The Bluest Eye (1970) is the debut novel of author Toni Morrison. It tells the story of Pecola Breedlove and her parents, and reflects upon the familial and societal circumstances that would lead a Black girl to wish she had blue eyes.
Introduction: Get to know the debut novel from a legend in modern literature.
Table of Contents
Like a lot of debut novels, Toni Morrison’s first book was fueled by a personal experience. At school, one of her friends confided in her that she wished she had blue eyes. This comment stayed with her, and it confounded her. Young Morrison asked herself whether her friend knew that being a Black girl with blue eyes would make her a “freak.” Why would she want that?
When Morrison eventually considered writing about this topic, bigger questions arose. Like, what are the conditions that would make a Black girl wish she had blue eyes? What does this say about society, and her upbringing? These are the questions that The Bluest Eye strives to answer.
But Toni Morrison’s first novel is ambitious in more ways than one. The book mixes different forms and styles, and jumps around in time and perspective. In some sections the book is told from the first-person perspective of a young neighborhood girl, living in an Ohio town circa 1941, much like Morrison herself. Other parts are told from a third-person perspective and flash back to earlier times. All of these strands come together to weave a distinct story of the insidious ways in which society can make the oppressed and marginalized come to hate their own bodies.
It should be noted that there are some sensitive issues here, including bullying, animal cruelty, domestic violence, and rape, so please be warned.
And, by the way – if you would like to listen to a very short summary right away, you can also skip to the very last section.
No Marigolds in 1941
The story begins from the perspective of nine-year-old Claudia MacTeer. She, along with her parents and her ten-year-old sister Frieda, lives in the steel mill town of Lorain, Ohio. One day, Claudia and Frieda are told that two people will soon be living with them. One is a lodger named Mr. Henry, whose rent money will help the MacTeers get by. The other is 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove.
Pecola has parents, as well as an older brother named Sammy, who frequently runs away from home. But recently, Pecola’s house had burned down. The Breedloves will soon be moving into an empty storefront space in town, but until then, Claudia and Frieda are to share their bed with Pecola.
When Pecola first arrives at the MacTeer house, she is given some graham crackers and a teacup full of milk. The teacup features the face of the blonde, blue-eyed child actor Shirley Temple. Both Frieda and Pecola go on about how much they like Shirley Temple, and how cute they find her.
Claudia doesn’t join this conversation. She hates Shirley Temple and she also hates the similarly blonde and blue-eyed baby dolls that she is supposed to adore. The only thing Claudia likes to do is destroy the dolls – poke out the blue eyes, pull out the hair, twist off the arms and legs, tear off the head, and shake out the sawdust.
Maybe, by dismembering the dolls, Claudia can figure out what it is that makes them so special. The reasoning eludes her. Instead, she just feels shame. And it will be years before she will find some love for little Shirley Temple.
Pecola, however, uses the Shirley Temple cup whenever she can and gazes lovingly at the little dimpled face. As a result, Claudia’s mom is astounded at how much milk disappears from the house. Pecola also sees a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl staring back at her from the wrapper of Mary Jane candies. How she longs to be Mary Jane. In fact, every night, for an entire year, she prays to God for blue eyes.
But a more alarming thing happens while Pecola is staying with the MacTeers: she has her first period. This is ominous because, in the opening sentences of the book, we’re told that later, in the fall of 1941, marigolds wouldn’t grow anywhere in town – and Claudia thinks it’s because Pecola is then pregnant with her father’s baby.
In this early section of the book, we also learn that Pecola’s father, Cholly, is a troubled alcoholic who often gets into fights with Pecola’s mother, Pauline, known as Polly. Pecola’s parents have what today might be called a co-dependent relationship. Polly likes to treat her husband as her special burden, a man God wants her to punish. To eliminate the regular fights Polly has with her drunken husband would be to remove the framework and substance of her otherwise dreary life. Polly would never forgive God if, one day, Cholly stopped drinking.
