Tuesday, November 7, 2017
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The first time I read The Bluest Eye, I found it to be pretty scattered, if I recall correctly. It dwells in digressions, piles symbols upon symbols, often in a way that I found distracted from the central images of white baby dolls and blue eyes that give the novel its title. Among other things, Morrison commits a cardinal literary sin by writing an important character--the mystic fraudster Soaphead Church, who "grants" Pecola her blue eyes--into the very end of the book, where he works the action necessary for the climax.
But Soaphead is such a fascinating character, I quickly brushed that sin aside. Reading it a second time, those flaws, if that's what they are, failed to appear. Because I knew the climax and Soaphead were coming, it freed me up to ignore the narrative movement of the book and really appreciate how painstakingly crafted each disparate part of the book is: Soaphead, the interludes that track the life of Pecola's mother and father, all of it. Each of these stories is so perfectly wrought and self-contained they could exist outside of the novel without losing anything, though they also provide its halting, irregular character. Morrison risks distracting from the intense, immense tragedy that is the story of Pecola, a young girl haunted in ways she cannot understand by the idea of physical beauty in America, but she does so out of a deep need to give each character their due. That goes double for the worst ones, like Cholly, Pecola's father, who rapes and impregnates her in a fit of trauma-induced delusion.
Reading it a second time also allowed me to focus on just how tragic Pecola's story is. She's an easier character to pity than to love, but perhaps that is in keeping with the tragedy: Pecola, unable to love herself, rebuffs the reader's ability to love her as well. To a child like this, who obsesses with Mary Jane candy because of the Shirley Temple-esque white character on the wrapper, who sees the way her own mother prefers the little white girl whose house she keeps, we might say: you're beautiful the way you are! But Pecola is not really beautiful, because the social environment represses her so heavily that anything beautiful in her has no chance to grow. Her obsession with whiteness and with blue eyes becomes so all-consuming that it seems to carve her out from the inside. This sad narrative gets its fullest expression in the baby that is stillborn, that "everybody wanted dead," because its mere existence would be an embodiment of the social ugliness that engendered it. Pecola is, in a sense, as stillborn as her baby.
One thing that The Bluest Eye shows perfectly is just how difficult it is to navigate the pressures of beauty because they exist apart from the discrete actions of people. Morrison is her own best reader and explicator, and she writes in the introduction about a friend who shared Pecola's desire for blue eyes: "Who told her? Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale?" Those are good questions without good answers, which The Bluest Eye is smart enough not to offer.