Toni Morrison has stated, “I was interested in reading a kind of book that I had never read before. I didn’t know if such a book existed, but I had just never read it in 1964 when I started writing The Bluest Eye. ” Elsewhere, she has observed, “I thought in The Bluest Eye, that I was writing about beauty, miracles, and self-images, about the way in which people can hurt each other, about whether or not one is beautiful.” In this novel, Morrison writes of the forces that thwart a black female child’s coming of age in America while at the same time she suggests the qualities that permit the strong to survive.
White standards of beauty destroy first Pauline Breedlove and then her daughter, cause even a strong child such as Claudia to question her own worth, and result in Geraldine’s denial of her own sensuality and passion. While Claudia will survive such influences (which are counteracted by the loving strength of her family), others, such as Mrs. Breedlove, Geraldine, and Soaphead Church, are perverted by such pressures, and some, like Pecola, succumb to mad fantasies.
Morrison shows how the pressures created by white-defined values as reflected in American popular culture and in America as a whole pervert the relationships within African American families as well as among individuals in the black community. In a 1978 interview, Morrison explained that Cholly “might love [Pecola] in the worst of all possible ways because he can’t do this and he can’t do that. He can’t do it normally, healthily, and so on. So it might end up in [the rape].” Geraldine shows more affection for her cat than for her son, and no one loves Pecola’s black baby. The three neighborhood prostitutes use sex to profit from and to humiliate men. Soaphead Church, after being rejected by his wife years before, desires people’s things more than relationships with actual adults. Because he sees children, especially girls, as clean, manipulable, and safe, they are the only ones with whom he will relate.
The division of the novel into sections that reflect the seasons—from autumn to the following summer—suggests maturation as another important theme. Claudia’s maturation process contrasts with Pecola’s. Claudia’s ninth year provides her with knowledge of the larger world that includes isolation, rejection, pain, and guilt. Her experiences bring her to an acceptance of responsibility, not only for herself but for others in her community as well. This same year in Pecola’s life, though, only pushes her to the margins of society and sanity. Her journey takes her ever inward, since too much pain lies in the external world for one eleven-year-old girl to bear.
Morrison has stated that “all of the books I have written deal with characters placed deliberately under enormous duress in order to see of what they are made.” The stuff of Claudia’s character endures; Pecola’s is destroyed.
The principal themes of the novel are summed up in the spring section, when the narrator speaks of the ideas of physical beauty and romantic love as “probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.” In this novel with no single major white character, white ideas about beauty still exert their power upon the lives of blacks, creating within the black community a strict caste system based on shades of blackness. Black adults and children alike, with the exception of Frieda and Claudia it seems, admire the “high-yellow dream child” Maureen Peal. The minor character Geraldine teaches her light-skinned son that there is a line between colored people and niggers, a line that must be carefully guarded against attempts to erode it. At the opposite extreme from Maureen Peal is Pecola, whose own mother knew from the moment of Pecola’s birth that her very black baby was ugly. At both the beginning and the end of the novel, Pecola is identified with a certain type of seed that the soil will not nurture. Pecola is described at the beginning as the plot of black dirt into which her father had dropped his seed. By the end, Cholly, Pecola, and their baby are all dead, and Claudia tries to explain why: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. We are wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late.
If ideas of physical beauty are destructive, so are ideas of romantic love. Once Pecola starts to menstruate, she knows that physically she is ready to have a child, but Frieda tells her that first she must get someone to love her. Pecola’s tragedy is that she does not know how to do that. She is aware of the choking sounds and silence of her parents’ lovemaking and the commercial sex of the three prostitutes—China, Poland, and Marie—who live upstairs, but her father’s attempt to show his love for her gives her a painful initiation into sex as devastating as his own was. In trying to express his love for her, Cholly destroys her: “He, at any rate, was the one who loved her enough to touch her, envelop her, give something of himself to her. But his touch was fatal, and the something he gave her filled the matrix of her agony with death. Love is never any better than the lover.”