Bluest Eye Summary and Analysis
Prologue and Autumn
The Bluest Eye opens with two short untitled and unnumbered sections. The first section is a version of the classic Dick and Jane stories found in grade school reading primers. There is a pretty house, Mother, Father, Dick, Jane, a cat, a dog, and, at the end, a friend for Jane to play with. The same story appears three times in succession, repeated verbatim each time. The first time the text appears with full punctuation and normal spacing. The second time the same story appears without any punctuation or capitalization, but with a space between each of the words. The third time the text has no capitalization, no punctuation, and no spaces between the words.
The second section is a short passage narrated by Claudia MacTeer. Claudia tells us that "quiet as it's kept," in the fall of 1941, when she was a young girl, no marigolds bloomed. She reveals that at the time she and her sister Frieda thought the marigolds did not bloom because Pecola was having her father's baby. The marigolds planted by Claudia and Frieda never grow, and for years Claudia thought that her sister was right in blaming her, because she was the one who planted the seeds too deep in the earth. But now, the narrator wonders if perhaps it was the earth itself that was barren. Claudia connects the earth to Pecola, saying that just as the MacTeer daughters put seeds into their plot of black dirt, Pecola's father dropped his seeds in his plot of black dirt. Now, with the flowers and the baby dead, only Pecola and the barren earth are left. The prelude closes by wondering about the source of Pecola's tragedy: "There is really nothing more to sayexcept why. But since why is difficult to handled, one must take refuge in how."
The passage from the Dick and Jane reader puts forward a representation of idealized white middle class life. Although the race of the Dick and Jane family is never specified in the text, the pictures in the readers have always depicted rosy-cheeked and smiling white people. The house is pretty, the mother is gracious, the father big, strong, and kind: the story stands in sharp contrast to Pecola's life. The idealized and white world of the Dick and Jane story could not be farther from the truth for Pecola. Morrison's repetition of the story, each repetition less readable than the previous one, can be read in different ways. The second and third version of the story take away the punctuation and then the spacing, turning the story into gibberishjust as the story, in terms of Pecola's life, is so far removed from reality that it becomes nonsense. Morrison, in a sense, is speeding up the machinery of the Dick and Jane story to show how it does not work, how it degenerates into meaninglessness under any kind of scrutiny. But in the descent into senselessness, it also parallels Pecola's descent into madness. Each repetition, through its form, speeds up the pace at which it must be read. Readers tend to go through the final repetition in a barely comprehended rush. Pecola clings to the standards of the white world, all the way to the end, even as her sanity deteriorates. So these representations of idealized white life, even when they can no longer be read in a normal way, hammer the reader in the same way that they hammer Pecola. Her madness is not an escape from the idealized forms of white life; in her madness, she feels most fully the force of white constructions of beauty, even as the normal flow of human interaction and language cease to have meaning for her.
Bits of this Dick and Jane story are used to name the sections of the novel about Pecola and her family; these are also the same sections not narrated by Claudia MacTeer. This makes the contrast between the idealized world of the Dick and Jane story and Pecola's life explicit and readily apparent.
In the second section of the prelude, we hear Claudia's narrative voice for the first time. The opening four words of Claudia's narrative are important, remarked upon by readers and Morrison herself: "quiet as it's kept" grounds the act of storytelling in a world of gossip, of talk between women, of secrets shared. The words create a sense of intimacy between the reader and the story, and the expression itself is a common phrase used by the black women of Morrison's childhood. Morrison is using spoken Black-American English to enrich America's literary language; here, specifically, the reader is being invited to learn about Pecola's tragedy, and the opening four words indicate that the story is both little-known and important enough to share.
