1. How does nature function in the novel? Do you consider it a benevolent presence against which the events of the novel are contrasted, or a potentially malevolent force? Is Morrison’s use of natural imagery hopeful or ironic?
2. Which is a greater threat to the children in The Bluest Eye: racism or sexism?
3. At the end of the novel, Claudia questions her own right or ability to tell the truth about Pecola’s experience. How seriously are we to take her questioning? Is she a reliable narrator?
4. To what extent is Cholly to blame for his violence against his family? Which other people or circumstances may also be to blame? What is the novel’s position on blame?
5. The novel includes a number of secondary story lines, such as Geraldine’s and Soaphead Church’s histories, with the main story line of the Breedlove family. Select one of these secondary stories and explain how it relates to or comments upon the main story line.
Table of contents
1 The subtext of the reading
1.1. The Dick and Jane narrative
1.2. Whiteness as the standard of beauty
1.3. Seeing versus being seen / Eyes and vision
2. Critical source
3. Creative source
4. Questions for discussion
1. The subtext of the reading
The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel and was published in 1970. Toni Morrison uses modernist techniques of stream-of-consciousness, multiple perspectives, and deliberate fragmentation. Two different narrators tell the story. The first is Claudia MacTeer, who narrates in a mixture of a child’s and an adult’s perspectives, and the second is an omniscient narrator. Claudia’s and Pecola’s points of view are dominant, but the reader also sees things from other character’s points of view.
The subtext of the first part of the novel (Autumn and Winter) suggests various topics. In my presentation, I mainly focus on the “Dick and Jane narrative” by means of which the novel opens. Furthermore, I will explore the themes “whiteness as the standard of beauty” and “seeing versus being seen” which are sometimes closely connected.
The Bluest Eye provides an extended depiction of the ways in which internalized white beauty standards deform the lives of black girls and women. Implicit messages that whiteness is superior are everywhere, including the white baby doll given to Claudia, the idealization of Shirley Temple, the consensus that light-skinned Maureen is cuter than the other black girls, and the idealization of white beauty in the movies. Pecola eventually desires blue eyes in order to conform with these white beauty standards imposed on her. However, by wishing for blue eyes, Pecola indicates that she wishes to see things differently as much as she wishes to be seen differently.
1.1. The Dick and Jane narrative
The novel begins with a series of sentences that seem to come from a children's reader. The sentences describe a house and the family that lives in the house – Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane. The brief narrative focuses on Jane. The pet cat will not play with Jane, and when Jane asks her mother to play, she laughs. When Jane asks her father to play, he smiles, and the dog runs away instead of playing with Jane. Then a friend comes to play with Jane. This sequence is repeated verbatim without punctuation, and then is repeated a third time without spaces between the words or punctuation (page 3-4).
At a glance, the Dick-and-Jane motif alerts us to the fact that for the most part the story will be told from a child's perspective. Just as the Dick-and-Jane primer teaches children how to read, this novel will be about the larger story of how children learn to interpret their world. But there is something wrong with the Dick-and-Jane narrative as it is presented here. Because the sentences are not spread out with pictures, as they would be in an actual reader, we become uncomfortably aware of their shortness and abruptness. The substance of the narrative, though written in resolutely cheerful language, is also somewhat disturbing. Though we are told that the family that lives in the pretty house is happy, Jane is isolated. Not only do her parents and pets refuse to play with her, but they seem to refuse any direct communication with her. When Jane approaches her mother to play, the mother simply laughs, which makes us wonder if the mother actually is, as we have been told, "very nice." When she asks her father to play, her father only smiles. The lack of connection between sentences mirrors the lack of connection between the individuals in this story.
When the Dick-and-Jane story repeats without divisions between the sentences, its individual components are more connected because they are run together more, but this kind of connection is not a meaningful one. Instead, the meaninglessness of the sequence becomes more noticeable, even shocking, because the sequence is sped up. In the third repetition, when all the words are run together, the speed and closeness of the connection between the elements of the story make it nearly unreadable. This third repetition alerts us that the story that follows operates in two related ways: it presents a sequence of images that are isolated from one another, and it presents a sequence of images that are connected by sheer momentum rather than any inherent relationship. This repetition implicitly warns us to expect a story that is vivid but fractured.
The gap between the idealized, sanitized, upper-middle-class world of Dick and Jane (who we can assume to be white, though we are never explicitly told by the novel that they are) and the often dark and ugly world of the novel is emphasized by the chapter headings excerpted from the reading primer (page 33, 38, 81). The picture established in the Dick and Jane narrative is the opposite of Pecola’s life. The accepted concept of beauty by society destroys Pecola’s life leaving her no chance to survive because it started from the school primer, from the very beginning of her education. Pecola’s world falls apart in the novel while trying to cope with white society’s standards.
But the Dick-and-Jane world is not necessarily better – in fact, it is largely because the black characters have internalized white Dick-and-Jane values that they are unhappy. In this way, the Dick and Jane narrative and the novel provide ironic commentary on each other.
1.2. Whiteness as the standard of beauty
- Page 19-23
In the first chapter of the novel Claudia is careful to point out that fear of poverty and homelessness was a more prevalent day-to-day worry in her community than fear of discrimination, but racism nevertheless does affect her life in subtle yet profound ways, especially in the sense that it distorts her beauty standards. Having joined the MacTeers, Pecola loves drinking milk out of their Shirley Temple cup. The symbol of Shirley Temple dolls illustrates the influence of mass culture on young girls. However, Claudia explains that she has always hated Shirley Temple and also the blonde, blue-eyed baby doll that she was given for Christmas. She is confused about why everyone else thinks such dolls are lovable. When Claudia states that, unlike Frieda, she has not reached the point in her psychological "development" when her hatred of Shirley Temple and dolls will turn to love, the irony of the statement is clear. Claudia naïvely assumes that the beauty others see in the doll must inhere physically inside it, and so she takes apart the doll to search for its beauty. She has not yet learned that beauty is a matter of cultural norms and that the doll is beautiful not in and of itself but rather because the culture she lives in believes whiteness is superior.
Claudia explains that her hatred of dolls turned into a hatred of little white girls and then into a false love of whiteness and cleanliness. What horrifies Claudia most about her own treatment of white girls is the disinterested nature of her hatred. Claudia hates them for their whiteness, not for more defensible personal reasons. Ultimately, her shame of her own hatred hides itself in pretended love. By describing the sequence of hating whiteness but then coming to embrace it, Claudia diagnoses the black community's worship of white images (as well as cleanliness and denial of the body's desires) as a complicated kind of self-hatred. It is not simply that black people learn to believe that whiteness is beautiful because they are surrounded by white America's advertisements and movies; Claudia suggests that black children start with a healthy hatred of the claims to white superiority but that their guilt at their own anger then transforms hatred into a false love to compensate for that hatred.
Unlike Claudia, Pecola does not seem to undergo a process of first rejecting then accepting America's white beauty standards. Pecola simply adores Shirley Temple and loves playing with dolls. Her excessive and expensive milk-drinking from the Shirley Temple cup can be interpreted as a part of her desire to internalize the values of white culture, a symbolic moment that foreshadows her desire to possess blue eyes.
- Page 38-39
Chapter three provides the reader with an incident that explains that black skin is largely considered to be ugly. The narrator announces that the Breedloves live in the storefront because they are black and poor, and because they believe they are ugly. The Breedloves' ugliness cannot be attributed to their literal appearances (their ugliness "did not belong to them"), nor simply to the cultural images that indicate that only whiteness is beautiful. Instead, the narrator suggests, it seems