on 29 July 2011
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.
on 3 January 2007
More a collection of mini-stories than a fully developed narrative, The Bluest Eye looks at the different factors involved in a young girl's becoming pregnant by her father, from her stay with friends to the histories of her parents and their relationship. It is sensitively told without judgement, and you get a feel for the tragedies of all the characters concerned.
One of her earlier works, this isn't the best book if you want to discover Toni Morrison, but it is beautifully written as always, and a fascinating insight into her early development. Most useful here is a postscript by Morrison where she identifies her intentions and some of the weaknesses in the book.
on 14 December 2003
This book holds the truth about girls stereotyping, that beauty only comes from blonde hair and blue eyes. The story flows very gracefully and beautifully. When you read it, you understand Pecola's feeling; her dream, her fear, her hopes. Your heart goes with her. You will also love Frieda and Claudia and astonished by how children's minds work. Pecola's dream of having bluest eyes is beautiful, sad and sorrowful.
I read this book for a few times and am still thrilled by the richness of words and the real meaning of it.
By the end of the book, I keep questioning why this thing happens? Sometimes life can be so unfair and there is nothing we can do about it.
on 6 September 2000
The reader is offered a glimpse into the lives of 3 little Black children growing up in middle America. Humor, hopes, dreams and reality are wrapped together as the reader comes to know and see how these children view their world. I really enjoyed this book and will read it again in future. It's one of those books that a group of friends should read and discuss as it would really enhance the reading experience.
on 16 December 2009
Story of "ugliness" being the absolute absence of love and how it works in a vicious circle. Little Pecola being at the centre of this story of abuse, Morrison goes into the cases of those who inflict the abuse and how they themselves have been victims of rejection, lovelessness, a displaced identity and consequenty shame. There was a point past the half way mark of this book (at the perverseness of Soaphead Church) when I put it down and said to myself I didn't want to read anymore as it was disturbing me! Im glad I read til the end though. The book was meaningful to me, and touched me. Morrison's use of words were wonderful. I appreciated Morrison's Afterword very much and she shone light on the depth of the issue of beauty in her novel. I related to the story in parts and Morrison does mention that she believed "some aspects of her [Pecola's] woundability were lodged in all young girls". I look forward to reading more of Toni Morrison as this was my first by her.
on 9 September 2015
Bought as a set from the same author following TV interview. I have started one of the books and I am looking forward to getting engrossed in the series. Books arrived quickly and nicely packaged and protected. I would recommend to others
on 11 May 2012
When you come across an author that you might like to read, it is sometimes difficult to know where to start when they have already written several books. There are two most likely options, depending on the author: one is to start from the beginning (especially if the author writes stories in sequence), the other is to jump straight to their most famous book. Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel 'Beloved,' and arguably her most famous book is 'Song of Solomon;' most book lovers will come to Morrison's work through either of these. I much prefer to start with the author's debut most of the time, unless the book appears to have been completely forgotten. Authors fall here into two groups: those who take a few goes to develop their craft before delivering their best work, and then there are those who pull off something brilliant straight away (often never to match it again). If an author has a few "unknown" books before they hit their stride, I take it as a sign that I can probably skip over these (for example, Salman Rushdie wrote one book before his celebrated 'Midnight's Children' - it is seldom discussed). Toni Morrison's 1970 debut 'The Bluest Eye' has not been forgotten - it is regularly taught in American High Schools - as a result it is admired and reviled in equal measure; either way it is certainly talked about.
The reason some first novels are a treat is because of the experimentation, the culmination of a life-to-date desire to write; all the best images and experiences from that era come together in one bold statement. 'The Bluest Eye' is a deeply passionate book, full of genuinely arresting imagery, and if I had not already known, I believe I would have guessed that it was a first novel, for its creative choices, its concern for childhood dreams and naiveties, and for its fearlessness with subjects many authors leave alone once they have a reputation to worry about.
