Reading it once is not enough.
When author Toni Morrison died last August, I assigned an article about her life and career for our first weekly Article of the Week assignment of the year. I also read the first chapter of her first novel, The Bluest Eye, plus parts of the foreword to expose students to the language and a bit about the impetus for Morrison’s best-selling first novel.
I admitted to my students that I hadn’t read the novel in its entirety yet. It was on my “To Read” list on Goodreads, and I had purchased a copy… but y’know… actually reading it was on my list for later. Like over Christmas break perhaps. That didn’t happen.
However, it finally happened last week when I read it over the course of five days. (By the way, five days of off-and-on reading is fast for me. I tend to be a slow reader.)
In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, read this from the back cover:
“Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for the dark skin, curly hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit in. Yet as her dream grows more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife. A brilliant examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison’s virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterized her writing.”Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
After I finished my five-day reading, I skimmed back through the foreword and immediately knew I need to read this novel again.
As I understand the foreword, here are four notions that Morrison wanted to explore with this book:
- The notion of accepting rejection as legitimate.
- “When I began writing The Bluest Eye, I was interested in…the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident.” (Foreword x) The book explores what happens when we accept that when others reject us it’s because they have a justified reason. This isn’t the case in The Bluest Eye.
- The notion to enter the life of the one (character) least likely to withstand such damaging forces (rejection).
- “The project, then, for this, my first book, was to enter the life of the one least likely to withstand such damaging forces because of youth, gender, and race. (Foreword x) This shows me why Morrison chose to tell the story of Pecola, a young girl scorned for her appearance.
- The notion of racial self-loathing.
- “And twenty years later, I was still wondering about how one learns that. Who told her (Pecola)? 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. (Foreword xi) I appreciate how Morrison, in quite plain language, tells us exactly what she wanted her novel to explore.
- The notion of racial beauty.
- “The reclamation of racial beauty in the sixties stirred these thoughts, made me think about the necessity for the claim. Why, although reviled by others, could this beauty not be taken for granted within the community? Why did it need wide public articulation to exist?” (Foreword xi) I take this to mean that Morrison desired that the beauty of blackness should be a given.
Reading The Bluest Eye in five days in fits and starts does not work for me. I have to read it more deliberately, with more intention. Yes, I comprehend the plot, but there’s so much more in this book that I want to observe… especially in writing that is as evocative, graceful, and layered as Morrison’s.
For example, I hope to observe more consciously Morrison’s assertion and elevation of black codes, language, and culture, what she describes as “attempts to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black American culture into a language worthy of the culture.” (Foreword xiii)
And that’s why I’m re-reading The Bluest Eye again, with pen and highlighter in hand. I’ll fill you in later on that re-reading.
In fact, reading texts twice (or more) is something I’ve started practicing on a regular basis in my classroom. Reading once just doesn’t cut it. For students to comprehend fully, to enjoy a book fully, I believe a second or further reading is necessary. And since I do this on my own, why not in class?
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