Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye takes place in 1941, in a small Ohio town. The main characters are black little girls trying to understand the cruel world they have been born into. Two sisters, Claudia and Frieda, are fortunate enough to have a family that cares about them. The third little girl, Pecola, has a cruel, indifferent family. All three girls are bombarded with both subtle and blatant messages communicating to them that blacks are inferior and ugly. Morrison uses the extreme case of Pecola to illustrate how all blacks internalized society’s notion of beauty and ugliness.
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A Dick and Jane story at the opening creates a psychotic feel, very different than your happy everyday Dick and Jane story. The short story is repeated three times, the second time driven by eliminating punctuation, and the third time, accelerated at maximum velocity by complete absence of spaces between words. The reader feels dizzy and sees the story spin out of control, faster and faster. The life of the perfect family "white, middle-class, always smiling" is transformed into a mantra.
In the first paragraph of the book, we are confronted with the tragic ending of the story: Pecola, eleven years old, is raped and impregnated by her father, but the baby dies before it is born. Claudia narrates, sharing with the reader her nine-year-old perspective on events and people. Pecola is a soft, sweet, submissive little girl who dreams of having blue eyes. Claudia’s family owns a cup decorated with Shirley Temple’s picture, and Pecola is so in love with it that she drinks three quarts of milk just so she has more time to look at Shirley’s face.
Claudia, on the other hand, is not drawn in by Shirley’s charm. Just the opposite: she loathes her. All she represents is the confusing world of beauty. Claudia doesn’t understand why adults, black and white alike, glance adoringly at little white girls, but not black ones. She responds with violence. Any doll she gets, she mutilates; tears it apart in search of the source of its beauty. What could possibly be the source of the charm of blue eyes, blond hair, and pink cheeks? Claudia describes how shocked she was when she realizes that her cold violence towards dolls transmutes into violence towards little white girls. She never acts on her impulses, instead she suppresses them by learning to hate the girls, then finally to love them like everyone else does. But unlike Pecola, Claudia never internalizes the feeling of inferiority. She knows that there is something twisted about the adoration that she masquerades for the little white girls.
Pecola, on the other hand, is destroyed by society’s definition of beauty. She sees herself as ugly and unlovable. Curious about how babies are made, Pecola asks Frieda and Claudia to explain. "Somebody has to love you," they reply. After some thought, Pecola questions them again, "How do you do that? I mean, how do you get somebody to love you?" As an eleven-year-old little black girl, Pecola is extremely vulnerable, especially with her passive personality. Maybe if she’d grown up feeling the love of her parents, she wouldn’t have descended so easily into the mires of self-loathing. But the combination of a dysfunctional family, subliminal messages from society, and a malleable spirit ruined Pecola in the end.
An interesting aspect of Morrison’s book is how she structured it. The timeline is not linear; instead it skips back and forth, revealing stories about one character at a time. By the time Morrison reaches the rape scene, we have heard about the lives of each person in Pecola’s family and Claudia’s family. Everyone, that is, except Pecola, who remains a void in the story, just a little girl who wants blue eyes. Other than that, we don’t get to share any of Pecola’s thoughts. Pecola’s father, Cholly Breedlove, had a humiliating, degrading childhood. He was the product of an accidental pregnancy, so his mother abandoned him on a railroad track, and his father cut town. He knew what it was like to be cared for, thanks to Aunt Jimmy, who raised him, but she died when he was 16.
We are told about the lives of all the characters before the rape. In a way that is difficult to explain to someone who has not read, Morrison creates the characters so that we cannot hate them. We cannot hate Cholly, even as he is raping poor Pecola. The scene is so repulsive it is nearly unreadable, but we know the traumas that Cholly has suffered that lead up to this atrocity.
Morrison writes this way not to protect or defend the evil acts of her characters, but to prevent us from becoming like the society that she is condemning. The point is not to make us feel sorry for Cholly, or even Pecola, but to make us confront the awful ramifications of racism, poverty, and familial strife. The Dick and Jane mantra does not allow poor orphaned blacks into its equation of happiness or American-ness. When a person believes in the Dick and Jane mantra, he "if he is white" is condemning all blacks to live on the outside of humanity, and if he is black, he is complying with the whites" judgment of him as inferior.
When reading this book, it is crucial to refrain from judgment. To see Pecola as a "poor, little, ugly thing" is to have missed the point. Pecola’s beauty was wasted on the world, and even on her, for she did not see it. She never learns to see it either, only surviving on a hallucination of blue eyes.
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