2. Autobiographical influences
3. Genesis of The Bluest Eye
4. The Bluest Eye
6. A definition of social identity
7. Unique identity: The self
8. Concept of beauty and its consequences
9. Blackness opposed to Whiteness
10. Black identity
10.1 Sages of identity development
10.2 [Black] identity in The Bluest Eye
The purpose of this thesis is to show the destruction of identity in The Bluest Eye. In order to find out how far Toni Morrison digests her own experiences in her first piece of work, it is important to have a closer insight into her biography. First of all, I will provide the reader with some basic information about the author and genesis of the work in order to find out how far Toni Morrison dwells on her past. It is necessary to reflect on the underlying reasons why Toni Morrison started writing The Bluest Eye, as her motivation reveals the emotional attachment she has to her work. Hence, The Bluest Eye is introduced. The primer depicts the main aspects around the Bluest Eye and how it deals with identity formation and the tremendous problem with the context of beauty. Subsequently, I will give a definition of social identity to lay the foundation and back my argumentation. In this context, the concept of beauty plays a major role. I will illustrate the difficult situation of black people in a dominant white culture and how some black characters in The Bluest Eye are developed as a result of this. After that, I will present a sociological view of this problem and describe how Morrison’s characters developed their identities by classifying them into categories. In my conclusion, I will discuss the main character’s identities and highlight the differences between the MacTeers and the Breedloves.
2. Autobiographical influences
Morrison’s biography reveals the importance of class identity and racial identity in the first 25 years of her life. For middle-class white America, blackness seems to be connected to poverty. The poorer one is, the blacker they appear. Therefore, Morrison welcomed the “black is beautiful” and the Black Aesthetic Movement and started writing in 1965. The 1970s was an extremely politically active dacade during which time the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement were in full blossom. “Morrison works in the space between a modernist desire for authentic identity and a postmodern understanding of the constructedness of all identity” (Duvall 18).
Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on the 18th of February 1931 in the Midwest, Lorain, Ohio. She was educated at Cornell University and Howard University. At first, she taught English and humanities at Texas Southern as well as Howard University. In 1960 she married the Jamaican architect Harold Morrison and gave birth to their two sons Slade and Ford, but separated four years after their marriage and got divorced subsequently.
Being born Chloe Anthony, Morrison explains her name change was due to problems of pronunciation at University, which seems a bit far-fetched, as there is a certain similarity to Claudia concerning the sound.
Toni Morrison states her book is not generally to be regarded as autobiographical: “People ask, ‘Is your book autobiographical?’ It is not, but it is, because of that process of reclamation.” (Naylor 199). In another Interview with Bessie W. Jones and Audrey Vinson Toni Morrison admits that in writing she is re-doing the past (cf. Jones & Vinson 171).
Furthermore, Ferguson describes Morrison’s writing as a rediscovery, and even a reinscription of a part of Morrison’s self which seems to be dead (cf. Ferguson 26).
Nevertheless, the content of The Bluest Eye is based on personal experiences and sentiments:
I used to love my company and then I didn’t. And I realized the reason I didn’t like my company was because there was nobody there to like. […] all I needed was a slogan: ‘Black is Beautiful’. It wasn’t that easy being a little black girl in this country-it was rough. The psychological tricks you have to play in order to get through-and nobody said how it felt to be that. And you knew better. You knew inside better (Naylor 199).
In her first book Toni Morrison chose to use her hometown Lorain, Ohio for the setting:
[…] [I] used literal descriptions of neighborhoods and changed the obvious things, the names of people, and mixed things all up, but the description of the house where we lived, the description of the streets, the lake, and all of that, is very much the way I remember Lorain, Ohio, […] (Jones & Vinson 171).
Toni Morrison never lived in a black neighborhood in Lorain. There, black people were rare at that time. Thus, Morrison lived next door to white people and grew up with both, black and white people, just like Claudia and Frieda do. Another similarity is embodied in Frieda, Claudia’s younger sister. Toni Morrison herself has an older sister, but their relationship is very different from the one portrayed in The Bluest Eye. Morrison admits that she was a cheery and clever girl who disagreed quite often and detested “white plastic celebrities of white culture”. As a result, she hated all that concerned Shirley Temple (cf. Dowling 50).
