Reading first novels is a great hobby of mine. If that first read leads to a second, I tend to get hooked and read from start to finish. What I enjoy is seeing how writing styles develop and so I am always amazed when a first novel is written in an absolutely immaculate prose. Such was the case for my reading experience of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
I expect quite a lot can be said about the subject matter of this book and I will touch on it somewhat. This is the story of Pecola Breedlove, an unloved child growing up in Ohio in the forties. Her story is tragic: she moves from being simply hated and teased by her peers to being raped and impregnated by her father and at the end she pulls off a unique vanishing act – she simply disappears inside herself for good.
Pecola functions as a cauldron – all the hatred and shame that gets loaded upon her are just ingredients for the larger racial feast that America is dining on at that moment in its history. As Claudia, Pecola’s schoolmate and one of the books narrators tells us at the end:
All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us – all who knew her – felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous.
Although the story itself is difficult to get through without feeling helpless, angry, frustrated and disheartened, the prose used to bring us to each of these emotions is something worth celebrating.
Slowly, like Indian summer moving imperceptibly toward fall, he looks toward her. Somewhere between retina and object, between vision and view, his eyes draw back, hesitate, and hover. At some fixed point in time and space he senses that he need not waste the effort of a glance. He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see. How can a fifty-two-year-old white immigrant storekeeper with the taste of potatoes and beer in his mouth, his mind honed on the doe-eyed Virgin Mary, his sensibilities blunted by a permanent awareness of loss, see a little black girl? Nothing in his life even suggested that the feat was possible, not to say desirable or necessary.
Morrison does this again and again, creating a thorny work of art out of misery and one little girl’s tragedy.