I was about halfway through The Bluest Eye (Plume, 1994) when a friend asked me what I was currently reading.
“It’s pretty heavy, right?” she asked.
I glanced at her little girl, munching apple slices next to me at the kitchen counter.
“Yeah. It is.”
Racial tensions, domestic abuse, poverty, incest. Yeah, pretty dark.
While the story is narrated by Frieda, the story is really Pecola Breedloves. Pecola is eleven years old. She lives in poverty with her mother, her mother, and her brother. Her parents are at constant, violent odds.
In a community split by black and white skin, there are further tiers. Frieda and Claudia, who live with both their mother and father in their own home, know that they rank higher than Pecola, who lives in a single room with her family. Pecola, who is so isolated even within her own family that she refers to her own mother as only “Mrs. Breedlove”.
In a particular heartbreaking scene, Pecola and Frieda, along with her sister Claudia, go to visit Mrs. Breedlove at her place of employment, where she works as cook and housekeeper and nanny for a wealthy white family. When they upset the white family’s little girl, Mrs. Breedlove angrily ushers them out while devoting herself to comforting the white child. (A child who is allowed to call Mrs. Breedlove “Polly”.) She cares for this other household and family and has nothing left over to give to her own family.
Where it might be easy to resent and hate Mrs. Breedlove on Pecola’s behalf, Morrison gives us a more nuanced view. She offers a view of Pauline Breedlove’s childhood. How she ended up married to Cholly and trapped in poverty and abuse. Morrison offers a similar view into Cholly’s childhood. While it’s similarly heartbreaking, I definitely found it harder to sympathize with Cholly in the novel’s present day. I don’t think there’s anything that excuses child rape.
Then again, I don’t believe Morrison’s intention was to excuse any of her characters’ behaviour. Instead, she takes the role of shining a stark light on the true lives of fictional people. Without judgement, she shows us where people start and where they can end up. It’s hard to read, especially when we focus on children, and the hardest part is that these stories really exist.
My friend and I got into a conversation about how worthwhile it is to read dark novels like these. They don’t leave you feeling uplifted or good and although they can be beautifully written, they don’t leave you feeling beautiful.
Yet at the same time, should we shy away from things simply because they’re dark and scary? Because they’re things that don’t affect us? I’m a white, middle-class Canadian girl who’s never been in any more physical altercation than a wrestling match with my brother. It would be easy for me to hide from the truth of racial tension, of racism, of abuse, of the sexualisation of children because those aren’t things that affect me in my daily life. Because in my blue eyes, I have the one thing that Pecola Breedlove wanted more than anything in the world.
Sometimes we have to look at terrible things so that we know they exist. So that we can do something to change them. Sometimes the role of artists is to direct our gaze straight into the darkness.