The Bluest Eye

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Sex and Sexuality Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Beauty vs. Ugliness Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Home and Family Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Bluest Eye, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon

In The Bluest Eye, sex is associated with violence, humiliation, and immorality. Instead of sex being an enjoyable act between two people, sex, like race and beauty standards, works as a form of oppression. For both men and women, sexual initiation has devastating effects on an individual's life and sense of self. The scenes of sexual initiation are particularly violent and humiliating, leaving a lasting effect on the novel's characters.

Cholly's first sexual experience is paired with humiliation and hatred, as the white men force him to rape Darlene. Frieda's first sexual experience is forced upon her by Mr. Henry, and causes her to believe she has been ruined. And Pecola's sexual initiation happens through rape.

Men in the story use sex as a means to oppress the women in their lives. Their sexual desires are distorted by their past sexual failures and their ideas concerning the value of women. Cholly's first sexual experience leads to his hatred of women, hatred of his own race, and his feeling of being unlovable. The combination of these things leads to the rape of his daughter. Soaphead Church's failed marriage and hatred of women leads to the direction of his repressed sexual desire toward children.

For the younger characters in The Bluest Eye, sex becomes the defining element of their passage into womanhood. The adolescent girls in the story, however, lack a true understanding of the perilous nature of sex. They hold idealistic views of what sex means, associating sex with love and a sense of self worth as a woman.

As an adolescent, Mrs. Breedlove fantasizes about a man coming into her life and offering redemption from the rejection she receives from her family. Geraldine represents another kind of experience. Her sense of worth as a woman still comes through her relationship with her husband. The husbands of women like Geraldine marry them because they cook, clean, and take care of the house. Although sex for her is not overtly violent, she is unable to enjoy sex because she views it as a burden she must bear for her husband.

There are examples of women who escape the violence and oppression of sex. This evasion of sexual oppression, however, comes only through passing the point of being sexually desirable, or through exploiting one's sexuality as a means to gain power over men. M'Dear and other elderly women in the community experience freedom because they are no longer desired as sexual objects. These women, however, are bitter, tired, and accept the presence of pain. The Prostitutes exploit their own sexuality to gain power over men, but this method of gaining power leads to self hatred and hatred of the opposite sex. Sex stands as the primary form of oppression in the novel. Even those who escape overt sexual violence bear the consequences of oppression through sex. The climax of the story offers the primary example of this form of oppression. Pecola's rape leads to her ultimate demise. Through this experience, Pecola embodies the devastating effect of sexual violence, and the oppressive force of sex in these women's lives.

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Sex and Sexuality ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Bluest Eye related to the theme of Sex and Sexuality.
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

"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 anyreallove 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 3 Quotes

Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove fought each other with a darkly brutal formalism that was paralleled only by their lovemaking. Tacitly they had agreed not to kill each other. He fought her the way a coward fights a man—with feet, the palms of his hands, and teeth. She, in turn, fought back in a purely feminine way—with frying pans and pokers, and occasionally a flatiron would sail toward his head.

Related Characters: Cholly Breedlove, Pauline Breedlove
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator describes Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove, Pecola's parents, as deeply unhappy people who fight each other constantly. By describing the "formalism" of both their fights and their lovemaking, the narrator shows that there is a predictable choreography to their life together. This reinforces the idea that there is a sense of inevitability to the Breedloves' miserable existence, with no hope of change. The narrator's description of Cholly's cowardly way of fighting also links to Cholly's emasculation as a child, when his first sexual experience was interrupted by white men.

Meanwhile, the narrator's use of the word "feminine" to describe Mrs. Breedlove's fighting style is somewhat humorous, as whacking someone with a frying pan or poker is not necessarily behavior typically associated with femininity. On the other hand, the reference to femininity reflects the fact that Mrs. Breedlove roots her identity firmly in the domestic sphere; later in the novel, the narrator reveals that Mrs. Breedlove finds solace in the housework she performed early in her and Cholly's marriage and later for the white family who employs her.

What did love feel like? she wondered. How do grownups act when they love each other? Eat fish together? Into her eyes came the picture of Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove in bed. He making sounds as through he were in pain, as though something had him by the throat and wouldn't let go. Terrible as his noises were, they were not nearly as bad as the no noise at all from her mother. It was as though she was not even there. Maybe that was love. Choking sounds and silence.

Related Characters: Pecola Breedlove, Cholly Breedlove, Pauline Breedlove
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

Pecola is visiting the prostitutes who live above her family, and has asked them questions about being in love and having children. Pecola appears fixated with the concept of love, seemingly because she has no real experience of it and doesn't understand what it is like. She thinks of her parents having sex, during which Cholly makes sounds as if he is in pain, and Mrs. Breedlove stays silent, and Pecola wonders if love consists of "choking sounds and silence." Although a rather horrifying definition of love, tragically this actually foreshadows Pecola's first experience of sex, when her father rapes her. In a broader sense, it connects to the fact that all the women in The Bluest Eyehave relationships with men that are at best dissatisfying and at worst violent and harmful.

