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"The Bluest Eye" (1970): Overview and Links
Overview of Novel; Links to resources
Toni Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970, when she was nearly forty years old. At the time she was working as an editor at Random House; she was also raising two young children as a single mother.
The Bluest Eye is still widely read and remains one of Morrison's most influential novels (see our Reception History for the novel here). Based as it is around the experiences of a group of young girls who are coming of age on a small town in Ohio in 1940, it has a raw personal quality. While the story is very much grounded in its historical moment, many readers approaching the book today feel that it continues to have important insights for us on issues of race, gender, coming of age experiences, and sexual violence.
At the core of the novel are three African American teenage girls, Claudia MacTeer, her sister Frieda, and their friend Pecola Breedlove. The novel begins with Claudia's point of view, describing the period of time when Pecola stayed with her family when her own family was in trouble.
From the beginning, Morrison makes us aware of the role that race and racism play in shaping the lives of her vulnerable protagonists. Claudia is very aware of how she, as a young Black girl, is looked at by others, and feels enraged by her marginalization and apparent invisibility. Some of her rage is directed towards other children, though some of it is connected to the overwhelming whiteness of mass media culture in the 1930s. Among other things, we learn early in the novel of Claudia's resentment of the child star Shirley Temple, who famously appeared alongside a Black performer, Bojangles, in a number of films. (See this contextual essay for more on the allusions to Bojangles and Shirley Temple in The Bluest Eye.)
One important expression of the experimental form of The Bluest Eye is found in Morrison's intertextual reference to the Dick and Jane series of children's books. This is a series of books designed for very young children who are just beginning to learn to read. The books feature a while family with very traditional gender norms and roles represented, narratively and visually: a stay-at-home mother; a father who goes off to work every day; a sister, bother, baby; and a pet dog. Morrison begins her novel with three versions of the same passage of a somewhat modified Dick and Jane narrative, and returns to the Dick and Jane motif for individual chapter headers subsequently. Critics have noted that the Dick and Jane books were overwhelmingly white, heteronormative, and featured a version of family life that may have seemed very alien to Black working-class readers like the MacTeer sisters in the 1930s. The gap between the whiteness and happy domesticity of Dick and Jane and the world experienced by the children in The Bluest Eye can be quite jarring. (See this contextual essay on our site for more on Dick and Jane and its connections to The Bluest Eye.)
The Bluest Eye can be seen as a coming-of-age novel for the three girls at its center. Claudia and Frieda have challenges they have to overcome, including, at one point, the sexual advances of a man staying in their house (Henry Washington). But the most intense challenges are experienced by Pecola Breedlove, a young girl who is deeply unpopular within the community on account of her appearance. Early in the novel we see the shock and confusion the girls experience when Pecola has her first period. The reader also gets a glimpse of her troubled family life, with parents who appear to despise each other. Pecola's mother Pauline has essentially checked out emotionally, and devotes all of her efforts and energy to her work as a housemaid and nanny for a white family. Her father Cholly is an alcoholoic who seems to be drinking away the family's savings.
Another theme addressed in The Bluest Eye is the impact of colorism on the Black community. It is understood that Pecola Breedlove is dark-skinned and mistreated as a result. At one point, the three girls have a tense encounter a light-skinned Black girl in their school, Maureen Peal, where Maureen uses disparaging terms to describe Pecola based on her complexion. Maureen also introduces another important media allusion in the novel, with her reference to the 1934 film Imitation of Life. Imitation of Life is a film about a light-skinned, biracial young woman who has a troubled relationship with her darker-skinned mother (see this contextual essay exploring the intertextual links between Imitation of Life and The Bluest Eye)
We'll address further aspects of the plot and important themes in The Bluest Eye in some of the materials included below. For now, however, it seems important to mention that one of the key developments later in The Bluest Eye is Pecola Breedlove's rape and impregnation at the hands of her own father. That deeply disquieting incident leads to a kind of psychological breakdown. Pecola also visits a local man thought to have supernatural powers named Soaphead Church, and asks him to grant her blue eyes as a shorthand for beauty. At the end of the novel, she believes her eyes have in fact turned blue, though no one else around her appears to share that perception.
--Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University