The Bluest Eye Themes
The main themes in The Bluest Eye include beauty, coming of age, and race.
- Beauty: White standards of beauty destroy first Pauline Breedlove and then her daughter.
- Coming of age: The novel traces Pecola's maturation in an environment in which she struggles to find love and acceptance.
- Race: As Pecola becomes more aware of the world around her, she realizes the extent to which racism defines that world.
Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on March 20, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
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.
Last Updated on March 20, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2118
Morrison has been an open critic of several aspects of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and she has stated in numerous interviews that a primary impetus for The Bluest Eye was the "Black is Beautiful" slogan of the movement, which was at its peak while Morrison wrote her first novel. Even though The Bluest Eye is set in the 1940s, Morrison integrates this pressure that Black people feel to live up to white society's standards of beauty with racism in general, and the reader sees quickly that several characters are indeed "in trouble" as a result of their obsession with beauty, especially Pecola and Pauline.
Of course, as the title indicates, Pecola's one desire is to have blue eyes, which to her are central to being beautiful and would enable her to transcend the ugliness of her life and perhaps change the behavior of her parents. Pecola worships the beautiful, white icons of the 1940s: she drinks three quarts of milk at the MacTeer's house so that she can use the cup with Shirley Temple's picture on it, buys Mary Janes at the candy store so that she can admire the picture of the blond-haired, blue-eyed girl on the wrapper, and even resorts to contacting Soaphead Church, thinking that perhaps he can make her eyes blue. By the novel's end, Pecola truly believes she has blue eyes, and her delusion is a tragic picture of the damage the ideals of white society can have on a young Black girl who, seeing no other options, embraces them.
The situation of Pecola's mother is little better. Pauline's life is already marred in her eyes when as a child she steps on a nail and her foot is left deformed. After she marries Cholly, their life in Lorain, Ohio, does not turn out to be the fairy tale she expected, so she alleviates her loneliness by going to the movies. There, she is introduced, as the novel states, to the ideas of physical beauty and romantic love, "probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion." Pauline buys into the fantasy world she views in the theaters, even going so far as to wear her hair like the popular white actress Jean Harlow. Pauline's illusion is broken when she loses a tooth while eating candy at a movie. From then on, she "settled down to just being ugly" but finally finds a job working for a white family so that she can have the "beauty, order, cleanliness, and praise" absent from her own family. For example, when Pecola knocks a hot pie off the counter at the Fisher home, Pauline slaps and verbally abuses her because she disrupts her clean, white world; on the other hand, she comforts the weeping Fisher girl who is startled by the incident. Although Pauline does not become insane like Pecola does, her decline is still obvious, for she is unable to see beauty in herself or her family but only in the surrogate family which makes her feel "white."
Unlike Pecola and Pauline, Claudia MacTeer, the novel's main narrator, is able to overcome the standards for beauty that society pushes upon her. Claudia hates Shirley Temple and cannot understand the fascination Black people have for little white girls. Much to the dismay of her family members, who see her actions as ungrateful, Claudia dismembers a white doll she receives for Christmas "to see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me." Claudia does struggle with self-image, as all in her community do, and she comments that they all made Pecola into a scapegoat because "we were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness." However, as she relates Pecola's story to the reader, she regrets their treatment of Pecola and realizes that even though she herself later learned to "worship" Shirley Temple, the change was "adjustment without improvement."
Coming of Age
The Bluest Eye has often been labeled by critics as a bildungsroman, or a novel that chronicles the process by which characters enter the adult world. As critic Susan Blake has stated, the novel is "a microscopic examination of that point where sexual experience, racial experience, and self-image intersect." For Pecola, this experience is not a pleasant one. Physically, when she begins to menstruate in the novel, Morrison uses this pivotal event in the life of any young girl to reveal the absence of love in Pecola's life. When Frieda confirms Pecola's suspicion that she can now conceive, Frieda tells her that someone has to love her for that event to occur. In one of the most poignant scenes of the novel, she asks Frieda, "How do you do that? I mean, how do you get somebody to love you?" Foreshadowing Pecola's future, Frieda falls asleep without answering Pecola's question, leaving the reader to conclude that Pecola will never find love. Indeed, her mother rejects her and her father rapes her, leaving her to conceive a child who dies at birth. Of course, Pecola's realization that society defines ideal beauty in a figure completely opposite from the one she sees in the mirror every day also contributes to her initiation into adulthood. Again, she meets only destruction as she descends into insanity after the death of her child, finding emotional nourishment in her belief that she not only has blue eyes but has the bluest of them all.
