My rating: 4 of 5 stars
About seven years ago, I took a senior-level course on the American Novel as a lowly sophomore. There were only six of us in the class, which was almost canceled except that we all wanted the credit. Because of the class size, there was no way to get out of doing the reading, and on top of that, the professor told us we should probably read the novels twice before we came to discussion. Particularly with William Faulkner and later with Toni Morrison, this professor told us it was impossible to grasp the truth of the novel in just one reading. Of course, we all looked at him like he was crazy; how were supposed to read a novel twice in one week when we had at least three other courses that required an equal amount of reading? That professor was right about one thing: there are certain authors whose work is so deceptively dense that it can’t quite be grasped, even when it can be “read” in one sitting. The Bluest Eye is one of those books.
I’ve been avoiding reading Toni Morrison for years, ever since I discovered Jazz—I was afraid the rest of her books would disappoint me. While Jazz is about passion and jealousy and lust with race in the background, I knew her other books were written more obviously about race. So I picked up a copy of The Bluest Eye so long ago I don’t recall purchasing it.
The Bluest Eye tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old black girl, a girl who knows her own ugliness and prays to have blue eyes so that she can be beautiful and beloved. Told in alternating first person by Pecola’s sort-of-friend Claudia and in third person limited, the story follows Pecola’s downfall as well as the story of her parents. This is not a happy story, nor does it have a happy ending. For a first novel, Morrison tackles some serious issues—poverty, child molestation, incest, and rape—but ultimately this is a book about beauty and race: how racist ideas about beauty can affect even a small child. Pecola’s desire for beauty is impossible because she’s trying to mold herself to white beauty standards. Even at the age of eleven, she recognizes that people—especially white people—don’t fully look at her:
“Yet this vacuum is not new to her. It has an edge; somewhere in the bottom lid is the distaste. She has seen it lurking in the eyes of all white people. So. The distaste must be for her, her blackness. All things in her are flux and anticipation. But her blackness is static and dread. And it is the blackness that accounts for, that creates, the vacuum edged with distaste in the white eyes.”
In the afterward of my 1994 edition, Morrison describes how she came to write this story: a childhood friend described her desire to have blue eyes.
“The Bluest Eye was my effort to say something about that; to say something about why she had not, or possibly ever would have, the experience of what she possessed and also why she prayed for so radical an alteration. Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing.”
And yet, while it’s obviously a story about race, I found things that I could relate to, despite my whiteness. I connected with Pecola’s feeling of ugliness in a way I think most girls have: that early realization of wanting what another girl has, be it blue eyes or light hair or skin. It’s rare that a girl is satisfied with her own appearance. Morrison does a good job of showing how the inability to find beauty in oneself can be destructive: it’s implied that Pecola and her family are stuck in their circumstances “because they believed they were ugly” no matter if someone were to tell them otherwise. Rather than blame the characters for their behaviors and attitudes, Morrison shows how little choice each person has in the matter, from Pecola’s desperate desire for blue eyes, to her mother’s identifying with the white family for whom she works tirelessly rather than her own family. Pecola doesn’t have a vision of what a beautiful black woman would look like; instead, she stares at Shirley Temple and wonders why she can’t look like that. She hates herself for her blackness because she lives in a world where self-love isn’t an option.
As with any book that’s even remotely historical, it behooves one to ask the question: What has changed since this book’s publication/since this story took place? I’d like to think a lot has changed, but I also don’t feel qualified to answer as a white person. I’d like to say a lot has changed, but looking at some reviews of Morrison’s work, it’s clear that (white) people still don’t get it. If I might get on my white person soap box for a second, I think a lot of white folks are afraid of reading authors of color because they’re afraid of encountering their own white guilt. They don’t see how Morrison could write a story about a black girl who longs for blue eyes without slamming anyone who was born with blue eyes. It’s easier for white folks to make that assumption than to take a step back from their own feelings and try to understand the issues the characters in this book are dealing with that are maybe way different than what white folks deal with—and gain some sympathy and understanding from that, hopefully. It is not Toni Morrison or any other author of color to teach me and other white folks about their experiences, but I am grateful for the opportunity to read experiences different from my own.