The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel, which I re-read this past week as step one in my plan to follow Rebecca Shinksy’s call to re-read Morrison’s entire backlist. I’ve read Morrison’s first novel before. My copy is leftover from my days at Ohio State and there are some marks on the pages, but not many. A sentence or two underlined, usually over the course of five pages a time, chunks that, clearly, my professor had us focus on. Looking at it now, they seem like the most obvious passages to mark: they are the ones directly addressing the desire for blue eyes in the novel’s tragic character, Pecola Breedlove, the eleven-year-old girl who is raped (and becomes pregnant) by her father.
What I remembered about the novel is a point of pride: I remembered that the same passage I did not like was the same one that, in the afterword, Morrison herself wrote was the least satisfying passage in the book. As an undergrad, I was delighted to learn that my initial response was the same as Morrison’s. This meant I was “correct” and that I “got” the novel. Or, something like that, in the way that I liked to think of the world when I was twenty-one.
Re-reading a novel is kind of a fun experience. There will be one other Morrison novel—Beloved—that will be a re-read for me, and that’s actually kind of nice: I’ll easy into this with a book whose outcome I already know, and still get the experience of reading everything else for the first time.
Of course, that’s not really relevant in The Bluest Eye. The novel opens with the knowledge that Pecola Breedlove is pregnant by her father, and that the novel will discuss the past year, in four sections, of the main character and her family, all set in Lorain, Ohio in 1938. What happens, then, isn’t really what the novel is about. Well, that’s not entirely true, but really, it isn’t a “Who’s killed Mr. Boddy?” novel: it’s also, perhaps more so, a meditation on beauty, family, and race. Still, it can be pretty neat to see how things get to the end even if you know what the end is. Or maybe you only some of the end. Take the opening of Katherine Min’s beautiful novel Secondhand World:
My name is Isadora Myung Hee Sohn and I am eighteen years old. I was recently ninety-five days in a pediatric burn unit at Tri-State medical Center, in Albany, New York, being treated for second- and third-degree burns on my legs, complicated by a recurring bacterial infection. The same fire that injured me killed my parents, Hae Kyoung Chung and Tae Mun Sohn, on June 11, 1976, at approximately 3:20 am.
The present tense tells you were Isadora is; the end result of the novel’s plot are all there in the facts. But, of course, we don’t read the novel simply to know how it happened: we read to know why it happened. Perhaps this is an obvious point, but one that, I think, helped me to sit down and read The Bluest Eye in a certain frame of mind. Which is that the plot is already provided for me, so don’t worry about the end, but consider the journey.
Or something Hallmark-y like that.
One of the best moments in the novel is when Claudia MacTeer and her sister Frieda witness Maureen Peel (the wealthiest, prettiest, and lightest skinned girl in their class) kindness towards Pecola. Maureen, quickly despised by Claudia and her sister, protects Pecola. She’s kind when the boys taunt Pecola for being ugly and seeing her father naked, and Maureen stands stalwart, threatens and backs the boys down, surprising the MacTeers with her ferocity and kindness. She offers to buy Pecola ice cream, and then she talks about menstraution in both a confident and confidental way.
It’s really masterful what happens here. It’s a tense, smart, crisp scene. The reader knows that something isn’t right here. The reader knows there is something distrustful about Claudia. Yet, the MacTeers get sucked in, Pecola does too, and when Maureen turns on them, when her underlying cruelty snaps to the surface, it’s a gut-wrenching moment of brilliance. This was easily my favorite part of the novel, the chapter that I re-read three times to experience just how Morrison makes such charged drama happen.
But the novel, like all first novels, has a weakness. Pecola is a victim, and there is something a bit unsatisfying about her role throughout the book. The narration makes clear that this is not a particularly bright child, though she also has a sense of wonder and kindness (innocence?) that elicits the reader’s sympathy. Which feels a bit neat. Victims aren’t really that interesting to me, on the whole, because the purpose of the victim character seems to be to show just how bad his or her perpetrator truly is. What Morrison achieves, however, is creating a complete dynamic–alcoholic and traumatized father, emotionally and physically crippled mother, absent brother—showing how Pecola’s world can exist in the first place. The milieu is complete and complex; still, Pecola’s story never quite loses the feeling of having a certain sheen to it, a polish that glosses over some flaws visible upon deeper thought.
The novel isn’t perfect, but so what? It’s a wonderful introduction to one of our best contemporary novels, with the foundation for the thoughts of race, class, and gender that appear through Morrison’s novels.
Endnote: Rebecca is reading faster and smarter than I am. Here are her thoughts on The Bluest Eye.
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