Fortunately, the process of growing up is much more productive for Claudia and Frieda MacTeer. They share numerous experiences with Pecola, but the way in which their family copes with certain situations reveals that they will not be eternally traumatized by the hardships of growing up but will become solid adults because of the love and stability of their family. For example, when Mr. Henry, the family's boarder, fondles Frieda, Mr. MacTeer kicks him out of the house, throwing a tricycle at him, and even shoots at him. On the other hand, not only does Cholly Breedlove not protect Pecola, but he is the very one who violates her, seeing in her the Pauline he once loved and transferring his self-hatred and lack of ability to provide a better life for his children into sexual aggression. Fortunately for Frieda and Claudia, their family is not crippled by negative emotions but able to cope with love.
Race and Racism
The fact that Pecola, Pauline, and Claudia must struggle with the fact that they do not fit white society's idea of beauty is part of the racism toward Black people that has existed ever since they were brought to the United States as slaves. As much as Morrison concentrates on this aspect of white racism, she includes other aspects of racism that involve Black attitudes toward each other as well as white attitudes toward Black people.
First, Morrison presents white characters who treat Black characters in a racist fashion. For example, when Pecola goes to the candy store to buy Mary Janes, Mr. Yacobowski immediately expresses disgust at her presence. The narrator makes some allowances for his actions by emphasizing that he is simply different than Pecola, "a fifty-two-year-old white immigrant storekeeper with the taste of potatoes and beer in his mouth." However, he is also presented as a representative of all whites, as Pecola thinks to herself that she has seen this same disgust and "glazed separateness … lurking in the eyes of all white people."
Another example of racism by white people against Black people is a pivotal moment in the coming of age process for Cholly Breedlove. On the day of his Aunt Jimmy's funeral, Cholly goes with a neighborhood girl, Darlene, into the woods, and they have sex. This is Cholly's first sexual experience, and it becomes a defining moment in his life when two white hunters find him and Darlene together. The hunters force Cholly to continue having sex with Darlene as they observe and laugh. Cholly's humiliation makes him impotent, but he does not turn his hatred toward the white men because he knows that "hating them would have consumed him, burned him up like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke." Instead, he turns his hatred toward Darlene, one of his own kind, over whom he can feel power. This experience leads Cholly to search for his father, and when his father rejects him, he becomes "dangerously free" because he has nothing more to lose, since he has lost his family and his dignity. This "freedom" Cholly finds is important later in the book, for while she reflects on Cholly's "love" for Pecola, Claudia states that "love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man [Cholly] is never safe."
Not all of the racist acts and attitudes in the novel are between white people and Black people, however. Several important instances involve racism among Black characters. First, Morrison presents the character Maureen Peal, a "high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back." Maureen has everything that Pecola, Claudia, and Frieda lack: wealth, nice clothes, and beauty that brings her the admiration of white people and Black people alike. Claudia remarks that she and Frieda were fascinated but irritated by Maureen, and they do anything they can to make her ugly in their minds—call her names and make fun of her few physical flaws. At one point, Maureen comes to the defense of Pecola, who is being harassed by a group of Black boys because of her own blackness and the rumor that her father sleeps naked. Maureen seems genuine in her attempts to befriend Pecola, but when the paranoid Pecola mentions her father when Maureen asks her if she has ever seen a naked man, Maureen begins to make fun of Pecola as well. Claudia tries to beat up Maureen, mistakenly hitting Pecola instead, and leaving Maureen to shout at them, "I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos. I am cute!" Not only are Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola victimized by their peers, who degrade them in favor of Maureen, but even Maureen uses her beauty against them because they refuse to bow to her. However, in an interview with author Gloria Naylor entitled, "A Conversation: Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison," Morrison states that Maureen suffers as much as Pecola does because she receives her self-esteem from society's approval of her beauty, not because she is confident and secure in who she is.