The novel takes its name from the life of the central character, an ugly black schoolgirl named Pecola Breedlove, who has a wish for blue eyes, because blue eyes are beautiful, and if she had blue eyes then she would be beautiful too. I say these things as if they were indisputable fact, because in Pecola's world, outcast among outcasts, that is what they are: she knows blue eyes are beautiful, because the little blue-eyed white girls make all the grown-ups coo when they see them, while they look straight through Pecola; she knows she is ugly, because, "when one of the girls at school wanted to be particularly insulting to a boy, [...] she could say, "Bobby loves Pecola Breedlove!" [...] and never fail to get peals of laughter [...], and mock anger from the accused." It is such a given that Pecola is ugly, that the narrator does not even question it, using the shorthand of describing her directly as such, showing that beauty and ugliness are neither in the eye of the beholder nor in the features of the blue-eyed dolls, but instead are so finely woven into the fabric of a society riddled with inequality and prejudice at all levels, that the characters who are marginalised and limited by this discrimination, readily accept and actively support the drawing of the line in the sand. Pecola's mother, working as a home help in a white household, is able to take great pride in keeping the house spotless, while placing no value in her own family situation, leaving it to stagnate and fall apart.
Pecola is the central character in the story; however her presence in the novel reflects that of her character: she is the lacuna at the novel's centre, given little voice, and made available to the reader largely through the experiences and opinions of those around her. The short book takes leaps of focus, from classmates Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, to Pecola's parents and back, and even to other characters such as "Soaphead Church," the dream interpreter whose own sleep is dreamless, to whom Pecola comes finally to grant her wish for blue eyes.
The novel is thankfully far more than Pecola's hopeless prayer; in fact it is very much in the background, only coming to the fore in the final passage, which is the weakest part of the book, and the only part with which I share the author's professed dissatisfaction with her early efforts at tackling these heavy subjects.
'The Bluest Eye' is disliked by some students for being a set text, but it is also controversial for parents because of some graphic scenes. It gives an extensive and desperate background story to Cholly, the man responsible for the book's most challenging scene, and perhaps raises the controversy even further, by not only depicting the act he commits, but also showing that the act is committed by a human being, something that many people prefer to forget when these terrible crimes are committed, instead labelling the perpetrator simply as a monster, and doing nothing to understand why these things happen, and to work towards stopping them happening in the future. In this way, our society reflects that of the story, by holding up and accepting our own powerlessness in the face of an injustice that is too pervasive to resist.
The language of the novel, while rich in imagery and depth of feeling, is easy to understand; the reader is drawn in to the worlds of each of the characters in turn, although some readers may dislike the structure of the story, and the feeling of having to "start again" with each section, not only with another character but sometimes at a completely different point in time. In her commentary on the novel, Morrison says that she was striving for a "writing that was indisputably black," before admitting that she does not yet know "quite what that is". It is difficult to imagine a style of writing that could ever be "indisputably" anything, not least an attempt to represent so many diverse cultures and experiences under a single racial label. This is perhaps shown by some of the response to this novel from black readers, continuing into the present day with novels such as "Push" by Sapphire (after its film adaptation "Precious"), whereby the author is accused of reinforcing negative stereotypes about black people. This is a challenging stance in a number of ways, as it seeks to deny black authors the right to write as they wish, and to explore the full complexity and opportunity of literature, which usually deals with some form of conflict, instead wishing them to merely serve and represent a political purpose, and nothing more. One can only imagine the result of this sounding like the "Dick and Jane" narrative (the literary equivalent of the MacTeers' blue-eyed dolls) that runs through the book, with names substituted for ethnic variations. This is turn also denies authors such as Toni Morrison the ability to write honestly and in unflinching detail about the causes and effects of such persistent deprivation and persecution on a passionate and dignified community of people. That Morrison has elected to do so in spite of this potential for backlash shows the importance of an author pursuing the truth they want to put into their writing, as it serves a political purpose far more convincingly than if she were just to write what a portion of her audience wanted. Morrison states that she wanted the book to cause a reaction, but even so, she expresses disappointment with the result, saying that "readers remain touched, but not moved."
When Pecola's mother was young, she went to the cinema often, and learned from Hollywood of "romantic love [and] physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought." This to me is the central theme of the novel; however within this slim volume there is an encyclopaedia of human pain and tragedy, channelled through a small group of connected people in 1940s Ohio, which is capable of not only touching, but moving any reader to consider the way they look at the world, to understand where pain comes from, beyond the daily damage we do to each other, ingrained in all the furnishings of our modern, civilised society.
