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The Bluest Eye (thoughts)

February 23, 2008

My Year of Reading DangerouslyToni Morrison is one of those authors that my inner reader shies away from (this list also includes people like Philip Roth, John Updike…really most contemporary American writers). When the New York Times did that big project a couple years ago (I can’t even remember what it was called), with the aim (I think) of finding the fifty best American books for the second half of the twentieth century, and Beloved topped the list, I finally decided to suck it up. I took myself off to Barnes and Noble, found a comfy chair, and read the first couple chapters. All of a sudden, I was over half way through and didn’t want to put it down! So I bought it, brought it home, and realised that Toni Morrison is an incredible writer who totally deserves all of her accolades (I’m sure she appreciated that realisation, lol). But somehow I never got around to reading anything else by her, until this month’s Year of Reading Dangerously selection, The Bluest Eye.

I opened this with high expectations, but in all honesty, this one felt like a first novel. Morrison seemed to be almost hiding behind gimmicks and pyrotechnics; that confident voice I adored in Beloved was nowhere to be found. It also felt as if everything else in the book (characters, plot, voice) was secondary to The Message. In this case, The Message is that the systemic denial/opposition to African American beauty (by both American society in general and African Americans themselves) destroys lives. Why? Because it teaches young African American girls that they’re worthless, which makes them more likely to be victims. And I don’t disagree with this message at all. However, I prefer my literature to be a bit more subtle; the way Morrison keeps spelling things out makes me feel like she doesn’t trust me at all.

Now, before people go and leave me angry comments, I will definitely point something out in Morrison’s favour: this book was published in 1970 and written in the 1960s. That was a very different time, and I can certainly see how Morrison’s focus on ‘racial beauty’ (her phrase from the afterword) and focus on the victimization of young girls needed a megaphone at the time. And while Morrison’s prose isn’t subtle, it has a raw power that’s appealing for itself. Take this selection, from the prologue (italicised because that’s how it is in my copy):

We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow. …For years I thought my sister was right: it was my fault. I had planted [the marigolds] too far down in the earth. It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding. We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt.

Wow. That sentence is probably not something I’ll ever forget. And throughout the book, there were times when I was really impressed; it’s a complicated structure (Pecola’s story is told by one of her childhood friends, no grown up and remembering, but there are also long flashback periods giving the history of the adults in the story), but I thought the most compelling parts were the histories of the various adults. In these, Morrison forgets The Message for a bit in favour of straightforward storytelling, and instantly the characters became flesh and blood. So the awesome Morrison is there, fighting to get out in bits and pieces. Let me give you one example of when the book beats you over the head to get The Message across, so you can understand:

They had extemporized a verse made up of two insults about matters over which the victim had no control: the color of her skin and speculations on the sleeping habits of an adult, wildly fitting in its incoherence. That they themselves were black, or that their own father had similarly relaxed habits was irrelevant. It was their contempt for their blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds-colled-and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path.

See-it’s as if she doesn’t trust the reader to see the hypocrisy of African American children taunting Pecola for having dark skin. And as if she doesn’t trust me to see that that hurts more than if a Caucasian American said the same thing. This kind of overkill is present throughout the book, and it was why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have.

For those who are trying to figure out what’s going on, the book tells the story of Pecola and how in the course of about a year, her life falls apart (in the end, she’s a hallucinating mess). We know from the beginning that Pecola’s father rapes her, so the book is supposed to be one of Pecola’s friends trying to find out why something like this could happen, and even worse why everyone ends up blaming Pecola. It’s a difficult story to read, and Morrison deliberately drives the worst parts home. It also focuses on beauty: Pecola is obsessed with having blue eyes, and the narrator also experiences conflicting emotions towards her white baby dolls. In doing so, it looks at different segments of the African American community, and how the ‘lighter’ ones really stomped on the ‘darker’ ones.

In the end, Picola’s story is a political message. As Morrison explains in the afterword,

I focused, therefore, on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female. In trying to dramatize the devasatation that even the most casual racial contempt can cause, I chose a unqiue situation, not a representative one….But as singular as Pecola’s life was, I believed some aspects of her woundability were lodged in all young girls.

