Overview of The Bluest Eye

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1684

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...

(This entire section contains 1684 words.)

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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 and vulnerable a character…." In addition, although Morrison writes that she was "pressing for a female expressiveness" in the novel, she believes that she was unable to achieve this expressiveness, except, ironically, in the section describing Cholly's abuse by the white men who forced him to have sex with his young girlfriend.

Obviously, there are any number of possible starting places for a reading of The Bluest Eye. At the heart of the novel are the themes of racism, within and outside of the African-American community; the loss of innocence and its consequences; and the implications of the way a culture defines beauty and ugliness. Morrison explores these themes through her characters, her plot, her dialogue, and through the framing devices she chooses the structure the novel.

The first framing device strikes the reader immediately upon opening the book. In a sort of preface to the book, Morrison has written a parody of the Dick and Jane primary reader story. In this preface, Morrison first writes the story of Dick and Jane in perfect, primer prose. The images are of a happy, "normal," family. Without a pause, Morrison launches into the second telling of the story, identical to the first, but absent punctuation and capital letters. In the third telling, the prose is rendered nearly unintelligible because of the absence of not only punctuation and capital letters, but also of spaces between the words. Thus, in just three paragraphs, Morrison demonstrates the destruction of the "normative" model of American life into a mad jumble of letters on a page.

Morrison returns to the Dick and Jane story several times through the text to head a chapter. These headings provide a foreshadowing of what the chapter will bring. For example, the first heading is "HEREISTHEFAMILYMOTHERFATHER DICKANDJANETHEYLIVEINTHEGREENANDWHITE HOUSETHEYAREVERYH." The chapter that follows is a description of life inside the two room apartment where the four Breedloves lives in abject and violent poverty. We see immediately that the headings of the chapters are used ironically, to contrast the "ideal" world of the primary school picture book family with that of the Breedloves of Lorain, Ohio. It is the disparity between the way the picture book family lives and the way the Breedloves live that propels the novel.

The second appearance of the Dick and Jane heading begins "SEETHECATITGOESMEOWMEOW." In this chapter, Morrison describes a particular type of African-American woman who comes from the South to the North, determined to wipe all traces of blackness from her life. These women work their whole lives trying "to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions." Morrison creates Geraldine in this mold in order to represent the ways in which "Mobile women" have internalized the ideals and values of the majority culture. Geraldine's violent rejection of Pecola in the belief that the child has killed her cat demonstrates the way that she wants to reject everything associated with her own cultural heritage. Further, her rejection of Pecola and blackness illustrates again to Pecola her own lack of worth.

Morrison chooses carefully the subsequent chapters she heads with fragments of the Dick and Jane story. In two of these chapters she gives biographical information about Pauline and Cholly to illustrate how far their lives are from the "ideal" world of Dick and Jane. Significantly, the chapter headed with "SEEFATHERHEISBIGANDSTRONGFATHERWILLYOUPLAYWITHJANE…." includes Cholly's rape of Pecola. In each instance, the chapter heading signals the reader that an illustration of the disintegration of the Breedlove family is to follow. Further, in each instance, Morrison is providing both the "how" and the "why" of Pecola's ultimate madness.

Morrison writes, "LOOKLOOKHERECOMESAFRIENDTHEFRIENDWILLPLAYWITHJANE…." as the heading for the last chapter. This chapter opens with what appears to be a dialogue between Pecola and someone else. However, it becomes clear that this is not a dialogue between two people, but rather a dialogue between Pecola and herself. Now insane, she contemplates her new blue eyes with her "friend." We find through this "dialogue" that Cholly has continued to abuse his daughter and that Pauline no longer even speaks to her daughter We also find that the disintegration of Pecola and her family is complete.

In addition to the Dick and Jane story, Morrison frames her story by using Claudia as an adult narrator at the beginning and the end of the story. Through Claudia's adult voice, we come to understand that the events of the novel have happened in the past. Like all stories, this one has achieved significance with time. We can see that Claudia's childhood understanding of the events in Pecola's life are different with the truths she now reads in the story: "For years I thought my sister was right: it was my fault. I had planted them too far down in the earth. It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding.… What is clear now is that of all of that hope, fear, lust, love, and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth." The adult Claudia seems to be able to absolve herself of her childhood guilt over the death of Pecola's baby and over Pecola's fate.

Nevertheless, in the epilogue, when the adult Claudia's voice returns to close the story, it is as if she reassumes the guilt, making it universal, making the entire community complicit in the disintegration of one small black child. "All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness." In the final paragraphs, Claudia indicts all of us for our easy acceptance of outward appearance as measure of worth, for our blind willingness to define beauty as white, blonde, and blue-eyed, and for our inability to love and nurture a child.

