We first learn of Pecola because her family is “outdoors,” and the county decides to place her in the MacTeer household until her parents can find their feet again. Outdoors, the colloquial term Claudia and her community use for homelessness, “was the real terror of life,” and a threat that “surfaced frequently in those days” (Morrison 10). The Bluest Eye is set in 1941, a few years after the end of the Great Depression; at this time, poverty was a real looming threat for most American families. Being black only compounded the issue, and families like the Breedloves buckled under the strain. Their poverty fuels the fights and arguments between Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove, fights that result in an actual fire the day that Cholly decides to burn their house down. This fire and her family’s poverty do land Pecola onto the paths of Claudia and Frieda, who become her only friends of her age group, but we wonder what Pecola could have been had her family been wealthy, or even just well-off. We see a potential answer in Maureen Peal, whose “high-yellow” skin color, light eyes, and obvious wealth afford her a smooth path through life.
Beauty is one of the most powerful forces and themes in The Bluest Eye. When the Breedloves are introduced as a family, we are told that they’ve remained stagnantly poor through the years because they believe they are ugly. Thus begins a two hundred page long treatise on beauty’s pervasive power. For the Breedloves, poverty and ugliness are linked, whereas success and beauty are linked. They’ve reconciled themselves to lives of failure and impoverishment because their outward appearances require it. In this way, beauty becomes a type of currency, and the Breedloves are poor because they don’t possess it.
At the root of Pecola’s personal despair and self-loathing is the idea that because she isn’t beautiful according to societal standards of conventional beauty, she deserves the ridicule, negligence, and violence meted out to her. Rather than hope for society to change, Pecola prays that she will change and one day wake up with blue eyes, an ultimate marker of beauty. Pecola inherits these destructive ideas and beliefs from her mother. As a young woman, Pauline Breedlove often goes to the movies and encounters very distinct images of physical beauty. Beauty is in the white skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair of the actors and actresses on the silver screen. Taking those benchmarks, Pauline makes a scale of beauty, and every face she encounters she assigns to some category on her scale, including her own and her family’s. She then in turn equates physical beauty with virtue and ugliness with sin, resulting in the development of self-contempt. This is the legacy that Pecola inherits.
The ideas about beauty that the Breedloves and other members of Lorain’s black community subscribe to are rooted in the doctrine of colorism, which is discussed in the “Themes” and “A Brief Overview of Colorism” sections of this ClassicNote. The character of Claudia is intended to represent the part of the black community that doesn't “buy into” colorism or hold whiteness up as a beauty ideal. We see this when Claudia refuses to ogle over the Shirley Temple cup with Frieda and Pecola, and her confusion at receiving a blue-eyed and yellow-haired Baby Doll for Christmas. She doesn’t understand why the world around her believes the Baby Doll is something to wish for and treasure. Later on in life, this confusion morphs into a realization of society’s biased and “universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals” (Morrison 145). Claudia begins to wish for someone to say out loud that they want Pecola’s black and incestuous baby to live, just to counteract this overwhelming love of white beauty. Sadly, aside from her and Frieda, no one does, not even Pecola’s own mother. Again, we witness the force of beauty’s power.
Female sexuality is explored and displayed in a myriad of ways in The Bluest Eye. The first is the undeveloped and confused sexuality of the young girls, Claudia, Pecola, and Frieda. When Pecola has her first menstruation, she has no idea what’s happening and asks if she’s going to die. This demonstrates that her mother, the first source of information for young girls about their bodies and sexuality, has not talked to her or prepared her for the developments her body will eventually experience. This is juxtaposed with Frieda, who immediately knows what’s happening because her mother did take the time and effort to educate and teach her daughter about her body. Though Mrs. MacTeer does subscribe to the belief that young girls shouldn’t know of sex and sensuality, as evidenced by her rage when Rosemary Villanucci accuses her daughters of “playing nasty,” she does recognize that her daughters need to know about female sex development.
Pecola’s budding sexuality is violently and tragically stunted near the end of the novel when her father rapes her. But she’s not the only female in the novel to have a complicated relationship to her own sexuality. Women like Geraldine, who Morrison highlights in “winter,” regard sexuality and sex clinically, like an uncomfortable doctor’s visit they wish would end. Fearful of passion and funkiness, these women endure sex because it’s one of their duties as a wife, but don’t seek sexual gratification from their husbands. Instead, like Geraldine, they may stumble upon it in unlikely places, like a sanitary napkin or cat that happens to graze against their private areas. These women don’t demonstrate ignorance of their sexuality like the young girls do. Rather, they demonstrate a lack of desire to even learn or explore their sexuality. Their desire for cleanliness and orderliness trumps whatever desire they have for their sexuality.
