The Bluest Eye

Last year I discovered Book Tube – about twenty years after everybody else. It’s great. It’s reignited my love of literature.

Last weekend, I re-read The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. I first read the novel in the early 1990s when I was at University studying for my degree in American Literature. I loved it then, but I’d forgotten most of the details. I loved it despite the racism, rape and incest it depicts, because of the power of the insight it provides. Also, the novel, like all the novels by Toni Morrison that I’ve read, is just great writing, with great characters and instances of love that shine bright against the dark background, showing also the hopeful aspects of human life, not only the dreadful parts. Very moving.

The novel is set mainly in 1941 and tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a 12-year old black girl, who wishes for blue eyes so that she can be beautiful and valued. All her life, she sees that blond, white, blue-eyed girls get all the love and appreciation that’s missing from her life. This desire eventually leads to Pecola’s breakdown – she becomes a psychotic, split personality with parts of her believing that her eyes have truly turned blue. She ends up insane, living with her unloving mother, who prefers the blond and blue-eyed daughter of her employers and hates her own daughter for having been raped and impregnated by her father.

A little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment.

The Bluest Eye

The story is told partly through the eyes of nine-year old Claudia, another small black girl, living with her sister Frieda and the rest of her family in the same town as Pecola. Claudia’s family, though strict and poor, are also loving and supportive and therefore Claudia and Frieda are not as badly spiritually damaged as Pecola. The novel describes hauntingly the effects of the white beauty ideal and the preference whiteness has on the girls as they grow up and remember Pecola’s story (intermixed with their own).

In the novel we also get the stories of other characters that touch on Pecola’s life, especially the story of her parents, showing how they were warped by their circumstances, so that they became unable to love and instead inflicted the violence they experienced also on the souls and bodies of their children, especially on Pecola. Their personal history doesn’t excuse their behaviour but places it in the context of their own life experiences. Other characters with hard life stories are also portrayed, who manage to keep their humanity, but it is easy to see how violence can warp people and that it’s really a gift when they can keep their humanity and break out of the cycle. Tragically, this is not possible for Pecola – she succumbs to the pervasive abuse she experiences from all sides, which she attributes to her ugliness. She loathes herself, unable to see her own beauty against the racist white beauty ideals of society and seeks refuge in madness.

The problem of self-perception as shown in this novel reminded me of the concept of “double-consciousness” in W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

The book really stayed in my mind and makes me question our reality today. How far have we come, as a society, when we still struggle with racism today? Not far enough, as seems clear just watching the daily news.

2 thoughts on “The Bluest Eye

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