Morrison's writing of the book began because she was "interested in talking about black girlhood." Dr. Jan Furman, professor of English at the University of Michigan, notes that the book allows reader to analyze the "imprinting" factors that shape the identity of the self during the process of maturing in young black girls. She references parts in the book where the main characters are taught to feel less than human, specifically when the shopkeeper avoids touching Peacola's hand when giving her candy.
White lifestyle standards
Debra Werrlein, professor at George Mason University, contends that the excerpts of Dick and Jane throughout the book project an image of an ideal family that contrasts with the family structures of the main characters. She informs that because of its origination in post-World War II social sentiments, these two characters were meant to emphasize an importance on raising children the right way so to mold the future of the United States. However, as Werrlein points out, the whiteness of these characters came to equate the idea of the perfect American. In addition, the string of letters describing Dick and Jane's parents as strong and nice offer contrast to the parents of the main character. Pecola's father is then emasculated, Werrlein argues, because of his behavior and how it deviates from this standard of family. She goes on to say that because these two black parents have experienced oppression throughout their lives, that same oppression has carried into their familial structure, making the issue of racism prevalent in broken homes as well.
Morrison begins the novel with the line "quiet as its kept" implying that a secret of some sort persists. In the article "Racism and Appearance in The Bluest Eye: A Template for an Ethical Emotive Criticism", Jerome Bump understands this secret to be the fear of ugliness. Bump asks the reader to imagine an ugly Jesus and emphasizes the discomfort of doing so. We assume the outside of a person ultimately reflects the their character and personality. Thus we could never imagine Jesus as ugly. Bump furthers his argument by explaining how physical beauty is a virtue embedded in our societal cloth. Upon creating significance within this particular element of human character, our judgement is compromised and we act on internal bias. These biases are displayed throughout the novel and mistreatment of Pecola by family, friends and community.
Literary critic Lynn Scott contends that the constant images of whiteness in The Bluest Eye serve to represent society's perception of beauty, but the idealization of white beauty standards ultimately proves to have destructive consequences which lead to Pecola's demise. Scott explains that superiority, power, and virtue are associated with beauty, which is inherent in whiteness in the novel. She further asserts that white beauty standards are perpetuated by visual images in the media as well as attitudes of the family. When Pauline first arrives in Lorain, she feels pressure to conform to white beauty standards and begins to develop a construct of femininity based on the actresses she watches in the movies. For example, she begins to model her hairstyle after Jean Harlow. Pecola is also surrounded by constant images of whiteness that perpetuate white beauty standards, including references to Shirley Temple and an image of Mary Jane that appears on her candy wrappers. Scott claims that Pecola, "...is the victim of a power that values and classifies bodies according to norms established and disseminated by visual images." These images become a constant reminder of her inability to attain these white beauty standards. Pecola attempts to seek the power associated with whiteness, and in her attempt to conform to these cultural ideals, she develops a destructive desire for blue eyes. In addition to the white beauty standards promoted by the media, Harihar Kulkarni, an author of a book on African American feminist fiction literature, recognizes that these ideals are often transferred generationally. Kulkarni asserts that Pecola's feelings of inferiority are linked to Pauline's own diminished sense of self-worth which she has acquired due to her obsession with white beauty standards. This acceptance of inferiority and ugliness, which has been passed on generationally, makes Pauline complicit in Pecola's descent into madness and the psychological damage she experiences. In contrast, Claudia has maintained her self-esteem due to Mrs. MacTeer's refusal to surrender her sense of identity to white cultural standards. Ultimately, Pauline and Pecola develop a sense of shame and internalized self-hatred since they cannot achieve the beauty ideals that exist in society. This shame is particularly damaging for Pecola, because as she strives to attain these unobtainable white beauty standards, she is consumed by her own destructive self-hatred, resulting in irreversible psychological damage.
Susmita Roye notes the effects of living in a Euro-centric defined world of beauty. She contends that because Pecola believes in her ugliness as a black girl, she hopes and prays to God for blue eyes so that she can be seen as beautiful to the world as well. She asserts that the longing for whiteness attacks young black girls' confidence of being seen as equal and beautiful in the world around them.
Critic Allen Alexander argues that religion is an important symbol and theme in The Bluest Eye, especially in how the God of Morrison's works possesses a "fourth face" outside of the Christian Trinity, and this explains and represents "the existence of evil, the suffering of the innocent and just--that seem so inexplicable in the face of a religious tradition that preaches the omnipotence of a benevolent God." Alexander claims that much of the tragedy of Pecola's character stems from her attempts to rationalize her misfortune with the notion of an all-loving, all-powerful God. He further argues that, for Pecola, much of the story is about "discovering the inadequacy of Western theological models for those who have been marginalized by the dominant white culture." While this ideology has negative effects on Pecola's sense of self-worth, it also negatively impacts her mother Pauline, who fully accepts Christianity and in doing so spends most of her time away from her own family and caring for a white household. Alexander suggests that the image of a more human God, rather than a purely morally upstanding one, is a more traditional African view of deities and that this model is better suited to the lives of the African American characters in The Bluest Eye.
