Form and Content

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The Bluest Eye tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young African American girl immersed in poverty and made “ugly” by the American culture of the early 1940’s that defines beauty in terms of such actors as Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, and Shirley Temple. Her mother beats and abuses her, and her father rapes and abandons her. Toni Morrison introduces the novel with a two-page parody of the Dick-and-Jane reader; the monotonous sentences of the reader repeat with increasing speed until the words run together. The parody is followed by a one-page interior monologue from the main narrator, Claudia MacTeer, who sets the scene for the four sections that make up the rest of the novel: “Autumn,” “Winter,” “Spring,” and “Summer.” The subsections are introduced by run-together lines from the Dick-and-Jane parody.

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“Autumn” begins with Claudia MacTeer’s bleak sketch of her own home and impoverishment and moves toward Pecola’s brief stay with Claudia’s family after Cholly, Pecola’s father, burns the Breedlove home. While staying with the MacTeers, Pecola begins to menstruate and learns that she can now have a baby if some man loves her. “Autumn” ends with a sketch of three misanthropic “whores” who, unsentimentally, provide Pecola with the little warmth that she experiences.

“Winter,” a shorter section of the novel, begins by sketching the face of Claudia and Frieda’s father and then sketching his nakedness, which the daughters see accidentally. Because Mr. MacTeer’s nakedness is nonthreatening, it leaves Claudia and Frieda more astonished than offended. In contrast, the section ends with Pecola’s misery in the home of Louis and Geraldine, elitist African Americans who regard people such as Pecola as trash. Pecola has been lured into the home by their mean son, Junior, who promises to give Pecola a kitten. Once there, Junior, who is jealous of his mother’s blue-eyed, black cat, throws the cat in Pecola’s face and locks her in the room. When Junior discovers that Pecola likes the cat, he hurls the cat against the wall, leaving it unconscious when Geraldine arrives home. Junior blames the cat’s near-death on Pecola, and Geraldine, enraged by Pecola’s impoverished ugliness, calls Pecola a “black bitch” and tells her to get out.

“Spring,” comprising almost a third of the novel, begins with Claudia’s father beating up Mr. Henry, their roomer, for fondling Frieda, another scene contrasting the father-daughter relationship in the Breedlove family. Most of “Spring,” however, focuses on flashbacks to the earlier lives of Mrs. Breedlove and Cholly. In Mrs. Breedlove’s narration, she traces the loss of her romantic illusion and recollects the details of making love with Cholly in their youth. Her section ends shortly after her recollection of an orgasm. In Cholly Breedlove’s narrative, Morrison avoids interior monologue but uses an external first-person perspective to reclaim Cholly’s history in Georgia as an infant abandoned by his insane mother and reared by his Great Aunt Jimmy. Though Cholly’s story includes his marriage to Mrs. Breedlove, the final sexual image refers not to her but to his rape of their daughter.

“Spring” concludes with the pregnant Pecola seeking out Soaphead Church to petition him for blue eyes. Soaphead affirms Pecola’s desire to have blue eyes so that she will no longer be ugly. As Pecola’s rite of passage, Soaphead tricks her into poisoning his landlady’s dog, an animal that offends Soaphead’s sensibilities. Concluding “Spring,” Soaphead writes a letter to God on Pecola’s behalf and then sleeps dreamlessly while Pecola drifts into madness and his landlady finds her poisoned dog.

“Summer,” the shortest section of The Bluest Eye, is narrated by Claudia. She and her sister try to sell marigold seeds to earn a bicycle, and as they listen to neighborhood gossip, they piece together Pecola’s story. Pecola is pregnant with Cholly’s child. Cholly has fled. Mrs. Breedlove has beaten Pecola. Claudia and Frieda are disillusioned that no one wants the baby to live. As a petition for Pecola and the baby’s life, Claudia and Frieda bury the money for the bicycle and plant the marigolds. Yet the marigolds do not grow. Claudia speculates that maybe she planted the seeds too deep but that maybe “the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year.”

The final scenes focus on Pecola’s madness and on her obsession with having the bluest eyes. Claudia, as narrator, reveals that the baby is dead; that Pecola’s brother, Sammy, left town; that Cholly died in a workhouse; and that Mrs. Breedlove still does housework. Claudia realizes that Pecola’s beauty was turned ugly by society and that “[l]ove is never any better than the lover.” Claudia ends with the lament “it’s much, much, much too late.”

