In Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye”, we follow the story of Pecola Breedlove, an 11-year-old Black girl living in a society that values only blue-eyed, blonde-haired children.
Pecola prays for blue eyes, hoping it will make her beautiful and change her world. However, her desire leads to a tragic and haunting tale.
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Table of Contents
A young black girl believes that if only she had blue eyes, someone might love her.
An adult black woman, Claudia MacTeer, tells us about an event that happened years ago, in the fall of 1941, in Lorain, Ohio. The memory of this event continues to haunt her today because there are, as she says, no answers as to why it happened. The knowledge that Pecola Breedlove, a friend of Claudia and her sister Frieda, was pregnant with the child of her own father, Cholly Breedlove, suddenly tore away all of their childhood innocence.
They knew that men often get violent when they’re drunk, and that oftentimes men, in blind despair, commit mean and hateful acts—including rape. But neither Claudia nor her sister had ever known anyone whose father had raped his own daughter.
They hoped long and hard that the baby would be healthy and strong. In an attempt to help bring this about, they secretly planted some marigold seeds, thinking that if the marigolds sprouted and blossomed, then maybe there would be hope for Pecola’s baby. But they didn’t.
Claudia has decided that the earth was censoring the abominable act of rape, letting people know that a fierce outrage had occurred and that people should realize that the absence of marigolds would be remembered as a symbol of this crime against nature.
For Claudia, autumns of long ago meant dead grass and the need for wearing heavy stockings again; it was a season of castor oil, a chest tight with phlegm, and icy drafts, despite rags stuffed in window cracks. But always, when nighttime coughing was painful, Claudia’s mother was beside her—someone, she says, “who [did] not want me to die.”
Pecola Breedlove has never felt the satisfaction of that basic need. Her father burned down the house when he was drunk, and county officials placed Pecola in the MacTeer home. To be without a home, to be “outdoors,” was the worst thing Claudia could imagine.
Their guest had suffered the worst calamity possible, so Frieda brought her a few crackers on a plate, and milk in a blue-and-white Shirley Temple cup. Before long, Mrs. MacTeer is baffled by the numerous quarts of milk that Pecola is drinking, but the girls know why: Pecola will do anything to have a chance to savor the milk and gaze adoringly at Shirley Temple’s dimpled white prettiness.
One fidgety Saturday with nothing to do, the girls are sitting on the steps of the porch. Mrs. MacTeer is still fuming over the three quarts of milk Pecola consumed in a day when Pecola suddenly bolts upright, blood running down her legs.
The beginning of menstruation is a key ingredient in this novel. Later, when she’s raped by her father, we have the horror of not only witnessing the rape but of knowing that she could become pregnant with her father’s child—which indeed she does. Later that night, after Pecola has been cleaned up and the three girls are talking in bed, Pecola is awed by the fact that she can now have a baby.
Frieda assures her that yes, indeed, she can—but that first “someone has to love you.” Puzzled, Pecola asks Frieda, “How do you get somebody to love you?” This question is at the core of Pecola’s desire for blue eyes. If she were granted blue eyes, someone would love her. She is 11 years old—and feels unloved.
The Breedloves find themselves a new place to live. It has two rooms, with three beds in one of the rooms and a coal stove in the middle of the room. There’s a living room up front, with a tiny artificial Christmas tree in it. Tellingly, Morrison says that the “only living thing” in the Breedloves’ house is the coal stove.
This particular Saturday morning in October is much like any other. Cholly has again come in drunk and Pecola’s mother, Pauline Breedlove, complains about the lack of heat. They threaten each other with death blows. Morrison, however, characterizes their relationship as mutually, perversely satisfying.
Pauline can feel that she is a martyr to her husband’s excesses; in his dysfunctional way of seeing things, he can actually hate himself less by hurting Pauline instead. During these fights, Pecola’s brother Sammy alternately flees or cheers them on. Pecola hides beneath a quilt, praying to God to make her disappear.