Polly works as a housekeeper for a well-to-do white family on the other side of town. At one point, Claudia and Frieda go over to the house where Polly works because they hear that Pecola is with her. When they arrive, they see how Polly slaps and yells at Pecola while treating the white girl of her employer’s family with loving affection.
We also learn, repeatedly, that Pecola is considered an ugly child by many people, including her own mother. School kids taunt and bully Pecola. And when these kids want to make fun of a boy, they say things like, “Bobby loves Pecola Breedlove!”
It isn’t just white kids who are picking on Pecola. This point is emphasized when we’re introduced to Maureen Peel, a light-skinned Black girl who everyone at school recognizes as a real beauty. One day, Maureen, Claudia and Frieda are walking home when they pass four Black schoolboys who have surrounded Pecola and chant, “Black e mo. Black e mo. Ya daddy sleeps nekkid.”
Frieda gets the boys to stop, and rescues Pecola. But the peace doesn’t last long. As the four girls continue their walk home, an argument breaks out. Maureen starts teasing Pecola about her dark skin as well, resulting in Claudia throwing her notebook at Maureen, who runs away while taunting them with, “Black and ugly black e mos! I am cute!”
As the girls head home, there is a lot for both them and the reader to consider. Claudia, as the narrator looking back at her childhood, recognizes the self-hatred and hopelessness on display among the Black kids who taunted Pecola. By encircling her and chanting, it was like they were performing some sacrificial ritual, fueled by scorn and ignorance.
Maureen is more complicated. Maureen knows she’s, as she says, “cute.” Claudia and Frieda also know that Maureen is cute. And if that’s true, then it means they aren’t cute. Maybe they are nicer, and smarter, but they are still less than Maureen in some way. It is one of the first times they have ever felt envy. But at the same time, Claudia knows that Maureen isn’t the enemy. The enemy is the unnamable thing that has decided Maureen is beautiful and they aren’t. That’s the thing to be upset about.
Now’s a good time to hit pause and try to unpack some of this. Toni Morrison wastes no time getting right to the heart of the matter. She introduces us to Pecola Breedlove early on, and describes how badly the girl longs for blue eyes. While this might seem like a strange thing to wish for, Morrison provides so many informative details from the initial perspective of Claudia MacTeer that you quickly begin to understand and empathize with Pecola.
As Claudia puts it, when thinking about the light-skinned Maureen Peel, there isn’t just one single thing you can point to in order to understand why someone would feel less than others.
To begin with, there are cultural influences. Advertising and movies showcase a very specific idea of beauty. When the lodger Mr. Henry arrives, he greets the sisters by calling one Greta Garbo and the other Ginger Rogers. Cultural influences had a deep reach throughout America in that era. They still do, of course, but in the 1940s there was little consideration for audiences that weren’t white. So, everywhere a young girl looked, from the movies, to candy wrappers, to teacups, the image of beauty staring back at her was often blonde and blue-eyed.
Morrison shows how pervasive the effects of this are. It’s not only Pecola – just about all of the characters in the book have been influenced by this ideal of blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty. Everyone treats Maureen differently and recognizes that there is something special, and even enviable, about her. The self-hatred that this can generate in those who will never be like Maureen, not to mention Greta Garbo, is expressed in different ways. Pecola’s wish for blue eyes begins to feel like an extreme but understandable form of its expression.
But cultural influences are only part of the equation. As Morrison sees it, Pecola’s wish also speaks to a failure in upbringing. We’ve seen how Pecola’s mother has shown more love for her employer’s white child than for Pecola. In the next section, we’ll take a look at the story behind Pecola’s parents, as well as how the community in general lets this vulnerable girl down.
What Happened to the Breedloves
When Pauline was just two years old, she stepped on a rusty nail. As she sees it, the deformed foot that resulted from this mishap saved her from anonymity.
As a girl, Pauline loved numbers and hated words. She liked to put everything in its right place. She put pine needles and leaves in nice, orderly formations. Jars of tomatoes and green beans were always put in their proper spots.
