The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison): The Relationship Between Self-Loathing and Family

An essay written by Madison Loughlin, a student of NEST+M.

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which takes place in Ohio during the early 1940s, tells the heartbreaking story of Pecola Breedlove. Pecola, an eleven-year-old African American girl, lives in an abusive household and equates beauty and societal acceptance with whiteness. Pecola believes that ugliness is the source of her misery and that having blue eyes will smooth obstacles and change others’ attitudes toward her. The primary narrator of The Bluest Eye is nine-year-old Claudia MacTeer, with whom Pecola lives for a short period. Claudia and her sister Frieda grow up in a nurturing environment and react differently to racism. By positioning Claudia and Pecola as dichotomous reactions to society, Morrison suggests that people are vulnerable to destructive self-loathing inspired by social constructs unless they have a sense of home and family, which acts as a redemptive force and the key to defining identity outside of societal designations.

Because Pecola lacks a sense of belongiMorrisonng and family and is continually exposed to toxic environments, she becomes susceptible to self-loathing—inspired by social constructs and her own family’s lack of love. This lack of love, especially in comparison to white characters in the book, is particularly evident through Pecola’s interactions with her mother. When Pecola visits her mother’s workplace—the home of a white family—she accidentally knocks over a blueberry cobbler, causing Pauline, Pecola’s mother, to hit Pecola and call her a crazy fool. Instead of comforting Pecola or tending to Pecola’s burns, Pauline cradles and consoles the Fisher girl, the daughter of the white family she works for. Morrison writes, “As Pecola put the laundry bag in the wagon, we could hear Mrs. Breedlove hushing and soothing the tears of the pink-and-yellow girl. ‘Who were they, Polly?’ ‘Don’t worry none, Baby’” (Morrison 109). Pauline uses endearing terms toward the Fisher girl rather than her own child, even allowing the child to use the pet name “Polly,” while Pecola is allowed only to use the name “Mrs. Breedlove” to refer to her own mother—a distancing measure. Pauline is capable of loving and showing affection yet chooses to direct it towards the white child she nannies instead of her own daughter. Pauline is only concerned with building a relationship with her white employers, even at the expense of her child’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Pauline is capable of nurturing and expressing love, but she chooses to scapegoat her own daughter as a consequence of the own self-hatred she feels. Witnessing the love Pauline shows to the “pink-and-yellow girl”—the epitome of the blonde-haired-blue-eyed beauty standards of the time—exacerbates Pecola’s belief that if she had blue eyes or resembled the white child, she would be deserving of her mother’s love. This belief exacerbates Pecola’s deep self-hatred and eventual insanity; by denying Pecola familial love and choosing to favor the white child over her, Pauline is complicit in her own daughter’s demise. 

Pecola equates her own looks with the toxicity, rage, and violence perpetuated by and common within her family. When Pauline douses Cholly, Pecola’s father, with water and beats him, a fight erupts, and Pecola imagines every part of her body disappearing except for her eyes. She has grown to believe that, “As long as she looked the way she did, as long as she was ugly, she would have to stay with these people. Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike…Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes” (Morrison 47). Pecola visualizes an alternate reality in an attempt to ameliorate the pain caused by the lack of guidance, love, or support she desires from her family. Rather than attribute this violence and pain to her mother, father, or the system that abused them all, Pecola blames herself, and no one tells her otherwise. Pecola’s fantasies demonstrate how she fails to comprehend the complexity of the situation while also lacking awareness of the racism and internalized hate plaguing her family. As a consequence of this self-blame, she is unable to dissociate herself or her physical appearance from this chaos and pain, resulting in an almost fanatical belief in beauty ideals as a way of coping with violence and the pain of being unloved. Her community witnesses this abuse and violence and projects it onto Pecola’s character and reputation, further wounding Pecola’s ability to define herself outside the realm of her family. By associating her so closely with the violence in her home, the world around Pecola intensifies her connection to her family and, consequently, to both the generational and racial trauma embodied by her family. She is unable to break away and sees herself as the epicenter or cause of this trauma, which renders her unable to envision herself navigating a healthy existence. 

