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Overview of The Bluest Eye

(Novels for Students)

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 writing the novel as well as describing places she feels the novel does not succeed She expresses dissatisfaction with her solution to the problem of placing so much of "the weight of the novel's inquiry on so delicate...

(The entire section is 5,674 words.)