This is in sharp contrast to the sex workers China, Poland, and Marie (Marginot Line). These women exemplify female sexuality in its rawest form. They are unapologetic in their use of their sexuality and bodies as currencies and a means of making a livelihood for themselves. They don’t lament their loss of innocence, or see sex as something they owe the men in their lives without any thought of their own pleasure or satisfaction. If Geraldine represents one end of the sexuality spectrum, China, Poland, and Marie represent the other, and a woman like Pauline, who did find sexual fulfillment and pleasure with her husband in the early days of their marriage, falls somewhere in the middle.
Violence takes various forms in the novel. The most obvious form is physical violence, such as the brutal altercations Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove regularly have. Pecola is also a recipient of physical violence, first at the hands of her classmates when they throw rocks at her, and again when her father rapes her. This is a type of sexual violence that she cannot recover from, especially once her mother blames her for the rape and beats her in punishment. A second, less obvious, but more powerful form of violence is the verbal abuse and social ostracizing Pecola receives from her community. This is a pernicious violence that occurs in a series of micro-aggressions, such as no one sitting next to her at school, boys calling her black and accusing her of seeing her father naked, and Geraldine speaking hatefully towards her. Eventually these micro-aggressions swell into an overwhelming tide that Pecola can’t swim against, and when combined with the physical violence she has received from her parents, her mind cracks.
Eyes occupy a privileged place and play a critical role in the novel. Pecola of course views blue eyes as a panacea for her problems, and pays close attention to the eyes of everyone she encounters. For example, when looking into Mr. Yacobowski’s blue eyes, she sees his disgust and anger for her reflected in them. With her own eyes, she can’t see herself clearly because she’s so preoccupied by what she believes everyone else sees when they look at her. It becomes a vicious circle—Pecola carries herself in an ugly and awkward way because she believes that’s what people see when they gaze at her, and so that’s what people do see when they look at her. As Morrison attests, Pecola “is not seen by herself until she hallucinates a self,” which happens only once she believes she’s acquired blue eyes. At that point, she needs someone, a self, to marvel at her new beautiful eyes.
Unfortunately for Pecola, her new eyes are merely a symptom of her fragmented mind and undoing. For the other characters of the novel, eyes are a means of seeing and perceiving the world around them. Though characters may see the same things, they perceive them in radically different ways, which testifies to the subjectivity of seeing. For example, when Mrs. MacTeer sees a disheveled and frantic Pecola, she sees a young girl in need of a mother’s comfort and love. However, when Geraldine sees the same thing, she sees a “nasty little black bitch” (Morrison 70). Thus, the trite saying “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” gets a fresh take in The Bluest Eye.
Colorism and Racial Self-Loathing
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 colorism, those with lighter skin are given preferential treatment while those with darker skin are often treated harshly. We see this exhibited in the differing treatment Maureen Peal and Pecola receive. Implicit in colorism is love and preference for whiteness, and dislike and rejection of blackness. When Black Americans practice colorism, they display something Morrison calls “racial self-loathing,” or “the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze” (Morrison 157). Put simply, Black Americans, like Pecola, her family, Geraldine, and the rest of their community, took the racism meted out by American society and turned it inwards. They began to hate themselves and their blackness because society told them to. The young boys who insult Pecola by chanting “black e mo” at her are a prime example of this, as is Geraldine calling Pecola a “nasty little black bitch” (Morrison 48 and 70). They themselves are black, and yet use blackness as vitriol. Subliminally, they are agreeing with society’s condemnation of black as ugly, and in The Bluest Eye Morrison attempts to uncover how a child reaches this point of racial self-loathing.
Cycle of Suffering
In her writings about The Bluest Eye Morrison makes it clear that her goal was not to demonize or blame the people in Pecola’s life for her undoing. Yes, Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove are agents of their daughter’s collapse, but they themselves suffered from many of the same feelings and insecurities Pecola struggles with. In the text, Morrison offers a view of Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove’s formative years to illustrate how oppression, suffering, and poverty are cyclical, and can transcend generations. Cholly, for example, is abandoned by his mother and father, and so abandons his own children emotionally and psychologically because he never learns how to be a father. Mrs. Breedlove also demonstrates this theme, because she takes the colorism and racial self-loathing she developed as a young woman and passes it down to her children. We’ll never know if Pecola would have broken this cycle of suffering, but since Sammy runs away from home like his father did when he was a young man, all signs point to this cycle continuing.
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.