Morrison’s parents, Ramah Willis Wofford and George Wofford were among the first ones to migrate north because of the racial climate (cf. Jackson 87).
Moreover, Mr. MacTeer is a great deal like Morrison’s own father, George Wofford, who worked in the shipyards, : “ […] could be very aggressive about people who troubled us-throwing people out and so on […]” (Jones & Vinson 172). Her father once pushed a white man down the stairs. But his children were cared for properly and received his love. He always used to tell ghost stories to his children at night (cf. Dowling 50). Furthermore, her mother’s unbreakable habit to moan about troublesome issues for days is taken up in the depiction of Mrs. MacTeer moaning about Pecola’s thirst for milk for instance.
Even the leading motive originates from a conversation with a friend from her childhood:
The conversation was about whether God existed; she said no and I said yes. She explained her reason for knowing that he did not: she had prayed every night for two years for blue eyes and didn’t get them, and therefore he didn’t exist. What I later recollected was that I looked at her and imagined her having them and thought how awful that would be if she had gotten her prayer answered. I always thought she was beautiful (Ruas 95).
Morrison herself is pretty light-skinned. As a result, her outward appearance is much closer to Maureen Peal than to Pecola. But in respect of class, Morrison was closer to Pecola. Furthermore, Morrison experienced her own family breakdown.
3. Genesis of The Bluest Eye
Morrison begins writing The Bluest Eye for the sake of bringing something to a writer’s group in 1962:
Then one day I didn’t have anything to bring, so I wrote a little story about a black girl
who wanted blue eyes. It was written hurriedly and probably not very well, but I read it and some liked it-I was 30 years old then so I wasn’t a novice. Still, I thought it was finished; I’d written it, had an audience, so I put it aside (Watkins 44).
The divorce brought along a state of unhappiness, and that is when Toni Morrison started to change that short story into a novel. In doing so she wanted to give insights into the black point of view, which was neglected in most of the literature of the time: “ […] when I wrote The Bluest Eye, I was under the distinct impression, which was erroneous, that it was on me, you know, that nobody else was writing like that, nobody, and nobody was going to.” (Naylor 212). She describes her motivation in an interview with Charles Ruas: “I was preoccupied with books by black people that approached the subject, but I always missed some intimacy - , some direction, some voice” (Ruas 96). Obviously, Morrison wrote that novel because she wanted to read it herself: “My audience is always the people in the book I’m writing at the time. I don’t think of an external audience” (Tate 161).
4.The Bluest Eye
Ferguson describes The Bluest Eye as a post-Civil Rights Movement work as it deals with a variety of subjects of class during that era. But it is not about class primarily, it is about “[…] distorted, contradictory self-perceptions imposed upon black people by the dominant white culture.” (Ferguson 23).
One main aspect concerns white physical beauty standards and its tremendous impact on black people who are not able to conform to them: “Within the novel Morrison demonstrates that even with the best intentions, people hurt each other when they are chained to circumstances of poverty and low social status” (McKay 138). The story is representative for most people living up North around 1940: “[…] The Bluest Eye (1970), encouraged many of us to speak for the first time about the enormous damage to the psyche that results from trying to adopt an alien standard of beauty (Wilson 129). Morrison did: “[…] write about a girl who wanted blue eyes and the horror of having that wish fulfilled; and also about the whole business of what physical beauty and the pain of that yearning and wanting to be somebody else […]” (Ruas 95). On the very first page she explains what happened. Then, she explains how and what comes from the inability to express love. In the end the first-person narrator Claudia realizes that: “The damage was done total. She spent her days, her tendril, sap-green days, walking up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear” (Morrison 162).
Duvall states that “Morrison’s first four novels [including The Bluest Eye ], which overtly represent identity formation, serve as the writer’s reflections on the fictions of identity” (Duvall 10).
 “The intensified black identity and the ‘black is beautiful’ attitude pushed light-skinned blacks from a position of advantage to one of disadvantage within the black community. The awakening of racial and ethnic identity allows people to be proud of their heritage and their distinct racial and ethinc group memberships” (Babad 146).
 “The majority culture aims at ‘acculturating’ the minority groups, demanding conformity to its norms and standards – not only through obedience to the law but through the internalization of its values and ways of life as well.” (Babad 156).
