Title: The Bluest Eye
Author: Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel, a book heralded for its richness of language and boldness of vision. Set in the author’s girlhood hometown of Lorain, Ohio, it tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. In the the autumn of 1941, the year the marigolds in the Breedloves’ garden do not bloom, Pecola’s life does change — in painful, devastating ways.
With its vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child’s yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment, The Bluest Eye remains one of Toni Morrison’s most powerful, unforgettable novels — and a significant work of American fiction.
My Biggest Takeaways: How Racism Is Internalized
So I should start by saying this: The Bluest Eye is arguably one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. An excellently-written novel, but also a heart-wrenching experience.
The Bluest Eye observes how racism ingrained into a society morphs into a collective inferiority complex and a constant aspiration towards whiteness; these internalizations affect potentially every single aspect of a person’s life, and have harmful collateral affects on the people around them. Worst of all, Morrison shows how some of the most vulnerable people in such a society end up getting the shortest end of the stick.
I won’t go over every single character discussed in this novel, but there are about four main characters that Toni Morrison uses to get her point across:
The novel’s primary narrator, Claudia is cognizant, even at a young age, of the glorification of white beauty standards. We can see Claudia’s disillusionment with these beauty standards by the way she reacts to young white actresses that everyone seems to adore (e.g. Shirley Temple) and the blue-eyed baby dolls she receives as Christmas gifts. While other girls and adults fawn over them, Claudia breaks and tears them apart, in an effort to “examine it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable.” This translated into a disdain for Black people’s idealization of white people, and eventually, a disdain for white people themselves.
Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs—all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.
Despite the self-love and shamelessness she feels, Claudia admits that she is envious of the attention that the white-skinned/light-skinned girls get. She is angry with whatever standard dictates that they are pretty but she is somehow not.
Charles “Cholly” Breedlove
The fact that Toni Morrison could make Cholly Breedlove a somewhat sympathetic character might be a testament to how amazing a job she did in constructing his narrative, because Cholly is, arguably, the worst character in this story. Cholly has experienced true loneliness and humiliation — both of his parents abandoned him (his mother left him in a junk heap by the railroad when he was only four days old). This abandonment causes him to feel a sense of indifference towards the rest of the world — he feels “free” because he no longer cares about how he feels or what he does, or how his actions affect other people.
Abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose. He was alone with his own perceptions and appetites, and they alone interested him.
Cholly also suffers embarrassment after he is caught, in the middle of having sex, by a gang of white men, and is coerced at gunpoint to continue for their amusement. Instead of directing his anger at the men, he instead directs it at the Black girl he was with. I think this internalized hatred, as well as his apathetic “free” mindset, is what contributed later on in life to the physical/verbal abuse of his wife and the sexual abuse of his daughter.
Pauline “Polly” Breedlove
When she and Cholly move to Lorain, Ohio after their marriage, Pauline struggles to adjust to the loneliness and the exteriority caused by other Black residents. When they judge her for her natural appearance, clothes, and southern dialect, she tries to change the way she talks, as well as invest money in a new wardrobe — money that neither her nor Cholly really have. Quarrels over finances and pettier subjects decimate her marriage with Cholly, and Pauline concedes that she only wanted clothes and makeup to impress other women.
To curtail boredom during her first pregnancy she attends the movies, where she is introduced to white movie icons like Jean Harlow and begins to internalize incredibly damaging ideologies about love and physical beauty.
In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap…She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen.
After her second pregnancy, Pauline found work as a housekeeper for an affluent white family, where she finds “beauty” in being their “ideal servant,” meanwhile neglecting her own family.
Pecola’s story is absolutely heart-wrenching and is undoubtedly the ultimate tragedy of this narrative. Pecola’s story is mainly told through the perspective of other character’s stories and how their actions inevitably came back to harm Pecola. Virtually every aspect of Pecola’s life is awful; she is mistreated by virtually everyone she encounters in her town, and the abuse continues even when she comes home to her family. Pecola longs to be loved by literally anyone, and so she wishes for blue eyes as a means of escaping her dire circumstances.
It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that…if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different…If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too.
The rest of her story is grimmer than the beginning, as she bullied by lightskinned Black students, sexually abused and impregnated by her father, and eventually succumbs to mental insanity, which is, ironically the greatest reprieve from hatred and violence that she experiences in her entire life. in her state of madness, she converses with an imaginary friend about how she finally has the blue eyes she prayed for.
Pecola’s story is an extreme example of how racism and all its iterations — institutional racism, internalized racism, colorism, etc. — do the most damage to the people society often neglects the most: Black, darkskinned, impoverished women/girls.
There’s a lot more to unpack and a lot more characters to discuss, but this post has to end somewhere. All-in-all this was a well-written, relevant, sad story, as many novels themed around racism are. As someone who used to struggle with internalized self-hatred, this story really hit home for me.
Rating: ★★★★☆ (4 stars out of 5)
Did you read this novel? If so, what did you think of it? What elements of the story resonated with you the most?
7 thoughts on “Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”: A Look at How Racism Is Internalized”
This review is so well-written. I started to read The Bluest Eye when I was in uni but struggled to connect to Toni’s writing style. I really want to give it another chance because it really does speak to a lot of the internal struggles Black women face and later manifest in their lives if not properly dealt with. Thanks for the inspo!
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Thanks for reading! On a similar note, I had a little trouble connecting to Toni Morrison’s writing when I was reading “Sula” earlier this year. But I think the subject matter of this story, and the similarity of some of my own experiences/observations, is what really connected me to this story.
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This book is on my list to read. I’ve nominated you for The Mystery Blogger Award if you want to participate!
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I was introduced to Toni Morrison’s writing in my African American Literature class this past Fall. Her unapologetic focus on black life and the pain was something that really resonated with me. I haven’t read The Bluest Eye yet but I do own a copy. This was a great analysis 🙂
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