The Bluest Eye
by Toni Morrison
One of America’s most celebrated African American novelists, Toni Morrison has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, to parents who had migrated north from Georgia and Kentucky. While a student at Howard University she changed her name to Toni and later married and divorced a Jamaican architect named Harold Morrison. She set her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in her hometown of Lorain.
Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place
Standards of beauty
Even before the novel’s main character, Pecola Breedlove, becomes pregnant with her father’s child in 1941, the joy has gone out of her young life. The Bluest Eye is the story of how Pecola, other children, and also adults suffer at the hands of a dominant culture that reveres light-skinned people, preferably blond and blue-eyed ones.
Admiration for these traits was widespread by 1941, as was the perceived superiority of the people of European descent who possessed them. Not surprisingly, a number of the blacks in the novel exhibit the damage done to their self-image by this admiration for traits they did not possess. The real-life counterparts of these fictional characters were all too familiar with the conventional white notion of beauty. In a book called Personal Beauty and Racial Betterment (1920), a professor at prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore put some of these stereotypes into words:
The type which is highest in value tends to approximate the European type, wherever the European type becomes known. All dark races prefer white skin....
The broad flat nose and the thick wide lips are often repulsive because they suggest the African, if for no other reason. But I suspect that the thick lips are also a defect because they are in themselves a hindrance to efficient speech.
(Dunlap, pp. 20, 32)
Racist ideals of beauty led to racist assessments of personal worth. Taking this to the extreme, many people connected virtue with the white conception of beauty; conversely very dark skin was associated with ugliness and sin. This association was promoted by a number of respected citizens—for example, the professor cited above—who condemned non-European (here, African) skin color, physique, cultural ties, and speech or mode of expression. Like other American “racial betterment” propaganda of the Page 50 | Top of Articletime, the professor’s book recommends strategies for breeding more beautiful people and fewer undesirables.
Discussion of the concept of eugenics, racial improvement through genetic control, was too far-fetched to sustain much serious attention in the United States. However, The Bluest Eye does open in the fall of 1941, shortly before America entered World War II, a historical connection that Morrison notes in her afterword to the novel. The timing inevitably brings to mind the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and his belief in the superiority of the Aryan race, a group marked, in his opinion, by people with blond hair and blue eyes.
In the United States, cosmetic and personal care companies capitalized on the obsession with beauty and grooming. Whether they wanted to highlight or deemphasize their black features, women had many cosmetics at their disposal. Fittingly, the novel mentions various products related to the maintenance of hygiene and personal beauty: vanishing creams claimed to improve skin texture and clear up or lighten one’s complexion; Sen-Sen was a tiny, black, chiplike breath mint; the product Fels Naphtha, a bar soap, made suds for washing clothes; Dixie Peach was a hair pomade used for straightening hair and keeping it in place; and the Lucky Hart catalog offered a whole line of beauty products and the chance to sell them as a Lucky Hart representative. Almost all of these items are still available.
Pop culture and Hollywood
Pop-culture icons and movies relentlessly reinforced mainstream standards of beauty, and Morrison includes many of these cultural references in the novel. A blond, blue-eyed girl smiled on the wrappers of Mary Jane candy. Children learned to read by following the simple story lines of Dick and Jane books, in which brown-haired Dick and Father, and blond-haired Jane, Mother, and Baby Sally promoted an example of the ideal American family.
Hollywood in the 1930s was dominated by the white female actresses whom Morrison names in her novel. Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow were glamorous and defiant. Graceful, blond-haired Ginger Rogers did everything her dance partner Fred Astaire could do—and she did it in heels. Claudette Colbert starred in many pictures, and the child-actress Jane Withers offered a slightly less droll alternative to Shirley Temple. All of them were consistently box-office draws, and the public saw their on-screen traits as qualities to emulate.
A few black movie stars were making their mark as well, portraying images that have also been described as problematic for blacks. Bill Robinson, known as “Bojangles,” starred as a dancer in many Depression-era movies, often opposite Shirley Temple. And in 1940, Hattie McDaniel was the first black to win an Academy Award for her role as best supporting actress in Gone with the Wind. Black actresses Fredi Washington and Louise Beavers starred opposite Claudette Colbert in Imitation of Life (1934). It was one of the few movies of the Depression era to hint that race problems existed in America. Washington, an extremely light-skinned black woman, played the part of Peola, a young woman of mixed parentage who tries to pass for white.
