Oh my where does one begin? Reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, is reading like every fledgling writer wishes they could write. It is the poetry of prose that so marvels the ear and heart that it’s easy to lose sight of all the rest offered. It is musical in the way that the strains of Mozart’s 40th is, serious and heavy yet, so perfectly aligned that no amount of hearing it again and again is ever enough.
The Bluest Eye is one of the heaviest books you will read. There is precious little humor here. This is raw gut-ripping truth, painted in great swaths of red paint daring you to look and then daring you to not continue to the horrifying ugly end.
Pecola, poor, black and female is ugly. At least others tell her so. She is trapped in a family of individuals who are so wounded themselves that they have no sympathy nor parenting to bestow. Pecola thinks of her own mother as Mrs. Breedlove. Pauline Breedlove, called Polly by her white employers, has no love to give. She is victim of her own life, one lived at the movie show dreaming of a life like Jean Harlow, a white life. When her daughter inadvertently spills a cobbler on the employers kitchen, Polly strikes out at her own child with venom, then turns to the white child she cares for and holds her close comforting her in her fear. The truth of that moment cannot be swept aside.
Pecola too dreams of white, in her case blue eyes. Somehow if she has those blue eyes, well others will stop finding her ugly. In fact they will find her beautiful. She can find herself beautiful at last. Her world will, she believes become beautiful seen through the blue eyes.
Of course it all ends tragically. Pecola is raped by her father, her baby dies. She is blinded apparently by her own hand, and falls into a madness where she believes that she has the bluest eyes of anyone, and where people look away from her, not from revulsion but rather out of jealousy at her beauty.
Along the way we meet the main players in this town. We witness the early lives of her parents, and of the girls who are perhaps the only ones who have sympathy for poor Pecola, Frieda and Claudia, two young girls of her age. We meet whores and con artists along the way. Each is wounded by a society that devalues black skin. Each has learned to cope in some way.
Morrison explores the issue of self-hate, an issue that undoubtedly has plagued the African-American community since the days of slavery. Our culture defines beauty by white standards, and surely those of us who are of European lineage know this as surely as we know our privilege. But our black brothers and sisters live it. Ms. Morrison takes us on a tour of all that is wrong with this ugliness that African-Americans and yes, white Americans find in our own mirrors.
Particularly in an age of liberation, as so many of us women believe we are in, we can relate to the incessant and relentless quest to meet the standards set for all of us. And most of us fail, and most of us find it nearly impossible to stop trying. The billion dollar diet industry is but one example of how badly we all want to be accepted. Of course, being Black makes it in the end an impossible quest.
What Morrison does exquisitely is to present this issue in a way that is so real and so clear that we must confront ourselves. No amount of trying to suggest this is just a story will suffice. We are forced to ask a lot of questions of ourselves–both our own reactions to standards set by others and those we impose upon others. We all come off the lesser for it.
This is one of the most amazingly well written books and no doubt Ms. Morrison well deserved her Nobel and Pulitzer’s She is gifted beyond simple talent. She weaves words like a master at the loom, always the right metaphor, the right adjective. The work is simply breathless in its beauty, ironic given the subject.
It is a book every mother should give to a daughter at a suitable age. It is a textbook of what not to do. It goes hat-in-hand with the movement ongoing now to help girls to find pride in themselves for their minds and their hearts and that what is outside is of very secondary consequence.
Read it. And then, store it. And then read it again.
In language that is true to itself, to the period, and to growing up Black in America, this is a national treasure.