Monday, January 9, 2012

Group Review: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Reviewed by Connie, Christina, and Ingrid

Published: 1970

It's about: The Bluest Eye is a year in the life of Pecola Breedlove, a poor black girl from a disfunctional family in Lorain, Ohio. After her father tries to burn down the Breedlove home, Pecola lives with the MacTeers; Claudia MacTeer, Pecola's classmate, tells part of the story. A third-person narrator fills in the backstory and the rest of Pecola's year from the perspectives of various townspeople.

During this pivotal year, Pecola is verbally, physically, or sexually abused by almost every person with whom she has contact. Picking up on social and media cues, Pecola comes to believe that people treat her badly because she is ugly. She wishes more than anything for her eyes to turn blue, making her beautiful and, she believes, placing her above the continual reproach she feels from all sides.

Connie thought: The first few pages of this book blew me away. The quality of writing was incredible, and it carried such an emotional impact, I had to take a break after reading those first 4 pages. After a beginning like that, I was expecting big things from this book. Unfortunately, though, the rest of the book wasn't as skilfully done as the introduction. Though Morrison's writing in this book is undeniably good, the goal of the book seems more ambitious than her abilities at the time could keep up with. The edition I read contains an afterword by Morrison, written in 1993, more than twenty years after the book is published. I was impressed with how fairly and accurately she analyzes her own work, and I found her opinion to be spot on how I felt about the book:
"One problem was centering: the weight of the novel's inquiry on so delicate and vulnerable a character could smash her and lead readers into the comfort of pitying her rather than into an interrogation of themselves for the smashing. My solution-- break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader -- seemed to me a good idea, the execution of which does not satisfy me now. Besides, it didn't work: many readers remain touched but not moved."
Touched, but not moved. That pretty much sums up my reaction. It was an interesting read, but not as moving and revolutionary as I was hoping for. Actually, I found the afterword more intriguing and enlightening than the novel itself, though I suppose it's a catch-22, as the afterword wouldn't make much sense unless you had read the book.

Christina thought: I'm going to disagree with Connie: I think Ms. Morrison was too hard on herself in the forward. I was moved and troubled by this book, and I thought it worked very well. I don't think I'd change anything about it; the incredible writing, the way Pecola's story is told from the outside in, the way almost every character has an explanatory backstory, the way the year unfolds almost as a community's story as much as an individual's. I found this novel very affecting; every time I sat down to read I had to prepare myself for an emotional experience. Weeks after finishing it I'm still thinking about the issues raised by The Bluest Eye and trying to identify my own racial and class prejudices, especially as they relate to beauty.

I love Ms. Morrison's apt and original similes: "Her voice was like an earache in the brain." And "... the unquarreled evening hung like the first note of a dirge in sullenly expectant air."

But can I really say I loved this book? No. The consistently intense and bleak outlook is important, real, and raw. I'm not sorry I read The Bluest Eye and I liked it one million times better than Beloved. But the experience of reading Toni Morrison isn't a pleasant one for me. She challenges my world view, my stubborn belief that most people are good and nice.

Ingrid thought: Hello. I think I had a different edition than Connie and Christina, because mine didn't have this incredible forward they're talking about. I kind feel left out :(. Anyway, my only experience with Morrison before The Bluest Eye was when I read Beloved in high school. Unlike Christina, Beloved absolutely blew me away. I particularly remember a scene near the beginning of Beloved where a group of white farmers (I think) are ripping open and eating husks of corn from the field, an act paralleling their raping young black girls who work for them. It was the most chill-inducing, incredibly sickening and impressively written passage I think I've ever read. Though I was again impressed with Morrison's writing in The Bluest Eye, it just didn't have the same kind of force as Beloved. The violent scenes in The Bluest Eye were a little more blatant in their description and more obvious in their meaning for the book, so I don't think they were as effective and as powerful as the violent scenes in Beloved.

Verdict: In-between

Reading Recommendations: Well, this is more of a watching recommendation, but it's related: this small, informal study in which children choose to play with either a black doll or a white doll makes me question how far we've really come since The Bluest Eye was written more than 40 years ago.

Warnings: swears, sexual violence

Favorite excerpts:
"Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another -- physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion."

"I have only to break into the tightness of a strawberry and I see summer- its dust and lowering skies. It remains for me a season of storms. The parched days and sticky nights are undistinguished in my mind, but the storms, the violent sudden storms, both frightened and quenched me. But my memory is uncertain; I recall a summer storm in the town where we lived and imagine a summer my mother knew in 1929. There was a tornado that year, she said, that blew away half of south Lorain. I mix up her summer with my own. Biting the strawberry, thinking of storms, I see her. A slim young girl in a pink crepe dress. One hand is on her hip; the other lolls about her thigh- waiting. The wind swoops her up, high above the houses, but she is still standing, hand on hip. Smiling. The anticipation and promise in her lolling hand are not altered by the holocaust. In the summer tornado of 1929, my mother's hand is unextinguished. She is strong, smiling, and relaxed while the world falls down about her. So much for memory. Public fact becomes private reality, and the seasons of a Midwestern town become the Moirai of our small lives."