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Chasing Rainbows: a black girl's search for inspiration and identity (Chapter 1)

Inspiration, idolatry and insanity : the search for and loss of self in The Bluest Eye

Bryan D. Bourn, in his essay “Portrait of a Victim: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye”, explains why Morrison divides her novel into seasons rather than ‘conventional chapters and sections’. The use of seasons suggests that ‘the events described in The Bluest Eye have occurred before, and will occur again.’ There is a sense of a cycle of destruction, from which there is no escape – what has happened to Pecola will inevitably occur again, just like the repetition of seasons. Bourn also discusses the “Dick and Jane” primer that divides the novel, which exists to ‘show just how prevalent and important the images of white perfection are in Pecola’s life’. He comments that ‘Morrison’s strange typography illustrates how irrelevant and inappropriate these images are’ in the lives of young black girls who should have suitable black role models. Morrison herself explains, in an interview with Tom LeClair, her typographical running together of the words. Morrison says that ‘the primer with white children was the way life was presented to the black people’, but as the novel proceeded ‘[she] wanted that primer version broken up and confused’. The primer family is just as alien to blacks as the white dolls that are given to Claudia, in The Bluest Eye, and Maya in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Bourn also explains that Morrison ‘intentionally kept Pecola from any first person narration of the story’ to ‘“try to show a little girl as a total and complete victim of whatever was around her”’. Morrison uses Claudia’s ‘youthful innocence’ to show how ‘the other characters, especially Pecola, idolize the “ideal” of beauty presented by white, blue-eyed movie stars like little Shirley Temple.’ The voice of Pauline Breedlove is also introduced in italics because it would be impossible for Claudia MacTeer to tell her story.

The Bluest Eye is rather like a jigsaw puzzle, where it is possible to piece together certain events that lead to Pecola’s rape. As Karla Holloway argues, ‘What creates this story is the connection of misery that culminates in rape.’ These earlier incidents include Cholly and Darlene’s disastrous sexual experience, in which he takes his frustration out on her rather than his white tormentors. The nature of Cholly’s initial attraction to Pauline, with her foot rubbing against her leg, an action later mirrored by Pecola when she washes dishes in the kitchen, also explains the motives behind the act of rape. Also related to the violation of Pecola is Pauline’s transference of her disgust at her own ‘ugliness’ onto her ugly daughter Pecola.

In The Bluest Eye, Pecola resorts to magic when God fails to provide her with the blue eyes she has prayed for. Like in Christianity, belief is ‘the single most important factor in conjuration.’ Pecola’s belief in her blue eyes is no more a sign of insanity than ‘the community women’s belief that Jimmy has died from eating a peach cobbler.’ Bourn suggests that Soaphead Church represents ‘the role of the church in African-American life.’ There is an implication that ‘the church’s promise that everything will be alright is no better than Soaphead’s promise to Pecola that she will have blue eyes.’ Similarly, Claudia and Frieda rely on magic when they plant the marigolds ‘to create a space and circumstances in which Pecola will have a healthier future.’

Religion is also linked with sex in The Bluest Eye, with Soaphead Church’s ‘perverse love for “clean little girls”’ and his ‘confusion of lovemaking with “Communion and the Holy Grail”’ which causes him to lose his wife. Similarly, for Pauline Breedlove religion replaces sexuality, ‘entailing an idea ... of revenge: “Mrs. Breedlove was not interested in Christ the Redeemer, but rather Christ the Judge.”’ Pauline Breedlove feels morally superior to Cholly as long as she can criticise his sins.

Beauty in The Bluest Eye is associated with religion because ‘Each night, without fail, [Pecola] prayed for blue eyes’ and the disappearance of her ugly self. From birth Pecola has felt ugly because even her mother ‘knowed that she was ugly.’ Pauline Breedlove’s perceptions of physical beauty and romantic love, which she learns at the movies while pregnant, are enforced upon Pecola from birth. Psychologists have emphasised that ‘the mother’s gaze is of primary importance in generating a child’s sense of self.’ Pecola can generate no self-identity, certainly no positive identity, since she has never experienced her mother’s loving gaze.

