The Bluest Eye – Discussion Post

As a disclaimer, the 3 of us who run this book club are white, and will be speaking from a place of privilege. We understand this, and will try our best to not be ignorant or assume anything. 

I didn’t enjoy this book. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to. I found it moving, upsetting and distressing, but it made me think. 

The main theme, I thought, was whiteness as beauty. Whiteness as the ideal of beauty, as it being the standard against beauty is measured, as if not being white meant not being beautiful. And for Pecola, it did. Her desperation for blue eyes is a symbol of her unhappiness at the way she looks, how she feels that if she looked different, better, whiter, with all those things that go along with being white, she would be better, and be able to be loved. But in reality it’s not her skin colour or eye colour that stop her being loved by her family, it’s their own personal dysfunction. However it is her skin colour that stops her being loved by others, society, the world. Her unhappiness at her image is racial self loathing, Morrison says in her afterword ‘how something as grotesque as the demonisation of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society’. It made me think about how whiteness is perhaps still seen as the ideal (type beauty into google images and you get white women), and about how children, girls especially, from an early age absorb all of the words and images around them and understand beauty, what constitutes it, how they ‘ought’ to look, the power it holds. All of this focus on beauty can be really harmful, and we see in the novel how unhappy it makes Pecola.

I found the book really disjointed , jumping from time to place to person, but found it gave me a good insight into each person, their life, their history, how the events they went through shaped them. Reading the afterword, Morrison said it was written like that to do that, and so that the reader could assemble the pieces for themselves, and not pity Pecola, as ‘the weight of the novels inquiry on such a delicate and vulnerable a character could smash her and lead readers into the comfort of pitying her, rather than into an interrogation of themselves for the smashing’. I’m not sure I understand this. I do pity her. Is it that we ought to be questioning ourselves, our cultures and societies, our emphasis on beauty, our emphasis on whiteness, rather than just reading a piece of fiction and then forgetting it? Did you think the novel was fragmented, and did you like the way it was written, enjoy piecing it together for yourself, or not?

There were a lot of things in this book that made me think, but as always with me, it’s simply my thoughts and feeling, rather than a deep educational analysis. I’m looking forward to discussing this with you all, but as always please put your own selfcare first.  


22 responses to “The Bluest Eye – Discussion Post

  1. Hello! I’ll start off the commenting process…

    The first thing I wanted to discuss from what Poppy has said is the structure of the novel. Poppy, I completely agree with you about finding it slightly disjointed, but interesting to read about the different characters and their background.
    I too am slightly unsure as to what Toni Morrison meant when she talks about the “weight of the novel’s enquiry” but what I thought it meant, how it came across to me, was that it is not so simplistic as to pity Pecola, to think her life is awful because of how other people treat her – because we flit from character to character and sympathise with them, it makes the whole novel much more complex and so we can’t just pity Pecola, we are forced to think about all the different things that have come together to make her life what it is….. And really a fundamental part of why all the characters act as they do is due to being black in a racist world?

    `Another thing I wanted to touch on (massive TW for rape + abuse) is Cholly + Pecola. Morisson says in the afterword that she ‘feminises’ Cholly’s rape, saying it is more ‘accurately repellant’ when ‘deprived of the glamour of shame’. I’m not entirely sure what she means by this second part but I think I did find it more creepy than a purely violent act. She appears to portray it as an act of twisted love, an idea she comes back to at the end of the book. I really, really disliked this. Seeing his abuse of Pecola not out of a hatred, or a desire to assert power, but as a type of love, both wicked and violent and weak…. It goes against everything I think about abuse but perhaps makes the novel more powerful due to using this difficult concept? Or maybe I read it completely wrong…. I found it a difficult idea to come to grips with anyway.

    • I thought that Pecola was trying to internalise it as an act of love, perhaps out of self-preservation? And perhaps Cholly thought it was the only way he could show love… I don’t think that Morrison thinks rape is loving!

      • No I don’t think she does personally at all! But then do you think it is Pecola’s voice? Because in my afterword, Morrison talks about Pecola being a silence, a void at the heart of the novel, and the only time we hear her voice is in the hallucinatory section? (for me the most devastating part). The wording that stopped me in my tracks was “and Cholly loved her. I’m sure he did. He, at any rate, was the one who loved her enough to touch her, envelop her, give something of himself to her.”