Pecola realizes that maybe she sees so much ugliness around her because she has ugly eyes. If she had pretty blue eyes, she’d see pretty things and people would be nice to her. Prayers for blue eyes begin in earnest. And not just prayers. Just as she tries to consume all the milk she can while staring at Shirley
Temple’s twinkling smile, she now begins buying Mary Jane candies because of the picture of Mary Jane on the wrapper. For her, the candies become very much like Communion wafers—the body, the essence, the embodiment of Mary Jane’s sweet blue eyes.
Claudia MacTeer speaks directly to the reader, describing her father’s face and his work. The only bright spot in the long winter is the enrollment of the new girl in school, Maureen Peal, who dazzles the other children—even the teachers—with her fur-trimmed coat and muff, shiny shoes, and fancy clothes.
She is a light-skinned black girl and knows that some blacks consider her more beautiful because of her light skin. Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola are uncertain about how to react to her. Her parents obviously have more money than most.
Unlike the other schoolchildren, though, she hasn’t captivated them with her “two lynch ropes” of braids. Probably because the girls haven’t bowed and kowtowed to her, Maureen seeks them out. A circle of boys try to intimidate the girls while they are walking home from school one day; Frieda threatens them, but it is Maureen’s springtime eyes that cause them to back off and to walk away grumbling. Maureen slips her arm through Pecola’s arm and buys her an ice-cream cone.
Later, Maureen begins talking almost compulsively about naked men—about naked fathers, in particular. Claudia is aware that schoolchildren tease Pecola because she’s probably seen Cholly naked, so Claudia swings at Maureen, misses her, and accidentally hits Pecola in the face. The light-skinned girl jerks away and taunts them from the other side of the street, braying that she’s cute—and that they’re ugly.
Later that day, the girls peek through one of the MacTeer windows and spy on their boarder, Mr. Henry, cavorting with two neighborhood prostitutes. The earlier talk about naked men sets the stage for the ridiculous Mr. Henry flashing his naked legs beneath his dressing gown and sucking the fingers of China, the prostitute.
Claudia closes her narration, and Morrison takes over, telling us a strange and sadistic story that involves Pecola, a glossy black cat with blue eyes, and a rambunctious young black boy named Louis, Jr. The centerpiece of this chapter is a black woman who straightens her hair and doesn’t smoke, drink, or swear.
Morrison argues that these women are everywhere. Patiently, they endure sex rather than enjoy it, since who could actually enjoy such sweaty sex? They follow rigid schedules for everything and keep immaculate houses. They often own cats and treat them with affection while dryly reminding their child—their only child—that he or she has been negligent about the household chores.
Geraldine is one such woman. She has the requisite cat and the requisite child, Louis, Jr. The little boy is deeply resentful of his perfect mother who tries to keep him ever so clean. As a result, he has turned into a bully, and today he sees Pecola Breedlove crossing the playground of his school.
Promising to show her some kittens, Louis, Jr. coaxes Pecola into his mother’s house. As Pecola admires some dark red flowers, Louis throws his mother’s cat at her. This sudden violence leaves Pecola speechless. Stooping down to rub the cat’s head, she is caught by the icy deep blue of its eyes.
Junior seizes the cat and flings it against the window, killing it—just as the immaculate Geraldine opens the door. Pecola is blamed for the cat’s death as Geraldine screams at the “little black bitch” to get out. All her life, Geraldine has feared people like Pecola—ugly, dark black people—whom she considers disgusting and squalid. Snow is falling as Pecola begins walking home, trying to keep her face averted from the stinging cold air and heated, feverish cries of rejection.
Although Claudia MacTeer’s memories of spring 1941 are not the nightmares that plagued Pecola, they are not all rosy. Claudia remembers, particularly, the long, thin twigs that she was whipped with. It was these painful episodes that she was thinking about when she went upstairs and found her sister Frieda lying on the bed, whimpering.