Pecola Breedlove believes that if she was beautiful ‘maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too’ , that her beauty would stop them from fighting. Pecola’s perception of her beauty only changes when her mental attitude changes – when she thinks that she has blue eyes, she thinks that she is beautiful. With her blue eyes, Pecola feels that Pauline Breedlove looks away from her, but in reality Pecola reminds Mrs. Breedlove of the rape that she was unwilling to believe in. Unlike Celie, who peacefully grows to love herself, Pecola spirals into insanity as she imagines that she is beautiful.

In comparison with Pecola’s idolisation of white beauty is Claudia’s disdain for society’s definition of beauty. As the mature narrator, Claudia ‘condemns the American concept of blonde beauty as one of “the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought”.’ Claudia is disgusted with the white doll that everyone else finds beautiful, because of its ‘hard unyielding limbs’ . The doll is ‘an emblem of a manipulative, inverted order’ , because the whites are covertly informing people that the dolls’ beauty is what they must conform to in order to belong in their society.

Pecola Breedlove is the most obvious example of abandonment and loneliness in The Bluest Eye, but her father, Cholly Breedlove was abandoned ‘in a junk heap by his mother’ and ‘rejected for a crap game by his father’. Consequently, his Aunt Jimmy brings him up, taking pride in her charitable act, but even she dies leaving Cholly all alone. Although Pecola’s parents do not physically abandon her, they provide her with no emotional support. Pecola is also completely isolated at school, where her classmates tease her because of her darker shade of skin. Even Claudia and Frieda, who pity Pecola and prevent the bullies from harming her, can not bear to be Pecola’s friends after Maureen Peal humiliates them.

Rigney argues that ‘Deprivation of sexual love is catastrophic for almost all characters in Morrison’s novels.’ The deprivation of sex leads Soaphead Church to long for young girls, Cholly Breedlove to rape his daughter, and Geraldine to take her sexual frustration out on Pecola. However, Toni Morrison’s intention in the rape scene of The Bluest Eye is to show Cholly’s love for Pecola, and ‘his powerlessness to help her pain.’ As Cholly watches Pecola he feels a sense of guilt at her misery and wonders ‘What could he do for her – ever?’ Morrison argues that Cholly Breedlove gives his daughter all he has to offer her. What is perhaps most significant about Morrison’s portrayal of the rape is the absence of Pecola’s feelings. Instead of her emotions, Morrison indicates Pecola’s shock and pain through her description of ‘her intake of breath’ and ‘Cholly’s painful attempt to remove himself from her dry vagina.’ Only with Pecola’s stream of consciousness at the end do we actually find out what Pecola’s response is: ‘“Horrible”’ .

In relation to the rape is the relationship of Cholly and Pauline Breedlove, which began when Cholly was attracted to Pauline’s helplessness, as she leant over a fence ‘scratching herself with a broken foot.’ Like Pauline’s helpless gesture, Pecola ‘stood on one foot scratching the back of her calf with her toe.’ This helplessness that attracted him to Pauline also attracts Cholly to his own daughter. Morrison makes this link explicit when she writes that ‘The confused mixture of his memories of Pauline and the doing of a wild and forbidden thing excited him’.

In the early stages of their relationship, the sexual relationship is fulfilling for Cholly and Pauline Breedlove. Making love to Cholly makes Pauline feel ‘strong’ and ‘pretty’, and she experiences the intense pleasure of an orgasm that she describes as ‘rainbow all inside.’ Later in their relationship, Pauline becomes obsessed with sterility and cleaning the white family’s home: ‘ More and more she neglected her house, her children, her man... that made life with the Fishers lighter, more delicate, more lovely.’ The earlier erotic relationship, where ‘rainbows could be seen and felt’, turns to a turbulent, violent relationship without gentle, caring lovemaking. What is most significant about their relationship is Pauline’s refusal to leave Cholly for a white woman, no matter how bad their relationship has become, which indicates that ‘race becomes more important than gender’ for Pauline.

In comparison to this positive memory of sexual experience, the unhealthy nature of sexual abstinence is illustrated in Geraldine, who obtains her only sexual pleasure from the cat that wriggles in her lap. In the section about ‘sugar-brown Mobile girls’ Morrison describes Geraldine’s repulsion of sex with her husband and her lack of sexual pleasure. Peach attributes Geraldine’s loss of passion to the ‘erosion of her black identity’, that is, in her attempt to suppress her blackness, Geraldine also suppresses her sensuality. The nearest that Geraldine comes to experiencing Pauline Breedlove’s ‘rainbow’ occurs when ‘she was walking down the street and her napkin slipped free of her sanitary belt’ – but even then she suppresses the pleasure by holding her thighs together. Instead Gertrude lavishes her affection upon her cat, who leaps onto her lap and whose warmth seeps ‘into the deeply private areas of her lap.’ Similar to Pauline’s preference of the white girl instead of Pecola, Geraldine’s unhealthy love for her cat is compared with her remoteness from her son, Junior.