The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison
(Born Chloe Anthony Wofford) American novelist, nonfiction writer, essayist, playwright, and children's writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye (1970) through 2000. For further information on her life and complete works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 10, 22, 87, and 194.
Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, examines the tragic effects of imposing white, middle-class American ideals of beauty on the developing female identity of a young African American girl during the early 1940s. Inspired by a conversation Morrison once had with an elementary school classmate who wished for blue eyes, the novel poignantly shows the psychological devastation of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who searches for love and acceptance in a world that denies and devalues people of her own race. As her mental state slowly unravels, Pecola hopelessly longs to possess the conventional American standards of feminine beauty—namely, white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes—as presented to her by the popular icons and traditions of white culture. Written as a fragmented narrative from multiple perspectives and with significant typographical deviations, The Bluest Eye juxtaposes passages from the Dick-and-Jane grammar school primer with memories and stories of Pecola's life alternately told in retrospect by one of Pecola's now-grown childhood friends and by an omniscient narrator. Published in the midst of the Black Arts movement that flourished during the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Bluest Eye has attracted considerable attention from literary critics—though not to the same degree as Morrison's later works. With its sensitive portrait of African American female identity and its astute critique of the internalized racism bred by American cultural definitions of beauty, The Bluest Eye has been widely seen as a literary watershed, inspiring a proliferation of literature written by African American women about their identity and experience as women of color.
Plot and Major Characters
Ignoring strict narrative chronology, The Bluest Eye opens with three excerpts from the common 1940s American elementary school primer that features the All-American, white family of Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane. The first excerpt is a faithful reproduction, the second lacks all capitalization and punctuation marks, and the third dissolves into linguistic chaos by abandoning its spacing and alignment. This section is interrupted by an italicized fragment representing the memories of Claudia MacTeer, the principal narrator of The Bluest Eye. As an adult, Claudia recalls incidents from late 1941 when she was nine years old living in Lorain, Ohio, with her poor but loving parents and her ten-year-old sister, Frieda. Claudia's friend, Pecola Breedlove, is an emotionally impaired African American girl who comes from a broken home. The rest of The Bluest Eye divides into four separate time sequences, each named for a season of the year and each narrated by Claudia. Interspersed throughout the text are fragments in the voice of an omniscient narrator that discuss Pecola's obsessive desire for blue eyes and her parents, Pauline and Cholly; each fragment is introduced with different lines from the Dick-and-Jane primer. In “Autumn,” Claudia begins her narrative as the MacTeers take in a boarder, Mr. Henry Washington. At the same time, Pecola comes to live with the MacTeer family after Cholly burns down his family's house. Recounting their typical girlhood adventures, Claudia particularly remembers the onset of Pecola's first menses. The omniscient narrator intermittently interrupts with descriptions of the Breedlove's household, noting how the parents are unable to hide the violence of their relationship in the presence of Pecola and her brother Sammy. In the midst of the hostilities, Pecola constantly prays for blue eyes, believing that if she only had blue eyes, life would be better. In “Winter,” Claudia recalls the arrival at school of Maureen Peale, a lighter-skinned, wealthy black girl with green eyes whom the girls both hate and admire. When a group of boys harasses Pecola, Maureen temporarily befriends Pecola, but eventually turns on her, calling the darker-skinned and deeply hurt Pecola “ugly.” The omniscient narrator again interrupts and describes an incident involving Pecola and Geraldine, a socially mobile middle-class African American woman who loves her blue-eyed cat more than she loves her own son, Louis Junior. When Pecola is wrongly blamed for the cat's death, Geraldine quietly calls her a “nasty little black bitch.” Claudia opens the “Spring” sequence of The Bluest Eye with disparate memories about Henry Washington fondling Frieda's breasts, his subsequent beating and eviction by Mr. MacTeer, and a visit to Pecola's apartment. The omniscient narrator's descriptions of Pauline and Cholly's history predominate the rest of this section. The narrator relates events from Pauline's early life, her marriage, and how she became a maid for an affluent, white family. The narrator next recounts Cholly's traumatic childhood and adolescence. Abandoned almost at birth, he is rescued by his beloved Aunt Jimmy, who later dies when he is sixteen. After her burial, Cholly is humiliated by two white hunters who interrupt his first sexual encounter with a girl named Darlene. He flees to Macon, Georgia, in search of his father who is miserably mean and wants nothing to do with his son. Crushed by this encounter, Cholly eventually meets and marries Pauline and fathers her children. Years later, in Lorain, a drunken Cholly staggers into his kitchen, and overcome with lust, brutally rapes and impregnates Pecola. “Spring” concludes with a story about Soaphead Church, a self-proclaimed psychic and mystic, who counsels an unattractive black girl who wishes she had blue eyes. In “Summer,” Claudia resumes her narration, recalling how the gossip spreads regarding Pecola being pregnant with Cholly's baby. Near the end of the novel, Pecola finally narrates a story about her conversation with an imaginary companion concerning her new blue eyes and whether they are “the bluest eyes” in the world. In the last section of The Bluest Eye Claudia remembers meeting Pecola after Cholly's baby is delivered stillborn and accounts for the whereabouts of Sammy, Cholly, and Pauline.