Source: Diane Henningfeld, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Henningfeld is a professor of English at Adrian College.

The Quest for Self: Triumph and Failure in the Works of Toni Morrison

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1989

One of the more interesting characteristics of Toni Morrison's four novels—The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981)—is that each is a part of a whole. They reveal a consistency in Morrison's vision of the human condition, particularly in her preoccupation with the effect of the community on the individual's achievement and retention of an integrated, acceptable self. In treating this subject, she draws recurrently on myth and legend for story pattern and characters, returning repeatedly to the theory of quest as a motivating and organizing device. The goals her characters seek to achieve are similar in their deepest implications, and yet the degree to which they attain them varies radically because each novel is cast in unique human terms. Moreover, the theme of quest is always underscored by ironic insights and intensely evocative imagery. An exploration of these distinguishing qualities, technical and thematic, enhances one's appreciation of her achievement.

The Bluest Eye, Morrison's first novel, presents a failed quest culminating in madness. The young Pecola Breedlove searches painfully for self-esteem as a means of imposing order on the chaos of her world. Because a sense of self-worth and the correlative stability that would accompany it are unavailable to her in the familial or wider environment, she retreats to a subjective world of fantasy.

The novel is framed in several ways, first by the young narrator Claudia, then by chronological time. The story spans a year, moving through "Autumn," "Winter," "Spring," and "Summer." By means of the seasonal cycle and the fact that the girls are entering puberty, Morrison suggests a tale of growth and the eventual fruition of "Summer." The imagery of the prologue, however, immediately undercuts this promise.

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. A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody's did.… It never occurred to either of us that the earth may have been unyielding.

The newly matured Claudia realizes in retrospect that the environment was "unyielding" to both marigold seeds and Pecola Breedlove.

The familiar elementary school story of Dick and Jane provides another ironic frame for Pecola's circumstances:

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the … house. They are very happy.… Who will play with Jane? See the cat.… See Mother. Mother is very nice.… Mother laughs.… See Father. He is big and strong.… Father is smiling.… See the dog.… Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane.…

For each segment of this idealized picture of secure family life, Morrison offers in counterpoint the bleak specifics of Pecola's existence: shabby home, bitter and hostile parents, and two encounters with animals that are death-giving to her spirit and sanity.

Her parents' problems forecast defeat for Pecola's quest before her birth, and the coming of children only gives them a target for their frustrations. The father's life is a study in rejection and humiliation caused and intensified by poverty and Blackness. He learns early to deal with his hatred against those who cause his impotence by turning it against those who witness it. The mother's love for him decays as insistently as specks appear in her untreated teeth and in proportion to his inability to fill the spaces of loneliness within her. She avenges herself on Cholly by forcing him to indulge in the weaknesses she despises and seeks redemptive suffering through enduring him. Neglecting her own house, children, and husband, she derives satisfaction only from the house in which she is a maid for it offers her a pathetically illusory sense of "power, praise and luxury." After all, she is conceived to be the "ideal servant" there. Gentle with her employers' children, into her own daughter she beats "a fear of life." Neither parent possesses a sense of self-esteem which might be communicated to the child. Their name—Breedlove—is almost too obviously ironic.

The abandoned store in which this family "festers together in the debris of a realtor's whim" can offer no gratification. The furniture, like the store, has the advantage of being affordable. The fabric of the sofa, like that of their lives, "had split straight across the back by the time it was delivered."

Morrison speaks often of the ugliness of the Breedloves, of their "wearing" this ugliness, out of "conviction," a belief confirmed for them by the responses of their world to them. Pecola's search for an acceptable face, that is to say self, as she shrinks beneath this "mantle," "shroud," "mask," of ugliness is the center of this novel. Her failure to find it other than in fantasy is Morrison's indictment of the society which deprives her of any sense of self-worth. The ugliness leads us to the image in her title. In order for Pecola to feel acceptable, she must ensure her self by possessing not only blue eyes but the bluest eyes created. Anything less is to live precariously, on the edge of an abyss.

The bluest eyes which represent the epitome of desirability to Pecola are possessed by the doll Claudia receives one Christmas. Claudia resents the doll and destroys it but comes to feel shame for her violence and hatred of both it and her similarly favored Shirley Temple cup. She sublimates her dislike in "fraudulent love." Pecola worships more truly, taking every opportunity to drink out of it "just to handle and see sweet Shirley's face." In these autumn days she also spends her pennies for Mary Janes, which bear a smiling white face, "Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort.…To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane, Love Mary Jane, Be Mary Jane."

