The following reception history is by Daniel Rosler.
Though it received less critical attention than her later novels would, Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970) generated positive reviews from several mainstream publications, including two reviews published in The New York Times. Critics commended Morrison's prose but found certain elements of the text lacking. For instance, Haskel Frankel argues that the novel's structure blunts the emotional impact of Pecola's mental breakdown—a comment Morrison later agreed with. In the foreword of the 2007 Vintage paperback edition of The Bluest Eye, Morrison details her thought process behind the text's non-linear structure. She writes:
Despite their dislike of some elements of the novel, reviewers nevertheless commended Morrison. As Frankel wrote, "[Morrison] reveals herself, when she shucks the fuzziness born of flights of poetic imagery, as a writer of considerable power and tenderness, someone who can cast back to the living, bleeding heart of childhood and capture it on paper.” In his review for The New Yorker, L.E. Sissman describes Morrison as writing "truly (and somes very beautifully)." Below, we'll cover The New York Times and The New Yorker reviews in further detail.
One problem was centering the weight of the novel's inquiry on so delicate and vulnerable a character could smash her and lead readers into the comfort of pitying her rather than into an interrogation of themselves for the smashing. My solution—break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader—seemed to me a good idea, but the execution of which does not satisfy me now. Besides, it didn't work: many readers remain touched but not moved. (Toni Morrison, Foreword to The Bluest Eye, 2007)
(A fuller list of early reviews of The Bluest Eye can be found in Robert Fikes, Jr.'s 1979 Bibliography in Obsidian Magazine, here.)
Frankel, Haskel. “Pecola Breedlove, a young black on the verge of madness.” The New York Times, 1 Nov. 1970, p. 302.
Frankel praises Morrison’s writing for being exciting, noting the vividness of several scenes within the novel, and argues that that “Miss Morrison never bores as she wanders around town.” As he writes, “given a scene that demands a writer’s best, Miss Morrison responds with control and talent.” However, though Frankel commends Morrison’s ability to capture childhood into language, he believes she gets “lost in her construction.” He argues that the scene in which Pecola asks for blue eyes reveals Morrison’s “most telling statement on the tragic effect of race prejudice on children”; however, for Frankel, the scene comes too late in the novel, and, as such, loses its chance to achieve the emotional “impact it might have had in a different construction.”
With the flaws and virtues tallied, I found myself still in favor of ‘The Bluest Eye.’ There are many novelists willing to report the ugliness of the world as ugly. The writer who can reveal the beauty and the hope beneath the surface is a writer to seek out and to encourage. - Haskel Frankel
Similarly, Frankel laments the dimmed emotional impact of Pecola’s mental breakdown at the end of the text, for she is “too often playing a secondary role until the novel zeroes in on her for the ending.” As such, when her breakdown comes, it “has only the impact of reportage.” Indeed, Haskel believes Pecola “yields center stage to Frieda and Claudia” for too long, arguing that they “serve little purpose beyond distraction.” Haskel takes issues as well with some of Morrison’s "poetic" prose, pointing out ambiguous diction as disruptive of the reading experience.
Leonard, John. “Three First Novels on Race.” Books of the Times, The New York Times, 13 Nov. 1970, p. 34.
John Leonard praises the precision of Morrison’s prose, particularly in her ability to capture the natural rhythm of speech. He cites the way she “exposes the negative” of the Dick and Jane novels, for instance, doing so with a “prose so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry”. Unlike Frankel, Leonard appears to see her poetry-tinged prose as a highlight of the novel.
I have said "poetry." But "The Bluest Eye" is also history, sociology, folkore, nightmare and music. It is one thing to state that we have institutionalized waste, that children suffocate under mountains of merchandised lies. It is another thing to demonstrate that waste, to re-create those children, to live the lie and die by it. - John Leonard
Leonard compiles Morrison’s The Bluest Eye alongside two other novels—both by young white men—in a list based primarily on the broad concept of being “on race.” In addition to Morrison, he lists Coalitions, by David Rounds, and To Walk the Line, by David Quammen. The grouping feels arbitrary—coalesced convolutedly because they are, as Leonard explains, “three books, each a first novel, each distinguished, each having to do with relations between blacks and whites in the United States.”
Aside from flippantly amalgamating Morrison’s novel together with others based only on the abstraction of their being first novels that deal with race, Leonard writes that “Miss Morrison’s angry sadness overwhelms.” Both his tone and the context of the review suggest that Leonard means this as praise, but conjuring the pejorative “angry Black woman” trope remains problematic, nonetheless.
Sissman, L.E. “Beginner’s Luck.” Books, The New Yorker, 23 Jan. 1971, p. 93-4.
Sissman describes Morrison’s work in this novel as a “real and greatly promising achievement.” Like other reviewers, he praises her language, suggesting that Morrison writes “affectingly and often in the freshest, simplest, and most striking prose.” Sissman also commends Morrison’s ability to “carefully and powerfully builds up the dossiers of Pecola and the people around her,” noting the hardships and tragedy of several key characters in the text. In other moments, Sissman labels the novel as “fresh” and, though “disturbing” and “tragic,” “touching” as well. He describes Morrison as having a “compassionate finger” which she places “on the role of crude fantasy in sustaining hope, as in the experiences of Pecola’s mother.”
However, despite his praise, Sissman argues that “The Bluest Eye is not flawless.” He regards the inclusion of the Dick and Jane basal readers, for instance, as “unnecessary and unsubtle irony.” Moreover, he describes Morrison as “permitting” herself some “inconsistencies,” such as the character Soaphead Church’s real name being written as both Elihue Micah Whitcomb and Micah Elihue Whitcomb. Despite praising Morrison’s prose overall, both Sissman and Frankel believe certain instances are either disruptive of the reading experience, or, as Sissman accuses Morrison, of writing the “occasional false or bombastic line.”
Sissman recognizes what he calls the novel’s “overriding motif,” including the “desirability of whiteness” or the imitation of it as “the next-best thing.” He notes, too, that “blackness is perceived as ugliness,” but follows that up with questionable speculation: this perception “must surely have given rise in later years to the over-compensatory counter-statement ‘Black is beautiful’.” Further, although Sissman acknowledges that, for Pecola, blue eyes function as a “talisman of whiteness, of pride, of security," he fails to comment on the societal gaze and Othering of Blackness by the white hegemony that structures this perception: a white understanding of what constitutes beauty. Sissman makes another problematic point when he writes that Morrison "gives us a fresh, close look at the lives of terror and decorum of those Negroes who want to get on in a white man's world—Negroes who would now be scorned as Uncle Toms." The tone of his sentence seems to suggest that Black Americans should just try and "get on" in the "white man's world," and those that do are unfairly "scorned" by being labeled as "Uncle Toms."