The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

January 16, 2018
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In a word, Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison’s controversial novel The Bluest Eye is about “ugliness”. By unfolding the life story of Pecola Breedlove, a young African-American girl living in Ohio during the Great Depression, Morrison successfully reminds readers “how hurtful racism is” and how people feel inferior and apologetic for their identities. In analyzing the literary elements and overall effect of this novel, a major goal I deem appropriate is to touch less on the over-discussed topics such as black rights (though the predominant reason is that I don’t feel informed enough to make substantial comments). Instead, I prefer exploring the universality of the themes portrayed in this story.

Although the story is written with a stylistically simple language, the plot is at first difficult to follow as there are two narrators (one a character and another third-person) describing multiple events taking place at different times. What did leave a strong and unambiguous impression was, not surprisingly, the most challenged parts including explicit description of racism, child abuse, and incest. While I somewhat agree with the hordes of concerned educators and parents who’ve advocated banning this book in the past 48 years, I feel the necessity of acknowledging the intense power Morrison has bestowed her work by openly discussing certain social taboos. Ultimately, this risky undertaking makes perfect sense because it captures a parallel between Pecola and Cholly’s personal struggles with self-esteem. Cholly’s traumatic encounter with the two white men in his youth scarred him by inducing him to subconsciously feel like an exposed animal on exhibition for white people to see. Pecola’s broken family—a violent, abusive father and a suddenly evasive mother—deprive her of a needed sense of security and self-love. Moreover, the continuous insults she receives from others in her community and a close-to-nonexistent support system enhances her growing sense of solitude. This parallel is only one of many that can be traced in this storyline, but I won’t be fixating on the details of the plot in further interpretation.

I’m beginning to feel a deeper connotation to Pecola’s last name, Breedlove. Throughout the whole book, it seems that her community breeds nothing but love. A term that’s been used to describe Pecola’s state of mind is “inferiority complex”. Building on what I’ve illustrated in the previous paragraph, Pecola’s lack of self-esteem is not only rooted in her troubled family, but moreover on her identity as a small African-American girl. As this takes place during the Great Depression, it is without doubt that she’s discriminated against. But what is of more importance is that she’s repeatedly insulted as “ugly”, a term any eleven-year-old would hate to be associated with. Additionally, the widely popular image of “beauty” at that time was luscious blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. Driven by her subconscious inclination to “overcompensate” for her self-perceived lack of self-worth, Pecola becomes obsessed with getting blue eyes, hence the title of the novel.

Usually this is the part where we talk about how everyone should be confident and love his/her unique beauty, but here’s a different perspective. From an early age, I also felt an impulse to explain myself to foreigners, especially Caucasians, because I just knew they would have misperceptions about me. While these warped mindsets (if there were any at all) were actually none of my fault, I felt an obligation to bear the consequences of them and even try to mend the mistakes made under them. I’ve also distinctly felt inferior to people that aren’t of color, though it takes less than a second of lucid thought to conclude that my subconscious makes no sense in believing so. In other words, though I don’t have an inferiority complex, I understand what it’s like to feel unworthy. This is just one example of how Pecola’s example—or at least its nature—occurs more frequently than we would like to think. On a broader scale, how social media is labeling a certain body type as appealing, how beauty trends cause physical/mental damage, or how we feel particular lifestyles been forced upon us, all exemplify the extent to which the external environment can harm our self-esteem. Even the political and racial discussions are leading us to label ourselves in an unhealthy way. While admitting this is normal, we should also be actively seeking solutions that are more effective than slogans and tumblr quotes.

The Bluest Eye is such a fascinating novel as it takes on the conventional (possibly over-discussed) topics of racism and beauty, yet manages to communicate an ambiguous message of positivity and negativity. I’m constantly surprised by how impactful Toni Morrison’s writing can be.

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