From the title alone, it’s apparent that blue eyes have a particular significance in Toni Morrison’s work The Bluest Eye. The subject of the novel, Pecola Breedlove, is a young black girl who grapples with crippling low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and depression. She fervently believes that if she were to have beautiful blue eyes like white girls and women that society idolizes, her life would exponentially improve. Thus, to Pecola, blue eyes symbolize beauty, happiness, and a better life. For the reader however, blue eyes and the power they hold over Pecola symbolize the rigid beauty standards of mid-20th century America, and the destructive power it held over black girls and women like Pecola.
In the opening pages of The Bluest Eye Claudia tells us that the marigold seeds she and her sister Frieda planted symbolized the health and well-being of Pecola’s baby. If they “planted the seeds, and said the right words over them, they would blossom, and everything would be all right” (Morrison 3). But their seeds shrivel and die, and so does Pecola’s baby. In the last pages of the novel, this symbolism is reprised, but also extended to encompass Pecola herself. Now the marigolds, who had a hostile year across the country, represent Pecola, who was not nurtured by her community and who is now all but dead. In her 1993 afterword for The Bluest Eye, Morrison writes the following about her use of marigolds:
Thus, the opening provides the stroke that announces something more than a secret shared, but a silence broken, a void filled, an unspeakable thing spoken at last. And it draws the connection between a minor destabilization in seasonal flora and the insignificant destruction of a black girl. Of course "minor" and "insignificant" represent the outside world's view-for the girls, both phenomena are earthshaking depositories of information they spend that whole year of childhood (and afterward) trying to fathom, and cannot.” (Morrison 160)
Desiring the Unattainable (Motif)
A recurring idea in the novel is desiring the unattainable. It begins with Pecola, who first wishes to disappear during her parents’ violent altercation over the coal, but finds it impossible because in her mind she can’t make her eyes disappear. Pecola of course also desires blue eyes, and this is the ultimate example of a character wanting what they can’t have in the novel. Another example is Pauline Breedlove, who longs for the clean, orderly, and peaceful life she’s created as Polly, the Fishers’ “ideal servant.” Unfortunately, she cannot fully escape the miserable life she shares with Cholly, and so must juggle her two realities, unable to fully grasp the one she truly desires.
Dick and Jane Story (Allegory)
The introduction and subsequent bastardization of the Dick and Jane story serves as an allegory for the degradation and fall of the Breedloves, and by extension, real-life black families who also suffer from poverty, dysfunction, and decline. Dick and Jane are the two main characters of William S. Gray’s textbooks for teaching children how to read. In 1941, these textbooks were considered canonical, and were used in most classrooms across the United States. Morrison opens The Bluest Eye with an excerpt from the Dick and Jane series, an excerpt that describes a picturesque family dynamic. Implicit in this excerpt (and the Dick and Jane series as a whole) is that Dick, Jane, and their parents are white, and they represent the ideal American household. Morrison repeats the excerpt several times, with each rendition more distorted than the last, as if it were a broken record. The gradual distortion of the story mimics the gradual decay of the Breedloves as their lives slowly but surely careen off track.
Pecola’s Unbeing (Allegory)
As Morrison articulates in her 1993 afterword, Pecola’s "unbeing" is “a unique situation, not a representative one.” However, as “singular as Pecola's life was, [Morrison] believed some aspects of her woundability were lodged in all young girls.” Pecola’s story is an allegory for “the devastation that even casual racial contempt can cause” (Morrison 157). Pecola’s "unbeing" serves as a cautionary tale for what the forces of parental abuse and societal negligence and derision can create.
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.