Controversy and the Novel
It is important for teachers to understand that certain material within the novel (if they choose to teach it) is explicit and can prove to be problematic. As Carolyn P. Henly states in “Reader-Response Theory as Antidote to Controversy: Teaching The Bluest Eye,” the “threat of censorship poses one of the most hair-raising problems for any high-school English teacher, because the more controversial (and, therefore, more likely to be censored) a work is, the more able its teacher must be to justify it in terms of its importance to a student's education” (14). For example, the novel’s violent sexual images have the potential to negatively imprint themselves within the minds of students. Teachers, ask yourselves if you are fully prepared to deal with these issues (which may become sticky ones) before beginning the exploration of The Bluest Eye.
Prior to beginning the study of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, it is important that students understand the controversy surrounding the novel. The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom lists The Bluest Eye as No. 12 on its list of the top 100 banned/challenged books from 2000 to 2007 due to its “sexual content, unsuited to age group, and offensive language.” Students who begin the novel understanding the controversy surrounding its inclusion in public education will certainly be better equipped to engage in discourse about the relevance of the novel despite its controversial elements. Ultimately, by understanding the controversy behind Morrison’s novel, students will be better prepared to argue why the book should or should not be included in their high school curriculum.
Biographical Informaiton and Morrison's Place within the Literary Canon
It is also imperative that students begin the novel by knowing some biographical information about Morrison herself and the crucial role that she has played in the evolution of the American literary canon. Voted as the favorite author of the 20th century by the African American Literature Book Club, Morrison won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first African American woman to win such an award. Morrison was also the recipient of the 1996 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the 1994 Pearl Buck Award, and the 1978 Distinguished Writer Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters. In “The Bluest Eye: A Call to Action,” educator Elizabeth Becker states:
Published in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in 1970, The Bluest Eye did not see immediate success. Morrison states in the novel’s afterword: “With very few exceptions, the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialized, misread. And it has taken twenty-five years to gain for her the respectful publication this edition is” (216). Though the novel’s reception began slowly, in recent years Morrison’s work has been overwhelmingly successful; many accredit her best-selling reputation to her affiliation with Oprah’s Book Club. Her work has also caught the attention of more traditionally respected members of the literary world, as well. Her list of numerous awards includes the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1978, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Though such honors do not provide enough reason alone to be teaching her work in the classroom, they do confirm that her writing exemplifies the qualities of outstanding literature. Morrison is helping to construct a new canon of literature that includes women and minorities, groups that were previously shunned from the world of literature.
As Becker states, Morrison holds a pivotal place in the American literary canon, and her influence cannot be understated. As a writer, she is a positive role-model for minorities and women who want to pursue careers in writing. For these reasons alone, Morrison’s biographical information is, subsequently, an important aspect that should be taught prior to a study of the novel.
Morrison's Inspiration for Writing The Bluest Eye
Additionally, it is imperative that students understand Morrison’s intention in writing the novel. Morrison’s clearly stated inspiration for writing The Bluest Eye is best articulated in her own words:
In the foreword of the novel, Morrison announces,
The origin of the novel lay in a conversation I had with a childhood friend. We had just started elementary school. She said she wanted blue eyes. I looked around to picture her with them and was violently repelled by what I imagined she would look like if she had her wish. The sorrow in her voice seemed to call for sympathy, and I faked it for her, but, astonished by the desecration she proposed, I ‘got mad’ at her instead. Until that moment I had seen the pretty, the lovely, the nice, the ugly, and although I had certainly used the word “beautiful,” I had never experienced its shock—the force of which was equaled by the knowledge that no one recognized it, not even, or especially, the one who possessed it. (x)
The video of Morrison discussing her novel will begin to engage students in pre-reading thought processes. By viewing a video of Morrison herself, students will begin to think critically about several of the central themes of the novel. The first assignment will aid in opening up a discussion of these themes before the text has actually been touched upon in any depth.
