The Bluest Eye (1970)
by Toni Morrison
In 2016 it's hard to imagine a world where Toni Morrison didn't win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, where she isn't the beneficiary of an incredibly productive relationship with Oprah Winfrey, where she isn't synonymous with the elevation of questions surrounding race and gender to the forefront of societal concern. Approaching The Bluest Eye in 2016 is the experience of reading the first published work of an universally acknowledged master of the form of the novel. But if you get to the afterword she wrote in the Oprah Book Club version of The Bluest Eye that I read, you learn that The Bluest Eye was ignored when it was published initially. That's surprising, although Morrison was not the first female African American author, she was just far ahead of the curve to benefit from it when the rest of the world started to catch up a decade later.
Timing is everything, in life, in art. Morrison was well situated to reap the benefits of the wider trends society. The plot of The Bluest Eye deals with a neighborhood of African Americans living amongst a larger white population in Lorian, Ohio, an industrial suburb of Cleveland. The narrator is Claudia,a young African American neighbor of the Breedlove family, Pauline, the Mom, Cholly, the Father and Pecola, the teen age daughter. As Morrison reveals on the first page, Pecola is raped and impregnated by her Father. The rest of The Bluest Eye discusses the personal history of the Breedlove family, showing the childhoods of Cholly and Pauline, in an attempt to give depth to the horrific rape of Pecola at the hands of her own Father.
The title refers to Pecola's desire to be white, she asks a minor character, operating as a kind of faith healer in their neighborhood, for "the bluest eyes" so that she can be white. Pecola is awkward, ugly, ignored, the victim of persecution at the hands of other African Americans, and literally ignored by whites. The Bluest Eye is a startling work of art, and a good illustration of why novels are such an amazing art form. The novel is flexible enough to accommodate any story- not just those of hyper intellectual English/Western European elites living in the wealthy parts of the great cities of the world. And by reading these different perspective, the reader gains insight on the lives of people he or she may never encounter in real life.