Context

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Toni Morrison, the 1993 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is best known for her novels and literary criticism. The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel, was followed by Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), and Jazz (1992). Morrison won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon, and she won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Beloved. Best known of Morrison’s critical writing is Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992).

According to an interview with Morrison, The Bluest Eye began as a short story for a writer’s group. It was written during a time of loneliness, following her divorce, when she was parenting her two preschool-age sons. In the interview, Morrison talks about her interest in focusing her novels on friendships between women, as she does in Sula. Morrison rejects the notion that friendships between women are “subordinate” to other “roles they’re playing.”

Reviews of The Bluest Eye were mostly favorable, though the work was somewhat overlooked until Morrison’s other novels began to form a body of work. Many critics then looked at The Bluest Eye as background for Morrison’s later explorations of racial, gender, and cultural issues. For example, Sula, the central character in Morrison’s second novel, is unconventional and unbound by social codes, and Jade, the fashion model in Tar Baby, rejects the romantic myth. Increasingly, Morrison’s women seek freedom and autonomy. Like Claudia MacTeer in The Bluest Eye, they reject romantic myths, beauty myths, and roles of acquiescence. Yet The Bluest Eye is more than groundwork for Morrison’s later novels: It deserves to be read for itself.

Historical Context

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Civil Rights and Race Relations
Although Toni Morrison set her novel The Bluest Eye in the 1940s in the North, the thoughts that gave rise to the novel are centered in the Civil Rights Movement, which was waning in the late 1960s when she was writing The Bluest Eye. Many historians mark the peak year of the Civil Rights Movement at 1963 because of the pivotal events which took place during this year: the assassination of NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) leader Medgar Evers, mass demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Birmingham, Alabama, the attempt by Alabama Governor George Wallace to stop integration of Alabama's schools, and the March on Washington marked by Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. When Morrison published The Bluest Eye in 1970, the Civil Rights Movement was far from over; however, following its peak in 1963, white backlash increased. In addition, national attention turned to other events, such as the continuing Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War war protests by college students at Kent State University and other colleges, and the exposure of the massacre of unarmed civilians in My Lai, South Vietnam, by American troops. With such events taking place, the March on Washington must have seemed like decades ago to black activists who found it increasingly difficult for their voices to be heard. Progress seemed to halt as Congress approved bills designed to stop bussing of students to create racial balance in integrated schools and Governor Wallace encouraged governors across the South to ignore integration orders from Washington. As historian Harvard Silkoff explains in his book The Struggle for Black Equality; 1954-1992, "The movement had secured basic civil rights for African-Americans, yet much remained to be done."

One of the most important slogans of the Civil Rights Movement was "Black is Beautiful," an attempt to raise the self-esteem of blacks who felt inferior to white standards of beauty. Morrison, however, found fault with this slogan, as she explains in her 1974 essay, "'Rediscovering Black History": "The slogan provided a psychic crutch for the needy and a second (or first) glance from whites. Regardless of those questionable comforts, the phrase was nevertheless a full confession that white definitions were important to us (having to counteract them meant they were significant) and that the quest for physical beauty was both a good and worthwhile pursuit. When the strength of a people rests on its beauty, when the focus is on how one looks rather than what one is, we are in trouble." Morrison's hope at the time was that blacks would instead rely on the strength of their communities, instead of power, wealth, or beauty, an issue she explores further in her novel Song of Solomon. While the creators of the "Black is Beautiful" slogan were most assuredly well-intentioned, Morrison's point of view shows that the emphasis on physical beauty can be deadly for black children like Pecola Breedlove, whether in the 1970s or the 1940s or even the 1990s, who see all those around them bow to the Shirley Temples of the world and aspire to possess that kind of beauty in order to solve life's problems.

