Toni Morrison’s book the Bluest Eye offers alert readers a number of useful lessons about life and about human nature. Some of the lessons are things that people should not do to one another, and other lessons are just explanations of how people really are in social situations, and why people do what they do, good or bad or indifferent. Of course one of the main reasons for reading good books is to take away some knowledge, or inspiration, or just plain old knowledge, when finishing the book. Just passing the time reading for pleasure is all right, but when reading a highly-praised book by a well-respected author like Toni Morrison, the reader should expect afterwards to be smarter about the subject Morrison has written about. Morrison uses many themes and plot lines to bring important lessons into the reader’s mind. For example, she uses the themes of black folks contrasted with white folks, and black values contrasted with white values, to make her points.
BODY of PAPER: Morrison’s characters help tell her story through their actions and their words. For example, the character Pecola Breedlove is an African-American girl that everyone says is very ugly, which is unfair and makes Pecola feel bad about herself. So Pecola tries to escape her difficult situation and in doing so she reaches out to symbols of something to look up to, something to aspire to. In the process of doing this she becomes mesmerized and even enthralled by the blue eyes and white skin of former child movie star Shirley Temple. Everywhere she looks, “white skin and blue eyes are taken as signs of beauty,” writes Keith E. Byerman in the book Modern Critical Views: Toni Morrison.
Virtually everyone in the book considers Pecola “worthless,” Byerman explains. Even black children verbally assault her, and “lighter-skinned blacks, children and adults, proclaim their superiority by alternately patronizing and attacking her.” One of the worst of all the insults to poor Pecola was when her own mother “makes clear her preferences” by slapping Pecola aside “…in order to comfort a white child” (Byerman 56). Even the narrator of the book hates Pecola; “what I felt at that time was unsullied hatred…” For Pecola, the narrator explains on page 19 of Morrison’s book.
Along with having an obsession for blue eyes and white skin, Pecola also likes to drink things that are white, including milk (which she drinks out of a Shirley Temple cup). On pages 24-25 of Morrison’s book, the narrator, Claudia, Claudia’s sister Frieda and Pecola (who is a friend but often fair game for negative words and acts) are upstairs listening to “Big Mama” scold and fuss about the fact that three quarts of milk were missing from her refrigerator. “I guess I’m supposed to end up with nothing. I’m supposed to end up in the poorhouse,” mama said (25). “Don nobody need three quarts of milk. Henry Ford don’t need three quarts of milk. That’s just downright sinful.” Mama knows that her daughter and Frieda don’t like milk and so she believes Pecola must be the culprit. And just at this point in the story where it seems everything white that all the characters hate except Pecola is symbolized in the missing milk, now Pecola is victimized by something red.
Suddenly Pecola bolted straight up, her eyes wide with terror. A whinnying sound came from her mouth… [and] Blood was running down her legs” (27). It was Pecola’s first menstrual period, something that is often traumatic for a young girl who doesn’t understand it, but in this case it just added to the confusion in this child’s mind. She was already very confused and troubled about life. Later in the book she is raped by her own father, and she “loses all sense of reality,” Byerman explains on page 56 of his essay (“Beyond Realism: The Fictions of Toni Morrison”). Sadly, Pecola visits a con man that poses as a person capable of performing magic, and Pecola comes to believe “she has actually undergone the change in eye color that she so strongly and pathetically desired” (Byerman 56).
And what is the lesson in this part of the plot? Not all lessons from books are positive lessons that readers should use as a way to live. In this case, there are good and bad lessons to be understood by the reader. Claudia, the narrator, points out that at first mama believed the children were doing something dirty; but after mama discovered where the blood was coming from, and that Pecola was just “ministratin” (Morrison 31), Claudia carried the “little-girl-gone-to-woman pants” (the blood-soiled underpants) and mama took Pecola into the bathtub to wash her. The good news was that mama wasn’t griping and moaning about the missing milk and everything else a poor woman complains about anymore; “The water gushed, and over its gushing we could hear the music of my mother’s laughter” (Morrison 32). The bad news was that poor Pecola now had yet another mysterious and overwhelming human fact to worry about and be confused about: she was a woman capable of having a baby.
The narrator Claudia points out the moral of the story surrounding hers and Frieda’s relationship with Pecola. Some people in this world are easy to take advantage of, and some victims make others around them feel better about them, as sick as that is. In fact the reader knows that Pecola is a victim, and is picked on by almost every character in the book, just like homely or overweight girls and boys are picked on at school and in the neighborhood. But it made Claudia feel “so wholesome” after she and Frieda “cleaned ourselves on her.” It made Claudia feel “so beautiful” when standing beside Pecola’s “ugliness.” She goes on: “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…And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt.”
Toni Morrison is very talented at using names and bodies as symbols of things in society that she wants to make points about. That talent is not unique to Morrison (all great novelists use that approach) but in her world, a female writer who is also a black writer (both women and blacks are considered by some as “minorities”) she has a lot to write about. Add to that, Morrison often uses historical events to weave into her stories so she makes her point that way, too. The critic Jane Kuenz comments in African-American Review that Pecola’s parents live in a storefront apartment, and overhead from the apartment three “magnificent whores live” (Kuenz 1993). The names of the hookers, Poland, China, and the Maginot Line, symbolize the novel’s “overall conflation of black female bodies as the sites of fascist invasions of one kind or another,” Kuenz explains. What Kuenz is saying here is that Morrison as a person who cares a lot about humanity is angry at the way Europeans went to Africa, put blacks in chains and brought those blacks to work as slaves; Morrison is especially angry at the way African slave women were sexually exploited by their masters, according to the critic Kuenz.
