The Breedlove family has moved from the rural south to urban Lorain, Ohio, and the displacement, in addition to grinding work conditions and poverty, contributes to the family’s dysfunction. Told from the perspectives of the adolescent sisters, Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, Morrison’s narrative weaves its way through the four seasons and traces the daughter’s (Pecola Breedlove) descent into madness. Through flashback and temporal shifts, Morrison provides readers with the context and history behind the Breedloves’ misery and Pecola’s obsessive desire to have the bluest eyes.
This short novel counterbalances two points of view: one, the tragic consequences of racism (in the Breedlove family), and two, agency and resistance to that racism (in the MacTeer family). The story’s focus, however, is on the Breedloves, and readers are immediately faced with the dissonance between the realities of the Breedloves’–and especially Pecola’s–lives and the chapter headings that begin with excerpts from the white, middle-class Dick & Jane reader. Much as Pecola’s world falls apart in the novel, the Dick & Jane passages, repeated three times, degenerate into formless, meaningless print: seemothermotherisverynice. The object of scorn for her ugliness from her family and acquaintances, Pecola yearns to become beautiful and, (she thinks) as a result of her beauty, loveable. That beauty is strictly defined by white and unattainable standards; however, a Shirley Temple mug and Mary Jane candies become the emblems of that for which Pecola yearns. The same racism that underpins the standards of beauty under which Pecola and her mother, Pauline, suffer, is also at the root of Pecola’s father’s alcoholism and violence.
After he impregnates Pecola and she is beaten by her mother for it, Pecola (with the treachery of Soaphead Church, a faith healer) goes mad, believing she has obtained her blue eyes. By novel’s end she obsessively, repeatedly asks an imaginary other if, indeed, her eyes are the bluest. There is an interesting (and excerptable) scene in the novel when Pauline is in the hospital giving birth to Pecola. The doctors come by her bed as the attending physician says, these here women you don’t have any trouble with.
They deliver right away and with no pain. Just like horses. Pauline counters by moaning something awful to teach the doctors that [j]ust ’cause I wasn’t hooping and hollering before didn’t mean I wasn’t feeling pain. While the doctors have their story about Pauline, she resists their version, retelling it, talking back to medicine and to readers. This section raises important questions about assumptions and the ways social factors such as race, class, and gender can get in the way of hearing stories and understanding patients’ lives.