I’ve had to wait awhile before I was fully able to write about The Bluest Eye, a novel that is haunting, troubling, and somehow beautiful. I haven’t read Morrison before (except for a few excerpts here and there), but as soon as I began reading I was reminded of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. That novel shocked me into thinking for days after finishing the novel, much like Morrison has done in The Bluest Eye.
The novel is divided into sections that are named for the 4 seasons. Set in Lorain, Ohio, I found it particularly interesting that Morrison decided to use the symbolism of seasons for her plot line- coming from Canton, Ohio and spending a decent amount of time in Lorain, I am familiar with just how much the weather affects the mood of Ohioans. Lorain especially has dramatic and pronounced seasons, each present in a very evident way. The novel is told in different points of view- at the beginning the majority of the story is told by Claudia MacTeer, a young African American girl living with her mother, father, sister (Frieda), and family friend (Pecola). Claudia is an interesting choice for a narrator since the main events of the novel follow those of Pecola’s; however, from Claudia we get the outside/crowd mentality of the town as well as her own personal thoughts. For example, Claudia notes in the beginning of the novel: ‘There is nothing more to say- except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.’ Claudia speaks from the outside looking in, an observer who has witnessed events as the rest of the crowd has. This tone implies that Claudia is trustworthy and is a narrator who wants to reveal the truth of what happened to the audience.
Pecola is by far one of the most saddest characters I’ve ever encountered in literature. Her desire to be loved and to be beautiful pervade her every thought, action, and look: ‘How do you do that? I mean, how do you get somebody to love you?’ We find out as the novel progresses that Pecola’s family is quite estranged: her father seems to have mental issues (burning down their home), her mother busies herself with working for a white family, and her brother has run away. Pecola lives as an outsider, constantly searching for an honest love. And the route she can see to love is through beauty- beauty as in what society has published as beautiful- Blue Eyes. Pecola develops an amazingly strong belief that gaining blue eyes will lead her to be loved. And what wouldn’t we do for love?
Morrison’s depictions of African American girls and their ideas of beauty really disrupted me. As a blonde-haired blue-eyed person, I look at my African American friends with envy, adoration, and appreciation for their beauty. But I recognize that that gaze is from a position of privilege, one that enables me to see many physical traits as beautiful because of the ease with which society has graced me the compliment of ‘beautiful.’ Growing up as a female inevitably means confronting the truth that you will never be as beautiful as you wish to be, but Morrison makes clear here that African American girls, especially during the 40s, were hit especially hard with beauty standards they couldn’t live up to.
The novel includes perspectives from other characters as well. The passages I found particularly riveting were those of Pauline Breedlove (Pecola’s mother) and Soaphead Church, a half-assed mystic in town. Pauline’s passages focus on the way time changes love, and there are some really beautiful sentences here: ‘When I first met him, I want you to know it was like all the bits of color from that time down home when all us chil’ren went berry picking and I put some in the pocket of my Sunday dress, and they mashed up and stained my hips. It never did wash out. Not the dress nor me. I could feel that purple inside me. And that lemonade Mama used to make when Pap came in out the fields. It be cool and yellowish. And that streak of green them june bugs made on the trees. All them colors was in me.’ And ‘She had not known there was so much laughter in the world.’ Morrison’s writing is truly beautiful. And there’s something else Morrison does well: doesn’t make us entirely hate or entirely love any one character. Pauline, although a somewhat terrible mother to Pecola, was once in love. She was once a victim of the same societal pressures that Pecola faces. And now she’s the victim of rape at the hands of her own husband, a man she once loved but has since grown to hate. And Soaphead Church, a pedophile who has sworn off sex unless it’s with a young girl, we somehow sympathize with as well for the past he’s been through. The afterword of The Bluest Eye indicates that Morrison wanted to blur the line between good and evil, which I think is an incredibly interesting them in any work of art. Shades of grey are enigmatic, terrifying, and malleable.
Our pity and sadness for Pecola gets worse as the story moves along. She falls victim to rape at the hands of her father, possibly the hardest section of the novel to get through. And afterward, as a last ditch effort to find love, Pecola turns to Soaphead Church to deliver her the blue eyes she has always wanted. I think it’s particularly interesting that Pecola’s sexual experience, although unwanted, was something that Pecola thought might bring love- or that there should be an automatic love inherent in a man who’s sleeping with a woman. But, the act brings no further love, and Pecola’s innocent longings for love further push her to search for love in beauty (blue eyes). And somehow, with the help of magic or imagination, a dog’s blue eyes come into Pecola’s possession, whether it be simply in her imagination or real. Pecola seems to descend into insanity in the later chapters of the novel, talking to herself and focusing entirely on her new beautiful eyes rather than her father’s baby she is carrying inside of her.
Claudia takes over narrating again at the end of the novel, explaining to the audience that Pecola’s misfortunes did not lessen (the baby dies and Pecola gets uglier and lives alone). As an honest narrator, Claudia explains that she and Freida did nothing to help their old friend; instead the girls merely watched with the rest of the city as Pecola’s shame began to reign over her life.
Overall, the story is a sad story about a young girl’s obsession with beauty and the definition of beauty. Pecola needed stronger female role models, someone to tell her that beauty is not physical, is not defined. Her own mother could have saved her the trouble if she would’ve told Pecola what she told us in her chapter: ‘Physical beauty- probably the most destructive idea in the history of human thought.’ It is destructive. Even with the bluest eye, poor Pecola could not find love, for love moves not through beauty but through two souls communicating.