Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Whiteness as the Standard of Beauty
The Bluest Eye provides an extended depiction of the ways in which internalized white beauty standards deform the lives of black girls and women. Implicit messages that whiteness is superior are everywhere, including the white baby doll given to Claudia, the idealization of Shirley Temple, the consensus that light-skinned Maureen is cuter than the other black girls, the idealization of white beauty in the movies, and Pauline Breedlove’s preference for the little white girl she works for over her daughter. Adult women, having learned to hate the blackness of their own bodies, take this hatred out on their children—Mrs. Breedlove shares the conviction that Pecola is ugly, and lighter-skinned Geraldine curses Pecola’s blackness. Claudia remains free from this worship of whiteness, imagining Pecola’s unborn baby as beautiful in its blackness. But it is hinted that once Claudia reaches adolescence, she too will learn to hate herself, as if racial self-loathing were a necessary part of maturation.
The person who suffers most from white beauty standards is, of course, Pecola. She connects beauty with being loved and believes that if she possesses blue eyes, the cruelty in her life will be replaced by affection and respect. This hopeless desire leads ultimately to madness, suggesting that the fulfillment of the wish for white beauty may be even more tragic than the wish impulse itself.
Seeing versus Being Seen
Pecola’s desire for blue eyes, while highly unrealistic, is based on one correct insight into her world: she believes that the cruelty she witnesses and experiences is connected to how she is seen. If she had beautiful blue eyes, Pecola imagines, people would not want to do ugly things in front of her or to her. The accuracy of this insight is affirmed by her experience of being teased by the boys—when Maureen comes to her rescue, it seems that they no longer want to behave badly under Maureen’s attractive gaze. In a more basic sense, Pecola and her family are mistreated in part because they happen to have black skin. By wishing for blue eyes rather than lighter skin, Pecola indicates that she wishes to see things differently as much as she wishes to be seen differently. She can only receive this wish, in effect, by blinding herself. Pecola is then able to see herself as beautiful, but only at the cost of her ability to see accurately both herself and the world around her. The connection between how one is seen and what one sees has a uniquely tragic outcome for her.
The Power of Stories
The Bluest Eye is not one story, but multiple, sometimes contradictory, interlocking stories. Characters tell stories to make sense of their lives, and these stories have tremendous power for both good and evil. Claudia’s stories, in particular, stand out for their affirmative power. First and foremost, she tells Pecola’s story, and though she questions the accuracy and meaning of her version, to some degree her attention and care redeem the ugliness of Pecola’s life. Furthermore, when the adults describe Pecola’s pregnancy and hope that the baby dies, Claudia and Frieda attempt to rewrite this story as a hopeful one, casting themselves as saviors. Finally, Claudia resists the premise of white superiority, writing her own story about the beauty of blackness. Stories by other characters are often destructive to themselves and others. The story Pauline Breedlove tells herself about her own ugliness reinforces her self-hatred, and the story she tells herself about her own martyrdom reinforces her cruelty toward her family. Soaphead Church’s personal narratives about his good intentions and his special relationship with God are pure hypocrisy. Stories are as likely to distort the truth as they are to reveal it. While Morrison apparently believes that stories can be redeeming, she is no blind optimist and refuses to let us rest comfortably in any one version of what happens.
Sexual Initiation and Abuse
To a large degree, The Bluest Eye is about both the pleasures and the perils of sexual initiation. Early in the novel, Pecola has her first menstrual period, and toward the novel’s end she has her first sexual experience, which is violent. Frieda knows about and anticipates menstruating, and she is initiated into sexual experience when she is fondled by Henry Washington. We are told the story of Cholly’s first sexual experience, which ends when two white men force him to finish having sex while they watch. The fact that all of these experiences are humiliating and hurtful indicates that sexual coming-of-age is fraught with peril, especially in an abusive environment.
In the novel, parents carry much of the blame for their children’s often traumatic sexual coming-of-age. The most blatant case is Cholly’s rape of his own daughter, Pecola, which is, in a sense, a repetition of the sexual humiliation Cholly experienced under the gaze of two racist whites. Frieda’s experience is less painful than Pecola’s because her parents immediately come to her rescue, playing the appropriate protector and underlining, by way of contrast, the extent of Cholly’s crime against his daughter. But Frieda is not given information that lets her understand what has happened to her. Instead, she lives with a vague fear of being “ruined” like the local prostitutes. The prevalence of sexual violence in the novel suggests that racism is not the only thing that distorts black girlhoods. There is also a pervasive assumption that women’s bodies are available for abuse. The refusal on the part of parents to teach their girls about sexuality makes the girls’ transition into sexual maturity difficult.
More main ideas from The Bluest Eye
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The Effect of White, Anglo Cultural Values on Non-White People
The novel opens with a passage from a 1940s reader in which the ideal, white family is depicted. The family lives in a green and white house and consists of a mother, a father, a son and a daughter, and a pet dog and cat. They are all happy, the children are playful and they have money. This ideal family is seen as good, and everything else, in contrast, as bad. Reduced to unpunctuated lines and fragments, this passage is repeated many times as a heading for various sections in the novel. The effect is to contrast the idealized white family with the reality of several black families, especially Pecola's. Even the fate of the pets is contrasted, since in the black families, pets seem to meet a cruel fate (witness the cat killed by Junior and the dog cruelly poisoned by Soaphead Church).
