The Bluest Eye: An Analysis
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s debut novel, tells a compelling story that combines multiple narratives with stunning language to explore themes of racism, beauty, and love through the circumstances surrounding its characters. The novel raises a plethora of questions, how an obsession with beauty leads to madness and the experience of the unseen and unheard in society. Among such ideas, one that is of particular interest is how this novel frames love. While the majority of the texts that have been perused in this course portray love as an unconquerable force that can withstand any obstacle, this novel suggests that love cannot flourish in an environment where racism and oppression hold rank. By using various tools to explore the relationship between love, the physical environment, and the societal environment, Morrison frames love (or its lack thereof) as a product of its environment, rather than an independent, invincible entity.
The setting and context of this novel are key in enhancing an understanding of how the text frames love. The Bluest Eye is set in Lorain, Ohio in 1941. The early 1940s were a particularly interesting time in US history; the country was just beginning to recover from The Great Depression, and World War II was also occurring. At this time, many black families were migrating to the north of the country, because of the increase in factory jobs caused by war efforts, and also to escape racism in the south. A particularly interesting effect of the Second World War was the enhanced boom of the film industry. The time period during which this book is set takes place in the middle of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time where various movie milestones were achieved and thousands of films war being produced. The war only contributed to this boom by creating a need for a subtle way to broadcast propaganda as a way to distract the masses. As a result, many films were made to boost morale as well as highlight US culture. Among the escapist and patriotic themes in the films, there was also a prevalence of romantic stories with stars like Rita Hayworth and Jean Harlow gracing the silver screen.
The movies not only provided US citizens with a distraction from the war, but it also provided characters like Pauline Breedlove with an escape from reality, becoming a place where she could succumb to her “earlier dreams” (Morrison, 122), an activity which had consequences. In the movies, Pauline was introduced to romantic love and physical beauty, two ideas which “originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion” (122). Such a powerful statement encompasses the trajectory of the effect of the imposition of such narrow narratives of love and beauty on African Americans. In a time period when most of the stories told by media involved ‘blonde bombshells’ with perfect hair, a eurocentric standard of beauty was set. Not only does the text’s portrayal of the film offer a criticism of the narrow lens that media views love, but it also shows the negative effect of such an idealistic narrative on black women, whose social and physical position meant at the time that such lifestyles will remain an unattainable aspiration. The perpetuation of beauty ideals that are inherently exclusive of a particular race not only affects their view of beauty but also their ability to love themselves. The novel describes how “by equating beauty with virtue, Pauline stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap” (122) The idea of equating beauty with virtue has been around for ages and is seen in other texts like Venus and Adonis, where Adonis’ beauty is often described using descriptive language that connotes purity. In any case, this shows how the idealistic environment created by media encouraged the association of whiteness with virtue, which therefore grouped blackness with a lack of it, a notion that cultivates the development of self-hatred because virtue and beauty are often said to be necessary precursors for love and desire to bloom.
Films were not the only way through which eurocentric beauty standards were communicated. Dolls were another avenue where such standards were perpetuated. Claudia reflected on how “Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, window signs—all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, pink-skinned doll was what every girl treasured” (25). This shows how mass media not only created beauty standards but also dictated what could be deemed as lovable. In doing so, an environment was cultivated, one that created an ideal of beauty and love that was intrinsic in its exclusion of poor, black females. From little girls being taught to love and idolize Shirley Temple, to older women attempting to tailor their appearance towards that of Jean Harlow, the effects of media’s portrayal of a narrow vision of beauty can be seen over time in the lives of African American females and their ideas of love.
This novel frames love, particularly self-love, as a product of the societal environment by suggesting that self-love can be poisoned and diminished as a consequence of ideas imposed by media and people. For example, after the argument with Maureen, Claudia ruminates that “we were still in love with ourselves then”(74), which foreshadows the eventual ceasing of their self-love. The loss of self-love is framed as a progressing change that occurs with age, as seen in the discussion Pecola, Freida, and Claudia have about “how cu-ute”(22) Shirley Temple is. Pecola and Freida, who are older than Claudia, and have therefore progressed in their transition from “ pristine sadism to fabricated hatred to fraudulent love” (23) are bemused by Shirley Temple, while Claudia, who still possesses a defiantly different perspective, is not. These contrasting opinions held by the girls seem to emphasize the inevitability of a loss of self-love, which is unsurprising given the pervasiveness of eurocentric ideals- not only is media showing them what is lovable through dolls, but their parents also emphasize these notions by assuming that a blue-eyed baby doll represented her “fondest wish”(22).
