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
Beauty vs. Ugliness Quotes in The Bluest Eye
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.
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.
"How do you do that? I mean how do you get someone to love you?"
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.
[The Breedloves] lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed because they believed they were ugly.
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.
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.
To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane.
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.
Mrs. Breedlove's skin glowed like taffeta in the reflection of white porcelain, white woodwork, polished cabinets, and brilliant copperware.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.