In The Bluest Eye (1970), Toni Morrison’s first novel, the reader encounters Pecola Breedlove, the protagonist of the novel who has to confront the dominant culture’s oppressive standard of beauty. As Morrison’s narrative is situated in 1941, this time period featured tremendous racial discrimination against African-Americans. Since the dominant culture’s standard of beauty did not allow African-Americans in 1941 to be considered as beautiful because of their dark (non-white) skin color, Pecola Breedlove experiences great racial shame, resulting from this oppressive standard of beauty. She desires to be liberated from the manacles of race. Pecola does not long to be considered simply beautiful; she desires to be the most beautiful person. Therefore, in order to become the most beautiful person, Pecola aspires to have the bluest eye (a physical characteristic of the dominant culture) to enable her to escape the oppressive bondage and limitations that race places on her ability to see herself as the most beautiful individual. For Pecola, the only way that she sees that she will be able to be perceived as beautiful is to live imaginatively in a world where she does have the bluest eye—biologically impossible in the world in which she physically resides. In helping the reader to understand how Pecola perceives how the dominant culture views her, Morrison writes: “She has seen it lurking in the eyes of all white people. So. The distaste must be for her, her blackness. All things are in her are flux and anticipation. But her blackness is static and dread. And it is the blackness that accounts for, that creates, the vacuum edged with distaste in white eyes” (49).
Although Peocla is able to see the “distaste” that the dominant culture has for her “blackness,” Morrison is able to offer readers one of her most pervasive themes that permeate all of her novels: African-Americans must seek alternatives to the oppressive social reality that the social construction of race has caused them to experience. While Morrison’s narrative interrogates salient issues surrounding race through Pecola, her focus on the racial shame of Claudia McTeer, one of Pecola’s closest friends and the novel’s narrator, operates powerfully in illuminating her multifarious and nuanced ways of exploring race in The Bluest Eye.
One of the most important ways in which Morrison has Claudia McTeer to interface with the theme of race is through her interaction with Maureen Peal, a young African-American female of a brighter hue than Claudia and Pecola. Through the interactions between Claudia and Maureen, the reader learns that Claudia has internalized her racial shame and she does not want Pecola to reveal her racial shame in the presence of Maureen. In a pivotal encounter where Claudia, Pecola, and Frieda (Claudia’s sister) have an argument with Maureen about Maureen’s claim that light-complexioned blacks are beautiful and dark-complexioned blacks are ugly, Pecola’s disheartened and silent reaction that endorses the claim that Maureen espouses about the relationship between skin color and beauty unveils and accentuates Claudia’s great internalized racial shame. In demonstrating her tremendous indignation for Pecola’s conspicuous endorsement of Maureen’s reprehensible claim, Claudia states, “She seemed to fold into herself, like a pleated wing. Her pain antagonized me. I wanted to open her up, crisp her edges, ram a stick down that hunched and curving spine, force her to stand erect and spit the misery out on the street” (73). Claudia’s internalized racial shame is vividly clear as she expresses her anger with Pecola for giving Maureen’s disgraceful claim the validity that Maureen hopes that it will be given. While Claudia and Frieda attempt to conceal their racial shame through their incensed retorts to Maureen’s claim, Claudia becomes increasingly angry with Pecola because she identifies with the transparent way in which Pecola sinks under “the wisdom, accuracy, and relevance” of Maureen’s shameful and painful claim (74).
Morrison’s treatment of racial shame in the novel enables her readers to not only unearth the significant psychological impact of Pecola and Claudia perceiving themselves as racially inferior, but her larger use of the theme of race also affords readers an opportunity to understand the oppressive economic, social, and cultural milieu and problems that have plagued blacks historically. Pecola and Claudia are two of the most important characters Morrison employs in the novel to offer critical revelations about race. The novel is an instructive denunciation of the social construction of race.
Antonio Maurice Daniels
University of Wisconsin-Madison