In Kentucky, Pauline began to help her mother cook and clean for the family of a white minister. Pauline liked the job, and was good at it. When she turned fifteen, however, she became moodier and was less interested in her work. She fantasized about men and daydreamed about being saved by a mysterious stranger who would take her by the hand.
Then, one hot summer day, while Pauline was outside waiting for some biscuit dough to rise, she met Cholly. He tickled her broken foot and completely charmed Pauline. They married and moved to Ohio, where Cholly got work at a steel mill. Their two-room home didn’t provide much housework for Pauline to do, and she didn’t feel entirely comfortable around the women in town, who wore high-heeled shoes and straightened their hair. She wanted better clothes in order to gain the respect of these women, and so she picked up odd jobs and bought herself nice things.
These purchases began to sour her relationship with Cholly, however. Cholly would complain that she was throwing money away on frivolous things, while Pauline would complain about how Cholly was starting to spend too much on drink. Soon, Pauline was pregnant with her first child, Sammy. And instead of finding day jobs, she was attending the movies and imagining herself as Jean Harlow. But then Pauline lost a front tooth. She became meaner, and the fights between her and Cholly became more frequent.
Not long after Sammy was born, Pecola followed, and then another tooth fell. Pauline’s husband and her children now became almighty burdens she had to bear – one a crown of thorns, the others a cross.
But then a permanent housekeeping job came, working for the Fishers. At their home she could put everything in order, keep things tidy, beautiful, and clean. She received praise from her employers, as well as something she cherished even more – a nickname: Polly.
Now, in the present of the novel, Pauline lives in two worlds: a clean, pleasant, and orderly one, and another in which she curses her husband and instills a fear of disorder and uncleanliness in her children.
As for Cholly, his life before Pauline had its own set of traumas. To begin with, when he was just four years old, he was abandoned by his mother atop a pile of trash next to a railroad in Georgia. Fortunately, he was rescued by his Aunt Jimmy and named after his aunt’s brother, Charles. His mother ran away in shame, and Cholly never knew who his father was. Aunt Jimmy was elusive when Cholly asked her about his dad, but he eventually got a name, Samson Fuller, and a town – Macon, Georgia.
After Cholly had been at school for six years – and after he dropped out to start working at the local feed and grain store – Aunt Jimmy passed away. At the funeral reception, Cholly worked up the courage to take a girl he liked, Darlene, for a moonlight stroll. When the ribbon in Darleen’s hair became loose, and Cholly helped to retie it, Darleen put her hands under Cholly’s shirt.
Soon the two were making love in the grass – but they were interrupted by two white men carrying a flashlight and guns. Cholly stood up, trying to put his pants on, but the men pointed their guns and told him to finish what he was doing. Darleen covered her face with her hands, and Cholly could only pretend to do what he had been doing. The men laughed and Cholly felt hatred toward Darleen, because she was the one who’d gotten him into this humiliating situation. Eventually, a dog barked in the distance and the two white men walked away, snickering.
After that night, Cholly continued to nurture his hatred for Darleen. He felt small, helpless, impotent. Maybe his father would understand. Finding him seemed like the only option Cholly had. So he went to Macon in search of Samson Fuller. But when Cholly found him, Samson scared him off with his hostility, mistaking him for someone else’s son and telling him to get out of his face.
Cholly ran off down the street. But the next day, a new sensation came over him – a feeling of freedom. There was no one left. Maybe now he could be free of guilt, shame, fear, and pity. Free to drink himself into oblivion, or even die if he wanted to.
It was in this state that Cholly crossed paths with Pauline. As he saw it, their marriage went along fine until the children arrived. He had no interest in and no idea what to do with kids. He could only react to them, and he could only react with the feelings he had in the moment.
This is what he does one Saturday afternoon, in the present of the novel, when he comes home drunk to find his daughter washing the dishes. Looking at her from behind, those feelings of revulsion, guilt, and pity come over him once again. As they do, they lead to a queasy feeling of love. He doesn’t know why his daughter can never be happy – why she always has to be hunched over and looking miserable. And yet she loves him. Why? What has he ever done to deserve that love? Feelings of guilt and impotence mix as he wonders what he could possibly give her to earn that love.
