When I was going through and choosing books for this series, I got a bit of backlash for not having anything really “modern”, and was told I wouldn’t get much of a readership for books that were so dated. The most modern book I had in my original collection was Fahrenheit 451. Everything else I picked was written in either the 1800s or the 1920s. Since I chose primarily based on things I knew I would enjoy reading, or that would offer me a chance to explore something I hadn’t yet made time for, I never felt bad about my choices. The readership, I figured, would come from how well I discussed my thoughts and ideas, not how old the books were. You don’t stop caring about a piece of art just because it ages. But if I am motivated by anything I am motivated by spite. So I started looking for more contemporary texts, and it felt a bit like I was drowning in possibilities.
Then Toni Morrison died, and it felt like the only answer was to buckle down and commit to exploring more of her work like I’d been telling myself I would do since college. She was a powerful, passionate, outspoken woman in her work and I always admired her for it.
I went into Bluest Eye pretty much blind. No idea about the plot, no idea what I was in for. The thing that sold me was that it was her first book, and first books are always a great way to see where someone started from. I don’t know what I expected, but what I found was that Toni Morrison has always been a powerhouse of showcasing the hard shit no one wants to face in such a way that we must always be confronted with it. Never, in a Morrison novel, are we allowed to forget what the central problem is. There is no lull into some false sense of security. There is only facing the harsh reality and the consequences of how we choose to deal with it.
Pecola Breedlove’s story hit me harder than I anticipated. I found myself reflected in some of her trials, and most especially in her ever-present wish to have the bluest eyes, and thus be more beautiful in the eyes of the world around her. Pecola is never called beautiful by other people. She is only ever described as ugly. Over and over again, everything about her is ugly. She is the scapegoat of those who would call themselves her friends, because her ugliness makes them feel better about themselves. She is subjected to any number of abuses at the hands of people who trick her. They lure her in with niceties, and her self-esteem is too low for her to realize she’s being baited. She gets blamed for things she didn’t do, or didn’t cause, because of how she looks. She doesn’t put much effort into defending herself against a lot of accusations because she doesn’t seem to see the point. Nobody would believe her. The only solution she can see is maybe if she had blue eyes that would make her beautiful — like Shirley Temple is beautiful, or like the baby dolls so often given to young kids are beautiful — then she would not be abused, or blamed, or insulted. She would be loved.
There are aspects of Pecola’s story that I identify with so strongly I cried while reading. Being stared at when you walk down the street, and knowing exactly why. Being tricked into situations emotionally healthy people who don’t have body image and self-esteem issues might have been able to see right through. Feeling like the token friend, and taking any semblance of affection even if it may not be genuine. Wanting, desperately, to look like what society drives into you as the ideal, or at least some approximation of it. All of this, at one point or another, is something I felt growing up as a disabled person. I’ve come one hell of a long way, but the sting of every negative thought that got pushed on me either by myself or others that I’ve had to purge from my system hasn’t much left. What began as a physical sensation of being beaten down from the inside grew into a fire I use now to prove everyone wrong.
Reaching that point in life is a privilege not everyone gets to access, and I always feel grateful that the work I did to make myself believe the positive — and find it where I couldn’t see it before — actually paid off. Many are not so lucky, and Pecola falls, Icarus-style, into being one of the saddest examples of being beaten down by her circumstances. When people begin to avert their eyes instead of stare, she tells herself it’s because she finally got the blue eyes she always dreamed of, then promptly grows concerned she isn’t beautiful enough. That she doesn’t have the bluest eyes and therefore someone must have bluer and be more beautiful, and so her wish isn’t fulfilled after all. While this an easy example of the standard conditioning women face every day at the hands of the world around them in relation to their bodies — we can always pursue but never obtain perfection — the reality of the situation is a much more heartbreaking mirror for her thoughts.
Pecola has been raped. Pecola is twelve years old, and has been raped by her father. Pecola is pregnant with her father’s child and the whole town is abuzz with it. They won’t look at her because they feel shame, or disgust, or too much pity to raise their eyes. Worse yet, some even blame her for its happening. Because she’s always been foolish, and the family doesn’t have anyone around they associate closely with. They’re never seen with friends, really. They’re a collection of outsiders. And who knows what outsiders do. The victim-blaming of a twelve-year-old for an act she likely didn’t even understand at the hands of her father is perhaps to some an extreme case. But the phenomenon is not unusual. Society’s first question is almost never “Why did he do this” but rather, “What did she do to cause this”. We seem to be having trouble getting past that point, although there have within the past few years been undeniable steps in the right direction.
If working through this series, and this book, has taught me anything about the way we try to filter what we want society to be — whether it be through banning books that make us uncomfortable or through ostracizing people we classify as Other because they make us afraid — it’s that doing so has nothing but horrendously negative results. We need stories that are outside our own experience. Everything has something to teach. Pecola’s story is fiction, but just how fictitious is it, really? And what does it mean when we won’t listen? What does it mean when we won’t look her in the eye?