Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, is a challenging work. It is a complex novel with multiple themes each of which is interwoven with all others creating an intricate texture.
The title reveals the dominant theme: dissatisfaction with one’s self and longing for something that can make the self appear better. Pecola longs for the bluest eyes. She is a Black girl in America. It is not only the complexion of her skin that bothers her but also the ugliness of her appearance. It is a perceived ugliness, to some extent. Everybody in her family thinks that he or she is ugly. Every one of them “wore their ugliness, put it on, so to speak, although it did not belong to them,” says the narrator.
One’s environment – social, cultural and also the family – shapes one’s character as well as perceptions to a great extent. Living with a man like Mr Cholly Breedlove, Pecola’s father, the family cannot but see themselves as ugly. People like Mr Breedlove perverts everything that they touch.
The novel is also the story of many other Blacks in America who have been perverted by the racist society to some extent or the other. Geraldine’s and Mrs Breedlove’s obsession with cleanliness is an example of such perversion. This obsession is a mere mask for their dislike of their own people and their ways of being.
Elihue Micah Whitcomb, aka Soaphead Church, is one of the most perverted characters though he is not an African American. He is a West Indian. He has converted religion into a convenient business. Using that new religion of his, he claims to help people “Overcome Spells, Bad Luck, and Evil Influences,” though he is a “misanthrope.” He helps Pecola materialise her longing for “the bluest eyes.” What he does is the climax of all the perversions in the novel. [Ironically, in the novel, the more religious a person, the less loving he/she is.]
All the perversions we see in the novel are products of an oppressive society. For the coloured people, survival in the White Man’s world is a tremendous challenge. Some like Pecola are broken by the oppressiveness. Perversions help others to go on. A few like the narrator and her sister make it – by learning to be themselves and to love...
Reading this novel is a difficult experience because of its narrative style and structure. The experience can be a rewarding one provided one has the patience and will power to plough through.