        I just didn’t know how to deal with that!

        • That’s..yeah, I’m not sure what to say about that. Perhaps, he did love her but had absolutely no way to appropriately express that? HE thought he was being loving? Could this be a statement on patriarchal expression of love, in general?

          • Oh – that begins to make sense to me – as a statement on the patriarchal expression of love. As she goes on to say “wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly’. Interesting that she says ‘people’, she doesn’t limit it to ‘men’ – but I think she is leaving us to make our own conclusions about it rather than saying it straight out – making us think.

          • making us think is clearly her speciality!

  2. I feel very similarly to you, Poppy, I really, really struggled with it. Not so much because of the disjointed nature – I read books with non-traditional narration pretty often – but simply because of its brutality.

    I think your point – we ought to be questioning ourselves – is spot on. A white person who reads this book and *doesn’t* feel profoundly disturbed – both about society in general and about what their part in oppressing PoC – has utterly missed the point, at best. I think it’s natrual to feel pity or empathy for Pecola, and as a piece of fiction that might be fine, but as an avatar for black people it’s not – who wants to be pitied? PoC don’t need or want our PITY, surely? Perhaps that’s what Morrison was trying to say?

    Oddly, part of what made me feel most discomfited was actually parts of the forward (the afterward in your copy), because I felt I could relate to lots of it – and obviously, as I’m white, it’s not about me at all.

  3. Yes! I completely agree with this. I did feel so profoundly disturbed. All the ideals of ‘beauty’ as being white, and the fact it really isn’t much better, all these years on…. Yes I felt very disturbed at my part in this. Especially in the section about ‘Polly’ Breedlove in the white people’s house for whom she worked.

    Can you say what you related to in the forward / afterward? Interestingly, my copy had both, both by Toni Morrison! They differed slightly but not much..

    • This:

      ‘I knw that some victims of powerful self-loathing turn out to be dangerous, violent, reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over. Others surrender their identity; melt into a structure that delivers the strong persona they lack. Most others, however, grow beyond it. But there are some who collapse, silently, anonymously, with no voice to express or acknolwedge it. They are invisible.’

      She then goes on to discuss how Pecola is an avatar of this phenomenon. I just…really relate to that.

  4. Oh I can see how that is definitely translatable. Obviously in the Bluest Eye she is talking about self-loathing due to skin colour, but I can really see how that can be applicable to other things.

    Also – is it only about skin colour? She says she talks about Pecola as a singular example – not as representative. So do all the other things that happen to her as well contribute to her self-loathing? Or is it all relating, in the end, to the oppression related to skin colour? (Do you think?)

    • I’m not sure. Obviously – as you said – her family isn’t intended to be representative of Black families in general. But would their particular issues have arisen without racism?

  5. Yeah, I don’t know. I kinda got that feeling from it. Because Cholly + Mrs Breedlove – they are who they are because of racism? Or for Mrs Breedlove is it also to do with the disability of her broken foot?

    But I think racism and general oppression is the overriding thing. And the idea of beauty being seen as white, and a child’s longing for beauty.

    Are you pleased you read it in the end?

    • I am. Though I didn’t exactly have a good time reading it, I think it’s a hugely important book. And Morrison’s writing is so amazing, I’m definitely going to check out some more of her stuff now, so that’s a good thing too!

      • Yup I agree, it is hugely important. And as we’re white, we can never experience racial oppression or really know what it’s like, so its so important for us in particular to read books like this, to listen to women writing like this, to think about our place in all of this and to try to gain some more knowledge of what it is like.

        I finished it this morning and really felt I had to talk about it with someone so I’m glad I’ve been able to do that!!!

        • Yeah, I don’t think I could’ve handled reading this without someone to decompress with, truthfully, it’s so intense.

          • What part did you find most intense?

            I felt like it was the rape that I found the hardest to come to terms with, but for me, by far the saddest part of the book was when Pecola talks to the girl in her mind about her blue eyes and constantly asking how blue they are, and are they the bluest. Oh it made me want to cry.

