Let’s Read Banned Books: The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye

by Toni Morrison

HRW 1970, Knopf 1993, Vintage 2007

reviewed by Seana Graham








Nuns go by as quiet as lust and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel.

This is the beautiful and mysterious line that starts the section called “Autumn” near the beginning of The Bluest Eye, one of the top ten most banned books even now, fifty years after its publication. What are the reasons that The Bluest Eye has been banned so often? According to a PBS article listed below: Reasons cited have included, “sexually explicit material,” “lots of graphic descriptions and lots of disturbing language,” and “an underlying socialist-communist agenda.” One complaint simply called it a “bad book.”

Having recently read the book for my book group, I will attest that there are indeed sexually explicit scenes and that sexual abuse is an important plot point in the story. But for me this leads more to the question of what an appropriate age to read it might be, rather than whether or not a person should read it at all.

In an introduction Morrison wrote more than twenty years after the publication of this, her first novel, she describes what might be called the inciting incident. She and a friend were just starting grade school. The friend said that she, a Black child, 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 Bluest Eye was my effort to say something about that; to say something about why she had not, or possibly never would have, the experience of what she possessed and also why she prayed for so radical an alteration. Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing. And twenty years later I was still wondering about how one learns that. Who told her? Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her.

From this seed, Morrison creates the character of Pecola Breedlove, a girl who has both poverty and family dysfunction working against her from the start. As the novel opens, Pecola has come to stay with the MacTeers for a while, because her father has just burned up their house. Although Morrison looks at the life of Pecola and the town of Lorain, Ohio which is its setting through many lenses, one of the most compelling is that of Claudia MacTeer, the second child of that family, who is nine years old at the time of the events described. Wandering around the internet, I find that I am not the only one who sees a certain similarity to another observant girl, Scout Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. Although by necessity dealing with the world from very different angles, both girls are of an age to start trying to piece together the society they have been born into, trying to grasp why adults act the way they do and not always figuring it out. In that way it also resembles the memoir of Trevor Noah, Born a Crime, which I also reviewed here recently. (Link below.) In fact, the external severity and inner tenderness of the parents portrayed is something these last two books share as well.

When we talk about banning books, the tendency is to focus on the more sensational or controversial parts of the book, but this takes the focus off a book’s merits and strengths, or even, come to that, a frank discussion of its failings. What has come across to me in this reading is the beauty of Morrison’s prose, her wise probing of both the psychology and the sociological settings of her characters. This early novel demonstrates that Morrison had the chops for writing fiction from early on.

I am hoping to make the discussion of banned books a regular feature here at Escape Into Life and so I invite any readers here who have a particular favorite banned book to get in touch with me if they would like to write a review for it. (Don’t be intimidated–I’ll walk your through it.) I will post a list of banned books below to choose from in case you need ideas.

‘Tis certainly the season for it.  

Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. She has published stories in a variety of literary journals. The recent anthology Annihilation Radiation  from Storgy Press, includes one of them. Santa Cruz Noir, a title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides. 


Buy The Bluest Eye at Penguin Random House

PBS discussion of The Bluest Eye as a banned book

Here is Every Banned Book in America (Harper’s Bazaar)

My review of Born a Crime at Escape Into Life

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