Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Bluest Eye

This was the second book in the Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge. Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1993, is the author of this short but powerful novel. The reader knows from the beginning that this isn't going to be a "feel good" book. The story is told from different points of view and is divided into four sections -- Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Fall. We meet Pecola Breedlove in the opening pages of the novel where we find out that she is having her father's baby. The author tells us that the Breedloves are ugly people. When it comes to Cholly Breedlove, (Pecola's father) she is talking about his character as much as she is his physical appearance. Morrison uses the Dick and Jane stories from our childhood to exemplify the vast disparity between the idealic world of white middle class America and that of Pecola Breedlove. The book begins with descriptions of Dick and Jane and their families. At the beginning of each chapter, phrases from these books are continuously repeated as if they were a mantra being chanted over and over in Pecola's head.

Pecola longs to be beautiful. She longs to have that fairy tale existence that she sees in books. For her, the ultimate would be to have beautiful blue eyes. If she could only have that then people would look at her and notice her. She wouldn't be invisible to the world any longer. She goes so far as to visit a charlatan who claims he can make that happen. In the end, Pecola can no longer deal with the trauma she has endured in her few short years. She retreats within herself and believes that she does indeed have blue eyes. She walks the streets talking to her imaginary friend about how beautiful she is now that she has blue eyes.

The edition I read has an afterword by Morrison in which she describes the girl who inspired this story. She actually went to school with a little black girl who dreamed of having blue eyes. This horrified Morrison even at a young age. Later she would never forget the 'racial self-loathing' that she saw in that little girl. She wanted to discover how and why that happens to someone.
Interestingly, Morrison also explains what she sees as a failure in many ways to accomplish what she wanted to with this novel. It is after all her first published work. This book brings to light the horrific damage that we do to our children when we offer them unrealistic and unattainable ideas of beauty and worth.

7 comments:

Table Talk said...

I worked with a little mixed race girl in London in the sixties at a drama workshop where i helped out after school who I immediately thought of when I read this. Mixed race children were not so common then and she was the only one in the group. Ever afternoon she would come in and head straight for the dressing up box where she would pull out a long blond wig and wear it for the rest of the session. It was so sad.

Lisa said...

That really is sad. I'm glad that there seems to be more of an acceptance these days. However, when talking about how warped society's idea of beauty is, it isn't just a problem for minority groups. It can be the ridiculous desire to be wafer thin because of the images we're bombarded with on a daily basis. That's one good thing about being 40 -- I don't really care anymore about how people perceive me. It's rather liberating.

Literary Feline said...

I read this book many years ago and your review makes me want to read it again. I believe I still have my copy, so that might just be possible! This book made a huge impression on me at the time I read it. Pecola's story really touched me. It's a powerful book.

Thank you too for sharing what the author had to say about her book. That was interesting!

Andi said...

I'm starting it TODAY! I keep dragging my feet on this one for some reason. EEk!

Lisa said...

literary feline, this is a good book to reread I think. It's a short little book, but there's quite a bit packed into it. I know I would get more from it if I reread it.

andi, once you get started, it goes pretty quickly. I had a little bit of trouble with some of the characters, but overall it was a really good read.

Bybee said...

This book reminds me of one of Whoopi Goldberg's early routines in which she plays a little girl who wraps a yellow (?) towel around her head and pretends like it's blonde hair. So sad.

Lisa said...

bybee, I don't remember that particular Whoopi routine, but it sounds like something Pecola may have tried in the book. It's sad to see how society makes all little girls feel about themselves, isn't it?