The critic goes on to explain that African-Americans are not represented in the “mass culture,” and therefore, they put themselves into the body of another person who is in the mass culture. This process that blacks go through, Kuenz writes, is represented by Morrison in the novel because there is a “seemingly endless reproduction of images of feminine beauty in everyday objects and consumer goods.” Those objects and goods include “white baby dolls with their inhumanly hard bodies and uncanny blue eyes”; they include Shirley Temple cups, “Mary Jane Candies,” even the clothes of “…dream child Maureen Peal, which are stylish precisely because they suggest Shirley Temple cuteness…” (Morrison 62).
In Morrison’s book, Maureen Peal is a real girl in school, and possibly Morrison is creating a character in Maureen Peal that as a young child herself Morrison wanted to be. Maureen wore “…Fluffy sweaters the color of lemon drops tucked into skirts with pleats so orderly they astounded us” (62). Of course, some of the clothes Maureen wore were white – because after all Maureen was “…as rich as the richest of the white girls, swaddled in comfort and care” – like for example her “Brightly colored knee socks with white borders.” Maureen also wore a “brown velvet coat trimmed in white rabbit fur.” Maureen “enchanted the entire school,” Morrison writes on page 62. Black boys “didn’t trip her in the halls; white boys didn’t stone her, white girls didn’t suck their teeth when she was assigned to be their work partners,” and black girls “stepped aside” when Maureen needed to use the sink in the bathroom. Further, Morrison even brings religion into her novel (in a kind of mocking way) by explaining those same black girls’ eyes actually “genuflected under sliding lids” as they stepped aside from the sink out of respect for Maureen.
It is possibly or probably Morrison speaking from her own personal heart, maybe remembering her own childhood as a black girl in a time when black children were not very often used as characters in books; meanwhile, author Morrison has Claudia saying (62) “What was the secret?” Of Maureen’s magical whiteness and social power. “What did we lack? Why was it important? And so what?”
Morrison also offers readers a little history lesson about how life was for Southern African-Americans who migrated north in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Through the character of Pauline Breedlove, Pecola’s mother, who moved to Lorain, Ohio, readers learn that Pauline wasn’t used to “so much white folks. The ones I seed before was something hateful… [and] they was everywhere – next door, downstairs, all over the streets – and colored folks few and far between.” Even the “colored folks” were “different” in the north; “No better than whites for meanness,” Pauline explained.
It is interesting to learn from a scholarly article by Ruth Rosenberg in the journal Melus that there weren’t many books about what it was like growing up as a black child when Morrison was a child in Lorain, Ohio in the 1940s. In fact, Rosenberg writes that “Black girls did not exist as far as the publishers of school anthologies were concerned.” A study of 5,206 children’s book that were published between 1962 and 1964 showed that of those “thousands of books,” only 349 include “even one black child either in the illustrations or the text,” Rosenberg explains. Only 6.7% showed a black child. So with that as backdrop, Rosenberg quotes Morrison as saying that at the time she started writing the Bluest Eye in 1965 she was tired of “little black girls who were props” and were “never center stage.”
Now that Morrison has written the Bluest Eye little black girls are center stage. And in the book, Rosenberg writes that life for Morrison as a child is very likely the same life that the girls in her book are living. And it is a life where children are supposed to be totally obedient and not question their place in society. “Adults do not talk to us – they give us directions,” Claudia the narrator states. “They issue orders without providing information,” she goes on. “We didn’t initiate talk with grown-ups; we answered their questions.”
CONCLUSION: In his book, Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison, author Trudier Harris writes about how cruel people were to Pecola; and his point on page 30 of his book is an example of another lesson about human nature that a reader should get from this book. “If parents set out to have children,” Harris explains, those parents should be willing to accept their children. And poor Pecola’s parents didn’t accept her even from the beginning. Her mother, Pauline, looked at Pecola right after she was born and said, “Head full of pretty hair, but Lord she was ugly” (Harris 30). Pauline said Pecola at birth was “A cross between a puppy and a dying man.” Harris says that by rejecting her daughter (and in the process, her whole family), Pauline “not only denies them love, but she denies to them the opportunity to see love exhibited.” And should Pecola should ever get married and have children, what will she use as a basis “…to show love or true nurturing” Harris wonders. Harris makes a very important point, and it is one that Morrison is making in this book, as well. The failure to show love to a child, the harsh treatment at home, leads a character like Pecola to expect “only harsh treatment from the world outside,” Harris explains. She is “forever crushed” by her belief “that she is ugly” and worse yet, when other little children see “a target willing to be abused, they willingly oblige,” Harris asserts. This is a lesson for teachers in schools, for parents, and for friends, that treating a person with cruelty can have a negative effect on that person for the rest of her life.
Byerman, Keith E. “Beyond Realism: The Fictions of Toni Morrison” in Modern Critical
Views: Toni Morrison, Ed. Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.
Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
Kuenz, Jane. “The Bluest Eye: Notes on History, Community, and Black Female Subjectivity.”
African-American Review 27.3 (1993): 421-430.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Alfred a. Knopf, 1993.
Rosenberg, Ruth. “Seeds in Hard Ground: Black Girlhood in the Bluest Eye.” Melus 21.4
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