Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is a cry for societal justice that confronts the idea of beauty standards and the psychological strain on those who are unable to meet them. In this short, intellectually expansive, emotionally questioning, and spiritually knowing book, Morrison centres the plot around young black girls’ plight to feel a sense of belonging.
The title, “The Bluest Eye,” is representative of one of the protagonist’s obsession with blue eyes. When we initially meet this protagonist, Pecola Breedlove, she is an eleven-year-old black girl growing up in Lorraine, Ohio—where all of the protagonists reside—who yearns to fit in with the “Whiteness” beauty standard. She is in awe of the blue eyes of actress Shirley Temple and those of Mary Jane, the girl on the wrapper of her favourite candies; Pecola believes that this indication of Caucasian-ness would allow her to escape the emotional abuse of her family and her classmates. She would be free from her unforgiving blackness and from what her community labels ugliness.
But the irony lies in the fact that Pecola is not ugly. Throughout the book, it is highlighted that there is no part of her that is unattractive: she just doesn’t fit social standards, prompting the reader to ask “what is ugly?” and whether a person can truly be ugly as there is no definition as what constitutes as unsightly. Morrison makes the reader question the illusion of beauty, the pressure put on people to fit in with untrue ideas. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison prompts the readers to evaluate the dangers of social standards and enjoins them to change our perception of how society works.
Perhaps the most striking literary feature in the novel is the use of several different perspectives. Pecola’s seemingly normal narrative is punctuated with italicised font and long winding sentences when she talks to herself, and this goes on for five pages; this is telling of her incoherent thoughts, and underscores her psychological discord.
Claudia and Freida are protagonists as well. With three protagonists working symbiotically to tell the story, overlaps in narration and foreshadowing are inevitable. However, by dismissing narrative suspense from the beginning of the novel, Morrison focusses our attention on character, on how the stories we tell often are the story. We first meet Claudia and Frieda when a white neighbour taunts them, and we are soon after made aware that unlike Pecola, Claudia is not enamoured by whiteness: when given white dolls for Christmas, she destroys them. But, she says, “The dismemberment of the dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls. The indifference with which I could have axed them was shaken only by my desire to do so.” Claudia has already learned to hate; she knows that the world doesn’t admire and validate her the way it does white girls, and she compensates for her vulnerability by fighting for attention and respect. By introducing a perspective which entirely opposed that of Pecola, Morrison is offering different approaches to the problematic societal norms of beauty, and the two views work in unison to ensure that every page of the novel is imbued with this socio-political issue that transcends society even today.
But early on in the novel Morrison interrupts this narrative when she introduces the third person omniscient to deliver a pedantic description of the setting. She writes:
'This family, on a Saturday morning in October, began, one by one, to stir out of their dreams of affluence and vengeance into the anonymous misery of their storefront.'
The contrast between the stylised and articulate sentences of the third person voice and the long, messy first person narrative highlight the dichotomy between the perturbed thoughts and lives of the protagonists against the backdrop of a town that suggests normalcy.
The language throughout the book is rich and emotional, often poetic at times, with clear attention paid to its rhythms. Even in the slang, Morrision writes lyrical euphonies:
‘I reckon I knows a lying nigger when I sees one, but jest in case you ain’t, jest in case one of them mammies is really dyin’ and wants to see her little old smoke before she meets her maker, I gone do it’
Ultimately, Pecola is abandoned by the townspeople to wander the streets in madness. Her psychological turmoil has led her to believe that she has blue eyes, and doesn’t even realise her own pregnancy.
'The damage done was total. She spent her days, her tendril sap-green days, walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear. Elbows bent, hands on her shoulders, she flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly. Beating the air, a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue void it could not reach—could not even see—but which filled the valley of the mind.'
But in those harrowing final images, Claudia MacTeer, Morrison’s spirited nine-year-old narrator, sees what Pecola cannot, what her madness, the result of all that rejection, looks like to the rest of the town, reiterating Morrison’s genius in seasoning the novel with multiple perspectives:
“Grown people looked away; children, those who were not frightened by her, laughed outright.”
Toni Morrison really makes the reader question beauty, the pressure put on people to fit in with untrue ideas in The Bluest Eye. This novel disturbs the reader while urging them to evaluate the toxicity of societal standards.
When I reached the end of the novel, I felt a sharp chill: we are all guilty to a certain degree of yearning to comply to society’s beauty standards. But when I read the last section of the novel where a deluded Pecola believes that her eyes are finally blue, and finally feels a sense of completion, I wondered, what does it mean not to be a “whole” person? Part of Morrison’s genius had to do with knowing that our cracked selves are a manifestation of a sick society, the ailing body of not only America (who Morrison is criticising), but also extends to other cultures whose racial malaise keeps producing Pecolas. You can find her everywhere. She’s the dark-skinned South Indian woman trying to lighten her complexion with Fair and Lovely or other bleaching creams; she’s the American woman who undergoes surgery to plump up her lips or thin her nose; she’s the girl who wears coloured contact lenses so that the world can see her differently.