Chapter 6 Quotes

"He…picked at me."
"Picked at you? You mean like Soaphead Church?"
"Sort of."
"He showed his privates to you?"
"Noooo. He touched me."
"Where?"
"Here and here." She pointed to her tiny breasts that, like two fallen acorns, scattered a few faded rose leaves on her dress.
"Really? How did it feel?"
"Oh, Claudia." She Sounded put-out. I wasn't asking the right questions.
"It didn't feel like anything."
"But wasn't it supposed to? Feel good, I mean."

Related Characters: Claudia MacTeer (speaker), Frieda MacTeer (speaker), Henry Washington, Soaphead Church
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Claudia has come home to find Frieda crying in her bedroom; Frieda explains that their father has beaten up Mr. Henry because Mr. Henry groped her. Once again, the children use metaphorical language to discuss sexual acts, leaving Claudia confused about what Mr. Henry did and how it made Frieda feel. Claudia does seem to have some level of awareness about child molestation, based on the fact that she compares Mr. Henry's behavior to Soaphead Church, a known pedophile who exposes himself to young girls in the neighborhood. On the other hand, Claudia's misunderstanding is revealed by the fact that she asks Frieda if she liked it, thereby implying that Claudia is confused over the distinction between consensual sex and child abuse.

Taken in the wider context of the novel, this confusion appears rather understandable. The sexual experiences of most of the female characters in The Bluest Eyeare imbued with force and violence, and young girls are taught almost nothing about the reality of sex, relationships, and pregnancy. It is thus not surprising that Claudia does not expect sex to be consensual, and does not link pleasure to consent. Her naïveté is shown to further harm Frieda, who is hurt by her sister's misguided questioning.

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

Sullen, irritable, he cultivated his hatred of Darlene. Never once did he consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, and helpless. His subconscious knew what his conscious mind did not guess—that hating them would have consumed him, burned him up like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke…For now, he hated the one who had created the situation, the one who bore witness to his failure, his impotence.

Related Characters: Cholly Breedlove
Page Number: 148-149
Explanation and Analysis:

This section of the novel is devoted to describing Cholly's history, including his first sexual experience. What began as an innocent and positive interaction between Cholly and a young black girl called Darlene turns sour and violent when the couple are discovered by a pair of white men, who force them to keep having sex while the men watch and taunt them. This episode comes to define Cholly as a person, instilling in him a deep sense of shame and self-contempt, along with a lifelong violent hatred of women.

This passage explains Cholly's seemingly illogical reaction of blaming himself and especially Darlene for the incident instead of resenting the white men for their sadistic actions. The narrator explains that it would have been impossible for Cholly to direct his anger at the white men precisely because they are so much more powerful than him, and his inevitable powerlessness in the face of their domination would thus have "burned him up." Morrison uses this passage to show how white people's oppression of black men can evolve into a cycle of cruelty and violence in which black men misdirect their pain, inflicting it on the black women around them.

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

We had defended ourselves since memory against everything and everybody considered all speech a code to be broken by us, and all gestures subject to careful analysis; we had become headstrong, devious, and arrogant. Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves. Our limitations were not known to us—not then.

Related Characters: Claudia MacTeer (speaker)
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

Claudia and Frieda realize they are alone in wanting Pecola's baby to survive, and Claudia describes this as a familiar feeling, reflecting the fact that she and her sister have always existed in a world of their own. As young black girls, Claudia and Frieda are belittled on account of their race, gender, and age; they have no access to structural power and are not taken seriously by anyone around them. However, rather than responding to this by accepting their lowly status, the sisters grow determined to figure out the world for themselves: "Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves."

Although Morrison presents this as somewhat "arrogant" and naïve, she also emphasizes that it is only through maintaining a strong sense of self-worth in the face of societal prejudice that Claudia and Frieda are able to live happy and meaningful lives. Unlike the Breedloves, who accept and believe that they are ugly, Claudia and Frieda refuse to know their own "limitations." One the one hand, the girls' determination might be interpreted as doomed; the retrospective angle of the narrative suggests that their fearless attitude will not necessarily last, and their scheme with God to get Pecola's baby to live ultimately fails. However, regardless of these facts, Morrison implies that the girls' strategy of stubborn self-love is still the right course of action, as in a rigidly racist society it provides the only hope for maintaining dignity and compassion.

Chapter 11 Quotes

Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover's inward eye.

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

Claudia has conceded that some people did love Pecola, including the prostitutes and Cholly, but that this did not amount to much––and in the case of Cholly, it in fact proved "fatal." This passage directly contradicts the idea that love is inherently redemptive. Claudia's words suggest that love, rather than being a positive thing, is at best neutral, and in fact often has highly destructive results. The final sentence conveys how being loved can leave one totally vulnerable to another person. This coheres with the statement earlier in the novel that romantic love and physical beauty are the most destructive ideas in human culture.

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.