Toni Morrison’s first novel centres on a year in the life of Pecola Breedlove, a poor, unloved child who wants to have blue eyes. Constantly rejected and told that she is ugly and worthless, she wants the blue eyes of a white girl so she can be loved and treated respectfully. Through flashbacks, the reader also learns about the lives of Pauline and Cholly, Pecola’s parents.
Pecola’s family is anything but the ideal family portrayed in the Dick and Jane stories found in children’s readers of the mid-twentieth century, the stories referenced at the beginning of chapters. But though Pauline and Cholly’s treatment of their daughter is at least insensitive if not downright cruel, the flashbacks show what has shaped them and explain their behaviour. Though it is difficult to forgive, we can at least understand what motivates them. Morrison humanizes them and shows them to be victims as well.
The book examines a people trapped in fatal self-loathing, a self-hatred produced by a racist culture. Fair-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed children are held up as the epitome of beauty. What chance does a black child have when “black” has so many negative connotations?
The novel begins with first person narration, nine-year-old Claudia, one of Pecola’s classmates, being the narrator. Though there are shifts in point of view, it is the innocence of Claudia and her sister that is most effective in conveying the injustices heaped upon Pecola.
The prose can only be described as poetic. It is a style that invites the reader to savour words. Because of the deadline of a book club meeting, I read it quickly and so undoubtedly missed much. It’s a book that should be read slowly with individual sentences and even phrases being examined.
The book is not an easy read. It is unsettling and offers little hope. Tragedy and sadness abound and there seems no end to the pain. Perhaps only in Claudia’s rejection of a blue-eyed doll - “the big, the special, the loving gift” (20) - is there a suggestion that society’s racist standards of beauty may eventually be likewise rejected by black girls.
Morrison wrote about black girls in American culture, but I also found myself thinking about First Nations’ children in Canadian culture. We have the horrific history of residential schools where aboriginal children were also told they were ugly and worthless. Those children, ripped from their homes and parents, were, like Cholly, totally unprepared for parenthood: “having never watched any parent raise himself, he could not even comprehend what such a relationship should be” (160). The consequences for the children of residential school survivors were disastrous – just as Pecola suffers because of Cholly’s lack of parental role models.
Perhaps that is part of Morrison’s achievement in the book: her message applies not just to the situation of blacks in the United States, but also to other minority cultures elsewhere. Because what she wrote about 45 years ago is still a problem (e.g. Black girls lightening their skin; Asian girls having cosmetic eye surgery), Morrison’s testimony is damning. Though her specific perspective should not in any way be dismissed, her book transcends a specific time and place. So though the book is an uncomfortable read, it is one that must be read.