I know, I'm late to the Toni Morrison party on this one. I read Beloved about a year ago and fell hard for Morrison's lush sentences, her deep unpacking of character, her truth-telling, her exposure (and understanding) of pain, the way love and violence can be so tightly braided together. The Bluest Eye hit me just the same.
I can't believe this is her first novel.
The framing of this story is so brilliant - using the Dick and Jane reading books as a way to unpack a family and community. Those books are so quintessentially white and sterile and echo-chambery. Morrison uses them in direct contrast with lives that are not neat and clear and clean. Where repetition is a kind of inescapable pitfall.
Those Dick and Jane lines get sewn together so there isn't any space between words any longer. Then there isn't any punctuation. They become chapter headings. The effect on the story is sardine-tight, pressurized, a feeling that things come too close together that shouldn't be, that one thing or another is bound to get crushed.
Through that frame, we meet everyone twice: who they are right now (Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove at each other's throats) and who they were as children (Cholly as cast-off, losing everything: his parents to abandonment and his foster-mother to peach cobbler, his ability to love in a grief-field under flashlights; Pauline Williams - aka Mrs. Breedlove - begins with a wonky foot and imbolity, a sexless, colorless life. Truly - when Cholly first comes to her and her busted foot, she feels flooded with purple - "and it never did wash out.")
I guess only the children - Claudia, Frieda, Pecola, Sammy, even those hateful classmates Maureen Peal and Junior - have just one life. The choices of children are so limited. In the Breedlove household, Sammy runs away. "Pecola, on the other hand, restricted by youth and sex, experimented with methods of endurance." God, that sounds familiar. Every child trapped by circumstance, by family.
The novel gets it's tension built like a slingshot. We place a pebble in at the start - something's going on with Pecola - and we pull back into her mother's story, and then pull back further into her father's story, and when the novel ricochets back to the present moment that poor pebble is flung so far from what her reality used to be. Morrison's generous exploration of Cholly's history makes his violence towards his daughter so much more complicated. He is a man who wants desperately - and is desperately unable - to love. "What could a burned-out black man say to the hunched back of his eleven-year-old daughter?" he wonders. His impotence with language and tenderness - that's the problem: "the tenderness would not hold." Morrison creates a world in which we can the patterns clearly: how the lack of tenderness in one's life can undo all the tenderness one tries to put forth. "Again the hatred mixed with tenderness. The hatred could not let him pick her up, the tenderness forced him to cover her."
The concept of beauty has always acted as a kind of interference - find beauty and you've found love too. That myth. If you can't be beautiful, disappear. Disappear into someone else's beauty. A Shirley Temple doll or the women in the movies or even a house, like Mrs. Breedlove does, ignoring "the dark edges [of her home] that made the daily life with the Fishers lighter, more delicate, more lovely." Or Cholly - disappearing into his daughter. These characters are convinced of their ugliness. They pray or they prey or they fantasize or they scrub - trying to change it. Think of when Pecola prays to disappear - "She squeezed her eyes shut. Little parts of her body faded away. Now slowly, now with a rush. Slowly again. Her fingers went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow. Her feet now. Yes, that was good. The legs all at once. It was the hardest above the thighs. She had to be real still and pull. Her stomach would not go. But finally it, too, went away. Then her chest, her neck. The face was hard, too. Almost done, almost. Only her tight, tight eyes were left. They were always left."
Think of how many students who google "does pecola really get blue eyes" because they really don't know. Pecola is an engine of endurance. She needs to find some way to survive.