The children's Primer, Pages 3-4

The excerpts from the children's primer progress into unreadability or chaos. that is, the text breaks down. As you read the novel, keep in mind the question, what breakdowns occur in the children's lives, in the black community, and in society?

The primer presents an idealized picture of childhood, family life, and home. What values (e.g., middle class or poor) and whose values (e.g., white or black) are represented in this idealization? How does this idealization relate to the children's experience in the black community?

Some chapters are headed by sentences from the primer. What relationship, if any, do those sentences have to events in that chapter?

Italicized Introduction, Pages 5- 6

The Bluest Eye is told from several points of view. The point of view of the introduction is first person; the speaker is the adult Claudia MacTeer remembering and reflecting upon one year in her childhood.

Morrison explains what effects she wanted to achieve with the first sentence of the introduction:

          The opening phrase of the first sentence, "Quiet as it's kept," had several attractions for me. First, it was a familiar phrase, familiar to me as a child listening to adults; to black women conversing with one another, telling a story, an anecdote, gossip about some one or event within the circle, the family, the neighborhood. The words are conspiratorial. "Shh, don't tell anyone else," and "No one is allowed to know this." It is a secret between us and a secret that is being kept from us. The conspiracy is both held and withheld, exposed and sustained. In some sense it was precisely what the act of writing the the book was: the public exposure of a private confidence....

          "Quiet as it's kept" is also a figure of speech that is written, in this instance, but clearly chosen for how speakerly it is, how it speaks and bespeaks a particular world and its ambience. Further, in addition to its "back fence" connotation, its suggestion of illicit gossip, of thrilling revelation, there is also, in the "whisper," the assumption (on the part of the reader) that the teller is on the inside and knows something others do not, and is going to be generous with this privileged information. The intimacy I was aiming for, the intimacy between the reader and the page, could start up immediately because the secret is being shared, at best, and eavesdropped upon, at the least. ("Afterword," pp. 211-21)

Do you think she achieves the effects she intended?

Does the year 1941 have any significance in American history? did any major event happen that year? (In Europe, the same major event started in 1939.) Also, what ongoing economic trauma had America, as well as the rest of the world, been experiencing since 1929?

The nature imagery begins with the symbol of the marigold seeds. Is it realistic that no marigolds grew in this community in 1941? The marigold seeds that Claudia and her sister plant are real (read this statement literally); however, the seeds that Pecola's father plants and his "plot of black dirt" are symbolic (p. 6). If we interpet his "seed" as semen, would his "plot of dirt" be his daughter, Pecola? If so, what is the effect of calling Pecola a "plot of black dirt"?

The themes of innocence, love, and loss are introduced. Where?


One organizing device in this novel is the cycle of the year. The novel begins with autumn and ends with spring.
  • What are the connotations of autumn? Do they fit with Pecola's beginning her menstrual cycle, which carries the possibility of pregnancy and new life? Is there irony here? However, Claudia, in the introductory section, informs us that Pecola's baby dies.
  • What are the connotations of spring? Based on those connotations, what kind of ending would you expect? However, Claudia, in the introductory section, informs us that the seeds which she and Frieda plant "shriveled and died" (p. 6), just as Pecola's baby did. Is there irony here?
The cyclical organization of seasons has a second major function: it is another expression of the nature imagery.

Pages 9-12

Incongruity continues in the two oxymorons in the first sentence on page 9:

Nuns go by quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel.
Why are the words which I italicized ironic?

What are the MacTeer house and household like? How do they relate to the image presented in the primer? Is there love in the MacTeer home?

Pages 12-16

Is there a sense of community in the women's conversation, or does the conversation suggest fragmentation and alienation? Do the women seem to be enjoying their conversations or not?

How are the children treated by the adults? How do the children view the adults? For example, Claudia tells us she and her sister loved Mr. Henry. He acknowledges them, teases them, and plays with them when they are introduced. The children, however, expected

him to say nothing. Just to nod, as he had done at the clothes closet, acknowledging our existence. To our surprise, he spoke to us (p. 16).
What does the sisters' expectation reveal about the way adults usually treat children? Is there a suggestion of some trouble later even with the kindly Mr. Henry, who seems to acknowledge children as human beings?
Even after what came later, there was no bitterness in our memory of him (p. 16).
Pages 16-23

For the black community, the terror of life is being homeless or on the street ("being outdoors," p. 17). Its members yearn to own their own homes. How do their yearning and their terror relate to the primer? What does this situation reveal about security and stability in the black community? Does the Breedloves' homelessness indicate anything about the kind of man Cholly is?

The images of Shirley Temple and of white baby dolls are central to the meaning of this novel. What standard of beauty do they represent? Is it a standard that black children can meet? How do Frieda and Pecola regard Shirley Temple? How does Claudia's view initially differ from theirs? What is the process whereby Claudia develops the same attitude as Frieda and Pecola? What is the attitude of adults to Shirley Temple/white baby dolls? Why do the adults have that attitude? What is the effect of their attitude on the children?

Shirley Temple dancing with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in The Little Colonel

Claudia hates Shirley Temple "because she danced with Bojangles, who "was my friend, my uncle, my daddy" and because he "was enjoying, sharing, giving a lovely dance thing with one of those little white girls whose socks never slid down under their heels" (p. 19). Why is Claudia upset at this displacement? Does it have a larger application than to just Claudia?

The popularity of Shirley Temple during the Depression and the importance she had for Americans are hard to overestimate. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, speaking in 1935, praised Shirley:

During this Depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie, look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.
Pages 23-32

How does Mrs. MacTeer treat the children? Does she make an attempt to find out why the children do what they do, or does she just assume the worst about their behavior? Consider her response to Pecola's drinking the milk or her response to Rosemary's revengeful accusation that Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola are playing sexually.

