Ethnic Studies and “The Bluest Eye”
Understanding African American sentiments during the Civil Rights Movement is crucial in understanding Ton Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye. W.E.B. Du Bois thinks that a biography of an African-American always possesses a “double-consciousness of the Afro-American” (Lewis 143-145). Du Bois asserts that a black person living in a predominately white country has to learn to think with “two minds” — his own and the white man’s — if he is to have any chance of survival. In an interview with Toni Morrison in 1989, the author recalls her inspiration for writing The Bluest Eye. What struck her as almost more heartbreaking than the lack of black writers in Western literature, was the fact that the black Americans whose books she had read seemed as if they were writing to a white audience, and felt it necessary to give explanations for things about black culture that they would never have to explain to her in normal conversation (LeClair). The example she gives is in the opening of The Bluest Eye: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941” (Morrison 5). In black culture, Morrison explained, “it means a big lie is about to be told. Or someone is going to tell some graveyard information, who’s sleeping with whom. Black readers will chuckle” (LeClair). Ethnic studies was created to teach the stories, histories, struggles and triumphs of people of color on their own terms. Critics have identified The Bluest Eye as insightful into the mind of black culture and the surface feelings of racial inequality at the time of its publication (Lorde 114-123). Toni Morrison employs several literary devices to illustrate this mind-set, including whiteness as the standard of beauty, the doubling of contrasting pairs, and supporting motifs.
In his book, Toni Morrison Explained, Ron David states that “in a Toni Morrison novel, there’s a big difference between the story and the book. [I can] tell you the story in two pages, but you still won’t have a solid idea what the book is like” (David 41). If you were to ask almost anyone who has read the novel what The Bluest Eye is about, they would probably say that it is the story of Pecola Breedlove. But David rejects this simple reading and asserts that it isn’t the story of Pecola, but rather the image of Pecola, a young black girl who thinks her life would be perfect if she had blue eyes. This solitary image is so powerful that it “sums up one of the greatest tragedies of our age in the time it takes to snap your fingers” (David 41). This tragedy is the embodiment of the theme of the novel, which is that every black person in America is forced to fight against a standard of beauty that is the complete opposite of what they are. This standard of beauty is that of whiteness. The message that white is superior is peppered all throughout the novel. One particular instance where this message is heavily prevalent is when Claudia is given the white, blond-haired, blue-eyed baby doll for Christmas. Her reaction is instantly negative when she articulates that she was “physically revolted by and secretly frightened of those round moronic eyes, the pancake face, and orangeworms hair” (Morrison 20). She then proceeds to dismember the doll, in a desperate attempt to discover what there was about this little pink thing that everyone seemed to find so lovable and beautiful. In addition to her detest for this white-skinned doll, she loathes the child star Shirley Temple — the embodiment of angelic beauty for little girls.
To play upon Du Bois theory of the duality of the black mind, we are presented with the image of Pecola. Pecola is another young, black girl who — unlike Claudia — is obsessed with the thought that in order to be beautiful, she must be blond-haired and blue-eyed. Pecola is also obsessed with the same actress that Claudia despises: Shirley Temple. Not only does she idolize Shirley, but she drinks milk out of a Shirley Temple cup, and she loves eating Mary Janes, the candies with the Shirley Temple clone on the wrapper. The whiteness of the milk, of Shirley and of the candy wrapper, take the theme of “white is beautiful” to the next level. Pecola is also the person who suffers most from the denial of possessing the white characteristics of beauty. She associates beauty with being loved, and believes that if she were to possess the coveted blue eyes, then the brutality in her life would be substituted by affection and respect. This fruitless longing for love and blue eyes results in Pecola’s madness and eventual death.
Toni Morrison expands upon the superiority of white people by doubling several contrasting pairs throughout the novel. The Bluest Eye has three different beginnings. The first beginning is a piece out of the classic Dick-and-Jane books that so many learned to read on. The reason Morrison chose this as one of her beginnings could possibly be to slyly introduce the standard of beauty early on. Ron David recalls that “every child in America aspires to be Dick and Jane… who, in case you haven’t noticed, are blond-haired, blue-eyed, and as white as it gets” (David 44). The second beginning is gossip in which a grown up Claudia gives us a tease as to what’s to come in the novel. Most books tell you “what” and “how” at the same time, but Morrison gives us the “what” right off the bat, and the story tells us the “how.” The third and final beginning starts the real story: the “how.” Now, why would an author have three separate beginnings? What’s the point? Well, the Dick-and-Jane beginning comes back into play in the beginning of almost every chapter. Morrison begins these chapters with an excerpt of the Dick-and-Jane introduction, usually to contrast with the story that follows.
