Study Guide

The Bluest Eye Themes

  • Appearances

    In The Bluest Eye, characters associate beauty with whiteness. The novel constantly refers to white American icons of beauty and innocence such as Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, and Shirley Temple. African-American girls during this time period (the 1940s) were encouraged to aspire to be white; all of the female African-American characters in the novel have grown up in a society that does not find them beautiful or even worthy of being looked at. Pecola is constantly identified by her ugliness, and she fixates on what society deems to be a symbol of beauty and purity – blue eyes. Pecola's belief that blue eyes will make her beautiful shows two specific effects of racism on young African-American girls: low self-esteem and envy of whiteness.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. How does Pecola perceive beauty? How do Frieda and Claudia perceive it?
    2. How does the novel suggest that people learn to distinguish what is beautiful from what is not? What role do magazines and television play in notions of beauty?
    3. How are beauty and race linked in the novel? Which characters are described as beautiful, and why? Which are described as ugly, and why?
    4. Do the three prostitutes in the novel (China, Poland, and Marie) have a different understanding of beauty than Pecola?

    Chew on This

    While Pecola and Claudia both associate beauty with whiteness, Claudia views this association ironically and Pecola believes in it wholeheartedly.

    Miss Marie and Claudia offer alternative concepts of beauty in the novel.

  • Race

    Whiteness in The Bluest Eye is associated with beauty, innocence, goodness, cleanliness, and purity. Each of the characters who have internalized popular and cultural concepts of goodness, beauty, and innocence tend to have some kind of obsession – whether covert or overt – with whiteness. Race is a powerful determinant in the novel. It is because Cholly is black that the white men humiliate him while he is losing his virginity. This in turn leads him to be somewhat repulsed by women and family, which leads to his alcoholism, which leads to his rape of Pecola. In a similar vein, Soaphead Church is raised in a family that marries light-skinned blacks in order to "whiten up" the family features. This leads him to an obsession with purity, both racial and otherwise.

    Questions About Race

    1. Which characters in the novel worship whiteness? Which characters reject it?
    2. How is Pecola's blackness related to her ugliness, if at all?
    3. How do light-skinned characters in the novel get treated compared to dark-skinned characters?

    Chew on This

    All of the characters who internalize ideas of middle-class whiteness are obsessed with cleanliness, order, and/or purity.

    Race and class are nearly impossible to separate in the novel.

  • Women and Femininity

    The Bluest Eye is mostly concerned with the experience of African-American women in the 1940s. It presents a realistic view of the options for these women: they could get married and have children, work for white families, or become prostitutes. The novel also thematizes the culture of women and young girls, emphasizing beauty magazines, playing with dolls, and identifying with celebrities.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What is the narrator's attitude toward gender restrictions?
    2. What kinds of things do women talk about in the novel? How does gossip among women function in the novel?
    3. What does female friendship look like in the novel? Who are the friends in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Miss Marie, Poland, and China are feminist characters.

    Women in the novel internalize racism more than the male characters.

  • Jealousy

    Feelings of jealousy and envy permeate The Bluest Eye. From Claudia and Frieda's jealousy of Maureen Peal to Pauline envying the uppity women of Lorain, Ohio, women seem to experience envy all day, every day. In some instances, jealousy can bring women closer together, as when the MacTeer sisters bond over their mutual hatred of Maureen. At other times, jealousy keeps girls and women from being friends with one another.

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. Who is jealous of whom in the novel? Who is never jealous of anyone?
    2. Are women the only jealous characters in the novel, or are men jealous, too?
    3. How does jealousy impact the lives of characters that experience it?

    Chew on This

    Pauline Breedlove learns how to be jealous from watching Hollywood movies.

    Many aspects of girl culture promote jealousy.

  • Society and Class

    Race and class are nearly inextricable in The Bluest Eye, since there were so many economic barriers for African Americans during this time period. The African-American citizens of Lorain that we encounter are mostly working-class folks who work in coal mines or as domestic servants for white families. The breakdown of community is another aspect of this theme, since many of the characters who identify with middle-class white culture feel the need to separate themselves from lower-class blacks, or "black e mos," whom they associate with criminality and laziness.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How do class and race intersect in the novel?
    2. Who is to blame for Pecola's fate?
    3. How does the Great Depression influence the conditions of the novel?

    Chew on This

    The entire town of Lorain, Ohio, is responsible for Pecola's fate.

  • Love

    Love is something that many characters in The Bluest Eye desire. Claudia admires the women in blues songs, pining after their lovers. Pauline spends countless hours daydreaming about love at the movies. Pecola wants blue eyes, which she thinks will make her more loveable. In the case of Pauline and Pecola, the idea is: "if someone loved me, I would be saved; my life would be completely different." The idea that love could lead to salvation is one that gets tested in the novel, and the novel should get us thinking about whether or not this vision of love is one that is sustainable.

    Questions About Love

    1. How many definitions of love are there in the novel?
    2. Does anyone love Pecola?
    3. What does the phrase "Love is only as good as the lover" mean?

    Chew on This

    Cholly loves Pecola.

    Pecola creates an imaginary friend in order to have someone to love her.

  • Sex

    Sex in The Bluest Eye is awkward, humiliating, shameful, violent, and illegal – sometimes all at once. With the exception of Mr. MacTeer (whom we basically never see), all of the major male characters – Cholly Breedlove, Mr. Henry, and Soaphead Church – sexually desire young girls. As far as we know, Soaphead never, or rarely, acts on these desires (the novel keeps this ambiguous), but Mr. Henry gropes Frieda, and Cholly rapes his daughter Pecola at least twice, maybe more.

    The larger point of all this is that black girls in the novel are victims, sexually and socially powerless. Adolescence for these girls does not involve having harmless crushes or discovering sexuality on their own – things we might expect of teenage girls. Rather, the young black girls in this novel are used to make the men feel more powerful. When we think about the importance of sex in the novel, we might consider how sex interacts with the intense power dynamics that Morrison establishes between white men, African-American men, and African-American women.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Who enjoys sex in the novel?
    2. Do any characters associate sex with love?
    3. How do women and men experience sex differently in the novel?
    4. How do the characters' early sexual experiences influence their later sexual practices?
    5. How does racism influence sexual practices in the novel?

    Chew on This

    It is a rare occurrence that anyone in the novel experiences sex as pleasurable.

    Perhaps Cholly would not have raped Pecola had he not been sexually humiliated as a youth.

  • Innocence

    Innocence is yet another quality that is primarily associated with whiteness in The Bluest Eye. When readers pick up a novel about young girls, they may expect to read about harmless crushes, long hours playing, and innocent crushes. But from the beginning, we see that the lives of working-class African-American children were far from innocent and free. Claudia and Frieda spend their free time picking coal with their families, while Pecola's innocence is violated soon after she begins menstruating. The novel seems to suggest that innocence is a privilege, not a given.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. Who gets to experience innocence?
    2. Why is Shirley Temple innocent?
    3. Why does Soaphead Church desire young girls?

    Chew on This

    Innocence is associated with whiteness.

    Whiteness is associated with innocence.