The Bluest Eye

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Beauty vs. Ugliness Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Beauty vs. Ugliness Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Bluest Eye, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Beauty vs. Ugliness Theme Icon

The black characters of the The Bluest Eye have been taught to believe that whiteness is the paragon of beauty. The characters are constantly subjected to images of whiteness offered through movies, books, candy, magazines, toys, and advertisements. Early in the novel, Pecola and Frieda gush over Shirley Temple's beauty, and later, Mrs. Breedlove spends her days at the movies admiring the white actresses, wishing she could access their world. The association between beauty and whiteness pushes the idea of beauty beyond the body's exterior, making it a signifier of one's value and worth. Many characters in the novel believe that their beauty (or ugliness) defines their value (or lack of value) in society, community, and family.

Characters establish their sense of self-worth based on these ideas of beauty. In turn, beauty and ugliness become internalized conditions, which have devastating effects on the lives of the novel's characters. The narrator suggests that The Breedloves are fixed in poverty because they believe they are ugly, and Pecola believes she deserves the abuse and neglect she experiences at home based on her self-perceived ugliness.

Contrary to the incapacitating effect of internalized ugliness, beauty endows certain characters with power. The presence of Maureen Peal's beauty, for example, has the power to stop to the violence Pecola experiences at the hands of the boys at school. The power that comes along with beauty leads Pecola to believe that possessing blue eyes, the quintessential signifier of whiteness and beauty, would allow her to transcend the misery of her situation. As her life becomes more and more brutal, her obsession with blue eyes leads her to madness—and in the isolation of that madness she comes to believe that she does in fact have blue eyes. In the end, the novel suggests that beauty and ugliness in and of themselves are not destructive or dangerous. Instead, it is the internalization of the idea of what makes beauty that holds immense destructive power.

Beauty vs. Ugliness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Beauty vs. Ugliness appears in each chapter of The Bluest Eye. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Beauty vs. Ugliness Quotes in The Bluest Eye

Below you will find the important quotes in The Bluest Eye related to the theme of Beauty vs. Ugliness.
Prologue Section 2 Quotes

Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby that the marigolds did not grow. A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that didn't sprout; nobody's did…It had never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding. We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola's father had dropped his seeds into his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair.

Related Characters: Claudia MacTeer (speaker), Pecola Breedlove, Cholly Breedlove
Related Symbols: Marigolds
Page Number: 3-4
Explanation and Analysis:

The opening paragraph of the novel reveals much about the narrative to come. The first phrase, "quiet as it's kept," signals that the story is set and narrated from within a certain community, and suggests that the coming events are not openly discussed within that community for the sake of maintaining respectability. This hints at the pervasive desire among the characters in the novel to disassociate themselves with behaviors they deem degraded and sinful, behaviors that are often linked (in the novel's American setting) to blackness. 

Throughout this passage, there is a tense juxtaposition between the childish naïveté of Claudia, the narrator, and the disturbing mention of rape, incest, and child pregnancy. Claudia at first presents her belief that Pecola's baby caused the marigolds not to grow as unfounded, a matter of childlike "innocence and faith." However, she then suggests that there is a parallel between the marigolds and the baby when she compares Pecola's body to the "unyielding" black dirt where the seeds were planted. This comparison foreshadows Morrison's exploration of the association of blackness, and particularly Pecola's blackness, with undesirability and ugliness. 

The phrases "our own little plot of black dirt" and "his own plot of black dirt" introduce the importance of the home and ownership. While on one level they evoke a pleasant suburban scene reminiscent of the Dick and Jane references threaded throughout the narrative, they also highlight the fact that ownership can have a negative side, particularly in the case of men feeling ownership of women. 


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Chapter 1 Quotes

When I learned how repulsive this disinterested violence was, that it was repulsive because it was disinterested, my shame floundered about for refuge. The best hiding place was love. Thus the conversion from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred, to fraudulent love. It was a small step to Shirley Temple.

