Toni Morrison’s first novel, ‘The Bluest Eye’, appeared in 1970. It’s set in Morrison’s native town of Lorain, Ohio, in the years 1940 - 1941; Morrison has stated that the story grew from her memory of an incident in her own childhood when a black schoolmate expressed the wish for blue eyes.
‘The Bluest Eye’ is the story of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who is raped by her father and becomes obsessed with the idea of having blue eyes. It is the story of the damage done by a crippling ideal of “beauty” imposed on black Americans in segregated America; and it’s also the story of
the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident. I knew that some victims of powerful self-loathing turn out to be dangerous, violent, reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over. Others surrender their identity; melt into a structure that delivers the strong persona they lack. But there are some who collapse, silently, anonymously, with no voice to express or acknowledge it.
(Toni Morrison, from the 1993 foreword.) The responses here enumerated by Morrison are embodied by the principal characters: violence by Cholly (whose violent past, following his youthful sexual humiliation by white thugs, is hinted at) and, to a lesser extent, Claudia, who provides the main narrative voice for the story. (Claudia’s violent impulses are directed toward the blue-eyed baby doll, and toward the white neighbor girl Rosemary. But the introspective tone of Claudia’s narrative suggests that she has eventually learned to channel her anger.) Surrender is the path chosen by Pecola’s mother, Pauline (Williams) Breedlove, who imbibes visions of beauty from the silver screen, and becomes wholly invested in her white employer, as illustrated by her response to the incident of the deep-dish berry cobbler.
Pecola is the “fourth child”, the child who cannot speak for herself. After being raped by her father Cholly while washing dishes (“on a Saturday afternoon, in the thin light of spring”), the desperate Pecola seeks the assistance of the creepy Soaphead Church - who, as it happens, shares Pecola’s yearning for blue eyes. (Soaphead’s back story further amplifies the theme of internalized racism.) Eventually, Pecola retreats into herself, staring into a mirror and speaking to an imaginary friend (the first of numerous phantom companions in TM’s novels).
The book begins with a flash-forward to the fall of 1941, when marigolds failed to grow; how those marigolds came to be planted is revealed in the story. This is our first hint of TM’s non-linear narrative style. The narrative voice alternates between a third-person voice and Claudia, who is 9 years old at the time of the story and would have been the same age as TM; her name phonetically evokes TM’s birth name, Chloe. Later in the book, some of the back story is filled in by Pecola’s mother Pauline (“Polly”).
The Breedloves’ perception of their own “ugliness” is intimately tied to their awareness of their dark skin in a racist environment, and to the tragedy of Pecola’s story. As TM explains in the foreword,
The novel [written during the height of the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ movement] tried to hit the raw nerve of racial self-contempt, expose it, then try to soothe it not with narcotics but with language that replicated the agency I discovered in my first experience of beauty.
When I first read ‘The Bluest Eye’ as a young adult, I did not understand the centrality of Pecola’s baby to the story. This baby is the reason for the marigolds mentioned cryptically at the beginning of the story and not explained until near the end. It is concern for this baby - conceived in an act of rape and incest - that draws Claudia and her older sister Frieda out of their shells and propels them toward emotional maturity.
“I thought about the baby that everybody wanted dead, and saw it very clearly.” Claudia and Frieda have taken a job selling seeds door-to-door; in this step toward adulthood, they are exposed to the conversations of the adult world. Slowly, they piece together the story of how their friend Pecola became pregnant by her own father. They worry for Pecola and feel compassion for her - and they worry for the baby, whose survival is in question after “that beating [Pecola’s] mama gave her.”
And so, they respond with all the imaginative desperation of young children trying to propitiate forces stronger than themselves. I’ll be good. I’ll give up that bicycle. I’ll pray. The sisters do all of these things, to no avail. We are notified in a laconic, brutal half-sentence that “the baby came too soon and died.” Was it Pauline’s intention to terminate Pecola’s pregnancy by beating her? If so, then this is the first abortion in Toni Morrison’s novels. It will not be the last.