11 Things You Should Know About Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’

Toni Morrison's 'The Bluest Eye.'
Toni Morrison's 'The Bluest Eye.' / Penguin Random House (cover), Mental Floss (background)

“Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play.”

So begins Toni Morrison’s debut novel, 1970’s The Bluest Eye, which tells the heartbreaking story of an impoverished Black girl growing up in Ohio who—having been fed the American narrative that beauty lies in whiteness—desperately prays for blue eyes. Told through multiple narrators in four sections, the novel also deals with intergenerational racism, poverty, and the American Dream. Here’s what you need to know about The Bluest Eye.

1. The Bluest Eye began as a story in a writing group in the early 1960s.

During her time as a teacher at Howard University (her alma mater), Toni Morrison joined a writer’s group. “At a certain point they wouldn’t let you bring your little high school essays or whatever,” she recalled in an interview. “So I had to write something new.” Morrison didn’t touch the story—which featured a Black girl who desired blue eyes—for years, but eventually, she incorporated what she wrote into The Bluest Eye.

2. Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye as a response to other Black literature at the time …

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison. / Leonardo Cendamo/GettyImages

At the time, most of the books written by Black male authors—fiction or non-fiction—were “very powerful, aggressive, revolutionary” with a “positive, racially uplifting rhetoric,” Morrison said, including mantras like “Black Is Beautiful.”

“I thought, ‘Yeah, but why so loud?’” Morrison recalled. “They’re going to skip over something, and no one’s going to remember that it wasn’t always beautiful.” She wanted to write about internecine—and, by extension, internalized—racism, and, as Morrison put it, “the feelings of being ugly.”

3. … And for an audience that wasn’t written about.

Ultimately, Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye because it was a book she wanted to read, about a particular audience—“all those peripheral little girls”—whose stories weren’t featured in literature. “What was driving me to write was the silence—so many stories untold and unexamined,” she told The New Yorker in 2003. “There was a wide vacuum in the literature. I was inspired by the silence and absences in the literature.”

4. Pecola Breedlove was inspired by one of Morrison’s childhood friends.

In the documentary The Pieces I Am, Morrison recalled a moment from her childhood where she and a friend were having a conversation about the existence of God. The friend told Morrison that she didn’t believe in God anymore because, she said, “I have been praying for two years for blue eyes and he never gave me any.”

According to Morrison, her friend was “very, very Black and she was very, very, very, very beautiful. How painful—can you imagine that kind of pain? About that? About color? So I wanted to say, you know, this kind of racism hurts … This is interior pain. So deep for an 11-year-old girl to believe that if she only had some characteristic of the white world, she would be OK.” Morrison used that story as a basis for Pecola. She also chose her hometown—Lorain, Ohio—as The Bluest Eye’s setting, and the house the Breedloves live in is based on a specific building in the town.

5. Morrison was working as a book editor when she started writing The Bluest Eye.

In the mid-1960s, Morrison took a job as an editor at Random House, where she would publish books by writers Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Lucille Clifton, Henry Dumas, Muhammed Ali, and more. It was during this time that she began writing would become The Bluest Eye.

“After I got into publishing, I took [writing] more seriously,” Morrison said. “I had written little things before, and I was very shy about it, although I liked it.” Eventually, she would say that “Being a Black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more.”

6. It took Morrison years to write The Bluest Eye.

Morrison, who was recently divorced and raising two sons while working her day job, wrote The Bluest Eye over a period of several years. “I wrote like someone with a dirty habit,” she said later. “Secretly, compulsively, slyly.” The Bluest Eye was turned down by a number of publishers, but was ultimately published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston in 1970.

7. The Bluest Eye deals with issues like class and internal racism.

The small Ohio town featured in The Bluest Eye has a few wealthy—mostly white—characters. But Morrison keeps them on the sidelines and focuses on the marginalized members of the town: Black women, sex workers (China, Poland, and Miss Marie, who live above the Breedloves and are among the only characters who show kindness to Pecola), and the abused and abandoned child.

Morrison presents homeownership as a divider between the lower class and the middle class. At one point, Claudia, one of the book’s narrators, says that “there is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors. If you are put out, you go somewhere else; if you are outdoors, there is no place to go ... Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life.” As the Bloom’s Guide to The Bluest Eye notes, “The precariousness of one’s ‘place’ in terms of class and race creates an anxious energy that permeates the novel; and the consequences of being in the ‘wrong’ place—poor, Black, bereft of one’s own culture and sustaining traditions, bereft of any hope of measuring up to the expectations of the dominating culture—are so dire as to incite frantic, desperate actions.”

The novel also shows how racism and the trauma of potential racism turned the American Dream into a nightmare for Black people in the United States. Nowhere is this more evident in the novel than the internal self-loathing present in Pecola, her mother, Polly; and other Black characters. Pecola’s mother works as a maid for a white family and, just like Pecola, sees white skin as the pinnacle of beauty.

8. Morrison used Dick and Jane as a framework.

The cover of the Dick and Jane book 'Fun With Our Family'
Dick and Jane books were used in schools. / Penguin Random House

Morrison opened The Bluest Eye with the text that could have come from a Dick and Jane book, presented three ways. First, the text has proper punctuation and capitalization; then it appears without punctuation or capitalization; and, finally, the text is presented with no punctuation, capitalization, or spaces between the words. According to Britannica, the three versions symbolize the different types of families depicted in the novel: white families, “well-adjusted” Black families, and the “distorted” family life of Pecola’s family, the Breedloves. (Many of the chapter titles, Britannica notes, also come from “the simulated text of a Dick and Jane reader.”)

There’s more significance to the choice than just that, though. Dick and Jane books were often used in schools; Morrison’s choice of a children’s story depicting what is presented as the ideal all-American family signifies to the reader that this is something Pecola does not have, and spells out the differences between white and Black families as well.

9. At first, The Bluest Eye didn’t sell well.

When it was finally published in 1970, The Bluest Eye had a print run of fewer than 2000 copies—and it was “hated” by the Black community, according to Morrison: “The nicest thing I ever heard wasn’t from a critic, it was from a student who said, ‘I liked The Bluest Eye, but I was really mad at you for writing it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because now they will know.’”

The Bluest Eye did receive pockets of positive critical acclaim—one critic wrote that “Miss Morrison exposes the negative of the Dick-and‐Jane‐and‐Mother‐and‐Father‐and‐Dog-and‐Cat photograph that appears in our reading primers, and she does it with a prose so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry.” But the majority of it was negative and dismissive. 

Nearly 25 years after novel was published, Morrison said that “the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialized, [and] misread.” By 1974, it had fallen out of print. These days, the book is considered an American classic: Not only is it frequently on the lists of literary greats and widely read by students of literature, it’s also taught in schools.

10. The Bluest Eye has been frequently banned.

Thanks to its subject matter and themes, The Bluest Eye is a mainstay on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged books—but the book has been controversial basically since its debut, in part due to its depictions of the sexual abuse of a child. And it’s not just challenged in schools: The Bluest Eye is banned by some prison systems, too.

11. The Bluest Eye has inspired artists and been adapted for theatre.

Among the works of art The Bluest Eye has inspired is The Marigolds, a photo installation in a Cleveland, Ohio, storefront by artist Amanda King. Those familiar with the novel know that marigold flowers feature heavily as a metaphor. The Bluest Eye has also been adapted for the stage on a number of occasions, including a production directed by Awoye Timpo in Boston in 2021.