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THE BLUEST EYES by Toni Morrison

THE BLUEST EYES (original 1970; edition 1972)

by Toni Morrison

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8,642141351 (3.88)368
Authors:Toni Morrison
Info:Washington Square Press (1972), Edition: Mass Paperback Edition, Mass Market Paperback, 160 pages
Collections:Read but unowned

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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970)


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English (135)  Spanish (3)  Swedish (1)  French (1)  Finnish (1)  All (141)
Showing 1-5 of 135 (next | show all)
If you have the kind of facebook friends I have (literature academics), you may remember a few years ago when a bunch of articles trended with titles like "Reading Novels Makes You More Empathetic" and "Reading Novels Makes You a Better Person" and so on. (Here's an example from Scientific American.) This was the scientific study-backed version of something previous posited by the literary critic Elaine Scarry in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence in 1998, in an essay called "The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons."

Scarry argues that human beings are actually really quite terrible at imagining what it's like to be a different human being, and that this has dangerous, real world consequences: "The human capacity to injure other people has always been much greater than its ability to imagine other people. Or perhaps we should say, the human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our ability to imagine other people is very small. […] But there is a place—namely, the place of great literature—where the ability to imagine others is very strong" (45-6). Literature, she argues is all about imagining oneself as another person: "literature at least holds out to use the constant invitation to read about others, not only other ethnic groups within one’s own country but the great Russian or German or Chinese writings; and universities are, in their departmental organizations, still structured to encourage this cross-country imagining" (47). We might be able to easily think of novels that have created empathy in notable ways, such as how Uncle Tom's Cabin created empathy with the plight of slaves.

But Scarry isn't as optimistic as she might initially seem, because she goes on to argue that

"we must recognize severe limits on what the imagination can accomplish. One key limit is the number of characters. […] Presented with the huge number of characters one finds in Dickens or in Tolstoi, one must constantly strain to keep them sorted out; and of course their numbers are tiny when compared with the number of persons to whom we are responsible in political life. […] For this, literature prepares us inadequately, since even secondary characters (let alone second hundredth or second thousandth characters) lack the density of personhood that is attributed to the central character. […] Literature—even when it enlists us into the greatest imaginative acts and the most expansive compassion—always confesses the limits on the imagination by the structural necessity of major and minor persons, center stage and lateral figures." (47)

You might access the plight of the urban poor better if you read Oliver Twist, but though you now better empathize with Oliver himself, you empathize no better with the vast majority of the characters in the novel, some of whom can remain quite one-dimensional.

Therefore, the best literature (according to Scarry) turns this bug into a feature. "Literature […] is most helpful not insofar as it takes away the problem of the Other—for only with greatest rarity can it do this—but when it instead takes as its own subject the problem of Imagining Others. The British novelist Thomas Hardy is a brilliant explicator of this problem. […] Hardy maximizes the imaginary density of a person, then lets us watch the painful subtraction each undergoes as she or he comes to be perceived by others" (48). According to Scarry, we inhabit Tess's world for most of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but then we jump to someone else's perspective and see how they look at Tess so shallowly, missing most of what constitutes her: that is "painful subtraction." Suddenly Tess becomes a secondary character in someone else's story, and we discover how easy it is to not empathize with someone eminently deserving of empathy.

All of this is a long-winded introduction to the fact that I would argue that The Bluest Eye belongs to the same category of novels as Scarry claims for Tess. It is not just designed to make us empathize with other persons, but takes as "its own subject the problem of Imagining Others." The book is all about Pecola Breedlove, but for most of the novel, we never get a scene written from her perspective. All of our empathizing with Pecola must be done without the benefit of interiority. When we finally do go inside Pecola, it's to find out she's fallen apart: there are two Pecolas, and she/they utterly believe they finally have the blue eyes that will make them attractive.

If anything, the structure of The Bluest Eye emphasizes what we might call "painful addition." We switch back and forth between Claudia's narration about her relationship with Pecola Breedlove and flashbacks seemingly told by an omniscient narrator that tell us more about Pecola and her family. Even though Claudia is the best friend Pecola has, each flashback makes it clear that there's so much about Pecola that no one knows, not even her. We learn about how the terrible home life of the Breedloves made Pecola the way she was, then about how Pecola's mother became the way she was, then about how Pecola's father became the way he was. When we finally see the rape of Pecola by her own father, it's from the perspective of her father. We are made to understand why he does what he does. Yet, as the novel makes clear, no one other than the reader (and, to a lesser extent, Claudia) will ever have this level of understanding of these characters. Pecola, as Morrison says in her afterword, is the hole at the center of the novel.

