‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ is chimed every time you place an unattractive covered novel back on the shelf, but I stand by the belief that attractive covers entice and sell. It was the cover that attracted me to Toni Morrison’s the Bluest Eye. The blue marbles glossy against the bland white background introduce you to the fundamental theme of the novel – a young girl’s endless desire for the bluest eye in a sea of white.
I have read endless novels in which the characters pursue the American Dream, and in this respect Toni Morrison’s novel is no different. Morrison’s intention through a partly autobiographical novel is to challenge a supposedly ‘free’ America by presenting an unequal society in a time when ‘black was not always’ considered ‘beautiful’ and the jealousy this stirs within the delicate likes of Pecola: ‘the most vulnerable member in society’.
The repression young Pecola receives is relentless and to the extent that she learns to loath her own being. She is not only tormented by the suspected white majority, but by those not quite so ‘black’ as herself. The school boys who chant ‘Black Emo Black Emo’ do so because of their own insecurities in relation to their blackness, they use this to torment the only individual they are able – the lowest point of the societal structure. The build-up of racial hatred is impactful on Pecoloa’s own self-loathing and leads her to see only ‘what there’ is ‘to see: the eyes of other people.’
The character Claudia holds similarities to that of Morrison and her childhood. In opposition to Pecola she does not despise her own identity in such a way, the feisty character acts as a contrast to Pecola and she demonstrates a seeming indifference to the white dolls and the ‘blued eyed beauty’ Shirley Temple. Unlike Pecola she is at ease with her ‘blackness’: ‘we felt comfortable in our skins… admired our dirt’. Claudia, although she too lives in poverty receives the love and affection of a supportive family base that perhaps prevents her from being so internally damaged by outside influences: ‘when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die’.
Pecola’s mother Pauline’s image of her own self-perceived ugliness is constructed by her trips to the movies in which she is constantly reinforced with what ‘beauty’ consists of. Like Pecola she too is constructed by propaganda and similarly longs to live the existence of those she has been taught are ‘beautiful’: ‘She was never able, after the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of beauty’ based on ‘the silver screen’. Sadly Pauline no longer holds the naivety of Pecola and has come to accept a dreary existence in which she is consistently abused. The loss of her rotting tooth helps enforce her self-perceived ugliness: ‘its presence was not noticeable or uncomfortable’. Used potentially as an extended metaphor in the way seemingly harmless mild racial abuse can grind away and destroy those weakest in society. Ms Breedlove like the tooth is hidden within a society that slowly bit my bit consumes her, leaves her like the tooth essentially to rot, ‘ugly’ at society’s core.
Pecola’s longing for blue eyes rather than lighter skin transcends racism, with its suggestion that Pecola wants to see things differently as much as to be seen differently: ‘We stare… wanting her bread, but more than that wanting to poke the arrogance out of her eyes and smash the pride of ownership that curls her chewing mouth.’ But the price for Pecola’s wish ultimately is her sanity, as she loses sight of both herself and the world she inhabits.