Free Study Guide: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison - Free BookNotes

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The Bluest Eye has perhaps the least controlled plot of Morrison’s novels. Because she chose to portray the ill effects on children of internalized racism, Morrison needed a child protagonist. However, she could not maintain the focus on Pecola Breedlove throughout the entire novel without demonizing Pecola’s antagonists. Therefore, she needed to break the narrative unity of the novel to move from Pecola’s story to her parents’ stories and the stories of other adults and children who influence her life. The novel then is plotted as a series of character vignettes.

Each of these vignettes traces a tragic fall. The story of Pecola, the wounded little girl who wishes to solve her problems by gaining the racial mark of whiteness, blue eyes, begins in the innocence of that wish and ends tragically in her insanity, a playing out of that wish. Cholly also begins in innocent. An abandoned child who nevertheless loves the only mother and father figures he has available, but finds them to abandon him too, one by dying and the other by his drinking. Cholly’s hurts as a child are compounded by his hurts as an African-American living in a racist society. His initiation into adult sexuality is perverted by two white men who want to have sexual pleasure at his and his lover’s expense. The story of Pauline also begins in innocence. As a girl, Pauline wanted someone to love her and after finding someone who would, she was ruined in her thinking by the Hollywood images of beauty and romantic love. She ended up living the constricted morality of respectability, loving her white employers and hating her own family. Pauline and Cholly both emotionally abandon their children. They are so emotionally compromised by the time they become parents, they cannot provide nurturance to their children. Cholly is further removed from family even than Pauline. His multiple abandonment led him to cut himself loose from all social obligations. He ends up degraded, regularly beating his wife, ultimately raping his daughter, and finally abandoning his own family to die in a work house. Hence, the stories of these three characters are plotted along the tragic line. Each begins in innocence and beauty of spirit and ends hurt beyond repair by their society.


Toni Morrison intertwines the concerns of two main themes in her novel The Bluest Eye. She explores the tragedy of the oppression or violation of children, especially poor children and she explores a problem specific to groups targeted by racism, that of internalized racism. This is a kind of thinking produced when members of the targeted group, in this case African Americans, begin to believe the stereotypes about themselves and imagine that European Americans are superior in beauty, morality, and intelligence. Morrison focuses in on this problem of internalized racism as if affects children. The psycholgical mechanism of internalized racism hinges on the cycle of oppression.

The cycle of oppression is a complex phenomenon that affects all people who are touched by oppressive systems, whether they are assigned the role of oppressor or oppressed. The child is oppressed and because s/he is a child, s/he is unable to combat or resist her/his oppression. S/he is taught to react to injustice and hurts with different kinds of disempowered responses--silence, self-abuse, depression, rage. When the child grows up in this oppressive system, her/his position often shifts and s/he assumes the role of the oppressor. This cycle is especially clear when seen in the oppression of children, but it is also visible in the oppression of groups of people based on their ethnic identity.

In The Bluest Eye, the oppressors of Pecola have themselves been hurt by oppressive adults and/or racist ideology. Morrison is very careful to point out that people are not born with the tendency to hurt other people; instead, they are taught to do so when they themselves are hurt. A perfect example of this phenomenon is Pauline, Mrs. Breedlove. She is rejected by the women in the Lorain community because she bears the marks of her color and class too overtly she wears her hair natural, she wears the clothing of country people, and she speaks with a southern accent. Pauline responds by adopting the oppressor’s discourse, particularly the discourse on physical beauty. Measured against it, Pauline is ugly and her white employers are beautiful and deserving of all her care and love. Pauline thereby accepts her assigned role on the hierarchy of color, beauty, and privilege. This role leaves her incapable of caring for her daughter or anyone in her family. According to its script, they do not deserve any of her care.

Pecola is born into this ideology of racialized beauty. She doesn’t have a chance from the beginning. Her mother has placed all her care in her job and she has internalized the message that black is ugly and white is beautiful to such an extent that she sees Pecola as an ugly ball of black hair when she is born. She and Cholly seem to have given Pecola no love and no nurturance. They are so preoccupied by their own war on each other that they never seem to notice the damage it is causing their daughter.

Echoing the situation of the Breedloves is that of the MacTeers. Morrison constructs these two families as a sort of plot and subplot along the lines of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The MacTeers do not have it as bad as the Breedloves do. While the parents seem to be quite embattled by poverty, they retain their allegiance to their home. Mr. MacTeer regards it as his steadfast duty to provide for his family. Mrs. MacTeer regards it as her steadfast duty to provide for her family and to ensure her daughters’ upbringing in the accepted morality of their time. Neither parent has the time or the emotional energy to nurture their daughters. They treat Claudia and Frieda as peices of furniture, which are inconvenient, but necessary to care for. Mrs. MacTeer treats them with rough care, but care nonetheless. She dispenses punishment arbitrarily and too swiftly, not recognizing their physical or moral integrity, but she stops short of abusing them for the mere sake of releasing her own pent up frustations. When Frieda is sexually molested by Mr. Henry, her parents believe her story and act on it swiftly, punishing Mr. Henry, and leaving Frieda to draw her own conclusions about what it meant. Mrs. MacTeer unwittingly foists on her daughters the ideology of white supremacy when she gives them white dolls to love and cherish, but she never directly says her daughters are ugly.

The MacTeer family seems to represent the mainstream African-American family in Lorain, Ohio at the time the novel was set. Most African-Americans were poor, and most attmepted to make it by adopting the code of respectability. The poor treatment of children was the norm, but the violation of children’s innocence was done ideologically more than physically. The Breedlove family represents all the faults of this African-American community writ large. In stucturing her novel in this way, Morrison avoids the simplistic analysis which would simply regard the Breedloves as an unfortunate abberration. Instead, they are the logical extension of the norm.


1. What are some of the sources of the value of white as beautiful and black as ugly, e.g. media, parent figures, etc.?

2. Choose one character and show how s/he has been hurt by racism in the society?

3. Describe the operations of adultism? What are its characteristics and how is it put into practice?

4. What indication do we have of Pecola’s actual looks, outside of her low self-perception?

5. How does the depiction of Cholly or Pauline change over the course of the narrative? How does your idea of them change?

6. What is the role of Claudia in the novel?

7. Why does Morrison have three sexual abusers in the novel (Cholly, Mr. Henry, and Soaphead Church)? What are the similarities and differences among them?

8. Compare the mother figures in the novel, including the three prostitutes who mother Pecola.

9. Contrast church women’s ways of coping with poverty, racism, and sexism with the prostitutes’ ways of coping.

10. Evaluate the images of the South in the novel. Is the South depicted nostalgically, realistically, or both?

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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: Free BookNotes Summary

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