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The Bluest Eye summary

Toni Morrison

The Reality of Racism and Oppression of Women in 1940’s America

3.8 (142 ratings)
21 mins

Brief summary

'The Bluest Eye' by Toni Morrison is a novel that explores the damaging effects of societal standards on a young black girl's sense of self-worth. It exposes the brutal realities of racism and the importance of self-acceptance in the face of adversity.

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    The Bluest Eye
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    No Marigolds in 1941

    The story begins from the perspective of nine-year-old Claudia MacTeer. She, along with her parents and her ten-year-old sister Frieda, lives in the steel mill town of Lorain, Ohio. One day, Claudia and Frieda are told that two people will soon be living with them. One is a lodger named Mr. Henry, whose rent money will help the MacTeers get by. The other is 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove.

    Pecola has parents, as well as an older brother named Sammy, who frequently runs away from home. But recently, Pecola’s house had burned down. The Breedloves will soon be moving into an empty storefront space in town, but until then, Claudia and Frieda are to share their bed with Pecola.

    When Pecola first arrives at the MacTeer house, she is given some graham crackers and a teacup full of milk. The teacup features the face of the blonde, blue-eyed child actor Shirley Temple. Both Frieda and Pecola go on about how much they like Shirley Temple, and how cute they find her.

    Claudia doesn’t join this conversation. She hates Shirley Temple and she also hates the similarly blonde and blue-eyed baby dolls that she is supposed to adore. The only thing Claudia likes to do is destroy the dolls – poke out the blue eyes, pull out the hair, twist off the arms and legs, tear off the head, and shake out the sawdust.

    Maybe, by dismembering the dolls, Claudia can figure out what it is that makes them so special. The reasoning eludes her. Instead, she just feels shame. And it will be years before she will find some love for little Shirley Temple.

    Pecola, however, uses the Shirley Temple cup whenever she can and gazes lovingly at the little dimpled face. As a result, Claudia’s mom is astounded at how much milk disappears from the house. Pecola also sees a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl staring back at her from the wrapper of Mary Jane candies. How she longs to be Mary Jane. In fact, every night, for an entire year, she prays to God for blue eyes.

    But a more alarming thing happens while Pecola is staying with the MacTeers: she has her first period. This is ominous because, in the opening sentences of the book, we’re told that later, in the fall of 1941, marigolds wouldn’t grow anywhere in town – and Claudia thinks it’s because Pecola is then pregnant with her father’s baby.

    In this early section of the book, we also learn that Pecola’s father, Cholly, is a troubled alcoholic who often gets into fights with Pecola’s mother, Pauline, known as Polly. Pecola’s parents have what today might be called a co-dependent relationship. Polly likes to treat her husband as her special burden, a man God wants her to punish. To eliminate the regular fights Polly has with her drunken husband would be to remove the framework and substance of her otherwise dreary life. Polly would never forgive God if, one day, Cholly stopped drinking.

    Polly works as a housekeeper for a well-to-do white family on the other side of town. At one point, Claudia and Frieda go over to the house where Polly works because they hear that Pecola is with her. When they arrive, they see how Polly slaps and yells at Pecola while treating the white girl of her employer’s family with loving affection.

    We also learn, repeatedly, that Pecola is considered an ugly child by many people, including her own mother. School kids taunt and bully Pecola. And when these kids want to make fun of a boy, they say things like, “Bobby loves Pecola Breedlove!”

    It isn’t just white kids who are picking on Pecola. This point is emphasized when we’re introduced to Maureen Peel, a light-skinned Black girl who everyone at school recognizes as a real beauty. One day, Maureen, Claudia and Frieda are walking home when they pass four Black schoolboys who have surrounded Pecola and chant, “Black e mo. Black e mo. Ya daddy sleeps nekkid.”

    Frieda gets the boys to stop, and rescues Pecola. But the peace doesn’t last long. As the four girls continue their walk home, an argument breaks out. Maureen starts teasing Pecola about her dark skin as well, resulting in Claudia throwing her notebook at Maureen, who runs away while taunting them with, “Black and ugly black e mos! I am cute!”

