The Bluest Eye | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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

The Bluest Eye | Themes



In the foreword Morrison states one theme of the novel: self-loathing, and what it will do to a person, particularly a child. Morrison believed cultural pressures in the United States inspired self-loathing in many African Americans. This self-loathing stems from what African American sociologist and writer W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as "double consciousness." In his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois describes how the American world offers a black person "no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world." Du Bois says an African American person is "always looking at one's self through the eyes of others." He is expressing the experience of internalized racism, where African Americans are taught by the dominant culture to hate their own identities. In the novel the most obvious example of this self-loathing is Pecola's desire for blue eyes, but almost every African American in the novel demonstrates some self-loathing.

Claudia is the sole character who steadfastly expresses her preference for authentically African American experiences. Her family tries to give her white baby dolls, which she dislikes. Her sister Frieda and Pecola share an enthusiasm for Shirley Temple, but Claudia resents little Shirley.

Pecola's family is full of self-loathing. Morrison says they believed they were ugly. They look at themselves through the eyes of white people, and they do not like what they see. Pecola's mother, Mrs. Breedlove, has a damaged foot and a rotted-away tooth, but her belief in her own ugliness shapes her behavior more than those real physical ailments. As a result of this belief Mrs. Breedlove chooses to stay with Cholly and suffer.

Cholly's self-loathing has deep roots. It is difficult to believe in your own self-worth when your mother abandons you on a trash heap. Cholly later experiences cruel or abusive treatment from his father and the white men who catch him having sex. This is a devastating moment of double consciousness: Cholly watches himself as the white men watch him, and he feels emasculated by it. Cholly questions his own value, as Morrison makes explicit just before he rapes Pecola: "What could ... earn him his own respect, that would ... allow him to accept her love?" Morrison does not justify Cholly's actions, but she offers an explanation.

This theme also explains why Morrison spends an entire chapter focusing on Geraldine and her family, characters who have no other impact on the book. Geraldine's behavior perfectly illustrates how self-loathing can warp a person's identity and behavior. Geraldine and African American women like her shape their lives to please white people: Morrison says they "learn how to do the white man's work with refinement." They use double consciousness to create a life that looks good on the surface, but Morrison's disdain for them is clear. They are trying to starch and straighten and regulate their lives to avoid anything "funky"—a term that, in the 1970s, would be familiar slang to African Americans. Geraldine even teaches her unpleasant son to avoid "niggers" and to play with white children. She tells Junior he is better than black children: no clearer proof of self-loathing. Du Bois argued that double consciousness involved an awareness of two separate worlds: one white, one black. Geraldine and women like her use double consciousness to succeed in the white world—to the extent a black person is ever allowed to succeed in that world. But they fail in the African American world, which represents their true selves. They have loathed themselves into exile from the only world where they can be free.

Dangers of Love

Morrison repeatedly raises the question of love. What is love? How does love happen? In The Bluest Eye love is dangerous.

Love is first mentioned in relation to Pecola and her baby. The first time Claudia speaks of love is not to her parents, but to Mr. Henry: "even after what came later," she says. Claudia describes pretending to love white baby dolls: "the conversion from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred, to fraudulent love." These loves are not purely positive: a baby conceived through incest and rape, a beloved adult who later molests a little girl, a faked love for toys so adults will be satisfied. At the end of "Autumn" Pecola asks, "How do you get somebody to love you?" Claudia says such a question "had never entered my mind," but it expresses how difficult Pecola's childhood has been.

Throughout the book the lines between love and sex, between love and abuse, are constantly crossed. Pecola hears about love from the prostitutes who live above her, yet these women do not love their clients. They hate men in general, but they still talk about "boyfriends." In the same way Soaphead Church insists he "loved" little girls when he was really molesting them.

Cholly never really learned how to love. He was abandoned by his parents and raised by a great-aunt. He hears himself described as "Jimmy's boy, the last thing she loved," even as he is unable to grieve for her. Later, when he finally can cry for Aunt Jimmy, he remembers her holding food out to him "with affection."

Morrison does not mince words: love is messy, it is "funky," and it is dangerous. Morrison describes how Geraldine and women like her avoid "funky" emotions, including love, which is once again confused with sex. Geraldine limits her sexual interactions, even with her husband. Her only love-like emotions are reserved for her cat, which inspires envy in her son. The cat is a loved object, and it is almost destroyed: once again, love is dangerous.

Cholly's interactions with Pecola make the conflation of love and sex even more uncomfortable and dangerous. Cholly feels love for Pecola, Morrison claims, and she repeatedly emphasizes his tenderness, even as Cholly rapes his young daughter. At the end of the book Claudia also talks about Cholly's love for Pecola but cautions, "the love of a free man is never safe." Clearly this is true: his love for Pecola is unsafe.

Construction of Beauty

Morrison argues every individual may have a certain beauty, but what really affects our lives is the perception of beauty we learn from others. The first time the word beauty appears in the text it refers to a white baby doll. Claudia says she would like to "dismember it ... to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me." Beauty and beautiful are used multiple times in this chapter, always in reference to the dolls Claudia did not want. She is told every little girl wants a blond-haired, blue-eyed doll, and something must be wrong with her if she does not. Claudia learns the dominant societal attitude (white is better than black) from her African American family. Claudia struggles against these attitudes, but Pecola does not fight them at all.

Morrison tells the reader Pecola's family is ugly because they believe they are ugly. Movingly, Pecola wonders if having "pretty" blue eyes could lead her family to behave in a "prettier" way. Pecola identifies other attractive features of her face: "her teeth were good"—unlike Mrs. Breedlove's—and "her nose was not big and flat like some of those who were thought so cute." In bits and pieces Pecola can see herself as attractive, but without the unattainable blue eyes Pecola believes she will never be beautiful. Morrison says Pecola "would never know her beauty" because she is so convinced of the necessity of blue eyes, which again remind the reader of how society formulates beauty: it requires a white person's features.

Morrison consistently uses the word beauty to refer to the unattainable. Claudia says they resent Maureen because she possesses "the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us." Again Maureen has lighter skin and light-colored eyes, so she can achieve beauty while the other girls cannot. Beauty is also used to refer to concrete objects that are out of the girls' scope of experience. When Pecola is in Geraldine's house, Morrison twice describes the surroundings as "beautiful." Soaphead Church, whose family had an elevated social standing, collects objects of beauty. Again the message: beauty is out of reach for the average African American. Beauty is for white people and a few lucky African Americans.

Morrison says Mrs. Breedlove connected "physical beauty with virtue," which inspired "self-contempt." Mrs. Breedlove sees beauty every day in her employer's house, but she keeps it separate. It is not part of her home or her children. The implication is they are not good enough to possess beauty—Mrs. Breedlove's twisted binding together of beauty and virtue. This is also part of the dominant societal construction of beauty: white equals beautiful and beautiful equals good, therefore black equals ugly and ugly equals bad.

This message is destructive, Morrison warns. When Mrs. Breedlove learns about "physical beauty" from the movies, Morrison calls it "probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought." It is destructive because so often beauty is defined by ugliness. Near the end of the novel Claudia says, "We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness." Pecola helped them see their own beauty because she could not see hers, but what a sacrifice she made. Morrison wants all people to recognize their inherent beauty, which is something she believes many African Americans are ill-equipped to do.

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