Both Claudia and the third-person narrator are deeply sympathetic. Claudia insists that Cholly loved Pecola even though he raped her, and the third-person narrator provides Cholly's back-story not to let him off the hook, but to complicate his personality and try to show us how the rape fit into the context of his life.
The book is also deeply poetic, featuring long, elegant descriptive passages about immaterial things like love:
Love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup, eased up into that cracked window. I could smell it – taste it – sweet, musty, with an edge of wintergreen in its base – everywhere in that house. It stuck, along with my tongue, to the frosted windowpanes. It coated my chest, along with the salve, and when the flannel came undone in my sleep, the clear, sharp curves of air outlined its presence in my throat. (1.1.10)
The novel is also philosophical. It features multiple aphorisms – short maxims about life – such as: "Love is never any better than the lover" (4.11.8).
The influence of Modernism on Morrison's work cannot be stressed enough. Morrison wrote her Master's thesis on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner – two of the most important figures of British and American Modernism, respectively. Their influence can be seen in the form of the novel, which features the multiple perspectives and stream-of-consciousness so typical of modernist works. We might even think of Pecola's split psyche at the end of the novel as something that marks her as a subject in the modern world. The novel also takes up some of Modernism's thematic concerns, including the breakdown of the modern family, the dissolving of community, and an increasing skepticism about religion.
What distinguishes Morrison's work from those of her idols, though, is the way she combines Modernist form and content with distinctly African-American elements, such as old blues lyrics, black southern dialect, and narration from the point of view of African-American characters. This puts Morrison in another literary tradition as well – that of black Modernists such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Nella Larsen.
The title has at least two meanings, referring both to Pecola's desire to change the way she is seen and the way sees.
Let's deal with the easy one first. As a black child growing up in1940s America, Pecola associates beauty with being white and having blue eyes, like child icon Shirley Temple. Pecola seems to be OK with her nose and mouth, even her hair – but her eyes, oh, her eyes! She thinks that if she could just have those bright blue eyes, she'd become truly beautiful and no one would ever tease her at school, her parents wouldn't fight anymore, and she'd never be sad again.
Now, onto the second aspect of the title – Pecola's desire to see the world differently. Pecola believes that if her eyes were blue, she would begin to see the world the way that white children do – she would get to be innocent, she would experience a loving family.
A third idea plays with the meaning of "blue" as "sad." Pecola's eyes already are the bluest in the book, in that they are the saddest eyes, possessed by the most tragic character in the novel.
It's easy to read the final chapter quickly, since it consists mostly of rapid dialogue between Pecola and what appears to be an imaginary friend. But when we slow down and read more closely, we see how this conversation speaks to two of the major themes in the book – Appearance and Society and Class.
First, this chapter highlights the fact that Pecola's obsession with beauty has evolved throughout the novel. By the end, "blue eyes" are no longer simply code for Shirley Temple or white beauty; rather, they are how Pecola makes sense of the rape she has endured.
Pecola convinces herself that the reason no one talks to her and the reason her own mother can't make eye contact with her is because everyone is jealous of her eyes. It's just too hard, and Pecola is too darn young, to admit that the real reason she is being ignored is because she was raped by her father and delivered his child.
When you think about it, this is actually a realistic portrayal of the way children (and hey, some adults too) deal with cruelty and teasing. In this chapter, it's as if Pecola is shouting, "You're just jealous!"
We also see the consequences of relying on physical beauty to make up for psychological and social problems. If beauty is being used to cover up ugliness, and the world keeps doing ugly things to you, then beauty can never be enough to fight that. Even though Pecola has, in her delusional mind, received blue eyes, she now wonders obsessively, "what if there's someone with bluer eyes?" There will always be someone out there more beautiful than you, and Pecola seems to be an example of how crazy you can get if you don't face this fact.
Finally, the ending reminds us that Pecola's "madness," if we want to call it that (do we?) is not her fault but is embedded in her community. The chapter begins with a quote from the initial Dick and Jane grammar school primer that is the book's epigraph, at the point in the story where a "friend" comes to play with Jane. The epigraph says, "THEYWILLPLAYAGOODGAME." It's painfully ironic that this excerpt foregrounds the theme of friendship. Pecola doesn't have any real friends, only this voice inside her head.
Now, calling this second voice an "imaginary friend" is maybe a bit too easy. It might be more interesting to see the second voice as the part of Pecola that still wants to live. After all, this is an affirming voice, an encouraging voice, one that wants her to go outside and to help her address the aftermath of the rape.
