After I was born, my mother bought me timeless editions of her favorite books for me to read. A book lover and librarian, she hoped that I would be a reader like her and love the books she cherished throughout her life. On the inside cover of each book, she inscribed my name on Winnie the Pooh book plates, and waited for the day when I would read them. I promised myself when I read them I would read them all at once, and the opportune moment arrived when quarantine began.
When my mother was in college, she would spend hours at the campus bookstore. She would browse the stacks of books assigned for literature classes that she was not taking. She would spend her money buying other people’s mandatory reading, and later would fall in love with the books she found.
This was how she came across Toni Morrison and “The Bluest Eye,” and how I came to find it in my bookshelf. I asked her why she never actually took these literature classes, especially when I realized that numerous books left to me were a result of her bookstore prowl, and her answer was simple. She didn’t like the analysis of the books, much like her disdain for the analysis of poetry. She couldn’t ever derive the deeper meaning of what she thought to be insignificant details, and she did not care to delve into the motifs of revered classics. It would strip her of the enjoyment of these books and discourage her reading habits. So when she read “The Bluest Eye,” she was only privy to her own interpretations. “It was a punch to the gut.”
Set in Lorain, Ohio, in 1941, the book begins with narration by Claudia MacTeer, a woman describing events that happened around the time she was nine years old. That fall, her young friend Pecola was having her father’s baby. Claudia recollects how she and her sister Frieda planted marigolds in hopes that their success would signify the health of Pecola and her baby. But they did not bloom. No marigolds bloomed that fall in Lorain, and Pecola’s baby did not survive. “What is clear now is that of all of that hope, fear, lust, love and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth.”
The autumn the year prior, Claudia’s family had taken in Pecola temporarily after her father tried to burn down the family home. Pecola is a quiet and awkward little girl, obsessed with Shirley Temple and the belief that whiteness is beautiful, her own Blackness inherently ugly. Morrison uses Pecola to show “how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female.”
Pecola moves back home to live with her unstable, alcoholic father, Cholly, distant mother Mrs. Breedlove and a runaway brother, Sammy. Pecola cannot escape. She begins to think it is the life she deserves because she is ugly, a belief reinforced by how she is treated in her community: She is invisible to the adults in the community, she is teased by boys at school and is framed for killing a boy’s cat. Pecola starts to believe she could transform her life if only she were prettier. She prays for blue eyes in an effort to change how the world views her, and she the world.
One night, when Pecola is 11 years old, Cholly returns home drunk. He sees her washing dishes and experiences several heavily conflicting emotions: tenderness, hatred and lust, all fueled by guilt. He rapes Pecola and leaves her unconscious on the floor. Her mother finds her, disbelieves her story and beats her.
Pecola, now pregnant, visits a self-proclaimed psychic with her wish for blue eyes. He tricks her into killing a dog, and tells her its sudden death means her wish will be granted. After this, Claudia tells us how she and her sister learned through gossip that Pecola was pregnant. Pecola, who can no longer go to school, believes everyone’s disregard for her is rooted in their jealousy of her blue eyes.
“A punch in the gut” is an understatement. This novel stuns you — not only because it is blatantly apparent in its exposure of how the innate discrimination of society destroys young souls, but also purely by how it is written. The form and structure is incredibly lyrical and evocative. Morrison chose to break the story into distinct parts that, although divided by each season, are mostly narrated non-chronologically. It is the objective of the reader to reassemble the story. This choice was Morrison’s solution to centering the novel on Pecola, who is an incredibly delicate and vulnerable character. By giving the reader greater responsibility, Morrison hoped to provoke an “interrogation of themselves” rather than lead them into the comfort of pitying Pecola and ignoring the greater issues at hand.
There are many frequent shifts between narrators and perspectives that emphasize Pecola’s shattered world. This ever-changing structure forbids the dehumanization of the characters who hurt Pecola, and shifts focus onto the systemic nature of the issues that occur. I found the structure to achieve its purpose, and was surprised by Morrison’s claim in the forward that “it didn’t work: Many readers remain touched but not moved.” The quick shifts prevented me from becoming numb to the discomfort. Each distinct portion of the novel induced a sense of uneasiness, and forced me to acknowledge where this vexation was sprouting from: In each part, the same underlying beast was pulsating. I could trace my discomfort back to the root of the issue, the discriminatory system, that was responsible for the characters’ suffering. The shattered world was explicit. For a reader not to be moved means the reader was not paying attention.
My mother was moved. She didn’t leave me books that touched her heart once just to forget forever; she left me the books that continue to strike her today the same way they did when she first read them many years ago. She left me “The Bluest Eye” so she could show me what language could do. Morrison writes with a unique poetic style. Her use of grammar is crushing and her vernacular bewitching. These aspects along with her overall style convey intimacy and proximity that notably contrast the stories she tells.The juxtaposition is inviting, and it demonstrates the power of language as Morrison builds a world entirely different from my own and moves me to the point of self-interrogation she thought she did not reach.
Morrison highlights the implicit messages of white supremacy throughout the novel along with how beauty is racialized. This is exhibited by Pecola’s idealization of Shirley Temple and her mother’s idealization of white beauty in the movies. Pecola suffers the most from white beauty standards, which is apparent in her desire for blue eyes and the belief that they will free her from a life of self-hatred. This begins to merge into the idea of changing how one is seen in the world, and changing what they see. Only when Pecola is driven to madness and can no longer accurately see the world around her does she see herself as beautiful.
This was a clear intention of Morrison — to leave readers with the question of what it means that Pecola only achieves a level of happiness when she is mentally lost, and can no longer acknowledge the complexity of the system meant to degrade her. What does it mean that this distorted happiness is a specific result of her having blue eyes, a token of the white beauty standards that have long caused Pecola suffering?
As Morrison suggested, it would be easier to pity Pecola than to interrogate the system that led to her tragic outcome; it would be easier to “remain touched but not moved” — and thus reinforce the system Morrison so clearly laid out. I think back to my mother and her disdain for tearing books apart to reach the themes underneath. “The Bluest Eye” does not need to be dissected in that sense. Its purpose is explicit. To be touched is to choose to be touched. To be moved by it is inevitable.
While I read the book, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was reading it at this particular moment in history — at the peak of an ongoing movement for racial justice and equality. Like “The Bluest Eye,” the current protests have directly provoked self-interrogation along with the broader interrogation of the systems that have led us to this moment. We are all witness to the movement, but still I hear Morrison’s unsatisfied words of people being touched and not moved. Again, I think it’s impossible to not be moved by the global protests and activists. You cannot look at the protests without seeing the fight within them; you cannot listen to activists without hearing their pain. Those that undermine this movement are like those ‘touched’ readers: They are not paying attention.
I couldn’t draw much about my relationship with my mother from “The Bluest Eye.” It would be foolish to try: This novel is bigger than us both. It is more complex than our relationship will ever be. It carries more weight than our friendship. Some books my mother left helped me understand her; some books she left were meant to help me understand others. When I pick up “The Bluest Eye” I will think of my mother and thank her for leaving it for me. But more than that, when I pick up “The Bluest Eye” I will think of Pecola and her shattered world. I will think of the devastating interrogation Morrison leaves for us readers.