Related Characters: Claudia MacTeer (speaker)
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Claudia has described her initial resentment of white baby dolls, admitting that she harmed and dismembered a white doll she was given, and adding that she felt the impulse to do the same to little white girls in real life. However, the realization that real girls would visibly and audibly react to this pain makes her feel ashamed of her violent urges, and in response she attempts to force herself to love white girls, saying this "was a small step to Shirley Temple" (whom Frieda and Pecola love).

Here Claudia displays remarkable emotional sophistication and maturity for someone who is only nine years old. This passage shows that, as a young black girl, Claudia must navigate extremely challenging social dynamics, leading her to develop a complex and ambivalent relationship to white people, culture, and power. By forcing herself into feelings of love (even if they are fraudulent), Claudia also embodies an oppositional reaction to other characters in the novel––particularly black men––who react to the impact of racism by becoming increasingly violent, taking out their anger on the black women around them. 

"How do you do that? I mean how do you get someone to love you?"

Related Characters: Pecola Breedlove (speaker)
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Pecola has gotten her period for the first time, and Frieda has explained to her and Claudia that Pecola can now have a baby if somebody loves her. In response, Pecola asks how you get someone to love you, but at this point Frieda is asleep so only Claudia hears, and she does not know how to answer. This is a highly emotive moment in the novel, with several layers of meaning. On the surface, this conversation is an example of the girls' innocence, revealing their childish naïveté about sex, relationships, and pregnancy. However, Morrison discloses the fact that Pecola becomes pregnant by incestuous rape in the second sentence of the novel, and thus we already know that this state of innocence will be tragically and violently cut short.

Because she doesn't seem to know exactly what sex is yet, during this conversation Frieda uses "love" as a euphemism for sex. Pecola's response reveals not only her lack of understanding about sex but also the lack of any real love in her life. Indeed, Pecola's whole existence centers around the fact that no one loves her because she is considered ugly. In desperation, she comes to believe that having blue eyes will make her beautiful and thus loveable; however, the result of this desire is that she goes insane. The further tragic irony of her question is, of course, that she does become pregnant by someone who should love her (though not in a sexual sense), but who instead violently resents her. 

Chapter 2 Quotes

The Breedloves lived there, nestled together in the storefront. Festering together in the debris of a realtor's whim. They slipped in and out of the box of peeling grey, making no stir in the neighborhood, no sound in the labor force, and no wave in the mayor's office. Each member of the family in his own cell of consciousness, each making his own patchwork quilt of reality—collecting fragments of experience here, pieces of information there.

Related Characters: Pecola Breedlove, Cholly Breedlove, Pauline Breedlove, Samuel Breedlove
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Having introduced the abandoned storefront where the Breedloves live, the unnamed narrator goes on to describe the family themselves. The image the narrator builds is of people who are trapped, dirty, broken, invisible, and in some ways barely human. The word "festering" in particular points to a sense of ugliness and hopelessness, and the phrase "each member of the family in his own cell of consciousness" suggests that the Breedlove's dilapidated residence is closer to a prison than a family home. By invoking animality and imprisonment, the narrator connects the Breedloves' misfortune with many negative stereotypes about African American life. Indeed, although the identity of the narrator remains unknown, the observations here seem to reflect the wider community's impression of the Breedloves and their ghost-like presence in the neighborhood. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

[The Breedloves] lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed because they believed they were ugly.

Related Characters: Pecola Breedlove, Cholly Breedlove, Pauline Breedlove, Samuel Breedlove
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator explains that the Breedloves do not live in the storefront as a temporary measure while they transition to more appropriate housing—they seem to be there permanently. Although the Breedloves are forced to live there because they are poor and black, the reason they do not try to leave is because they "believed they were ugly." Here the narrator draws a clear contrast between social forces outside of the control of any one individual and the psychic condition produced by these forces that in turn exacerbates their effects. While it would be incorrect to say that the narrator blames the Breedloves for their situation, it is clear that in accepting society's negative view of themselves, the Breedloves have forsaken all hope for a better future. 

