Bluest Eye, The

by Toni Morrison

8/10

In high school I read Beloved but remember little besides being bored. Many years later, as I attempt to add more female authors to my predominantly male library, Toni Morrison is a natural choice, and one supported by my female coworkers. They recommended this and Song of Solomon, so I decided to begin with the earlier work.

Not knowing what to expect, I was immediately impressed by her flowery, poetic language and the penetrating metaphors she employs, metaphors that are so elaborated that it’s difficult to distinguish them from full-fledged symbolism. I have two favorite metaphors, the first being the one she uses to open the book, about the marigold seeds and the fallow earth. The other is Paulina’s rotten tooth. Reading these passages I loved the the dawning realization as I neared the end that Morrison was talking about way more than the image on the page. In both cases I went back and re-read the passages several times, savoring the increasing richness. Here’s the tooth from p. 117:

And then she lost her front tooth. But there must have been a speck, a brown speck easily mistaken for food but which did not leave, which sat on the enamel for months, and grew, until it cut into the surface and then to the brown putty underneath, finally eating away to the root, but avoiding the nerves, so its presence was not noticeable or uncomfortable. Then the weakened roots, having grown accustomed to the poison, responded one day to severe pressure, and the tooth fell free, leaving a ragged stump behind. But even before the little brown speck, there must have been the conditions, the setting that would allow it to exist in the first place.

The vernacular feels authentic and the rhythm of the language is compelling. The story itself is sparse but disturbing, oftentimes uncomfortable to read. The fact that we are reading it as told matter-of-factly by either children or adults struggling to comprehend the actual horror of what they describe makes it perhaps more powerful. Definitely more depressing.

I love Morrison’s treatment of racism and black self-hatred, themes that are omnipresent in the work. Since I have recently been thinking about these very topics, the book was particularly timely and heartbreaking. It is not, perhaps, the most in-depth analysis, but her description of the phenomenon is powerful, and the time in which she wrote it (late 60s) makes it all the more significant and important.

You have Paulina Breedlove getting brainwashed into hating her appearance by going to the movies, and later seething with rage when doctors compare her labor to a horse foaling. Her husband, Cholly, is afraid to hate the white men that threaten him and instead turns his fury against the black woman they force him to rape. There’s Claudia, seeing how much people automatically love white or light-skinned people, understanding it’s wrong and developing a compensatory hatred of Shirley Temple and Maureen Peal. Here’s a passage from p. 74 that sums up the process:

We were sinking under the wisdom, accuracy, and relevance of Maureen’s last words. If she was cute — and if anything could be believed, she was — then we were not. And what did that mean? We were lesser. Nicer, brighter, but still lesser. Dolls we could destroy, but we could not destroy the honey voices of parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of our peers, the slippery light in the eyes of our teachers when they encountered the Maureen Peals of the world. What was the secret? What did we lack? Why was it important? And so what? Guileless and without vanity, we were still in love with ourselves then. We felt comfortable in ours kins, enjoyed the news that our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness. Jealousy we understood and thought natural — a desire to have what somebody else had; but envy was a stranger, new feeling for us. And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us.

Morrison is uncompromising and sometimes brutal in the directness of her descriptions. But she is also unerring. Here I’m not sure about her definition of jealousy and envy, but the whole passage is still wonderful. Those last two sentences are spot-on killer.

Another great part of this edition was the afterword written by Morrison in 1993. It was fascinating to hear her discuss her process of writing the novel and also her regrets about some of its shortcomings.

One such regret was a defect I had noticed too, which is that by switching between narrators for such large portions of the book, it’s hard to feel really moved by Pecola’s travails. I did appreciate the non-conventional structure; Paulina’s stream-of-consciousness was one of the highlights of the book and yielded some of its most heartbreaking thoughts. Additionally, seeing from Cholly’s perspective allows us to understand the circumstances in which such a “monster” could develop. (How circumstances shape the individual is another strong and interesting theme throughout the book.) But having so little of Pecola’s perspective made the ending weaker. Or as Morrison says it, “. . . many readers remain touched but not moved.”

Overall, I liked the book a lot. It was not a fun read, but it was beautiful and thought-provoking (in addition to short). I look forward to reading Song in the near future, although I’m not sure I’ll make it back Beloved‘s way any time soon (that vague tediousness from high school is still haunting me).

 

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