“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the summer of 1941.” Now that is an alluring first sentence – conspirital, with just the right hint of mystery. And this is a story of secrets, of innermost desires that people don’t even admit to themselves. The Bluest Eye is Morrison’s first novel, published in 1970, when it didn’t cause much of a stir (Oprah fame being still a couple decades away). The Bluest Eye is the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl, declared ugly and shunned by the whole town, who believes everything would change for the better if she simply had blue eyes.
The story has many narrators – each of Pecola’s parents, the girls down the lane, even the town pedophile, all of whom share the same anger and self-loathing at their blackness, at their inability to conform with the ideal pale-skinned blue-eyed beauty of baby dolls and film stars. Pecola does not get her own narrative voice, she is passively blown about by the others, subject to their cruelties, their judgments, victim to their own self-hatred. She is denied the cohesive simplicity of the Dick and Jane narrative which forces its way into the story. And while Pecola does suffer extreme violence – raped at age 12 by her own father and then impregnated, this violence results from that long repressed self-hatred, and is the worst violence of all – insidious and self-perpetuating. Pecola is not only given no love, but she is unable to love herself, and consequently has no voice until she is “given” blue eyes by a pedophile, and then she collapses into delusion, creating another self who must constantly reassure her that she has in fact the bluest eye. As the central image – the eye/I is of the utmost importance, and sadly the characters do not so much gaze out and become their own “I”s, as feel the ceasless blue eye of society gazing in at them.
Pecola is the victim of a crime without an identifiable perpetrator, and the last paragraph of the book points a finger toward society, returning to the marigolds with which she opened the book:
This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own initiative, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We were wrong of course, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late.
This novel has all of the aural, evocative and vivid qualities that endear me to Morrison’s writing, though certainly it is not her best. The novel was perhaps too fractured for me to become as involved as I have in her other work, and it seemed the central tenet of the book (which is unmissable) sometimes replaced Pecola herself. As a character without a voice, she risks disspearing, and while that is Morrison’s aim, it becomes less moving that she is gone. Perhaps there is an even more important social critique in how easily she is dismissed, even after Morrison tries to rescue her. In an afterword written in 1993 (Plume edition), Morrison admits that the novel did fail in some ways, notably in regards to Pecola’s absence. She set herself a difficult task for a first novelist of course, “to shape a silence without breaking it”.
I am not black (though I do lack the essential blue eyes for white girl), so I can’t say whether Toni is successful in her longtime attempt to “transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black-American culture into a language worthy of that culture,” but her anxiety speaks to her profound understanding of the delicacy of the situation. Morrison may not know the answers, but will bear witness with narrative, who will look this complex, heartbreaking situation and conclude as the narrator does in the opening:
“There is nothing more to say – except why. But since why is so difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.”