So Pecola can’t become a real person, she’s too busy being a symbol; ironically, it’s the characters that contribute to her downfall that are awarded the status of personhood.  In the end, this was a very uneven book-parts of it were great, parts of it had me rolling my eyes (especially the conceit of that primary reader…I know other people liked it, but I thought it was way too gimmicky and a weak way to start the book, especially since it’s followed by *another* prologue…if Morrison had had Pecola reading the primer withing the text, it would’ve been stronger).  But it was interesting to see how Morrison started out; for those who have only read The Bluest Eye, and were perhaps less than impressed, I highly recommend Beloved.  And for those of you with even more Morrison experience, which book would you recommend I read next?  (There are so many, it’s difficult to decide!)

Favourite Passages
I destroyed white baby dolls.
But the dismembering of dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls. The indifference with which I could have axed them was shaken only by my desire to do so. To discover what eluded me: the secret of the magic they waved on others. What made people look at them and say, “Awwwww,” but not for me? The eye slide of black women as they approached them on the street, and the possessive gentleness of their touch as they handled them (22-3)

You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. (39)

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights-if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different. Her teeth were good, and at least her nose was not big and flat like some of those who were thought so cute. If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, “Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes.” (46)

The only people they need not take orders from were black children and each other. But they took all of that and re-created it in their own image. They ran the houses of white people, and knew it. When white men beat their men, they cleaned up the blood and went home to receive abuse from the victim. They beat their children with one hand and stole for them with the other. The hands that felled trees also cut umbilical cords; the hands that wrung the necks of chickens and butchered hogs also nudged African violets into bloom; the arms that loaded sheaves, bales, and sacks rocked babies into sleep. They patted biscuits into flaky ovals of innocence-and shrouded the dead. They plowed all day and came home to nestle like plums under the limbs of their men. The legs that straddled a mule’s back were the same ones that straddled their men’s hips. And the difference was all the difference there was. (138)

14 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2008 11:26 am

    I’ve not read much Morrison and I’ve not read Beloved. But I have read The Bluest Eye. It was the first book of hers I ever read and maybe because of that it blew me away. It’s been a long time since I read it though and maybe if I re-read it I might have a different take on it. The other Morrison book I’ve read is Jazz and I liked it but I wasn’t dazzled.

  2. February 23, 2008 12:26 pm

    “And I don’t disagree with this message at all. However, I prefer my literature to be a bit more subtle; the way Morrison keeps spelling things out makes me feel like she doesn’t trust me at all.”

    This has happened to me with quite a few books…even if the author is trying to say something that I fundamentally agree with, if it’s too in-your-face it just doesn’t work for me.

    The only Morrison I’ve read was Beloved, and like you I loved it. I’m also not sure where to go next, so I’m looking forward to seeing what your readers suggest.

    I really enjoyed reading this review :)

  3. February 23, 2008 1:35 pm

    This is the only Morrison I have read, and I really did not enjoy it. I haven’t gone so far as to read anymore since, although I know I probably should.

  4. February 23, 2008 2:00 pm

    I’ve only read Beloved and I completely adored it… I dno’t think I’ve read any other Morrisson for the reasons you put forth… I think I tried to read Bluest Eye and a couple others and I just couldn’t get into it. Beloved, however, is an outstanding book, one of my favorites.

  5. February 23, 2008 6:09 pm

    I enjoyed reading Song of Solomon. I loved all the imagery and symbolism.

  6. February 23, 2008 6:21 pm

    Very interesting review. Although I enjoyed the book, I totally see your point.

  7. February 23, 2008 6:44 pm

    Nice review! I’m only a little way in (need to read this weekend, but the puppy won’t leave me alone for long) but see what you’re saying about the hit-us-over-the-head message. For me, as a first-time Morrison reader I am quite bowled over by her gorgeous language. Especially loved the bit about the marigolds. I’ll definitely review it when I’m done.