Literary Style

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Point of View and Structure
The point of view in The Bluest Eye is dominated by first person ("I") through the mind of Claudia MacTeer, sometimes narrating as a nine-year-old child and sometimes as an adult. The instances in which Morrison uses the adult Claudia as narrator serve as points of reflection for Claudia. For example, because Claudia is the same age as Pecola, she should be able to empathize with her; however, as an adult, she looks back at the manner in which she and her community cast Pecola as a scapegoat and is able to see that they did not love her as they should have. A third-person omniscient, anonymous narrator also exists in the novel. For example, this narrator presents to us the childhoods and early adulthoods of Cholly and Pauline, providing a means for the reader to understand the path which has taken Cholly and Pauline to such depths of self-loathing. The narrative as a whole is the adult Claudia's flashback, framed by her adult musings and interspersed with scenes presented by the third-person narrator. The novel is divided into four parts to correspond with the four seasons, an appropriate structure since the main characters, nine-year-old girls, would measure time by passage of the seasons.

Setting
The setting of The Bluest Eye is a fictionalized Lorain, Ohio, in the 1940s. Morrison grew up in Lorain, the daughter of Southerners who had moved North to find employment, much as the Breedloves and MacTeers have done in the novel. Of course, schools are still segregated, and everyone is trying to recover from the Depression. Little is mentioned of the white neighborhoods in Lorain, although the book is scattered with white characters like Rosemary Villanucci and Mr. Yacobowski, who appear as reminders that this world does exist. Instead, Morrison focuses on the world in which the MacTeers and Breedloves live. Although both families are poor, the MacTeers are much better off, for the family is loving and stable. For example, early in the book, Claudia describes their home as "old, cold, and green … peopled by roaches and mice." However, whatever the home might lack materially is made up for by the love that exists in the family. For example, although Mrs. MacTeer complains when an ill Claudia vomits on her bed, her love for her daughter is clear as during the night, "feet padded into the room, hands repinned the flannel, readjusted the quilt, and rested a moment on [Claudia's] forehead." The Breedloves are equally as poor, but their family is characterized by violent physical battles between an angry Pauline and a drunken Cholly, not a love for their children and or one another.

Symbolism
The most obvious symbols found in The Bluest Eye are the popular female film stars of the 1940s who are mentioned throughout the novel: Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, and especially Shirley Temple. These women, of course, represent the standard of ideal beauty held up by white society, a standard that ultimately destroys Pecola.

Aside from these, three other important symbols operate in the novel: marigolds, the seasons, and the "Dick and Jane" reader. Marigolds are mentioned twice in the novel, at its beginning and at its end. In Frieda and Claudia's minds, the fact that the marigolds they plant do not grow results from the fact that Pecola is pregnant with Cholly's child. Although this take on the failure of the marigolds is an insightful one, Claudia herself makes a statement that leads the reader to a wider perception of the marigolds. After blaming herself and Frieda for the marigolds' failure, Claudia says, "It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding." The unyielding earth is an appropriate parallel for the world in which Pecola, Claudia, and Frieda live, a world that scorns blackness and worships white beauty. Claudia and Frieda manage, through the love of their family, to survive, but Pecola is devastated and cannot thrive in such a world, just as the marigold seeds cannot survive in this particular soil. In the last paragraph of the novel, Claudia says of the earth, "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." Although she is describing the earth, her words are an apt description of Pecola's situation. She is killed emotionally and mentally by her own father, by a white world, and in the end, the members of the community do not turn their scorn toward Cholly or toward white standards but toward Pecola, the ultimate victim.

Another aspect of nature, the seasons of the year, also operate symbolically in the novel. Morrison divides the novel into four sections, each corresponding to a season of the year. Appropriately, the novel begins with autumn: for children like Claudia, Pecola, and Frieda, autumn is a time of "beginnings," especially marked by the beginning of the school year. Indeed, this section does contain many "beginnings," for in this section, Claudia and Frieda first meet Pecola. Winter, of course, is traditionally a time of barrenness, and it is in winter that the girls become acquainted with Maureen Peal, a reminder to them that life is barren without beauty that brings admiration. This is also the section in the book in which Pecola is terrorized by Geraldine and her son, Junior. One would hope for rebirth in the section entitled "Spring." However, this title works ironically, for here, degradation occurs as Frieda is fondled by Mr. Henry and Pecola is abused by her mother for spilling the cobbler at the Fisher home and raped by her father. This is also the section in which the reader learns of the steady decline that has occurred in the lives of Pauline and Cholly Breedlove since their childhoods. The section entitled "Summer" is the shortest section of the book and does not present gleeful children reveling in the pleasures of summer but an isolated, insane Pecola.

