to Mrs. Breedlove, the final sexual image refers not to her but to his rape of their daughter.
“Spring” concludes with the pregnant Pecola seeking out Soaphead Church to petition him for blue eyes. Soaphead affirms Pecola’s desire to have blue eyes so that she will no longer be ugly. As Pecola’s rite of passage, Soaphead tricks her into poisoning his landlady’s dog, an animal that offends Soaphead’s sensibilities. Concluding “Spring,” Soaphead writes a letter to God on Pecola’s behalf and then sleeps dreamlessly while Pecola drifts into madness and his landlady finds her poisoned dog.
“Summer,” the shortest section of The Bluest Eye, is narrated by Claudia. She and her sister try to sell marigold seeds to earn a bicycle, and as they listen to neighborhood gossip, they piece together Pecola’s story. Pecola is pregnant with Cholly’s child. Cholly has fled. Mrs. Breedlove has beaten Pecola. Claudia and Frieda are disillusioned that no one wants the baby to live. As a petition for Pecola and the baby’s life, Claudia and Frieda bury the money for the bicycle and plant the marigolds. Yet the marigolds do not grow. Claudia speculates that maybe she planted the seeds too deep but that maybe “the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year.”
The final scenes focus on Pecola’s madness and on her obsession with having the bluest eyes. Claudia, as narrator, reveals that the baby is dead; that Pecola’s brother, Sammy, left town; that Cholly died in a workhouse; and that Mrs. Breedlove still does housework. Claudia realizes that Pecola’s beauty was turned ugly by society and that “[l]ove is never any better than the lover.” Claudia ends with the lament “it’s much, much, much too late.”