Claudia assumed that her mother had beaten Frieda with fresh, supple forsythia twigs. She discovers that the fresh, budding spring season is paralleled by the fresh, budding breasts of Frieda—which Mr. Henry has fondled.
The MacTeers are so incensed that Mr. MacTeer throws a bicycle at him and knocks him off the porch, and Mrs. MacTeer hits him with a broom. Mr. MacTeer fires a gun at him. The MacTeer parents are outraged that someone would take such liberties with a young girl.
The scene is a dramatic contrast to the reaction of Pauline—and Cholly—when both of them realize that their daughter has been raped—not fondled, but raped, and by Cholly himself.
Claudia and Frieda set out for Cholly’s house, since they knew that whiskey is always available there. But they are told that Pecola has gone to the white folks’ house where her mother works. There, they are invited in by Pauline, who cautions them not to touch anything.
Moments later, Pecola spills a pan of blueberry cobbler, burning her legs. The petite Fisher daughter begins to cry, and Pauline rushes up from the basement to soothe the white child’s tears, ignoring Pecola’s painful, burned flesh.
Morrison, the omniscient narrator, begins the next section—a brief history of Pauline Williams Breedlove, a woman who grew up in Alabama, the ninth of 11 children, who stepped on a rusty nail as a child and has limped ever since.
When the family migrated to Kentucky, Pauline was in charge of keeping an eye on the twins, Chicken and Pie. Maturing into puberty, Pauline dreamed fantasies of a nebulous “Someone” who would lay her head on his chest and carry her off somewhere wondrous—forever.
Pauline’s Mr. Someone strode toward her, whistling, with the hot Kentucky sun at his back—and, before she knew it, Cholly Breedlove was bending down and tickling her broken foot and kissing her leg. Not long afterward, they made plans to marry and go north, to Lorain, Ohio, where he would work in a steel mill. It was almost dreamlike.
Once there, Pauline was uncomfortable with northern blacks. She couldn’t wear the kind of high-heeled shoes that they did; she didn’t straighten her hair as they did. And they talked differently. Taking jobs as a day worker gave her money for new clothes. Cholly, on the other hand, spent his money on alcohol and became meaner with each passing month.
During her first pregnancy, Pauline often went to the movies. In this world of fantasy, she marveled over the handsome white men taking good care of their handsome white wives. After the birth of her son, Sammy, she became pregnant again.
Soon afterward, with Cholly continuing to drink heavily, Pauline secures work with a well-to-do white family, the Fishers, where she can arrange their beautiful material possessions. She begins neglecting her own house, her own children, and certainly Cholly. The Fishers brag that “their Polly” is the “ideal servant.” Pauline laps up the praise. She muses that she would have left her alcoholic husband long ago, except that sex with him used to make her wilt. Although this sensation doesn’t happen anymore, it’s easier to miss it than to move on.
In the following section, Morrison gives us an overview of Cholly Breedlove’s childhood and how he survived a beginning that might have killed other children.
When Cholly was only a few days old, his mother wrapped him in a newspaper and two blankets and put him on a junk pile near the railroad tracks.
By accident, his Great Aunt Jimmy saw her niece carrying a bundle out to the junk pile and later went out to see what was there—only to discover Cholly. She never let Cholly’s mother see the baby again. Cholly quit school after finishing sixth grade and did odd jobs, spending a lot of time with an old man named Blue Jack, who entertained him with stories.
Barely in his teens, Cholly is introduced to sex by a seductive young girl named Darlene, but no sooner have they begun in the pine needles than two white men with a flashlight discover them and laugh uproariously and order them to continue. Cholly is mortified.
Later, fearing that Darlene might be pregnant, he decides that, despite the fact that his own father vanished before he was born, he must leave town—and find his father, Solomon Fuller.
