Symbolism and Allegory in The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Paperback, 224 pages
Published by Penguin, 1994
ISBN: 978-0-452-28219-3

In allegorical stories particular characters represent a much larger theme or concept, a concept that transcends the bounds of the character to represent society or human nature on a larger scale. In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Pecola, a mere child, assumes a much larger role. Pecola, the unfortunate young girl, impregnated by her father, represents the plight of the black person in an unforgiving, post-Great Depression society.

Throughout the novel Pecola encounters hardships fairly unique to blacks in the 1940s. She is ignored; she is shown little affection, even from her family; her needs are ignored, even by her people; and Pecola is not viewed in the same light as the Shirley Temple-like white children. Encounters with other characters in the novel highlight the struggle of the black culture as she faces abuse and deceit where ever she goes.

The first aspect of Pecola’s life to abuse her is her home. Her father rapes her, implying that black society, by not rising above the station and behaviours assigned to them by the white people, that blacks are essentially fucking themselves. Pecola’s apartment itself is an impoverished, dilapidated space remodeled from an old store front. The store was, once upon a time, prosperous but eventually went out of business. The recycled goods in which Pecola lives represents the second class treatment and segregation of the blacks. The Bluest Eye was written after the Civil Rights movement– when blacks were segregated from whites into second class, decaying facilities. Pecola’s isolated, decaying home mirrors current events as observed by Morrison. The segregation is even noted when Morrison points out that the rich white people lived up the street, across town, and up hill– higher up both literally and figuratively– from Pecola’s wretched living situation.

Through Pecola’s mother, Pauline, Morrison relates another hurdle that the black culture must overcome. Pauline steps on a nail and becomes slightly handicapped. This symbolizes the blacks’ already weakened condition. Through years of mistreatment and feelings of indifference directed towards Pauline, she becomes an apathetic servant who bows down and obeys her white “superiors”. Morrison uses Pauline to represent the individuals within black society whose feelings of inferiority prevent them from taking a stand against the whites for equality. Pauline ignores her daughter, thus ignoring the please of the other blacks in society who strive for equality. Pauline, instead of comforting her daughter after Pecola knocks over a pie, runs to help a crying white toddler and promises to bake the toddler another pie. From this experience, Pecola realizes that her needs are less important than a white person’s and learns to not fight back. The cycle of self-doubt, apathy, and inferiority is forced upon the next generation.

Even God and religion betray Pecola. When Pecola goes to Soaphead Church for help, he appears to grant her wish for “the bluest eye”, yet still uses Pecola for his own purposes. While promising Pecola blue eyes, Church has the unsuspecting Pecola poison a dog. Though he appears helpful, in the end Church, too, betrayed Pecola. Here Morrison uses Soaphouse’s name to not so subtly imply that the Church, a safe haven for worship and hope for most of black society, will not help the blacks attain their dreams if they are naive to the limits of prayer. Prayer alone will not save the blacks. Morrison is stating that unless black people educate themselves, and open their eyes to the motives of the white people AND of their fellow blacks, they will remain forever vulnerable to deception and betrayal as was Pecola. Moreover “Soaphouse” implies a place where things are cleaned and washed. Morrison is also warning her fellow blacks not be deceived into white-washing culture. To assimilate so completely into the white culture will also leave blacks unfulfilled. She argues that blacks should retain their individuality and cultural pride in order to retain their strength.

Through repeating interactions and motifs, most notably in the repeated birth scenes, Morrison shows the reader that each of these insidious traits are passed from one generation of blacks to the next. The first birth highlighted in the novel is that of Pecola. The procreation of her mother and father creates Pecola, and Pecola’s observation of her parents’ experiences with white people teaches Pecola how she should act towards white society. Pecola is taught to yield to white people, and to be ashamed of her existence and appearance as a black woman. These characteristics are perpetuated when Pecola’s father rapes her and impregnates her with an inbred baby. This baby shrivels and dies. Here Morrison is saying that if the bad characteristics, such as inferiority complexes, indifference, and withdrawal, aren’t stopped, they will be taught to each subsequent generation of black children until the entire race shrivels and dies. Morrison is warning her people and her culture that to sit idly by and to allow white people to degrade the existence of the blacks will destroy black culture.

Another repeated motif is Pecola’s desire for “the bluest eye”. In the novel the bluest eye represents equality. Pecola aches for blue eyes because she knows that blue eyes will make her happy. This symbolizes the black’s push for equality; equality will make them happy and successful as a race. Morrison is keen to point out that Pecola is not wishing to be white, she only wants blue eyes. Here Morrison is highlighting the fact that black people do not want to lose their identity as a race. They only want to be treated equally and fairly. Taking this into consideration, it can also be argued that Soaphouse Church also represents the government. Soaphouse promises Pecoal blue eyes and when Pecola looks into the mirror, she sees blue eyes. However, to everyone else, Pecola’s eyes are still brown. Here Morrison is implying that although the government has enacted laws which give the appearance of black equality, the nature of society ensure that blacks still have very few rights, and ensures they will be treated no better than they were in the past. Morrison is issuing a word of caution to her fellow blacks, urging them not to abandon their fight for equality until blacks have achieved true equality. Morrison greatly values and is very proud of her heritage, and this love is apparent in The Bluest Eye.

I encourage everyone to read this book and not just for the thought-provoking allegory. Because the book deals with difficult subject matter such as molestation, incestual rape, and racism, people have pushed for this book to be banned from schools. Yes, the subject matter is difficult, but when else are young adults given a forum to intellectually exam difficult topics? There is a larger social commentary to this book, and many other banned books, that is important and should be discussed. If we blind ourselves to the baser elements of our society, we are weakening our culture and our collective intelligence as a society, exactly what Morrison is warning blacks not to let happen. How ironic that her attempt to enlighten us the reader, and us as a society is the object of censorship. We should not allow ourselves to be sheltered, or allow the wool to be pulled over our eyes. Social injustices such as genocide and discrimination occur because of such naivety and censorship. Banning The Bluest Eye won’t lead to genocide or a police state or totalitarianism, but it is a drop in the bucket. Enjoy a banned book, and enjoy The Bluest Eye. You will not be disappointed.

For another review of The Bluest Eye, see Park Benches & Bookends

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6 responses to “Symbolism and Allegory in The Bluest Eye

  1. Interesting analysis – I wish I had read The Bluest Eye more recently to respond in-depth about what you said. Have you read Beloved?

  2. No, I’ve only read The Bluest Eye. I’ve been recommended both A Misery and Beloved so perhaps I will have to put them on my TBR.

  3. I do vividly remember the scene where Pecola’s mother goes to comfort the white child over her own daughter – I believe the white child is described in doll-like terms.

    I don’t remember seeing the book as in such thoroughly allegorical terms as you do here, though I certainly saw the characters as representing certain ‘types.’ The bluest eye bit, I believe confused me at the time, and that’s what I wish I could comment more on, because your interpretation intrigues me, but doesn’t quite match with my remembered impression.

  4. Anti_Intellect

    I always thought Pecola’s desire for blue eyes was a critique of White beauty standards and white supremacy, both of which have seeped into the Black communities psyches.

    • Oh, definitely. I think it can be that too. I loved this book because there were so many levels and something simple like blue eyes carried such weight. Another great point you being up :)

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