The voice is that of the adult Claudia, and she lets the reader know from the beginning that in the course of the novel Pecola will be impregnated by her own father. The story of Pecola's tragedy, as in Greek tragedy, is known by the reader from the beginning. The power of the story will not come from the surprise. Claudia's opening remarks structure the novel so that the reader knows beforehand some basic plot elements and can concentrate on the questions Claudia wants answeredsince "why" is far too difficult to handle, the novel will attempt to ask "how," examining Pecola's life and the impact of social constructions and the role that these forces had in her tragedy. There is a deep determinism in the description of the landby suggesting that the soil itself might have been barren, and connecting that soil to Pecola's tragedy, Claudia is suggesting that individual agency was not a factor in the failure of the marigolds to grow (and the failure of Pecola to grow up healthily). The land itself made growth impossible, just as social and situational forces made Pecola's growth impossible. The year 1941 is significant, as it is the year that the United States entered the Second World War. The Nazi regime is used implicitly as a background for the events of the novelmore will be said on that in the analysis of the first section of "Autumn."
"Autumn": first section
Nine-year-old Claudia MacTeer, one of the narrators of the novel, describes her home life and some of the significant events of the fall of 1939. America is still reeling from the Great Depression, and Claudia's family is struggling through hard times, although they are better off than many blacks. The MacTeers have their own small house, and the family is poor but loving. This love, however, does not take the form of indulgence for Claudia or her older sister, ten-year-old Frieda. When Claudia becomes sick, her illness is treated with a mixture of concern and anger. Her mother scolds her harshly and complains about having to clean up her vomit, but at the same time Mrs. MacTeer makes sure that Claudia is in bed, gives Claudia medicine, and checks up on her throughout the night.
Two significant visitors come to stay at the MacTeer house that fall: Mr. Henry, a rent-paying boarder, and Pecola Breedlove, a girl who has been temporarily taken into custody by the state. Mr. Henry is a middle-aged man whose former landlady can no longer accommodate him. He is going to rent a room at the MacTeer house for five dollars every two weeks, a sum that will be a great aid to Claudia's parents. On his arrival, he delights the girls by comparing them to white Hollywood actresses. The children's immediate affection is obvious, but the description of Mr. Henry's arrival ends on an ominous note: "Even after what came later, there was no bitterness in our memory of him." Pecola Breedlove comes to stay with the MacTeers until her family can sort out some of its problems: her father, Cholly Breedlove, has attacked her mother and has tried to burn down the house that the Breedloves were renting. Claudia describes the Breedloves' situation with sympathy, because she has learned from adults that the supreme terror is that one might lose one's home in these difficult timessomething folks call "being put outdoors." Townspeople have branded Cholly Breedlove as a no-good dog, because he has willingly put his family outdoors. Pecola is a shy and unassuming girl, a year older than Frieda but perhaps slower and less mature than the MacTeer sisters, grateful for whatever kindness Claudia and Frieda give her. Pecola is particularly fond of drinking out of the MacTeer's tiny blue-and-white Shirley Temple cup. Claudia takes a moment to explain that she despises Shirley Temple because Shirley danced with Bojangles, one of Claudia's favorite performers; she also hates the blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls that all other black girls treasure. Claudia is fiercely jealous of the little white girls who draw affection and admiration from black adults more readily than any black girl can.
The three girls are outside when Pecola realizes she is bleeding between her legs. Having been forced outside by Mrs. MacTeer's bad mood, they resolve, under Frieda's leadership, to try and take care of the problem themselves. Pecola is terrified, but Frieda assures both younger girls that she knows what's happening: "That's ministratin.'" A girl named Rosemary sees Frieda and Claudia trying to take care of Pecola's problem. She accuses the girls of "playing nasty" and runs to tattle on them to Mrs. MacTeer. An enraged Mrs. MacTeer comes outside and attacks the girls with a switch. The girls don't have any time to explain, but after Frieda has received a quick whipping and Mrs. MacTeer turns on Pecola, the piece of cotton the girls had used to stop the blood falls to the ground. Mrs. MacTeer figures out what has happened. Sorrowful that she has misunderstood, she takes Frieda and Pecola into her arms. She leads the girls inside, and takes Pecola to the bathroom to talk with her and help her to get cleaned up.