Finally, Morrison presents the character Geraldine, a representative of Black people who wish to "move up" in the world and assimilate into white culture and scorn anything or anyone that reminds them they are Black, an issue she also addresses in her novels Song of Solomon and Tar Baby. Morrison saw this kind of person as a problem in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the time during which she wrote The Bluest Eye, as she explains in her essay "Rediscovering Black History": "In the push toward middle-class respectability, we wanted tongue depressors sticking from every black man's coat pocket and briefcases swinging from every black hand. In the legitimate and necessary drive for better jobs and housing, we abandoned the past and a lot of the truth and sustenance that went with it." Geraldine is exactly this kind of woman, which Morrison describes in The Bluest Eye as "brown girls" who go to any length to eliminate the "funkiness" in their lives, anything that reminds them of the dirt, poverty, and ignorance that they associate with being Black. Specifically, Geraldine keeps her son, Junior, from playing with "niggers" and even makes a distinction between "niggers" and "colored people": "They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud." When Junior invites Pecola into his house and torments her with his mother's cat, Geraldine immediately hates her, seeing her as one of the little Black girls she had seen "all of her life … hanging out of windows over saloons in Mobile, crawling over the porches of shotgun houses on the edge of town … hair uncombed, dresses falling apart, shoes untied and caked with dirt." In her mind, Pecola is like a fly who has settled in her house and expels her with the words, "Get out … you nasty little black bitch. Get out of my house," leaving Pecola rejected again because of what others perceive as ugliness.
Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on March 20, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437
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 Black people, 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.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1297
The key themes of The Bluest Eye have to do with the most fundamental social unit, the family. In addition to the central and obviously dysfunctional Breedlove family, Morrison includes several family clusters in the narrative, each representing a mode of coping with alienation and the false cultural values imposed on minorities. In theory, a family should offer a support system even more basic than that of the community to guide individuals in dealing with the pressures society in general imposes on them. In all of Morrison's novels, the hero's identification with her or his family is a source of dissonance, in many cases a contributor to the characters' low self-esteem and being influenced by false values. For Pecola, Cholly's despair at finding work and meaning in the community, and Pauline's embracing the idea that white is right, lead to alienation and eventual withdrawal into her illusion that she has aesthetic properties valued by the majority. She is as much the victim of her family's accepting the view that they, and especially she, are ugly and worthless, as she is the victim of society's definitions of beauty—the community as a whole reinforces the low self-image her family impresses on her. Morrison frames the discussion of family, nurturing, and alienation with several contrasting families whose value systems represent alternatives to the Breedlove's dysfunctional unit.
Some chapter sections are introduced by a variation on the "Dick and Jane" story, each with its own specific reference to the chapter's central narrative. On the whole, Dick's and Jane's life represents a cultural ideal, a model of what family life ought to be in America: loving parents, amiable friends, happy puppies, picket fences, spacious houses, abundant resources. If such a life is an unattainable ideal in Euro-American middle-class life, how much more despairing it must be for African Americans denied access to opportunity and victimized by prejudice to be presented with this cultural manifestation of what should be, and by implication, what is.
One family aspires toward this ideal; much of Pecola's story is told by Claudia MacTeer, a member of this family. The MacTeers aspire toward the Dick and Jane lifestyle but are fated to fall short of attaining it. Claudia as a child, however, felt a rebellious hatred for Shirley Temple, who "danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing and chuckling with me." Unconsciously as a child (perhaps not so as an adult), Claudia resented the denigration of Afro-American familial figures to emblems of submissiveness and racist stereotypes. She also harbored a resentment of European-American culture, sublimating this rancor in the form of acts of violence against white dolls. As an adult, Claudia realizes this mutilation was her displaced rage against white America's economic and attitudinal tyranny. Yet her family seeks to capture its own small piece of the American dream, and Claudia dares not express her resentment of white folks to her family.
