The Bluest Eyes and narrative shifts
The Bluest Eyes keeps shifting the point of view of the narration, through various mechanisms, either through a different narrator or a change in the focalization. If the first part kept mostly to Claudia and an omniscient narrator’s perspective, the second part of the novel is less sparse in using these kinds of devices, as we are made aware of both of Pecola’s parents’ stories – Polly through a first-person narrative like a journal, intertwined with the omniscient narrator’s account, and Cholly through his own internal focalization. We are even invited into Pecola’s mind, in a strange dialogue with an unnamed “friend” (who might be understood as a form of Pecola’s subconscious). In a novel that questions the subjective view of beauty, showing multiple accounts and perspective serves to create and question a previously fixed understanding of what beauty can contain. There is no clear and definite perspective on beauty, and it translates in the form of a wavering identity; there is a clear vocabulary of stripping oneself of everything once the self is viewed through the lens of beauty: Polly experiences it both when she take on the standard of beauty for herself – “in equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap” (122) – and when she gives it up – “Everything went. Look like I just didn’t care no more after that.” The clear dichotomy between “after” and “before” (196) getting blue eyes – or, the equivalent of becoming beautiful – is soon blurred by the unnamed voice who plants seeds of doubts in Pecola’s mind, forcing her to continue her quest – until the last image of her, “searching the garbage” (206).
While Bluest Eye is seriously concerned with how gender, race, and class can effect a the self-esteem of someone in Pecola’s situation, it also depicts a parallel process whereby she becomes a foil for other people’s self-esteem. Indeed, we can read self esteem as an interpretation of one’s own desirability (or ugliness as Pecola sees it) as mediated through their social, or in this case, narrative world. During one of the narrator’s few moments of earnest self-reflection she says, “We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength” (205). Morrison makes this interplay of desire among social relations a focus of her narrative but I think it’s fair to say that this matrix of status, desire, and esteem can be identified in most of the novels we have read. Even if characters do not expressly orient themselves towards one another as Claudia and Freda do, we can determine their politics of desire from how they are individually characterized and how they interact as and towards each other’s characters. In the afterward, Morrsion tells us her process began with Pecola and then she added friends to build the world around her and this shows in the novel’s relatively hands off (or outside in) perspective which simultaneously characterizes several narrators, their desires, and their relationships and develops Pecola’s through interplay and description mediated by these character’s relationships.
In the opening chapters of The Bluest Eye, I was struck by the way the characters’ self-awareness and senses of self worth are dominated by guilt surrounding race, gender, and appearance. From the first moment of Claudia’s narration, the italicized section of the prologue, we get a sense of her mind as one that seems to default towards guilt. She describes the fall of 1941, when she and her sister were unable to grow marigolds, writing “for years I thought my sister was right: it was my fault. I had planted them too far down in the earth. It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding.” This tendency to blame herself and put herself down appears throughout the section we read today, and it is a quality that Pecola seems to share, particularly with regard to her appearance. Both characters project their feelings towards white girls onto inanimate objects that are supposed to represent beauty. Claudia takes her anger (and perhaps jealousy) of white girls out on the dolls she destroys, and Pecola projects her longing to achieve white standards of beauty by compulsively drinking milk out of the Shirley Temple mug. Pecola’s self-awareness is inhibited by this longing—she upsets Claudia and Frieda’s mother by inadvertently drinking three entire quarts of milk just to “handle and see sweet Shirley’s face” (23). Later, the three girls feel so guilty and afraid of Mama’s anger that when Pecola gets her period, their first instinct is to hide it from their mother.