Toni Morrison Morrison, Toni (Vol. 22)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toni Morrison 1931–

Black American novelist and editor.

Morrison's fiction usually involves the initiation of young black women who must confront the tensions of both racism and sexism. Within a compelling narrative, Morrison uses symbolism, foreshadowing, flashbacks, myth, inner monologues, and authentic dialect.

(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 10, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6: American Novelists since World War 11.)

Phyllis R. Klotman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye (1970) is a female Bildungsroman, a novel of growing up, of growing up young and black and female in America. The story centers around the lives of two black families, the McTeers and the Breedloves, migrants from the South, living in Lorain, Ohio. But its emphasis is on the children, Claudia and Frieda McTeer and Pecola Breedlove—their happy and painful experiences in growing up, their formal and informal education. In fact, education by the school and society is the dominant theme of The Bluest Eye.

The novel opens with three versions of the "Dick and Jane" reader so prevalent in the public schools at the time (the 1940s) of the novel. Morrison uses this technique to juxtapose the fictions of the white educational process with the realities of life for many black children. The ironic duality of the school/home experience is illuminated through the ingenious structure of the novel. The "Dick and Jane" referent effectively introduces the fictional milieu of Morrison's characters; it is one with which we are all familiar…. It is the world of the first-grade basic reader—middle-class, secure, suburban and white, replete with dog, cat, non-working mother and leisure-time father…. This first version of the simulated-reader quotation is clear, straight, rendered in "Standard English"—correct and white. The second, while it repeats the message exactly, assumes a different visual appearance on the page which is less clear yet still comprehensible although written without proper capitals or punctuation…. The third, the wording of which is likewise unaltered, is completely run together, one long collection of consonants and vowels seeming to signify nothing….

These three versions are symbolic of the lifestyles that the author explores in the novel either directly or by implication. The first is clearly that of the alien white world (represented by the Fisher family) which impinges upon the lives of the black children and their families while at the same time excluding them. The second is the lifestyle of the two black McTeer children, Claudia and Frieda, shaped by poor but loving parents trying desperately to survive the poverty, the Northern cold and Northern style of racism they encounter in Ohio. The Breedloves' lives, however, are like the third—the distorted run-on—version of "Dick and Jane," and their child Pecola lives in a misshapen world which finally destroys her. The simulated "here is the house" quotation, with its variants, serves several purposes: as a synopsis of the tale that is to follow, and as a subtly ironic comment on a society which educates—and unconscionably socializes—its young with callous disregard for the cultural richness and diversity of its people. (p. 123)

The epitome of the good, the true, and the beautiful is, of course, Shirley Temple. Morrison uses the contrast between Shirley Temple and Pecola, like the contrasting versions of "Dick and Jane," to underscore the irony of black experience. Whether one learns acceptability from the formal educational experience or from cultural symbols, the effect is the same: self-hatred. Pecola's actual experience cannot be found in "Dick and Jane," for in the school primer, society denied her existence. In yearning to be Shirley Temple, she denies her own: "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."…

Very early in the novel, Pecola's terribly...

(The entire section is 10,744 words.)