Cholly buys a child’s bus ticket to Macon, Georgia, and watches the state disappear behind him until the sun slips into the night. He awakens shortly before they reach their destination and finds his father arguing with another man, among dice and card players at the end of an alley.
Cholly stammers and seems unable to tell his father why he’s come, but his father guesses and curses Cholly, ordering him to leave. Succumbing to diarrhea, Cholly soils himself and runs to the river to cleanse himself. After his symbolic rebirth, he spends his time getting drunk, is forced to work on a chain gang, and suffers a bullet in the leg.
He has nothing to lose, for he has been rejected by his father. Little wonder he never learned how to be a good father, emotionally and protectively, when he actually did become a father.
The narrative moves several years forward. Returning home one night, drunk, Cholly discovers his 11-year-old daughter standing at the kitchen sink, one foot absently scratching the other leg. Drunkenly mistaking Pecola to be his wife, Pauline, Cholly crawls toward her and catches her foot, causing her to fall to the floor.
He then realizes that it is not Pauline but cannot stop himself from doing what is forbidden and wild. He rapes his daughter. A few months later Pecola is more desperate than ever for blue eyes, so she seeks out Elihue Micah Whitcomb, an eccentric faith healer and interpreter of dreams known as Soaphead Church.
For the first time in his fraudulent life, Soaphead wishes that he could perform miracles. He tells her that she must make an offering to the Lord and, if He decides to grant her blue eyes, He will do so.
The offering is to be Old Bob, a sickly dog sleeping on the porch. Soaphead gives some surreptitiously poisoned meat to Pecola and tells her to offer it to Bob. If the dog eats it and nothing happens, God will not grant Pecola’s wish. If the dog behaves strangely, God will grant Pecola’s wish in one day. Bob gulps down the fetid-smelling meat and, within minutes, it collapses in spasms. Pecola’s wish will be granted.
Claudia tells us now about planting the marigold seeds. That summer, she and Frieda were selling seeds to make money, and when they knocked and were invited into people’s houses, they listened to conversations that were in progress and gradually pieced together the awful truth that Pecola Breedlove was pregnant with her father’s child.
Apparently Pecola put up no resistance—even when her mother beat her afterward. Claudia and Frieda are sorry and ashamed for Pecola and the baby. Instinctively, Claudia knew that the baby would be very black and very ugly, and she was desperate for this baby to be born—so that it would counterbalance and counteract all of the pretty pink-skinned, yellow-haired white babies who looked like Shirley Temple.
At one home, they heard a woman say that if the baby lived, it would be a miracle, so Claudia decides they should try to perform a miracle of their own. They will work magic with the marigolds by planting seeds.
The first half of the following section is a stream-of-consciousness excerpt suggesting that because Pecola was so desperate to have a perfect friend, like the girl Jane in the Dick and Jane reading primer, she has created someone who doesn’t exist.
This friend will listen to Pecola and be in awe of her “really, truly, bluely nice” eyes. It is in this section that we learn about Cholly’s second rape of Pecola, while she was reading on the couch, and we learn that Pauline never believed in Pecola’s innocence.
Like Claudia and Frieda, this imaginary friend is threatening to leave her, because Pecola is obsessed with the possibility that someone in the world might have eyes that are even bluer than hers. She does, however, promise to return.
Claudia’s voice returns as she comments on what happened to Pecola, who walks the streets, flailing her arms—seemingly, trying to fly into a sky the color of the bluest eyes—and all because she yearned to be a pretty little white girl instead of a plain black girl who was called “ugly” and was, therefore, unlovable.
Pecola Breedlove: An exceedingly plain young black girl who is placed in the MacTeer home after her father accidentally and drunkenly burns the family house to the ground. Pecola’s alcoholic father will eventually rape her—twice—when she returns to live with her family.
Pauline Breedlove: Pecola’s mother; left with a permanent limp after stepping on a nail when she was a child. Works as a housekeeper and cook for a well-to-do white family.
