"The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers and writers" declared Toni Morrison, Winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature in her prize acceptance speech.
Toni Morrison belongs to the modern literary and artistic movement which reached its peak in the 1920s. She was affected by towering figures like Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. She believed in the modernist slogan that says "The medium is the message," or "The form is the content," (McLuhan 150) which means that how a message or theme is presented is as important as what the message or theme is. Unlike earlier writers who wrote chronological narratives which in some ways reflected the conventions of history writing, modernists became interested in representing the way characters thought. They decided that people did not think in sequential, logical, or chronological ways but much more as a sort of free association of thought. This is what many modernist writers attempted to capture in their novels and they called it the stream of consciousness narration. Morrison was affected by this literary school to a great extent.
She also learnt a great deal from the writers of the Harlem Renaissance (a literary period which centered especially in the 1920s in Harlem, New York). Harlem was the center of African-American life in the north during this period. Thousands of African Americans moved from the southern states to find work in the north. Many of them heard about Harlem as a place where they could live in an all-black community and be relatively free from embattlement by white racism. Harlem attracted the best African-American artists and writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston author of the classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). They applied the white American insights to the concerns of black life in America. The Renaissance marked a turning point for African-American literature. Prior to this time, books by African Americans were primarily read by other Black people but with the renaissance, African-American literature began to be absorbed in the American culture. Artists and intellectuals celebrated black pride and creativity declaring their freedom to express themselves as artists and intellectuals. They explored their identities as black Americans, celebrating the black culture that had emerged out of slavery and their cultural ties to Africa. In reading Morrison’s fiction, rich in folk knowledge and inspired by the rhythms of black music, blues and jazz, it is clear that she was highly influenced by the African American twist on modernism.
The Bluest Eye was also a product of its own time; the 1970s. At that time, the culture industry produced a single standard image of beauty and that standard insistently excluded black Americans. It was the image of white womanhood; blonde, blue-eyed, and economically privileged. The Black Pride movement was born out of this generalization and came as a reaction to it. Morrison’s novel is part of this movement. She demonstrates the serious damage caused by racism and what happens when African-Americans comply with the idea that white is beautiful and black is degraded and ugly. Morrison demonstrates this phenomenon in the most devastating way as it affects children. Black children were commonly given dolls which looked like white babies "Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs – all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. (Morrison 39). They were encouraged to see these dolls as the epitome of beauty and worth. In this, they were indirectly encouraged to see themselves less beautiful. Moreover, Hollywood promoted this idea giving its spectators the perfect picture of hot sexy blonds living in luxury and welfare symbolizing the essence of the American Dream. Morrison, for example, describes Pauline's experience with the cinema and the dissatisfaction it created in her in a prominent quotation
"Then the screen would light up, and I'd move right on in them pictures. White men taking such good care of they women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses with bathtubs right in the same room with the toilet. Them pictures gave me a lot of pleasure, but it made coming home hard, and looking at Cholly hard." (Morrison 121)
The novel begins in Ohio after the Great Depression in 1941. Pauline and Cholly move north to Ohio from the South as part of the Great Migration of African Americans that occurred from 1910 to 1940. Waves of African Americans seeking better jobs and more racial tolerance moved from rural southern towns to more industrial northern ones. However, when Pauline and Cholly arrive in the North, their lives do not necessarily change for the better. The couple faces a different set of problems like disdainful whites, people judging them on the basis of their southern accents and differing beauty norms. "The Breedloves did not live in a storefront because they were having temporary difficulty adjusting to the cutbacks at the plant. They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly. "(Morrison 70)
Only when she started working for the white family, Pauline takes her new identity using the nickname "Polly". She enters a world of neat ordered white people. She forgets intentionally all about her family characterized by disorder and ugly blackness. She stops looking after her own house and children while she took extra care of the pretty white girl whom she serves, gave her a bath, brushed her blond soft hair and wrapped her in white towels and sheets. It was more than a job for her. This was where she found respect. Shop owners respected her because she worked for the white family. They gave her their best products and she was able to pick and choose and refuse stuff she would have happily bought for her family. One day, her daughter Pecola decides to visit her mom at work. Pecola accidently knocks over a blueberry pie and burns her hands but Mrs. Breedlove (who is called by her last name even by her own family) sides against her own daughter yelling " Crazy fool …my floor, mess … look what you work, get on out" then she turns to the white child and says " Hush, baby, hush. Come her. Oh lord, look at your dress. Don't cry no more." (Morrison 109) This shows that even Pecola's parents do not care or at least, they do not show they care and do not give their child enough support or attention. Later, it becomes completely comprehensible why Pecola associates respect with beauty.