The Bluest Eye was Toni Morrison's first novel, published in 1970. The story is based in Ohio, USA, and the central figure is Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who has been convinced by her parents and society that she is hideously ugly. Her mother, Pauline, is influenced by society's perception of beauty: "all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured", hence Pecola prays for blue eyes because she believes that it will lead to a better life: "Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike."
The book is told from the viewpoint of Claudia MacTeer, as a child and an adult, and by an unknown third-person narrator. Claudia MacTeer lives with her sister Frieda, their parents, a lodger called Mr. Henry and Pecola Breedlove, as the MacTeers take her in after her home is almost burned down in a fire during one of her parents' ourbursts.
The Bluest Eye is a text rich with symbolism, hence its use in school curriculums across the world despite its graphic nature. Pauline and Cholly Breedlove are constantly at war and Pecola is often caught up in their verbally abusive and often physically violent dramas. We learn that the Breedloves have experienced immense hardship or forms of abuse that have led them to act the way they do: it seems that the pattern is in escapable. They are particularly victims of rejection: Pauline because of a deformity she has had since her youth, and Cholly because of abandonment by his mother as a young child: "They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly... No one could have convinced them that they were not relentlessly and aggressively ugly."
We watch helplessly as the powerless young Pecola joins this trend when her drunken father, Cholly, rapes her while she is washing the dishes. "What could he do for her - ever? What give her? What say to her? What could a burned-out black man say to the hunched back of his eleven-year-old daughter? If he looked into her face, he would see those haunted, loving eyes. The hauntedness would irritate him - the love would move him to fury. How dare she love him? Hadn't she any sense at all? What was he supposed to do about that? Return it? How?" It seems that abuse is Cholly's only understanding of love, and his powerless leads to his self-hate and perhaps also hatred of his race.
Soaphead is another character who is a victim of his own powerlessness. He is the local psychic, but he feels inadequate when Pecola asks him if he can make her eyes blue: "Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty. A surge of love and understanding swept through him, but was quickly replaced by anger. Anger that he was powerless to help her." He tricks her into thinking that she will get her wish for blue eyes.
The plot is rife with tragedy. Pauline refuses to believe that Cholly has raped Pecola, Cholly disappears, Pecola becomes pregnant and suffers has a miscarriage. Claudia and Frieda plant marigold seeds in a superstitious vision that Pecola's baby will live if the flowers bloom, but they do not, just as, the narrator tells us, many of the seeds they plant there fail to bloom: "This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers." The baby dies, and society is glad of it, as there is little pity for the ugly girl. Pecola's tragic life seems to have no relief.
There are several poignant themes in this book. Racial and class issues were prevalent in the American South in the 70s, however there are also further issues stemming from them such as notions of beauty and self-hate, hence Pecola's innocent prayer for 'the bluest eye'. Pecola thinks that if she had blue eyes and was therefore pretty then her parents would stop fighting and people would favour her in the same way that her schoolmate Maureen is favoured for being light-skinned. Sex coupled with beauty is also a strong theme throughout the book. Pecola finds kindness in the prostitutes Poland, China, and Miss Marie, who flaunt their independence and their bodies equally. Cholly succumbs to them: "They give him back his manhood, which he takes aimlessly", and this is where their strength lies. This society feeds off each other with abuse of power, and Morrison suggests that prostitution is a black woman's only way out of the powerlessness forced upon her by society.
Towards the end of the book Pecola deludes herself into thinking that she has blue eyes after the trick Soaphead plays on her works. It may be that she has succumbed to madness, or that her eyes are clearly still brown in the mirror but mentally she is no longer convinced that she is ugly. I like to think that it's the latter. Blue eyes, then, are perspective, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and by accepting the power of her beauty as a black girl, Pecola gains some power in her life.
The reason I love this book, though, is not for its rich literary merits alone. I found the story to be deeply moving and the characters easy to empathise with. I also felt a strong sense of place when reading The Bluest Eye, despite never having experienced life the 1970s American deep South. Contrasting with the heavy topics of the book are Morrison's beautifully crafted tone, her poetic imagery of the South, and a unique and refreshing tone of storytelling. By the end of the novel I felt that despite the tragedy it is Morrison's eyes that are metaphorically blue, in their sharp observance of this time, their acceptance of the black American's learned powerlessness, and their willingness to overcome it. If you're planning to read The Bluest Eye, be prepared for helplessness and tragedy, but also be willing to look beyond it.