Aside from the rape, the most obvious characters who indulge in sexual excess are the three prostitutes, China, Poland and Miss Marie. However, although they make their living from men they hate them ‘without shame, apology or discrimination.’ Although they have plenty of sex, their encounters are not pleasant. The only sense of romantic love is in the fable of Miss Marie’s former lover, Dewey Prince, but the other prostitutes mock this as fantasy. However, their prostitution allows the women to enjoy ‘sexual autonomy [and] economic independence.’ Pecola admires their independence because it allows them to ignore society’s criticism of them. Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos argues that ‘Morrison seems to define Utopia as a three-woman household’, because it is in these households that genuine passion and human emotions exist. Without the obtrusive presence of men, the women can live harmoniously. This is similar to Walker’s feminised community in The Color Purple, where women can live with men as long as they adopt feminine behaviour.

Morrison uses the metaphor of marigolds to explain the effect of racism in society. Claudia defines society’s hostility towards blacks in her statement that ‘the land of the whole country was hostile to marigolds that year... Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear’. The metaphor implies that Pecola ‘never had a chance to grow and succeed in a society (“soil”) that was inherently racist, and would not nurture her.’ The metaphor of the dandelion is equally as important because ‘it represents Pecola’s image of herself.’ Pecola wonders why ‘people call them weeds’ because she ‘thought they were pretty.’ Pecola identifies with the dandelions because they are rejected for being ugly, just like Pecola is. However, Pecola felt that ‘owning [the dandelions] made her part of the world, and the world a part of her.’ In her identification with the dandelions, Pecola feels like she belongs somewhere. The silencing effect of racism is shown clearly when Pecola can only ‘point or nod, in the direction of the Mary Janes she covets’ to the white shopkeeper. The Mary Janes themselves represent the white society that privileges whiteness, and despises blackness. Rigney argues that the candy becomes ‘an emblem of shame in its association with white privilege and of envy for the blue eyes of the little blonde girl depicted on the package.’ After the shame that Pecola feels under the averted gaze of the white man she looks to the dandelions for love, but their inability to protect leads her to reject them because ‘“They are ugly. They are weeds.”’

Morrison emphasises that blacks can be racist as well as whites, in particular light skinned blacks, such as Geraldine, are racist towards those with darker skin. Geraldine encourages racism by teaching her son, Junior, ‘the difference between colored people and niggers.’ To avoid any confusion with “niggers”, Geraldine has Junior’s hair ‘cut as close to his scalp as possible’ and put Jergens Lotion on his face in the winter ‘to keep the skin from becoming ashen.’ The irony of this is that Junior longs to play with the black boys, to ‘feel their hardness pressing on him, smell their wild blackness, and say, “Fuck you” with that lovely casualness.’ However, he gradually adopts his mother’s prejudice, which he takes out on Pecola Breedlove. Junior lures Pecola into his house to see some kittens, but what she sees is ‘a big black cat’ , which Junior throws in her face. When Junior sees Pecola’s affection for the cat, which mirrors his mother’s, he kills the cat and blames it’s death on Pecola. While Pecola is hurt by the racist remarks of Geraldine, who calls her a ‘nasty little black bitch’, she is also astounded by the black cat’s blue eyes, which she longs for herself.

Naming is also significant in The Bluest Eye, because it is a symbol of inclusion and exclusion. Mrs. Breedlove, as her family formally knows her, longs for a nickname in order to be included in society. Pauline is delighted when her white employers call her “Polly”, however, it shows how Pauline ‘has diminished herself through her obsequious dedication to whiteness just as surely as little Pecola is diminished by her desire for blue eyes.’ Unlike Maya Angelou (in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) who rebels against being called Mary, Pauline Breedlove accepts her nickname as a status symbol. However, to be ‘called “out of one’s name,” ... can be just as negatively powerful as a nickname can be positive’ because the names that Pecola is called are an example of exclusion. The black boys harass Pecola, calling her ‘Black e mo’ , before she is taunted by Maureen, who calls Pecola, Claudia and Frieda ‘Black and ugly black e mos.’ Pecola forms her identity around the names that she is called and as a consequence develops no self-confidence.

