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Literature / The Bluest Eye

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The Bluest Eye is a 1970 novel by Toni Morrison that explores the relationship between beauty and race. The story is about a year in the life of Pecola, a young black girl in Lorain, Ohio. It takes place against the backdrop of America's Midwest as well as in the years following the Great Depression. Realizing that darker-skinned black people are treated worse than lighter-skinned black people, who more closely fit Caucasian standards of beauty, Pecola comes to believe that if she had blue eyes, she would escape race-based oppression.

Provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Pecola's parents, Pauline and Cholly. Pauline constantly calls her own daughter ugly, and treats her as The Unfavorite to a child that isn't even hers. Cholly is worse.
  • Aerith and Bob: The three whores Pecola hangs out with: China, Poland, and Miss Marie. Although it also gets subverted, since Claudia and her family refer to Miss Marie as the Maginot Line.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Deconstructed. Most of the characters subscribe to this belief, which is extremely damaging to those who are unlucky enough to be labelled "ugly", especially since they're all being judged using Caucasian standards of beauty.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Miss Marie, aka the Maginot Line, is described as being huge, but she still receives plenty of clients as a prostitute—it's even implied she gets the most, as she's the de facto leader of the group.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Breedloves.
  • Blasphemous Boast: At the end of Soaphead Church's letter to God, he brags that he is superior because he can do the one thing that He can't: grant Pecola her blue eyes. Unsurprisingly, he dies soon after.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: As shown in a flashback, Cholly has this reaction when he meets his father for the first time and is none-to-kindly rebuked.
  • Brown Note Being: Pecola is described as such, although it's downplayed given that the novel is a work of realism. Nearly every character in the book—including her own family members—feel inexplicably and inherently repulsed by her, as if there's something deeply wrong with her very existence. Part of the book's tragedy is that Pecola does nothing to deserve this, and it's not even clear how "ugly" she really is (or if she's ugly at all). The only people in town able to somewhat resist this repulsion are China, Poland, and Miss Marie, the local prostitutes, as they're able to spend time with Pecola without any negative effects.
  • But Not Too Black: Many of the characters subscribe to this, treating mixed-race people more humanely than "blacker" people.
  • Butt-Monkey: If something humiliating and depressing can happen to Pecola, it will.
  • Character Tics: Pecola has a habit of scratching her calf with her toe, which she seemingly inherited from her mother. This actually triggers her father into raping her.
  • Downer Ending: No one's fortunes improve by the end of the novel. While Claudia and Frieda are okay if despondent, Pecola suffers a nervous breakdown and loses her father's baby due to her mother beating her up, her brother runs away and Cholly dies, leaving her with Pauline and being expelled. Most of them are worse off.
  • First Period Panic: Pecola gets her first period and thinks something is wrong. The blood begins to spill down Pecola's legs when she's outside with Claudia and Frieda, Claudia's older sister. Pecola and Claudia are scared, but Frieda knows that Pecola is getting her first period. Frieda tries to attach a pad to Pecola's dress. Rosemary, spying from the bushes, yells to Mrs. MacTeer that the girls do something perverted. Mrs. MacTeer sees Pecola's bloody legs and takes her inside to clean her up.
  • Foil: Claudia and Frieda's parents show Tough Love and protectiveness to their children, whereas the Breedloves are regularly abusive, sometimes incestual, and barely even care about their kids.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The narrator spoils the Downer Ending on the third page of the novel.
  • Generation Xerox: Pecola and her mother both have the same tragic obsession with being beautiful
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Deconstructed. Both black and white characters alike tend to privilege blonde-haired children above the dark-haired protagonists, which is a source of great ire and confusion for Claudia.
  • Hollywood Homely: Deconstructed. In-universe, Pecola is constantly called "ugly" by everyone, even her own mother. No indication is made of her actual appearance, but it's very clear that she's nowhere near ugly enough to justify the constant abuse. Nevertheless, Pecola takes it to heart and believes that all of her problems can be solved if she's prettier. Her mother takes it literally, fostering her own self-loathing by comparing herself to Hollywood movie stars.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Utterly deconstructed. China, Poland, and Miss Marie are open about their hatred for the men who seek them out and the wives of those men, have no issue charging for their services, and outright admit that they didn't get into prostitution because of need or bad circumstances—they just like having sex and, upon learning that people were willing to pay for the privilege, jumped at the chance. The narrator even outright says that they're not the hookers of old Western novels, where this trope reigned supreme. And yet China, Poland, and Miss Marie are probably the nicest characters in the whole book—they spend time with Pecola and, unlike everyone else in town, treat her with kindness by giving her presents, telling her stories, and offering advice about men (which is more than her own mother ever does), and even taking her to the movies and a carnival with no prompting.