II. IMPORTANT TO KNOW AND DO
It is important for students who are reading The Bluest Eye to begin their study by examining some of the major themes, motifs, and symbols within the work. Some of the major themes of the novel include society’s definition of beauty, the oral tradition (the power of storytelling), and sight versus blindness.
Definitions of Beauty
Throughout the novel, the reader is confronted with society’s standard of beauty. The young girls of the novel, Claudia, Freida, and Pecola, each must contend with society’s “white” standard of beauty. Images of Shirley Temple coupled with the Dick and Jane primers within the text serve to build support for this theme. While Claudia seems to resist this standard of beauty, it ultimately leads to Pecola’s demise. After all, it is Pecola that prays vehemently for the bluest eyes that she believes would make her beautiful and lead her to a perfect life.
The Oral Tradition: The Power of Storytelling
The Bluest Eye also explores the importance of language and the oral tradition. Morrison creates a narrative that serves to promote the powerful oral tradition of African Americans. In “The Blues Aesthetic in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye,” Cat Moses writes:
Morrison has stated that her narrative ‘effort is to be like something that has been probably only been fully expressed perhaps in music …’ (‘Interview’ 408). The catharsis and the transmission of cultural knowledge and values that have always been central to the blues from the thematic and rhetorical underpinnings of The Bluest Eye. The narrative’s structure follows a pattern common to traditional blues lyrics: a movement from an initial emphasis on loss to a concluding suggestion of resolution of grief through motion . . . The blues lyrics that punctuate the narrative at critical points suggest a system of folk knowledge and values that is crucial to a young black woman’s survival in the 1930s and ’40s and which supports Claudia’s cathartic role as storyteller. (623)
For Moses (as well as Morrison herself), the “blues” rhetoric of The Bluest Eye reiterates the oral tradition and works to convey the power of story-telling, a dominant theme within the text.
Sight vs. Blindness
The novel unfolds as Pecola, “taught to covet the physical manifestations of whiteness and to accept her own (black) ugliness,” prays for blue eyes. She believes that “if only she could have blue eyes, everything would be better. People would think that she was pretty. They would value her. She would value herself—or so she thinks” (Young 527). Throughout the novel, Pecola prays for the bluest eyes. She inaccurately assumes that she would be capable of seeing the world differently and that her blue eyes would result in better treatment. Blindly, however, Pecola internalizes her chaotic home life allowing her to accept maltreatment from her peers. All Pecola can see is what others tell her that they see in her; therefore, her dehumanization is brought about as a result of the insecurities and instability. These begin with her immediate family and plague her relationships with others. Pecola’s wish to have the bluest eyes signifies her inherent blindness and her desire to see the world around her anew.
Some of the motifs/symbols within the novel include the Dick and Jane primers, the bluest eye, and the marigolds.
Dick and Jane Primers
When examining the novel, a study of the motif/symbol of the Dick and Jane primers will also aid students in gaining a better understanding of the major themes underlined within the text of The Bluest Eye. In her article entitled “Dick and Jane and the Shirley Temple Sensibility in The Bluest Eye,” Phyllis Klotman discusses the idea that Morrison had three versions of the Dick and Jane narrative. The first is the Standard English version. This can be seen as a representation of the portion of society that focuses on the ideal of white supremacy, something that the African American characters within the novel choose to resent and/or reject. The second, slightly more chaotic version, more accurately represents Claudia and Frieda’s lives. The third, chaotic and nonsensical version, bleeds together, overlapping and weaving the dehumanizing sham that is Pecola’s life.
In both fiction and poetry in Western culture, outward beauty has often been an indication of inner beauty. Pecola believes that if her eyes were blue, “she would be pretty, virtuous, and loved: friends would play with her at recess, teachers would smile at Pecola the same way they smile at Maureen Peel, and even her parents might stop fighting because they would not want to do bad things in front of those pretty eyes” (Cormier-Hamilton 115). Pecola’s internalization of the “white” standard of beauty is implicit in her desire to attain the bluest eyes. For Pecola, the bluest eyes represent a passage into the world of happiness and beauty from which she remains alienated.
