The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison's first novel, published in 1970. It tells the tragic story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl growing up in Morrison's hometown of Lorain, Ohio, after the Great Depression. Due to its unflinching portrayal of incest, prostitution, domestic violence, child molestation, and racism, there have been numerous attempts to ban the book from libraries and schools across the United States. Decades after it's publication, it's still a hot topic.
In the Afterword to The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes that the novel came out of a childhood conversation she could never forget. She remembers a young black girl she knew who wanted blue eyes, and how, like Claudia MacTeer in the novel, this confession made her really angry. Surrounded by the Black Is Beautiful movement of late 1960s African-American culture, Morrison decided to write a novel about how internalized racism affects young black girls in a range of ways – some petty and minute, some tragic and overwhelming.
As we write this guide to one of the most famous depictions of incest and beauty myths in American literature, these themes are taking center stage once again in popular culture. Lee Daniels's 2009 film Precious (based on Sapphire's 1996 novel Push), has gotten people thinking about poverty, race, beauty, and incest in new and still-relevant ways.
How cool would it be to read both books – or to read The Bluest Eye and watch Precious – and be able to say something brilliant like, "Following in the footsteps of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, Sapphire's work explores the devastating effects of sexual violence on modern African-American women."
Well, maybe you wouldn't put it quite like that, but hopefully, after reading The Bluest Eye, you can see how Toni Morrison helped create a space where black women writers could talk about the horrible effects that racism, poverty, and substance abuse can have not only on the adults who experience them but on their children as well.
The Bluest Eye forces us as readers to confront our own ideas of what counts as beautiful. When we read the novel, do we identify with Pecola's desire to conform to the standards that contemporary celebrity culture tells us are beautiful?
Do we secretly or not-so-secretly want to change our bodies and our facial features to look more attractive? Or do we, like Claudia, recoil from this idea and identify with the underdogs, oddballs, and people who look unique?
Do we try to change ourselves in order to fit what other people find beautiful, like Pauline? Or, do we scoff at beauty rules and laugh it up, like Miss Marie? The novel offers several different ways of interacting with beauty norms, and it's endlessly interesting to see where we find ourselves within these schemes.