  8. February 23, 2008 10:29 pm

    Wow what an awesome review! You captured exactly what I was trying to say about the book. Reading it was a bit like being bludgeoned over the head. I don’t know if I can take another book like that in the near future, but maybe I’ll read Beloved someday.

    I think the lowest point of the book was when the two sisters hear everyone blaming Pecola for being raped. It made me so mad! Which is the point, of course. But still not much fun to read.

  9. February 24, 2008 7:27 am

    I read The Bluest Eye a while back and remember finding it so sordid and depressing I never wanted to read any more Morrison. And it was just the subject matter that struck me so, not the writing style! I’m glad to hear her other books are better, maybe I’ll try Beloved. Thanks for the thoughtful review, I enjoyed reading it.

  10. February 24, 2008 8:37 am

    I liked the book, but now that you mention it, I see what you’re saying. I, like Andi, was so into the prose that I kind of ‘ignored’ the heavy-handedness of the message at times. The thing is, I’ve seen the equivalent of a Pecola Breedlove in my life. I’ve seen a few of them, though all white, so I read the book as a message of beauty in general – not just racial beauty. The people in this book I have met, too (all shades of white as well), so I cannot say any of them were “stereotypical, ” per say. I guess I read it in a way that applied to me and ignored all the black vs. white preaching, so I ended up dismissing the literal part! Glad you didn’t – that’s why we talk about books.

  11. February 24, 2008 10:18 am

    Well, thank you Eva! You’ve inspired me to give Toni Morrison a try. I’m not sure exactly why, but I’ve kind of avoided her books. I think that I sometimes get it in my head about well-respected, well-loved novelists, that if I read them and then don’t like them or even worse don’t “get” them, it would make me feel inferior or something. Dumb, I know, but true. But I think you just gave me the push I needed. *adding Beloved to list*

  12. February 25, 2008 1:48 pm

    Stefanie, you shuold definitely try Beloved! I’ll avoid Jazz, though-thanks for the advice. :)

    Nymeth, I’m glad you enjoyed the review! And to see another fan of subtlety. :)

    Marg, there’re so many books to read, it’s difficult to get to them all!

    Daphne, I agree Beloved is outstanding!

    Petunia, I’ll have to look for that one. :)

    Kristen, I enjoyed the book too-I just thought it could’ve been better!

    Andi, I agree-her language is gorgeous. Can’t wait to see your thoughts!

    Kim L, that part did make my really upset as well; the worst part is that it’s so realistic, even today. :(

    Jeane, Beloved is depressing, but not as sordid. And it’s also hopeful, which Bluest Eye certainly isn’t!

    Liz, I don’t think the people were stereotypical (I went and double-checked, and I didn’t say that in the review), I just thought Pecola was a bit flat. The other characters were nicely fleshed out! I didn’t see much black vs. white preaching either; it was more black vs. black, with a bit of white thrown in (in the baby dolls and the family Mrs. Breedlove works for). I enjoyed your thoughts on it as well. :)

    Debi, I avoided her forever as well, so I don’t think that’s dumb. I hope you like Beloved. :)

  13. February 25, 2008 8:07 pm

    Hi! i read the bluest eye for a school project and i totally agree with what you’re saying! i have to do this project at school were i talk about a certain banned book. Eventually i have to chose a side and say whether i liked this book or not and to be honest after i read it.. i was just so out of place! i didnt know if i liked it or if i was just not so interested. I also agree that pecola was a bit flat, i mean we never really know her personality in the story. to me she was just portrayed as being shy, and how she just loathed the way she looked or was. However, Morrison does have a good message. i mean she was trying to get across how the image of beauty was defined in those years and how society had an impact on a little, black girl’s life. So anyway, i totally understand why this book was banned, but if you think about the message of the story, Morrison had to be graphic to explain the certain things that happened or that still happen in an everyday life.
    I think this is such a great review of this book! Your points are very strong and i agree with them as well. THanks! it really helped me understand more about this book and also the different opinions that other people have! i hope you comment back! :)

  14. February 26, 2008 4:35 pm

    Astrid, hi-thanks for stopping by! I didn’t realise it was a banned book, but it does make sense. I hope your school report goes well!

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