This passage is important because it introduces the notion that ideas about beauty and ugliness have a major impact on the way the world works. Note that the narrator does not say that the Breedloves believed they were wicked or inferior; rather, they simply believe that they are ugly. This is crucial, as throughout the novel Morrison shows that the concept of beauty––and specifically the association of whiteness with beauty and blackness with ugliness––is a highly insidious and effective way of making black people hate themselves and accept their own oppression at the hands of whites. 

You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their own conviction.

Related Characters: Pecola Breedlove, Cholly Breedlove, Pauline Breedlove, Samuel Breedlove
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described the Breedloves' facial features, which do not sound particularly strange or grotesque but actually fairly ordinary ("they had high cheekbones, and their eyes turned forward"). The narrator explains that it is not the Breedloves' features themselves that are particularly ugly, but that the "source" of their ugliness is their belief that they are ugly. This emphasizes the earlier point that the Breedloves remain stuck in dire circumstances because they are convinced that this is what they deserve. Note that Morrison does not imply that believing in your own beauty is a simple or easy choice; rather, over the course of the novel she implies that it is might be easier for a black girl like Pecola to go mad (as Pecola does) than to contradict the stereotypes of a racist society and convince herself that she is beautiful. 

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.

Related Characters: Pecola Breedlove
Related Symbols: Blue Eyes
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

With her parents fighting, Pecola has wished for God to make her disappear, and she imagines her body evaporating limb by limb; however, she is not able to make her eyes disappear, even in her head. The narrator then describes Pecola's wish for "different... beautiful" eyes. In the racist society in which she lives, this means blue eyes—the ultimate signifier of whiteness. Here Morrison contrasts Pecola's innocent childish daydream about having blue eyes with the dark reality of Pecola's life. At only eleven, Pecola has to deal with poverty, a violent home life, and a highly racist culture that deems her ugly for being a poor, dark-skinned black girl. She is thus robbed of any sense of a carefree, playful childhood, and internalizes the conflict around her into a deep sense of self-hatred. 

Note the fact that Pecola wishes for white-looking eyes, as opposed to other white features such as straight hair or pale skin. This choice is significant, as it reflects the idea that surface-level beauty has a meaningful impact not only on how we are perceived by others but on how we experience life ourselves. Pecola believes that "if those eyes of hers were different... she herself would be different." The novel reinforces this point by showing that white people––as well as black people who successfully associate themselves with whiteness––are not only considered more beautiful but lead more fortunate, privileged lives. Thus although Pecola's wish is distinctly childlike, we cannot dismiss it as naïve or mistaken.

To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane.

Related Characters: Pecola Breedlove
Related Symbols: Blue Eyes
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Having bought the Mary Janes (a kind of candy) at the candy store, Pecola looks at the wrappers, which feature a smiling white girl with blond hair and blue eyes. As she eats the candy, Pecola associates this consumption with her desire to "be Mary Jane"––to have the white features that are associated with beauty. This passage shows that the link between whiteness and beauty in American culture is so pervasive that it even extends to food. Pecola cannot eat candy without being reminded that she is not white and that she is therefore not considered beautiful in the society in which she lives. 

The trance-like repetition in the phrases: "Eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane" conveys a sense of indoctrination. Pecola is constantly bombarded with the demand to aspire to white girlhood, a message that is transmitted through advertising, popular culture, and social interactions. Her own repetition of these commands gives the impression of mental instability, foreshadowing the fact that her desire for blue eyes (like those Mary Jane has) will eventually drive her insane. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

We were lesser. Nicer, brighter, but still lesser…what was the secret? What did we lack? Why was it important? And so what? Guileless and without vanity, we were still in love with ourselves then. We felt comfortable in our skins, enjoyed the news that our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness.

Related Characters: Claudia MacTeer (speaker)
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

Claudia and Frieda have fought with the wealthy, light-skinned new girl at school, Maureen, who called them black and ugly. As they walk home, Claudia ponders the nature of racism, incredulously wondering why anyone would think that she and her sister are inferior. In this passage Claudia's sharp understanding of how class and colorism affects the relative social position of everyone within her African American community (and beyond) contrasts with her innocent confusion about what she must "lack" in order to be deemed "lesser." This contrast works to show that, although racism and colorism operate according to their own, internally coherent logics, in a broader sense they are completely baseless and make no sense whatsoever. Claudia's rhetorical question "so what?" shows that she understands the absurdity of racism. 

