The Bluest Eye Summary

Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye

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The Bluest Eye Summary

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Nine-year-old Claudia and ten-year-old Frieda MacTeer live in Lorain, Ohio with their parents. It’s the end of the Great Depression, and the parents are much more focused on providing for basic needs than they are on tending to their children, but the parents love their daughters. The MacTeers welcome a boarder into their home, Henry Washington, as well as Pecola, a young girl whose father has burned down their home. The characters are African Americans, living in a largely white neighborhood. Their attitudes and perspectives on race affect much of the book, especially Pecola’s belief that characteristics of whiteness, especially blue eyes, are marks of beauty.

After Pecola moves back in with her family, her life becomes difficult: her father is an alcoholic, her mother is detached and uninvolved, and the adults frequently beat each other. Her brother runs away repeatedly. In her despair, Pecola imagines that if she were white with blue eyes, life would be different. She’d be considered beautiful, not ugly, the way she sees herself treated. She’s bullied and teased for her dark skin.

The novel reveals more about Pecola’s challenging home life. Her mother, Pauline, has a lame foot and encourages her husband’s abusive behavior so she can see herself as a martyr. She enjoys working, though, as a housekeeper for a white woman. Pecola’s father, Cholly, was raised by a great aunt after being abandoned by his parents. During his first sexual encounter, he was interrupted by two white men, who forced him to finish as they watched. Now, he is unhappy in his marriage and in life.

One day, Cholly returns home to find Pecola washing dishes. In an act of both love and hate, he rapes her. Pecola’s mother finds her passed out on the floor, and when Pecola explains what happened, her mother beats her in disbelief. Pecola flees to Soaphead Church where she finds a mystic and asks for blue eyes.

Pecola becomes pregnant as a result of the rape. Claudia and Frieda, unlike the rest of the neighborhood, hope the baby survives. They take the money they’ve been saving for a bicycle and buy marigold seeds to plant. Marigolds, they believe, will help the baby survive when they bloom. The flowers, however, fail to bloom, and Pecola’s baby dies after being born prematurely.

Cholly rapes Pecola again, and later dies in a workhouse. Pecola loses her grip on reality, and comes to believe that her wish for blue eyes has been granted. Claudia ends the novel by concluding that the entire community used Pecola as a way to feel pretty and loved themselves.

Racism and its effects on those who experience it most is the book’s primary theme. In particular, the book considers how race influences conceptions of beauty. Whiteness is synonymous with beauty for Pecola, and after whiteness, being a lighter skinned African American. As a dark skinned girl, Pecola feels ugly and unloved.

Much of the novel’s plot revolves around sex, especially first times. Cholly is traumatized by the humiliation he suffers during his first time, and he passes that trauma on to his daughter through raping her. Along with racism, sexual violence against girls creates a foundation of hopelessness and sadness that the characters seem unable to rise above. African-American girls are seen only as objects throughout the novel because of their color and their sex.

Several motifs reoccur throughout the novel. Most important is the motif of eyes and seeing. Pecola’s wish for blue eyes highlights a basic element of the novel, the dichotomy of seeing and being seen. Morrison gives detailed descriptions of characters’ eyes, and what the characters are able and unable to see. The beauty of whiteness is manifest for Pecola in blue eyes, but so is her yearning to see the new things that would come with blue eyes. In chapter three, Morrison explains Pecola’s desire for blue eyes: “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.”

The novel opens with the famous children’s story of Dick and Jane. Text from this narrative appears throughout the book, modified, and serves as a contrast between the white, happy story and the novel’s African-American characters’ struggles.

Author Toni Morrison received acclaim for The Bluest Eye, her first published work. The book was successful with readers and critics generally, though the language of the book came under fire for being too simple for its readers. Most notably, civic groups who want the book removed from libraries and school curriculums due to its sexually explicit language and plot have frequently challenged the novel.