The Bluest Eye

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Women and Femininity Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Beauty vs. Ugliness Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Race and Racism Theme Icon
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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.
Women and Femininity Theme Icon

At its core, The Bluest Eye is a story about the oppression of women. The novel's women not only suffer the horrors of racial oppression, but also the tyranny and violation brought upon them by the men in their lives. The novel depicts several phases of a woman's development into womanhood. Pecola, Frieda, and Claudia, the novel's youngest female characters, possess a limited and idealistic view of what it means to be a woman, to have sex, and to be loved by a man. Mrs. Breedlove's and Geraldine's narratives depict this innocent view being shattered as they enter into the harsh realities of marriage and the oppression they experience in their homes.

Although the women of The Bluest Eye experience oppression from then men in their lives, they are not completely powerless. They exercise authority over their children through physical force and verbal assault, and likewise, over other women through gossip and slander. In the same way women are oppressed by men, women turn toward those who are vulnerable and weak, directing their own forms of oppression outward. The prostitutes—China, Poland, and Miss Marie—offer the only exception to the rule of male oppression over women. They gain power over men through exploiting their femininity and sexuality. Exploiting themselves in this way, however, comes at the price of their self-respect and the respect of the women around them. In many ways, the prostitutes, through their drinking, aggression, and masculine mannerisms, resemble the men they have come to hate.

The theme of women and femininity, and male oppression over women in The Bluest Eye, reaches its brutal climax during Cholly's rape of his own daughter, Pecola. This scene, which details the ultimate form of violence and oppression against women, is narrated completely through Cholly's perspective. The lack of Pecola's perspective during the rape scene demonstrates the silencing effect of male oppression over women.

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Women and Femininity ThemeTracker

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

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

"He…picked at me."
"Picked at you? You mean like Soaphead Church?"
"Sort of."
"He showed his privates to you?"
"Noooo. He touched me."
"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

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.

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.