Swati Chanda tells us about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a book which brings alive the tragedy of racism, abuse and poverty.
This story has been shortlisted and published for our June ‘As You Write It’ writing theme: The Book That Hooked Me.
Swati, in her own words: I have taught English Literature for a number of years at various colleges. I currently work in the field of education research. I write on gender and culture.
*Spoiler alert! Please be aware that the writer has discussed the book in detail and has also included her thoughts on the ending.
If I am asked about books that have left an indelible impression on me, one that effortlessly comes to mind is The Bluest Eye by the African-American Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. I first read the book when I was a college student, and have returned to it every one or two years, for it still holds me in its spell.
The Bluest Eye is about three young Black girls growing up dirt poor in the American Midwestern town of Lorraine, Ohio, during the 1940s. Two of the girls are sisters, and their constant companion is little Pecola Breedlove, the girl at the heart of the tragic events that unfold. The sisters come from a poor but stable home where their mother, although stern, is a loving one who ensures that the girls are well taken care of. In contrast, Pecola comes from a broken home where her drunken father neglects or abuses her mother, and where her mother takes her frustration out on ugly little Pecola, makes her the object of her (self) hatred, denies her love and affection, and relentlessly humiliates her. Eleven-year-old Pecola copes with the neglect and abuse by fantasizing about becoming beautiful – as beautiful as the blue-eyed, golden-haired doll she plays with. However, this yearning for acceptance and love has tragic consequences. She is ridiculed and cheated by various characters in her life, and in spite of the attempts made by the sisters to keep her safe, is ultimately raped, impregnated and driven mad at the end of the book.
The Bluest Eye remains one of the most moving books I have read. Its poetic language and lyricism, along with the literary motifs that Morrison uses, make it simultaneously challenging and rewarding. For example, the book begins with a section from a traditional primer for children. “This is a house,” it goes. “See Jane run.” Morrison uses this motif to present the artificial, happy world that we see in children’s stories, and then shatters the cliché through the narration of what happens to the little Black girl in Lorraine, Ohio. The ironic contrast is completed at the end of the book with the elegiac lines: “When the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late. At least on the edge of my town, among the garbage and sunflowers of my town, it’s much, much, much too late.”
Secondly, Morrison’s characterization is powerful and complex. The novel is filled with richly-evoked characters like the prostitute Maginot Line, Geraldine and Soaphead Church. Most compelling are Pecola’s drunken violent father and cold, remote mother who embody the complicated ways in which black adults who are powerless in a white world deal with victimization and violence: in this case by destroying their young daughter. We are shown what forces are at play in making them who they are. Cholly, the father, was the victim of brutal white policemen, while Pauline, the mother, seeks to escape her own poverty and blackness through her devotion to the white household where she works. Cholly’s and Pauline’s insecurity about their own colour, and their self-hate, make them pitiless towards their daughter. Finally, the theme of the novel: racism’s destructive force, which dehumanizes both black and white people, is eloquently depicted in this first novel by Morrison.
I have read most of Toni Morrison’s other novels: Sula, Song of Solomon, Jazz, and Beloved. But The Bluest Eye remains the most unforgettable. It is a reminder not only of the depths of violence and degradation that human beings can go to, but also of the endless possibility of the innocence and hope that children represent.
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