    As the girls head home, there is a lot for both them and the reader to consider. Claudia, as the narrator looking back at her childhood, recognizes the self-hatred and hopelessness on display among the Black kids who taunted Pecola. By encircling her and chanting, it was like they were performing some sacrificial ritual, fueled by scorn and ignorance.

    Maureen is more complicated. Maureen knows she’s, as she says, “cute.” Claudia and Frieda also know that Maureen is cute. And if that’s true, then it means they aren’t cute. Maybe they are nicer, and smarter, but they are still less than Maureen in some way. It is one of the first times they have ever felt envy. But at the same time, Claudia knows that Maureen isn’t the enemy. The enemy is the unnamable thing that has decided Maureen is beautiful and they aren’t. That’s the thing to be upset about.

    ANALYSIS

    Now’s a good time to hit pause and try to unpack some of this. Toni Morrison wastes no time getting right to the heart of the matter. She introduces us to Pecola Breedlove early on, and describes how badly the girl longs for blue eyes. While this might seem like a strange thing to wish for, Morrison provides so many informative details from the initial perspective of Claudia MacTeer that you quickly begin to understand and empathize with Pecola.

    As Claudia puts it, when thinking about the light-skinned Maureen Peel, there isn’t just one single thing you can point to in order to understand why someone would feel less than others. 

    To begin with, there are cultural influences. Advertising and movies showcase a very specific idea of beauty. When the lodger Mr. Henry arrives, he greets the sisters by calling one Greta Garbo and the other Ginger Rogers. Cultural influences had a deep reach throughout America in that era. They still do, of course, but in the 1940s there was little consideration for audiences that weren’t white. So, everywhere a young girl looked, from the movies, to candy wrappers, to teacups, the image of beauty staring back at her was often blonde and blue-eyed.

    Morrison shows how pervasive the effects of this are. It’s not only Pecola – just about all of the characters in the book have been influenced by this ideal of blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty. Everyone treats Maureen differently and recognizes that there is something special, and even enviable, about her. The self-hatred that this can generate in those who will never be like Maureen, not to mention Greta Garbo, is expressed in different ways. Pecola’s wish for blue eyes begins to feel like an extreme but understandable form of its expression.

    But cultural influences are only part of the equation. As Morrison sees it, Pecola’s wish also speaks to a failure in upbringing. We’ve seen how Pecola’s mother has shown more love for her employer’s white child than for Pecola. In the next section, we’ll take a look at the story behind Pecola’s parents, as well as how the community in general lets this vulnerable girl down.

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    What is The Bluest Eye about?

    The Bluest Eye (1970) is the debut novel of author Toni Morrison. It tells the story of Pecola Breedlove and her parents, and reflects upon the familial and societal circumstances that would lead a Black girl to wish she had blue eyes.

    The Bluest Eye Review

    The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison is a powerful novel that explores the destructive effects of societal standards of beauty and the quest for self-acceptance. Here's what makes this book worth reading:

    • It tackles profound themes such as racism, identity, and the impact of society on individual lives, prompting deep reflection.
    • Morrison's nuanced character development and ability to delve into the complexities of human emotions create a deeply empathetic and thought-provoking reading experience.
    • The book's raw and honest portrayal of the challenges faced by its characters is both heartbreaking and enlightening, leaving a lasting impression on readers.

    Who should read The Bluest Eye?

    • Anyone interested in exploring themes of race and identity
    • Fans of landmark works of modern literature
    • Those seeking insight into African-American history and experience

    About the Author

    Toni Morrison was a celebrated author whose many awards included the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her other books include Beloved, Song of Solomon, and Sula.

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    The Bluest Eye FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Bluest Eye?

    The main message of The Bluest Eye is the destructive power of internalized racism and society's obsession with beauty standards.

    How long does it take to read The Bluest Eye?

    The reading time for The Bluest Eye varies depending on the reader's speed, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is The Bluest Eye a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Bluest Eye is worth reading because it sheds light on important social issues and displays Toni Morrison's exceptional storytelling in a thought-provoking manner.

    Who is the author of The Bluest Eye?

    The author of The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison.

    What to read after The Bluest Eye?

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