Cholly Breedlove: Pecola’s father. Discarded and left to die on a pile of junk when he was only a few days old; becomes a raging alcoholic who brutalizes his wife and eventually rapes his young daughter, Pecola.
Sammy Breedlove: Pecola’s brother. Living in perpetual dread of his father’s violence, Sammy begins modeling his own behavior on his father’s excesses.
Geraldine: A black woman striving for middle-class status. She is appalled when she discovers Pecola in her house and ousts her as though Pecola were a repulsive stray animal.
Louis Jr: Geraldine’s son. Feels neglected and turns sadistic, luring Pecola into the family home, where he viciously kills his mother’s beloved, blue-eyed black cat.
Soaphead Church (Elihue Micah Whitcomb): A mixed-blood, eccentric, self-claimed faith healer whom Pecola seeks out, asking him to give her the miracle of blue eyes.
Claudia MacTeer: The frame narrator of the novel. A young girl when the novel begins, about Pecola’s age, when county officials place Pecola in the MacTeer home.
Themes and Ideas
1. The Need For A Home
When we first encounter Pecola Breedlove, she is homeless and feels rootless, even after county officials place her in a kindly home with a generous mother and her two warm, friendly daughters.
Pecola’s father, the man responsible for burning down the family home, has felt homeless almost from birth; left to die on a pile of junk, he was raised by an aunt. He searched for his father, found him, and was rejected by him.
As a child, Pecola’s mother, Pauline, dreamed of creating a perfect, neatly arranged home—but was disillusioned when Cholly began a life of drinking that led to continual unhappiness, punctuated by regular bouts of violence.
Pecola is scorned by the other schoolchildren because her skin is dark black and because her facial features are very plain. She is taunted with deeply emotional slurs about being “ugly.”
Awash with feelings of being unwanted at school, Pecola feels unworthy of even her mother’s love when she visits her at the house of the Fishers, the white family for whom Pauline works.
There, Pecola spills a hot pan of blueberry cobbler, burning her legs. Instead of comforting her daughter, however, Pauline soothes the Fishers’ daughter. Pecola is never offered love by her father, who will eventually rape her during an evening of alcoholic excess.
At the core of Pecola’s fantasy are two blue eyes—and not just blue eyes, but eyes so blue that no one has ever seen such blue eyes. Pecola’s mother, Pauline, has also lived a life of fantasies, beginning when she was about Pecola’s age; she “played house” at home while her mother worked.
Pauline was responsible for her two young twin siblings and, for them, she delighted in arranging furniture, trying to brighten the home with odds and ends, keeping it as immaculate as possible.
At one point in her life, Pauline was obsessed with the movies, disappearing into the darkness of the movie theater and dissolving in the celluloid fantasies on the screen. Mr. Henry, the MacTeers’ newest boarder, is also a fan of motion pictures. He casually teases Claudia and Frieda that they remind him of Ginger Rogers and Greta Garbo, actresses from the 1930s and 1940s.
Cholly Breedlove triggers his fantasies with alcohol; one night, he imagines that Pecola is his wife of long ago—standing at the sink, one foot scratching the other leg. He rapes her—twice. Soaphead Church is so miserably unhappy as a mixed-blood black man that he creates for himself a heritage and pedigree of intellectual and notable ancestors in an effort to eradicate his black heritage.
Maureen Peal is the most popular girl in Pecola’s school because she is a sexual fantasy for young black boys whose hormones have begun to throb. Morrison describes Maureen in careful, precise detail: light-skinned with green eyes, almond-shaped. Even the teachers are entranced by Maureen’s almost white, exotic good looks.
1. A Unique and Powerful Writing Style
Toni Morrison’s writing style in The Bluest Eye is superb and original, rich in description and raw truth. She does not sugarcoat the harsh realities that her characters face, and her vivid storytelling makes the novel both uncomfortable and thought-provoking.