Finally, Morrison uses clips from the "Dick and Jane" reader symbolically. The book opens with three excerpts from the "Dick and Jane" reader, which was the textbook used to teach every child to read from the 1940s through the 1960s. According to critic Phyllis R. Klotman, the three versions of the reader presented on the first page of The Bluest Eye represent the three lifestyles presented in the novel. The text of the first version is the standard text, with correct capitalization and punctuation, and represents the ideal white family represented in the novel by the Fishers. The second version contains the same words as the first but contains no punctuation or capitalization; this version symbolizes the MacTeer family, which is stable and loving but economically below a family iike the Fishers. The final version, however, is completely disjointed, containing no punctuation or capitalization, not even spaces between words. This version, of course, represents the dysfunctional Breedlove family. A newspaper article commemorating the seventieth birthday of the "Dick and Jane" series says that the authors realize that the life presented in the series was very different from the life many children lived in the 1940s. However, they believe, "when such deprived children lose themselves in stories about Dick, Jane, and Sally, and live for a time with these happy storybook characters, they experience the same release from their problems that the adult does when he loses himself in a good book or movie." Morrison, on the other hand, has recognized what these authors have not: that being inundated with a fantasy world that your family can never achieve does not provide release but leads to self-hatred, misanthropy, and insanity. As critic Susan Blake has written, "Pecola's story is a parody of the general fairy tale that she and her mother believe in," a fairy tale much like the lives of Dick and Jane.

Literary Techniques

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The Bluest Eye gave clear evidence of the innovative, original writer Morrison would be. For a first novel, it is unusually daring and rich in technical innovations involving voice, point of view, and associations.

The most dramatic innovation is the repetition of portions from the elementary reader "Dick and Jane" story that introduces various sections of the novel. The archetypal happy family to whom we are introduced as children, and whose lifestyle we are unconsciously encouraged to emulate, functions as a norm, and the components of family happiness are the very things the MacTeers seek and the Breedloves cannot get. Dogs and cats, Dick's and Jane's happy pets, also foreshadow key disillusioning events in Pecola's life. She sees Junior harm his cat, and Soaphead tricks her into poisoning a dog.

Moreover, Morrison repeats many of the "Dick and Jane" stories in alternating typefaces. As many critics have suggested, the orderly, properly punctuated version of the story represents the lifestyle and aspirations of Dick and Jane, or the Foster family—European-American groups empowered by wealth and caste. The single-spaced version, with no internal punctuation, and combining several simple sentences into a run-on paragraph, represents African-American families who aspire to emulate the Dick and Jane archetype, like the MacTeers and Geraldine's family. The final version, in which syntax is distorted by the absence of space even between words, represents the chaos of the Breedloves, who live in a store and have no hope to catch the American dream. Subsequent repetitions of the "Breedlove version" of the "Dick and Jane" story are printed in ALLCAPS, with no spaces between words and sentences, and with the selections blocked typographically, thus often ending with words uncompleted—suggesting the incomprehensibility of the dream for folks like the Breedloves, and the box into which our cultural stereotypes place us.

Morrison also arranges the story around a seasonal myth. Pecola's story begins in autumn, and each section corresponds to a season. Like many mythic works of this century, notably T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), seasonal myth is undercut with modern irony. For example, spring, the season of birth and new beginnings, coincides with Cholly's drunken assault on Pecola, resulting in a monstrous pregnancy. Cholly's departure, the remaining Breedloves' alienation, the baby's death, and Pecola's madness, occur in summer, traditionally the season of fullness and growth. Thus Morrison has followed the ironic bent of modern mythmakers by undercutting traditional mythic associations with irony.

Another innovative feature of this novel is the multiple points of view Morrison uses to tell the Breedloves' story. Claudia MacTeer narrates the first section of each of the seasonal chapters that make up the novel. Claudia as a character is involved in Pecola's story; she is a friend who regrets Pecola's fate. But because of the cultural differences between them (Claudia's father, like Morrison's, worked several jobs to make a living), she can never understand Pecola fully, and finally, she has to confess her own inability to respond to her friend's need and her psychological exploitation of her friend. She provides a sympathetic but not wholly reliable witness to events.

