Before I read The Bluest Eye I read a selection of essays by Toni Morrison in which she critiqued her own work. “A Mouth Full of Blood” left me intrigued at the premise of the story but also by the authors
reflections on what she attempted to deliver in the novel and her narrative style, which on reflection she noted “it didn’t work: many readers remain touched but not moved”. Its true that The Bluest Eye didn’t receive the acclaim and appreciation it should have at the time of its publication, I can only assume that was down to it being a debut novel in the 1970s by a black woman. The truth is, it is hard not to be moved by this exceptional story, full of pain but also innocence and beauty and of course Toni Morrisons poetic writing style.
The book starts in the Fall of 1941, at a time when America is recovering from the depression and yet to take part in the second world war. It centres around the Breedlove family, husband wife and
their two children, Sammy and Pecola. It’s Pecola who dreams of having blue eyes and wonders if the misery of her life would be altered if she could change their colour, and thus her entire appearance. She wonders innocently if she just looked different than maybe those around her would also be different “we mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes” maybe the change in her appearance would alter the behaviour and attitudes of those around her, she hopes.
Her father, Cholly, a renowned drunk, is abusive and in and out of prison. Mrs Breedlove works long hours and hates her husband, a feeling which is entirely reciprocated and Sammy, her brother, has made numerous unsuccessful attempts to run away. Its in this desperate, poor setting that 11 year old Pecola “experimented with methods of endurance. Though the methods varied, the pain was as consistent as it was deep. She struggled between an overwhelming desire that one would kill the other and a profound wish that she herself
The main theme of the book is self-loathing, the consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, and we see the truly horrific impact of this upon the most vulnerable in society, a child. Whilst Toni Morrison is critical of the narrative style of the book I found it entirely effective. The narration of the story changes as we relive that year, we see through the innocent eyes of children, Claudia and her sister Frieda, school friends of Pecola, but by the nature of their gender, race and youth, unable to have any impact on the terrible events that unfold. The perspective of Mrs Breedlove gives us some
insight into her history and self-destruction. Recounting a trip to the movies she recalls “along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another – physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and
ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap” The narration from Cholly, adds a further dimension to the story, although never excusing the hideousness of his crime.
The exploration of racial self-hating for Toni Morrison started when a school friend of hers expressed the desire to have blue eyes, something that horrified the author and twenty years later, when writing this book she explores. There are a host of interesting characters in this book along with mundane routines, observed mainly through the eyes of the younger protagonists. In many ways
their observations and their powerlessness serve to highlight the neglect of Pecola, who is invisible to most of the adults in the book. Toni Morrison was a writer in a league of her own, and this book is a testament to the power of her craft. I don’t know anyone can read this and not be moved.