The two sentences that start the first chapter of The bluest eye probably form the most brutal opening to a novel I’ve ever read.
The bluest eye is about racialised self-loathing and shame. For the three young black girls at the centre of the book, the white standard of beauty is ubiquitous and beyond question. White is beautiful, and beautiful equals lovable and good. But it’s not about cosmetic skin-deep beauty; it’s about what happens when the sense of racialised ugliness permeates so deeply that rejection and abuse are felt to be logical and normal. Pecola, the girl who lives out this story, has no defences and nothing to give her resilience, and so with grim inevitability it sinks her.
The plot starts in the present and then traces the stories that led to that point, and as the narrator says right at the start, the story is about ‘how’ things happened, but not ‘why’. Two incredibly bold authorial strokes and we’re still on the first page. Morrison is all about how complex characters with complex histories interact to bring them to where they tragically are now. There’s the ‘how’ and the onus is on the reader to consider the ‘why’. And nothing is straightforward. There are characters who are instantly appalling and some who appear benign, for instance, but then we’re shown their pasts and are forced to reconsider. Toni Morrison doesn’t offer neatly packaged stories or linear tidiness. She does human/moral complexity, historical complexity and social complexity, and this is reflected in narrative complexity. The novel shifts in time and voice and viewpoint, which many have commented feels confusing and disjointed. Personally I think life is confusing and disjointed, and as a story of moral and psychological chaos, how else could she have written it?
Nabokov said something like the job of the reader is to empathise with the author, not their characters, and I agree. I had that in mind re-reading this book. I was focused on Toni Morrison’s authorial intent, how she realised her aims, and how she worked (both as in how she operates as an author, and as in emotional labour). It was her first novel, which she started in 1965 as a single mother with a full-time job, getting up at 4am each day to write before her children woke up, because she was so driven to tell this story. And after putting herself through that immense toil, she asks a lot of the reader – justifiably. The reader has to work out their own answers, examine their conflicting feelings, ask themselves what compelled Morrison to write this difficult, harsh, bleak book and what response she wanted to evoke.
The edition I read had an afterword by Morrison – her own sternest critic – with some thoughts on the novel 25 years after publication. She picks out several flaws, some to do with the extent to which was un/able to express in language the complexity of African-American culture and social codes, which I can’t possibly judge. She also felt Pecola was too ‘empty’ as a character, which produced an emptiness at the heart of the book, so that readers were likely to be ‘touched but not moved’ by her story, and with this I’d agree. Perhaps more importantly, she felt that Pecola’s emptiness and terrible vulnerability meant that while the reader might pity her being crushed, they would not see themselves as complicit in that crushing. Also agreed. She chose to make Pecola a unique character rather than a representative one, which could distance and exonerate the reader.
Aside from Morrison’s views on the merits of the book, I loved reading her describing what she wanted to achieve, as a writer and thinker, and the creative decisions she made to realise that aim – structure, voice, language, viewpoint, etc. Her incredibly honest critique of her work and public dissection of its weaker points just made me admire her more. A flawed Toni Morrison novel is still head and shoulders above most authors’ best work. If only more authors wrote with such courage and conviction, and more debuts were as powerful, complex and stylistically accomplished as this.