Perhaps the true tragedy of the novel is that in ignoring her completely, Pecola's community forces her into such devastating loneliness that she has to imagine someone talking to her. The community commits a crime on a par with Cholly's abuse: if Cholly failed her by raping her, Pecola's community failed her by never acknowledging that a rape took place.
The novel begins in Ohio after the Great Depression. Economic security is of particular concern for African Americans, who have far fewer opportunities for mobility than do their white counterparts. From the beginning, we see how important every last penny is to the MacTeers, as their entire family spends time picking coal for Zick's Coal Company even though it harms their health.
When we get to Pauline's and Cholly's stories, we can view their moves north to Ohio from the South as part of the Great Migration of African Americans that occurred from 1910 to 1940. Waves of African Americans seeking better jobs and more racial tolerance moved from rural southern towns to more industrial northern ones.
Of course, when Pauline and Cholly arrive in the North, their lives don't necessarily change for the better, and this geographical complexity is one of the most important aspects of the novel. Once up North, the couple has to face a different set of problems: disdainful whites, people judging them on the basis of their southern accents, differing beauty norms, etc.
Through Soaphead Church, Morrison also tackles Caribbean immigration to the United States, albeit briefly.
The hardest part of the novel to understand is probably the Prologue. How does a Dick and Jane reader relate to the events in the novel? Morrison seems to want to juxtapose popular depictions of so-called normal family life with other kinds of families that aren't so peachy (or monosyllabic).
Morrison switches up the narrative style sometimes, too. So while some chapters feature mostly Claudia narrating, others have funky things like Pauline telling her story in first person, or Pecola and her imaginary friend speaking in dialogue.
In the Afterword, Morrison says she wanted to avoid demonizing either Pecola or her community, and this is why she chose to use multiple perspectives in the novel. So rather than frustrating us, we might think about how these shifts in perspective shake things up, make the reading more interesting, and help us get into the psyches of some of these complex characters.
Morrison is famous for her use of fragmented narrative with multiple perspectives. Her use of different narrative styles – alternating between first- and third-person omniscient – gives her the freedom to do two interesting things. On the one hand, she uses Claudia to convey the thoughts and perceptions of a 9-year-old girl, giving the novel an aspect of innocence. On the other hand, the use of third-person omniscient narration allows the novel to cover broad sweeps of time and space – like when we get the history of the Breedloves' storefront or stories about Soaphead Church's white ancestors. This opens the novel up, giving it historical depth, and allowing us to see how the racial issues of the past are still impacting these characters in the 20th century.
Sometimes the contrast between speakers is particularly vivid. For example, during Pauline's story, the narration begins in third-person omniscient. Suddenly, about three pages in, we get a series of paragraphs from Pauline's perspective. One minute we're reading a lyrical line about how Pauline "saw the Kentucky sun drenching the yellow, heavy-lidded eyes of Cholly Breedlove" (3.7.10). The next minute we're immersed in Pauline's own Southern dialect as she says, "When I first seed Cholly...it was like all the bits of color from that time down home when all us chil'ren went berry picking after a funeral" (3.7.10). This makes the narrative more inclusive, giving rural, less-educated characters the opportunity to describe their own experience in their own language.
Blue eyes seem to symbolize the cultural beauty and cachet attributed to whiteness in America. Different characters respond to blue eyes in different ways. Claudia, for example, resents the blue eyes of her white dolls, viewing their association with beauty ironically and with disdain. For Pecola, however, blue eyes are something to strive for. She believes that having blue eyes would change the way other people see her, giving her something white America values as beautiful. Even more interestingly, she believes she would see things differently through blue eyes, that they would somehow give her the relatively carefree life of a white, middle-class child.
In part because of her low self-esteem as a poor black child, Pecola does not believe in her own beauty or her own free will. She spends her life praying for a miracle because she cannot conceive of being able to change her life on her own.
We also like the idea that "blue" can refer to sadness. When Pecola believes she has acquired blue eyes at the end of the novel, we might understand her as actually having the saddest eyes of anyone in the novel.
Did you notice all of the discussion of houses in the novel? From the very first page, when we read the line, "Here is the house," the novel seems to want to get us thinking about where and how people live.
One way to think about houses is as a symbol of economic advancement. Owning a house says something about one's income and social class status. Claudia notes that property ownership is important for African Americans, especially coming out of the age of slavery. In the 19th century, black slaves were considered property, so the opportunity to own property – an opportunity some middle-class blacks were able to afford – made a very strong political and personal statement.
Houses can often symbolize an ideal of domestic harmony, which we see in the first part of the Prologue. The Dick-and-Jane house seems safe and comfortable and the family that lives inside perfect, normal, happy...and presumably white. But the houses of the working-class African-American characters in this novel are not comfortable.
