There is a commonly held belief that a reader will live a thousand lives in a space of one lifetime. Sometimes those lives are fun, sometimes morbidly fascinating. But sometimes they are important, they are necessary and it is here where The Bluest Eye firmly lies.
Pecola Breedlove is a young black girl, growing up in a small town in a post-Depression USA. History dictates that this was not a great time to be any of the things that Pecola is – poor, a girl and black. Her parents are locked in a bitter disdain-fuelled marriage; her mother only happy when she is at work as a maid for an affluent white family, her father an alcoholic who turns to abusing his daughter. In this, the most horrific of childhoods, looked down upon everywhere she turns, Pecola takes to praying and wishing to be white with blue eyes, because surely life would be better if she were those things.
A majority of the story is told through the eyes of Pecola’ s peer, nine-year old Claudia MacTeer, whose family take Pecola in after her father burns down their house. She is Pecola’s counterpart. Claudia’s family life is stable, enabling a confidence and fierceness that allows her to defend herself, her sister and by extension her friend Pecola who is passive and run down and unable to do these things for herself. The contrast is most blatant in how Claudia questions a blue-eyed , yellow haired baby doll and why it was loveable. No wishing for blue eyes for Claudia. Also in Claudia we see how Pecola is viewed as ugly, something to be pitied but also as a comparison to make one feel better about themselves.
This is no tale of the triumph of the human spirit, no tale of redemption through self-realisation. Pecola’s life is horrible, becomes more horrible through factors that are beyond her control. She is a victim, but not because of her ethnicity. Claudia too is poor, and black and female but her home life enables her to be strong. This is where the difference is between her and Pecola, Breedlove being a farcical name. Cholly and Pauline, Pecola’s parents, are the villains in this story, are also victims, victims of their upbringing, their stories told to humanise these “monsters” not as a way of excusing them but by as a way to ground this story. This happened, does happen still, everyday, everywhere.
This is a powerful and moving book. Morrison’s first and my first Morrison, it is an eye-opening introduction to an author who plays around with language, time, even grammar to bring her own refreshing touch. I did not find this “poetic license” a distraction, but can see how some might do. For example, the opening passage is of Dick and Jane and their ideal life, repeated again in the following paragraph word for word except without any punctuation, no full stops, capital letters, commas etc. The following paragraph is a repeat again but with all the words running together, no spaces. Her manipulation of the structure in this book adds a surreal touch, poetic and lyrical at times. The themes though are clear; obviously race is a big one in a story of a black girl wanting to be white. But self-hatred and that hatreds influence on those around you also plays a major part here.
This is not an easy read, but is an important one. Going back to my opening sentence, there is a resulting empathy that comes from reading stories like these, even if it is on some minor level, that can only work towards a greater awareness of the the world outside of yours, and an appreciation of the world in which you occupy. Highly recommended.