The remaining sections are told by an omniscient narrator, who seems intent on providing a sympathetic account of each character's history: of Cholly's youthful humiliation, Pauline's contentment in nature, Geraldine's resolve to climb the social ladder, and even Soaphead's family's quest to avoid contamination. This sympathetic voice, however, is undermined by horrors the narrator represents, without explicit condemnation, each character doing. The point of this narrative strategy seems to be to suggest that no matter how heinous the acts of people like Cholly, Pauline, and Soaphead, these aberrations spring from some human longing, and the perpetrators are victims of others' as well as their own past labeling. This idea is particularly true of Soaphead's story, a key portion of which takes the epistolary form. Soaphead writes a letter to God explaining his mistreatment of Pecola, in which he narrates key events, attempts to exonerate himself in taking advantage of the child's miserable state, and finally accuses God of creating misery in an imperfect world. Although Morrison probably does not intend The Bluest Eye to be a jeremiad against the injustice of an imperfect universe—her irony implies that Soaphead attempts to escape from responsibility through his narrative—she intends us all to reflect on the obligations of being part of an imperfect creation that permits racism and economic injustice impose on all of us.

Social Concerns

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In some ways the synergy between Morrison and the emerging concerns of the times about which she writes were foreshadowed by her first, and in some circles her most famous, novel. The social issues of The Bluest Eye lie centrally with the impact certain cultural icons have on the consciousness of minorities. African Americans in this novel are taught to think of themselves as ugly or inferior because of the signs and ideals the culture imposes on them, a position the novel's narrator calls into question rhetorically by explaining the principal family's living in an abandoned store: "They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly" [italics added]. The heroine, Pecola Breedlove, is virtually destroyed by her own and her family's self-loathing because they cannot conform with the standards of beauty white America cherishes. As the title suggests, Pecola feels inferior because she lacks aesthetic properties white culture endorses; she comes to feel that only by having blue eyes can she complete her self. After many violent assaults on her self-esteem, most pointedly snubs by schoolmates, her mother's clear preference for the white daughter of the family for whom she works, and a rape by her drunken father (a perverse effort to express love that results in pregnancy), Pecola, barely into her teens, succumbs to madness and the illusion that God gave her the bluest eyes possible to compensate for her absolute lack of self-esteem and friends. The novel ends with a painful conversation between Pecola and an imaginary friend discussing her extraordinary blue eyes.

All the members of Pecola's family and community have been impressed by racial stereotyping. Her father Cholly was sadistically humiliated by Southern whites in an adolescent sexual episode, and with this loss of autonomy, his sense of his virility or manhood was diminished, a pattern that continues as he has trouble keeping a job and supporting his family in an economic environment in which African Americans are the last hired and the first fired—an issue Morrison takes up more directly in Sula. Cholly's moral degeneration proceeds through excessive drinking, spousal abuse, and finally incest before he enacts one of white America's fundamental racial stereotypes, the absent African-American father. Whether Morrison intends Cholly's mistreatment of his family to be explained by his own terrible adolescent experience at the hands of whites is ambiguous; in two flashbacks to their courtship, Pauline recalls Cholly as a vibrant youth who subsequently degenerated into a moral and paternal failure, but in the reconstruction of Cholly's past, the omniscient narrator portrays a series of defeats that culminate in a desperate existential freedom: "Abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose."

More unambiguously, Pauline has deteriorated, with her northward migration, from a person at home in nature to a drudge who endures a painful marriage while finding solace in the white family for whom she works and compensating for her frustration as wife and mother by indulging in self-righteous religious indignation. In one of the novel's most painful and eloquent scenes, Pecola, accompanied by two friends, visits Pauline at work and accidentally spills a hot baked dish to the floor, painfully burning herself. Because the Fosters' white daughter is distressed, Pauline abuses Pecola physically and verbally, then turns to comfort her employer's child—reinforcing her and Pecola's sense of her ugliness and reasserting Morrison's theme concerning the distortion of basic relationships like maternal concern when clouded by false standards of beauty and loyalty.

Pauline is also influenced toward racial self-loathing by more broadly based cultural symbols. She finds in the Fosters' luxurious home a refuge from her own wretched life in a converted storefront and commits herself to order and elegance at work while neglecting her home. Pecola's friend Claudia, who narrates the episode in which Pauline expresses her preference for her employer's daughter, comments that at work Pauline "looked nicer than I had ever seen her, in her white uniform…."

