Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

"Please God," she whispered into the palm of her hand.  "Please make me disappear."  She squeezed her eyes shut.  Little parts of her body faded away.   Now slowly, now with a rush.  Slowly again.  Her fingers  went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow.  Her feet now.  Yes, that was good.  The legs all at once.  It was hardest above the thighs.  She had to be real still and pull.  Her stomach would not go.  But finally it, too, went away.  Then her chest, her neck.  The face was hard, too.  Almost done, almost.  Only her tight, tight eyes were left.  They were always left.

Pecola Breedlove wants blue eyes.  Baby dolls all have blue eyes, and so does the girl on the candy wrapper.  Pecola, like her mother and father, is ugly, in the eyes of most people, and she has always been teased.  But Pecola's desire is a desire for self-destruction, the want not only to become something else, but to disappear and be replaced.  What Pecola wants, essentially, wants to achieve white standards of beauty, even if it means being annihilated in the process.

Despite being the protagonist of the novel, Morrison rarely gives us Pecola's perspective.  Morrison, always sensitive to the complex histories and stories that make up a person's identity, lingers on the back story of every single character, no matter how vile they seem at first: Pecola's hateful, bitter father; her resentful mother; the prostitutes who live nearby; the scam artist Soaphead Church; the narrator Claudia, a girl whose family takes Pecola in.  These narratives help create sympathy where most novels wouldn't bother, but more importantly, they make us aware of how Pecola has been pushed to the margins, and make the novel's climax--a moment of tragic violence committed against Pecola I won't describe--even more difficult because of the narrative distance we feel from Pecola.  Morrison won't allow us to establish the sympathy we want to have; but how often do we deny sympathy to those who are less visible in real life?

The Bluest Eye is Morrison's first novel, and it shows.  Even as thorough as the various narratives are, they lack the depth and pathos of the characters of Beloved or Song of Solomon.  The truncated, postmodern snippets of a "Dick and Jane" story that begin each chapter are a distraction, rather than a necessary counterpoint to Pecola's story.  (Much better is the moment when Pecola accidentally frightens a young white girl whose family employs her mother by showing up suddenly, only to see her mother console the white girl while chasing Pecola out the door--Pecola's lack of a place in the "white picket fence" suburbs is sufficiently established.)

But that's only true by comparison.  Even at its weakest, Morrison's stuff is extraordinary.  Occasionally The Bluest Eye offers moments that rival her maturest work.  I thought the novel was strongest when Pecola visits fraudulent psychic Soaphead Church, who promises her blue eyes in exchange for a little black magic.  When she leaves, he writes a letter to God, crowing that his fooling of Pecola is more than God has ever done:

I, I have caused a miracle.  I gave here the eyes. I gave her the blue, blue, two blue eyes.  Cobalt blue.  A streak of it right out of your own blue heaven.  No one else will see her blue eyes.  But she will.  And she will live happily ever after.  I, I have found it meet and right so to do.

Now you are jealous. You are jealous of me.

This is Morrison at her best.  Soaphead, far from being a mere malicious force inserted into the novel to provide resolution to the conflict, is clearly operating from his own deep wounds.  He's right: she believes in her blue eyes.  But "happily ever after" doesn't quite describe it.


Randy said...

Poll: I loved Beloved. What Morrison novel should I read next?

Christopher said...

Song of Solomon.

Brittany said...

Song of Solomon is very good.

One of my favorite grad classes had us read first works and then major works (authors included Morisson, Pynchon, Marianne Robinson, Phillip Roth, and then we read Aimee Bender and Tea Obreht's first books to remind ourselves how utterly worthless and unaccomplished we are when there are living geniuses).

Even though I know her other works are better, I come back to The Bluest Eye over and over and always love it. Maybe it's because of my own experience with self hatred and assault and shame, but I just love that novel. I love Claudia and her sister's hopefulness and I love to hate that woman that throws Pecola out of the house after the cat dies and I love the Marginot Line and the other prossies.

With all that said, the first time I read the novel I greatly misunderstood the ending. I was in high school and I don't think I accepted that a novel could end that way. It wasn't until the second time that I 'got' it which made it actually more devastating. I thought she had found a friend.....

Christopher said...

Longer answer: The Bluest Eye starts with that "Dick and Jane" excerpt, and it reads like that--a child's story, or a fable. It's never really wholly committed to realism, and that's a good thing in this case because we're meant to see it as a kind of text that applies to many, many situations and many real people.

Beloved and Solomon both inherit a sense of the importance of story and mythology. To me, Song of Solomon is her most successful because it manages to create a sense of individuated realism--the sense that this could have happened in this particular place and particular time in history--while still effectively communicating the importance of storytelling. I haven't read anything but those three, though.