Pulitzer prize winner and winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison celebrated her 88th birthday last week. The acclaimed American novelist has written more than two dozen novels, non-fiction books, plays, children’s literature and more.
In celebration of this icon’s birthday, we wanted to take a look at Morrison’s first published work, which also happens to be one of her most notable: “The Bluest Eye.”
Published in 1970, the novel is about Pecola, a young Black girl who wishes, more than anything, that she could have blue eyes. Morrison explores this deep-rooted and complex desire through a writing and storytelling style that can only be described as daring.
First, the vernacular of the novel is executed in a way that is authentic and immersive. Second, the story is narrated by a secondary protagonist Claudia, a young Black girl and friend of Pecola’s, whose youthful and sometimes naïve perspective offers a rawness to the story that would have been lost otherwise. Finally, the novel follows the chronology of the seasons, yet each season is in a different time period and follows a different character. It’s not until the climax of the story that the role of these characters becomes clear; they are all a part of Pecola’s larger story. Furthermore, they are all representative of aspects of a racially divided society.
Morrison touches on several important themes regarding race in this book, the central theme being that Pecola’s desire for blue eyes highlights a social context that views blue eyes, which in this case is synonymous with White-ness, as the standard of beauty to strive for.
This plays into the larger message of the novel, which is ultimately concerned with the idea of internalized racism: racial conditioning that occurs when people in a group targeted by racism begin to believe in their own inferiority.
Therefore, Pecola and her desire for blue eyes is simply a product of deep oppression. One that causes even children to believe the inferiority that society has conditioned them to feel. One that turns families against each other, and individuals against their own communities.
In “The Bluest Eye,” Morrison does more than tell a story, she shows readers what it’s like to walk a couple hundred years in an institutionally oppressed Black woman’s shoes; when the world is so against her, that she has no choice, but to turn against herself.