The Bluest Eye depicts the tension between blacks already settled in Lorain, Ohio, and those who streamed into the area in the first half of the 1900s. As early as 1879, thousands of blacks left the rural South for a better life in the industrial communities of the North and West. The migration intensified in 1914 when World War I began and foreign immigration declined sharply, resulting in a labor shortage. Like many Northern factories, the steel mill in Lorain responded by using labor agents and newspaper ads to urge Southern blacks and whites to seek employment with them in the North. Estimates of the number of blacks who left the South in this decade range from several hundred thousand to over one million.
After the war, thousands of these black migrants lost their jobs to whites. The situation was made worse by the fact that labor unions usually excluded blacks at the time. Next came the stock market crash of 1929, ushering in the Great Depression, in which whites joined the thousands
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of blacks who were already unemployed. In Lorain, black-owned businesses such as barber shops, beauty parlors, and second-hand stores struggled to keep from closing.
The onset of World War II lifted the nation out of the Depression, providing new impetus for blacks to migrate northward for jobs in the war industries. Social considerations continued to stimulate migration too. Blacks expected better treatment in Northern cities, where segregation was less pronounced and incidents of mob violence were fewer. Some migrated northward to escape the desperately inadequate schools for blacks in the South. The family of Ramah Willis, Toni Morrison’s mother, fell into this category. The Willises decided to leave Kentucky when their daughters returned home from school one day after showing the white teacher how to do long division.
A new life in the North
Upon arriving in the North, blacks fortunate enough to find steady work and earn a dependable wage usually saved money in order to buy a house. The trappings of membership in the middle class gradually became available to them, from impeccable attire to a well-kept, comfortable home. The novel contrasts the comforts of middle-class home ownership among blacks with the fears of poorer people, who were closer to the possibilities of financial destitution and homelessness.
To their initial surprise, impoverished new arrivals and resident blacks living near the subsistence level were sometimes treated coolly by their Page 52 | Top of Articlebourgeois counterparts. The Bluest Eye focuses on the willingness of many middle-class blacks to conform to what the white mainstream wanted of them. Priding themselves on being “colored” and respectable, the novel suggests, they went to great lengths to distinguish themselves from the dirtiness, unruliness, and ignorance associated with “niggers” (The Bluest Eye, p. 87).
In real life, Lorain’s black population lived in the central and southern parts of a town that prided itself on a substantial degree of integration. Blacks shared these poor and working-class neighborhoods with Italians, Mexicans, Greeks, Slovaks, and Puerto Ricans. Morrison, despite the town’s pride about integration, remembers how race prejudice transcended shared economic hardship. In the fifth grade, she taught a new student how to read. It took him six months to realize she was black—a “nigger.” Immediately, everything changed: “That’s the moment when he belonged, that was his entrance. Every immigrant knew he would not come at the very bottom. He had to come above at least one group—and that was us” (Morrison in Taylor-Guthrie, p. 255).
Migrating from black-dominated communities in the South, newcomers had to adjust to a mixed society in Lorain and other areas. Northern blacks, interested in the reputation of their group, doled out advice, in the form of broadsides, or fliers, that advised newcomers about proper manners in public. This concern preoccupies Pecola’s mother, Pauline, in the novel. When she first moved to Lorain, Pauline wasn’t used to so many whites around her, or to their esteem for clothes, money, makeup, and “proper” manners. But she soon adopts their values, an attitude that contributes to her daughter’s downfall. The mother becomes a model servant in a white household, gaining the respect of blacks and whites alike, despite her private neglect of her family and her cruelty toward her daughter. More generally, the novel suggests that while white society’s standards were destructive, black society was also responsible for the destructiveness because it frequently aspired to these same standards.
Real-life experience in Lorain indicates that although its poor and working-class communities were racially mixed, blacks developed some sense of solidarity among themselves. Morrison has described a pervasive feeling of closeness among the blacks in Lorain. This sense of kinship created what they called “the neighborhood,” a term the author prefers to “black community.” Looking back on her life there in the 1930s and ’40s, she savors the values and actions common then.
