I read Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye in no fewer than three English classes. The second time I saw it on my syllabus I shivered. I could still feel the memory of reading it the first time. The third time I saw it on my syllabus, I wasn’t ready then either. It is one of those books that is important without being enjoyable for me. But it becomes doubly important to talk about any book that is frequently challenged, and this book is always offending someone, somewhere.
It is a book of truly devastating content. When Toni Morrison sets out to indict something, she does it big. Want to know how she feels about racism or child abuse? Open to any page of The Bluest Eye and get ready. But Morrison does it in a way that reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut, although he certainly couched things in, overall, more light-hearted packages.
Morrison never steps out and says, in her fiction, This is wrong. That is unjust. That is perverse. She is able to create characters and stories that say it all much more effectively than just making the statement ever could. Kurt was similar for me. He would present a story that many times only led to one possible conclusion on the reader’s part. He never had to do the soapbox speeches in his novels, although he didn’t shy away from speaking his mind, that’s for sure.
The Bluest Eye is about a young black girl named Pecola.
Pecola lives in a small town in Ohio. Her parents are abusive with one another, in words and more. She is constantly told that she is ugly, so she believes she is ugly. The title of the book comes from Pecola’s longing to have pretty blue eyes, just like the eyes of the lovely white doll that appears in the story. The doll receives many more compliments than Pecola does.
Pecola is impregnated by her father, and things get worse from there. She is held captive by her circumstances, her parents, the town that turns against her, and her own perceptions of the novel’s themes: ideas about beauty, love, family, and community. Ideas that she is locked into.
Nothing goes well for her, to put it lightly, and the ending is wrenching.
The Bluest Eye contains extremely graphic scenes of emotional and physical devastation. Does it deserve to be banned for any reason whatsoever? NO. But this is one where I do understand why it is challenged. I would not want my son to pick it up and read it before he had the tools to deal with and understand the material.
This is not a book subject to lame challenges like people howling about bad behavior in Where The Wild Things Are. This is a novel with themes that are beyond serious, and it deserves study and a commensurate level of engagement. I have yet to talk to anyone who says they read it with enjoyment.
I’ve read it three times and now I’m done. Again, important, but too painful for me to think about again. And that is something I admire about Toni Morrison. She spends time in very dark places to write her books. It is impossible to read them without confronting painful and atrocious realities.
Who has read it? What are your thoughts?
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