**spoiler alert** “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison is my favorite book of all time. Morrison’s debut novel, the story is the equivalent of peeling an onion. Each time you read the novel, another layer of depth is exposed and you’re crying throughout the process. A deft craftsman, her word phrases are poetic, although she deplores this description. It is the most accurately portrayal of the pain many young Black women carry, those of us who grow up being told we are ugly, unlovable, and undesirable because of the color of our skin, the texture of our hair and/or the color of our eyes. The main character is Pecola Breedlove, a young dark-skinned girl who wishes she had blue eyes and blonde hair, like her idol, Shirley Temple. Pecola is also pregnant with her father’s child. The narrator is her neighbor, Claudia, a precocious girl, who helps the reader navigate this all Black town recovering from the Great Depression in Ohio. We see a fresh and honest look at the inferior position that children inhabit in an adult world, the inferior status of Blacks in a White dominant world and the inter-conflicts amongst dark-skinned Black folks and their light-skinned counterparts. There is a clear “Us” vs. “Them” theme running throughout the book.
Pecola is the only character who exists across enemy lines. A child, she is forced to become an adult sooner than her peers due to her pregnancy, her naiveté quickly shattered. Juxtaposed against Claudia and her sister, Frieda who believe throughout the novel, if they planted Marigold seeds and flowers bloomed, everything would be alright. Pecola does not rely on the Marigold seeds, but chooses to plead to God directly. She prays for blue eyes in an effort to transcend her ugliness. In the end, she gets her “blue eyes” or at least she convinces herself this is the case. The exchange between herself and this imaginary voice is heartbreaking. This little girl truly wants to be loved and accepted and the only way she can find it is via a delusion. This dialogue illuminates the destructive nature of desiring anything other than ones own self.
So which matters most, that Pecola believes she has blue eyes and feels better about herself or that she doesn’t and feels worse? I often found myself grappling with the connection between beauty and agency. What makes a person beautiful? Is it what they see in the mirror or what society tells them? Where do these ideas come from? Are they internal constructs or external impositions? Or both?
About the Breedlove family, Morrison writes: “You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had give each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question” (39). Morrison understands that while external forces might create systems of oppression, people still have a choice. They can either reject or accept their subjugation. Pecola, much like her family, was not inherently ugly, she only believed herself to be so. Her belief created her reality which in turn created the need to have blue eyes. She became an active participant in her own oppression and the society she lived in reinforced this oppression (both her black and white neighbors) because they devalued the life of this young, dark, black girl. A show owner refuses to touch her skin when giving her change; the local boys make fun of her skin tone; her mother rejects her while embracing Pecola’s light-skinned schoolmate, Polly, instead. Haunting and written beautifully, to me, this is Toni Morrison’s best book. A timeless classic, published in 1970, Morrison’s tale about beauty and black women, unfortunately, still resonates today.