Reviewed by Amy Gruzesky
Sometimes a book you read has an effect on you that you just know will be lasting. Such is the case of Pecola Breedlove’s story, told in Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye.
This short novel broke my heart. It made me sad for this 11-year-old African American girl who grew up in poverty and faced abuse, incest, rape, and an enforced feeling of inferiority based on a societal ideal of beauty that ended up literally driving her mad. And it made me wonder how many other young girls because they are different or don’t look the way a culture believes they should, grow up having similar experiences, albeit not as extreme.
The story takes place during the Great Depression, and we learn that Pecola has been made to feel that she is ugly and unlovable by her family and community alike, which has a horrible effect on her self-image, especially at her young age.
The Breedloves are poor, and Pecola’s father, Cholly, is an abusive, violent alcoholic, while her mother Pauline is an apathetic, unnurturing mother who is more focused on the white family she works for than on her own.
We learn some of Cholly and Pauline’s past, and the experiences they had that molded them into their current selves; however, I could not find enough sympathy for them to give them a pass for the way they treated their children, particularly in their treatment of Pecola.
At school, Pecola has an even tougher time, because many of the other children taunt her and make fun of her.
In an attempt to overcome her “ugliness,” she starts praying for blue eyes, which are the color of all the white, blonde-haired dolls she has while growing up, and which she believes will make her become beautiful and make her life better.
The only and brief respite for Pecola in this story is when she is put into the care of a foster family. Her foster sisters Claudia and Frieda befriend her and even defend her.
An interesting scene in the book for me was when Claudia, who is much stronger and confident than Pecola despite being two years younger, destroys a white doll that she had received, and compares it negatively to another white version of childhood beauty, Shirley Temple, whom she also hates because of how polarizing that ideal is for young girls who do not look like that, yet with whom Pecola is obsessed
Highlighting society’s effect on minorities is the introduction of Maureen Peal, a light-skinned black girl with green eyes who, when described, does not come across as especially pretty or beautiful, but is revered and even envied by the other black children because her skin is lighter. This part is important to me because it shows that the idealization of white beauty is not just something that Pecola is affected by; it has some type of effect on most of the children.
The Bluest Eye isn’t just the story of one little girl’s inferiority complex; in a way, it is a study of how a majority in a society can force its ideals onto others who are completely different, and even get them to adopt those standards for themselves in some ways: black families buying blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls for their daughters; young black boys being enamored of the new girl in school simply because she has lighter skin than the others; an older male character in the book calling the girls Greta Garbo and Hedy Lamar, famous white celebrity females of the day, and meaning it as a compliment.
It made me sad that nothing in the popular culture of the time reflected who these characters represented or celebrated their attributes and features, and I think this book is an important one that should be read.
While I had read another of Morrison’s novels, Beloved, in college, I had heard of, but never read The Bluest Eye. I think I’m glad for that because I don’t believe this book would have had as profound an effect on me back then as it did reading it now.
If you haven’t read this book, do it; if you read it a long time ago, re-read it.