One major motif of this novel is beauty, and how society and individuals define that beauty. Morrison is responding to the pressure in the black community to live up to white society's standards of beauty, which in itself is a response to centuries of racism. Set in the 1940's, the novel's characters react to the icons of the silver screen: Shirley Temple, Jean Harlow, etc.--all white women.
Pecola's response to this pressure is a desire to have blue eyes, which to her are central to being beautiful. She feels that she would be able to transcend the ugliness of her life and change the behavior of her parents. She worships the white icons of the 1940s: she drinks three quarts of milk at the MacTeer's house so that she can use the cup with Shirley Temple's picture on it, buys Mary Janes at the candy store so that she can admire the picture of the blond-haired, blue-eyed girl on the wrapper, and even resorts to contacting Soaphead Church, thinking that perhaps he can make her eyes blue. By the novel's end, Pecola truly believes she has blue eyes. The result is an analysis of the damage the ideals of white society can have on a young black girl who, seeing no other options, embraces them.
Unfortunately, Pecola's realization that society defines ideal beauty in a way completely opposite from her one appearance contributes to her initiation into adulthood. Essentially, her life ends as a consequence of holding these beliefs. Again, she meets only destruction as she descends into insanity after the death of her child, finding emotional nourishment in her belief that she not only has blue eyes but has the bluest of them all.