“Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall 1941.”
According to Toni Morrison’s Afterword in the 1993 edition of The Bluest Eye, “quiet as it’s kept” is a familiar phrase in the Black American dialect. For Morrison, it’s a phrase she remembered as a child when she listened to black women conversing with one another, telling a story, an anecdote, or gossip about their families or their neighborhood. The words are conspiratorial, and the tone is hushed, as the story or gossip being told is supposed to be a secret, something to keep quiet. “Quiet as it’s kept” is a fitting beginning to Claudia’s recounting of Pecola Breedlove’s undoing, because it’s a graphic, horrifying, and scandalous story that is whispered and spread through the kitchens and living rooms of Lorrain, Ohio’s Black American community. Through its use, Morrison attempts to establish instant intimacy with the reader, treating us as if we’re old friends or fellow neighborhood gossips exchanging shocking yet juicy gossip.
“There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.”
In a way, this line serves a state of purpose for the novel. Why did Cholly Breedlove rape his daughter and impregnate her? Why did that baby, like the marigolds, shrivel and die? Claudia claims that she knows why, but it’s difficult to handle, so she’ll show us how the events played out. By the end of her recounting (and the novel), perhaps the reader can deduce for themselves why the undoing of Pecola has occurred, thus realizing Morrison’s reason for writing The Bluest Eye.
“The master had said, 'You are ugly people.' They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance.”
The Breedloves all suffer from debilitating low self-esteem which is rooted in the idea that they are unquestionably ugly. This overwhelming sense of ugliness is hard to shake because the world around them seems to confirm it. The prevailing American beauty standards of the day prizes white or light skin, dainty and small noses, and blue eyes, none of which the Breedloves possess. Constantly being confronted with billboard ads, movie stars, and even candy wrappers that present a beauty ideal they cannot achieve perpetuates their feelings of inadequacy. This quote makes the Breedloves and the rigid beauty standards of mid-20th century America equally culpable for the Breedloves’ sense of ugliness.
“It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different...Pretty eyes. Pretty blue eyes. Big blue pretty eyes. ”
As a young black girl, unable to escape her sorry reality because her race, gender, and youth inhibit her, Pecola finds another way to escape her ugly life. She fantasizes about and prays for pretty blue eyes, like the eyes of the beautiful, happy white girls she sees in movies and on candy wrappers. In her mind, if she were to possess blue eyes, she would be different, maybe even beautiful, and as a result her life would also be different.
“The familiar violence rose in me. Her calling Mrs. Breedlove Polly, when even Pecola called her mother Mrs.Breedlove seemed reason enough to scratch her.”
Claudia is a brave and indignant child who speaks and acts out when she perceives or sees injustice. In this instance, she takes issue with the young daughter of the white family Mrs. Breedlove works for because she calls Mrs. Breedlove by a nickname, while Pecola herself doesn’t feel comfortable calling Mrs. Breedlove “mother” or “mama.” The love, affection, and care that Mrs. Breedlove showers upon the Fishers is a stark contrast to the negligence, anger, and violence she gives to her own children, and this is reflected in the different ways each girl interacts with Mrs. Breedlove. Her young white charge turns to Mrs. Breedlove for comfort and protection, while her own daughter braces herself for a blow.
“So she became, and her process of becoming was like most of ours: she developed a hatred for things that mystified or obstructed her; acquired virtues that were easy to maintain; assigned herself a role in the scheme of things; and harked back to simpler times for gratification. ”
This quote details Mrs. Breedlove’s transformation into the hard, jaded, and lost woman Pecola and her brother Sammy know her as. Before having kids, Pauline Breedlove has dreams of love, romance, and happiness, but her difficult life with Cholly in Ohio dashes them. Once her children are born, Pauline believes she must stop being a child herself and lays aside her naive dreams and hopes to become a woman. During that process of becoming she grows hard, hateful, and judgmental, and establishes herself as the breadwinner and moral compass for her family. This distances her from her children, and leads to further problems between her and her husband Cholly.
“In those days, Cholly was truly free. Abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose. ”
Though he is one of the novel’s antagonists, Morrison takes time to sketch Cholly’s life and thoughts before he meets his wife Pauline in an attempt to explain how and why he becomes a violent, abusive, and drunk father and husband. In doing so, Morrison reveals that Cholly himself was abandoned by both of his parents, and thus has no sense of how to be a father. Morrison isn’t trying to make excuses for Cholly and his heinous crimes by showing us his difficult past. Rather, she’s demonstrating how oppression, poverty, and suffering are cyclical, and are often passed down through generations, from grandparents, to parents, to children.
“If there is somebody with bluer eyes than mine, then maybe there is somebody with the bluest eyes. The bluest eyes in the whole world. That's just too bad, isn't it? Please help me look. No. ”
In the final stages of Pecola’s undoing she hallucinates a self and has lively conversations with it. At this point of the story, Pecola believes Soaphead Church has fulfilled her wish and given her blue eyes, but now she’s not sure how her eyes measure up to other blue eyes. In the above conversation, Pecola tries to solicit her other self’s help in her quest to find the bluest eyes in the world. This demonstrates that part of Pecola’s destiny is to perpetually desire and search for the unattainable.
“All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed.”
Claudia holds herself, her sister, and their wider community as a whole responsible for Pecola’s undoing and decline into madness. She believes that they have all used Pecola as a dump or garbage disposal for their own fears, insecurities, and shortcomings. Sure, they may be dark-skinned, but in comparison to Pecola they are beautiful. Yes, they can be awkward, but next to Pecola they are humorous and witty. Rather than help her, the community uses Pecola’s self-sustained ugliness, poverty, and misery to feel good about themselves, leading to her downfall.
“I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. ”
In this quote “certain kinds of flowers” and “certain seeds” symbolize Pecola and her dead baby. Morrison is suggesting that the culture of mid-20th century America was hostile to black girls and women like Pecola, and made it difficult for them to live happy, fulfilled lives. When these girls and women succumbed to society’s hostility by having miserable, shameful lives like Mrs. Breedlove, going crazy like Pecola, or outright dying like Pecola’s baby, society isn’t blamed. Rather, the fates of these women are viewed as justified, and society is faultless.
Bluest Eye Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Bluest Eye is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Feester: To worsen, especially due to lack of attention. The prejudice and treatment that Pecola receives because of her skin color is called "colorism," a sister type of discrimination that has only recently been studied and researched. In...
Maureen is light-skinned and wealthy. The girls both admire her and are jealous of her. The girls admire her light skin and social status, and they are jealous of both. Sadly, Maureen uses what they admire against them, she even taunts Picola with...