Winter brings intensified chill outside and within Pecola as she increasingly rejects herself. It seems briefly that she will find acceptance with her peers minimally compensatory for the other voids in her life. She is attached to Maureen Peal, the "high yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back." This relationship fulfills the metaphor's violent promise when Maureen, herself threatened, takes refuge in her beauty and attacks Pecola's ugliness. Responding, Pecola "seemed to fold into herself, like a pleated wing." Folding inward is the direction her quest takes. When her parents fight, "Please God [she whispers], please make me disappear. She squeezed her eyes shut. Little parts of her body faded away." One by one they all go until only her eyes remain. "Only her tight, tight eyes were left. They were always left." If she could make those eyes beautiful," she herself would be different." When she had bought the Mary Janes, she had sensed she was invisible to the storekeeper, sensed "his total lack of human recognition." She is invisible as an individual, of course, but the metaphor is reified in Pecola's consciousness. Her sense of being is literally in danger.

Through a chance encounter, she enters the house of a lighter-skinned middle-class boy whose caste-conscious mother ejects her with soul-killing words. To this woman, a type of character recurrent in Morrison's work, Pecola represents all the dirt and disorder which she has managed to shut out of her artificial but neat environment, and she is therefore vicious.

In "Spring," ironically, Pecola's growth is increasingly stunted as she draws nearer her personal abyss. Her mother confirms the child's sense of rejection as she throws her out of the spotless kitchen in which she is employed. She threatens the peace in this one ordered space of Mrs. Breedlove's life. Finally her father violates her body as the others have violated her spirit. Guilt, impotence, and—strangely—tenderness motivate his drunken rape of Pecola. His body is, after all, all he has to offer his daughter and with it he tries to penetrate to her soul. Instead, he pushes her into final withdrawa.l The waning days of the season detail Pecola's encounter with Soaphead Church, who is a study of alienation, loss of identity and self-respect, and, once more, the futile search for order. He, like other characters in this and the other novels, compensates for a lack of self-worth with a pathological hatred of disorder and decay. Because he is a neighborhood seer, Pecola comes to him petitioning for blue eyes. Because she so "lowers herself' to come to him, he "gives" them to her by means of a contrived "miracle." Thus is Pecola re-created: permanently blue-eyed—and mad.

What could be left for "Summer"? The quest surely has ended. Yet Morrison gives us a closer look at the child and in so doing intensifies the pain with which this novel leaves us. We see Pecola, fragmented, engaged in a dialogue with self, i.e., the imaginary friend she has created. We hear her plea for reassurance that her eyes are the bluest and that her "friend" will not abandon her. "The damage done was total," Claudia says. "A little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment."

She spent her days, her tendril, sap-green days, walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear. Elbows bent, hands on shoulders, she flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly. Beating the air, a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue void it could not reach—could not even see—but which filled the valleys of the mind.

There is a resonance to "blue" and to "void" and to the images of flight that we will encounter again in Sula and Song of Solomon as they point us toward the quest for selfhood.

Morrison concludes The Bluest Eye with Claudia's indictment of the society which "cleaned itself on Pecola. As the girl searches the garbage for "the thing we assassinated" (her self?), Claudia reflects that "this soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live." The novel thus comes full circle to the images of infertility with which it began, and this search for a whole self is finished. We also understand that Pecola's doomed quest is but a heightened version of that of her parents, of Church, and of countless others in her world.…

That Toni Morrison's novels constitute a continuum seems evident. She has, beginning with The Bluest Eye, been interested in the effect of community acceptance or rejection on the individual. She has consistently focused on the quest for self-acceptance and wholeness as seen again in Sula. In Song of Solomon, she asks that we come to terms with origins and acquire an awareness of false standards of evaluation. In Tar Baby, all of these themes reappear. Yet, though there are unifying aspects in her novels, there is not a dully repetitive sameness. Each casts the problems in specific, imaginative terms, and the exquisite, poetic language awakens our senses as she communicates an often ironic vision with moving imagery. Each novel reveals the acuity of her perception of psychological motivation—of the female especially, of the Black particularly, and of the human generally.

Source: Dorothy H. Lee, "The Quest for Self: Triumph and Failure in the Works of Toni Morrison," in Black Women Writers (1959-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 346-60.