          • Agree. It just got more and more brutal through the book, but the rape was…fucking hell, horrible doesn’t come close. The bit at the end,when Pecola’s had a breakdown and is talking to herself… God. So powerful and painful.

  6. First I will say that I am white and committed to anti-racism. As such I invite critique on everything I say here and will be glad of guidance and correction.

    I talk about sexual & other domestic violence and racism below, though not very graphically. Please be warned = )

    I think the main theme of the novel is the self-hatred produced by a racist culture. The most overt image of this is Pecola’s pathological desire for blue eyes, but it is also powerfully evident in the character of Geraldine, mother of Junior, who is one of the women who ‘come from Mobile’ and dedicate themselves to the erasure of their natural ‘funk’, and even more so in Pauline, Pecola’s mother. I found Pauline’s story the most affecting, because she was unable to show any tenderness to her own children, yet doted on the white child of the family she worked for (the berry cobbler scene is as disturbing to me as the rape) and was described by them as the perfect servant. Evidently, she doesn’t neglect Pecola because she is a cold, cruel person, but because a racist culture has ingrained in her a hatred of what it has designated as blackness (her husband’s fecklessness, her home’s hopeless poverty and cheerlessness, and her children’s ‘ugliness’). Morrison, in describing her behaviour to her family, ends by saying ‘and the world itself agreed with her’. This is unquestionably a racist world.

    I think this blackness-as-designated-by-white-supremacy is the same thing as the ‘funk’ that the ‘women from Mobile’ try to expunge from themselves. Geraldine’s son yearns for blackness in sexual terms when he longs to play with black boys. White-supremacy (and the black self-hatred that is its offspring) is a hatred and fear of the black body and its sexuality.

    Just before the rape scene, Cholly’s ‘freedom’ is described. I struggle to understand this idea of freedom, but it seems to arise from a litany of proscriptions he has transgressed. He has refused to conform to the demands of white supremacy, but as no alternative narrative to make sense of his experience or identity is available to him (Morrison suggests music could provide one, pointing, I guess, to the Black Arts movement and the reclamation of Black beauty/body/sexuality) he is almost a person without socialisation, without culture, so he can only behave reactively or out of emotion. As his experiences are largely negative, so are his actions. He is able to rape his own daughter without shame, in fact partially out of confused tenderness towards her, as he has no longer any way to make sense of relationships or the feeling of love – or, perhaps, since all his feelings are despised by white supremacy, they are in total confusion, with no way to distinguish kind from cruel, transgression from goodness.

    Claudia (and her sister) is to some extent liberated from racialized self-loathing, as exemplified by her rejection of the white dolls she was given. However, I don’t think Morrison has made Claudia immune, rather, she is pointing out that there are moments and points of resistance in the onslaught of the white supremacist hegemony.

    I loved the book. I felt every word of it was a poisoned dart in the flesh of oppression. I was quite rightly discomforted.

  7. Pingback: Thoughts on ‘The Bluest Eye’ | Unquiet

  8. Hi Rose-Anna, thank you for commenting!

    The berry cobbler scene was very disturbing, I agree, another moment that made me visibly react (I tend to read when commuting so this can get awkward!) It really stopped me in my tracks and made me think – this completely different portrayal of Mrs Breedlove. Her story, in a way, was the saddest in my opinion as nothing so terrible happened to her, just this slow descent under the weight of oppression. The contradiction between the kids’ impression of her love-making with Cholly (Mrs Breedlove being silent due to not enjoying it) and her description (all the colours, and trying desperately to be silent so as to not wake the children) was also really poignant.

    I thought the way Toni Morrison wrote about her was really good, having both the third person and then her own voice telling her story. However, in my afterword Morrison says that is the part of the novel she was least happy with – the form it was written in. I wonder why she said that…

    Thank you for your opinions on the rape with Cholly – I completely see what you mean and it is beginning to make sense to me now! This idea of no longer being able to make sense of any relationships or any kind of love.

    The bit with Soaphead Church was so interesting and mixed. Why did Morrison make him like little girls sexually? As a counter-point to what Cholly did, to show a completely different type of abuse stemming from a different cause? Or just to throw the reader off-track? As I was really not expecting him to say Pecola could have blue eyes if she killed the dog!

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