Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.
Only Toni Morrison can so beautifully weave her words together in such a way as to make the reader appreciate the loveliness but still comprehend the stark meaning of all those linked words. In her first novel, The Bluest Eye, Morrison writes of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who knows the power of beauty and who prays every day for blue eyes, for the chance to be seen as pretty. Her story is told mainly through the eyes of Claudia MacTeer, whose family takes Pecola in after Pecola’s father tries to burn down her house. The girls drink milk from a Shirley Temple glass, and Pecola sneaks extra milk simply to have the privilege to see Shirley’s sweet white face and dainty curls. This is a community that, although filled with blacks, sees no value in the skin of their own and willingly betrays that flesh time and again.
Claudia’s voice alternates with an omniscient narrator, and the narrative voice is fragmented, a ploy which Morrison will use later in several of her works. Particularly for a first novel, The Bluest Eye is a wonderful study in literary portraiture, as throughout, each character is dissected and explained in vivid detail, making the reader’s judgment of the character’s actions more difficult. This is what the story hinges on as it is full of rape, incest, demoralization, shame, arousal, joy, superstition, and pain.
Within this framework, we watch the characters in a sort of vacuum. There is no outward show of racism, i.e. white community v. black community; however, the seemingly innocuous presence of the Shirley Temple glass is enough to get the point across: black isn’t beautiful in small-town Ohio. Shirley Temple is the impossible goal, and the inner shame and defeat felt by the young girls in the book is evident through the schoolhouse taunting by white girls, white boys, black boys, and lighter-skinned black girls. Maureen Peel, light-skinned and immune to teasing, briefly befriends Claudia, her sister Frieda, and Pecola Breedlove, only to shun them and scream that they are ugly when Claudia stands up to Maureen for teasing Pecola. Maureen teases Pecola about seeing her father naked, knowing that Pecola has been raped by her father.
There is good and there is bad, right and wrong, yet the girls don’t always know what falls into which category. When Pecola first menstruates, Claudia and Frieda help her, hiding the shame of her womanhood from their mother. However, a young girl hiding in the bushes yells for Ms. MacTeer that the girls are being “nasty,” and Frieda gets a beating for being such. Once Ms. MacTeer recognizes the truth, she is implicit in the shame and brings the girls into the fold.
However, it is not only women and young girls who are shamed in the book. Cholly Breedlove, Pecola’s father, is raised by Aunt Jimmy after his father abandons his mother and his mother runs away. At Aunt Jimmy’s funeral, Cholly sneaks off into the woods with a girl. The two begin kissing and touching one another when two white hunters come upon them. Cholly and the girl are frightened and readjust their clothing, but the two men hold the gun to them and force them to touch one another while yelling and egging them on, treating them as animals. Cholly carries that shame with him throughout his life and only relieves it when he meets his sweet wife, Pecola’s mother, Pauline. However, his shame returns, and his innocent daughter becomes his redemption and curse.
Thanks to Devourer of Books and her Audiobook Week (in June) celebrating audiobooks, I picked up The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. It was narrated by Ruby Dee and Toni Morrison herself. I used to listen to audiobooks fairly regularly, but it has been awhile. However, I recently started teaching at a college that requires a bit of a commute. I picked up The Bluest Eye after looking through the shelves and seeing audiobooks that ran 15-30 hours. This particular one ran three hours, which I guessed would take about a week to get through. Well, I guess I’m in the car more than I thought because it only took two days to get through. Two days, a couple of missed exits, and some detours to listen a bit longer, I finished the book.
Some readers are reluctant to pick up Toni Morrison after having read or watched Beloved. If so, I believe you are missing so much. Toni Morrison is a rich, complex, layered writer, and her stories have always resonated with me. My particular favorites are Sula and Song of Solomon.