I first became interested in The Bluest Eye, written by Toni Morrison, after listening to an overview of the novel on a radio show. It happened to be the book of the month, and they were inviting people from around the world to join in by reading the book, as at the end of the month, they would be discussing the book with an esteemed panel. I don’t normally pay attention to these kinds of things, but the summary of the book had me intrigued, so I hoped on Paperback Swap and ordered it right then.
When the book arrived, I immediately labeled it a quick read, and it definitely was. It is fairly short with large print, and I think I finished it in about a week.
The novel begins by placing you in the fall of 1941, in Lorain, Ohio. You meet the young sisters, Claudia and Frieda, who live with their parents in an “old, cold, and green” house. The McTeer family is not wealthy, but are a hardworking, kind, and loving family. The MacTeers take in a boarder, as well as Pecola Breedlove, the young, tragic main character of the story. She came to live with the MacTeers for a short while because her father had hit her mother and tried to burn down the family’s apartment.
Through her interactions with Claudia and Frieda, we learn that Pecola is a very quiet, shy, awkward girl. She falls in love with the image of Shirley Temple, believing that being white is beautiful in contrast to herself, black and ugly. Her home is nothing like the loving MacTeer’s, as her father, Cholly Breedlove, abuses alcohol and constantly verbally and physically fights with her mother. Her mother, Pauline Breedlove, has a deformed foot, automatically deeming her an outcast, and is an instigator of Cholly’s temper. Pecola’s older brother, Sam Breedlove, deals with their broken home life by running away time and time again. Pecola believes that just maybe if she were prettier, her parents would be nicer to her and to each other, so she begins to pray for blue eyes hoping to change the way she is seen by others.
As we read about Pecola’s daily life, she gets teased at school by boys. Teased by the new, light-skinned rich girl, Maureen Peal, the one everybody envies. A classmate pretending to be nice to her invites her inside of his house only to throw his mother’s frightened cat onto her, scratching her face and chest. In a moment of hatred for the cat, the boy swings it over his head and as Pecola tries to save the poor soul, his release sends it flying into the wall and kills it. The boy, without hesitation blames it on Pecola, causing his mother to yell hateful words at her and kicks her out of the house. As we read through these heart wrenching day-to-day interactions, we see that the only people who are genuinely nice to her, aside from Claudia and Frieda, are the three prostitutes that live in the apartment above her. They gift her with friendship, food, soda, and unfortunately stories of sex and money, that her little mind should not be able to comprehend.
About halfway through the book, Morrison takes us through distant flashbacks, reveling the stories that have formed Cholly and Pauline Breedlove. Pauline, as a young girl, loses herself in church songs and romantic fantasy, always imagining someone who would love her and save her. She has a passion for escaping into Hollywood movies, where she learns about beauty and begins to emulate white celebrities like Jean Harlow. Cholly, abandoned by his mother near the train tracks when he was only four days old, is taken in by his great aunt, who raises him until her death. The day of his aunt’s funeral, Cholly has his first sexual experience with Darlene, a local girl. During the moment of teenage passion, two white men approach them and force them to continue having sex while they watch and laugh. Cholly is deeply humiliated, and unable to direct his anger at the white men due to oppression and fear, he turns it onto Darlene instead. He then spends the next few years moving from city to city and from woman to woman. In Kentucky, he finally meets the woman of his dreams, Pauline, and in search of work, the married couple move to their current hometown of Lorain.
When we return to the present, one day Cholly comes home in a drunken stupor to find Pecola washing dishes. In a moment of reminiscence, Cholly, her own father, rapes her in the kitchen. When it’s over, he covers the unconscious Pecola with a quilt and leaves, remorseless. Her mother finds Pecola on the floor. When she tells her mother what had taken place, she doesn’t believe it and hits her. Through subsequent thoughts and conversations between the characters, we learn that Cholly rapes Pecola again, only this time Pecola become pregnant with her father’s child.
Pecola visits Soaphead Church, a pretentious psychic and healer, and asks him to give her the blue eyes she had been praying for. Soaphead instructs Pecola to give his landlady’s dog some meat, and if the dog acts strangely, she will get her wish. Pecola doesn’t realize that he hates the old dog and has strategically given her poison to feed to it. A task he was too weak to perform himself. When the dog begins to gag and limp around from the poison, Pecola naively believes she will receive her blue eyes.
Claudia and Frieda learn of Pecola’s pregnancy through neighborhood gossip. Although everyone thinks the baby will die, Claudia and Frieda hope that it survives. They spend the summer planting marigold seeds in the hopes that if the flowers blossom, Pecola’s baby will live. The marigolds never bloom. Pecola’s baby dies.
After Cholly disappears, Pauline and Pecola move to the edge of town and poor Pecola loses her mind. At the end of the novel, we find Pecola peering into a mirror, talking to herself about her blue eyes.
This novel is definitely not for the faint of heart. It is a twisted story, telling the tale of a different kind of love. The kind many of us have never known.
From the opening prologue, I just knew a terrible tragedy would ensue. Throughout the novel, I could feel Pecola’s pain with every word spoken to her that would destroy the feelings of an average child. I know Pecola. You know Pecola. We can all remember that awkward, ugly, poor girl from elementary school. She would stand at the back of the playground, not wanting to be noticed, yet wanting so badly to fit in. I don’t remember if I pitied her. I just hope I wasn’t the one mean to her. Little did we know then that her daily home life was abusive, demoralizing, and sometimes quite horrifying. But in some way, she was loved. Because, “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone posses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.”