Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970)
What it’s about: Lorrain, Ohio, 1941. A black girl named Pecola, raised in a household of dire poverty and violence, lives a miserable existence, ignored and abused by white and black people alike. Claudia, an older girl whose family fosters Pecola for a time, learns of Pecola’s wish to have blue eyes. The narrative moves backwards in time, telling the unhappy histories of Pecola’s mother Pauline, who feels ashamed of and neglects her own family, and Cholly, Pecola’s father, a man broken by racism, parental abandonment and alcoholism. Cholly rapes and impregnates the 14 year-old Pecola, who suffers a miscarriage and eventually goes mad. The story finishes with Claudia reflecting on Pecola’s role as the scapegoat of a community that failed to nurture and protect her and then blamed her for her own downfall.
Why it’s a classic: Toni Morrison occupies an almost religious significance in contemporary American literature. In The Bluest Eye, her first novel, she laid out the historical and psychological themes that she would return to again and again in later work: the systemic racism in American culture; the inherited experience of inferiority that spirals into inter-generational abuse and violence; the position of black women and girls as the most vulnerable members of black communities; the harrowing trauma created by childhood sexual violation; and the struggle towards a black consciousness that resists the judgmental white gaze. On the strength of its subject matter alone, The Bluest Eye is a powerful read, a bleak fairytale in which a child’s fantasy of transformation comes to represent the horrors of white supremacy and the self-loathing created by institutionalised racism. The story is made more remarkable by Morrison’s bold, experimental narrative – a fractured Faulknerian mosaic of different characters’ points-of-view, described in hallucinatory prose that tremors with Biblical cadences and fiercely beautiful imagery.
The shifting narrative highlights the extreme vulnerability of Pecola, the tiny, slump-shouldered victim at the heart of the story, who has no voice of her own, speaking only at the book’s final section in an (imagined?) conversation with her dead child. Pecola’s story and legacy falls to be told by others – notably Claudia, a teenager from a poor but stable family home, who questions Pecola’s wish for blue eyes and performs her own revenge on racism by smashing the faces of white-faced dolls. Claudia is especially contemptuous of Shirley Temple, the curly-haired child icon of white Hollywood: “I hated [her]… 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-showing 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 heels.”
Morrison’s writing is at its most powerful when she stays inside Claudia’s sharp, perceptive consciousness, in which beauty and savagery co-exist with horrifying ease. Describing the growth of tree branches in spring, Claudia notes “[t]heir delicate, showy hopefulness shooting from forsythia and lilac bushes meant only a change in whipping style. They beat us differently in the spring.” Elsewhere, the novel suffers from a kind of narrative restlessness: in her desire to diagnose the trauma of generations of Pecola’s family, Morrison adopts an omniscient third-person narrative, in which she eloquently, if sometimes preachily, sketches in the troubled backstories of her characters’ lives. Statements like “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” are undeniably perceptive and powerful critiques, but they feel too much like Morrison is writing the Cliff’s Notes to her own novel. By contrast, the scene where she describes Pecola being ignored by a shopkeeper (“She looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity ought to lodge… Yet this vacuum is not new to her. It has an edge; somewhere in the bottom lid is the distaste“) resounds with the painful sting of lived experience.
Despite the pervasiveness of racism, Morrison is mostly uninterested in portraying white characters, and resists any Hollywood-style narrative of whites overcoming prejudice to come to the rescue of oppressed blacks. Her eyes are firmly focused on observing and reporting black consciousness, in all its imperfections, and showing how internalised racism makes many of her characters deeply unheroic. There’s Pauline, who neglects Pecola in favour of the little white girl from the wealthy family she works for. There’s the three prostitutes living above Pecola’s home who “abus[e] their visitors with a scorn grown mechanical from use”. There’s Geraldine, the light-skinned middle-class mother who explains to her son Junior “the difference between coloured people and niggers…. Coloured people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud” and who calls Pecola a “nasty little black bitch.” And there’s Cholly, a man for whom “insults [are] part of the nuisance of life, like lice” who brutally rapes his daughter then covers her tenderly with a quilt after she passes out. Morrison can’t resist telling us why her characters are so damaged, but she takes us into their minds and shows us how it feels to be them. This act of radical empathy makes it impossible to despise them, even as we’re aware that Pecola’s destruction has been caused by their collective neglect.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A big Black is Beautiful bouquet. Though I struggled with the uneven narrative and Morrison’s frequent lapses into polemic, it’s impossible not to be seduced by this book, so strangely compelling despite the horrific story it tells, and with writing so staggeringly beautiful that it catches your breath. Morrison also deserves huge praise for her courage in exposing difficult truths about the American black experience. After its initial publication, Morrison was criticised for “letting the side down” and focusing on negative stories of black experience; to this day, the book is banned by a number of American schools and libraries for its explicit descriptions of rape and the use of the word “nigger”. This criticism was ultimately a vindication of Morrison’s strategy: by going against the grain of the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the late 1960s, and exploring the deep-seated shame around notions of blackness, Morrison probably did more for the self-esteem of black women and the wider cultural understanding of how racism works than any feel-good story she might have written. While her later novels, especially Sula and Beloved, are stronger as works of literary fiction, there’s a ferocity and urgency to The Bluest Eye, along with a deeply-felt sense of the pain and suffering of black lives, that makes this a worthy modern classic.
Quotable Quote: “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 astride 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 humour. 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.”