I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading Toni Morrison’s first novel, originally published back in 1970. Morrison’s reputation goes without saying, and I had to remind myself that this was her debut, a book that is so accomplished, so expertly structured in a non-traditional way that works to enhance the book rather than being just a gimmick. The theme of the book is the question of beauty; specifically Morrison asks why white beauty is the benchmark that we all (still) hold ourselves up to; why would a young black girl beg for God to give her blue eyes and think that without them that she will never be good enough.
Set in Ohio in the early 1940s, The Bluest Eye is the story of Pecola, a young girl growing up in a poor black family. Part written in first person from the perspective of Claudia, a schoolmate of Pecola’s, mainly written in a third person that shines a spotlight on the various characters that make up the local black community where the girls live, the structure is unusual but effective. Morrison looks at race particularly in this book, and is asking the question of her own community: why is lighter skin seen as superior? She uses examples of characters of a lighter complexion to show this point, most notably a schoolmate of Claudia and Pecola’s named Maureen Peal, a ‘high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back’. Where no one at school wants to sit next to dark skinned Pecola, everyone wants to be Maureen’s friend.
She enchanted the entire school. When teachers called on her, they smiled encouragingly. Black boys didn’t trip her in the halls; white boys didn’t stone her, white girls didn’t suck their teeth when she was assigned to be their work partners; black girls stepped aside when she wanted to use the sink in the girls’ toilet, and their eyes genuflected under sliding lids. She never had to search for anybody to eat with in the cafeteria – they flocked to the table of her choice, where she opened fastidious lunches, shaming our jelly-stained bread with egg-salad sandwiches cut into four dainty squares, pink-frosted cupcakes, stocks of celery and carrots, proud, dark apples. She even bought and liked white milk.
This isn’t an easy book in terms of subject matter. From the beginning we are told that Pecola will fall pregnant by her own father and so you spend the book waiting for that to happen. But Morrison is brave: there are no entirely good or entirely bad characters in this book, only flawed people. And so she shows us the upbringing of Pecola’s father, Cholly, how his mother and father desert him in turn, how he is shamed and abused, treated like an animal by a pair of white men in his teenage years. Even the scene of Pecola’s rape is seen from his point of view, not to justify it but to avoid dehumanising him. He, as with all of the characters, are real human beings, products of their place in society and all clinging on to their rung of the ladder, or falling off in the tragic case of Cholly and Pecola.