A cultural classic, a cultural horror story

A review of the novel The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Sordidness, pain, the degradation of victimization, bodily secretions of every possible kind, all rendered in exquisite language: this is The Bluest Eye. A pillar of modern American literature, it is essentially a horror story, and Morrison wants you to feel the horror all the way.

It is the story of the utter undoing of a little girl, the ultimate victim, and how almost everybody in her life is complicit in her undoing. It is told primarily from the point of view of another little girl, Claudia, but there are frequent digressions, digging back generations in the lives of people central, or even peripheral, to the story. This would be annoying and definitely adds an emotional distance, but Morrison's central goal is not so much to create empathy as to answer the question “how”. How can an entire culture be full of such self-loathing that it destroys its own young? The answers are unsettling and not at all pretty. Morrison's eye is unsparing, and she is not trying to comfort anyone. Nor is she trying to condemn. She is shining a light on all the ugly creatures that live under rocks, exposing them so that hopefully they can be dealt with.

Fortunately, Morrison's language frequently tilts to the poetic, making some of the pain and ugliness bearable.

Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their worlds move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly. The edge, the curl, the thrust of their emotions is always clear to Frieda and me. We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre.

The story itself is no surprise; the outcome, or a good deal of it, is announced from the very first lines. Again, it is not the “what”, it is the “how” that needs to be revealed. It is revealed through the characters and their life stories, and even the most disgusting of them are portrayed with some sympathy. Even the pedophiles are not just brutes (although that they are) but also severely damaged human beings.

And running through it all is the oppressive, crushing incantation of the Dick and Jane readers of the time, the symbol of white conformism.

The 1994 edition that I got my hands on also included a surprisingly critical evaluation of the book by the author, which I found very interesting. She discusses some of her artistic choices and what she considers her artistic inadequacies.

Toni Morrison Society website

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