An unnamed narrator explains that the Breedloves live in a decrepit storefront. They live there because they are poor and black, but they stay in the squalid conditions because they believe they are ugly. To those outside the family, the Breedlove's intense ugliness does not center in any particular physical feature. The ugliness goes beyond their small, closely set eyes, irregular hairlines, heavy eyebrows, and insolent nostrils, stemming from their own belief that they are ugly. It is as if some "master had said, 'you are ugly people," and the family accepted this statement as true. For the Breedloves, every billboard, movie, and glance supports this statement. While Cholly is the only family member whose ugliness is derived from his own actions, the other family members are regarded as ugly through their association with him.
The fact that the Breedloves stay in the storefront because they believe they are ugly demonstrates the debilitating effect of an internalized sense of ugliness on the novel's characters. In The Bluest Eye, ugliness and beauty go beyond one's physical appearance. Ugliness is defined (and self-defined) through one's race, socioeconomic class, educational background, and actions, and the characters are inundated with images of white beauty in popular culture. Likewise, ugliness can be derived by association, as shown by the Breedlove family's relationship with Cholly.
On a Saturday morning in October, Mrs. Breedlove awakes to a cold house. She enters the kitchen and begins making a commotion. Mrs. Breedlove has a disabled leg that causes her to limp, making her good leg thump against the floor as she walks. Pecola, who is awake in bed, hears pots and pans clanging together, and perceives her mother's ruckus as a threat to Cholly, who came home drunk the night before. Every time Cholly comes home drunk, a fight breaks out between him and Mrs. Breedlove, and since there was no fight the night before, Pecola is certain one will occur that morning. As Pecola listens to her mother in the kitchen, she can smell whiskey on her father's breath.
The coldness of the house can be read both literally and figuratively. The house is literally cold because of the Breedlove's economic challenges, but figuratively it is cold because there is no love among the family members. Mrs. Breedlove first chooses a passive method to threaten Cholly—banging dishes together in the kitchen—which demonstrates the oppression of black women in the novel—she can't address him directly. The fact that Pecola expects a fight shows how common violence is in her home.
Eventually, Mrs. Breedlove comes back into the bedroom and attempts to wake Cholly. She tells him the stove needs coal. Cholly opens his eyes, which are red and menacing, and promptly refuses to get up. He tells Mrs. Breedlove he doesn't care how she gets it, but he isn't doing it. In response to his refusal, Mrs. Breedlove berates him for not providing for the family. If she didn't work, she says, the family would "all be dead." Cholly stops responding, but Mrs. Breedlove persists until Cholly tells her that if she keeps talking, he is going to "split her open." Mrs. Breedlove submits, telling Cholly that if she sneezes even once, God better help him because she will retaliate.
Cholly's refusal to help his wife shows his lack of responsibility for his family. This indifference toward his family is further demonstrated as Mrs. Breedlove accuses him of not providing. Mrs. Breedlove accusation that she alone keeps the family alive is both angry and gives her a sense of superiority—she seems to both want Cholly to help and to thrive on the fact that she must bear this burden alone. When Cholly threatens to "split her open" and Mrs. Breed threatens to harm him if she sneezes even once because of the cold, it shows the violent nature of the relationship, and foreshadows the events to follow.
The narrator explains that even though Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove constantly fight, they depend on each other to maintain their individual identities. For Mrs. Breedlove, these quarrels bring a sense of relief to the tedium of her poverty, and bring the dull rooms of the storefront to life. She perceives her marriage with Cholly as a burden she must bear as a good Christian woman. She depends on Cholly's continued immorality, as it allows her to maintain her role as a righteous Christian woman. Cholly likewise needs Mrs. Breedlove. She is one of the few things in his life upon which he is able to unload his "inarticulate fury" and "aborted desires". The narrator explains that Cholly's hatred for women was instilled in him during his first sexual experience. Two white men stumbled upon him and the girl, named Darlene, whom he was having sex with and shone a flashlight on his behind. When he halted the sexual act, the white men forced him to continue. Unable to direct his hatred toward the white men, he turns the hatred to the girl, which develops into a hatred of women that continues with him into adulthood.
Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove's relationship shows the damaging effects of racism, sexism, and violence in the characters' lives. As a black woman, Mrs. Breedlove searches desperately for a sense of self-worth and meaning for her life. It is only through her relationship with Cholly—a man—that she gains these things. Their fights break up the tedium of her life and spark her imagination, but this way of creating meaning for her life is at the expense of her physical and emotional wellbeing. Cholly's immorality allows her to feel superior and self-righteous, and those are the feeling on which she props herself up, on which she survives. Likewise, Cholly stays with Mrs. Breedlove because he needs someone to unload the hatred instilled in him as a boy by two racist men.