At the time, people usually looked after the elderly, needy, and insane, instead of entrusting them to the care of institutions or social service agencies. Any adult had the right to correct a child’s behavior and discipline him or her. Sometimes this willingness to accept responsibility for others seemed meddlesome, especially to young people, but most of them ultimately understood it as a survival-oriented method of caring for one another. In the novel this network of support fails to save the Breedloves, whom Morrison considered an atypical family; still, she felt that a measure of their pain—and especially Pecola Breedlove’s vulnerability—would be familiar to most black families.
Included in the novel are the MacTeers, a more typical family than the Breedloves. Mr. and Mrs. MacTeer are preoccupied with their daily pressures and the needs of their children and community rather than with appearances. Instead of coveting riches, beauty, or white features, they spend much of their energy on daily survival, which sometimes makes Mrs. MacTeer treat her daughters roughly. Outweighing the roughness, though, is her motherly love, as her daughter Claudia recalls when musing about a past illness: “And in the night, when my coughing was dry and tough, feet padded into the room, hands repinned the flannel, readjusted the quilt, and rested a moment on my forehead. So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die” (The Bluest Eye, p. 12). By contrast, as a member of the Breedlove family, Claudia’s friend Pecola receives no such tender care.
The Novel in Focus
The Bluest Eye opens with a Dick-and-Jane paragraph, a white American myth far removed from the realities illustrated in the novel. Thereafter, the black narrator Claudia MacTeer relates much of the story, and the remainder, which concerns events that Claudia could not have witnessed, is narrated mostly by an unidentified voice. Claudia’s narrative reveals the guilt that for a long time plagued her and her sister in connection with another girl’s miscarriage. The girl, Pecola Breedlove, was pregnant with her own father’s child in the fall of 1941. Told by the different narrators, the rendition of events leading up to her tragedy is organized according to the four seasons.
Claudia MacTeer describes her family’s poverty and the strain evident in the voices of the adults she knows. The MacTeers take in a male roomer, and Pecola also stays with them for a few days after her father burns down the Breedloves’ house for some undisclosed reason. Claudia, her sister Frieda, and Pecola argue about movie stars, including Shirley Temple. Claudia confesses to the reader that her stiff, blue-eyed baby dolls and hatred for Shirley have made her want to maim the dolls and the real little girls who resemble them. Pecola, for her part, believes her lonely, miserable life would be different if she had blue eyes, and she prays for this transformation. Before autumn ends, the scene shifts to the home she shares with her own family, a reconfigured storefront, above which three prostitutes live.
The girls are distracted from the bitter cold of winter by a new student at school: pampered Maureen Peal. Green-eyed with long brown hair, Maureen is described as having a high-yellow complexion, meaning that she is a light-skinned African American. Walking home from school with Maureen one day, Claudia’s temper is provoked, and racial insults fly. Next the section describes black women who move up from the South and conform to white values. The homes they create are regimented and cold, if impressive. Among these women is Géraldine, whose son, Junior, one day lures the “very black” young girl Pecola to his house. He cruelly taunts her, then unfairly blames her for killing his mother’s beloved cat; finally his mother throws Pecola out.
The hard-working MacTeers chase off their roomer after he makes sexual advances toward their daughter Frieda. Still upset by the incident, the girls look for Pecola, whom they find at the house of the wealthy white family where her mother works. A scene ensues in which Pecola accidently splatters some hot berry cobbler over the floor and onto her own legs. Ignoring her daughter’s burns, Pauline Breedlove knocks Pecola to the floor and maligns her before attending affectionately to her employer’s little white girl.
Through flashbacks, the reader sees how Pauline and her husband, Cholly, have changed since moving to the North from Kentucky. Pauline modifies her behavior to please everyone but her family, and Cholly is drained of ambition, hope, and curiosity about life. His inadequacy as a parent is never more apparent than on the day he returns home drunk and rapes his daughter, eleven-year-old Pecola. On the brink of insanity, Pecola later makes one final attempt to get blue eyes from a local interpreter of dreams, Soaphead Church. Through his intervention, she believes she gets the blue eyes she always wanted.
It seems that almost everyone except the two sisters Frieda and Claudia reject Pecola in this difficult time. The two sisters pray, perform magic, and give up luxuries in the hope that Pecola’s baby will live. When Pecola miscarries, Frieda and Claudia blame their failed efforts. In the years that follow, the rest of the community and even the sisters base cheap feelings of superiority on this little black girl’s destruction. Pecola’s family disintegrates. Her father leaves home, and so does her brother, Sammy. Meanwhile, her mother keeps doing housework, and one day moves to a new residence, a small brown house on the edge of town, where she lives with Pecola, who by this time has slowly but surely descended into madness.