Months later, Pecola’s child is born premature, and dies. Cholly is nowhere to be found. Pecola doesn’t remember much about that day, when she was washing dishes. Sometime afterward, Polly takes Pecola out of school – the school she attended with Claudia and Frieda and Maureen. The two move to the outskirts of town.
But Pecola doesn’t mind, because she finally has her blue eyes. The eyes are a gift from God, which she receives when she visits a local minister, called Soaphead Church. She tells him about her situation – that she can’t go to school anymore, and that all she prays for is blue eyes. Soaphead revels in how perfect this situation is: an ugly girl asking to be beautiful. For the first time, Soaphead wishes he truly did have divine power – or at least the ability to make others believe he did.
He tells Pecola that for her wish to come true, they must make an offering and open up the possibility for the Lord to work his miracles. Soaphead has long hated Bob, the old, decrepit dog that wanders around the churchyard. He had already purchased poison; now, he puts the poison in some meat and gives it to Pecola. Give this food to the dog, Soaphead tells her. If the dog doesn’t react, nothing will happen. If the dog reacts strangely, tomorrow you will get your blue eyes.
Pecola does what the man says, and the dog does react strangely. Sure enough, the next morning, Pecola believes that she finally has the bluest eyes she’s ever seen.
Claudia offers up a final assessment. She says that Pecola was let down by everyone in the community. She and her sister planted marigolds, and buried what little money they had in the hopes that it might bring Pecola and her unborn baby good luck. It didn’t work – the marigolds never grew. In fact, none of the marigolds anywhere in town grew that year.
As Claudia sees it, the whole town used Pecola as a receptacle in which to dump all of their self-hatred and insecurities. Everyone raised themselves up by putting her down. Some people came to realize this, but only when it was too late. By then, Pecola was lost to herself, wandering at the edge of town, picking through garbage, believing she had blue eyes.
Pecola Breedlove lives in a society that is captivated by a blond-haired, blue-eyed image of beauty. Advertisements, marketing, and movies make this image inescapable. Pecola is also made to feel ugly by Black classmates who tease her for her dark skin, as well as by her mother, who carries her own bitterness about not being as conventionally pretty as other women in town. Pecola’s father also suffers from the toxic self-hatred that permeates the community. He ends up raping Pecola as a misguided act of love. Pecola’s baby dies after a premature birth. Finally, after talking to a local minister, who tricks her into poisoning a dog and interpreting its death as the answer to her prayer, a delirious Pecola believes she has finally been given blue eyes.
About the Author
TONI MORRISON is the author of eleven novels and three essay collections. She received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1993 the Nobel Prize in Literature. She died in 2019.
Society, Culture, Fiction, Classics, Historical Fiction, African American, Race, Banned Books, Literature, Novels, Literary Fiction, School, 20th Century African American Fiction, African American, Girls in life, Infancy and Childhood, Prejudice and racism, Women, Self Realization, Wonders and Horrors of Childhood
Fiction, Politics and Social Sciences, Government, Contemporary Literature and Fiction, Coming of Age Fiction
Table of Contents
A Historical Agenda 10
A Hundred Years of Struggle 18
Perceptions of Beauty and an Identity Crisis 26
Themes, Style, and the Role of the Artist 36
A Voice of Influence 44
Further Information 52
The Bluest Eye is a novel that explores the effects of racism and sexism on the lives of African American women in 1940s America. The story focuses on Pecola Breedlove, a young girl who suffers from low self-esteem and internalized racism. She believes that she is ugly and unworthy of love, and that having blue eyes would make her beautiful and happy. She is abused by her alcoholic father, who rapes her twice and impregnates her, and neglected by her mother, who works as a domestic servant for a white family. She also faces bullying and discrimination from her peers and the society at large. She becomes obsessed with Shirley Temple, a white child star, and seeks the help of Soaphead Church, a fraudulent psychic, to grant her wish for blue eyes. He tricks her into poisoning his landlord’s dog, and tells her that she has blue eyes, but only she can see them. Pecola loses her sanity and retreats into a fantasy world where she imagines that everyone admires her for her blue eyes.
