“Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another–physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.”
Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove is pregnant with her father’s baby, and there is much outrage but little sympathy among the residents of Lorain, Ohio’s African-American community. Considered to be a very ugly little girl, Pecola prays to be beautiful, a wish that centers on her desire for blue eyes. Pecola’s friend, Claudia MacTeer, looks back on the summer of 1941, trying to make sense of what befell Pecola, and how watching the events unfold formed her insights into race and beauty, and particularly the way it impacts women and girls.
Broken into four sections that follow the seasons, Claudia recounts the events surrounding Pecola’s rape. The narrative has a fragmented structure, and other sections delve away from Claudia, focusing on Pecola’s parents, or other residents of Lorain, such as the town psychic Soaphead Church. All of the characters feel a little distant, and a little unknowable, but no one more-so than Pecola herself. In her afterword to the 1994 edition (and included in modified form as a foreword in the more recent Vintage editions) Toni Morrison writes that she was trying to walk a fine line between creating sympathy for Pecola, and engendering pity, which she sought to avoid. According to Morrison, The Bluest Eye began as “a bleak narrative of psychological murder,” and as such the victim was unsuitable as a point of view character, rendering her distant.
At the same time that her protagonist is distant, a “narrative void” in Morrison’s own words, her rendering of Cholly Breedlove’s backstory makes him much more complex than a mere monster who could rape his own daughter. Similarly, she gives a striking introduction to the self-styled misanthrope Soaphead Church, before revealing him to be a pedophile. The result is distinctly uncomfortable—a feeling of distance from the victims, and a skin-crawling proximity to their violators. “I did not want to dehumanize the characters who trashed Pecola and contributed to her collapse,” Morrison reflects, and this makes The Bluest Eye all the more difficult to grapple with.
Even in her very first book, Morrison’s way with words is so striking that her power can turn your stomach, especially when she is laying out beautiful prose to describe terrible, unspeakable things. There is repetition and even rhyme woven into her words, which are gruesomely evocative descriptions of abuse and violence, rapists and pedophiles. I am of course influenced by retrospect, and the force Morrison has become in American literature, but this seems like talent in its raw form. It is hard to say if this is intentional juxtaposition between terrible acts and beautiful words, or an indiscriminate use of power by a fledgling writer. Still, it leaves me excited to delve further into her oeuvre, and see how her style develops.
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