More importantly to the novel's themes, Pauline reinforces her impression that she and her family are ugly by going to the cinema, finding there a refuge from discrimination and the lack of a vital, supporting African-American community much as Cholly does in his drinking. But the films she enjoys are made by white directors for white audiences and employ white actors. They thus encode the values of middle-class white America and by implication devalue any possible meaning Pauline might find in her own culture. Although not necessarily the intended message of such films, such movies imply that "white is right" and "black is not beautiful." At least that is what Pauline sees in these films, which function for her as a compound emblem—of what is wrong in her life and of an unattainable, correct mode of life (one she can experience only vicariously at the Fosters), as well as of a psychological compensation she needs when contemplating the bleakness of her own life, thus inevitably reinforcing her unhappiness and despair. When she tells her own story, she explicitly labels the movies an unattainable good she cannot even hope to attain: "White men taking such good care of they women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses.… Them pictures gave me a lot of pleasure, but it made coming home hard, and looking at Cholly hard." In Pauline's account, we have an indication of Morrison's art. She is completely unaware that in telling her sad story, she emphasizes the degree to which false cultural images can undermine our potential for authentic human relationships by substituting unattainable ideals that make the lives they mock even more miserable than they already are, further undermining our capacity for taking remedial action. Pauline offers nurturing and love to the Fosters, who represent the wealth and power of the oppressor (they give no indication of returning love to her), while she reinforces Pecola's self-hatred and instills in her son Sammy a "loud desire to run away."

One final cultural symbol that demeans the lives of African Americans operates throughout The Bluest Eye, so much so that it is a dominant technical and thematic indicator. Certain chapter sections begin with a variation on the "Dick and Jane" story that once appeared in many elementary school reading textbooks. In Morrison's text, these images form another component of adverse cultural indicators: education validates a carefree, Euro-American image of middle class life; like the movies, the schools reinforce a cultural idea of what is good, desirable—but not attainable by the Breedloves, who are poor and think themselves ugly.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1940s: The United States became involved in World War II in 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The war ended the Great Depression as well as American isolationism. The United States government's fear of the Soviet Union as a major communist force marked the beginning of the Cold War.

    1960s: The United States became involved in several international conflicts, including the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the Vietnam War beginning in 1965. Low public opinion of American involvement in Vietnam was marked by protests across the country, especially on college campuses. In 1968, United States involvement hit its peak with approximately 500,000 troops in Vietnam. Approximately 58,000 United States troops were killed in the war.

    Today: Foreign relations in the 1990s have been marked by the fall of communism in Russia and eastern Europe, heralding the end of the Cold War. The only major military conflict in which the United States had been involved extensively was the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

  • 1940s: Most households listened to the radio an average of 4.5 hours per day during World War II, with 30 percent of air time devoted to war coverage. However, serials starring heroes like Dick Tracy and Superman also aired. Movies also continued to be popular, with around 100 million people attending each week.

    1960s: Television took the place of radio and provided footage of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and American politics. By 1970, 95 percent of American homes owned a television, a higher percentage than owned a refrigerator or an indoor toilet. Popular television shows were family-oriented sitcoms like "Leave It to Beaver" and police dramas such as "The Untouchables."

    Today: Televisions continues to be an integral part of life, bringing news events into our homes as they happen. According to Nielsen Media Research, Americans in 1995 watched over eighteen hours of television per week. Also, the advent of video cassette recorders has made taping television programs or watching movies in one's own home popular. Computers have provided another form of entertainment, as Americans spend hundreds of hours playing computer games, sending or receiving electronic mail, or "surfing" the Internet.

  • 1940s: Unemployment plummeted from a high of 14.6 percent in 1940 to 1.9 percent in 1945 as the need for supplies and the absence of soldiers at war created jobs, especially for women and minorities.

    1960s: Unemployment held steady at around 5 percent, taking a slight drop in the late 1960s as a result of the Vietnam War

    Today: Throughout the 1990s, the unemployment rate has remained steady at 5 percent to 7 percent, as America is centered in an economy reliant on global commerce.