However, this is not a relentlessly negative portrayal of these characters, from which we should infer any greater judgement than of the cruel acts of a few cruel people, and of the acceptance of conditions where such cruelty is allowed to take root. It is also a story of love and inner strength, of people in crowded and demoralising living circumstances, opening their doors to their neighbours when they fall on even harder times, for fear of their becoming "outdoors," instead of accepting the mistrust we are constantly told to feel for each other when living with scarcity and hardship. Human experience is at the fore, in all its light and dark, and indeed with all its urine, vomit, toejam, and much more besides, all left in here, the gaze unrelenting, showing us living people rather than ideas; real life rather than the sanitised and sensationalised liaisons of the cinema screen. 'The Bluest Eye' may not have lived up entirely to what the author hoped to achieve with it, but nonetheless it is a work of extraordinary power, that will stay with the reader, without being simply consumed, ticked off a list, and forgotten.
on 15 May 2012
This isnt a book. It is an experience.
It is a book that requires digesting.
Stylistic and eloquent, Toni Morrison manages to articulate the intangible, capturing the individual experience in perfect synchrony with the human experience without devaluing the unique perspective of each character and the deep rooted spiritual connection shared with a vast demographic of readers each with their own identity. This book reviews age, innocence, self definition, gender, culture, tradition and society in a unique and thus far unrivalled way. I cannot recommend this book enough.
I picked it up thinking it was a walk in the park, a book that would take me a number of hours to read... I was wrong. This sorrowfully brilliant book changed me. I have never been a Toni Morrison fan...but this book...this book is incredible.
P.S. I have purchased it 3 times... Each time I lend it out...it never comes back as it is sent on...!
on 24 September 2013
Read with Feminist Book Club @FeministBC
This is my contribution to the discussion:
I think the main theme of the novel is the self-hatred produced by a racist culture. The most overt image of this is Pecola's pathological desire for blue eyes, but it is also powerfully evident in the character of Geraldine, mother of Junior, who is one of the women who `come from Mobile' and dedicate themselves to the erasure of their natural `funk', and even more so in Pauline, Pecola's mother. I found Pauline's story the most affecting, because she was unable to show any tenderness to her own children, yet doted on the white child of the family she worked for (the berry cobbler scene is as disturbing to me as the rape) and was described by them as the perfect servant. Evidently, she doesn't neglect Pecola because she is a cold, cruel person, but because a racist culture has ingrained in her a hatred of what it has designated as blackness (her husband's fecklessness, her home's hopeless poverty and cheerlessness, and her children's `ugliness'). Morrison, in describing her behaviour to her family, ends by saying `and the world itself agreed with her'. This is unquestionably a racist world.
I think this blackness-as-designated-by-white-supremacy is the same thing as the `funk' that the `women from Mobile' try to expunge from themselves. Geraldine's son yearns for blackness in sexual terms when he longs to play with black boys. White-supremacy (and the black self-hatred that is its offspring) is a hatred and fear of the black body and its sexuality.
Just before the rape scene, Cholly's `freedom' is described. I struggle to understand this idea of freedom, but it seems to arise from a litany of proscriptions he has transgressed. He has refused to conform to the demands of white supremacy, but as no alternative narrative to make sense of his experience or identity is available to him (Morrison suggests music could provide one, pointing, I guess, to the Black Arts movement and the reclamation of Black beauty/body/sexuality) he is almost a person without socialisation, without culture, so he can only behave reactively or out of emotion. As his experiences are largely negative, so are his actions. He is able to rape his own daughter without shame, in fact partially out of confused tenderness towards her, as he has no longer any way to make sense of relationships or the feeling of love - or, perhaps, since all his feelings are despised by white supremacy, they are in total confusion, with no way to distinguish kind from cruel, transgression from goodness.
Claudia (and her sister) is to some extent liberated from racialized self-loathing, as exemplified by her rejection of the white dolls she was given. However, I don't think Morrison has made Claudia immune, rather, she is pointing out that there are moments and points of resistance in the onslaught of the white supremacist hegemony.
I loved the book. I felt every word of it was a poisoned dart in the flesh of oppression. I was quite rightly discomforted.
on 7 May 2001
Morrison's first book does have the air of a debut novel, but this is no bad thing. The style and subject matter is one that we see developed and matured in her later novels, but her own individual voice is clear from the first pages. Using fierce juxtaposition, original imagery and often harshly stripped-down prose, she creates a highly moving, shocking and completely addictive book. 'The Bluest Eye' may be simpler than her later works, but Morrison is still worlds apart from most modern writers.