The Bluest Eye

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Self-Hate and The Bluest Eye
At a time when blue-eyed, pale skin Shirley Temple is idolized by white and black alike,
eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove desperately seeks out beauty for herself. In order to attain
beauty in her culture, Pecola must do the impossible: find white beauty. Toni Morrison shows
the disastrous effects that colorism and racism can have on a whole culture and how AfricanAmericans will tear each other apart in order to fit into the graces of white society. The desire to
be considered beautiful in the white world is so compelling, that the characters in The Bluest Eye
loathe their own skin color and feel shame for their culture. These feelings of self-loathing and
contempt pass on from the adults to their children, creating a continuous cycle of negativity and
“Here was an ugly little black girl asking for beauty…A little black girl who wanted to
rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes” (Morrison, 174). By
petitioning for white beauty, Pecola Breedlove is desperately attempting to pull herself out of the
pit of blackness. Because Pecola has dark-skin and authentic African-American features, black
and white society has conditioned her to believe that she is ugly. Pecola‟s physical features
ensure her to be a victim of classical racism; classical racism being the notion that the “physical
ugliness of blackness is a sign of a deeper ugliness and depravity” (Taylor, 16). This notion
allows the mistreatment of dark-skinned people because their blackness is a link to a “dark past”
and to uncivilized ways. Pecola does not epitomize white society‟s standards of beauty because
she does not have light skin and trademark blue eyes; therefore, she must be ugly and bad things
will inevitably happen to her because she is ugly and.
According to Elaine Showalter‟s discussion about “The Female Tradition”, there are
several phases that a minority group experiences. The first phase is described as an extended
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period of “imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition, and internalization of its
standards of art and its views on social roles” (Hamilton, 114). White Western society plays the
dominant role here, and Pecola exhibits longing to imitate white society. Her desperation to
have white beauty is so strong that she eats Mary Jane candies, fantasizing that the candies will
make her white: “Smiling white face. Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out
of clean comfort…To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane.
Be Mary Jane” (Morrison, 50).
Claudia Macteer is the only character that seemingly has distaste for white beauty. She is
not at all impressed with it and does not understand why she is not considered beautiful like
other white children. Readers get a snapshot at the beginning of The Bluest Eye of Frieda and
Pecola discussing their fondness of Shirley Temple. The only one who seems to have a disdain
for Shirley Temple is Claudia: “I couldn‟t join them in their adoration because I hated Shirley.
Not because she was cute, but because she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle,
my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with me” (Morrison, 19).
Claudia cannot comprehend why Bojangles, an African-American man, would not dance and
play with an African-American girl. How could girls with darker skin think of themselves as
cute or pretty if their own men are seen fraternizing with white girls as opposed to colored girls?
Claudia shows even more distaste for white girls when she is given a white doll for
Christmas. “I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the
dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me…all the
world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child
treasured” (Morrison, 20). After the dismemberment of the doll, Claudia remembers being
scorned by the adults of her family telling her “…Now-you-got-one-a-beautiful-one-and-you-
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tear-it-up-what‟s-the-matter-with-you” (Morrison, 21). Even the adults associate white with
beauty, teaching this to their children, thus introducing colorism into the African-American
As defined by Alice Walker, colorism is a “prejudicial or preferential treatment of samerace people based solely on their color” (Lobodziec, 35). Colorism is a practice that started
during slavery, when darker-skinned blacks were relegated to field work, while light-skinned
blacks, often the children of slave-masters, were given house-work. Some believe that
“Caucasian features relate to a higher level of personal and intellectual capacities” (Lobodziec,
35). Maureen Peal‟s character emphasizes this theory. Maureen is described as a “high-yellow
dream child” (Morrison, 62), meaning she was light-skinned and seemed affluent. “When
teachers called on her, they smiled encouragingly. Black boys didn‟t‟ trip her in the halls; white
boys didn‟t stone her, white girls didn‟t suck their teeth when she was assigned to be their
partners; black girls stepped aside when she wanted to use the sink in the girls‟ toilet…”
(Morrison, 62). Preferential treatment was given by white and black children alike, as well as
teachers, to Maureen based solely on her light-skinned appearance. Maureen embraces white
society and understands that she has an advantage with her ability to imitate white girls. She
dresses fashionably with “patent-leather shoes with buckles…fluffy sweaters the color of lemon
drops tucked into skirts with pleats so orderly...” (Morrison, 62). Maureen asserts her colorism
when she calls after Pecola, Frieda, and Claudia “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly e
mos” (Morrison, 73). Instead of relating to her peers through their shared culture, Maureen fully
embraces and relates to white culture, thus pushing the three dark-skinned girls further into the
arms of self-loathing and contempt for their own dark skin color.
