Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

“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.”


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

(Novels for Students)

Shirley Temple Published by Gale Cengage

Civil Rights and Race Relations
Although Toni Morrison set her novel The...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View and Structure
The point of view in The Bluest Eye is dominated by first person ("I")...

(The entire section is 1319 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Bluest Eye gave clear evidence of the innovative, original writer Morrison would be. For a first novel, it is unusually daring and...

(The entire section is 740 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Bluest Eye generates spirited discussion on the nature, extent, and ubiquity of prejudice in modern America, and other texts on...

(The entire section is 280 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In some ways the synergy between Morrison and the emerging concerns of the times about which she writes were foreshadowed by her first, and...

(The entire section is 1106 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1940s: The United States became involved in World War II in 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Research the life and career of Shirley Temple, the child star whom Pecola sees as the epitome of female beauty. What about Shirley Temple...

(The entire section is 141 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Bluest Eye takes its place in a distinguished tradition of African-American literature concerned with the struggle to assert...

(The entire section is 362 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • An abridged version of The Bluest Eye was recorded on two audio cassettes in 1994 by Morrison and actress Ruby Dee....

(The entire section is 61 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple, printed in 1982, uses Celie's letters to...

(The entire section is 288 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Bayles, Martha. "Special Effects, Special Pleading," in The New Criterion, Vol. 6, No. 2, January,...

(The entire section is 571 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.