A central community virtue would be charity, and the MacTeers offer this by caring for Pecola when her father is in jail. The daughters feel responsibility toward this unhappy child, and they are horrified by the disorderly life the Breedloves lead; but when Cholly's rape of his daughter becomes a public event, the MacTeer girls' good intentions no longer prevail. As their friend's shame becomes public and as the sad fates of the surviving Breedloves become a community curiosity, Claudia and Frieda do not re-establish contact with Pecola. Claudia, a relentless self-critic, realizes in retrospect that, while she and her sister loved Pecola, they like everyone else used her: "All of us … felt so wholesome when we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness." Claudia's reassertion of Pecola's ugliness suggests that she may have bought into the despised Shirley Temple standard more than she understands.
Other families offer variations on the themes of absent familial support and reinforcement of cultural images of despair. Maureen Peal, a light-skinned newcomer who emulates Euro-American style and culture, is surprisingly sympathetic to Pecola until other children begin to taunt her, Claudia, and Frieda. When Maureen realizes the costs associated with being Pecola's friend, she validates the child's insult, and Claudia, recognizing Maureen as a walking "white doll," swings at her but hits Pecola instead in the novel's most transparent symbolic gesture. Maureen's parting taunt indicates the relationship between her family's strategy of submission and the hatred such minorities feel for other members of their ethnic group.
Geraldine, another emigrant from the South, like Pauline tries to appropriate white cultural aesthetics; but unlike Pauline, she emulates these and internalizes them. She thus alienates herself and her son (significantly named Junior, although his father has no real presence in the novel or in his family's life), from the African-American community. She develops Junior in the image of the reading primer's Dick and explains "to him the difference between colored people and niggers." In her effort to Europeanize Junior, Geraldine creates a monster. Rejected by his peers, he compensates for his alienation by inflicting violence on little girls. In what must be intended as a suggestion of incipient sexual deviancy, he selects Pecola because she is "always alone … because she was ugly" to lure to his house with the promise of seeing some kittens. His trick backfires, for his cat (significantly black with blue eyes) seems fond of Pecola, so he throws it violently against a window, probably hurting it severely. When he tells his furious mother Pecola killed the cat, Geraldine, seeing in Pecola's homeliness and uncleanliness all she has been seeking to avoid, does not investigate. She accepts Junior's account of the event and orders the "nasty little black bitch" out of her house, adding a religious as well as cultural weight to Pecola's self-loathing, as she stares at a portrait of Jesus while retreating from another lovely home in which she is despised by a family fleeing its own African-American origins.
A final variation on the family theme involves the Whitcomb clan, represented in the book by its sole survivor, Elihue (Soaphead Church). This family has reacted to Euro-American dominance by literally attempting assimilation. The ancestors took pride in their white blood and attributed their achievements to their white ancestry. Eventually this attribution led the family to inbreeding (as in Robinson Jeffers's narrative poems, incest in this novel symbolizes excessive preoccupation with social position) in order to prevent contamination by African- American gene pools. Like Geraldine, the Whitcombs by making a hybrid have created a monster. Elihue, a failed Anglican priest and social worker as well as a frustrated homosexual, has evolved into a potential child molester. Claudia's father beats him for making sexual advances to Frieda. When Pecola seeks his advice on how to achieve blue eyes, Whitcomb sees "an ugly little girl asking for beauty" and panders to her need for approval. The exchange he requires is perverse and exploitative. If she will (unwittingly) poison a dog Soaphead despises, he promises to intercede with God to give her the blue eyes she lacks. Elihue gets what he wants, a dead dog; Pecola comes to believe the lie that she has blue eyes. In a letter, Elihue blames God for Pecola's vulnerability but accepts no moral responsibility for having exploited Pecola and contributed to her madness.
In fact, every family in The Bluest Eye is dysfunctional. They perpetuate illusions and pass on a legacy of rage, despair, frustration, and untruth. Although the Breedloves are the most unfortunate among those Morrison represents, her despairing theme in this novel is that families fail to meet the challenge of creating a future free of Euro-American value systems imposed dangerously on African-American citizens made even more vulnerable to racial self-contempt by a fractured community.