The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Vintage, 1970, 224 pages
Toni Morrison’s famed The Bluest Eye opens with an idyllic Dick-and-Jane description, typical of the image of an all-American-white-middle-class family in the 1940s. This image crumbles quickly as Morrison zooms in on the lives of a small black community within a larger white community in Ohio, and focuses further on young Pecola, whose family life is severely wanting of stability and who struggles with the external pressures of racism.
Here’s the deal: I’m a white person who grew up in a very white state. I have basically no context for The Bluest Eye and, while I’ve broadened the diversity of people in my life thanks to a move to Virginia almost seven years ago, I’m not an expert on racism nor have I ever experienced racism personally (and I never will because that’s how racism works). So, while I don’t think it’s appropriate to let my personal experiences influence my review of this novel, I do think it’s appropriate to acknowledge that my experiences influenced my perception of the content of this novel. I can, and will, still speak about the novel as a piece of literature or writing as I would any other novel with reminders dropped in here and there that my understanding of The Bluest Eye is inherently incomplete in a variety of aspects and, therefore, I may misinterpret sections and I welcome you to call those moments or anything else out either privately or in the comments.
With that said, The Bluest Eye is primarily a piece on internalized racism at various levels: the personal (especially Pecola and her desire for blue eyes, which she sees as the epitome of beauty and, generally speaking, a feature of the white population only — there are certainly people of color with blue eyes, but for the purposes of Pecola’s experiences, no such people exist), the familial (Pauline’s frustrations with Cholly often seem to manifest in using words seeped in a context of racism), and the community (schoolmates of Pecola shun and harass her for the color of her skin). Morrison also includes broader versions of racism, including systemic, among others, without ever overwhelming readers, though her characters are clearly overwhelmed by the unrelenting presence of racism in their lives.
Not only does Morrison handle this heavy topic with a great amount of skill and literary grace, but her prose on its own is something to marvel at. Specific and leaning toward a sort of magical realism (particularly in a chapter which discusses the origins and current state of a character known as Soaphead Church) but without the actual magic, Morrison manipulates her readers through a deliberate choice in language and syntax.
Morrison sets up fascinating character dynamics, including Claudia’s precocious refusal to buy into the internalized racism both Pecola and Frieda (Claudia’s sister) exhibit. She, unlike the other girls, refuses to befriend a new light-skinned girl in their class and, though she can’t fully articulate why, she hates Shirley Temple. The most engaging use of characters mimics a Greek chorus, as Claudia’s mother and her mother’s friends discuss or gossip about others. Although Morrison often shows readers specific events (such as Cholly’s abuse of Pecola), the chatting women rehash the event and provide further context and perception on the events as Claudia overhears their conversation. This is especially helpful as the nonlinear narrative is sometimes difficult to follow.
With issues at hand such as racism, incest, child abuse, rape, poverty, and other heavy points, Morrison’s novel is mercifully compact while still having a great impact on readers. As a modern classic that continues to be relevant today, The Bluest Eye ties together a heartbreaking story with skillful prose into a read that challenges in more than a few ways. Morrison paints a candid and stark picture of life as a black American in the 1940s but the implications of the novel follow to modern American and shed light on how we can be better humans today.
I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #17, “Read a classic by an author of color,” and I leave it behind with three-and-a-half hearts.
❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