  • Hypocrite: The boys who bully Pecola for being black and her dad who Sleeps in the Nude. Claudia lampshades it when she says "That they themselves were black, or that their own father had similarly relaxed habits was irrelevant."
  • Innocent Inaccurate: Whenever Claudia narrates. When Frieda says their parents claim that she may be ruined like the Maginot Line, Claudia assumes that means Frieda will get fat. She tries to reassure her sister that Frieda could exercise and not eat.
  • Ironic Name: Pecola, which means "brazen". Hardly fits the shy, demure protagonist.
  • Kids Are Cruel:
    • Rosemary's Establishing Character Moment is her sitting in the back of her dad's Buick eating bread and butter, before stopping to roll down the window just so that she can tell Claudia and Frieda that they can't come in.
    • The gang of boys who bully Pecola for her being black and (their assumption that) her dad sleeping naked.
    • Junior. He gets Pecola in his house under the guise of giving her a pet cat, and when she tries to leave with it, Junior heads outside and holds the door closed while laughing at her. When Pecola stops crying because she's playing with the cat, Junior, "curious at not hearing her sobs", opens the door, sees her playing with the cat, and tries to take it back, and when Pecola tries to take it from him, the cat ends up being thrown across the room and lands on a radiator and dies. When Junior's mom comes home and sees this, he immediately blames it on Pecola.
  • Meaningful Name: Considering what happens to her, Pecola's family name is the cruelly ironic Breedlove.
  • Misplaced Retribution: When Pauline finds out that Cholly impregnated Pecola, her response is to beat up her daughter so bad that Pecola suffers a miscarriage. Likewise, she's expelled for showing up to school pregnant and not even knowing why.
  • Papa Wolf: Frieda's dad and an entourage almost beat the crap out of Mr. Henry, the man who's briefly staying with them, for molesting Frieda.
  • Parental Abandonment: Cholly's parents both abandoned him, and he ended up being raised by his great-aunt.
  • Parental Incest: Cholly rapes his daughter, Pecola.
  • Parents as People: Cholly and Pauline have no business being parents, but it's hardly their fault.
  • Phony Psychic: Soaphead Church, who purports to be a "Reader, Adviser, and Interpreter of Dreams"
  • The Power of Love: Subverted. Claudia's closing narration observes that "love is never any better than the lover," so violent/screwed-up/weak/wicked people will love in violent/screwed-up/weak/wicked ways.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Pecola's brother Sammie has this as one of his many coping mechanisms whenever his parents fight, though he always ends up coming back. Though after Cholly dies, he might just be leaving for good.
  • Sex Is Evil: One of the major themes of the story is how this belief utterly destroys people's psyches. Most of the characters view sex as inherently perverted and wrong, and they can't reconcile their natural urges with that fact, driving them to actions ranging from bizarre (one character only feels sexual pleasure when a cat runs between her legs) to downright evil (there are several rapes in the novel). In a particularly clever twist, the only characters who have a healthy understanding of sex and are relatively well-adjusted are China, Poland, and Miss Marie—that is, the town's prostitutes—and everyone hates them for it.
  • Shout-Out: To Shirley Temple and Raggedy Ann and Andy. Also, Vulcans are brought up. Presumably, not THOSE Vulcans, though.
  • Spell My Name with a "The": Although it's not always capitalized, the word "the" usually appears before the Maginot Line's name.
  • Start of Darkness: Several chapters are devoted to the backstory of Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove, showing how they got to be so screwed up.
  • Take That!: To the Dick and Jane children's books. It indicates how flawed the Breedlove family really are.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Pecola ends up becoming pregnant after her rape at the hands of her father, though she's not even a teenager yet. It doesn't end well for her after her mother beats her up.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The chapter that Pecola narrates.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: The majority of Pecola's life is full of abuse, misery, and hatred, but she's able to experience a little bit of happiness when she spends time with Miss Marie, China, and Poland, the town prostitutes. They offer her worldly advice, tell her funny stories, give her presents and nice clothes to wear, and have even taken her to the movies and a carnival with no prompting beyond wanting to give her some cheer.
  • Tragic Dream: Pecola's dream of having blue eyes.
  • Unconventional Formatting: A chunk of language intended to spoof the idyllic middle-class family perfection of the iconic Dick and Jane books is repeated, first with no punctuation, and then with no punctuation or line breaks, and no spaces between the words.
  • The Unfavorite: Pecola is a distant second in her mother's heart to the (white) daughter of the family she serves.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: The child narrators discuss this trope when they reflect on receiving dolls as presents—white dolls. They don't want dolls that don't look like them, but if they complain, their parents go on rants about how lucky they are to have toys at all, and how they'd have given anything for something like that as a child, etc., etc.