By juxtaposing Pecola’s emaciated emotional world with the overflowing love present in Claudia’s family, Morrison implies that possessing a sense of home and belonging is a redemptive force, or the key to defining identity outside of societal designations. From the moment of Claudia’s introduction in the novel, Morrison centers her sense of familial security by introducing a scene where Claudia reminisces about a time when she was sick. Claudia describes how her mother cared for her, expressing anger and frustration at her illness, while her sister Frieda sang to her as comfort. Claudia barely remembers the illness but instead focuses on her family, describing, “Love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup, eased up into that cracked window. I could smell it–taste it–sweet, musty, with an edge of wintergreen in its base–everywhere in that house” (Morrison 12). The love she feels supersedes the pain; her family rallies around her and shields her from feeling pain. As a result of this support and care, Claudia has the tools to independently construct a sense of the world and seek her own truths. This truth-seeking is a complete contrast to Pecola, a sentiment best seen when Claudia rebels against societal conventions of typical beauty. Claudia is given a white doll she does not want and, rather than allow it to distort her own self-worth, she dissects and destroys it in order to “see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped [her].” Her sense of security and belonging enables Claudia to attribute the value assigned to the white doll not to a universal truth, but a fragile societal standard. She realizes that “all the world”—that is, society instead of some universal ideal—“had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl treasured” (Morrison 20). Claudia’s inquiry and negative reaction to the doll demonstrate her ability to survive in a world that teaches her to despise herself. Another instance of Claudia’s defiance is portrayed when she describes Frieda finding a group of boys verbally harassing Pecola. Pecola cries and covers her eyes as the boys belittle her, while Frieda, “with set lips and Mama’s eyes,” runs towards the circle and brings her books down on a boy’s head. Claudia’s mental description of Frieda having “Mama’s eyes” suggests that she instinctively values their mother’s physical being despite its definitive non-whiteness. Claudia associates her mother’s eyes with defiance, power, and an ability to be courageous in the face of injustice. Through their mother’s examples of strength and resilience, Claudia and Frieda can fight against the forces that threaten them psychologically. Claudia, in particular, resents the fact that people in her community prize whitewashed ideals of beauty which exhibit internalized racism. Because of the love suffusing Claudia’s family, she rejects and questions the pervasive fixation on white beauty in multiple contexts—both literally and in her internal monologue. As a result of her strong family world, Claudia contains the tools to battle the forces committed to rendering her insignificant—including racism, colorism, and classism.

The effects of a support system and love are further portrayed through the differences in how the families react to sexual assault. While Pecola is blamed and ostracized after being raped by her father, Claudia’s family rallies around her sister, with Claudia’s father immediately removing the man who assaulted Frieda from their life. In a failed attempt to rationalize and come to terms with her trauma, Pecola talks to herself. She becomes lost in delusions and imagines herself with blue eyes as a way to envision a beauty that she believes would have brought her love, but which never materializes. Pecola’s mental instability is also visible to characters like Claudia, who describes, “The damage done was total. She spent her days, her tendril, sap-green days, walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear. Elbows bent, hands on shoulders, she flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly” (Morrison 204). In contrast, life continues for Claudia and Frieda. Indeed, the intensity of this bifurcation is encoded in the exact grammar Morrison uses; Pecola uses the word “we” twice in the book, both times in conversations she has with herself, whereas “we” is employed by Claudia in over 250 instances. The only “we” available to Pecola is the one constructed from her mind; ultimately, she only possesses a warped version of herself for any confirmation of self-worth. Claudia’s abundant usage of the word “we” emphasizes her sense of community and strength. She is able to create beauty in a wasteland because she does not feel alone; she has the tools and the love to navigate a world predisposed to devalue her.

Morrison forces the reader to confront both the ways in which young Black women are devalued and the ways that community or family can protect or harm. Because Pecola is burdened with an indifferent and abusive family and because she lives in a world that idealizes corrupt ideas of beauty, her journey to destruction is sealed. Not only is her humanity devalued by a world that equates whiteness with beauty, but it is also undermined by her family and home. This doubled victimhood causes her to crumble, resorting to delusions as a means of escape. In contrast, because of her nurturing home and support system, Claudia is given the space and fertilizer to grow, question the world around her, and ground her self-worth.