Often, the way that houses are described matches the emotions of the people inside. The Breedloves' abandoned storefront is described as assaulting passersby with its melancholy appearance. And although the MacTeer house is "old, cold and green," Claudia goes to great lengths to tell the reader that the love of her family provided warmth. If only the Breedloves were so lucky!
Houses also have a particularly loaded association for women in the novel, since women who didn't work were responsible for tending to the home. Geraldine and Pauline both have strong domestic ties: Geraldine views her home as an extension of herself, and Pauline uses the Fisher's home to fantasize about being of a higher social class.
Claudia provides the bulk of the narration in the book. This is convenient because she actually witnessed what happened to Pecola as well as the way the town spoke about her, and she makes sure to include snatches of these conversations in her narration.
Claudia narrates her story from two different perspectives. In the Prologue and final chapter, the adult Claudia uses the past tense to describe events that happened back in 1941 in Lorain. But for the bulk of her narration, Claudia uses the present tense to describe these events, which has the effect of showing us things through her 9-year-old eyes.
Occasionally Claudia will move between the two modes, allowing us to see how she is reflecting on her own experience and highlighting the act of narration. Claudia is a highly empathetic narrator, and while she doesn't have access to the minds of the people she describes, she does her best to try to understand them, especially Pecola.
In the chapters that deal with the Breedloves and the one featuring Soaphead Church, the narrator isn't Claudia, but rather a third-person omniscient narrator. This speaker is capable of moving through extreme distances of space and time. This is the voice that tells us the long history of the Breedloves' storefront, details Cholly's early sexual humiliation, and recounts Soaphead's journey from the West Indies to America.
The third-person style is useful in a book with so many complex characters. It allows us to watch their lives unfold over time, in ways we could never do if Claudia were the sole narrator.
Pecola doesn't want to be seen and begins imagining the day when she will disappear entirely from view.
Pecola begins to fixate on Shirley Temple's whiteness and her blue eyes as a way to get rid of her misery at being temporarily homeless. Pecola believes that having blue eyes will make her happy and beautiful, and will make her parents stop fighting.
It's becoming increasingly difficult for Pecola to imagine having a normal adolescence.
If Pecola's two major wishes were to disappear and to become beautiful so that she could be loved, Cholly's violation of her shatters both these dreams. By raping his own daughter, Cholly completely violates her trust and her ability to possess her own body in any real way.
While Pecola isn't literally destroyed, the pain of being raped by her father, losing her baby, and having to leave school is too much for her to bear. Pecola now exists in a complex fantasy world where she has blue eyes and an imaginary friend who tells her how pretty they are. No one in Lorain talks to her or looks her in the eyes anymore; she is completely and utterly ignored by everyone, including Pauline. Ironically, her initial wish to disappear has come true.
As the novel begins, we see that Pecola's family life is violent and lacking in structure, love, and support. When Cholly hits Pauline and nearly burns their house down, Mrs. Breedlove moves in with her employer, leaving her children to fend for themselves. Pecola gets sent to stay with the MacTeers while she waits for her parents to handle their problems.
Pecola begins to believe that if she only had blue eyes, her family life would be completely different and people would love her. This erroneous belief – that by changing your physical appearance you could change your familial, psychological, and social situation in life – consumes Pecola throughout the novel.
It's going to take far more than blue eyes to change this girl's life. She is teased at school, gets punched in the face, Junior attacks her with a cat, and she ruins her mom's berry cobbler. Pecola's victimization is building here.
As if things couldn't get any worse for Pecola, when she is raped by her own father, all hope that she might actually develop self-esteem or self-sufficiency flies out the window.
Pecola spends her days talking to herself in the mirror, flailing her arms like a bird and sifting through garbage. It's unclear whether or not she is crazy, and how much she actually remembers of being raped by her father. It's also unclear how many times he raped her.
At the novel's end, Claudia acknowledges that she and all of the townspeople of Lorain are partially to blame for what happened to Pecola. They do not ignore her out of fear or disgust, but because they feel responsible for what she has become. They have failed her.
Pecola's family begins to fall apart. Her father tries to burn down her house and her parents are constantly arguing. This, coupled with the constant bullying and teasing she gets at school, leads Pecola to start wishing she had blue eyes. Pecola believes that if she possessed blue eyes, her life would improve dramatically.
Pecola is raped by her father while washing the dishes in the kitchen. He rapes her again when she is lying on the couch. She tries to tell her mother, but Pauline doesn't believe her.
Pecola invents an imaginary friend to talk to her and affirm her. In a delusional state, Pecola believes her eyes have turned blue. She spends her days walking through town, picking through trash, and staring at her eyes in the mirror.