While Pecola accepts the racism that is directed at her because of her ugliness, Claudia survives because she angrily responds to the racist white culture. As Holloway argues, rather than ‘embracing the enemy as does Pecola – she rejects it in a’ Claudia’s response is to dismantle the white dolls that give her no comfort in order to see what makes them beautiful to the rest of society. This hatred of white dolls then progresses to ‘her subsequent torture of white girls.’ Disturbed by her violent urges, Claudia consequently decides to adopt a ‘“fraudulent love”’ of whites.

Jennifer Uglow argues that ‘Toni Morrison concentrates on the relation between the pressures of the community, patterns established within families, ... and the developing sense of self.’ The blame for Pecola’s treatment can be traced back to a community that values lighter skin over dark skin as well as Pecola’s family. Pauline and Cholly are victimised for their ‘ugliness’, so when Pecola is born they take their feelings of self-hatred out on her. Hated from birth by her mother, Pecola is also despised for being a part of the Breedlove family by others in the community. Had she been beautiful, Pecola could not have escaped the disgust of society because of her parentage. Later when Pecola becomes pregnant with her father’s child, members of the community wish it to be dead because it will be ugly: ‘Ought to be a law: two ugly people doubling up like that to make more ugly. Be better off in the ground.’ The message here is that if you’re not beautiful you ought to be dead. In comparison, Claudia ‘felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live – just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals.’ Claudia and Frieda plant their seeds and ‘say the magic words’ with the hope that Pecola’s baby will live. A community that wish death on a baby on terms of its physical appearance can offer no guidance to Pecola Breedlove, who desperately needs support in order to survive.

At the end of The Bluest Eye, Claudia comments on the community’s responsibility for Pecola’s insanity. Claudia thinks about the town’s malicious gossips that take ‘a perverse pleasure in the misfortunes’ of the Breedloves and cause them to be marginalised, or left “outdoors”. Claudia feels a sense of guilt when she recognises that Pecola ‘cleanses and beautifies [the community] by her own ugliness.’

In comparison with the ideal primer family, who have a ‘pretty green house with [a] red door’, Morrison presents the Breedlove household, which is ‘an abandoned store, a “gray box”... [which has] no bathroom, no privacy, [and] no dignity.’ In this lifeless household, where the ‘joylessness stank, pervading everything’, there is very little positive energy. In the cramped bedroom that the family share, Pecola and Sam watch as their parents begin another fight that is all too familiar, ‘violent breaks in routine, that were themselves routine’. While Pauline Breedlove needs these fights to feel superior to Cholly, and Cholly Breedlove needs them to project his self-loathing on to Pauline, Pecola Breedlove is scarred by their fighting. The Breedloves are so wrapped up in their own problems that they do not support Pecola, who prays to God ‘“Please make me disappear.”’

A direct comparison can be made between the Breedlove family and the MacTeers. Although Claudia has vivid memories of her mother’s strictness, Mrs. MacTeer also provides her children with love and security. Like Momma in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Mrs. MacTeer provides her daughters with strict guidance, shouting at them if they behave inappropriately or cause their own illness due to careless behaviour, but she also provides them with a love ‘thick and dark as Alaga syrup’. Similarly, although Mr. MacTeer is a serious man, he would do anything to protect his daughters. When their boarder Mr. Henry assaults Frieda, Mrs. MacTeer hits him with a broom and Mr. MacTeer throws an ‘old tricycle at his head’ and attempts to shoot Mr. Henry. Unlike Cholly Breedlove who assaults his own daughter, Mr. MacTeer, like the protective white father in the primer, is willing to kill anyone who harms his daughters.

Pecola Breedlove has no mother ‘to help her love herself and her body,’ so she relies on the three prostitutes, China, Poland and Miss Marie, who ‘provide the only laughter in her life.’ Pecola loved the prostitutes simply because they ‘did not despise her.’ Their stories and blues songs of gullible men and their experiences of love that she herself aspires to experience entertain Pecola. What is most important to Pecola is that the prostitutes are honest with her and she feels comfortable enough to speak her mind in their presence. Although the prostitutes offer Pecola little moral guidance, they allow her to develop her own identity.