The Inverted World of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Sula

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2001

It used to be that black magazines like Ebony and Jet, barometers of the levels of black consciousness, earned advertisements for bleaching creams and hair-straighteners. Since the growth of black appreciation of natural color and texture and the advent of the slogan "Black is Beautiful," formed in protest to white standards of beauty, notices for bleaching creams no longer appear, although those for hair-straighteners still do. These illustrate the black woman's dilemma in a world where her white sisters are admonished: "Be a blond." "If you have one life to live, live it as a blond." Occasionally, one sees a black "blond" in the street or in the subway, vividly proclaiming the contradictions of her identity and of her society.

Bombarded on all sides to conform to an impossible standard of beauty, some women become confused and succumb to a psychological crisis. Black male writers have dealt with the crisis in different ways, [Richard] Wright in Native Son and [Ralph] Ellison in Invisible Man, presenting it in terms of the hero's conception of himself and of his place in society, while the identity crisis in women's lives appears only briefly. The narrator in Invisible Man notices a sign in a shop-window in Harlem:

You too can be truly beautiful. Win greater happiness with whiter complexion. Be outstanding in your social set.

The narrator feels a savage urge to push his fist through the pane, but does not apply the admonition to himself. Ellison does not examine the ramifications of the sign, keeping his focus on the male hero, whose identity problems take a different form.

The apparent "throw-away" lines in Ellison's novel become the main theme of Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye. A woman may whiten her skin, straighten her hair and change its color, but she cannot change the color of her eyes. The desire to transform one's identity, itself an inverted desire, becomes the desire for blue eyes and is a symptom of Pecola's instability. She goes mad at the end of the novel. In Morrison's second novel, Sula, the identity crisis becomes the attempt to create a self where there is none. The heroine fails, and dies although not as a direct result of her failure. Morrison presents an inverted world in both novels; her two heroines find no help as they grope towards possession of an identity. Neither the inner nor outer world provides any support because both appear to have turned upside down.

The Bluest Eye introduces the reader to this topsy-turvy world at the very beginning with a paragraph from the First Grade Reader. Printed at first with the structure of simple sentences, it is repeated without punctuation, then without spaces between the words:

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane? See the cat. It goes meow-meow.…

The sentences lay out the clear, simple, synthetic world of the storybook. Repeated, without punctuation, this world is still recognizable:

Here is the house it is green and white it has a red door it is very pretty here is the family mother father dick and jane live in the green-and-white house they are very happy.…

The third time the paragraph appears, there are no boundaries of spacing or punctuation; the sentences approach the psychic confusion of the novel:

Hereisthehouseitisgreenandwhiteithasareddooritisveryprettyhereis thefamilymotherfatherdickandjaneliveinthegreenandwhitehousetheyarevery happyseejaneshehasareddressshewantstoplaywhowillplaywithjane …

Individual space has disappeared as it does in the novel; the father intrudes on and violates the child's space. The clear structure of the storybook world is wrecked as Pecola's life is wrecked. All the elements of the novel are here. The cat and the dog of the Reader appear in sinister form in the novel: the black cat has blue eyes, the blue eyes which haunt Pecola, and the dog writhes as it dies of poison, the sign Pecola must look for that her eyes have become blue. Then Pecola, who is Jane of the First Grade Reader, invents the friend who comes to play with her as she enters the world of insanity.

The Bluest Eye is divided broadly into two parts: Claudia, the narrator of one part, appears with her sister Frieda in the sections marked Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer; the time of the novel spans one year. Claudia tells the story from her point of view, presenting the world of three little black girls who are given presents of white, blue-eyed, yellow-haired dolls, and whose cups are adorned with Shirley Temple's dimpled face. Claudia thinks that Shirley Temple is squint-eyed, and that the dolls have moronic eyes, pancake faces, and orangeworms hair. Her revulsion protects her from the deadly seduction which claims Pecola at the end of the novel. Claudia destroys the dolls, taking them apart to discover their secret as she would like to take apart little white girls to discover their secret. What did they possess to make even black women consider them cute, sweet, beautiful? Why were not Claudia and Frieda beautiful? Claudia thus articulates the theme of the novel. She and Frieda confront the same world which destroys Pecola, but a stable family life supports them. Pecola has no support.

The Breedloves, Pecola's family, are the people of the Reader. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane are Mrs. Breedlove, Cholly, Sammy, and Pecola, and their story forms Part Two of the novel. Sentences from the Reader introduce this story, indicating their inner confusion and general desolation. Just as the lines from the Reader run together, without boundaries or punctuation, so the family lives together without the structure of a strong relationship or the punctuation of loving gestures or deeds.


