In the first chapter of The Bluest Eye, "Autumn," note that Pecola and Claudia have different opinions about Shirley Temple and white baby dolls. Explain the two opinions and the significance.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The exposition of Morrison's work shows the extent to which race and ethnicity define one's being in the world.  Color is a quality that wreaks havoc with one's sense of self- worth and one's image.  Both Pecola and Claudia show its destructive impact on their sense of self.

When Pecola first sees the Shirley Temple glass, she is "gazing fondly" at the image of the silver screen star.  Pecola and Frieda talk about "how cu-ute
Shirley Temple was." It becomes clear that Shirley Temple comes to represent a standard of beauty that girls like Pecola will never achieve.  Pecola's love of Shirley Temple is shown to be a love that feeds off of self- hate.  Pecola loves Shirley Temple because of her white skin, her blue eyes, and that she is a standard that the dark- skinned Pecola could never be.  As a result of the love that Pecola has for Shirley Temple's white face, she drinks three quarts of milk out of that glass: "We knew she was fond of the Shirley Temple cup and took every opportunity to drink milk out of it just to handle and see sweet Shirley’s face."  Pecola absorbs the milk because she wants to look at Shirley Temple as an object of yearning and longing, in the hopes of absorbing or becoming something opposite of who she is.  It is Morrison's genius to have Pecola drink "milk," a substance of pure whiteness, almost as a way to lighten her own skin. Pecola's love of Shirley Temple is one rooted in the socially destructive perception of color and its relationship to beauty.  Pecola, one who lives with the curse of ugliness on many levels, simply seeks to be beautiful.  Absorbing as much as she can from Shirley Temple is a part of this yearning.

Claudia has disdain towards Shirley Temple. Whereas Pecola loves her because of her whiteness, Claudia detests Shirley Temple because of all the perceived privileges that go along with being the dominant culture:

I couldn’t join them in their adoration because I hated Shirley. Not because she was cute, but because she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with me. Instead he was enjoying, sharing, giving a lovely dance thing with one of those little white girls whose socks never slid  down under their heels.

Claudia's dislike of Shirley Temple is rooted in social entitlement.  Shirley Temple is able to dance with a Black man, a patriarchal figure who is unable to spend time with Claudia because of his attachment to Shirley Temple.  As a result of Shirley Temple's beauty, she is able to experience companionship and love, something that Claudia is denied.  Claudia does not look at Shirley Temple's beauty, but her sense of entitlement and privilege.  This is the source of her envy, whereas the base of Pecola's love of Shirley Temple is beauty. 

Claudia explores this questioning of social entitlement in her dislike of dolls that look like White children.  When Claudia receives White dolls for holiday presents, she recognizes a sense of entitlement that accompanies them, a sense of admiration that she is supposed to convey upon receiving such a gift: " From the clucking sounds of adults I knew that the doll represented what they thought was my fondest wish."  It is the entitlement and privilege to goes along with being of the dominant culture that feeds Claudia's dislike of White dolls.  Claudia is able to perceive that with White dolls, the society around her conveys to her that "this" represents beauty and thus must be a standard to which she must conform.  It is through this imposition that Claudia envisions destruction and deconstruction:

I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me. Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs—all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired,  pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.

Claudia is revealed to be just as disfigured as Pecola.  Color has caused her the same level of scarring that it has to Pecola.  In both girls, their attitudes towards the dominant culture has not resulted in a validation of self.  Rather, it has constructed a negation.  Pecola wishes to negate her own sense of self because she is not that standard.  Claudia wishes to negate the standard because it represents a denial of voice and opportunity.  Through both depictions, Morrison depicts how issues of race and ethnicity can cause psychological damage to one's sense of self.  The internalization of a social construct is shown to create damage to both on different levels.  While both experiences and opinions about what it means to be White are different, Morrison shows how the lasting impact of each can cause great damage to children, especially girls who are struggling to define themselves, the world, and their place in it.

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The Bluest Eye

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