That night, while the girls lie in bed, Pecola is awestruck because she has been told that the bleeding means she is now able to have a baby. She asks what she has to do to have one, and Frieda tells her that somebody has to love her. After a moment, Pecola asks how she can get someone to love her. But Frieda has fallen asleep, and Claudia doesn't know the answer.
Although the beginning of the section is in the present tense, Claudia's narrative is framed by an adult Claudia; that is to say, an older Claudia is looking back and remembering events from a perspective of greater maturity and reflection. Morrison is able to use the mature wisdom of the adult Claudia's narrative voice without sacrificing the child Claudia's innocence and naivete, switching back and forth in her emphasis of one or the other.
Hints of oral tradition are strong: the vital information about Mr. Henry's arrival is related to the reader entirely through dialogue, in the form of a gossipy conversation between Mrs. MacTeer and another adult black woman. The exchange is almost pure dialogue, with very few "she said" markers to break the flow of the language. The exchange illustrates Morrison's preoccupation with black oral traditions and their translation into literary language: important information is revealed in this scene and the rhythm and beauty of the language show how women's gossip can become a mode of narrative in its own right. The narrator describes the women's gossip as a kind of beautiful dance, one that little girls cannot fully understand. Implicitly, the girls will come to understand the movements and rituals of this dance as they grow to womanhood.
The circumstances surrounding Pecola's first period are consistent with the vulnerability of her position. Initially, the event is marked by misunderstanding and violence, as Rosemary screams out in self-righteous disgust and Mrs. MacTeer tries to whip the girls. Pecola is not even with her own mother when it happens; there is a real sense that Pecola cannot participate in traditions, or receive wisdom from previous generations, because her family life is so unhealthy. When her own body begins to change, she can only fear it. Her mother has not taken care to prepare her, in sharp contrast to Mrs. MacTeer, who has prepared Frieda. We see here a glimpse of family tradition, of a mother teaching a daughter who one day will teach her own daughters; being cut off from these vital connections to family and lineage results in becoming alienated from one's own body, as Pecola shrieks and cries at the sight of her own menstrual blood. Pecola is obviously unloved, as indicated by her question at the end of the section.
Autumn of 1939, as the starting point for the novel's events, is a significant choice. The European part of World War II began had just begun full force, and Morrison is implicitly using the Nazi regime as a distant background to the novel's events. Americans of 1939 treasure blonde hair and blue eyes in both dolls and little girls, but these features are also reflections of the Aryan ideal. Additionally, the cup that bears Shirley Temple's image is blue and white, both racially marked colors for the eyes and skin of the Aryan ideal. By drawing this connection, Morrison imbues the American standard of beauty with connotations of violence and genocide. Claudia seems to sense the danger this aesthetic poses to her, and she reacts in kind. Not only does she destroy the Caucasian dolls given to her as presents, but she also fantasizes about attacking living white girls. Her dismemberment of the dolls can be read in two ways: first, Claudia is frustrated by the society that cherishes pink skin and blue eyes and thus can never consider her, a black girl, to be truly beautiful. (Note that Mr. Henry delights the girls by comparing them to starlets who are white.) Second, her dissection of the dolls is strangely scientific. She tries to see how they are put together, what makes their voices work, and what they look like inside. This investigation of the dolls parallels the investigative work done by the novel, which, in its own words, attempts to discover how social forces have combined to produce Pecola's tragedy. Both the act of destroying the dolls and the exploratory work of the novel are forms of inquiry, and the dissection of the dolls suggests that here learning and experience will come about partly through violence. Additionally, the image of the dolls destroyed by a black girl oddly inverts and foreshadows Pecola's later psychological destruction, which happens partly because of a constructed white standard of beauty that Pecola cannot attain.
