Portrait of a Victim Toni Morrisons The Bluest Eye

Portrait of a Victim: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye (1970) is the novel that launched Toni Morrison into the spotlight as a talented African-American writer and social critic. Morrison herself says “It would be a mistake to assume that writers are disconnected from social issues” (Leflore). Because Morrison is more willing than most authors to discuss meaning in her books, a genetic approach is very relevant. To be truly effective, though, the genetic approach must be combined with a formal approach. The formal approach allows the unpacking of the rich language, imagery, and metaphors of Morrison’s writing, and the genetic places it in the larger context of her social consciousness.

In The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s uses her critical eye to reveal to the reader the evil that is caused by a society that is indoctrinated by the inherent goodness and beauty of whiteness and the ugliness of blackness. In an interview with Milwaukee Journal staff writer Fannie Leflore, Morrison said that she “confronted and critiqued the devastation of racial images” in The Bluest Eye.

The narrative structure of The Bluest Eye is important in revealing just how pervasive and destructive the “racialization” (Morrison’s term for the racism that is a part of every person’s socialization) is (Leflore). Morrison is particularly concerned about the narration in her novels. She says, “People crave narration . . . That’s the way they learn things” (Bakerman 58). Narration in The Bluest Eye comes from several sources. Much of the narration comes from Claudia MacTeer as a nine year old child, but Morrison also gives the reader the benefit of Claudia reflecting on the story as an adult, some first person narration from Pecola’s mother, and narration by Morrison herself as an omniscient narrator. Morrison says, “First I wrote it [the section in The Bluest Eye about Pecola’s mother] out as an ‘I’ story, but it didn’t work . . . Then I wrote it out as a ‘she’ story, and that didn’t work . . . It was me, the author, sort of omnipotent, talking” (Bakerman 59). Morrison intentionally kept Pecola from any first person narration of the story. Morrison wanted to “try to show a little girl as a total and complete victim of whatever was around her,” and she needed the distance and innocence of Claudia’s narration to do that (Stepto 479). Pecola’s experiences would have less meaning coming from Pecola herself because “a total and complete victim” would be an unreliable narrator, unwilling (or unable) to tell relate the actual circumstances of that year (Stepto 479). Claudia, from her youthful innocence, is able to see and relate how the other characters, especially Pecola, idolize the “ideal” of beauty presented by white, blue-eyed movie stars like little Shirley Temple.

In addition to narrative structure, the structure and typography of the novel itself help to illustrate how much and for how long white ideas of family and home have been forced into black culture. Instead of conventional chapters and sections, The Bluest Eye is broken up into seasons— Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. This type of organization suggests that the events described in The Bluest Eye have occurred before, and will occur again. Linda Dittmar, in her article examining form in The Bluest Eye, says, “Inherent in the notion of the seasons is the fact that they are an annually recurring condition from which there is no escape” (143). Further dividing the book are small excerpts from the “Dick and Jane” primer that is the epitome of the white upper-middle class lifestyle. Each excerpt has, in some way, to do with the section that follows. So the section that describes Pecola’s mother is started with an excerpt describing Dick and Jane’s mother, and so on. The excerpts from “Dick and Jane” that head each “chapter” are typeset without any spaces or punctuation marks. The “Dick and Jane” snippets show just how prevalent and important the images of white perfection are in Pecola’s life; Morrison’s strange typography illustrates how irrelevant and inappropriate these images are.

Names play an important part in The Bluest Eye because they are often symbolic of conditions in society or in the context of the story. The name of the novel, “The Bluest Eye,” is meant to get the reader thinking about how much value is placed on blue-eyed little girls. Pecola and her family are representative of the larger African-American community, and their name, “Breedlove,” is ironic because they live in a society that does not “breed love.” In fact, it breeds hate— hate of blackness, and thus hatred of oneself. The MacTeer girls are flattered when Mr. Henry said “Hello there. You must be Greta Garbo, and you must be Ginger Rogers” (Morrison 17). As for the name “MacTeer,” an argument can be made that it refers to the fact that the MacTeer girls are the only ones who shed a tear for Pecola. Claudia says “we listened for the one who would say, ‘Poor little girl,’ or ‘Poor baby,’ but there was only head-wagging where those words should have been” (Morrison 148). Soaphead Church represents, as his name suggests, the role of the church in African-American life. “I, I have caused a miracle. I gave her the eyes. I gave her the blue, blue, two blue eyes,” Soaphead says (Morrison 143). The implication is that the church’s promise that if you worship God and pray to Him that everything will be alright is no better than Soaphead’s promise to Pecola that she will have blue eyes. Morrison reveals the significance of Pecola’s name through the character of Maureen Peal. Maureen confuses Pecola’s name with the name of a character in the movie Imitation of Life. By this allusion, Morrison illustrates that Pecola’s life is an imitation (meaning the same as, not inferior to) of the real experiences of black women. “Black women have held, have been given, you know, the cross. They don’t walk near it. They’re often on it” (Stepto 479).

Morrison also uses metaphors to describe the conditions under which African-Americans in general and Pecola in particular are forced to live. There are two major metaphors in The Bluest Eye, one of marigolds and one of dandelions. Claudia, looking back as an adult, says at the first of the book “there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941” (Morrison 9). She and her sister plant marigold seeds with the belief that if the marigolds would grow and survive, so would Pecola’s baby (Morrison 149). Morrison unpacks the metaphor throughout the book, and, through Claudia, finally explains it and broadens its scope to all African-Americans on the last page. “I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruits it will not bear . . .” (Morrison 160). The implication is that Pecola, like so many other African-Americans, never had a chance to grow and succeed because she lived in a society (“soil”) that was inherently racist, and would not nurture her. The other flower, the dandelion, is important as a metaphor because it represents Pecola’s image of herself. Pecola passes some dandelions going into Mr. Yacobowski’s store. “Why, she wonders, do people call them weeds? She thought they were pretty” (Morrison 41). After Mr. Yacobowski humiliates her, she again passes the dandelions and thinks, “They are ugly. They are weeds” (Morrison 43). She has transferred society’s dislike of her to the dandelions.

In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison tells the story of a little black girl who thinks that if she can live up to the image of the blue-eyed Shirley Temple and Dick and Jane that she will have the perfect life that they have. The importance of this book goes beyond its value as a work of literature. Morrison speaks to the masses, both white and black, showing how a racist social system wears down the minds and souls of people, how dominate images of white heros and heroins with blue eyes and wonderful lives show young black children that to be white means to be successful and happy, and then they look around at their own lives of poverty and oppression and learn to hate their black heritage for keeping them from the Dick and Jane world. Morrison does not solve these problems, nor does she even try, but she does show a reflection of a world that cannot call itself right or moral.