The narrator then explains that Pecola and her brother Sammy respond to the violence in different ways. Sammy curses, and often throws himself into the middle of his parents' arguments. He is known to run away, having left more than twenty-seven times before he was fourteen. Pecola on the other hand, being younger than Sammy and also a girl, tries different methods of endurance. These methods vary, but each is just as painful as the last. When they fight, she disassociates from her body and wishes one of her parents would kill the other, or that she herself would die.
The children's different ways of responding to the violence demonstrate different realities individuals face based on genders. Samuel, a young boy, actively engages with his parents while they argue, and escapes the situation by running away. Pecola, however, as a young girl, remains passive and turns inward. These coping methods reflect the realities of the men and woman in The Bluest Eye.
As Pecola waits for the storefront apartment to erupt in violence, she whispers to herself, "Don't, Mrs. Breedlove, don't." Eventually, Mrs. Breedlove inevitably sneezes, and as she promised, she starts the fight with Cholly by throwing a glass of cold water in his face. Cholly rises from bed naked and attacks Mrs. Breedlove. A brutal fight ensues, Cholly using his hands and feet, and Mrs. Breedlove using a dishpan. They struggle until Sammy jumps in and begins hitting Cholly in the head. Seizing the opportunity, Mrs. Breedlove grabs the stove lid and hits Cholly over the head twice with it, knocking him unconscious. Once Cholly is unconscious, Mrs. Breedlove covers him with a blanket. Sammy begins yelling at his mother to kill Cholly. She tells him to be quiet, and as she walks back into the kitchen, commands him to get up and go get some coal.
Talking to herself and quietly begging her mother not to start the fight demonstrates Pecola's powerlessness, both as a child and as a girl. Sammy, to the contrary, jumps in and aids his mother. Samuel begging his mother to kill his father reveals his hatred for Cholly, but his request mirrors his father's violence toward the family. Mrs. Breedlove tells him to shut up, and tells him to go get coal, a gesture that demonstrates her authority over him, and again links him to Cholly, who she originally asked to get the coal. Sammy is being nurtured to have the same sort of hate that Cholly feels—the cycle is continuing.
When the fight is over, Pecola experiences "the sick feeling" she gets in her stomach whenever her parents fight. She asks God if he will make her disappear, and closing her eyes, feels her body begin to fade away, starting with her arms and moving toward her stomach. With some struggle, she imagines her stomach and face disappear, but her tightly closed eyes remain. The narrator explains that Pecola believes possessing blue eyes would make her beautiful, and things would change at home and school. She has prayed for blue eyes for a year, but in clinging to the idea that only a miracle could save her, she is never able to recognize her own inner beauty because she is only ever looking at other people's eyes.
For Pecola, attaining blue eyes means two things: that people will see her as beautiful, and that the way she sees the world with change, so that she will no longer have to witness the violence and hatred in her home. Beauty to the characters of The Bluest Beauty means empowerment, and Pecola believes that if she can attain blue eyes, a signifier of whiteness and beauty, she will have the power to escape her horrible situation. Holding on to this unreachable standard of beauty, however, means that Pecola remains unable to realize her worth and own beauty, inner or outer.
Pecola walks to Yacobowski's Fresh Veg. Meat and Sundries, a store in the neighborhood that sells penny candy. As she walks, she feels comforted by the familiar images she sees—the cracked sidewalk and dandelions in the fields beside her. She feels a sense of ownership over these things, and they connect her to the world. She ponders a patch of dandelions at the base of a telephone pole, wondering why everyone detests the dandelions, and calls them weeds. She can't understand why black women pick them, but throw away the yellow heads, keeping only the leaves and stems for dandelion wine and soup. Unlike those around her, Pecola is fond of the dandelions.
Pecola's self-perceived ugliness allows her to identify with the cracked sidewalk and the dandelions, which are things considered ugly by others. Pecola does not see the dandelions as ugly, which introduces the idea that beauty might be a matter of one's perception, not something inherent in the object being looked at. Unfortunately, Pecola's obsession with external beauty standards keeps her from realizing this about herself. The "yellow heads" of the dandelions also connect symbolically to the blond haired girls, who represent the white beauty standard, and explains Pecola's confusion as to why the black women throw them away.
When Pecola enters Yacobowski's, She stands at the counter looking at the candy. She decides to spend all of her money, three pennies, on Mary Janes. When she pulls the pennies from her shoe, Mr. Yacobowsky looks up at her with his blue eyes. Although Mr. Yacobowski looks at Pecola, his eyes draw back, as if he sees right through her. Pecola notices a complete lack of human recognition in his eyes and recognizes it as a trait that exists in the eyes of all white people she's encountered. She assumes Mr. Yacobowski's distaste must be for her blackness, which is static and dreadful, even though her internal emotional state is in motion.
Pecola's feeling that Mr. Yacobowsky sees right through her demonstrates both the way whites perceive blacks as worthless, and also Pecola's sense that she is not even worth being looked at. The distinction between Pecola's external appearance and her inward emotional reality suggests that even though Mr. Yacobowski sees her only as a worthless black girl, there is a reality beneath her black skin that makes her human, that makes her worth acknowledgment.