"Autumn": second section, "HEREISTHEHOUSEITISGREENANDWHITEITHASAREDDOORITIS
The omniscient third-person narrator describes the house where the Breedlove family once lived. The house is ugly and dilapidated, actually designed to be a store, and it passed through many hands after the Breedloves (gypsies, real estate office, Hungarian baker, pizza parlor), before the building was finally abandoned. The space is partitioned into two rooms by a flimsy wall: a small front room and a bedroom, where all of the Breedloves sleep. There is a kitchen in the back and no bath facilities except for a toilet bowl. The bedroom has a coal stove for heat.
The space is cold and alien: there are no fond memories connected to its physical parts. The narrator spends a bit of time talking about the sofa, and the way the fabric is split straight across the backyears ago the sofa was purchased new, but the sofa split while being delivered, and the Breedloves still had to pay the full price. There is a bit of dialogue taken from the moment of that delivery, as Cholly Breedlove triesand failsto negotiate with the store manager. The narrator goes on to say that the feeling from looking at the sofa poisons everything. The rip becomes something that spreads throughout the house, until all things are as battered and broken and uncared for as the sofa. The final words of the section are about the small coal stove, which is unreliable at all times except the morningwhen the fire always, without fail, dies.
The section heading juxtaposes the idealized white world with the sad living conditions of the Breedloves. Most prominent in this section is the scarcity of love associated with this homeunlike the MacTeer's house, which is humble but not without love, the Breelove's home is completely devoid of pleasant associations. The absence of love is an important theme of the novel. There is no effort to maintain the house, and the sofa brings memories of humiliation. Cholly negotiated with the store manager with "tightened testicles," hinting at the kind of emasculation he feels throughout his life when dealing with white men.
The coal stove indicates, both figuratively and literally, the absence of warmth in the Breedlove home. The inconsistency of its heat parallels the inconsistency of the Breedlove parents in their affection for each other and for their children. The morning, which should be the most hopeful time of day and the time when it would be most pleasant to have warmth, is the coldest time of all. Pecola's home is cold and incapable of nurturing her: it cannot provide warmth, pleasant memories, or a sense of pride in ownership or belonging. The Breedlove's apartment is most often referred to not as the Breedlove's home, but as the Breedlove's storefront, reminding us of the type of building it was meant to be and the comfortable home that it can't be.
"Autumn": third section, "HEREISTHEFAMILYMOTHERFATHERDICKANDJANETHEYLIVEIN
The third-person narrator of this section explains that the Breedloves lived in a storefront not only because of their poverty but also because of their ugliness, which comes from their own conviction that they are ugly. Cholly's ugliness takes the form of action and behavior, but the ugliness is worn like a cloak by the others: Mrs. Breedlove uses her ugliness as part her self-conception of herself as a martyr, Sammy uses his as a weapon, and Pecola tries to hide behind it.
On a Saturday morning in October, Mrs. Breedlove and Cholly have a terrible fight. Cholly is hung over from the night before, and Mrs. Breedlove tries to get Cholly to fetch coal. The narrator explains that these horrible fights have a kind of ritualized regularitytheir patterns are predictable and set the rhythms of the Breedloves' lives. The fight between Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove is brutal and brief. Cholly is knocked unconscious, and Mrs. Breedlove continues to go about her housekeeping.
After the fight, the narrator's focus returns to Pecola. She begs to be allowed to disappear, and, as she has learned to be able to do, can actually feel herself disappearing. Her whole body fades away, in parts, except for the eyes. But the eyes, the narrator maintains, are everything, and so the disappearance is the failure. Pecola's life is wretched: she is ignored by teachers, despised by classmates, neglected by her parents. Pecola has prayed for blue eyes every night for a year, believing that if her eyes were beautiful she would have friends, and her own parents might stop fighting.
The narrative switches to present tense, in a long passage in which Pecola goes to buy candy from a grocery store. She buys Mary Jane candies from a white shopkeeper who has little patience and less affection for her, and the mechanics of the gaze in this passage are very important for understanding the novel.