Morrison looks closely at the development of more than just young black girls in the harsh world of the novel. The destruction of Cholly, Pecola’s father, is also shocking and complex. Therefore when he rapes his daughter late in the story, Morrison hopes that horror will be only part of the reader’s reaction:
I tell you at the beginning of The Bluest Eye on the very first page what happened, but now I want you to go with me and look at this, so when you get to the scene where the father rapes the daughter, which is as awful a thing, I suppose, as can be imagined, by the time you get there it’s almost irrelevant because I want you to look at him and see his love for his daughter and his powerlessness to help her pain. By that time his embrace, the rape, is all the gift he has left.
(Morrison in Rigney, p. 32)
Cholly hails from Georgia. When he meets his wife in Kentucky, he is a dazzlingly “free” man, a survivor of life’s horrors. The novel tells how “[i]n those days, Cholly was truly free. Abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose” (The Bluest Eye, pp. 159-60). But the “humiliations, defeats, and emasculations” that life deals him add up (The Bluest Eye, p. 42). By the time of the rape, Cholly has lost all interest in his surroundings. He is an abusive husband and an emotionally impaired father. In this state, what can he possibly offer his Page 54 | Top of Articlefamily in terms of manhood and responsibility? Cholly’s emotions during the rape are confused, but they include tenderness for the girl. As suggested above, his manhood—in the most basic sense, his ability to procreate—is the only thing that Cholly “owns” to give, and this is fundamentally tragic.
Yet to consider the rape an act of giving is not easy. After all, prejudiced thinking had foisted on history as a whole the image of the black female as a fallen woman, due to the high incidence of rape she endured at the hands of white masters under slavery. Black women and girls were regarded as having lost value through the sexual abuse they suffered. They were seen as tarnished goods, an image that persisted into the 1900s. A general misconception prevailed of the black female’s being sexually loose and undeserving of respect in any case. The misconception resulted in rapes not only by white males but also by blacks. Other black men and women combatted the rapes, writing articles beseeching the American public to take action against such abuse. But it persisted, as did the general perception of black females as available sex objects, a notion reflected in the novel not only by the actions of Pecola’s father but also of the roomer who molests young Frieda MacTeer.
Sources and writing
In her afterword to the novel, Morrison recounts an incident that gave rise to her story. One day a girl at her elementary school wished for blue eyes. Repelled at the thought of how freakish this would make the girl look, Morrison pondered over the wish some twenty years later in the 1960s, when “Black is Beautiful” became a popular slogan. The question was, what made it necessary for black Americans to reclaim their own racial beauty? The answer took Morrison back in time to the girl who wanted blue eyes.
The Bluest Eye was first a short story that Morrison composed hurriedly in 1962 for a writer’s workshop she joined while teaching at Howard University. Of the ten or so members in the group, some liked the story; satisfied that it had reached its audience, Morrison put it away. In 1964 she divorced her husband and settled in Syracuse, New York, with her two sons. Out of loneliness, she took to writing after the children had gone to bed, and she started to revise The Bluest Eye in the winter of 1964-65. When it was three-fourths complete, she sent it to an editor who liked it and published the finished novel in 1970.
Although Morrison insists that her novels are not directly autobiographical, she acknowledges that some details in The Bluest Eye find parallels in her own life experience. The story takes place in her girlhood town of Lorain, Ohio. The MacTeer girls are about the same age that Morrison and her older sister would have been in 1941, although the MacTeer sisters’ relationship is different. Mrs. MacTeer resembles Morrison’s mother in her habits of expounding on a problem for days and singing. Like her father did, Mr. MacTeer throws a man down the stairs and sends a tricycle flying after him when he suspects him of molesting his daughters.
Morrison draws also on historical context. Her novel has the children taunt “black e mo,” which is a variant of “blackamoor,” a centuries old racial slur. By mentioning the fall of 1941 in the beginning, she hoped to invoke a sense of grimness connected with America’s impending entry into World War II. She reassigns the devastating tornado that hit Lorain in June of 1924 to the summer of 1929. Another link to the era occurs when one of the novel’s characters, a prostitute, refers to the betrayal of John Dillinger, the infamous American bank robber who was turned in by Anna Sage, the Lady in Red whose phone call to the F.B.I, facilitated Dillinger’s death on July 23, 1934.
Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written
Black pride and politics
The assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, cost the civil rights movement two of its most charismatic leaders. In this turbulent period, King had continued to advocate nonviolence as a means of achieving black liberation. But a growing number of disillusioned blacks felt that the struggle required a more aggressive approach. Arousing the sympathy of whites by submitting to beatings, police dog attacks, and blasts from fire hoses seemed incompatible with the need to foster self-respect among blacks.
In the mid-1960s and afterward, several organizations used militant rhetoric to express a desire for full equality. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, in 1966. Brandishing cameras and automatic weapons, Panthers trailed police in order to monitor their activities in black neighborhoods. The Black Panthers’ mission to strengthen black communities
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from within also inspired efforts such as their successful free-breakfast program for school children.
As chairman of the increasingly radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael helped popularize the term “Black Power” in 1966. Black Power was a synonym for self-determination, though it was often represented by the press as a call for black violence against whites. The period also saw black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam extending hope to blacks through racial pride and the possibility of establishing a separate black nation. Morrison maintains that she was learning as much as anyone from the new movements while she wrote The Bluest Eye in 1965-69.
In the late 1960s to early 1970s, Toni Morrison, along with a number of other black female writers—such as June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, and Alice Walker—began uniting the concerns of the civil rights movement and of the general women’s movement by directing attention to the specific experiences of black females. The Bluest Eye was one of the first works of this era.
“Black Is Beautiful”
The 1960s activists adopted the slogan “Black Is Beautiful” in the belief that pride in the race would help nurture self-respect in the individual. It was felt that because the dominant society in America had distorted black culture ever since the arrival of slaves, blacks’ identity must be traced back further to their African heritage.
The result of this movement was a widespread celebration of African and Caribbean culture within the black community. The desire to reclaim the dignity and beauty of ancient traditions translated into a bold rejection of white values in style and appearance. It became popular to wear traditional bracelets, rings, and African-style clothes like dashikis, a type of loose-fitting robe. Skin lighteners were passé, and hairstyles like corn-rowing, dreadlocks, and the Afro were in vogue (and sometimes even imitated by whites, with limited success). African painting and sculpture decorated more black American homes, and some families returned to African religions. At all levels of education, demands for the inclusion of African and African American history in the curriculum intensified.
Critics agreed that The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel, showed a high degree of skill. They also agreed that the author had a promising career ahead of her if she worked on eliminating the flaws in her writing style. They could not always agree, however, on what the strengths and weaknesses actually were.
While one found her guilty of “the fuzziness born of flights of poetic imagery,” another commended her for “prose so precise ... that the novel becomes poetry” (Frankel, pp. 46-7; Leonard, p. 35). Most of the early reviewers highlighted qualities that would be commended by other critics of Morrison’s later novels too: her prose style, her rendering of black life, and her construction of a narrative out of several different stories. One critic applauded the way Morrison combined these elements in The Bluest Eye to create a credible, appealing novel instead of a harangue about the troubles of blacks: “She has the skill to convince you that she is telling it like it is without constantly telling you that’s what she’s doing—and that you’d better pay attention to her” (Sokolov, pp. 95A-95B).
In retrospect, Morrison expressed dissatisfaction with most of the early reviews. In November of 1993, she wrote in an afterword to the novel that, “With very few exceptions, the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialized, misread” (The Bluest Eye, p. 216). Readers had been alerted nevertheless to a new novelist who was a true pioneer and who would quickly become one of the most critically acclaimed and respected American novelists of the twentieth century.
For More Information
Dunlap, Knight. Personal Beauty and Racial Betterment. St. Louis: C. V. Mosby, 1920.
Frankel, Haskel. Review of “The Bluest Eye.” The New York Times Book Review (November 1, 1970): 46-7.
Leonard, John. “Three First Novels on Race.” The New York Times (November 13, 1970): 30.
Lynch, Hollis R. The Black Urban Condition: A Documentary History, 1866-1971. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. Reprint. New York: Dutton Signet, Plume, 1994.
Rigney, Barbara Hill. The Voices of Toni Morrison. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991.
Sokolov, R. A. Review of “The Bluest Eye.” Newsweek (November 30, 1970): 95A-95B.
Taylor-Guthrie, Danille, ed. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Literary Conversations Series. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.