This heading introduces the description of the Breedloves's apartment. It is not a pretty house, but a storefront apartment. Each section on the Breedloves appears under the appropriate sentences from the Reader printed the same way. The fight between Mrs. Breedlove and Cholly is introduced by:


The Breedloves breed not love but disgust in each other. Pauline Breedlove, lame in one foot, believes she is ugly, and bears children she thinks are ugly.

… Although their poverty was traditional and stultifying, it was not unique. But their ugliness was unique. No one could have convinced them that they were not relentlessly and aggressively ugly.… You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely, and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came ftom conviction, their conviction.

Mrs. Breedlove, Mother of the Reader, does not play with Pecola; she knocks her down in the kitchen of her white employers when she spills the blueberry cobbler, but turns, immediately, to soothe the little white girl who calls her Polly. No tenderness for her own black child, but tenderness for the white one. This is Pecola's inverted world. Pecola and Mrs. Breedlove are not very happy in their storefront apartment or in their relationship to each other.

Mrs. Breedlove is an artist at heart, fascinated with colors. Lacking paints and crayons, she cannot express her rainbow. She retreats into the fantasy world of movies, combs her hair like Jean Harlow's, pretends she is Jean Harlow, and thinks:

"The onliest time I be happy seem like was when I was in the picture show."

Sex with Cholly causes the colors to rise, to float up, within her, but she does not know how to express them. In her frustration and belief in her own ugliness, she fights Cholly and beats her daughter.

When her parents fight, Pecola thinks that if she had blue eyes her parents would do lovely things for her eyes to see. Her consolation is buying and eating her favorite candy, the Mary Jane with Mary Jane's picture on the wrapper: white face, blond hair, blue eyes, the same combination that Claudia so ardently destroys.

To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane.

This symbolic cannibalism is a sign of Pecola's latent instability. The desire for blue eyes is evidence of Pecola's dissatisfaction with her identity, with her world, and of her longing for something better, which, at twelve years old, she has no way of providing for herself. The desire for blue eyes is part of the inverted quality of her world; in wanting blue eyes, Pecola wants, in fact, to be white.

Reinforcing Pecola's sense that she is ugly are the episodes of Maureen Peal and Geraldine. Maureen Peal is "a high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back." Maureen, a different shade of black, is everything Claudia and Frieda are not. She knows it, and screams at them:

"And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos. I am cute!"

She forces Claudia to ask: "What was the secret? What did we lack?" In asking the question, Claudia admits her acceptance of Maureen's standard of beauty; yet by describing Maureen's braids as "lynch ropes" the author indicates a sinister quality of such beauty, at the same time acknowledging the white ancestor responsible for those ropes. The episode leads into the section on plain, brown Geraldine, who represents still another shade of black. She belongs to the "colored people," different from niggers. "Colored people are neat and quiet; niggers are dirty and loud." In Geraldine's beautiful gold and green house, Pecola meets the black cat with blue eyes, and the blue eyes in the black face hold her. Geraldine, however, tells her to get out of her house: "Get out," she tells her in a quiet voice, "You nasty little black bitch."

The men in the novel form part of the inverted world. Cholly is big and strong, like Father, but he does not smile, and he rapes his daughter. Mr. Henry, the roomer who gives the impression that he is "picky" with women, entertains the town whores in Mrs. McTeer's living room, and snatches at Frieda's budding breasts. Soaphead Church, of decayed West Indian aristocratic family, lives behind the candy store and gives readings. But he also entertains little girls, to whom he gives mints and money, and who eat ice cream while he plays with them. The sweat, the smells, the groans of adult women disgust him; there is none of that with little girls. Pecola's rape is set in this context of varying degrees of child molestation, and thus seems almost inevitable.

Everyone wants Pecola's baby dead before it is born in a world of universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temple cups, and Maureen Peals. Pecola, left alone, invents the friend who comes to play with her:


Pecola retreats into her mad world to enjoy her blue eyes, bluer than any other, and Claudia voices the psychic contradictions of the sane:

We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made her think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used—to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt.

… Morrison's novels depict the helplessness of Pecola and Sula before the ambiguities and paradoxes of their lives. Both suggest that the struggle to establish identity in a world which does not acknowledge one's existence is sometimes lost. The inverted world in which Pecola finds herself gives no support or guidance to a twelve-year-old struggling to find a self; the inverted quality of Sula's life leads to the great negation, death. It is a bleak vision that Morrison presents.

Source: Jacqueline de Weever, "The Inverted World of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Sula," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 4, June, 1979, pp. 402-14.


Critical Overview


The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison