Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye is a story that concentrates many and very complex themes in its plot and narrative: it talks about human nature in general, about beauty and ugliness, about the myths that society constantly creates for itself, about racism, sexual abuse and incest, and most of all about love.
The narrative is told from the point-of-view of Claudia Macteer, a black girl who talks about herself and about her friends. One of her friends, who is actually the most important character of the story, is Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-years old girl, who eventually becomes the victim of rape and incest by her father Cholly Breedlove.
The story is filled with the black girls thoughts and feelings, with their self-consciousness and their constant preoccupation with the social and human ideal of whiteness and beauty, which is always associated with it. While Claudia seems to escape, although only partially, the self-hatred that is specific to most of the other black girls, Pecola seems to be completely captured by the myth of beauty represented by the white society. Her attitude of perfect worship for whiteness and beauty, and her symbolic idolatry for Shirley Temple, all of these facts make her a victim of the social myths of beauty and whiteness.
However, Toni Morrison implies that Pecola suffers not only because of these myths that contaminate the image she has of herself, turning it into self-hatred, but she suffers because she herself allows this vision to take hold of her. It is this fact that justifies the core metaphor of the novel, which is also put in its title – “the bluest eye,” is on the one hand, the symbol of whiteness and beauty and the persistent dream-obsession that haunts Pecola, but at the same time a suggestion that the girl herself should change her own vision of the world and of her own character, in order to be seen differently be the society she lives in.
All the myths created by the society about beauty and held as true both by the white and the black people seem to reverberate in the character of Pecola. She is despised and denied equally by the white people, by the light-colored skin black people and by the dark-colored black people:
All of us — all who knew her — felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used — to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength. ” (Morrison, 59)
Claudia’s statement intimates that everyone who knew Pecola saw her the way she saw herself: as being ugly and awkward, and that, in a sense the image that the rest of the world had of her was a reflection of the image she had herself of her own person and inner self. It is hard therefore, to place the blame for this wrong vision. There is the myth of whiteness and beauty that is always circulated inside a certain social group and there is also individual vision that asserts the domination of the white and beautiful over the ugly, and the black, but there is also self-vision that allows the others to perceive one’s self in this wrong manner. This is what Claudia herself implies when she thinks that Pecola “deserved” their “contempt” since the way she saw herself was wrong in the first place.
There is a plentiful account of these dialogues of the vision and of reflected images in Morrison’s novel, which gives many descriptions of the way in which the other saw, or actually failed to see Pecola, because of her lack of significance in their eyes, as critic M. Miner observed in her study of Morrison’s novel Lady No Longer Sings the Blues- Rape, Madness and Silence in “The Bluest Eye”:
Such a happy rapport between viewer and vision is short-lived, however. When Pecola enters the candy store and comes under Mr. Yacobowski’s eyes, her existence, as well as the existence of her world, become matters of doubt. Mr. Yacobowski does not see her:
Somewhere between the retina and object, between vision and view, his eyes draw back, hesitate, and hover. At some fixed point in time and space he senses that he need not waste the effort of a glance. He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see. (my italics) ‘
In effect, this scene parallels previously described rape scenes in the novel: male denies presence to female. Pecola cannot defend herself against this denial: “she looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity ought to lodge. And something more. The total absence of human recognition — the glazed separateness.” (Bloom, 21-22)
Thus, the main idea of the novel is that of the continuous mirror- reflection between the self and society. Low self-esteem is built up by the social myths but entertained by the individual that cannot escape it. This is what happens to Pecola herself. She takes up the social myth of Shirley Temple and of her beautiful blue eyes, thus denying her own self, and, as an outcome, society denies her.
This is what explains the dialogues in the mirror the child has with herself: not being able to connect to the others, Pecola has to create her own fancy- world, the world of the bluest eyes, where she can construct another image of herself. It also explains the many dialogues that Pecola has with herself in the mirror, as a substitute for other human relationships. It is significant that, in one of these dialogues she questions herself exactly on this issue of communication:
How come you don’t talk to anybody?” talk to you.”
Besides me.” don’t like anybody besides you….”
You don’t talk to anybody. You don’t go to school. And nobody talks to you.” (Morrison, 78)
The problems of self- perception and of the perception of the other create an impenetrable screen the girl and the world she lives in. This is why the bluest eye is not only a metaphor for the desire to be someone else, but this desire to become another person is related to color in the most significant way – it is not only the color of the skin, black or white, that the story refers to, but the color of the eyes, therefore the emphasis of the color-problem is on vision itself.
This is why Pecola forces herself many times, not to see the things that she finds hard to understand or live with, which come from the outside world, but often, which represent the very reality of her body:
She squeezed her eyes shut. Little parts of her body faded away. Now slowly, now with a rush. Slowly again. Her fingers went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow. Her feet now. Yes, that was good. The legs all at once. It was hardest above the thighs. She had to be real still and pull. Her stomach would not go. But finally it, too, went away. Then her chest, her neck. The face was hard too. Almost done, almost. Only her tight, tight eyes were left. They were always left.” (Morrison, 93)
As the passage above describes, Pecola manages to erase the image of her own body and of her own self in her imagination, but, symbolically, what she can never erase are the eyes. She can not ignore her eyes since it is precisely through them that she is able either to see herself or to pretend that her own body was invisible. The game of self- erasing as described in the quoted passage, marks a very painful reality: the self-hatred of the child forces her to deny her own existence and nullify her own personality:
When the boys shout at her, “Black e mo Ya daddy sleeps nekked,” Pecola drops her head and covers her eyes; when Maureen accuses her of having seen her father naked, Pecola maintains her innocence by disclaiming, “I wouldn’t even look at him, even if I did see him;” when Maureen attacks her yet again Pecola tucks her head in “a funny, sad, helpless movement. A kind of hunching of the shoulders, pulling in of the neck, as though she wanted to cover the ears.” By covering ears, eyes, and nose Pecola attempts to shut out the testimony of her senses. Reminded of her own ugliness or that of her world, she repeatedly resorts to an elemental self-denial.” (Bloom, 24)
The most dramatic consequences of this racial discriminations are related to the exclusion of Pecola from normal human feelings- such as love, which she doesn’t know:
Throughout the novel, Pecola ponders the nature of love, pursues it as a potentially miraculous phenomenon. On the evening of her first menstruation, for example, she asks, ‘How do you do that? I mean, how do you get somebody to love you.’ And, after a visit to Marie, Poland, and China, Pecola ponders, ‘What did love feel like?… How do grownups act when they love each other? Eat fish together?’ ” (Bloom, 26)
The question of how to get somebody to love you is significant for the understanding of the loveless world which Pecola inhabits. In her world self-love, love of the others, and being loved by the others are all missing. As M. Miner notices, the image Pecola could have had of love is even more shattered when her own father rapes her, an act which to her can only mean that, for her, love can only be dirty and ugly, just like she feels about herself:
When Cholly rapes his daughter, he commits a sacrilege — not only against Pecola, but against her vision of love and its potential. Following the rape, Pecola, an unattractive eleven-year-old black girl, knows that for her, even love is bound to be dirty, ugly, of a piece with the fabric of her world. Desperate, determined to unwind the threads that compose this fabric, Pecola falls back on an early notion: the world changes as the eyes which see it change. To effect this recreation, Pecola seeks out the only magician she knows, Soaphead Church, and presents him with the only plans she can conceive. She asks that he make her eyes different, make them blue — blue because in Pecola’s experience only those with blue eyes receive love: Shirley Temple, Geraldine’s cat, the Fisher girl.” (Bloom, 25)
Another striking symbol in the story, is that of the white dolls that the black girls play with. Claudia playing with the white dolls, tells of her act trying to dismantle the dolls, in order for her to be able to understand the essence of their whiteness, as Cat Moses relates in her article discussing Toni Morrison’s book:
Describing her gradual awareness that her violent dismembering of white baby dolls was unacceptable, Claudia speaks of a conversion “from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred to fraudulent love…. I learned much later to worship [Shirley Temple], just as I learned to delight in cleanliness, knowing, even as I learned, that the change was adjustment without improvement” (Bloom, 56)
Later on in the novel, when we intimate that Pecola’s rape had an even more unfortunate outcome, a baby who dies, the author makes a striking parallel between the white dolls that the little black girls where worshipping as part of the Shirley Temple and whiteness cult, and the black boy that nobody wanted:
thought about the baby that everyone wanted dead, and saw it very clearly. It was in a dark, wet place, its head covered with O’s of wool, the black face holding, like nickels, two clean black eyes, the flared nose, kissing-thick lips, and the living, breathing silk of black skin. No synthetic yellow bangs suspended over marble-blue eyes, no pinched nose and bowline mouth. More strongly than my fondness for Pecola, I felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live – just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals.” (Morrison, 190)
Moreover, these dramatic implications extend to the past also: Cholly, who had raped his own daughter had been himself a victim in the past, when he had been mocked and humiliated by the white people who surprised him during his first sexual experiences with Darlene.
Thus, Morrison’s novel is about the social construct of the idea of beauty, which underlies even racial discrimination, about intolerance and despise, and about lack of love and identity. All these are concentrated in the view of the self and the other, and in the symbolic image of ” little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes.” (Morrison, 174)
To wish for blue eyes becomes in the novel the most powerful example of the color issue: the girl does not wish for white skin, but for blue eyes, that would not only make her different and beautiful, but that would afford her another vision of the world, giving the reader understand that the world can look different when seen through the blue eyes. Not only perception would change, but actually the events in Pecola’s life, from love to all the other types of human relationships would be born.
As it is, the girl has to look in the mirror and try to understand her own self through the eyes of the others, through the blue eyes:” “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.” (Morrison, 45)
The conclusion of the novel is thus that beauty and ugliness depend on color of the eyes through which the world is seen, and which is significantly a third color, another than white and black: the color blue of the eye, that is vision and perception is what actually divides the human world.
Bloom, Harold ed. Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999
Butler- Evans, Elliot
Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, New York: Temple University Press, 1989 www.questia.com/SM.qst?act=adv&contributors=Doreatha%20Drummond%20Mbalia&dcontributors=Doreatha+Drummond+Mbalia” Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond, Toni Morrison Developing Class-Consciousness, Susquehanna: Susquehanna University Press, 2002
Morrison, Toni The Bluest Eye, New York: Random House, 2000
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