Toni Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” has inspired controversy for its unorthodox construction and visceral content. Morrison employs an inventive narrative approach to address issues of racism and identity in the Depression-era Midwest, and in the course of the novel she introduces volatile subjects, such as pedophilia and incest. “The Bluest Eye” rises above mere sensationalism, however, as the sexual content ultimately contributes to the novel’s impact.
Point of View
The point of view of “The Bluest Eye” alternates between the first-person observations of Claudia MacTeer, who befriends the main character, Pecola Breedlove, and an omniscient third-person narrator. Most of Claudia’s narration comes from the viewpoint of her 9-year-old self, while an older, wiser Claudia offers perspective and corrects youthful misapprehensions. Morrison employs a third-person omniscient perspective for those portions of the novel not narrated by Claudia. The third-person omniscient explores the back stories of principal characters like Pauline and Cholly Breedlove, Pecola's parents, and narrates sections like Chapter Five’s disquisition on black womanhood. Pecola herself narrates a brief section of the final chapter through an interior dialogue.
The Role of Pop Culture
American pop culture, with its homogenized standards of beauty, has a powerful impact on the novel’s black female characters. Claudine rejects these standards, despises white children and dismembers a white doll she receives as a gift. On the obverse, Pecola yearns for an idealized beauty that she feels will grant her the love she lacks. She displays this fixation symbolically through the compulsive consumption of milk from a Shirley Temple cup. She later develops an intense desire for blue eyes to compensate for her perceived ugliness. Pecola’s mother, Pauline, develops an addiction to cinema. She comes to believe that happiness belongs only to the beautiful, which stunts her ability to show affection to her children.
Susceptibility to the influence of pop culture serves as just one facet of a pervasive powerlessness that infects most of the characters in “The Bluest Eye.” Child characters such as Claudia, Frieda, Sammy and Pecola are confronted with many adult issues beyond their comprehension. Claudia and Frieda, for example, plant marigolds in an attempt to bestow health on Pecola's unborn child. Femininity bestows another kind of powerlessness, as evidenced in the type of black woman described in Chapter Five and embodied in Geraldine. Sexuality is also presented as something beyond the characters’ control. The onset of puberty confuses Pecola and leaves her vulnerable to her father, while Frieda is molested by her parents’ lodger, Henry.
A Desire for Escape
Many characters in "The Bluest Eye" cope with their circumstances through escapism. Pauline's destructive marriage drives her to the movies and the clean, ordered world of her employer's home. Cholly's childhood abandonment and sexual humiliation lead him to the rootless existence he returns to after raping his daughter. Some characters escape into whiteness, either figuratively, as in the imaginings of Pecola, or literally, as in the Soaphead Church family’s attempt to dilute their African ancestry. Characters such as Henry, Cholly and Soaphead Church seek escape in physical pleasure. Pecola eventually achieves her escape with a total dissociation from reality.