The Bluest Eye | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Autumn, Chapter 1

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Autumn, Chapter 1 of Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye.

The Bluest Eye | Autumn, Chapter 1 | Summary



The chapter describes an ethnically diverse neighborhood: a Greek hotel, an Italian "next-door friend," and the African American narrator and her family. The "next-door friend," Rosemary Villanucci, is evidently wealthier than the narrator and her family. Rosemary's father owns a café, and she sits "in a 1939 Buick"—an almost new car—"eating bread and butter." She won't let the narrator and her sister Frieda into the car, and the two of them are angry. The narrator says they will beat Rosemary up when she comes out of the car.

The narrator describes her life in a matter-of-fact tone, but it sounds very difficult. They must go out at night to collect small bits of coal to heat the house. Their home has limited light and heat and is infested with mice and cockroaches. Adults speak only to give orders or to criticize. When the narrator—whose name is Claudia—gets sick, her mother blames her for it, even scolding her for vomiting. Narrator Claudia, as an adult looking back, says while her childhood was painful, there was also love. She describes how her mother cared for her, even while complaining.

Claudia's family takes in a "roomer," Mr. Henry Washington. Mr. Henry is a single man who will live with Claudia's family and pay rent. When Mr. Henry arrives, he is not expected to pay attention to the girls, but he does. He calls them "Greta Garbo" and "Ginger Rogers," names of two movie stars. He does a magic trick with a penny, encouraging Claudia and Frieda to climb all over him, looking for where the penny might be. Claudia says they loved Mr. Henry, "even after what came later."

Claudia and Frieda meet Pecola Breedlove when she is placed in their home. Her family is temporarily "outdoors" (i.e., homeless) because her father "burned up" their house and beat Pecola's mother. Claudia says ending up "outdoors" was a constant fear in their childhood, usually expressed as a threat when they had been careless or had used too much of a precious commodity like food or coal. Sometimes people ended up outdoors through no fault of their own, but to end up outdoors because you were lazy or careless was "criminal." Pecola's mother will live with the family she works for, and Pecola's brother Sammy will stay with another family. Cholly, Pecola's father, is in jail. Pecola arrives at their house with nothing and must share a bed with Claudia and Frieda, but the three of them still have fun.

Pecola and Frieda bond over their appreciation of Shirley Temple, whom Claudia dislikes. Claudia connects Shirley Temple to the baby dolls she sometimes gets for Christmas. Claudia hates the dolls and struggles to understand why people prize them so much. She even breaks the dolls apart in an attempt to find what makes them special, which angers the grown-ups. Claudia says no one ever asked what she wants for Christmas; instead they give her things she is supposed to like. Claudia reflects on how her hatred of baby dolls mirrors her dislike of little white girls. She wants to know why people think white girls are so much prettier. She wishes she can take apart a white girl like she takes apart a doll. Eventually she learns to pretend to appreciate Shirley Temple.

As Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola try to figure out a way to pass the time, Pecola is horrified to find blood dripping down her legs. She has begun menstruating, although only Frieda recognizes what is happening. Frieda orders Claudia to get some water to clean up the bloodstain on the steps while she takes Pecola into the bushes on the side of the house. Eager to see what will happen, Claudia follows them. She sees Frieda take off Pecola's soiled underwear and put a "cotton thing" between Pecola's legs. Rosemary, their white neighbor, sees them and decides they are "playing nasty" and screams. Mrs. MacTeer, their mother, grabs a "switch" to beat them with and hits Frieda a few times before the "cotton thing" falls from under Pecola's dress. Claudia and Frieda explain, and their mother stops hitting them and brings them inside. She takes Pecola into the bathroom to clean up, and Claudia hears her mother laughing.

Later Pecola wonders how the blood signifies her ability to have a baby. Frieda is vague, saying "somebody has to love you." Pecola wonders how you get a person to love you, but Frieda does not answer.


Growing up, most people think of their experiences as normal, just like everyone else's. It is not until adolescence or adulthood, often, that people realize what a wide range of life experiences there are. Morrison uses the childlike matter-of-fact attitude powerfully in this chapter, as she shows the reader life in a low-income, multiethnic community in 1941. Interestingly, the community is not segregated. In 1941 African Americans in some states would have been expected to live in their own part of town, separated from white people. Claudia describes Greek and Italian residents in her community, living near her African American family. Later in the book Morrison names the town: Lorain, Ohio, where she was born.

Although they all live in the same neighborhood, they are not of the same financial status. Rosemary, the next-door neighbor, is eating bread and butter, which would be a treat to Claudia, and sitting in an almost new car. No one in Claudia's family seems to own a car. Rosemary won't let Claudia and Frieda in the car with her: a form of segregation, a white person holding power over them even if she's the same age. At this point Claudia and Frieda can still get back at her. They plan to "beat her up" when she gets out of the car.

