Published in 1970, The Bluest Eye came about at a critical moment in the history of American civil rights. Morrison began Pecola's story as a short piece in 1962; it became a novel-in-progress by 1965. It was written, as one can see from the dates, during the years of some of the most dynamic and turbulent transformations of Afro-American life.
One of those transformations was a new recognition of Black-American beauty. After centuries of coveting white dolls and decades of longing to look like Caucasian Hollywood stars (and thinking that it was perfectly appropriate to do so), Black-Americans began to argue for a new standard of beauty. This new standard was meant to be racially inclusive, allowing blacks to see black as beautiful, but the need to argue for this new standard reveals how firmly the white standard of beauty was entrenched.
In a new Afterword to the novel's 1993 reprint, Morrison says that she got the idea for The Bluest Eye in part from an elementary school classmate. The girl, whose wish for the eyes of a white girl revealed her contempt for her own racial identity, raised troubling questions about beauty and oppression. As an emerging writer, she remembered the girl and became interested in the mechanics of feelings of inferiority "originating in an outside gaze." Pecola's tragedy was not meant to be typical, but by showing societal and situational forces working against an extremely vulnerable little girl, Morrison hoped to get at a truth about those societal forces. The effect is like speeding up film of a slow process?by looking at the extreme case of Pecola, we learn the truth about our world, a truth that we are normally incapable of noticing.
The novel also set up many of the issues with which Morrison has been concerned ever since. The style is fragmentary, a kind of democratic narrative in which many narrative voices are privileged to speak. Morrison has used variations of this system in other novels, favoring this strategy as a way to look at a story from many angles without giving too much control to one voice. And Morrison's concern with oral Black-American traditions is apparent from the very first lines of Claudia's prelude.
But in this particular novel, Morrison has attempted to examine the forces that can make the oppressed take part in their own oppression. How can it be that a little girl could be made to feel so ugly? Why do the black children of the novel and of the period insult each other by calling each other black? What does it mean (and what does it do) when a black woman wishes she could look like Jean Harlow? How has this happened? What has been lost? Is there a way out?
The Bluest Eye enjoyed some (but far from universal) critical success on its first publication, but the novel was also a commercial failure. In 1993, after Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Plume published a new edition with a new Afterword by the author.