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Maureen Peal is not the only character that embraces white society wholly. Geraldine is
also a light-skinned, black woman who strives to be much like a middle-class white woman. Her
house is neat and tidy. She does not display emotion except to her cat. Geraldine allows her son,
Junior, to associate only with white children, teaching him the “…difference between colored
people and niggers. …Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud”
(Morrison, 87). Colored people, in Geraldine‟s eyes, were light-skinned African Americans,
while niggers were those with darker complexions. Instead of teaching Junior about his culture
and heritage, she steers him away from it. Geraldine forces Junior to imitate white boys as much
as possible, teaching him in the process to be ashamed of his ethnicity and to try to blend in with
whites as much as possible: “he wore white shirts and blue trousers; his hair was cut as close to
his scalp as possible to avoid any suggestion of wool. …In winter his mother put Jergens Lotion
on his face to keep the skin from becoming ashen” (Morrison, 87).
By not allowing Junior to associate with his own peers, boys who look and act like him,
causes much turmoil for him. His feelings of confusion and self-loathing for his own people
come out in violent acts. He tortures his mother‟s cat with the knowledge that the cat receives
more of Geraldine‟s love then he, himself, does. Junior also begins to accept that the black boys
are not good enough for him. Ultimately, he begins to pick on dark-skinned girls, Pecola bearing
the brunt of one of these attacks. Geraldine walks in after Junior‟s attack on Pecola and
immediately “saw the torn dress, the plaits had come undone, the muddy shoes with the wad of
gum peeping out from between the cheap soles, the soiled socks…” and immediately classifies
Pecola as a nigger, pure trash. Rather than taking pity on this innocent child, a child who was an
African-American female as she was, Geraldine tells Pecola “Get out. You nasty little black
bitch. Get out of my house” (Morrison, 92). Geraldine‟s teachings ensure that Junior will afflict
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his own generation with self-loathing for their skin color, as well as their culture, creating a
never-ending cycle.
The contempt that African-American children feel for their own ethnicity is especially
notable when Pecola is surrounded by the group of black boys chanting at her “black e mo. Black
e mo” (Morrison, 65). Claudia recalls of the boys “That they themselves were black…was
irrelevant. It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth”
(Morrison, 65). By conforming to a false pretense of white beauty, African-Americans repress
their own culture and bury their own identities. By denying their own culture, they assist in
keeping white society the dominant force. They can never be white, and yet they never stop
trying to reach that impossibility.
The above instances lead Pecola to believe that she, as well as her family, is ugly. They
live in a run-down storefront, which embodies the family‟s ugliness. As the narrator tells readers
“You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not
find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction” (Morrison,
39). According to Katherine McKittrick, Pecola‟s belief in her ugliness stems from her
geographical surroundings. The home of the Breedloves illustrates how “identities are
constructed according to place and residency and how certain possessions help maintain and
define the meaning of being black” (McKittrick, 134). The Breedloves choose to stay in the
storefront home “not because they were having temporary difficulty adjusting to the cutbacks at
the plant. They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they
believed they were ugly” (Morrison, 38). The home consists of one big room. There is no
privacy and the children are not shielded from acts of violence and sex. These inappropriate acts
drive Pecola further into her fantasies of becoming like a little white girl. She spends hours in
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the mirror trying to find the source of her ugliness and begins to believe that “if her eyes,…if
those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and
Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they‟d say „Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn‟t do bad
things in front of those pretty eyes‟” (Morrison, 46). The implication being that to be white is to
be perfect and to be perfect is also to live in a perfect world where nothing bad ever takes place.
