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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Bluest Eye

Author: Toni Morrison
Rating: 4.5/5
Challenge: My Year of Reading Dangerously

I didn't want to miss out on discussing February's read for My Year of Reading Dangerously challenge, (like I did with Great Expectations), so I pushed myself to finish this ahead of other, lighter books. Reading this heavy examination of racial hatred, violence and victimhood is sort of like being the first responder to a car crash. There is nothing but ugliness there and you have to just push your thoughts aside in order to finish your work, but you feel pride in yourself after the job is over that you had the experience, though it isn't something you want to repeat.

I don't mean to make it sound like this is a terrible book, but it is really hard to read. The reader is dropped into the world of 12-year-old Pecola Breedlove, who as a young, poor, black girl has already seen so much ugliness in the world that it is a wonder she has survived to the age of 12 at all. Her alcoholic father and angry mother are constantly beating up on each other, her brother is always running away. Her only wish is to have blue eyes, so she can be beautiful, instead of ugly. She is tormented by children at school, ignored by white people, and treated with derision by most of the black people around her. The book is about the events that lead to her downfall.

The book alternates between the point of view of Claudia, the young narrator who describes her encounters with Pecola and an omniscient narrator who gives us the detailed history of some of the characters in the book. This format requires more thought as a reader to incorporate all of the events together, but even the passages that don't seem to make sense do relate back to the narrative eventually.

The narrative is relentless. It describes to us in graphic detail what Pecola’s life is like. When the new sofa is delivered and the fabric splits immediately, the store will not take it back because Pecola’s family is too poor and inconsequential to have that sort of pull:

You could hate a sofa, of course-that is, if you could hate a sofa. But it didn’t matter. You still had to get together $4.80 a month for a sofa that started off split, no good, and humiliating-you couldn’t take any joy in owning it. And the joylessness stank, pervading everything. The stink of it kept you from painting the beaverboard walls; from getting a matching piece of material for the chair; even from sewing up the split, which became a gash, which became a gaping chasm that exposed the cheap frame and cheaper upholstery.

Claudia describes a scene where she and her sister are visiting Pecola in the house where her mother is a servant for a white family. They are admiring a blueberry pie that Mrs. Breedlove recently took out of the oven when Pecola accidentally knocks it over. Mrs. Breedlove walks in and

In one gallop she was on Pecola, and with the back of her hand knocked her to the floor. Pecola slid in the pie juice, one leg folding under her. Mrs. Breedlove yanked her up by the arm, slapping her again, and in a voice thin with anger, abused Pecola directly.

This contrasts sharply with what happens when the young daughter of the white family, who witnesses this event, begins to cry.

Mrs. Breedlove turned to her. “Hush, baby, hush. Come here. Oh Lord, look at your dress. Don’t cry to more. Polly will change it.” She went to the sink and turned tap water on a fresh towel. Over her shoulder, she spit out words to us like rotten pieces of apple. “Pick up that wash and get on out of here, so I can get this mess cleaned up.”

See what I mean? It is painful to watch a mother abuse her daughter so thoroughly then comfort a little girl who is simply the child of her employer. These sort of abuses have been so deeply ingrained in Pecola that she is not only unsurprised at them, she seems to expect them.

When the violence is inflicted on Pecola that finally pushes her off the edge, Morrison writes the scene from the point of view of the person who victimizes her. So we don’t even experience the final indignity from her point of view. It is like Pecola is so worthless in the eyes of the world that she can’t even be dignified with a point of view.

So many people have complicity in Pecola’s downfall, black and white. I think this book is meant to push our noses into the ugliness of her situation and plead with us not to be a part of creating more Pecolas, to show us that we all have the potential to shape a child’s view of world with either a show of compassion or indifference. If you are up for it, this is a book that will challenge you. It is the sort of read not content to just push you a little outside of your comfort zone, but rather wants to grab you by the neck and lead you to a place where comfort zones don't exist. You may wrestle with this book. Why couldn't anyone show Pecola a little kindness? Why did the fulfillment of her desire for blue eyes have to come at such a high price? Why did the majority of the blacks look down on her?

But if you are like me and need your preconceived notions messed with every once in a while, this book is an excellent route to go.


Melody said...

Great review, Kim! I love books that tells the reality (or cruelty?) of life and that it's emotional and thought provoking. This sounds like a book I want to read, even though I might have some difficulty getting through it due to the strong emotions it evolves.

Thanks for recommending this book to me. :)

Kim L said...

melody-no problem! I think it is definitely worth reading even though it is challenging. I'll have to read a chaser of something really fun now.

Nymeth said...

I felt the same way when I read Beloved...I thought it was a good book, but it was so very hard to read. That seems to be a pattern with Toni Morrisson...she writes painful and uncomfortable books. But unfortunately they are only so because they are truthful.

Kim L said...

nymeth-I probably won't be picking up more of her books anytime soon. I do like reading books that challenge me, but sometimes you need a long break in between.

Andrea said...

I loved what you said about one of the book's purposes being to make us realize what power we have on other people, especially children, and not to create any more Pecolas. That's such an important realization. I'm glad we both learned something from this book.

Eva said...

I came back to read your review (I tend to wait until after I've read the book), and it's great! I completely agree-it does feel like you're having your nose rubbed in it. And I thought Mrs. Breedlove was one of the most interesting characters-especially how she loves the white girl more than her own daughter. It makes me glad that I wasn't around in the 60s...although everything hasn't been solved today, at least it's getting better.

Kim L said...

eva-Yeah I agree with you, I think things are better. I know that there are still lots of problems but at least today people have more legal rights!