At the end of The Bluest Eye, both ‘family and community, loved ones and landscape, have banished Pecola.’ Left in a state of insanity due of the absence of the inspiration she needed to find her identity, Pecola is left on the edge of society ‘among the garbage and the sunflowers’. In comparison, Claudia MacTeer survives to tell Pecola’s story. What enabled Claudia to survive and find a sense of identity was her inspiration and support, in the form of her family, and her rejection of white idols.


  1. Bryan D. Bourn, “Portrait of a Victim: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye”, [26 February 1999].
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. Toni Morrison in Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffery (eds.) Anything Can Happen (Urbana, Chicago and London: University of Illinois, 1983), p.260
  5. Bryan D. Bourn, “Portrait of a Victim”.
  6. ibid.
  7. Holloway, “The Language and Music of Survival” in Karla F. C. Holloway and Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos, New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison (New York, Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1987), p.43
  8. Trudier Harris, “Reconnecting Fragments: Afro-American Folk Tradition in The Bluest Eye” in Nellie Y. McKay (ed.), Critical Essays on Toni Morrison (Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988), p.73.
  9. Bryan D. Bourn, “Portrait of a Victim”.
  10. Harris, op. cit. , p.73.
  11. Barbara Hill Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991), p.102
  12. ibid. , pp.99-100.
  13. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, p.35.
  14. ibid. , p.98.
  15. Madonne M. Miner, “Lady No Longer Sings the Blues: Rape, Madness, and Silence in The Bluest Eye in Harold Bloom (ed.), Toni Morrison (New York and Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1990), p.95.
  16. Morrison, op. cit. , p.34.
  17. Linden Peach, Toni Morrison (London: MacMillan, 1995), p.25.
  18. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, p.13.
  19. Keith E. Byerman, “Beyond Realism: The Fictions of Toni Morrison” in Bloom (ed.), Toni Morrison, p.62.
  20. Morrison, op. cit. , p.126.
  21. Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison, p.102.
  22. ibid., p.32
  23. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, p.127.
  24. Jill Matus, Toni Morrison (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1998), pp.49-50.
  25. Morrison, op. cit. , p.158.
  26. ibid., p.126
  27. ibid., p.127
  28. ibid., p.128
  29. ibid., pp. 101-102
  30. ibid., p.99
  31. Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison, pp. 99-100
  32. Peach, Toni Morrison, p.34.
  33. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, p.64.
  34. Peach, op. cit., p.32.
  35. Morrison, op. cit., p.66
  36. ibid., p.66
  37. ibid., pp.42-43
  38. Peach, Toni Morrison, p.33.
  39. Demetrakopoulos, “Toni Morrison: A Critical Perspective” in Holloway and Demetrakopoulos, New Dimensions of Spirituality, p.14.
  40. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, p.164.
  41. Bryan D. Bourn, “Portrait of a Victim”.
  42. ibid.
  43. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, p.35.
  44. ibid., p.36
  45. Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison, p.21
  46. ibid. , p.86
  47. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, p.37.
  48. ibid. , p.67
  49. ibid. , p.67
  50. ibid. , p.68
  51. ibid. , p.68
  52. ibid. , p.70
  53. ibid. , p.72
  54. Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison, p.44
  55. Harris, “Reconnecting Fragments” in McKay (ed.), Critical Essays, p.72.
  56. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, p.50.
  57. ibid. , p.56
  58. Holloway, “The Language and Music of Survival” in Holloway and Demetrakopoulos, New Dimensions of Spirituality, p.41.
  59. Michael Awkward, “Roadblocks and Relatives: Critical Revision in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye” in McKay (ed.), Critical Essays, p.60.
  60. ibid. , p.61.
  61. Jennifer Uglow, Times Literary Supplement, in “Biographical Information on Toni Morrison”, [26 February 1999].
  62. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, p.149.
  63. ibid. , p.149
  64. ibid. , p.151
  65. Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison, p.53
  66. ibid. , p.54
  67. ibid. , p.62
  68. Morrison, The Bluest Eye, p.26.
  69. ibid. , p.31
  70. ibid. , p.33
  71. ibid. , p.7
  72. ibid. , p.77
  73. Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison, p.13.
  74. Morrison, op. cit. , p.38.
  75. Melvin Dixon, “Like an Eagle in the Air: Toni Morrison” in Bloom (ed.), Toni Morrison, p.121.
  76. Morrison, op. cit. , p.164.