The Bluest Eye (1970)
It was one of those books that had been sitting on my bookshelf for as long as I can remember, but I don’t know how or when I acquired it. It’s an old, tattered copy of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970).
I finally took it off the shelf and read it. I should not have waited so long. It's a heartbreaking, poignant story with characters that embody some of society’s most destructive messages, and their ramifications.
A theme of ugliness permeates the narrative, woven within a framework of growth and life. The narrator, Claudia, tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, an 11-year-old black girl who came to live with Claudia and her family. Claudia’s sister and Pecola gush about Shirley Temple, the then-child movie star. Claudia doesn’t get it. She hates Temple. “Not because she was cute, but because she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with me. Instead, he was enjoying, sharing, giving a lovely dance thing with one of those little white girls whose socks never slid down under their heals” (p. 19).
Claudia notices that this ogling isn’t confined to Temple, but to little white girls in general. She sees adults smile and coo when they see white girls skipping down the street. But black girls do not warrant this positive attention. She notices a society-level preference for white features, while black features are deemed ugly. Suspect.
The Breedloves, on the other hand, had a unique ugliness, according to Claudia. “It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance” (p. 34).
Pecola is also aware of this. She responds by praying each night for blue eyes. It occurred to her that people would treat her kindly, decide not to hurt her, if she had beautiful blue eyes. Her mother would shower her with affection as she does the little white girl for whose family she works. Her father’s incestuous eye would also turn away from her. Shop clerks would be patient and smile at her.
Pecola approaches Soaphead Church, a community mystic. He is light-skinned, proud of his mixed blood and genuflects to white culture. He is also a pedophile. Reading about his interactions with young girls is difficult. Sickening, to the point of moving someone to tears, vomit, or both. He does not touch Pecola when she approaches him. He believes her to be ugly. Because of his own obsession with whiteness and cleanliness, however, he is moved by her request. He tells her to feed some meat to his elderly landlord’s dog, Bob, and if Bob has a reaction, Pecola’s wish will be granted. Pecola does not know, however, that Church laced the meat with poison because he is repulsed by Bob’s runny eyes and wants to kill Bob, but doesn’t have the stomach to go near the dog himself. Pecola innocently feeds Bob this poisoned meat and, seeing him convulse, believes her wish will be granted.
Pecola’s father, Cholly, rapes and impregnates her. The baby comes too soon and dies. After the gossip and waging heads, Pecola is driven to madness. A dialogue with herself reveals she thinks people are responding the way they do to her now because they are jealous of her beautiful blue eyes.
Claudia sees Pecola sifting through garbage, and ends the story with the connection to marigolds not growing that year and the symbolic role Pecola had in their lives. “All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us – all who knew her – felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood stride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used – to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. we honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.” (p. 159).