The novel also depicts the lives of other characters who are affected by racism and sexism in different ways. Claudia MacTeer, the narrator of the novel, is a rebellious girl who resists the white standards of beauty and questions the status quo. She befriends Pecola when she stays at her house as a foster child, and tries to protect her from harm. Frieda MacTeer, Claudia’s sister, is more mature and pragmatic than Claudia, and shares her sympathy for Pecola. She also experiences sexual harassment from a white man who tries to molest her. Pauline Breedlove, Pecola’s mother, suffers from a physical disability and a lack of self-love. She escapes from her unhappy marriage and her miserable home by immersing herself in movies and working for a white family whom she treats better than her own. Cholly Breedlove, Pecola’s father, is traumatized by his abandonment by his parents and his humiliation by two white men who forced him to continue having sex with a girl while they watched. He becomes an alcoholic and a violent man who vents his anger and frustration on his wife and daughter. He rapes Pecola out of a twisted sense of love and pity for her.
The novel also interweaves the stories of other minor characters who represent different aspects of racism and sexism in the society. Maureen Peal is a light-skinned girl who is admired by everyone for her beauty and wealth. She befriends Pecola for a while, but then turns against her and insults her for being black and poor. Geraldine is a middle-class woman who tries to assimilate into the white culture by rejecting her blackness and adopting a rigid lifestyle. She despises Pecola for being dirty and ugly, and blames her for killing her cat. Junior is Geraldine’s son who is neglected by his mother and tormented by his father. He lures Pecola into his house with the promise of showing her kittens, but then throws his mother’s cat at her face and locks her in a room with the dead animal. Sammy Breedlove is Pecola’s brother who runs away from home frequently to escape from his abusive parents. He shows no concern for his sister’s fate.
The Bluest Eye is a powerful and poignant novel that exposes the harsh realities of racism and sexism in 1940s America. Toni Morrison uses vivid language and imagery to create a vivid portrait of the characters’ emotions and experiences. She also employs various narrative techniques such as multiple perspectives, flashbacks, fragments, and an unconventional structure to convey the complexity and diversity of the themes and issues she addresses. The novel challenges the reader to question the dominant norms and values of the society that oppress and dehumanize people based on their race, gender, class, or appearance.
The novel also offers a critique of the American dream that promises happiness and success to anyone who works hard enough. Morrison shows how this dream is based on a false ideal of whiteness that excludes and marginalizes people of color. She also shows how this dream is corrupted by materialism, consumerism, and capitalism that exploit people’s desires and insecurities. The novel illustrates how the characters are influenced by the media, especially movies and advertisements, that promote white beauty standards and lifestyles as superior and desirable. The novel reveals how these images create a sense of inferiority and dissatisfaction among the black characters who internalize these messages and try to emulate them.
The novel also explores the theme of love in its various forms: parental love, romantic love, friendship love, self-love, etc. Morrison shows how love can be both a source of healing and destruction depending on how it is expressed or denied. She shows how love can be distorted by racism, sexism, violence, or abuse into hate or indifference. She also shows how love can be a form of resistance or empowerment when it is based on mutual respect and acceptance. The novel suggests that the only way to overcome the effects of racism and sexism is to develop a sense of self-love and self-worth that is not dependent on external validation or approval.
The Bluest Eye is a novel that deserves to be read and appreciated for its literary merit and its social relevance. It is a novel that exposes the ugly truths of racism and sexism, but also celebrates the beauty and resilience of the human spirit. It is a novel that challenges the reader to rethink their assumptions and prejudices, and to empathize with the characters who suffer from them. It is a novel that invites the reader to join the quest for a more just and humane world.