The reader is repeatedly reminded of the backdrop of white, Anglo cultural values that act on the characters. Each character reacts differently to the values of the predominant culture, which to the black characters are self-negating. They have only two choices: to internalize the white value system and hate themselves, or retain their own self-worth while acknowledging their hatred and violence toward the white culture. But the white culture is so pervasive and all-powerful that only the strongest of people can survive with self-esteem in this harsh social environment.
The Necessity of Accepting Anger within Oneself
The characters in this novel who survive and thrive, Claudia and Frieda, are very strong. They are strong because they learned how to live from their mother. They do not accept the white notions of beauty, and they are aware of the unfairness and harsh conditions of their everyday life. They are angry because they know they deserve fair treatment, even though they are treated unfairly. In order for them to access their power, they must acknowledge their own anger, which is the seed that contains the truth of their experience. Through their anger, they can fuel their own achievements and excel in spite of white Anglo cultural values. However, in the novel many characters cannot take the first step, which is to break through their denial of the pain they are experiencing every day due to racial discrimination. Instead, they simply react to that pain without truly understanding it. Claudia is the exception, which is why she is the one who survives, and it is she who uses her awareness and strength to tell Pecola's story.
When Blacks Emulate White Values, Hate and Self-Loathing Is Perpetuated
In the novel, many blacks emulate the white Anglo value system by hating their natural blackness and their black culture. The outcome of these characters' behaviors is always bad. This can be seen, for example, in the descriptions of the educated black people who move into Lorain. They speak like whites and straighten their hair and hide their blackness or "funkiness," which is defined as a kind of natural unruliness, "the funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions" (p. 83). Geraldine, for example, feels affection for her blue-eyed cat but not for her son whom she rejects. When he was a baby she didn't even let him cry. He used to long to play rough with the black boys but he was not permitted to do so. As he grew up, he agreed with his mother that he was better than the black boys. When he couldn't stand his boredom anymore he would bully younger children or girls. The repression of natural love and emotion results in him becoming hateful and destructive, as is shown in the incident when he kills the family cat. If he couldn't be loved, he wouldn't let the cat receive any love or affection either. Then when his mother came home, he blamed this killing on Pecola, and she believed him because Pecola appeared so black.
The same self-rejection can be seen in the life of Pauline Breedlove, who not only internalizes a view of herself as ugly and worthless, but also rejects her own daughter, Pecola. The clearest example of this is when Pauline comforts the little white daughter of her employers but denies her own daughter affection or comfort. Then when Pecola becomes mentally unbalanced, her mother will not even speak to her.
In all of these scenes, where blacks reject their own racial identity, the result is either self-loathing or hatred.
The Power of Seeing and Being Seen
The theme of seeing and being seen is repeated throughout the novel. It is revealing of the power relationships between people. In the beginning, when the reader first learns about Claudia and Frieda and how Pecola came to be living with them, there is a lot of emphasis on the normal relationship between parents and children in the black household. The children are given orders by the adults. They are taught to obey even when they do not know what is going on. If the children want to know what's going on in the adult world, they must listen and watch the adults. The children are protected by the adults by being excluded from certain kinds of information. Their innocence is maintained by reducing their exposure to adult conversations, disagreements and/or decisions. The adults have the power of choosing to see or not see a child, to give attention to or to withhold attention. However, the children have no way of seeing the adults. They can watch their actions, and they do; however, they do not have the power of maturity to understand.
When Mr. Henry comes to live with the MacTeers, he acknowledges the presence of the children and plays with them. This is significant to the children; they feel special because he sees them, because he gives them his attention. However, later the reader learns that Mr. Henry has sexual interests in Frieda. The children learn the cost of being seen can be sexual exploitation.
Seeing, without delusion, is rare in this novel where just about everyone is deluded into believing a reality that does not exist. The children can be forgiven because their immaturity explains why they cannot understand. However, the adults seem to have a permanent inability to see the everyday exploitation to which they are subject. They experience discrimination but they turn it in on themselves; and they reject themselves and each other as a result, instead of blaming the actual perpetrator, the white culture.
Somehow they are unable to see or experience their actual powerlessness. Instead, they blame themselves and each other. Perhaps this is the intention of the writer, who wants to portray the blacks in a childlike relationship to white culture. Because they have no real power, they cannot see, and they cannot be aware of the full impact of their helpless situation because to become aware would precipitate unrestrained rage or would destroy them. Just as children feel the need to believe they are being protected and taken care of by their parents or caretakers, the author implies that blacks without direct access to power are in the same position: they cannot see or name their oppressor or even feel the full impact of their helplessness. However, the narrator, Claudia, as an adult, can see the truth. She is, in the end, the only one who can really see. In telling Pecola's story, she helps everyone to understand.