The Bluest Eye
The volume of critical and popular acclaim that has arisen around the work of Toni Morrison is virtually unparalleled in modern letters. Her six major novels—The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Sula, Tar Baby, Beloved, and Jazz—have collected nearly every major literary prize. Morrison received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 for Song of Solomon. In 1987, Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Her body of work was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. Other major awards include: the 1996 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the Pearl Buck Award (1994), the title of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (Paris, 1994), and 1978 Distinguished Writer Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
After receiving her B.A. from Howard University in 1953, Toni Morrison continued on to Cornell to pursue graduate work in English. There, she completed a thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Masters Degree in Hand, Toni returned to Howard University where she took a position teaching English, and where she met and married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison. The couple had two sons before their marriage crumbled. Morrison found solace from the unhappy union in a small group of poets and writers who met informally to discuss their work. It was in this setting that her creative instincts began to stir. A short story she "dashed off" about a little black girl who wanted blue eyes would be her first completed literary work, and the seed of her first novel, The Bluest Eye.
Morrison was appointed Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University in the spring of 1989. Before coming to Princeton, she held teaching posts at Yale University, Bard College, and Rutgers University. In 1990 she delivered the Clark lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Massey Lectures at Harvard University. Morrison was also a senior editor at Random House for 20 years.
A host of colleges and universities have given honorary degrees to Morrison. Among them are Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Sarah Lawrence College, Dartmouth, Yale, Georgetown, Columbia University and Brown University. Toni Morrison was commissioned by Carnegie Hall in 1992 to write lyrics "Honey and Me", an original piece of music by Andre Previn. The lyrics were sung in performance by Kathleen Battle. In 1997, she wrote the lyrics for "Sweet Talk", which was written by Richard Danielpour and performed in concert by Jessye Norman. Morrison lives in Princeton, New Jersey and upstate New York.
Toni Morrison has earned a reputation as a gifted storyteller whose troubled characters seek to find themselves and their cultural riches in a society that warps or impedes such essential growth. According to Charles Larson in the Chicago Tribune "Book World", each of Morrison's novels "is as original as anything that has appeared in our literature in the last 20 years. The contemporaneity that unites them — the troubling persistence of racism in America — is infused with an urgency that only a black writer can have about our society."
Toni Morrison on Winning the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature
"I am outrageously happy. I heard the news early this morning from a colleague here at Princeton, and I am of course profoundly honored. But what is most wonderful for me, personally, is to know that the Prize at last has been awarded to an African-American. Winning as an American is very special-but winning as a Black American is a knockout. Most important, my mother is alive to share this delight with me."
- The novel opens with an excerpt from an old-fashioned reading primer. The lines begin to blur and run together-as they do at the beginning of select chapters. What social commentary is implicit in Morrison's superimposing these bland banalities describing a white family and its activities upon the tragic story of the destruction of a young black girl? How does Morrison's powerful language-both highly specific and lyrical-comment on the inadequacy of "correct" English and the way in which it masks and negates entire worlds of beauty and pain?
- "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." With these lines Morrison's child narrator, Claudia MacTeer, invites the reader into a troubling community secret: the incestuous rape of her 11-year-old friend Pecola Breedlove. What are the advantages of telling Pecola's story from a child's point of view? Claudia would appear to connect the barrenness of the land to Pecola's tragedy. In what ways does Morrison show how Pecola's environment-and American society as a whole-are hostile to her very existence?
- The title of the novel refers to Pecola Breedlove's intense desire for blue eyes. She believes herself ugly and unworthy of love and respect, but is convinced that her life would be magically transformed if she possessed blue eyes. How does racial self-loathing corrode the lives of Pecola and her parents, Cholly and Pauline Breedlove? How does racial self-hatred manifest itself in characters like Maureen Peal, Geraldine, and Soaphead Church?
- At a certain point in the novel, Morrison, through her narrator, states that romantic love and physical beauty are "probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought." How do the lives of individual characters bear out that statement? To what degree are these two concepts generated from within or imposed on us by society? Where do the characters first encounter ideas of romantic love and beauty-ideas which will eventually torture and exclude them? What positive visions of beauty and love does the novel offer?
- What role does social class play in the novel? Pecola first comes to stay with the MacTeers because her family has been put "outdoors" owing to her father's drunken violence and carelessness. The threat of "outdoors" focuses families like the MacTeers on upward mobility. "Being a minority in both caste and class we moved about anyway on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses and hang on, or to creep singly up into the folds of the garment." Is divisiveness one result of this upward striving Morrison describes? What are others?
- The novel is set in a Midwestern industrial town, Lorain, Ohio, Morrison's own birthplace. Pauline and Cholly Breedlove are transplanted Southerners and several key scenes in the novel are set in the South. How does Morrison set up comparisons between a Northern black community and the Southern black way of life? What values have been lost in the migration north?
- Consider Morrison's characterization of Cholly Breedlove. While she clearly condemns his actions, she resists dehumanizing him. If rape of one's daughter is an "unimaginable" crime, can one at least trace the events (and resulting emotions) that made it possible for Cholly to commit this brutal act? Is there a connection between the white hunters' "rape" of Cholly and the sexual aggression he eventually turned on his daughter?
- The Bluest Eye was published in 1970. At the time Morrison was writing the novel, the racist society that condemned Pecola Breedlove was still very much in place and Morrison took great risks-both within the black community and American society as a whole—to tell this important story. While advances in civil rights and racial attitudes have been made in the intervening years, it is arguable that many of the core issues so vividly evoked in the novel remain. What evidence is there that racial self-hatred continues to ruin lives? What present-day cultural factors could contribute to tragedies like Pecola's?