Despite clearly pointing to racism's ludicrousness, this passage suggests that Claudia's self-love is only possible in a state of childish innocence ("We were still in love with ourselves then"). Here Morrison suggests that this innocence, rather than hindering comprehension of the world, actually allows Claudia to see truths that others cannot. Her comfort in her own skin is a direct contrast to the Breedloves' belief that they are ugly. At the same time, this passage indicates that Claudia's feelings of self-love cannot last long, and that they are only possible in childhood. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

Mrs. Breedlove's skin glowed like taffeta in the reflection of white porcelain, white woodwork, polished cabinets, and brilliant copperware.

Related Characters: Claudia MacTeer (speaker), Pauline Breedlove
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

Claudia and Frieda have gone with Pecola to the house of the white family where her mother works. Claudia observes that, in her maid's uniform, Mrs. Breedlove looks nicer than she had ever seen her previously, and describes how Mrs. Breedlove's skin glows against the elegant backdrop of the kitchen. On one level, this description echoes the association of whiteness and wealth with beauty. In contrast to her shabby home in the storefront, the house where Mrs. Breedlove works is expensively furnished, and the kitchen's polished interiors seem to make Mrs. Breedlove herself look more beautiful to Claudia. This perhaps also reflects the fact that Mrs. Breedlove finds a sense of fulfilment in her domestic duties and association with the white family. 

On the other hand, Claudia's statement that "Mrs. Breedlove's skin glowed like taffeta" shows that Claudia sees Mrs. Breedlove's black skin itself as beautiful. This reflects the fact that Claudia, despite the racism all around her, still retains self-love and belief that blackness can be beautiful. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another—physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap.

Related Characters: Pauline Breedlove
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

In this part of the novel, the narrator presents Mrs. Breedlove's life story, tracing the early stages of her relationship with Cholly and her first pregnancy. After becoming pregnant, Mrs. Breedlove starts going to the movies, a habit that introduces her to the "idea" of physical beauty, and specifically the equation of surface-level beauty with inner goodness. In this key passage, the narrator describes physical beauty (along with romantic love) as "the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought." Note that there is a distinction here between beauty and love as abstract, undefined concepts, and the way that they operate within society. The narrator argues that both beauty and romantic love originate in envy, meaning that they serve to place people in competition with one another, with some people judged to be superior and others inferior. 

In The Bluest Eye, beauty is not only competitive and unjust, but an inherently racist strategy for justifying the oppression of black people. Beauty is a system that equates people's outward appearance with their inner morality. It thus functions alongside and in the exact same way as racism, and enables some people to have power over others based on distinctions that are completely meaningless and arbitrary. This passage shows that as soon as Mrs. Breedlove becomes aware of the idea of beauty and of which people her society deems beautiful, she begins to hate herself and believe that she is deserving of misfortune. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

His soul seemed to slip down into his guts and fly into her, and the gigantic thrust he made into her then provoked the only sound she made—a hollow suck of air in the back of her throat. Like the rapid loss of air from a circus balloon.

Related Characters: Pecola Breedlove, Cholly Breedlove
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

Cholly has arrived home so drunk that he is barely able to recognize his surroundings. He approaches Pecola, who is washing dishes, and rapes her. Pecola is so shocked that she remains rigidly still and silent, only making a sound when Cholly ejaculates. This sound connects to Pecola's earlier observation that, when her parents have sex, the only thing she can hear is silence and choking noises––leading her to associate these sounds with sex and love. 

