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Review: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison

Genre: Historical Fiction
Paperback: 206 Pages
Publication: May 8, 2007
by Vintage International

Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for the dark skin, curly hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for normalcy, for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit in. Yet as her dream grows more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife. A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison’s virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterized her writing.


The Bluest Eye is a classic for the powerful themes that continue to relate to society today. As Toni Morrison mentions in her foreword, we all know what it feels like to be disliked or rejected, be it for a moment or for a suspended period of time. Moving beyond this statement, we all know what it feels like to be dissatisfied with our appearance. Even if we are generally happy with how we look, there will be periods of time when we wish that we were "prettier." The media bombards with with images of the feminine (and masculine) ideal. Advertisements tell us how we can look sexier and be more confident (by buying their products). We are constantly told that we are not up to standard and ought to try harder to look like the ideal. The problem is that we can try our whole lives and never look like the "ideal." Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye examines the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and age in the oppression of black people through beauty ideals and the pressure to conform to them.

She does this through sketches in the lives of multiple characters of different backgrounds and across generations. Generally, I'm not very fond of novels that move around so much, as it makes it difficult to get to know any particular character, but this technique works for Morrison's novel. Rather than events moving the plot forward (like most novels), the plot takes us through the lives of different characters in order to show how the white beauty ideal influences black people of different temperaments, class, and circumstances . . . causing them to internalize racism. This does mean that there is a lot of narrating going on. At times, I even found it hard to focus on the page. For the most part, however, I felt that Morrison does a good job moving the plot forward. It definitely helps that her writing is strong and interesting with many, many beautiful, powerful lines that moved my heart. Once I started The Bluest Eye, I was reluctant to put down the novel for lengthy periods of time.

Most importantly, these sketches show us how people come to be the people that they are today. Humans are not born to be terrible. The way our natures interact with the environment to which we are exposed shapes our character. There were characters who I disliked early in the book only to realize later that they were not such terrible beings. At least, not at first. Things happened, and maybe their response wasn't the healthiest, but they lived at some point in their lives. Until they internalized racism and began to believe that they deserved the bad things that happened to them. That people couldn't change. The most notable example of the influence of internalized racism is in the home of the Breedloves. Learning about the lives and thoughts of Mrs. and Mr. Breedlove helped me to better understand the environment in which Pecola grew up. Thinking about how Pecola and her brother's lives could have been different helped me to realize how oppression not only influences the people with whom it comes into immediate contact but also their children and the generations to come. (Compare the parenting Pecola receives to the parenting Claudia receives.)

I also want to note how Morrison uses the Dick and Jane primer to emphasize the psychological element to oppression. The Dick and Jane primer portrays the ideal white family. The way its grammar and structure falls apart in the first pages of the novel reminds me of horror movies where a seemingly benign and pleasant scene falls apart to become something terrifying. In the same way, the lives of the black families, particularly that of the Breedloves, will upend in The Bluest Eye. The inclusion of distorted sections of the primer at the beginning of certain chapters foreshadows this.

The Bluest Eye is haunting and beautiful. At the same time, it is terrible and brutal in its honest portrayal of the interlinking systems of oppression through race, class, gender, and age. There are explicit scenes of domestic violence, rape, and sex, as well as a pervasive sense of hopelessness. Nevertheless, there is life, love, and tenderness behind seemingly harsh acts. As Claudia says at the beginning of the novel, "since why is hard to handle, one must take refuge in how." Building upon this statement, if we can learn how things come to be, then we can learn how to ensure history does not repeat itself. We can learn how to keep future generations from sharing Pecola's end.

Rating: 5 stars

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