Friday, 13 November 2015

Book Review: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison many tried to establish objective criteria for beauty, the wisdom that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” could never be defeated. Nonetheless, it would be too easy to leave it at beauty being a matter of personal taste because from the moment we are born we are exposed to the opinion of others and we can’t help internalising their standards. In Europe the ideal of a beautiful body often tends to be Nordic, i.e. since Roman times or even longer, fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes have a particular appeal to beholders. European discoverers and settlers carried this idea of human beauty into the New World and so the African American protagonist of The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison learnt early to despise herself for her looks. She prays to God for blue eyes that will make her beautiful and happy, but of course, that’s not how it works. 

Toni Morrision was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, USA, in February 1931. She studied English at Howard and Cornell University and then became an English instructor at different universities. After her marriage to Herold Morrison had failed, she also dedicated herself to editing text books and literature, but only in 1970 she made her literary debut with the novella The Bluest Eye which was followed by the much acclaimed novels Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), and Jazz (1992). In 1993 she received the Nobel Prize in Literature and continued to write fiction and non-fiction along with a few sidesteps into children’s literature and drama. Her latest novels are Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), and God Help the Child (2015). Toni Morrison died in New York City, USA, in August 2019.

The Bluest Eye is the story of twelve-year-old Pecola Breedlove and covers the time between autumn 1941 through the end of the summer of 1942. The principal narrator is Claudia MacTeer, a nine-year-old girl from the poor African-American community of largely white Lorain in Ohio, USA. She and her ten-year-old sister Frieda grow up in an atmosphere of mutual love and care, but when Pecola comes to live with them as a foster child after her drunken father set fire to their home, the sisters inevitably get involved in her tragic fate. In fact, Pecola has experienced nothing but hardship, quarrel and violence in her life. Moreover, everybody including the children of the neighbourhood always told her how ugly she was until she was convinced that she was despicable because she was so unlike her great idol, pretty white Shirley Temple whom nobody could help loving and treating well. As soon as Mrs. Breedlove finds a new home for them, Pecola returns to her family, but her father Cholly continues to drink heavily and her mother Pauline, who strives to make ends meet working as servant and caretaker at the house of a rich white family, keeps reproaching him. They quarrel and beat up each other. One day Cholly returns home drunken as usual and finds Pecola washing dishes in the kitchen. The girl reminds him of Pauline when he first saw her and he is overcome with love and anger at the same time. His contorted mind urges him to express his feelings by raping his daughter. Pauline doesn’t believe Pecola when she tells her with the result that before long it happens again leaving the girl pregnant and shunned by the neighbours. In her desperation, Pecola sets her hopes in God praying fervently for blue eyes to make her life better…

Although The Bluest Eye is primarily a first-person narrative, the point of view of the story shifts ever again from the necessarily limited one of Claudia as a nine-year-old or as an adult looking back to that of an omniscient as well as detached third-person narrator. This is inevitable since she can know nothing about the harmful past of Cholly and Pauline Breedlove, nor about the events surrounding Pecola when she isn’t with her friends. On the other hand, the atmosphere of the USA in the early 1940s, when the country entered World War II and slowly got out of the Great Depression, becomes particularly vivid through her eyes. Repeatedly the author introduces sections quoting from a children’s book about a white family that seems to be titled Dick and Jane and well-known in the English-speaking world. She does this reprinting the same sentences over and over again omitting spaces and stopping mid-word, probably to evoke the notion of thoughts revolving in the mind without end. In addition, the white-American idyll from the book contrasts with reality of African-American people in the segregated country, particularly that of Pecola. Thanks to dealing with taboo topics like incest and molestation of minors, the novella has been subject of great polemics ever since its release in 1970 that couldn’t prevent it from becoming a classic, though. The language is appropriate and appealing to the reader.

All things considered, I enjoyed The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison very much, notably because it skilfully shows how the social environment shapes the individual… and breaks without mercy those who are the weakest. It’s a meritorious book that all parents and teachers should read to remind them of their responsibility and power. I highly recommend it for reading.

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