Monday, October 27, 2008

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison


1970; 160 pages. Genre : Modern Literature. Awards : Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993; The Bluest Eye was selected for Oprah's book club in 2000. Overall Rating : B.
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11-year-old Pecola Breedlove has been taught that she is ugly. Rejected by both parents; abused by white folks and black, and by friends and strangers; her fervent wish is for God to give her blue eyes so she can be beautiful.
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What's To Like...
The book is a masterful effort, which is all the more surprising since this is Toni Morrison's debut novel. The formatting is unique - each chapter starts with a happy little "See Dick and Jane" snippet, which stands in stark contrast to the bleakness in Pecola's daily world.
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The overlying theme of the book is people and circumstances allying to make a person believe that he/she is ugly. Being black in Pecola's world (Lorain, Ohio in 1941) is not beautiful, and if you were born that way, it was ingrained in you to marry someone mulatto, or at least lighter-complexioned than you. Frizzy hair and/or a wide nose was ugly, and your beauty was defined by how much you conformed to the standard of the white world. The brainwashing process started at an early age for girls - when they were given a white-skinned doll to play with.
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Be Forwarned...
This is a coarse, gritty book, devoid of hope and without a happy ending. There is child-abuse, pedophilia, and rape. The only "shades" of character in the various people in the book is in the degree of hatefulness and uncaring they have. I have to question whether life for anyone, even for a black child in the 1940's, was as bad as Morrison paints it. I certainly hope not.
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An Excerpt that sets the tone...
Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs - all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. "Here," they said, "this is beautiful, and if you are on this day 'worthy' you may have it."
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On The Matter of Censorship...
A while back, a high school teacher in Bakersfield, California assigned The Bluest Eye to be read by a 12th-grade student. The topics apparently shocked the kid, who showed the book to his parents, and a brouhaha ensued. You can read details about it here.
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Now, I am completely against book-banning, which was what the parents sought. However, I question the judgment of the teacher here in making it required reading for a teenage kid. Is parental-rape is suitable subject at that age? I for one would have found this book shocking and revolting when I was 17, and I would have resented any teacher telling me to read it. In the end, the school district voided the assignment, but refused to remove The Bluest Eye from the school library's shelves. It's nice to see that every once in a while, the authorities get it right.
The Bluest Eye (Oprah's Book Club)
By: Toni Morrison
Amazon Price: $14.00

10 comments:

Amanda said...

Interesting. I saw all those Toni Morrison books on the banned books list and wondered what they were all about. This is one I think I'll avoid. I can take a certain amount of depressing negativity, but this sounds too gritty for me. Thanks for reviewing it - now I know...

Rebecca Reid said...

I think you are right about that school -- horrendous to think this would be required reading, but not one to take off the shelves.

I read it years ago. Definitely not a favorite Morrison pick. Morrisons's books tend to be violent and harsh, but I seem to remember others being less horrendous.

Chain Reader said...

I read this one several years ago and it was too much for me. I did appreciate the creative structure, but the content just made me feel sick to my stomach.

Amanda said...

I was thinking about this last night Terry and realized that this almost sounds like parts of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, except with a gritty and disturbing layout. In TEWWG, there are a lot of the same themes of beauty, race, poverty, ignorance, discrimination, abuse, etc, but the whole thing is done tastefully, and it sounds like the Morrison book isn't. Something about our modern culture has made it so books need to be rougher and tougher to make an impression, and I don't like that. TEWWG was one of the most powerful books I've ever read - I even cried at the end, that's rare for me - and it didn't dwell on the details of the filth. I guess that's why I prefer books pre-1950s...

askanna said...

I didn't realize Oprah chose this book for her club as well...I had to read "Sula" in high school and that one's also on her list. Funny how she selected 2 books by the same author

hamilcar barca said...

chain reader - you're right. the writing skill in TBE is excellent, but i kept wishing someone would give Morrison a happy pill.

Amanda - i read up on Hurston today. what a fascinating person! a black, progressive segregationist. not many of those around.

Askanna - the source of all wisdom (Wikipedia) shows Oprah picked four of Morrison's books over the years for her Book-of-the Month selection. wow, i think Toni owes her bigtime.

to anyone : is there any book by Toni Morrison that is positive and uplifting, even to a mild degree? i like her writing, but jeez, even The Bell Jar seems sunshiny compared to The Bluest Eye.

Rebecca Reid said...

I actually like Toni Morrison, or at least I did....but it's now been three or four years. I've read Beloved three times, absolutely loved it the first time, found it rather violent the second and third. I wonder if getting older is making me less accepting?

I don't think any of hers are uplifting. But I found Beloved, at least a few years ago, to be a beautiful (if I can call it that) look at what it might have meant to be a slave, trying to escape from a past, and never quite making it. And I think Oprah likes her writing because as an African American, she feels that is a tie to her own collective history. But I really don't know, since I'm not African American.

Out of the three or four Morrison novels I read in college, Beloved is the only one I reread twice. I guess you could say that I found it the most "enjoyable" if that's possible.

Then again, I've found a number of reviews in the cyberworld lately saying it's a horrible novel that should be stricken from all lists. So I hate recommending anything. I personally would say The Bluest Eye is the worst place to start...

Rebecca Reid said...

When I say "collective history" I mean something like Jung's "collective subconscious." i.e., slaves in the 1860s had a subconscious memory as a people of the journey from Africa. So the slave story is still an African American story. I'm sure I had an entire lecture on this in class but I can't remember much now.

I hope I make sense.

hamilcar barca said...

thanks, Rebecca! i'll give Beloved a try. i picked The Bluest Eye because of the paradox of it being both an Oprah book and on the Banned Books list that Amanda posted. maybe its not a good first choice for becoming acquainted with Toni Morrison.

Anonymous said...

hey i have to write an essay on this and i cant find the page that this quote is on Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window sign - all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. 'Here,' they said, 'this is beautiful, and if you are on this day "worthy" you may have it.'"
anyone help me?