Switching back into past tense, the narrative describes three prostitutes who live in the apartment above the Breedloves' storefront. China, Marie, and Poland are three black prostitutes who let Pecola visit them and run errands for them. The same Saturday morning of the previously described fight between Mrs. Breedlove and Cholly, Pecola sits with the prostitutes as the three women get ready. All three are past their prime and hate men with a vengeance. They are crass and unapologetic survivors, despised by the community at large. They, in turn, despise the community right back.
The theme of love's scarcity runs throughout this section. Pecola's family life is brutal, and the morning shows the unhealthy dynamic between the Breedlove parents. Cholly's drunkenness and irresponsibility have become a part of their marriage, and Mrs. Breedlove has become addicted to playing the part of martyrit's one of the few things she has left to cling to. Cholly has a similar need to hate her, because she is one of the few things he can touch and hurt. Pecola is terrified by these battles, and can do little to escape while they happen.
Pecola's obsession with blue eyes, the discussion of ugliness, and the passage narrating her trip to buy candy all deal with a relationship between beauty, ugliness, and hatred. The text suggest the power of social constructions in shaping the Breedloves' ugliness and their belief in that ugliness. The narrator says that it was as if some mysterious master had given them a cloak of ugliness and they had all accepted. The language of that brief passage suggests slavery, and draws attention to the ways that hatred can be internalized by the hated. The narrator also says that the Breedloves saw proof of their own ugliness in "every billboard, every movie, every glance"emphasizing the role of social constructions in creating the idea of ugliness.
Pecola's interaction with the shopkeeper is important. The present tense narration gives the scene a kind of timelessness, suggesting that it is a model for all of Pecola's interactions with others. Eye imagery pervades the scene, as the shopkeeper cannot "see" Pecola. To see her would be to see her as a person, to encounter her subjectivity. To him, Pecola is nothing, and she in turn can see in his eyes that she means nothing to him. Moments like these reinforce Pecola's conviction that she is hideous: earlier, the narrator assures as that she will never learn to see her own beauty, in part because no one else will show it to her. (Remember that she is able, earlier in the section, to make herself feel invisibleand here, in this store, she practically is.) This touches on the theme, throughout the novel, that often one is dependent on others for feelings of self worth, love, and even one's identity.
Pecola buys Mary Jane candies, little sweets with wrappers that have a picture of a blonde and blue-eyed girl. When Pecola eats the candy, the moment is described like the Christian eucharist: the passage says that to eat the candy is to eat Mary Jane (like eating the body of Christ), a transformative act that somehow brings Pecola (in her own mind) one step closer to being Mary Jane.
The three whores round out Pecola's family. They are not cruel to her, but they don't fuss over her or provide an adequate substitute for the family life Pecola is missing. Their names bring World War II back to the reader's consciousness: "Poland" and "China" are both countries which, in 1939, are occupied or being invaded by fascist armies. Both are sites of terrible genocideas both the Japanese and the Germans make millions the victims of ethnic cleansing campaigns. Marie's name also recalls the war; "Marie" is a French name, and France is going to be invaded in the spring of 1940. In the next section, we learn that Marie is also known as the Maginot Line, the name of the powerful defensive line built by France to stop a German invasion. The Line was a complete failure. By giving the prostitutes names that refer to invaded countries and Axis victories, Morrison maintains World War II (and the Nazi regime and it's Aryan idea of beauty) as a distant background. The names also suggest the vulnerability of these women. Although these women are survivors, they are also outcasts, and they suggest something about the precarious positioning of women. Morrison points to this tension often: black women are instrumental in holding families together, in enduring the worst part of prejudice and in running both their own households and the households of white employers, but they are in many ways society's most vulnerable members. There is a connection between these three outcasts and Pecola, and a reason why they do not despise her. Between their fallen status and Pecola's belief in her own ugliness, there is some common ground.
Bluest Eye Essays and Related Content
- Bluest Eye: Essays
- Bluest Eye: Questions
- Bluest Eye: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Toni Morrison: Biography