Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581

The Bluest Eye received an appreciative nod from critics at its appearance in 1970. Although Morrison was virtually unknown at the time, she seems to have taken offense at what she perceived as neglect of the book, for she wrote in the afterword to a 1993 edition of the novel, "With very few exceptions, the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola's life: dismissed, trivialized, misread." Clearly, however, as Morrison's reputation as an author has grown, The Bluest Eye has received increased recognition and respect as a poignant portrayal of a black girl trapped by white society's ideals.

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One aspect of the book that caught critical attention at the book's publication and continues to be a focal point for critics of Morrison's work is her use of language, which is often referred to as "poetic prose." John Leonard of The New York Times described the novel as containing "a prose so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry." However, others, such as New York Times Book Review contributor Haskel Frankel, described Morrison's prose not as poetic but as inexact, marred by "fuzziness born of flights of poetic imagery."

Like many readers, critics seemed disturbed by the book's content, not because it was irrelevant or trivial but because, as Liz Gant wrote in Black World, it is about "an aspect of the Black experience that many of us would rather forget, our hatred of ourselves." In Freedomways, African-American actress Ruby Dee described the novel's events as "painfully accurate impressions," which cause the reader to "ache for remedy."

Morrison's reputation has grown as she has garnered numerous honors and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her novel Beloved and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993; however, critics have not neglected The Bluest Eye. Contemporary assessments of the book tend to focus on the same matters of the early reviews: Morrison's writing style and the novel's portrayal of black victimization in America. For example, in her 1988 article in The New Criterion, Martha Bayles contends that "the book has flaws, but at its best it is an extraordinary fusion of poetic language and moral clarity" that is "even timelier today than it was eighteen years ago." Not all assessments are as favorable as Bayles', however. For example, in a 1987 article, Carol lannone states that Morrison "crudely manipulates the assignment of judgment and blame in this book, refusing to transcend black and white as categories of good and evil.… Instead of exploring the universal theme which she herself has set into play—the fatal and terrifying lapses of love in the human heart—Miss Morrison sticks doggedly to her shallow dichotomies."

Not only has The Bluest Eye become a standard text in many colleges and universities in America, but it is often taught to high school students. As Ken Donelson reports in his article "'Filth' and 'Pure Filth' in Our Schools—Censorship of Classroom Books in the Last Ten Years," The Bluest Eye came under attack at least four times between 1986 and 1995, according to the American Library Association's Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom. Those who wish to ban the book from the classroom tend to focus on its explicit language and sexual content. One principal involved in a 1995 incident said, "It was a very controversial book, it contains lots of very graphic descriptions and lots of disturbing language." Despite such responses, the book continues to flourish and was reissued in 1994 with a new afterword by Morrison.

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