I recently went on vacation with my family for ten days. Some of you may vaguely remember that I took this same trip last year, with eleven people, six of them children, in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom cabin. (!) That time, I was optimistic and took six or seven books. I got nothing read. Nothing. Not one word. This year, I was less optimistic, but I still took three books along. Apparently it makes a difference to have all the children be a year older, because I read all three of my books, and Toni Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye, was the first of them.
Morrison’s novel centers around a young black girl, Pecola, whose life is so shattered by poverty, abuse, and her own conviction of her ugliness and worthlessness that she cannot see herself or form a concept of herself. Each traumatic contact she has with another human being — a neighbor, a storekeeper, another child, her father, even a dog — gives another blow to the vacancy at the center of her mind. Her one desire, the thing she prays for, is to have the impossible: blue eyes in her black face, blue eyes that will make her finally beautiful and beloved.
This novel has several successful parts to it, but the parts add up to something that’s interesting, and sometimes didactic, rather than moving or even especially engaging. Morrison uses a number of different narrative techniques — third person, first person, present tense, past tense, speakerly and expressive prose, formal prose, dialogue, multiple narrators, nonlinear narration — to build a sense of the shatteredness of Pecola’s life. The characters in the book all have histories, hatreds, quirks, resentments, fears, and loves — all but Pecola — and they whirl around like autumn leaves. The pieces are held together by the seasons’ procession in due order, and by a regular reference to the still, meaningless, sterile world of Dick and Jane, whose green-and-white house and smiling mother bear no relation to Pecola’s life.
The talk is the best thing about this book. Morrison has the easy swing of dialogue, and when she is deep into relaying conversation, or into the speakerly narration of the little girls who know Pecola from school, she is absolutely at her best. Here, Pecola is listening to some neighborhood whores argue amiably:
“How come what? How come I ain’t seen a boy since nineteen and twenty-seven? Because they ain’t been no boys since then. That’s when they stopped. Folks started gettin’ born old.”
“You mean that’s when you got old,” China said.
“I ain’t never got old. Just fat.”
“You think ’cause you skinny, folks think you young? You’d make a haint buy a girdle.”
“And you look like the north side of a southbound mule.”
“All I know is, then bandy little legs of yours is every bit as old as mine.”
“Don’t worry ’bout my bandy legs. That’s the first thing they push aside.” All three of the women laughed.
But other parts of the book are less engaging and more didactic. Instead of seeing the example of a real, living human being, we get long paragraphs like this:
They go to land-grant colleges, normal schools, and learn how to do the white man’s work with refinement: home economics to prepare his food; teacher education to instruct black children in obedience; music to soothe the weary master and entertain his blunted soul. Here they learn the rest of the lesson begun in those soft houses with porch swings and pots of bleeding heart: how to behave. The careful development of thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners. In short, how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions.
I don’t say this is ill-written. On the contrary. I only suggest that it doesn’t quite reach the level of understanding that a character could give us. There’s an emptiness here.
Which is, perhaps, my complaint about The Bluest Eye in general. Pecola, the central character, or at any rate the central concept, is a void, and her strongest desire is an impossibility. As other, stronger characters moved through the book, that central vacancy was hard to repair. If Pecola’s lack-of-self had been better defined (is that a paradox?) I might have liked it better. I have loved others of Morrison’s books, especially Beloved, but this one was not quite to that level for me.