In The Bluest Eye, the opening excerpt from the Dick-and-Jane primer juxtaposed with the experiences of African American characters immediately sets the tone for Morrison's examination of a young black girl's growing self-hatred: American society tells Pecola happy, white, middle-class families are better than hopeless, black, working-class families. Victimized in different degrees by media messages—from movies and books to advertising and merchandise—that degrade their appearance, nearly every black character in the novel—both male and female—internalizes a desire for the white cultural standard of beauty. This desire is especially strong in Pecola, who believes that blue eyes will make her beautiful and lovable. At the same time, every African American character hates in various degrees anything associated with their own race, blindly accepting the media-sponsored belief that they are ugly and unlovable, particularly in the appalling absence of black cultural standards of beauty. In a sense, Pecola becomes the African American community's scapegoat for its own fears and feelings of unworthiness. Unlike Claudia, who possesses the love of her family, Pecola has learned from her appearance-conscious parents to devalue herself. She endures rejection by others who also value “appearances” and who ultimately share the same symptoms that characterize Pecola's insanity. Besides exposing the inherent racism of the American standard of beauty, The Bluest Eye also examines child abuse in terms of the violence that some African American parents subconsciously inflict on their children by forcing them to weigh their self-worth against white cultural standards. Cholly's rape of Pecola in effect culminates the psychological, social, and personal depreciation by white society that has raped Cholly his entire life. As his surname implies, Cholly can only breed, not love, and his brutal act against his daughter produces a child who cannot live. Finally, Pecola's longing for blue eyes speaks to the connection between how one is seen and how one sees. Pecola believes that if she had beautiful eyes, people would not be able to torment her mind or body. Her wish for blue eyes rather than lighter skin transcends racism, with its suggestion that Pecola wants to see things differently as much as to be seen differently, but the price for Pecola's wish ultimately is her sanity, as she loses sight of both herself and the world she inhabits.
Regarded by modern literary critics as perhaps one of the first contemporary female bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narratives, The Bluest Eye initially received modest reviews upon its publication in 1970. Commentators later claimed that they neglected the work because Morrison was unknown at the time. Since then, however, The Bluest Eye has become a classroom staple, and scholarship on the novel has flourished from a number of perspectives. A recurring discussion has focused on the novel's ability to replicate African American vernacular patterns and musical rhythms. Many critics have approached the novel in the context of the rise of African American writers, assigning significance to their revision of American history with their own cultural materials and folk traditions. Others have considered the ways The Bluest Eye alludes to earlier black writings in order to express the traditionally silenced female point of view and uses conventional grotesque imagery as a vehicle for social protest. Scholars also have been attracted to The Bluest Eye by its deconstruction of “whiteness” along racial, gender, and economic lines, while feminists have equated the violence of the narrative with self-hatred wrought by a wide range of illusions about white American society and African American women's place in it. In addition, some have examined the influence of environment on the novel's characters, identifying stylistic affinities with literary naturalism. Others have offered Marxist interpretations of the novel's formal aspects in terms of the ideological content of its representation of African American life. Acknowledging Morrison's achievement in the novel, critics have generally acclaimed The Bluest Eye for deconstructing a number of literary taboos with its honest portrayals of American girlhood, its frank descriptions of intraracial racism or “colorism” in the African American community, and its thoughtful treatment of the emotional precocity of prepubescent girls.