In this passage, the sound Pecola makes is compared to a rapidly deflating balloon, implying that her whole self has been instantly crushed and hollowed by the rape. This is juxtaposed with the description of Cholly's soul "fly[ing] into her," suggesting that all the misery and trauma of Cholly's life––trauma that itself originated in an act of sexual violence––has been transferred to his daughter. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

I thought of the baby that everybody wanted dead, and saw it very clearly. It was in a dark, wet place, its head covered with great O's of wool, the black face holding, like nickels, two clean black eyes…no synthetic yellow bangs suspended over marble-blue eyes, no pinched nose and bowline mouth. More strongly than my fondness for Pecola, I felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live—just to counteract the universal love of baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals.

Related Characters: Claudia MacTeer (speaker), Pecola Breedlove, Maureen Peal
Related Symbols: Blue Eyes
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

Claudia and Frieda have heard rumors that Pecola is pregnant with her father's baby, and they are the only ones in the neighborhood who sympathize with Pecola. In contrast to the rest of the community, Claudia hopes the baby lives, and muses that if the baby was wanted, this would be a counteracting force to the glorification of whiteness that pervades American society. She imagines a vision of the baby, using positive terms to describe its blackness ("clean black eyes"), and framing white features as ugly ("synthetic yellow bangs... pinched nose"). This echoes Claudia's earlier feelings of resentment toward the white baby dolls, suggesting that this resentment is born out of a noble and necessary desire to reverse the automatic association of whiteness and beauty.

The fact that Claudia and Frieda are alone in wanting the baby to live, however, does not bode well; this suggests that the adults in their community have accepted blackness as ugly, an acceptance that makes them unable to sympathize with Pecola (despite the fact that she is clearly a victim who has done nothing wrong). In this sense, the novel is not very optimistic––after all, Pecola's baby does not survive, Pecola goes insane, and there seems to be a sense of inevitability to Claudia and Freida losing their innocence and self-love. 

Chapter 11 Quotes

The birdlike gestures are worn away to a mere picking and plucking her way between the tire rims and the sunflowers, between Coke bottles and milkweed, among all the waste and beauty of the world—which is what she herself was. All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us.

Related Characters: Claudia MacTeer (speaker), Pecola Breedlove
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final section of the novel, Pecola's baby has died and she has gone mad; she lives alone with her mother, shunned by society. Claudia describes Pecola both as existing among waste and being a form of waste herself, having absorbed the community's hatred and shame. This passage shows that oppressed groups of people––such as the African American community depicted in the novel––often use individuals like Pecola to make them feel better about themselves.

Claudia's statement that the community's beauty belonged to Pecola first and that she "gave" it to them might at first seem strange, as throughout the novel Morrison emphasizes that Pecola and her family are considered to be absolutely and essentially ugly. However, recall that in the passage about physical beauty from the chapter about Mrs. Breedlove, Morrison defines beauty as inherently competitive, a system designed to pit people against one another. With this concept in mind, it makes sense that Claudia describes the community's beauty as originating with Pecola––it is only by sacrificing Pecola, by using her as an example of ugliness, that the rest of the community can consider itself beautiful. 

It was the fault of the earth, the land, of our town. I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to the marigolds that year. This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live.

Related Characters: Claudia MacTeer (speaker)
Related Symbols: Marigolds
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final paragraph of the novel, Claudia connects Pecola's fate directly to the marigolds. Just as "the soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers," so is society as we know it bad for certain kinds of people, such as poor black girls like Pecola, who are told they are ugly and shunned by their communities. With this analogy, Morrison suggests that no one person is to blame for the fact that the community was a "hostile" environment in which there was no possibility for Pecola to thrive. However, she emphasizes that the people in the community are at fault for refusing to recognize and acknowledge this injustice; instead of sympathizing with Pecola and attempting to help her, they accept her fate as fair, saying that she had "no right to live." 

Although the novel ends on this rather dark and pessimistic note, it is possible to see a glimmer of hope through the characters of Claudia and Frieda, who defy society's demands by sympathizing with Pecola and trying to save her baby by planting the marigolds. While Claudia implicates herself in the community's shunning of Pecola, there is evidence in the narrative that Claudia symbolizes the possibility of change to come by caring about Pecola, maintaining self-love, and refusing to believe that blackness is inherently ugly or inferior.