Pecola is a tragic figure who seemingly never had a chance to begin with. During her
time in the womb, her mother becomes brainwashed by the white movie industry. Upon
Pecola‟s birth, Pauline decides her daughter is irreversibly ugly because the movies had changed
her perception of what beauty was: “[she] was never able, after her education in the movies, to
look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was
one she absorbed in full from the silver screen” (Morrison, 122). Sitting in the local movie
theater day after day, Pauline fantasizes about looking like the white actresses, and even begins
to style her hair and dress like them. This fantasy comes to an abrupt end, when Pauline‟s tooth
comes out in the theater. She then realizes how impossible her standards of beauty are to reach
and begins to sink into a deep self-hate, which is passed onto Pecola, as well as the impossible
dream of blond, blue-eyed beauty.
Pauline does nothing to save Pecola from the obsession with white beauty because, she
herself, has fallen into the obsession as well. Pauline works for the Fishers, a well-to-do white
family. It is here that Pauline is able to find “beauty, order, cleanliness, and praise”, a place
where she devotes herself and feels at home (127). Although she is a servant to the family,
Pauline feels whole in this white world, enjoying the nickname of Polly and getting great
satisfaction out of cleaning the beautiful house. Pauline gives her love freely to the white Fisher
child, finding pleasure in “brushing the yellow hair, enjoying the roll and slip of it between her
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fingers” as compared to her own children‟s “tangled black puffs of rough wool” (127). Pauline
uses “honey in her words” when dealing with the white child, while “into her son she beat[s] a
loud desire to run away, and into her daughter she beat[s] a fear of growing up, fear of other
people, fear of life” (129). Pauline simply accepts that her familial situation is ugly and
completely gives up on providing a sense of purpose or even love to her children. It is easier for
her to give herself to the Fisher family since they fit into her idea of what beauty and perfection
is supposed to be. This acceptance on behalf of Pauline and others like her allow for white
society to continue prevailing while the African-American community pulls itself apart trying to
fit into that particular society.
Because multiple negative forces surround Pecola, including her parents, she is unable to
equip herself with a shield of self-love, thus making her unable to combat the negative forces
brought upon her by both white and black society. Eventually, she succumbs to the demon
known as colorism and shuts down from the rest of society. Morrison‟s novel is a lesson that
one must be able to fully comprehend how society influences one‟s beliefs and values which
touch and shape one‟s life. In order to understand these influences, parents must teach children
about their culture and ethnicity instead of trying to adapt to another culture. By understanding
one‟s culture and embracing it, one can strive to combat negative societal influences and grow to
their fullest potential.
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Works Cited
Cormier-Hamilton, Patrice. “Black Naturalism and Toni Morrison: The journey away from selflove in The Bluest Eye.” Melus: 19.4 (1994): 109-127. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO.
Web. 24 March 2011.
Lobodziec, Agnieszka. “Theological Models of Black Middle-Class Performance in Toni
Morrison‟s Novels.” Black Theology: An International Journal 8.1 (2010): 32-52. Academic
Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 24 March 2011.
McKittrick, Katherine. “Black and „Cause I‟m Black I‟m Blue‟: transverse racial geographies in
Toni Morrison‟s The Bluest Eye.” Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist
Geography 7.2 (2000): 125. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 24 March 2011.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Penguin, 1970. Print.
Taylor, Paul C. “Malcom‟s Conk and Danto‟s Colors; or Four Logical Petitions Concerning
Race, Beauty, and Aesthetics.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 57.1 (2000): 16-20.
Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 23 March 2011.