Marigolds symbolize life in the novel. The marigolds are representative of the cyclical nature of life. They symbolize the hardships of life; Claudia and Frieda believe that if the marigolds had grown that Pecola’s baby would have lived and that life, as they knew it, would have been OK.
III. ENDURING UNDERSTANDINGS
Student Empowerment through Policy Change
Once students have completed their study of The Bluest Eye, they will be able to engage in public discourse concerning the appropriateness of including the novel within a high school curriculum. By understanding how to engage in this type of discourse, students will learn argumentative techniques that support claims validating the novel’s importance and Morrison’s contributions to the American literary canon. Students in Littleton, Colorado, took a stand against their local board of education and were able to reestablish the novel’s placement within their high school curriculum. The Rocky Mountain News reported that
[Littleton] students conducted sit-ins in their respective school libraries during which they read excerpts from the novel, and English teachers defended the book at a board meeting held that same day. Acknowledging that The Bluest Eye is “painful, difficult to read,” Heritage High School English teacher Amanda Hurley told board members, “We have to discuss it, we have to learn from it.” Heritage senior Camille Okoren agreed, telling the October 7  Denver News, “Once you ban one book, parents and teachers think it’s OK to ban another book. Everyone is offended by different things.”
Littleton students serve as a positive example of exactly the type of individual that Morrison, herself, exemplifies. Students’ completion of the novel will culminate in their ability to affect public policy.
Students and Critical Awareness
Discussing themes, symbols, and motifs of the novel will lead students to understand the issues presented to readers within The Bluest Eye on a larger scale. This greater understanding of what Morrison's novel represents will provide students with the resources and ideas that they must recognize and appreciate in order to engage in publicly-informed discourse. Enduring understandings lie in the connections that students make with the interpretation of Morrison's text. Upon completion of a unit on The Bluest Eye, students will engage in public discourse and begin thinking critically about themselves and the society in which they must function. Students who complete their study of the novel will be able to reflect upon their reading experience and move toward enduring understandings that will transcend into their daily lives.
Just as “Morrison eschews the nationalism of Black Power and finds her own militant consciousness through a literary act of remembrance to record the forgotten trauma of African-American experience” (Baillie 24), students will find themselves and their realities within their own reflective processes. A student’s reading of The Bluest Eye has the potential to motivate the student as he/she searches for ways to better himself/herself and, therefore, the world in which he/she lives. Upon completion of this unit plan, students will be required to complete a culminating activity which will encourage them to take their newfound knowledge and put it into action. This call to action will be accomplished by a public awareness campaign assignment. Within this final activity, students will utilize three awareness tools to complete the student campaigns. Each of these student campaigns will prompt students to take a position based on reflective practices and their overall experiences with The Bluest Eye.
Engaging in research is one of the best manners by which students can take initiative and work toward self-prompted studies. The Public Awareness Campaign assignment has been created with one goal in mind; students will empower themselves through making their voices and opinions heard. By speaking out against societal injustices, students gain new senses of self and a better understanding of reality.
Even Morrison herself learned lessons as a result of composing The Bluest Eye. She states:
In 1962 when I began this story, and in 1965 when it began to be a book, the answers were not as obvious to me as they quickly became and are now. The assertion of racial beauty was not a reaction to the self-mocking, humorous critique of cultural/racial foibles common in all groups, but against the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze. I focused, therefore, on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire root could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female. In trying to dramatize the devastation that even casual racial contempt can cause, I chose a unique situation, not a representative one. (Morrison xi)
Note: The framework that structures this conceptual overview -- "Worth being familiar with," "Important to know and do," and "Enduring understandings" -- comes from Understanding by Design, expanded 2d. ed., by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD. © 2005 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Learn more about ASCD at http://www.ascd.org.
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