The most obvious and most important of these contrasting pairs is that of the Dick-and-Jane fantasy versus Pecola’s reality. The first instance where this is seen is in the section immediately after Claudia’s; there are three lines of run-together words from Dick and Jane that read (with inserted spaces) “Here is the house, it is green and white, it has a red door, it is very pretty, it is very pretty, pretty, pretty” (Morrison 33). The “pretty house” lines contrast with the following sub-story, which is centered around Pecola’s dilapidated house. Other examples of contrasting pairs within the novel are Pecola’s acceptance of white as the standard of beauty and Claudia’s resistance, Pecola’s dingy house versus Geraldine’s tidy house. One could even include the broad comparison of Pecola and Claudia versus Shirley Temple.
Although the main theme of The Bluest Eye is whiteness as the standard of beauty, there are numerous supporting and smaller motifs that Toni Morrison uses to strengthen this idea. The first motif is the representation of seasons. The novel is designed around the four seasons, meaning that it is not linear, but cyclic. This structure means that theoretically, the story does not have a beginning or an end and it is part of an ongoing process. Typically, a season book follows these symbols: spring is a time of rebirth, and autumn is the time when things die. The Bluest Eye begins in autumn, the season before winter, so the audience can tell that it’s not going to be a cheerful novel. That’s the bad news, as Ron David discusses. He says that the good news is that as a season book, the book rhymes with the seasons, so “as bad as things seem, it isn’t final; it’s part of a cycle; hang in there till Spring” (David 45).
The second motif Morrison uses is the opposition of whiteness and color. This image branches off of the notion that whiteness is the accepted norm and challenges it by associating whiteness with not only beauty and cleanliness, but also with sterility. In contrast, colors are connected with happiness. Morrison uses this imagery to place emphasis on the destructiveness of the black community’s preference for whiteness and proposes that an exciting color (rather than the lack of color) is a more fitting image of happiness and liberty. A third message in the stories is that of perseverance and survival, according to Missy Kubitschek in her book Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion. Kubitschek claims that “one of these survivors is the first-person narrator, Claudia. Through Claudia and the omniscient narrator, Morrison sings a song of praise and grief for all the Pecolas of the world” (Kubitschek 27-28). This is one of the reasons that Claudia is the narrator, rather than Pecola. If Pecola were the narrator, then the whole book would practically be about her self-hatred and longing for beauty. Whereas with Claudia, she is the voice of reason and rebellion; which is the whole point of The Bluest Eye. Most books have a personable character that most readers can identify with, and Claudia is the epitome of this type of spirit. Although she and Pecola are both subjected to the same impossible standards of beauty, Claudia fights it. Thus giving us our story of perseverance and survival.
In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison uses several different literary devices to describe the feelings of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. She mainly focuses on the racism aspect of Ethnic Studies, and builds upon W.E.B. Du Bois’ “double consciousness” theory. Two of Morrison’s main goals within the novel are to build a sense of intimacy with her audience, to make it as if one is listening to a friend tell the story, and to write in such a way that the words have the heartbeat of spoken language. These two goals work in such close combination that it’s often impossible to distinguish one from the other, according to Ron David in his book Toni Morrison Explained. While David means this as a negative point, it can also be viewed as a very positive accomplishment of representing the feelings of a “real” black American in the 1970s. This and her theme of whiteness as the standard of beauty, the doubling of contrasting pairs, and supporting motifs work to complete Morrisson’s project. Not only does she create the effect of time travel for the reader of her novel, but she is also praised for having the courage to write about “an aspect of the Black experience that most of us would rather forget, our hatred of ourselves” (Gant).
David, Ron. “The Bluest Eye.” Toni Morrison Explained: A Reader’s Road Map to the Novels. New York: Random House, 2000. 39+. Print.
Gant, Liz. Review of The Bluest Eye. Black World, Volume 20, May 1971.
Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. “The Bluest Eye.” Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998. 27-28. Print.
LeClair, Thomas. “‘The Language Must Not Sweat’: A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” New Republic, March 21, 1981.
Lewis, David Levering. W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 2009. 143-45. Print.
Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing, 1984. 114-23. Print.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume Book, 1994. Print.
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Understanding African American sentiments during the Civil Rights Movement is crucial in understanding Ton Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye. W.E.B. Du Bois thinks that a biography of an African-American always possesses a “double-consciousness of the […]