Pecola Breedlove is a young girl growing up black and poor in the early 1940s. She is repeatedly called "ugly" by nearly everyone in her life, from the mean kids at school to her own mother. This constant criticism, the relentless bullying she gets at school, and her rough family life (her parents are always fighting, both verbally and physically) lead Pecola to seek escape from her misery by fantasizing about becoming more beautiful. Pecola begins to believe that if she could just achieve physical beauty, her life would automatically improve. This false belief turns out to be utterly destructive to Pecola, consuming her whole life and, eventually, her sanity.
Pecola's story illustrates the way cultural conceptions of beauty can be devastating to young women who do not fit those conceptions. While Pecola is an African-American girl, the beauty icons America celebrated at this time were almost always white. Throughout the novel, female characters big and small identify with and try to imitate the celebs they love. While Pecola's mom wears her hair like the blonde bombshell Jean Harlow (think the Gwen Stefani of the 1930s and 40s), the young Pecola obsesses over child-star Shirley Temple (think Dakota Fanning or Abigail Breslin).
In Chapter 1, when Pecola drinks three quarts of milk out of a Shirley Temple cup just so she can look down at Shirley Temple's white face, we see a girl who is starting to obsess over Temple in a somewhat-creepy way. We don't think it's a mistake that she's drinking white milk in this scene, either! The novel is really hitting us over the head with this whole white beauty thing. After all, Pecola is literally internalizing the whitest substance there is...get it?
Pecola's need to achieve a white kind of beauty is not only linked to America's beauty obsession, however. Pecola also thinks that if she were prettier, her parents wouldn't fight so much. This is the classic "it's my fault" logic that many kids have when their parents fight, taken to an extreme.
Pecola is constantly victimized and humiliated throughout the novel. When we first meet her she is homeless. Later she is teased by Bay Boy, Woodrow Cain, and Maureen Peal. Claudia accidentally punches her in the face; she gets piping hot blueberry juice all over legs; and young Junior throws his cat in her face, then kills it in front of her. All of these events build toward the ultimate victimization – when Cholly, her own father, rapes her.
By the end of the novel, Pecola has completely lost touch with reality. Unable to process and accept the fact that she has been raped by her father, she becomes convinced that everyone in town is looking at her strangely because she received her wish of blue eyes. She acquires an imaginary friend whom she talks to almost exclusively about her eyes.
While we might be quick to toss this off as simple insanity, that seems a bit too easy. Instead, we might think of Pecola's imaginary friend as the only way she can make sense of her experience. Since no one in her life ever showed her love or affection, Pecola's young mind at the end of the novel does the only thing it can do: it creates an imaginary friend to love and affirm her.
Claudia's last words about Pecola provide another lens through which to view her character. In Claudia's view, the townspeople of Lorain used Pecola's ugliness in order to make themselves feel beautiful. This suggests that Pecola has functioned as a scapegoat for this black community's own low self-esteem and self-loathing.