Claudia and Frieda's family is struggling financially. They collect scraps of coal to burn. Their house is cold and infested with pests. They need a boarder to help pay the bills, and there is the threat of being "outdoors"—in other words, homeless. Adults are preoccupied and easily irritated by children. Even getting sick is viewed as a personal failing: the child should know better than to get sick and make life difficult for everyone.

At the same time Claudia recognizes love in her family. Later, as an adult looking back, she understands her mother's anger is for the illness, not for her, and she remembers her mother coming in to care for her during the night, touching her forehead. To a modern reader the parenting sounds harsh, but parents in the 1940s did not expect to play games with their children or be friends with them the way some modern parents do. Morrison shows a family with too many day-to-day struggles for kind words and gentleness, but a caring family nonetheless.

Mr. Henry's reaction to the girls is odd. Claudia says their mother did not introduce them to Mr. Henry but included them in the tour of the house: "Like, here is the bathroom ... these are my kids ... watch out for this window." Mr. Henry stops to talk to them, addressing them by movie star names: Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers. Both were beautiful white women who usually starred as the romantic heroine in films—strange nicknames for an adult to give adolescent African American girls. Finally there is the uncomfortable incident of the magic penny. Claudia says their hands were "wandering over Mr. Henry's body" looking for it. She says her parents are there watching the whole time, but it still strikes the reader as bizarre. Morrison has already planted the issue of incest and child molestation in the earlier mention of Pecola and her father, and Claudia concludes the Mr. Henry incident by saying they loved him "even after what came later."

Mr. Henry refers to movie stars often. In the 1930s and 1940s the movies were one of the biggest cultural influences on American society. They had a far greater impact than a modern reader may appreciate because they were the primary source of culture: television, home computers, and the Internet were unavailable. Everyone went to the movies. Movies were distributed differently in the 1930s and 40s, too. In a small town there might be one or two movie "houses" with a very limited selection of films. This meant everyone saw the same films at roughly the same time, creating a common set of ideas and images. Those images were predominantly white. There were no African American movie stars. A few African American performers had name recognition, but they were usually stuck playing maids and housekeepers or as "featured" musical acts that received far less attention than the white leading man and leading lady.

Shirley Temple was a child star who became one of the biggest box office draws of the 1930s. She was a small but very talented performer who could sing, dance, and act, and her optimistic attitude was particularly successful during the Great Depression. By 1941, though, she was not as big a draw as she had been, yet Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola still know her. Either Temple's films made a tremendous impression on them or their local movie houses were showing the 1940s equivalent of reruns. Claudia, after all, says she prefers Jane Withers, who often played a mean and nasty little girl opposed to Temple's sweetness and optimism.

For young African American girls Shirley Temple's movies would present a strange counterpoint to their life experience. Temple always has a sunny attitude, even when she is poor, and usually her impoverished character gets adopted by a wealthy family or has some other stroke of good luck before the movie's end. Perhaps Pecola and the others find Temple's unrealistic optimism appealing. But no one was coming to save their families from poverty. Temple is often praised for her big blue eyes and beautiful large ringlets of hair, two physical features that are out of reach for Pecola, Claudia, and Frieda.

Claudia's intense feelings about baby dolls also relate to Shirley Temple. Shirley dolls were very popular for a time, and Temple was often shown in publicity photos playing "Mother" with her dolls in the same way adults seem to expect Claudia to behave. In contrast Claudia is repelled by these dolls and wants to dissect them, hoping to understand why everyone values them so highly. Like the Dick and Jane readers, the white baby doll represents the dominant culture, which tells Claudia and the others white is beautiful, black is not. Claudia tries to resist this message. She wants to quantify the differences so she understands why these dolls are "better" in society's view.

Pecola begins menstruating in this chapter, a moment weighty with significance since the reader already knows how she will get pregnant. Morrison paints the moment in dramatic overtones with blood "running down her legs." Morrison's description, through Claudia's eyes, is far more catastrophic than the event warrants. Claudia's and Pecola's ignorance of menstruation explains some of the reaction, but it also seems symbolic: a warning about how painful and violent Pecola's entrance into womanhood will be.

Near the end of this chapter Morrison introduces another topic: the messy confusion between sex and love. This is already hinted at in Pecola's name (Breedlove), but it comes up here in the context of getting pregnant. Pecola and Claudia want Frieda to explain how to get pregnant, and Frieda says, "Somebody has to love you." The conflation of love and sex feels even more uncomfortable in the context of Pecola's future. The chapter ends with Pecola asking the unanswered question: "How do you get somebody to love you?" A little girl asking the question is sad enough, but knowing her fate makes it feel unbearably painful.

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