By Jo Manby
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (London: Picador, 1990). First published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1979.
Toni Morrison (1931-2019) was in my opinion, and that of many others across the world, one of the greatest writers in the English language. This post presents a timeline of this extraordinary woman’s life.
The post also offers some thoughts on the first novel she published, The Bluest Eye – the shimmering, tragic chronicle of a blameless little girl and her wayward family and how they arrived at their present situation.
Morrison opens The Bluest Eye by condensing a passage from a Ladybird-type book in three increasingly breathless renditions. First she types the passage verbatim. A green and white house with a red door where a family live – a stereotypically nuclear American white family.
Second, she removes all hierarchy of punctuation and all capital letters, running each sentence into the one next to it. A kind of literary traffic-jam where no-one can get through.
Third, on the next page, she flattens the same passage, cramming the words together with no gaps – they are in the right order but there is no room to take a breath. The process of extracting the breaths from the passage is a metaphor for the suffocating effect of internalised racism. A device that serves as an equivalent evocation of the key theme of the book, summarised in the title. The narrowness of the arena of ‘the ‘A’ is for apple pie’ American white racist narrative that persists to this day.
Pecola Breedlove wishes with every fibre of her being to have blue eyes – such is the persuasiveness of the racist white narrative. Set in the American south, we discover how her parents lived before coming together, reaching back into their individual childhoods and teens, as well as what tribulations ensued along the way.
Pecola is born into poverty and disenfranchisement. The local white storekeeper who sells her favourite sweets can barely register her existence, such is his inability to acknowledge a young poor black girl. She is bullied and mistreated at school. Even people in her own community look down upon her. Her own mother says words to the effect that she was born ugly. She has few options in life, finding a glimmer of solace in the kindness with which she is treated by the three prostitutes who live above her, China, Poland, and Miss Marie, and the friendship of young neighbouring sisters Claudia and Frieda.
Throughout, Morrison’s evocative style ensures that each sentence is perfectly tuned, lilting between a deft and pithy remark and a flight of imagination and poetry that lends depth and breadth to each and every passage of the novel. Take for example the description of the Breedlove’s sofa. On page 25, Morrison presents the plan of the family home in one paragraph and begins the next paragraph with the words ‘there is nothing more to say about the furnishings.’
She then spends the next five paragraphs in a peroration rendered in negatives: the sofa, ripped across the back at the time of delivery, and still being paid for on hire purchase, produces ‘a fretful malaise that asserts itself throughout the house and limits the delight of things not related to it.’
The pervasiveness of intricate details invests the writing with a vertiginous magical quality. Inanimate objects spark off chain reactions of implications. Pecola’s dad, Cholly, burns their house down and Pecola is sent round to stay with Claudia and Frieda and their mum and dad. While Pecola fawns over the blue eyed doll and the Shirley Temple cup round at her friends’ house, Claudia, who narrates the story, is an iconoclast with a habit of ripping white dolls apart – and beating up little white girls.
Pecola loves to drink milk, which comes to symbolise whiteness and aspiration towards whiteness, and manages to consume three quarts of milk, much to the annoyance of Claudia’s mother. Claudia and her sister Frieda dislike milk, and, concomitantly, unlike Pecola, have a sense of self-worth as black girls and a different set of ambitions.
The novel tells us, right at the start, that the ‘why’ something happened is difficult to say – so let’s go with the ‘how’. As soon as you read to the end of the novel you need to retrace your steps. What has happened to this girl when she becomes so obsessed with a certain standard of beauty that she overrides the fact that she cannot fit into its narrow criteria? Morrison stresses that Pecola is not ugly but she cannot see herself, until the end of the open-ended story – as anything but unattractive – until she can have those blue eyes for herself.
Morrison wrote the book partly inspired by a girl she used to know who wanted blue eyes and who renounced God when she didn’t get them. The Bluest Eye is an incredible novel that gives a voice and an insight into the imagination and inner life of one of the most vulnerable of society, and although it is a work of fiction, it is brilliantly lit with the heightened facets of reality and truth.
The Bluest Eye is available in our library (once we reopen!) and can be found with the classification: AR.2.04/MOR
Morrison became an internationally renowned writer and won many awards. The following is a chronology of her life:
1931 – Toni Morrison was born in a semi-integrated area of Lorain, Ohio in the US, named Chloe Ardelia Wofford, the second of four children. Aged 2, Morrison’s family apartment block was set on fire by the owner while they were at home because of rent arrears.
1943 – Aged 12 Morrison converted to Catholicism (she had a Catholic cousin with whom she was close), baptised with the name of Anthony from St Anthony of Padua, and nicknamed Toni.
Morrison became devoted to study and read many books, joined a school debating team and became secretary to the head librarian at Lorain Public Library.
1949 – Morrison moved to Washington DC to attend the historically black Howard University (Read a review of fellow Howard University alumnus Ta Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me here)
1953 – Graduated BA English from Howard University
1955 – Graduated MA English from Cornell University
1955-57 – Taught at Texas Southern University
1957-64 – Became professor at Howard University where she taught civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael and met her husband Harold Morrison, with whom she had two children, Harold and Slade. (Read a review of My People Are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain by Aaron Dixon here)
1965 – Moved to Syracuse, New York to work as editor of textbook division of Random House, then transferred to New York City branch to edit fiction by African-American authors.
1970 – Published first novelThe Bluest Eye aged 39
1973 – Published second novel Sula, nominated for the National Book Award
1977 – Published Song of Solomon, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Becomes a household name and a full time writer of novels, essays and plays.
1981 – Published Tar Baby
1984 – Started teaching Writing at State University of New York at Albany
1987 – Published Beloved, based on real life story of an African-American enslaved woman. Beloved was a bestseller for 25 weeks winning countless awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
1989 – Left State University of New York to join the faculty at Princeton University (retired 2006)
1993 – Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature
1996 – Awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
1998 – Oprah Winfrey co-produced and starred in film adaptation of Beloved alongside Thandie Newton, Danny Glover and Kimberly Elise
2000 – Named a living legend by the Library of Congress
2005 – Awarded Honorary Doctorate degree from University of Oxford
2006 – Guest Curator of the exhibition “The Foreigner’s Home” at The Louvre, Paris
2010 – Made an officer of the French Legion of Honour
2012 – Received Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama
2019 – Documentary made – ‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’. Morrison died two months after its release
(Thanks to Encyclopedia Britannica and Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Toni Morrison”. National Women’s History Museum, 2019. Accessed 31 May 2020)
For an academic article, Blue Eyes as Black Youth Redress in The Bluest Eye, by Bayan Abusneineh, see this link: