The novel received minimal critical attention when first published; however, it was placed on many university reading lists in black-studies departments, which promoted further recognition. Morrison was praised for her handling of difficult themes: critic Haskel Frankel said, "Given a scene that demands a writer's best, Morrison responds with control and talent." The first major sign that the book would succeed was an extremely positive review in The New York Times in November 1970. Morrison was also positively reviewed for her break from the status quo of usual novels from the time period, writing to a wider audience and focusing on black subculture in the 1940s, rather than the military culture of the time. African-American critic Ruby Dee wrote, "Toni Morrison has not written a story really, but a series of painfully accurate impressions." Morrison was additionally praised for her wide coverage of emotion in the novel, extending from Pecola Breedlove's quiet descent into madness, to Cholly Breedlove's skewed mindsets.
Critics picked up on Morrison's shortcomings as a first time published author. A common critique of her writing included her language in the novel, as it was often viewed as being made too simple for the reader. Early critics were also ambivalent about Morrison's portrayal of the black woman as an object in society rather than a person, only ever going so far as to bring this fact to light and rarely commenting past it. The most in-depth analysis of the novel began with feminist critique. There were also notable differences between African-American critics (who often identified more with the characters of the novel) and Euro-American critics (who often only focused on the actual writing of the novel).
Within classrooms across the country, educators also disagreed over whether or not the novel was appropriate for children. One African-American educator, founder of the IFE Academy of Teaching & Technology Shekema Silveri, has stated: "Teaching novels like The Bluest Eye helps us break down barriers with students. After reading the book, I had a student who said that she is the product of incest. And I’ve had a student who said that she was molested by her uncle. Books allow us to help them heal in ways that we as educators couldn’t help them heal on our own." In an interview, American Library Association (ALA) editor Robert P. Doyle also recognized the potential of novels like The Bluest Eye to affect positive change within schools, stating that, “The book community realized that [they] have not only an opportunity, but a responsibility to engage the American public in a conversation about the First Amendment as it relates to books and literature.” The Bluest Eye is one of many novels on the ALA's lists of challenged books, appearing as 15th out of 100 of the most challenged novels in the most recent decade.
As time passed, more reviews and analyses were written in praise of Morrison's writing of the "colonization of the mind," her critique of white versus black beauty standards, and even began to analyze her use of simplistic language, calling it a stylistic choice rather than a pitfall of the novel. Despite initial controversies surrounding the subject matter of The Bluest Eye, Morrison was eventually recognized for her contributions to literature when she received the Nobel Prize in 1993, over 20 years following the original publication of the novel.