The Bluest Eye, Morrison's first novel, focuses on Pecola (pea-coal-uh) Breedlove, a lonely, young black girl living in Ohio in the late 1940s. Through Pecola, Morrison exposes the power and cruelty of white, middle-class American definitions of beauty, for Pecola will be driven mad by her consuming obsession for white skin and blonde hair — and not just blue eyes, but the bluest ones. A victim of popular white culture and its pervasive advertising, Pecola believes that people would value her more if she weren't black. If she were white, blonde, and very blue-eyed, she would be loved.
The novel isn't told in a straightforward narrative. In fact, the first paragraph of the novel doesn't seem to be written by Morrison at all; it reads as if it were copied from a first-grade reading book, or primer, one that was used for decades to teach white and black children to read by offering them simple sentences about a picture-perfect, all-American white family composed of Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane.
For those who have never seen this first-grade reading book, go to the library and check out Kismaric and Heiferman's Growing Up With Dick and Jane: Learning and Living the American Dream, published by Collins San Francisco. It contains reproductions of the original Eleanor Campbell watercolor illustrations of squeaky-clean Dick and his blonde-haired, blue-eyed sister Jane, the little girl whom Pecola Breedlove so longs to become.
The second paragraph of the novel contains the same paragraph from the first-grade primer; however, this time, the typography loses all punctuation, a visual metaphor for Pecola's losing her perspective about her worth as a person. Finally, the same paragraph, repeated once more, dissolves into a river of print, having absolutely no meaning, visual evidence of Pecola's consuming madness — a madness that has its genesis in her quest to be beautiful and loved, to have blue eyes, and to experience the happiness and love illustrated in the Mother-Father-Dick-Jane white family.
After this section, Morrison offers us a fragment of memory, set in italics. Claudia MacTeer, a childhood friend of Pecola's, is talking. She says that she remembers the autumn when no marigolds bloomed. That was the fall, she says, when Pecola Breedlove gave birth to her father's baby. Why the incest happened, Claudia says, is too difficult to fathom. Perhaps we should be concerned only with how it happened: how the chaos of Pecola Breedlove's life culminated and climaxed into her giving birth to her own father's child, and then deteriorated into madness.
Morrison divides the rest of the novel into four separate time sequences, each of them a season of the year and each narrated by Claudia MacTeer, now a grown woman. Within these season sequences are narratives by an omniscient, all-knowing voice; these sections are introduced by run-on, unpunctuated lines from the first-grade reading book. Finally, near the end of the novel, a single section records a conversation between Pecola and a fantasy friend that she creates. At last we witness the madness that has enveloped the main character of the novel.
As the novel unfolds, listen to the voices of these two narrators. Remember that Claudia's narration is told in retrospect; she is an adult, looking back. The other narrator, the omniscient narrator, gives us background stories about Pecola's mother and father, as well as seemingly random but interlocking and connecting elements about Pecola's futile longing for blue eyes and her need to feel beautiful and loved in a society that defines her as ugly. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison zeroes in on the psychological damage done to a black girl who self-destructively accepts someone else's definition of beauty — here, the white culture's definition of the ideal way a young girl should look. Pecola's quest is for whiteness, synonymous with beauty; blackness, the symbol for ugliness, is something to be feared and avoided.
Structure of The Bluest Eye
The following schematic outlines the disparate narrations that make up The Bluest Eye. Morrison begins her novel with two fragments resembling a first-grade primer. In each section thereafter, stylistically modified snippets from this fictional primer are interspersed with Claudia's narration, an omniscient narrator's narration, and finally, with Pecola's narration. The outline indicates the placement of these varied texts within the novel's structure.
Here is the house. (The Dick and Jane primer)
Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. (Claudia)
Nuns go by as quiet as lust . . . (Claudia)
HEREISTHEHOUSE . . . There is an abandoned store . . . (narrator)
HEREISTHEFAMILY . . . The Breedloves did not live in a storefront because . . . (narrator)
My daddy's face is a study. (Claudia)
SEETHECAT . . . They come from Mobile. (narrator)
The first twigs are thin . . . (Claudia)
SEEMOTHER . . . The easiest thing to do would be to build. (narrator and Pauline)
SEEFATHER . . . When Cholly was four days old . . . (narrator)
SEETHEDOG . . . Once there was an old man who loved things . . . (narrator)
I have only to break . . . (Claudia)
LOOKLOOK . . . How many times a minute are you going to look inside . . . ? (Pecola)
So it was. (Claudia)