Media and culture
In the essays "Disconnections from the Motherline: Gender Hegemonies and the Loss of the Ancient Properties; The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby" and "Maternal Interventions: Resistance and Power; The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Paradise," Andrea O'Reilly proclaims African American women pass on cultural knowledge to successive generations through the process of culture bearing or motherline: "Mothers pass on what I have called the motherline: the ancestral memory and ancient properties of traditional black culture." The article states that cultural bearing is necessary for the empowerment of black children. O'Reilly claims Morrison displays women in the novel becoming compromised by the desire to subscribe to normative American cultural ideologies, effectively under-minding the process of culture bearing onto children.
Jane Kuenz, Professor of English at the University of Southern Maine, states that The Bluest Eye reveals the role of mass media in shaping society. She argues that evidence of this is seen immediately, as the book opens with a story in the style of Dick and Jane, an example of a white family that is looked up to and aspired to be. Evidence of white-run culture is pervasive, especially "in the seemingly endless reproduction of images of feminine beauty in everyday objects and consumer goods," which Kuenz points out are representative of exclusively white beauty. Kuenz shows that, as the novel progresses, Claudia becomes more and more similar to what white society expects of her, learning to "adore" Shirley Temple and other manifestations of whiteness, proving the power of mass media. Kuenz argues that The Bluest Eye shows the effects of mass-produced images in a white-run society.
In the article "Treatment of Violence: A Study of Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Beloved", Shubhanku Kochar argues there is a lack of discussion regarding the theme of violence in the Bluest Eye. Kochar states, "psychological violence is directed on the black by the dominant culture in the novel", rendering this form of violence a social issue between competing cultures and races. She continues, "The psychoanalytical studies are devoted to the internal damage done by racial stereotypes". The Marxist frame focuses on class relations while the feminist lens focuses on violence perpetrated on women. Kochar argues that to comprehend the complex instances of violence inflicted upon Pecola you must analyze the novel through the Marxist and Feminist lens in addition to the psychoanalytical lens. "In other words, a single lens cannot not deal with the theme of violence in totality with its various nuances and consequences in depth".
J. Brooks Bouson, English professor at Loyola University Chicago, claims that The Bluest Eye is a "shame drama and trauma narrative," that uses Pecola and its other characters to examine how people respond to shame. Bouson argues that some characters, like Claudia, show how people can respond violently to shame: Claudia does this by rejecting the racist system she lives in and destroying the white dolls she is given. However, most characters in the novel pass on their shame to someone below them on the social and racial ladder. For example, Soaphead Church comes from a family obsessed with lightening their skin tone, and passes on the shame of his African American heritage by molesting young girls. Bouson suggests that all of the African American characters in The Bluest Eye exhibit shame, and eventually much of this shame is passed onto Pecola, who is at the bottom of the racial and social ladder.
Breakage and separation
In the article "Probing Racial Dilemmas in the Bluest Eye with the Spyglass of Psychology", Anna Zebialowicz and Marek Palasinski discuss the racial climate of the society set forth in the novel. Zebialowicz and Palasinski explain how Pecola struggles with her identity as a black female: "Ethnic identity and gender dilemmas are still both anecdotally and empirically linked to a decrease in self-esteem, adaptiveness and well-being". Pecola's race and gender both work adversely against her to create a complex form of oppression. Morrison's novel confronts self-hatred and destructive behaviors black women participate in to fit into the hegemonic image of beauty and whiteness.
Author Phillip Page focuses on the importance of duality in The Bluest Eye. He claims that Morrison prevents an "inverted world," entirely opposite from the Dick and Jane story that is at the beginning of the novel. The idea of breaks and splitting is common, as seen in the context of the war occurring in the time period of the story, the split nature of Pecola's family, and the watermelon that Cholly observes break open during a flashback. Page argues that breaks symbolize the challenges of African American life, as seen in the rip in the Breedloves' couch that symbolizes poverty, or the break in Pauline's tooth that ruins her marriage and family. He goes on to identify how each of the characters are broken personally, since Cholly's former and present life is described as chaotic and jumbled, and Pauline both is responsible for her biological family as well as the white family she works for. The epitome of this, Page argues, is seen in Pecola at the end of the novel. The events of her life, having broken parents in a broken family, have resulted in a totally fractured personality which drives Pecola into madness.