In a sense, we know nothing about Pecola. But in creating painful addition, Morrison makes us see how horrific it is that we know nothing about Pecola.
1 vote Stevil2001 | Apr 8, 2017 |
Morrison illustrates more of the black culture in this story of a young girl who thinks that blue eyes will be the thing to make her beautiful, like beautiful dolls, the girls in story books, the most popular girl in her class. Subtle messages that are transmitted to little black girls that tell them they are not special, like a stepfather who rapes her and leaves her pregnant. Or a mother who beats her before understanding why the girl was discussing certain topics.

This was a short book but very powerful in its message and enlightening. ( )
  mamzel | Feb 16, 2017 |
this book is insane. super sad but amazing at the same time. very memorable more so than sula by morrison ( )
  NicolineA | Jan 12, 2017 |
If you're interested in tracking Morrison's writerly evolution from Bluest Eye forward to Beloved and later works, then the novel is engaging as a kind of socio-historical document. I don't mean by this to say it's not a good novel on its own, but it lacks the the unifying force of Morrison's later work. ( )
  jalbacutler | Jan 10, 2017 |
This novel accomplished a great deal in only 206 pages. It explores topics of racism, class-ism, media's promulgation of a singular ideal of beauty, abuse, and relationships between children and adults. The narration in this book is a very creative metaphor, especially for one character.

Especially for the major, adult characters in this work - they sometimes do unspeakable things to each other and to children, but the author treats them in a very human way, where the reader is allowed to form his/her own opinions about them on their own terms.

Overall, I felt myself being challenged and angered by the way certain characters were treated by others in the novel, and the way that society reacted to this treatment. This has given me a new perspective on the way I live my life, and how I relate to others around me.

NOTE: I would highly recommend not reading the Forward before reading the book. My edition had a Forward written by the author, and it gave some spoilers and character insights that I would have been disappointed to have known beforehand. ( )
  BooksForYears | Jan 6, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 135 (next | show all)
I have said "poetry." But "The Bluest Eye" is also history, sociology, folklore, nightmare and music. It is one thing to state that we have institutionalized waste, that children suffocate under mountains of merchandised lies. It is another thing to demonstrate that waste, to re-create those children, to live and die by it. Miss Morrison's angry sadness overwhelms.

» Add other authors (19 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Toni Morrisonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dee, RubyNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dorsman-Vos, W.A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To the two who gave me life
and the one who made me free
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Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby that the marigolds did not grow. A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody's did. Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year. But so deeply concerned were we with the health and safe delivery of Pecola's baby we could think of nothing but our own magic: if we planted the seeds, and said the right words over them, they would blossom, and everything would be alright. It was a long time before my sister and I admitted to ourselves that no green was going to spring from our seeds. Once we knew, our guilt was relieved only by fights and mutual accusations about who was to blame. For years I thought my sister was right: it was my fault. I had planted them too far down in the earth. It never occured to either one of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding. We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola's father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair. What is clear now is that of all of that hope, fear, lust, love, and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth. Cholly Breedlove is dead; our innocence too. The seeds shriveled and died; her baby too. There is really nothing more to say--except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0452282195, Paperback)

Oprah Book Club® Selection, April 2000: Originally published in 1970, The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison's first novel. In an afterword written more than two decades later, the author expressed her dissatisfaction with the book's language and structure: "It required a sophistication unavailable to me." Perhaps we can chalk up this verdict to modesty, or to the Nobel laureate's impossibly high standards of quality control. In any case, her debut is nothing if not sophisticated, in terms of both narrative ingenuity and rhetorical sweep. It also shows the young author drawing a bead on the subjects that would dominate much of her career: racial hatred, historical memory, and the dazzling or degrading power of language itself.

Set in Lorain, Ohio, in 1941, The Bluest Eye is something of an ensemble piece. The point of view is passed like a baton from one character to the next, with Morrison's own voice functioning as a kind of gold standard throughout. The focus, though, is on an 11-year-old black girl named Pecola Breedlove, whose entire family has been given a cosmetic cross to bear:

You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question.... And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.
There are far uglier things in the world than, well, ugliness, and poor Pecola is subjected to most of them. She's spat upon, ridiculed, and ultimately raped and impregnated by her own father. No wonder she yearns to be the very opposite of what she is--yearns, in other words, to be a white child, possessed of the blondest hair and the bluest eye.

This vein of self-hatred is exactly what keeps Morrison's novel from devolving into a cut-and-dried scenario of victimization. She may in fact pin too much of the blame on the beauty myth: "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." Yet the destructive power of these ideas is essentially colorblind, which gives The Bluest Eye the sort of universal reach that Morrison's imitators can only dream of. And that, combined with the novel's modulated pathos and musical, fine-grained language, makes for not merely a sophisticated debut but a permanent one. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:54 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

Pecola Breedlove, a young eleven-year-old black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for the dark skin, curly hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit in. Yet as her dreams grow more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife. A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity.--from publisher's description.… (more)

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