Toni Morrison’s highly acclaimed debut work, The Bluest Eye, is one of unquestionable beauty and intricately woven prose. As a fictional writer, Morrison avails herself of her literary faculties, using her mastery of description in order to convey an unusually lucid picture to the reader. The five senses seem to envelop a great deal of description in the novel, most notably that of sight. As has been discovered by virtue of studying the brain’s neural and cognitive machinery, vision occupies large regions of the brain.
Although in a more abstract sense, vision’s disproportionate influence on the narrative and the story’s characters is greatly manifested in The Bluest Eye. One powerful way in which vision dictates many aspects of the novel is through the concept of aesthetic beauty. Throughout the novel, Morrison paints a detailed depiction of how African-Americans, especially young, amenable girls, are subject to the conventional indoctrination of beauty.
Society has taught them to equate white with beautiful, and to go to considerable lengths to “whiten” themselves, such as in the case of women like Geraldine, who is described as sugar-brown in skin tone: “…they never cover the entire mouth for fear of lips too thick, and they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair” (83). Geraldine even goes as far as to inculcate this physical selfloathing in her own son, Junior: “…his hair was cut as close to his scalp as possible to avoid any suggestion of wool, the part was etched into his hair by the barber” (87).
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Any manifestations of stereotypical racial features, such as full lips and “wool-textured” hair are carefully concealed in an effort to adhere to the white ideal of what is beautiful. In the town of Lorain, Ohio, subliminal and implicit messages emphasizing whiteness as superior are found everywhere, and seemingly impossible to ignore. The quintessential white baby doll given to Claudia as a present, romanticism of Shirley Temple, the exaltation of the light-skinned Maureen, idealization of white female actresses in movies, and Pauline’s nurturing of the little white girl are a few examples of the ways in which hese hypnotic images invade the vulnerable consciousness’ of the African-American women and young girls in the story. Adult women, having matured into consummate self-loathers, detesting the bodies in which they were born, express their hatred by taking it out on their own children: Mrs. Breedlove adopts the conviction that her daughter is ugly, and Geraldine curses Pecola’s blackness. The idea that ugliness is in fact a state of mind is presented early on in the book when illustrating the Breedlove family: “Mrs. Breedlove, Sammy Breedlove, and Pecola Breedlove—wore their ugliness” (38).
This sentence provides an implication that the Breedlove’s ugliness was a result of deliberate choice. The narrator then continues on, observing, “You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source” (39). In saying this, one can elicit that the members of the Breedlove family are not inherently ugly, rather they are driven to believe that they are and that they deserve to be, convincing those that look upon them that they are ugly. The Breedlove’s sense of physical insecurity emanates outwardly, and causes others to see them in the way they want to be seen.
For one reason or another, being viewed with contempt for their appearance benefits them in some way. For Mrs. Breedlove, her ugliness is used for purposes of “martyrdom,” for Sammy, it is used to inflict “pain,” and for Pecola, it is used as a “mask” to hide behind. In the vein of vision, a recurring motif that is discernable in The Bluest Eye is seeing versus being seen. Many characters in the novel, most frequently, Pecola, express feelings of being disregarded and invisible when interacting or in the vicinity of white people.
In the passage about the Breedlove’s living situation, they are described as living in “anonymous” misery. The fact that they paradoxically live in anonymity despite being exposed to passersby on the street, introduces this prevailing theme. Conceivably one of the most memorable scenes that addresses this subject is when Mrs. Breedlove recounts giving birth. In referring to the doctors, she says, “They never said nothing to me. Only one looked at me. Looked at my face, I mean. I looked right back at him. He dropped his eyes and turned red. He knowed, I reckon, that maybe I weren’t no horse foaling” (125).
By refusing to make eye contact with her and acknowledge her, the doctors, in a way, dehumanize her. She sees them, but they do not see her. They treat her as though she is an animal, rather than a sentient human being, and although uneducated, Mrs. Breedlove is perceptive enough to notice this. She believes that if they were to lock eyes with her, they would realize something unpleasant: that she is no different from the white patients. With regard to invisibility, the early scene with Pecola in the candy shop also seems to be particularly telling.
In speaking of Mr. Yacobowski, it says, “…he senses that he need not waste the effort of a glance. He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see. How can a fifty-two-year-old white immigrant store-keeper… see a little black girl? (48). What can be gathered from this is that the man, to some degree, has made a conscious choice not to look at her, not because he is physically incapable of doing so, but because he considers someone of her skin color insignificant, and not worth the energy necessary for acknowledgment.
This theme underscores the difference between how one sees and how one is seen, also differentiates between superficial sight and real insight. Pecola’s desire for blue eyes is undoubtedly essential to examine when considering the power and impact of vision in the novel. Pecola is consumed with the thought of having blue eyes because she believes that they would be the simple panacea for everything that is unpleasant in her life. She is convinced that they will alter the way she is seen by others, and therefore the way that she sees the world around her.
To Pecola, blue eyes and happiness, are inextricably linked. In a way, too, they represent her own blindness, since she attains them at the expense of her sanity. In addition, she has the understanding that if she had “beautiful” eyes, people would not think it right to do ugly things in front of her or to her: “Maybe they’d say, ‘Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes’” (46). She believes that the cruelty she is exposed to is somehow intertwined with how she is seen.
Her insight is confirmed when Maureen steps in while being teased by the boys at school. Upon arrival, it seems that Maureen’s beautiful gaze causes the boys not to want to act badly. One character in The Bluest Eye that stands out against the rest as being one of the few individuals who can see clearly, and through an unadulterated lens is Claudia. Her clarity of vision is in part due to the fact that it is not marred by pain, like Pecola’s is. In the beginning of her narrative, she talks about how she has not yet reached the stage in adolescence where love turns to self-hatred.
She is different from others girls her age because she does not strive to emulate them, at the loss of her well-being. When she receives the doll, she describes her impulse to dismember it: “I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me” (20). In her childlike naiveness, she does not realize that the beauty everyone praises the dolls for does not come from within, but instead, is on the surface. She wants to take apart the doll in the hopes that she will unearth the inner secret to its beauty.
At least at this point, she is unaware of what society has narrow-mindedly deemed beautiful. Near the end of the story, when she and her sister are talking about Pecola’s pregnancy, she imagines the unborn baby as beautiful in its blackness, indicating that she does not embody the impressionable mindset typical of other women in the book. The Bluest Eye is one of the most profound examples in modern literature that attests to the ability of vision in impacting the way in which people perceive the world and are perceived by others.
The novel repeatedly brings to attention the malleability of human sight, and its vulnerability to distortion through the lens of hatred, love, bigotry, and racism. Even in the title of Morrison’s work, one can learn a substantial amount about the intrinsic role vision plays in the story. The word ‘eye’ in the title is singular rather than plural, suggesting the negative implications on the individual by society’s white tunnel vision in relation to concepts of beauty and approval. In addition, the double meaning of ‘eye’ and ‘I’ strongly emphasizes the significance of vision in the grand scheme of the novel.
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