As someone who has a somewhat secret obsession with the concept of beauty, I found this book fascinating. It is heartbreaking depiction of what Toni Morrison calls, “The death of self-esteem”. And it accurately correlates poverty with self-esteem, and the inability to deflect self hatred when it’s being force feed since infancy.
The main character is an eleven year old girl by the name of Pecola. Set in 1930’s Ohio, it takes place over the period of a year. When she was born her mother said, “I knew she was ugly”. Everyone in this book validates her ugliness, including herself. Her classmates, her teachers, her family, strangers on the street. Everyone.
Typically when a girl is beautiful, she gets this unsolicited attention or recognition. People vie for her affection or innately feel protective of her. In contrast, Pecola gets none of that. There’s a classmate, new in town, introduced in the book and she is the complete opposite of Pecola. Fair skin with green eyes. Teachers dote on her the boys don’t tease her, etc…all things contradictory to Pecola’s experience, having midnight black skin and close set eyes and a short forehead. She is actually a very sweet person but she’s painstakingly shy and such an introvert. So much so that you don’t get a chance to truly hear her voice until the very end of the book and I’m talking about the last 10 pages of a 200-page book.
The story is told from many perspectives but the most interesting perspective is that of Claudia, a girl not too much better off than Pecola, similar in age and living condition but with some fragment of family structure that at least provided a level of self-esteem and support that is completely void in Pecola’s life. As empathetic as Claudia is, she’s merely a child and is helpless to save Pecola from her unfortunate circumstance.
So, the story is told quite literally from everyone’s perspective in relation to Pecola and how they view her. This method of storytelling only confirms that Pecola is too passive to even narrate her own story. She’s just that invisible, to herself that is, to some degree. She folds into herself and she fully internalizes her ugliness. It swallows her up. Just as the fair-skinned classmate had internalized her acclaimed beauty.
Thus, Pecola develops an obsession with Shirley Temple, the blue-eyed blonde haired dollfaced highly adored little girl we all knew and loved. And all Pecola wants is to have blue eyes.
This book goes deep and I found myself being extremely uncomfortable with some of the challenges that Pecola faces. There’s incest and poverty and abuse and it can be quite disturbing so this book is not for the faint of heart. But if you’re like me and you like to dive into the psychology of human behavior then you’ll enjoy this. Toni Morrison is genius. Her writing style is just so cool. This was in fact her first novel published in 1970. She is able to captivate the voice and perspective of all characters from that of a child, adult male, adult female. It’s soooo impeccably written and there’s something quite poetic about her writing style.