We had defended ourselves since memory against everything and everybody, considered all speech a code to be broken by us, and all gestures subject to careful analysis; we had become headstrong, devious and arrogant. Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves. Our limitations were not known to us—not then. Our only handicap was our size; people gave us orders because they were bigger and stronger. So it was with confidence. strengthened by pity and pride, that we decided to change the course of events and alter a human life.Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye.
I am slowly working my way through Toni Morrison’s novels, making up for unaccountably avoiding her books for many years. Did I think she was too popular and thus I wouldn’t enjoy her writing? My favorite so far is The Bluest Eye, from 1970, a startlingly confident and daring book for a first novel. But, then, sometimes writers, knowing no limitations and full of confidence, start out with a book that blasts through all the conventions of the novel. Just look at the opening three paragraphs of The Bluest Eye, each of which contain the identical sentences—a riff on the once famous Dick and Jane readers, which depicted the stereotypical middle-class, white siblings Dick and Jane in a series of reading primers that were used in grade schools across America from the 1930s through the 1970s. The first iteration, which is the first thing you read in The Bluest Eye, is exactly as you see it below.
Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane? See the cat. It goes meow-meow. Come and play. Come play with Jane. The kitten will not play. See Mother. Mother is very nice. Mother, will you play with Jane? Mother laughs. Laugh, Mother, laugh. See Father. He is big and strong. Father, will you play with Jane? Father is smiling. Smile, Father, smile. See the dog. Bowwow goes the dog. Do you want to play with Jane? See the dog run. Run, dog, run. Look, look. Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane. They will play a good game. Play, Jane, play
The second iteration repeats the same paragraphs but removes all capital letters and punctuation, while the third iteration of the text removes all spacing between the letters. The effect is to suggest that the text is speeding up in each version, finally spinning completely out of control:
HereisthehouseitisgreenandwhiteithasareddooritisveryprettyhereisthefamilyMotherFatherDickandJane. . .
After this opening, which manages to completely undermine the normally reassuring message of the Dick and Jane image of childhood (a distinctly white childhood, at that), Claudia, the book’s primary narrator, begins her story and takes us back to 1941, where she immediately shocks the reader by telling us that “Pecola was having her father’s baby.” But despite this opening sentence, which is about as far from the imagined perfect life of Dick and Jane as one could get, The Bluest Eye is not just about the aptly named Pecola Breedlove, the girl who desperately wants blue eyes. It’s about childhood, about growing up in a black (or mostly black) community in Ohio in a very different time from ours, and it’s about how children discover wisdom.
Here’s Claudia and her sister listening in as her mother and girlfriends gossip about a certain man:
Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly. . . We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all of their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre.
To be clear, this is Claudia as an adult, reflecting back on her childhood, interpreting childhood intuitions through the language of a sophisticated adult. But she is describing how children often look for non-verbal cues to assess the reliability of information or the honesty of others.
While Pecola’s story is the backbone of The Bluest Eye, Morrison frequently drifts into the lives of others in the community. Scattered throughout The Bluest Eye are chapters in which the narration is taken away from Claudia and given over to an omniscient narrator, whose role at first seems to provide some context that Claudia has not seen necessary to provide, like an overview of the town and a brief description of the run-down storefront where Pecola Breedlove and her family live. But later on this narrator provides a chapter-long group portrait of a type of black woman who doesn’t really want to be black, who learns “how to do the white man’s work with refinement,” who learns “how to behave” and “how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions.”
One reason the novel seems so daring is that Morrison was unafraid to show black-on-black racism. In one example, a group of young black boys, “heady with the smell of their own musk, thrilled by the easy power of a majority,” encircle Pecola and begin to tease her with an extemporized verse about the color of her skin and an insult about her father.
It was the contempt for their own 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—cooled—and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path. They danced a macabre ballet around the victim, whom for their own sake, they were prepared to sacrifice to the flaming pit.
And Pecola’s parents are quite the pair, “an upright and Christian woman, burdened with a no-count man” named Cholly.
If Cholly had stopped drinking, she would never have forgiven Jesus. She needed Cholly’s sins desperately. The lower he sank, the wilder and more irresponsible he became, the more splendid she and her task became. In the name of Jesus.
No less did Cholly need her. She was one of the few things abhorrent to him that he could touch and therefore hurt. He poured out on her the sum of all his inarticulate fury and aborted desires.
Morrison is careful to point out that all of this—the black-on-back racism, Cholly’s alcoholism and fury, the black women who want to pass for white, and Pecola’s desire to have blue eyes—stem from the same causes: centuries of white racism against blacks and the history of slavery. But, as her narrator warned us at the outset of the novel, even understanding racism doesn’t mean that anything else comes any easier. “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Morrison demonstrates this with the character Cholly, who, for three-quarters of the novel is little more than a drunk, evil man who impregnates his own daughter. But then we learn the source of his hatred and loathing. As a teenager, he and a young girl were caught making love in the woods by a small group of white hunters, who forced them to continue their lovemaking, much to the amusement and teasing of the white men.
Never once did [Cholly] consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless. His subconscious knew what his conscious mind did not guess—that hating them would have consume him, burned him up like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke. He was in time to discover that hated of white men—but not now. Not in impotence, but later, when the hatred could find sweet expression. For now, he hated the one who had created the situation, the one who bore witness to his failure, his impotence. The one he had not been able to protect, to spare, to cover from the round moon glow of the flashlight.
Unable to hate the white men who had abused him and his girlfriend, Cholly turns the blame on her—and on black women in general. He must flail back at them for making him feel small, helpless, and impotent.
One thing that is impossible to overlook when reading The Bluest Eye is Morrison’s use of color. On Saturdays, Claudia’s mother would often sing “about hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me time.” And when she did, Claudia said, “misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother’s voice took all of the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet.” Because I read The Bluest Eye in eBook format, I could easily search and count the number of times various words appeared within the book. By my rough count, here are the number of times that several colors (and their variations, e.g. black, blackest, blue, blues, blueish, etc.) are found in The Bluest Eye: red 26 times, blue 123 times, green 44 times, black 104 times, white 104 times, and yellow 20 times. That’s a load of color.
Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. I read the Vintage ebook, 2007.