What is the effect of her behavior on them? Once she learns that Pecola is menstruating, how does she treat Pecola? Is there only punishment and disapproval or is there some other feeling or feelings? Is Mrs. MacTeer a good mother, a bad mother, a good-enough mother, etc.? (Good-enough mother is a term that some psyschologists are using in evaluating mothering; its meaning is clear enough, though exactly what qualities and behavior constitute "good enough" will vary.) Is Mrs. MacTeer a loving or caring mother?

Music is important in Morrison's novels and in the Black community. The blues are an outlet for feelings about hard times and a source of comfort. What is the effect of her mother's singing on Claudia? As Mrs. MacTeer washes Pecola, the sisters hear "the music" of her laughter (p. 32); is this a positive or a negative image?

Pecola's quest to find love is introduced by her question, "how do you get somebody to love you?" (p. 32). What is the effect on the reader of a child's asking such a question? Are other children an adequate source of information? Claudia turns to blues songs for information about adult life to try to answer Pecola's question.

It would involve, I supposed, "my man," who, before leaving me, would love me. But there weren't any babies in the songs my mother sang. Maybe that's why the women were sad: the men left before they could make a baby. (p. 32)
What view of life or what expectations of life are the songs giving Claudia? Are the values and attitudes implicit in the songs and stories we hear as children part of our socialization? Consider Claudia's reflecting on her mother singing about
hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me times. But her voice was so sweet and her singing-eyes so melty I found myself longing for those hard times, yearning to be grown without "a thin di-i-ime to my name." I looked forward to the delicious time when "my man" would leave me, when I would "hate to see that evening sun go down..." 'cause then I would know "my man has left this town." Misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother's voice took all of the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet.  (pp. 26-7)
Does this passage suggest any other functions music plays for the individual and/or community?

Pages 33-37

In this section, the point of view changes from Claudia (first person) to the omniscient or all- knowing author. Could Morrison have used Claudia to narrate this section? Could Claudia know the histories and feelings of Mr. and Mrs. Breedlove or the daily life and relationships within the Breedlove family?

What kind of a home is the storefront? How does it compare with the home in the children's primer? Why does Morrison quote the passage from the reader without punctuation? Why does she repeat, "ITISVERYPRETTYITISVERYPRETTYPRETTYPRETTYP"? (p. 33). How would you characterize the family life of the Breedloves? What does the rip in the couch reveal about the status and satisfactions of the family? The ripped couch is one of the many images of splitting in the novel.

Pages 38-44

What is the relationship between the quotation from the children's primer and the Breedlove family and their home? Are the Breedloves physically ugly, or does their ugliness have some other, non-physical, source?

You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious, all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, "You are ugly people. They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. "Yes," they had said. "You are right." And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it was a mantle ovee them, and went about the world with it.  (p. 39)
How do they react to seeing themselves as ugly?

Cholly and Pauline have a symbiotic relationship. (A symbiosis is a close relationship between two or more living beings which generally benefits both.) How do their fights fill their psychological needs? How does Cholly's drunken, no-account life support Pauline's Christian view of herself? Why doesn't she want him to reform?  What need does their relationship fill for Cholly?

How do Pecola and her brother Sammy react to the fights?

Pages 44-50

Why won't Pecola's eyes disappear? What makes eyes so important to Pecola? Think about whether any of the ideas in my online discussion of "Seeing and Perception" relate to this question. Why does Morrison insert the quotation about blue eyes from the primer into Pecola's fantasy about how having blue eyes would change her life (p. 46)? Though the point of view is still the omniscient author, the author is giving us Pecola's thoughts and feelings. What meaning do blue eyes have for Pecola? why are they important to her? Consider the following quotation:

Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty. She would only see what there was to see: the eyes of other people.  (pp. 46-7)
Why can't she know her own beauty? What does she see in the eyes of other people?

How does Mr. Yacobowski "see" her? Does it affect the way he treats her? Is she the Other for him? Is it ironic that he has blue eyes? How does his treatment affect Pecola? How and why does her attitude toward the dandelions (another nature image) change? Is Pecola's brief anger a healthy response? Can anger serve positive functions, like protecting against pain, providing a sense of power, or creating energy? Why can't she stay angry?

How is the Mary Jane candy related to the Shirley Temple/white baby doll images? How does having and eating this candy affect Pecola? Why? There is an ironic transition or movement between the three pennies which bring Pecola nine orgasms and the three whores in the next paragraph, which begins a new section (p. 50).

Pages 50-8

Pecola turns to the three whores for information about love. Are they an appropriate source of information? What does it say about Pecola's life and parents that she turns to the whores for this crucial information? Music appears, in the blues Poland sings. How do the three whores get along with each other? Do they seem bothered by being outcasts in the community or do they form their own community? What answer does Pecola receive about love from them?

Pecola thinks about love based on Miss Marie's relationship with Dewey Prince and her observation of her parents:

What did love feel like? she wondered. How do grown-ups act when they love each other? Eat fish together? In her eyes came the picture of Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove in bed....Maybe that was love. Choking sounds and silence.  (p. 57)
What definition does she arrive at? What understanding of love can she arrive at with such information? Can it help her to find love?

What is the effect on the reader of watching Pecola search for love and her not seeming to receive any love from her family?

Morrison Syllabus

Morrison, The Bluest Eye, pp. 3-58
      Morrison, Online overview

The Bluest Eye, pp. 61-109

The Bluest Eye, pp. 110-131

The Bluest Eye, pp. 132-183

The Bluest Eye, pp. 184-206
"Afterward," pp. 209-216
      The Other in The Bluest Eye

Core Studies 6 Page || Syllabus