My best friend, who is an undergrad in English Literature, was surprised when I admitted that I haven’t read Toni Morrison. She said, “I couldn’t sleep for two nights after I read The Bluest Eye. Maybe, you should start with that.” I ordered the book that very moment. No surprises there. 🙂
When the book was delivered, I told my friend that I was beginning to read The Bluest Eye; she sent me the best tease ever. “Enjoy the pain!” I didn’t know what she meant then. I presumed that the book might be sad, and depressing, and that I would drown in my own tears. Mind you, not all touching books make me cry. Some unassuming books like Michael Morpurgo’s The Butterfly Lion, and Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of AJ Fikry made me sob like a baby. 🙂 Because they warmed my heart.
So, I braced myself to enter a dark world constructed by Toni Morrison. I finished reading it last night, and I didn’t cry. But, I shuddered. I shuddered like I held hands with Frieda, and Claudia, and saw Pecola’s life shatter into smithereens. I shuddered as though I was guilty for not having done anything to help Pecola. I shuddered because the pain was raw. It was so raw and deep that my eyes went dry; I had no tear to shed. The Bluest Eye has scarred me for life. But, that’s not a complaint. One can’t complain because extraordinary books are bound to do that to emotional readers.
I found The Bluest Eye unsettling from the very beginning, from the time I learnt that ‘there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941… because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.‘ I felt a lump grow in my throat. It kept growing and growing when Morrison revealed that Pecola was a diffident 11-year-old black girl, who was bullied at school, found no love at home, and raped by her own father. And ironically, her last name was Breedlove.
Pecola’s life could be a curse by itself. But, what made Pecola unhappy was that her eyes were not blue. She wanted the bluest eyes in the world. Did she pray for blue eyes because she thought the world would embrace her, and not ridicule her for being ‘black and ugly‘? Morrison wrote in her foreword and afterword, “Who planted that thought in her head? Who made her believe that blue eyes are beautiful?” Morrison asked those questions on our behalf. Morrison asked those questions for people, who are made to feel small about their appearances, which are not in their control.
“Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another — physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.”
When poor Pecola went to a phony healer and dream interpreter, asking him to change her eyes’ colour, her helpless act was reminiscent of Philip Carey’s (the protagonist of Of Human Bondage) desperate prayers. He would sleep naked on the coldest night, hoping God would make him ‘normal’, and make his club-foot disappear. The next morning, he would wake up to see his feet not touched by God, and from then on he would withdraw his love for God, becoming an atheist. All for appearance, which is the most transient element of human life.
The most striking aspect in The Bluest Eye was Morrison’s choice to not antagonise three sex-workers, who were Pecola’s neighbours. Morrison didn’t offer sympathy either. They were what they were. And, after Frieda and Claudia (Pecola’s friends, who were as old as herself), they were the ones who didn’t see Pecola through the prejudiced tinted glasses, which everybody else wore. I loved them, and their curious names — China, Poland, and Miss Marie.
“Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.”
Unlike Philip Carey, who made peace with his clubfoot, the young, gullible Pecola lost her sanity in the war against what’s carelessly called a society. And, that’s what would happen to a girl, who was raped twice by her father, and excluded by her community. Sanity, the most fragile thing of all, is the first to cave in. Maybe, just maybe, Pecola was happy there, in the world that’s created by her madness, in the company of her imaginary friend, who sang praises about her blue eyes. At least, she was free from prejudices there.
The Bluest Eye was Morrison’s raw, profound, excruciating commentary on racism, feminism, human rights, love, sex, mental health, and many more significant themes which are still alarmingly relevant.
I find it alarmingly relevant because most of us — women particularly — receive unsolicited advice about the aesthetic importance of shaving armpits, waxing the part between the nose and the upper lip, wearing matching lingerie, trying fad diets to attain size zero, only to look more feminine. One cannot go about changing the nincompoops, who offer such futile advice, but one can seek solace in a book like The Bluest Eye that transcends the definition of beauty.
You — regardless of wherever you are, however you look, whatever people say about you — are beautiful!