This unflinching approach to addressing sensitive topics like incest, child molestation, and the struggles of sex workers, sets The Bluest Eye apart from other novels, leaving a lasting impression on the reader.
2. Insightful Commentary on Societal Beauty Standards
The Bluest Eye tackles the effects of societal pressures on women and young girls to conform to cultural beauty standards. Morrison uses a multi-generational storyline and a cast of female characters to challenge readers to think about where women get their sense of value and worth, and how that is impacted by societal beauty standards.
The novel highlights the unfortunate reality that meeting these standards often results in better treatment and a higher social status, and the story explores how women’s lives are negatively affected if they cannot meet these expectations. Morrison’s insightful commentary on beauty and value in society is both eye-opening and relatable.
3. The Impact of Multiple Perspectives and Generations
Instead of a linear plotline, Morrison presents her story through the lives of different characters across multiple generations, showcasing how the white beauty ideal influences black people of different backgrounds and circumstances.
This narrative approach allows readers to see how people come to be who they are, with their individual natures interacting with their environment to shape their characters. This technique also emphasizes the multilayered nature of oppression, as it affects not only individuals but also their children and future generations.
1. Complexity of the Literary Style
The Bluest Eye is known for its avant-garde literary exploration and unique narrative techniques, which can make it challenging for some readers to fully grasp the story and its underlying themes.
The novel’s structure, which incorporates elements such as the “Dick and Jane” prose and the varying perspectives of different characters, may require readers to devote extra attention to understanding the author’s intent. For those who prefer a more straightforward narrative style, this complexity could be a barrier to fully appreciating Morrison’s work.
2. Uncomfortable and Painful Themes
The Bluest Eye delves into difficult topics such as incest, rape, self-hatred, and family structure, which can make for an uncomfortable and painful reading experience.
While the author’s exploration of these themes is intricate and interesting, the emotional impact of the story can be too intense for some readers, even leading them to discontinue reading the book. It is important to be aware of the potential emotional distress this novel may cause before deciding to read it.
3. Lack of Uplifting or Hopeful Moments
The Bluest Eye is a powerful novel that delves into complex and heavy themes, but its relentless focus on pain, suffering, and oppression may leave readers yearning for moments of hope or uplift.
The absence of such moments can make the reading experience feel overwhelmingly negative and emotionally draining. Readers seeking a balance of dark and light in their reading material might find The Bluest Eye’s unrelenting intensity to be a drawback.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison is a powerful, challenging, and thought-provoking novel that explores themes of race, self-esteem, and family dynamics, presenting a unique perspective on the lives of African-Americans. While the novel’s complex literary style, relentless focus on pain and suffering, and lack of uplifting moments may pose challenges for some readers, the story of Pecola Breedlove and her survival is an important one that should not be overlooked.
Morrison’s decision to focus on a young black heroine who is harassed not only by white society but also by her black community highlights the complexity of the issues she addresses. The novel showcases a range of black characters who, in different ways, manage to survive and persevere despite the obstacles and hardships they face.
Claudia McTeer, the novel’s frame narrator, embodies the spirit of resilience and resistance that allows her to survive in a world that tries to impose its standards of beauty and worth upon her. Pauline, despite her difficult life, ultimately provides a home for her daughter, Pecola, and this gesture of care and support serves as a testament to the strength of these characters.
The Bluest Eye is not an easy read, but it is a valuable exploration of the impact of race, self-esteem, and societal expectations on individuals and families. Toni Morrison’s unique voice and narrative techniques challenge readers to confront the harsh realities faced by her characters and consider the broader implications of these issues on society as a whole.
Toni Morrison, born in Lorain, Ohio in 1931, is an acclaimed author who drew inspiration from the works of William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. She worked as an editor at Random House while writing books that she had always wanted to read, but no one had written yet.
Her novel, Song of Solomon (1977), won the Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and her novel, Beloved (1987), won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993, she was honored with the Nobel Prize for literature.
Buy The Book: The Bluest Eye
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