  • 1940s: Public schools remained segregated. Segregation in the armed forces officially ended in 1948, and new laws aimed at stopping discrimination in hiring practices were put into place. In practice, however, segregation arid discrimination continued.

    1960s: The 1960s were marked by the Civil Rights Movement, which included activities such as lunch counter sit-ins, integration of schools and colleges, and nonviolent protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., all aimed at procuring equal rights for black Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially outlawed discrimination in all public accommodations and in hiring practices.

    Today: Race relations remain tense. Public schools are integrated, but issues of achieving racial balance still plague school districts. Tensions often erupt into civil unrest, such as the riots in Los Angeles after an all-white jury acquited four police officers of all but one charge in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.

Literary Precedents

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The Bluest Eye takes its place in a distinguished tradition of African-American literature concerned with the struggle to assert cultural and individual values in the face of majority, or European-American cultural and economic dominance. The novels of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Jean Toomer, and James Baldwin offer distinguished male African-American versions of the struggle. Morrison has stated in interviews that she was unaware of the work of female African-American writers whose work attempted similar themes while she was writing The Bluest Eye, but she subsequently discovered her literary kinship with such predecessors as Zora Neale Hurston and Paule Marshall. It is tempting to ponder how much the reassessment of writers like Marshall and Hurston owes to the success of Morrison's fiction.

Another American literary tradition in which to situate The Bluest Eye is the series of works in which children are the victims of cultural insensitivity. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that American literature begins with Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and the theme of the adolescent as victim seems to begin there as well. Like Pecola, Huck is victimized by a dysfunctional family and by a culture's version of what is respectable conduct. Significantly, Huckleberry Finn is also about racism. The most important decision Huck makes is to help Jim escape from slavery; and Huck makes this choice believing that it is immoral to go against his culture's endorsement of slavery. Like Huck, Pecola suffers from an abusive family, a rigid society, and low self-esteem. Unlike Huck, however, Pecola's story is one of defeat, not of victory. For Twain, Huck's natural virtues enable him to overcome the racism his society encodes in its members; for Morrison, Pecola is overwhelmed by her culture's values—perhaps because she buys into those values herself.

Thus The Bluest Eye addresses the issue of the child as innocent victim of a culture that is in decline. This seems a particularly modernist theme, and Morrison's novel compares with such modernist expressions as J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel (1971) as a treatment of the spiritual and conceptual victimization of children by a culture that has lost its way.

Media Adaptations

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  • An abridged version of The Bluest Eye was recorded on two audio cassettes in 1994 by Morrison and actress Ruby Dee. Available from Random House Audiobooks, the cassette is three hours long.
  • The unabridged text of The Bluest Eye was recorded in 1981 by Michelle Shay. Available from Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, the recording is distributed by National Library Service and lasts 704 minutes.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Bayles, Martha. "Special Effects, Special Pleading," in The New Criterion, Vol. 6, No. 2, January, 1988, pp. 34-40.

Blake, Susan L. "Toni Morrison," in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, edited by Thadious M. David and Trudier Harris, Vol. 33. Gale, 1984, pp 187-99.

Cormier-Hamilton, Patrice. "Black Naturalism and Toni Morrison: The Journey Away from Self-Love in The Bluest Eye," in MELUS, Vol. 19, winter, 1994, pp. 109-28.

Dee, Ruby. "Black Family Search for Identity," in Freedomways, Vol XI, 1971, pp. 319-20.

Donelson, Ken. "'Filth' and 'Pure Filth' in Our Schools— Censorship of Classroom Books in the Last Ten Years," in English Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2, February, 1997, pp 21-25.

Frankel, Haskel. "Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye," in New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1970, p.46.

Gant, Liz. "The Bluest Eye," in Black World, Vol. 20, May, 1971, pp. 51-2.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Amistad Press, 1992.

Heinze, Denise. The Dilemma of "Double-Consciousness": Toni Morrison's Novels. University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Iannone, Carol. "Toni Morrison's Career," in Commentary, Vol. 84, No. 6, December, 1987, pp 59-63.

Klotman, Phyllis R. "Dick-and-Jane and the Shirley Temple Sensibility in The Bluest Eye," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 13, No. 4, winter, 1979, pp 123-25.

Leonard, John. "First Three Novels on Race," in New York Times, November 13, 1970, p 35.

