The Bluest Eye is split into an untitled prelude and four large units, each named after a season. The four larger units begin with "Autumn" and end in "Summer," with each unit being split into smaller sections. The first section of each season is narrated by Claudia MacTeer, a woman whose memories frame the events of the novel. At the time that the main events of the plot take place, Claudia is a nine-year-old girl. This device allows Morrison to employ a reflective adult narrator without losing the innocent perspective of a child. Claudia MacTeer lives with her parents and her sister in the humble MacTeer family house in Lorrain, Ohio. The year is 1939.
The novel's focus, however, is on a girl named Pecola Breedlove. Pecola, we are told in the prelude, will be raped by her father by novel's end. The prelude frames the story so that the reader knows from the beginning that Pecola's story ends tragically. The Breedloves are poor, unhappy, and troubled. Their story seems in many ways to be deterministic, as they are often the victims of forces over which they have no control. Their situation is a powerful contrast to the MacTeers, who are of slender means but have a strong family unit. The MacTeers also seem to have much stronger agency, and are never really passive victims in the way that the Breedloves are.
When Claudia is not narrating, a third-person narrator takes her place. The narrative style, even in third person, is one of great psychological intimacy. The third-person narrator of The Bluest Eye is no dispassionate observer, but one who gives insights into the thoughts of characters and occasionally interprets events in a very explicit manner. The sections narrated in the third person are all focused on some aspect of Pecola's lifethe sections explore either a family member or a specific significant event. These sections have headings, taken from a reading primer's Dick and Jane story. The use of the primer is a biting comment on the distance between Pecola's life and the pink-skinned bourgeois world in the Dick and Jane story. Each heading is a clean, straightforward match up: the section about Pecola's house is headed by a Dick-and-Jane sentence about their house, the section about Pauline is prefaced by a Dick-and-Jane sentence about their mother, etc.
The basic plot is very simple: when Cholly Breedlove, Pecola's father, attempts to burn their house down, Pecola is sent by social workers to stay temporarily with the MacTeers. Claudia and Frieda befriend the girl, who is lonely, abused, and neglected. While staying with the MacTeers, she menstruates for the first time. Her first period, as the reader must consider it, becomes an upsetting eventit makes it possible for her to be impregnated later by her own father. Pecola Breedlove goes back to live with her family, and we see aspects of her life depicted one section at a time. The Breedlove home is a converted storefront, cold and in disrepair. Pauline and Cholly Breedlove fight incessantly and with terrifying ferocitytheir battles always end up being physicaland her brother Sammy runs away from home constantly. The Breedloves' name is suggestive and ironic: "love" is exactly what the family lacks, and certainly they are unable to generate more of it, as suggested by the word "breed." Instead, "breed" becomes an ominous reference to what Cholly ends up doing with his own daughter.
Pauline is an unhappy woman who takes refuge in the wrathful and unforgiving aspects of Christianity. She lavishes her love on the white family for whom she works, while her own family lives in squalor. Cholly is an angry and irresponsible man, violent, cruel, and uncontrollable. All of the Breedloves are considered ugly, although part of the novel's work is to question and deconstruct what that ugliness really means. To get away from her parents and to pass the hours, Pecola spends a great deal of time with the whores who live upstairs. China, Poland, and Marie tolerate her presence without providing any deep love for the girl.
Pecola is obsessed, we learn, with blue eyes. She prays for them constantly, and is convinced that by making her beautiful the blue eyes would change her life. From Pecola's wish and from many other events in the novel, it becomes clear that most of the people in Lorrain's black community consider whiteness beautiful and blackness ugly. The novel has many character who long to look white, and also has several characters of mixed ancestry who emulate whites and try to suppress all things in themselves that might be African. Soaphead Church's Anglophile family and Geraldine are examples of this kind of black person.
The MacTeer family goes through their own small dramas, as Frieda and Claudia deal with stuck-up schoolmates and a lecherous boarder. Consistently, the MacTeer family is able to insulate the girls from harm. When their boarder, a man named Mr. Henry, makes an indecent pass at eleven-year-old Frieda, Mr. and Mrs. MacTeer react with force, protecting their daughter violently and without any doubt of her innocence. In contrast, in the Breedlove family the sexual threat comes not from outside the family unit but from within. One Saturday in spring, Cholly rapes Pecola. He rapes her a second time soon afterward. Pecola then becomes pregnant with her father's child.
Miserable and desperate, Pecola believes more than ever that blue eyes would change her life. She goes to a pedophilic fortune-teller named Soaphead Church to ask for blue eyes. Soaphead Church decides that he can use her for a small task, and so he uses an unwitting Pecola to kill a dog that he hates. She completes the task, which she believes will be like a transformative spell. The dog dies in a gruesome manner, and Pecola runs away in terror. The next time we see Pecola, she's lost her mind. She spends all of her time talking to a new "friend"; he/she is an imaginary friend who is now the only person with whom Pecola speaks. The topic of conversation is most frequently the blueness of Pecola's eyes. Pecola spends the rest of her life as a madwoman.
The title of the novel provides some interesting insights about standards of beauty. Morrison is interested in showing the illusory nature of the social construction of beauty, which is created in part by the imaginary world of advertising billboards and movie stars. The title uses the superlative of blue because at the end of the novel, when Pecola has gone mad, she is obsessed with having the bluest eyes of anyone living. But the title also has "eye" in the singularby disembodying the eye, Morrison subverts the idea of beauty or standards of beauty, tearing the idealized part away from the whole, creating a beauty icon that is not even human. Reinforcing this non-human aspect of the ideal eye, Pecola's new blue eyes at the novel's end are not described with colors in the human rangeher eyes are blue like streaks of cobalt, or more blue than the sky itself.
At key points in the novel, important plot information is revealed through gossip. Morrison writes long stretches of beautiful and uninterrupted dialogue, with great sensitivity to oral language. Pauline Breedlove gets a chance to speak in the first person near the middle of the novel; in a section divided between third-person narrator and Pauline, she gets to address the reader directly and in dialect. Morrison's interest in carving a place for oral language in literary art is readily apparent in this novel.
Morrison occasionally switches tense, moving fluidly to present tense when it serves her. The move has different effects: for some scenes, it provides a sense of great immediacy. In one sequence narrated by Claudia, it creates the feel that Claudia is reliving the experience. In other scenes, it creates the feel of a pattern. When Pecola tries to by candy at a local grocer's, we read about the moment in present tense. In this case, Morrison's use of the present tense suggests that the unpleasant interaction between Pecola and the shopkeeper forms a template for all of her interactions with other human beings.
Morrison, by employing multiple narrators, is trying to make sure that no single voice becomes authoritative. The gossiping women become narrators in their own right, relaying critical information and advancing the story at key points. Claudia's perspective is balanced by the third person narrator, and Pauline Breedlove narrates for parts of one of the middle sections of the novel. This method of multiplying narrative perspectives also demands more active participation on the part of the reader, who must reassemble the parts in order to see the whole. Morrison is still working somewhat clumsily with this type of narrative in The Bluest Eye. In later novels, she has a chance to experiment and refine her forms further.