Unable to speak, Pecola points at the Mary Janes. Mr. Yacobowski gets frustrated, as he can't understand what kind of candy Pecola wants. He cannot see from her angle, so he moves agitatedly his hand around the glass case where the candy is kept. When his hand brushes the Mary Janes, Pecola nods. When he asks how many she wants, she holds out the three pennies. When he pushes the candies toward her, she holds out the pennies, but Mr. Yacobowski does not want to touch her hand. Eventually, he grabs the pennies, grazing Pecola's hand with his fingernails.
Pecola's inability to communicate with Mr. Yacobowski shows the divide between her as a black girl and him as a white man. Likewise, Mr. Yacobowski's inability to see from Pecola's perspective metaphorically shows the disparity between the way he sees the world as a white immigrant man, and how she sees it as a black girl. By not wanting to touch her hand, Mr. Yacobowski's racism shows glaringly. The way he grazes her hand with his fingernail subtly suggests the violent nature of racism, as other references to fingernails in the novel involve overt violence, for example, Claudia scratching Rosemary's white face.
Outside of the store, Pecola feels ashamed of herself. She notices the dandelions again and calls them ugly, perceiving them as weeds. As she has this realization, she trips on a crack in the sidewalk. Her shame turns to anger then, which she prefers because it has a reality and a presence. But when she thinks about Mr. Yacobowski's blue eyes again, the shame returns and stays until she remembers the Mary Janes. Each piece of candy has a picture of Mary Jane on it, blond haired, blue eyed, and smiling. Mary Jane's eyes are petulant, but to Pecola they are simply pretty. The narrator explains that, "to eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane."
The change in Pecola's perception after her experience in the store shows the way in which racism has a powerful effect on the way one perceives oneself and the world. Beauty may be a matter of perception, but it understandably doesn't feel that way to Pecola as the interaction with Yacobowski makes her feel inherently and objectively ugly. While the shame makes her feel invisible, the anger gives her a sense of power, but that power is short-lived because it is based not on a sense of worth but her lack of worth. As soon she remembers how Yacobowski's blue eyes—the symbols of his being better than her—saw right through her, her anger turns back to shame. The Mary Jane candies then become a kind of salve to this wound—they are sweet and allow Pecola to not only feel connected to but actually consume the white culture that makes her feel inferior. Yet at the same time they are temporary, and therefore addictive, and actually reinforce her sense of inferiority. They provide Pecola a strength that is not otherwise inside her, that is not her own, and so she is dependent on white culture to soothe the pain that it instills in her—a vicious cycle.
Pecola visits three prostitutes—China, Poland, and Miss Marie—who live above her family. She hears Poland singing a blues song as she approaches the apartment. The prostitutes welcome Pecola, who watches them get ready for work that evening. Pecola asks Miss Marie why she has so many boyfriends, which is her term for their clients. Miss Marie responds by telling Pecola she hasn't seen a boy since 1927. The prostitutes laugh at this, and tease one another affectionately about their ages and bodies.
The prostitutes, who are considered ugly and abhorrent by the community, welcome Pecola into their home without judgment. They have compassion because they have felt a sense of ugliness in their own lives. Pecola's naive view of their clients as "boyfriends" shows her innocence regarding love and sex. Even though their work and living situation is taboo, the prostitutes share a sense of home and family.
Miss Marie tells Pecola about two of her boyfriends. One of the men she turned into the F.B.I. for a sum of money, and other, Dewey Prince, was her true love who she left once she found out she could make money as a prostitute. The narrator explains that these women are not like the romanticized images of prostitutes found in novels. They are not girls driven to prostitution by tragic circumstance, nor are they sloppy whores who can't make a living. These prostitutes are tough, independent, and unforgiving in their hatred for men.
For these women, exploiting their sexuality becomes the only way they are able to gain some sense of power over men. This decision, however, comes at a great expense. Not only did Miss Marie leave the love of her life to gain this power, but the women are not respected in the community. Likewise, even though they hate men, their sense of self is still dependent on their relation to men.
When Pecola asks Miss Marie if she has any children, she says that she does. She immediately pulls a pin from her hair and begins picking her teeth with it, indicating she doesn't want to talk anymore. Realizing this, Pecola goes to the window and begins thinking about the way Dewey Prince loved Miss Marie. She wonders what love feels like, and thinks of her parents when they have sex. During the sexual act, Cholly makes awful noises like he is in pain, and Mrs. Breedlove remains completely quiet as if she was not even there. Pecola thinks maybe this is love, "choking sounds and silence."
Miss Marie's actions after Pecola brings up her children shows that, despite her tough exterior, she is sensitive toward issues of family. Pecola's naiveté is further depicted as she wonders what love feels like. Using the only model she has, her own family, she decides that love must be related to sex, violence, and lack of interaction.