Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Review - The Bluest Eye

Someone recommended The Bluest Eye to me shortly after it was released and it somehow fell off my radar. I read Beloved by Toni Morrison about 5 years ago and while I was impressed by the artistic elements of the novel, I wasn't as "moved" but it as I was "supposed to be" and as such I never bothered to seek out more by Morrison. I stumbled on Bluest Eye again recently and decided to give a try. Apparently The Bluest Eye is Morrison's first novel and frankly I enjoyed it more than Beloved.

From a form and method standpoint, Bluest Eye uses alternating narrative styles. It transitions back and forth from the first person narration of a girl named Claudia living through the experiences of the novel and her same voice as an adult with a third person omniscience.. I really enjoyed Claudia's child voice and the way Morrison presented her narrative. As a child narrator, Claudia's youthful view of the world was an interesting contrast to the omniscient adult narrator. The third person served as a good balance for the unreliable narrative from the first person child while the first person narrative helped provide the human and emotional element to the story.

The story also played with the idea of known knowledge and hidden knowledge. In early chapters, Claudia makes reference to elements that happen later in the narrative and have significant impact. She drops these references very matter-of-factly as though we already know all about the events and have already come to our own conclusions. This makes for an intersting suspense to the reader as we try to read between the lines and make sense of the little snippets provided to us. Knowing a little bit of the intended tone and plot of the story, I was able to make some logical inferrences. Not only does Claudia's narration tease the reader with elements but the narrative also plays with time a bit and meanders through the timeline of the story dropping fragments of scenes out of order.

The plot takes place in the ~1930s and revolves around a yound black girl named Pecola who has been taken in as a temporary foster child by Claudia's family. We learn that there was a fire that burned down Pecola's home but it is evident through hints and allusions that there was more to the tragedy than a simple home fire. As the novel progresses, we learn that Pecola's home life was an abusive one both verbally and physically. Her parents constantly fight and Pecola is constantly told that she is absolutely ugly.

The book showcases the imbalance of whites and blacks in a number of ways. Pecola's mother Pauline works as a servant for an affluent white family. The family has a young girl about the same age as Pecola. It becomes very clear to the reader and to Pecola that Pauline adores the young white girl she cares for and despises Pecola and all she represents. The book also uses early cinema to further contrast the "perfect" life shown on the movie screen with the disharmony in Pecola's home. Still other characters illustrate the imbalance even within the colored population. One character in particular is a girl "of color" who believes she and her family are of a higher class than other "blacks" in the area.

Pecola accepts as fact and embraces the unbalanced relationship between white and black. She comes to the belief that her life would be made truly wonderful if she was a beautiful white girl like those in the movies. As a result of this belief, she makes the wish that her eyes will be made blue so she can fit in and find the happiness known to all white Americans.

About this time, the reader is given more insight into the nature of the abuse at home and the event leading up to the fire. Morrison's portrayal of Pecola's tragic situation is heart wrenching especially due to Pecola's subdued and accepting nature. She behaves as though she is consigned to her fate merely because she is "ugly" and she is black. As such, she has virtually no reaction or outlashing against the abuses piled upon her. She merely resigns herself to her fate and muddles through life.

At first it seems as though the events in her life will have no impact on her. But over time we see that Pecola has done more than simply withdraw into herself. She has worked to create her own happy fantasy where the world has changed and she has been granted her dreams. While the atrocities forced upon her were awful, I found her disjointed mental state to be even more tragic even though in the end it was probably the best thing for her.

I found the writing style and form to be engaging and a great way to present the story in an intriguing way that left the user emotionally touched but not grotesquely shocked or offended. I loved the youthful naivette of Claudia as a narrator. While I couldn't directly relate to Pecola as a character, I found myself deeply sympathizing with her and hoping for the best.

It's difficult to say "I enjoyed" a story like this that illustrates some of the worst parts of "human nature" but I can certainly appreciate this book and I'm glad that I read it. To the extent that such topics can be "enjoyable", I did enjoy this book. The Bluest Eye definitely sparked an emotional response but it also triggered an intellectual response and left me thinking more deeply about racial relations not only of the mid-1900s but also today. It also made me contemplate general family and human relationships. In this day of Social Media and the ability to connect almost instantly with anyone in the world, it seems that our actual relationships with real people has diminished. This book showcases (at least to me) the human element and emphasizes the need for destroying stereotypes, seeing the truth of the world and making true human connections with those around us.

4 out of 5 stars

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