This social environment not only hindered black people from loving themselves but also negatively affected their ability to love others. For example, Pauline, who finds “beauty, order, cleanliness and praise” as a housemaid in the home of a white, well-off family, treats their daughter with more kindness and affection than she does to Pecola and Sammy, her own children. The narrator’s comparison of Pauline as she “brushed the yellow hair, enjoying the roll and slip of it between her fingers” to her contempt at the “tangled black puffs of rough wool to comb” shows how the effect of the idealistic white lifestyle preached in the societal environment; Pauline, as a product of her ‘education’ at the movies and desire for beauty and praise was conditioned to love the white child in her care, rather than her own children and husband, who, she instead relegates to mere “afterthoughts” (127).
Another way the text explores the connection love has to its surroundings is through natural imagery. The text itself is arranged into 4 sections, each a different season: autumn, winter, spring, and summer. The irony of such an arrangement is that although each season usually comes with its own respective challenges and connotations, every season in this book is punctuated by the violence of some form. This shows how nature and the physical environment itself has been characterized as an opposing force against black girls. For example, spring a season that is usually associated with refreshing renewals and new beginnings is associated with violence, according to Claudia; spring simply represents “change in whipping style” (97). The contrast between a change in how they were whipped to the “showy hopefulness shooting for the forsythia and lilac bushes” portrays the unnatural relationship the girls have to their environment, which is also reflected on a societal level.
The use of nature to explore love in relation to its surroundings is also seen with the symbol of marigolds. Marigolds, which are flowers that bloom in fall, are used by Claudia and Freida as an unsuccessful attempt to save Pecola’s baby. The girls thought they had failed Pecola because their “flowers never grew” (205), which reflects the girls’ belief that they have the power to use magic to ensure the safety of the baby. When their endeavor failed, they blamed themselves, assuming that it was “because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.”(7) This is interesting because it implies that the disruption in society by unnatural sexual relations was the cause of disruption in nature. Valid as this reasoning maybe, I would argue that Morrison challenges the notion of society causing nature’s disruption, as seen when Claudia reflects that “the Earth itself might have been unyielding.” (7) Such a statement, combined with the knowledge that “there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941” (7)), show how nature environment was unconducive to the baby’s survival, which suggests that love is not an invincible force that can withstand any environment; no matter how much love Claudia and Freida showed to Pecola and her child through their sacrifice, the society itself had poisoned any of love and a happy ending. Morrison describes the unyielding earth, stating that “certain seed it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear” (206). This statement regarding the hostility of nature reveals the vulnerability of love by showing that in certain societal environments, it simply cannot blossom.
The Bluest Eye, in its assessment of how love is affected by external forces, addresses many themes like self-love, beauty, nature, and intersectionality, themes which are seen in other texts that have been explored in this course. For example, the text offers a similar idea to Moonlight in that both narratives show how the absence of loving parental figures may hinder one’s ability to love oneself. Another text that is similar to the Bluest Eye is The Color Purple. Although both texts center around black females who are perceived as ugly and have been victims of sexual abuse by their fathers, one major point of divergence between the narratives of the two novels is how they address self-love and beauty. While The Bluest Eye suggests that beauty ideals in racist societies destroy the possibility of self-love in black females, The Color Purple offers a more positive outlook by implying that even in such societies, it is possible to love oneself, as seen Celie finds contentment without Shug. The Color Purple also offers a counter-narrative to eurocentric beauty standards by presenting Shug as a very black and very beautiful woman. This is particularly striking, as whiteness is usually associated with beauty, which positions blackness as the opposite of beauty. The Color Purple shuns such a notion by describing Shug's blackness in a way that suggests that it is beautiful. I think the contrast between the two texts’ treatment of beauty standards is helpful to understand how more inclusive ideas of beauty could catalyze the development of self-love.
Throughout this course, we’ve seen love conquer self-contempt and sexism in The Color Purple, triumph over battles and Reason in The Knight of the Cart, and force even gods to subdue to its whims in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In such texts, we’ve been exposed to love’s power to transcend various obstacles, but we’ve yet to see the love in a more pessimistic perspective with regards to its power. The Bluest Eye, by examining the effect of societal circumstances on the ability of its characters to love themselves and others, urges us to view love as a more passive force by considering how love can be a product of our environment rather than an outside force that affects our lives.