The Bluest Eye | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye.

The Bluest Eye | Symbols


Light Eyes

In a book titled The Bluest Eye eyes are an obvious symbol. Pecola, like many other characters, sees light eyes (e.g., blue or green eyes) as a sign of beauty. But for most African American people, light eyes are a physical impossibility. Morrison uses this admiration for light eyes as a symbol of how African Americans learn to hate their own identities.

Pecola believes people will be nicer to her and good things will happen to her if she has blue eyes. She goes to great lengths to obtain her longed-for blue eyes but then worries they aren't blue enough. By the end of the book Pecola has obtained her blue eyes—at least in her own mind—but none of her problems have gone away. In fact more people reject her than before.

Other characters in the book also have "light" eyes. Maureen has "sloe green" eyes. The Maginot Line, a prostitute who lives above Pecola's home, has eyes like "waterfalls in movies about Hawaii," which suggests a blue or blue-green color. The cat Junior tortures has blue eyes, and Cholly has "light" eyes. None of these characters fares well. Maureen and Cholly are aggressors, mistreating others. The cat, like Pecola, is a victim. The Maginot Line, also called Miss Marie, could be considered either. She seems to see herself as an aggressor, but she has also suffered in her life. The MacTeer family does not have light eyes. Having light eyes marks a character as different. For African Americans it suggests the possibility of interracial heritage, which may carry with it emotional baggage from slavery or other racist practices. By suggesting those with light eyes may, in fact, be worse off, Morrison encourages all readers, but particularly African Americans, to appreciate who they are.


Early in the book Morrison writes about marigold seeds that do not grow. Claudia connects these seeds to Pecola's baby, but in Morrison's mind flowers have a greater significance. Flowers represent a rooted and happy community, a place where things—and people—can safely grow. Nothing grows well in Claudia and Pecola's community, not even marigolds that usually grow easily.

Morrison writes about how many African Americans could not own a home and were constantly threatened by the fear of being "outdoors." Owned homes are described as "hothouse sunflowers among the rows of weeds that were the rented houses." Renters may be reluctant to plant seeds in the ground when the landlord could evict them at any moment. Poorer people have less money and time to lavish on growing abundant displays of flowers. The flowers most consistently mentioned in Claudia and Pecola's neighborhood are sunflowers, which grow easily and produce edible seeds, and dandelions, which are weeds.

Contrast those images with the description of the stable African American communities described in "Seethecat." Morrison describes the girls "who have looked long at hollyhocks ... their roots are deep." These communities have bountiful gardens: "rooster combs and sunflowers ... pots of bleeding heart, ivy, and mother-in-law tongue line the steps." Morrison shows the reader abundant gardens in African American homes to make her point: in the proper environment, anyone can grow flowers. Morrison mimics this idea by identifying fake flowers—paper flowers, flower-printed clothes, and so on—in nicer homes, such as Geraldine's house and the home of Mrs. Breedlove's employer. Note Mrs. Breedlove's employer has a wheelbarrow full of flowers in the front yard, a symbol of opulence known throughout the neighborhood.

At the end of the book Morrison returns to the imagery of seeds and flowers. Referring to Claudia's community, she says, "This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers." Morrison wants the reader to see the lack of growth as a symptom of racial oppression: neither people nor plants can grow healthily in such an environment.

Movie Stars

The movies were a major influence on popular culture in 1941. Throughout the book, characters refer to movie stars in an admiring way. Pecola idolizes the child star Shirley Temple, a little blond girl with blue eyes and a sunny disposition who was extremely popular in the 1930s. Mr. Henry teases Frieda and Claudia by calling them Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers, the names of two movie stars famous for their glamour and their beautiful (white) faces. Greta Garbo was an exotic beauty who usually starred in romantic films, while Ginger Rogers was a famous dancer who often performed in musicals. Later in Pauline's chapter, she describes how she aspired to be as beautiful as a movie star until her tooth fell out.

Any girl or woman in the 1940s might aspire to be Shirley Temple, Greta Garbo, or Ginger Rogers. But for the female characters in The Bluest Eye, these images also represent the unattainable goals society has given them. Pecola and Claudia will never look like Shirley Temple or Greta Garbo, and that should not be their ambition. Few girls or women of any ethnicity will look like movie stars, but it is even harder for African American girls to achieve the appearance of movie stars of the era, who were almost exclusively white and certainly not African American.

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