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 the 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 Pecola's hand when giving her candy.
Susmita Roye, an associate professor of English at Delaware State University, notes that the novel emphasizes that living in a world defined by Euro-centric beauty standards creates a longing for whiteness, such as Pecola's desire for blue eyes, which attacks young black girls' confidence and perceived beauty. References to Shirley Temple and Dick and Jane serve similarly.
White lifestyle standards
Dick and Jane novels were popular in the mid-20th century, and Morrison includes references to their titles in The Bluest Eye. They promoted the importance of the nuclear family and helped to foster literacy in young children as well. Morrison presents a more critical view of the novel's family standards. Morrison's graphic storytelling within The Bluest Eye challenged existing attitudes about keeping children's literature free of sex and violence. The lifestyle standards found in Dick and Jane were not achievable for many children who shared backgrounds similar to Pecola.
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 argues that because the novel takes place in a time of post-World War II social sentiments, the "Dick and Jane" primer emphasizes an importance of raising children a certain way to mold the future of the United States. However, as Werrlein points out, the whiteness of these characters stood to represent the ideal American family. In addition, the string of letters describing Dick and Jane's perfect parents as strong and kind are used to contrast Pecola's parents in the novel. Pecola's father is thus emasculated, Werrlein argues, because his behavior deviates from this standard for American family life. Finally, Werrlein claims that the black parents have experienced oppression throughout their lives, and that same oppression has negatively influenced their familial structure. Thus, racism is a prevalent factor in their broken homes.
In the article "Racism and Appearance in The Bluest Eye: A Template for an Ethical Emotive Criticism", Jerome Bump explains how the novel suggests that physical beauty is a virtue embedded in society. Bump asserts that the novel reveals the belief that the outside of people ultimately reflects their character and personality. This belief compromises people's judgement and they act upon internal bias. These biases are displayed throughout the novel, especially through the mistreatment of Pecola by family, friends and community.
Literary critic Lynn Scott argues that the constant images of whiteness in The Bluest Eye serve to represent society's perception of beauty, which ultimately proves to have destructive consequences for many of the characters in the novel. Scott explains that in the novel, superiority, power, and virtue are associated with beauty, which is inherent in whiteness. She further asserts that white beauty standards are perpetuated by visual images in the media as well as the attitude of Pecola's family. When Pauline first arrives in Lorain, she feels pressure to conform and begins to develop a construct of femininity based on the actresses such as Jean Harlow. Pecola is also surrounded by constant images that perpetuate white beauty standards, including references to Shirley Temple and an image of Mary Jane that appears on her candy wrappers. Scott believes that Pecola attempts to seek the power associated with whiteness, and in her attempt to conform, she develops a destructive desire for blue eyes.
Harihar Kulkarni, an author of a book on African-American feminist fiction literature, recognizes that these Euro-centric ideals of family and beauty present in The Bluest Eye are shown to be transferred generationally, often between female relationships. In addition to living in a white-dominant society, this intergenerational oppression manifests itself into shame and self-hatred as demonstrated through Pecola's character development.
Critic Allen Alexander argues that religion is an important theme in The Bluest Eye, since Morrison's work possesses a "fourth face" outside of the Christian Trinity, which represents "the existence of evil, the suffering of the innocent." Alexander claims Pecola's suffering stems from her attempts to rationalize her misfortune with the notion of an omnipotent God. He further argues that much of Pecola's story suggests the insufficiency of Christian beliefs for minorities who exist in a predominantly white society. This ideology damages Pecola and her mother, Pauline, who fully accepts Christianity and spends her time caring for a white family as opposed to her own. Alexander suggests that the image of a more human God represents a traditional African view of deities, better suiting the lives of the African-American characters.
Media and culture
In the essays "Disconnections from the Motherline: Gender Hegemonies and the Loss of the Ancient Properties; The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby" and "Maternal Interventions: Resistance and Power; The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Paradise," Andrea O'Reilly, a women's studies professor, proclaims that African-American women pass on cultural knowledge to successive generations through the process of motherline: “the ancestral memory and ancient properties of traditional black culture. O’Reilly claims that The Bluest Eye portrays how attempting to assimilate to white American ideologies effectively undermines the motherline process for African-American women.
Kuenz shows that Claudia conforms to what white society expects of her, as her affinity for Shirley Temple and other manifestations of whiteness illustrates the influence of the power of mass media. Kuenz insists that The Bluest Eye demonstrates the impact of mass-produced images in a hegemonic society.
In the article “Treatment of Violence: A Study of Morrison's the Bluest Eye and Beloved," Shubhanku Kochar argues that the theme of violence in the Bluest Eye is not discussed enough. Kochar, a professor of English in India, asserts that the powerful white characters psychologically abuse people of inferior cultures and races, which results in a dominant theme of violence in the novel. She adds that psychoanalytical study focuses on these race-based tensions that consistently cause emotional harm. The Marxist frame targets class relations, while the feminist lens centers on violence perpetrated on women. Kochar argues that to comprehend the complex violence inflicted on Pecola, one must analyze the novel through the Marxist and Feminist lens in addition to the psychoanalytical lens. 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 girl: "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 presents 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.