MacPherson, Karen. "It's Time for Cat, Moon, Dick, and Jane to celebrate," in Arkansas Democrat Gazette, March 2, 1997, J1,8.

Morrison, Toni. "Afterword," in The Bluest Eye. Plume, 1994, pp. 209-216.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Pocket Books, New York, 1970.

Morrison, Toni. "Rediscovering Black History," in New York Times Magazine, August 11, 1974, pp. 14-24.

Naylor, Gloria. "A Conversation: Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison," in Conversations with Tom Morrison, edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie. University Press of Mississippi, 1994, pp. 188-217.

Null, Gary. Black Hollywood: The Black Performer in Motion Pictures. Carol Publishing Group, New York, 1975.

Ogunyemi, Chiwenye Okonjo. "Order and Disorder in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 1, 1977, pp. 112-120.

Otten, Terry. The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison. University of Missouri Press, 1989.

Samuels, Wilfred D., and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1990.

Further Reading
Denard, Carolyn C. "Toni Morrison," in Modern American Women Writers, edited by Elaine Showalter, Lea Baechler, and A. Walton Lite. Macmillan, 1993, pp. 209-27. Denard's essay contains thorough treatment of each of Morrison's novels as well as biographical information.

Koenen, Anne. "The One Out of Sequence," in History and Tradition in Afro-American Culture, edited by Gunter H. Lenz. Campus Verlag, 1984, pp. 207-21. In her interview with Koenen, Morrison comments on motherhood, romantic love, her frustration at having to explain the black life she writes about for the benefit of whites, and the black liberation movement of the 60s.

Kuenz, Jane. "The Bluest Eye: Notes on History, Community, and Black Female Subjectivity," in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 3, fall, 1993, pp. 421-32. Study of the ways in which participation in mainstream culture can cause "an abdication of self" by members of minorities.

Samuels, Wilfred D., and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. Twayne, 1990. An excellent introduction for students to the work of Morrison; includes an extensive bibliography.

Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality: 1954-1992. Noonday, 1993. Sitkoff s book chronicles important events and examines the lives of important figures in the Civil Rights Movement.

Smith, Amanda. "Toni Morrison," in Publishers Weekly, August 21, 1987, pp. 50-51. In Smith's interview, Morrison discusses strength of family and community in her childhood and how she made the change from editing to writing.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 393

Awkward, Michael. “Roadblocks and Relatives: Critical Revision in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, compiled by Nellie Y. McKay. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Claims that the novel is in part an intertextual rereading of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), “giving authentication and voice to specific types of black and feminine experiences.”

Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” Updated ed. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2007. Collection of important and influential readings of Morrison’s novel by leading scholars and critics. Bibliographic references and index.

Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Contains three essays examining several of Morrison’s works, including The Bluest Eye.

Klotman, Phyllis R. “Dick-and-Jane and the Shirley Temple Sensibility in The Bluest Eye.” Black American Literature Forum 13 (Winter, 1979): 123-125. Demonstrates how the Dick-and-Jane primer passages interspersed through the book and the references to Shirley Temple serve as counterpoints to the realities of black experience.

Mayberry, Susan Neal. Can’t I Love What I Criticize? The Masculine and Morrison. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. Includes a chapter on the construction of the white gaze and the representation of African American masculinity in The Bluest Eye.

Miner, Madonne M. “Lady No Longer Sings the Blues: Rape, Madness, and Silence in The Bluest Eye.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Margorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. Sees parallels between the ancient myths of Philomela and Persephone and Morrison’s exploration of rape, madness, and silence.

Rosenberg, Ruth. “Seeds in Hard Ground: Black Girlhood in The Bluest Eye.” Black American Literature Forum 21 (Winter, 1987): 435-445. Maintains that Morrison’s novel is unusual because it brings to the foreground experience—being young, black, and female—that had always been in American society’s background.

Tally, Justine, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Collection of essays on Morrison’s work, including a chapter on The Bluest Eye and Sula, as well as more general discussions of Morrison as author, teacher, and critic.

Willis, Susan. “Eruptions of Funk: Historicizing Toni Morrison.” Black American Literature Forum 16 (Spring, 1982): 34-42. Argues that the novel is a metaphor for the historical changes prompted by African American migration to the North in the 1940’s.

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