An Overview of The Bluest Eye
Morrison's story about a young black girl's growing self-hatred begins with an excerpt from a typical first-grade primer from years ago. The tone is set immediately: "Good" means being a member of a happy, well-to-do white family, a standard that is continually juxtaposed against "bad," which means being black, flawed, and strapped for money. If one is to believe the first-grade primer, everyone is happy, well-to-do, good-looking, and white. One would never know that black people existed in this country. Against this laughing, playing, happy white background, Morrison juxtaposes the novel's black characters, and she shows how all of them have been affected in some way by the white media — its movies, its books, its myths, and its advertising. For the most part, the blacks in this novel have blindly accepted white domination and have therefore given expensive white dolls to their black daughters at Christmas. Mr. Henry believes that he is being complimentary when he calls Frieda and Claudia "Greta Garbo" and "Ginger Rogers." The schoolchildren — the black schoolboys, in particular — are mesmerized by the white-ish Maureen Peal, and Maureen herself enjoys telling about the black girl who dared to request a Hedy Lamarr hairstyle.
The Bluest Eye is a harsh warning about the old consciousness of black folks' attempts to emulate the slave master. Pecola's request is not for more money or a better house or even for more sensible parents; her request is for blue eyes — something that, even if she had been able to acquire them, would not have abated the harshness of her abject reality.
Pecola's story is very much her own, unique and dead-end, but it is still relevant to centuries of cultural mutilation of black people in America. Morrison does not have to retell the story of three hundred years of black dominance by white culture for us to be aware of the history of American blacks, who have been victims in this tragedy.
The self-hatred that is at the core of Pecola's character affects, in one degree or another, all of the other characters in the novel. As noted earlier, a three-hundred-year-old history of people brought to the United States during the period of slavery has led to a psychological oppression that fosters a love of everything connected with the slave masters while promoting a revulsion toward everything connected with themselves. All cultures teach their own standards of beauty and desirability through billboards, movies, books, dolls, and other products. The white standard of beauty is pervasive throughout this novel — because there is no black standard of beauty.
Standing midway between the white and black worlds is the exotic Maureen Peal, whose braids are described as "two lynch ropes." Morrison's chilling description of Maureen's hair is intentional, for she is referring to the young black men who look in awe at the white-ish Maureen. These young men, she is saying, are symbolic of all of the black men who have allowed themselves to be mesmerized by Anglo standards of beauty. As a result, they turn on their own — just as the boys turn on Pecola. Her blackness forces the boys to face their own blackness, and thus they make Pecola the scapegoat for their own ignorance, for their own self-hatred, and for their own feelings of hopelessness. Pecola becomes the dumping ground for the black community's fears and feelings of unworthiness.
From the day she is born, Pecola is told that she is ugly. Pecola's mother, Pauline, is more concerned with the appearance of her new baby than she is with its health. Pecola learns from her mother that she is ugly, and she thereby learns to hate herself; because of her blackness, she is continually bombarded by rejection and humiliation from others around her who value "appearance."
Unfortunately, Pecola does not have the sophistication to realize that she is not the only little black girl who doesn't have the admired, valued Anglo features — neither do most of the blacks who torment her. Pecola knows only that she wants to be prized and loved, and she believes that if she could look white, she would be loved. However, she becomes the scapegoat for all of the other black characters, for, in varying degrees, they too suffer from the insanity that manifests itself in Pecola's madness.
If Morrison seems to focus on female self-hatred in Pecola, it is clear that feelings of self-hatred are not limited to black girls alone. Boys receive just as much negative feedback from the white community, but they are far more likely to direct their emotions and retaliation outward, inflicting pain on others before the pain turns inward and destroys them. Cholly and Junior are prime examples.
After the publication of The Bluest Eye, Morrison explained that she was trying to show the nature and relationship between parental love and violence. One of the novel's themes is that parents, black parents in this case, do violence to their children every day — if only by forcing them to judge themselves by white standards. The topic of child abuse, once a socially unmentionable subject, remained unaddressed far too long even though everyone knew about it. Mr. Henry's touching Frieda's breasts is a subtle preparation, or foreshadowing, of Cholly Breedlove's rape of Pecola. When Cholly rapes Pecola, it is a physical manifestation of the social, psychological, and personal violence that has raped Cholly for years. His name is "Breedlove," but he is incapable of loving; he is only able to perform the act of breeding. Because he has been so depreciated by white society, he is reduced to breeding with his own daughter, a union so debased that it produces a stillborn child, one who cannot survive for even an hour in this world where self-hatred breeds still more self-hatred.