Study Guide for The Bluest Eye
Written in 1970, The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel and tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young African-American girl living in rural Ohio. Pecola wishes to have blue eyes, which to her are symbolic markers of beauty that she has learned and adopted from multiple social cues. Set in the year just before America entered World War II, Morrison’s novel deconstructs the societal norms of the American family and society in a way that reveals the anguish and futility that many, especially those that live in impoverished communities, experience when dreaming the America dream. Dealing frankly with matters of sexuality – including incest, pedophilia, and sexual violence – The Bluest Eye speaks to the multiple patterns of dominance and the consequences of victimization and helplessness that typify many parts of the American experience.
Controversial even today, The Bluest Eye has been removed from high school curricula in some states even in recent years. Selected for both its beauty and its challenge, The Bluest Eye calls upon the Loyola faculty, campus colleagues, and, especially, first-year students to embrace what universities do best—ask serious questions about challenging, important, and even dark matters that reflect and inform the human experience.
Questions for you to consider
What is beautiful? What is ‘normal’?
The Bluest Eye begins with a recounting of the classic “Dick and Jane” primers that were used to teach schoolchildren to read. The easy primer’s prose repeats without punctuation and then, again, to seemingly rote repetition, garbled and blurred without pause. What do Dick and Jane represent to Morrison and to most of the novel’s characters? How are those representations frustrating and, ultimately, damaging to these characters?
What are the standards of beauty and other messages conveyed in the films and actresses referenced in the novel? What do Hedy Lamarr, Shirley Temple, or Jean Harlow signify to the characters and how do they help to shape what is beautiful and what is lovable?
How have your views been shaped by books you read as a child, or television shows and movies? Do you find these representations ultimately empowering or potentially damaging? How might these standards shape our worlds—exterior and interior—and create longings and despair in their unattainability?
Critics charge that Morrison’s portrayals of African-American men are unfair and demeaning. Given Morrison’s obvious recognition of the power of “Dick and Jane” books and the damage that ensues, might she be guilty of “mis-shaping” readers’ expectations of African-American males?
Who’s in the wrong? Who’s right?
Pecola Breedlove and her mother Polly, as well as other characters in the novel, wish to be someone else or somewhere different. What places have jealousy, envy, and longing in The Bluest Eye? What are the consequences of so many of these frustrated aspirations?
To what extent are Morrison’s characters guided by mistaken judgment or false perceptions? To what extent do the characters contribute to their own mistaken beliefs and acts? By what means are these frauds perpetrated on them?
What has been done to Cholly by his family, his circumstance, and by society? How does he respond and how is that revisited upon his own family? Why do you think Morrison chose to humanize Cholly and to follow his thoughts even as he rapes his daughter?
Who’s in power?
Race, gender, and economic status play prominent roles in The Bluest Eye often determining who is in power or control. To what extent do these factors operate in conjunction with one another, and when do they conflict with or negate one another?
What forms of status and status superiority are evident in The Bluest Eye? What are the ways in which pecking orders and power hierarchies are both imagined and exacted by characters in The Bluest Eye?
How is power gendered? What are the disparate types of power wielded by men and women, boys and girls, respectively in The Bluest Eye?
How is power racialized? Who wields race-based power in The Bluest Eye and against whom do they wield it? What role does “whiteness” play in the novel?
More things to think about
Morrison paints images with colors. In addition to considerations of “the bluest” in the title, consider the italicized portion of page 115. What palette does Morrison use and what literary function and storytelling power does color hold in The Bluest Eye?
Eyes both see and are seen in The Bluest Eye. What do these visual interactions with the eyes—to see and to be seen—reveal about the characters, how they see themselves, how they view the world, and how they believe the world views them?
In what ways is racism internalized by Morrison’s characters and what effects does this internalized racism have on their lives and actions? What might Morrison be saying about integration and its own potential for devastation?
As you read the book this summer, please know that you have resources on campus to support you. If the content or the process of reading the book arouses concerns or questions, please contact the First-Year Programs/Common Text Office at 410-617-2669.
Oprah Magazine Article on Toni Morrison and writing The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison speaks on the Origins of The Bluest Eye (uploaded by Cornell University to You Tube)
Toni Morrison speaks on her motivation for writing (uploaded by the National Visionary Leadership Project on You Tube)