This post is part of #ReadWomen2014
by Shavon L. McKinstry
I feel the need to disclose this now before we all get too far into this review: I am deeply in love with Toni Morrison and her writing. If you’ve never had the privilege of reading anything graced by the pen of Morrison, she writes the most striking characters, gives them vivid dialogue, fluid thoughts, and will emotionally destroy you with the obstacles they must face. Being an overt Morrison fangirl, I did already have high expectations for The Bluest Eye. Morrison’s writings almost always deal with the sexism and racism that black women face every day, but the Bluest Eye struck me by how relatable it was to myself, and many other girls I know today, despite its setting of 1941.
At face value, The Bluest Eye is about a young African American girl, Pecola Breedlove, who is regarded by herself and others as being completely hideous. Morrison describes the physical features of Pecola (and the rest of her family) that make her so unattractive: “small eyes set closely together under narrow foreheads. The low, irregular hairlines… Crooked noses, with insolent nostrils… High cheekbones… Ears turned forward.” The descriptions of Pecola and her family’s physical appearance go against what is considered to be “conventionally” attractive by most Western standards of beauty. However, despite her awkward features, Pecola truly believes that people would accept her and all of her problems would go away if she only had blue eyes like the white girls in her community that are so loved and cherished.
Here, Morrison reveals the true strife of The Bluest Eye. While racism and sexism have unfortunately always been prevalent in recorded history, the main conflict of this novel is a very heated and relevant topic in the United States and most of the rest of the world today: the imposed beauty standard of whiteness.
Pecola Breedlove is a truly tragic character who is verbally and physically abused by both complete strangers and her own parents, even to the point of sexual abuse from the hands of her own father. Despite the negative forces acting on her, Pecola not only believes that it’s her own fault, due to her unattractiveness, that she is so hated and mistreated. Furthermore, to Pecola, her unattractiveness stems strictly from her being black. Her young mind has observed the love and admiration that white children at school receive and the fame and popularity that actresses like Greta Garbo and Shirley Temple have. For Pecola, to be loved is to be white.
Today, just as in the early 20th century setting of The Bluest Eye, black women and girls are both overtly and subconsciously taught that the only way to be perceived as being beautiful and good is to be white. Morrison illustrates in the most catastrophically accurate way how this institutionalized belief trumps the logic of the situation that the issue lies with society and not with the appearance of non-white people.
This is an issue that hits very close to home for me. Spending hours straightening my hair while I was in middle school and high school, wishing that it had that naturally carefree, breezy look as my white friends, slathering on sunscreen before I left the house to try and stay as light-skinned as possible–without thinking about it, I wanted to be as white as possible despite being half-black. This is behavior ingrained in most black girls so thoroughly that we often don’t question it. Morrison questions it. She puts it on a pedestal, reviews it from every possible angle and allows us to analyze it.
While Pecola is the connecting thread of the entire novel, much of the book actually focuses on the supporting characters of Pecola’s life: one of her only real friends, Claudia, her parents, and her acquaintances in her neighborhood.
These characters become the instruments with which we are presented to consider how this standard of whiteness is harmful. We see how Claudia is absolutely disgusted by the idea of being white, blonde, and blue-eyed as aspirations for herself and other black children. Mrs. Breedlove’s hatred of herself for her own appearance, her family for her husband’s abusive behavior, and her satisfaction of working as a housemaid for wealthy white families is highlighted. For Cholly Breedlove, Pecola’s father, Morrison pens a backstory that reveals how his brash mindset led him to channel his anger towards racism into a hatred of women in his formative years. Among all of these colorful narratives, Pecola remains something of an afterthought, done intentionally and poignantly to show how forgotten by society, her family, and even her friends are.
In my humble opinion, Morrison is one of the most important feminist writers alive. There is never anything remotely one-dimensional about her characters, even the pitiful Pecola Breedlove. The strife faced by her subjects is always based in reality, even in the most fantastic situations. The Bluest Eye will give you perspective on an aspect of the experience of the black American woman if you’re looking to educate yourself, and if you’re a non-white woman, Morrison’s novel will feel like looking into a piece of your own soul and mind that perhaps you couldn’t put into words.