The recent demise of Toni Morrison was a truly big blow to the world of diverse literature. With her end, comes an end to a writer who stood up for lesser known and oppressed voices, who urged those who did not see themselves in literature to write their own stories, to voice themselves since each story and each voice matters.
I am not really sure of how I picked up Toni Morrison’s books. I remember reading and loving the subtleties in her books, Sula and Mercy, which are my favourites while the more darker and deeper, Beloved, was a tough read to grasp. Perhaps, I should give it a try once again to enjoy and understand it thoroughly.
One of the recent ones I read was The Bluest Eye which is now my favourite, toppling the previous titles.
The Bluest Eye is her debut novel, a heart wrenching story of two black girls, Claudia and Pecola, and how the widespread racism in their society affects them both.
Claudia and Pecola live in Lorain, Ohio in the 1940s. Pecola’s family is dispersed after her father, Cholly, sets fire to their house and now Pecola lives with Claudia and Frieda, two sisters.
The story is narrated alternatively by Claudia and a third person narrator.
Claudia’s point of view is that of a child and her keen observations of both the countryside and her family and of Pecola portray the different facets of racism prevalent as well as her questioning of those very facets.
Particularly the tradition of gifting girls white dolls. She does not like it. She would prefer to enjoy a quiet Christmas dinner with her family than have these white dolls thrusted upon her. Claudia is able to pick up on the idea of how these white dolls are idealised and how the adults in her family also adore these dolls and love to gift them. What she is unable to understand however, is the ‘why’ behind this ideal treatment given to the white dolls. So instead of loving those dolls and being happy with them, Claudia possesses a desire to destroy those dolls and find out the exact reason as to why society loves these dolls more than her. This desire to destroy is also projected on the real white girls as well. This one incident itself shows the layered and disturbing reach of racism. Firstly, that white is the standard of beauty which also seems to be the reason (though Claudia is unable to comprehend it at her young age) behind loving white girls (Maureen Peal is one character introduced early on who joins Claudia’s and Frieda’s school and the entire school treats her differently, better, than the black children) and white dolls more! Secondly, it shows how a child is impacted by this idealisation of white beauty standards and how even adults, who should know better, propagate this stereotype. Claudia is the only one who seems to be perplexed by this idealisation and questions it.
She is an exception though.
Because, on the other hand, Pecola has become an absolute slave to that very idealisation. Claudia also narrates a particular incident where Pecola looked fondly at a cup that had a picture of the white child actress, Shirley Temple. She was so in love with the cup and with Shirley Temple that she drank three quarts of milk! In a third person narrative, we also see Pecola praying to God for a pair of blue eyes as she believes that having them will solve all her problems, it will make her beautiful and that will allow her family, particularly her mother to love her which will make her life better.
Unlike Claudia, Pecola seems to have completely internalised the white standard of beauty.
The novel does not merely tell the reader about the dangers of such an idealisation but critically looks at how this idealisation develops in the first place.
Popular culture is one of the many culprits in this case.
We see how Pecola is overwhelmed by images of white beauty around her be it the child actress, Shirley Temple, or the Mary Jane candies or the very stereotypical Jane and Dick primers popular in the United States’s schools during that time that portrayed a perfect and a happy white family. Although the last example is not shown to impact Pecola directly, the use of some of its passages as prologue and epigraphs throughout the novel by Morrison implies it’s overbearing presence in schools and its possible, subtle impact on the students.
Even Pecola’s own mother’s idea of romantic love is shaped by the movies and their predominant white representation.
All these various critiques also bring to mind the questions regarding diverse representation in popular culture and the lack of it.
Pecola is impacted to such an extent that she believes that possessing blue eyes is the only solution to all her problems; so strong is this belief that she is brought to the brink of madness by the end.
However devastating the novel might be, Toni Morrison did not want the reader to merely sympathesise with Pecola and then bury the story forever somewhere in the deep recesses of their minds. Pecola was not an object of pity but rather a means to question ourselves or our blind beliefs regarding beauty or how they get entrenched within us in the first place.
And I believe that it is to get the readers out of their comfort zone or the vicious cycle of pity and forgetfulness, that Toni Morrison uses a fragmented narration within a seemingly chronological framework.
The Bluest Eye is divided into the four seasons starting with autumn and moving chronologically thereon but within is a jumble of incidents that Claudia seems to be recalling.
Further the change in the point of views also demonstrates the way racism can function within a community as well.
As mentioned before, the story alternates between Claudia’s first person point of view and a third person narrative.
Claudia’s narration is a reminiscing of her childhood, critically pointing out how she and her sister used to deal with their experiences back then and how racism affected Pecola. Through her narration itself, the reader comes to know about how ideas surrounding racism are imbibed by the children. Her narration talks about how they were innocent then, devoid of such notions, and in retrospect she sees how several factors within their society made them internalise those damaging ideas.
The third person point of view interjects Claudia’s and narrates about the general ways of life in Lorraine, revealing layers of racism be it in Geraldine’s condescendence of “niggers”, thinking herself to be superior because she is “coloured” or be it Soaphead Church’s family tradition of marrying white people to lighten their colour and erase their black roots physically.
There are instances where within an anecdote itself there will be shifts in point of views.
Thus The Bluest Eye does not merely portray the ill effects of racism in America but emphasises on the myriad factors that are complicit in perpetuating that racism itself. And in this Toni Morrison spares no one and rightly so. She brings it out heartbreakingly through an experimental structure used in the novel that truly qualifies it as a postmodern novel.
Published in 1970, The Bluest Eye, resonates even today in the 21st century where girls still battle with various constructed and forcibly or subtly imposed beauty standards of society.