Book 12: The Bluest Eye-Toni Morrison

I’ve been hearing people talk about the importance of this work for years, and yet it was one of the few texts by Toni Morrison I wasn’t particularly interested in reading. I added it to my list because it seemed like it was time that I learned for myself what all the discussion was about. Overall, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this book. It’s written in a way that makes it a bit hard to follow: it jumps from character to character, voice to voice, time period to time period. It wasn’t until midway through the book that I could follow the abrupt changes without having to re-read previous portions; checking character names so that I was clear about who was speaking and what time period we were in. I think this is one of those books that truly merits reading in the context of a classroom, where you can pause and discuss and reflect and have some guidance through digesting the material.

In her foreword, Morrison writes:

When I began writing The Bluest Eye, I was interested in something else. Not resistance to the contempt of others, ways to deflect it, but the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident. I knew 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 acknowledge it. They are invisible. The death of self-esteem can occur quickly, easily in children, before their ego has “legs,” so to speak. Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which, in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to destruction is sealed. (pp. ix – x)

This intention came through in the storyline, but the central element of desiring blue eyes, of desiring to be someone you are not–the image of what is socially valued–and the rejection of that which is considered ugly and the object of your oppression, was not as direct as I think I expected it to be. Which isn’t a bad thing, I think the subtleties and the winding narration just made it harder to process. What really came through to me (and this probably because I’m primed to pick up on these themes because of my PhD work) was the trauma and the violence within each generation and across generations; how the hurtful and violent experiences of one led to their perpetration of hurtful and violent actions to the next. Until we get to Pecola, who turns her experiences of violence and hurt inwards, who inflicts self-harm to the point of dissociating from herself and her entire reality in order to create an identity and existence that reflected what she perceived as safe and beautiful…and happy.

The way the story developed and ended necessitates another reading, followed by conversations with other people who are also reading it, and then, maybe even another reading. To say the story had a sad ending would be too easy, because the ending was just another face to, and continuation of, what it means to be Black and attempt to survive in a world that thrives off of anti-blackness; it really forces you to question whether any one survival tactic is better or healthier than another, if one’s remaining in reality and “coping” with the madness is truly any better than being consumed in the madness and retreating to your own reality, or if it’s all just relative…

We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.

And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.

She, however, stepped over into madness, a madness which protected her from us simply because it bored us in the end. (pp. 205-206)