Painful Love In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison’s novels are so powerful that it is tempting to bring up race. Morrison claimed in an earlier interview that her work is “about the same subject…that people miss love or hang onto it…or have a tenacious attitude towards love” (Otten 653). Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye focuses on two families who experience love in very different and contrasting ways. Love is often associated with joy, but in The Bluest Eye, Morrison uses it to alter and complicate the relationship. Morrison suggests that when love is at its most heartfelt and sincere, it’s tinged by pain. The Bluest Eye examines how pain and love interact, revealing that both are painful.

The novel opens in autumn when Claudia has a cold and talks about her mother’s rituals. Claudia remembers that the Vicks salve was rubbed on her chest by her mother, and her younger self had been “rigid from pain.” She also recalls that the mother’s anger is misplaced as she calls the vomit Claudia. Claudia’s mom shows her love in a very complex way, with both scolding and soothing, and care. Claudia claims to have been unaware of the fact that her mother wasn’t angry with her, but rather at her illness. This has complicated her memory about her mother and how she acted in this scene. Claudia, in retrospect, realizes the love behind the harsh words, rough hands, and reprimands. Claudia asks her self: “But were things really that way? Was it as painful for me as I recall? It was only mildly painful. It was productive and fruitful pain… When I consider autumn, then, I am reminded of someone with a hand who doesn’t wish me to perish” (12). Claudia recalls not only the pain she felt when sick and weak but also the “feet that padded in the room and the hands that repinned flannel or readjusted quilts and rested on [her] face” (12). Claudia’s time spent in bed was not only painful but humiliating. However, the love she received from mother made this pain a vital part of Claudia’s illness. Claudia’s illness is accompanied by the love of her family, which makes the loving acts she receives even more meaningful and precious. She remembers the roughness of her mother’s hand at first but then the gentleness, checking for fever and tucking in her. Claudia’s memories are sweeter than bitter because she compares her pain at her mother’s loving but rough nature with the emotion and tenderness behind her actions.

Claudia also remembers the spring of her childhood and how punishments changed. In the spring her parents punished Frieda and Claudia differently, using fresh saplings or branches that were still green. Claudia tells us that the “nervous meanness of those long twigs made us long for that steady stroke of straps or that firm but sincere slap of hairbrushes” (97). Claudia’s springtime anger is a result of the wet, mean temper of her parents. She is not wishing for a pillow that’s soft, a bath that’s warm, or her mother lovingly rubbing her hands. Claudia is aware that her parents love her and she knows pain will accompany it. Instead, she begins to prefer the familiar, autumnal pain over the newer, unpredictable pain of spring. Claudia creates, then, a sophisticated hierarchy in which she does not consider the lack or pain to be an issue. This is because lack of a pain also means lacked of love. Claudia instead prefers the love-induced pain over the absence.

Pecola’s experience is very different. Her family is broken and she feels the pain of it. But love is still present, burning weakly through her embers. The MacTeers have a strong love for their daughters, while the Breedloves can’t figure out how to care for their own children. Breedloves, who have been told for years that they look ugly, are now experiencing more pain as a result of their perceived ugly.

Cholly, the protagonist of the novel, rapes Pecola. But, in a surprising twist, we don’t get Pecola’s viewpoint, but Cholly. Morrison emphasizes the importance of love by presenting Cholly’s perspective. Cholly is able to be seen through the eyes of his son, and we are able to see his intentions. They are fueled by his desire for love. If we saw the scene through Pecola, it is likely that we wouldn’t be able see beyond the pain brought on by the rape.

Cholly tries his best to love Pecola, as he watches her wash dishes and look defeated. Although he initially feels uncomfortable, “discomfort eventually dissolved into joy.” Revulsion, guilt and pity were his first emotions, followed by love (161). Cholly then attempts to soothe his daughter’s pain by substituting it with love. Cholly was even in pain after the scene. Pecola internalizes rape’s pain, becoming maddened by her suffering. She is robbed, not only of the pleasures that sex can bring, but also of her agency. As evidenced by the internal monologue and implicit split personality near the book’s end, she is driven mad. Cholly’s loving is a source of pain in this situation.

Morrison claimed in an Interview that “sometimes, good can look like evil and vice versa,” but that “evil has the same value as good”(Otten 664).

Many readers think that Cholly’s evil act masks the love he has for his daughter. Morrison, however, wants us to see the rape in a different light. Morrison’s intentions for Pecola’s rape were explained: “I would like you to see the love he has for his daughter, as well as his inability to ease her suffering.” The rape is the only gift that he can give by the time he reaches this point (Otten, 654). Pecola’s rape is a misdirected, perverted act. Claudia acknowledges Cholly’s love, even if it is years later. He did, I am sure. He loved her so much that he touched her, wrapped her in his arms, and gave her a piece of himself (206). Morrison continues, “people are willing to do anything under the guise of [love].” Violence is often a distortion of our intentions. We can cause great harm even with the best intentions” (Otten 642). Cholly’s love for her daughter is destructive, distorted and harmful. But it still is love. He believes that he loves Pecola as he nips the flesh off her leg and presses himself against her. In his attempts to ease her suffering, he has tragically caused more.

Claudia, who is the main character in the book, is fascinated with the idea of being loved by a guy and having him love you. Claudia is still curious about the feeling of being touched by a male, even after Frieda has been molested. She disregards Frieda’s distress, and instead asks open-minded questions to find out what it feels like. Claudia is certain that she can find romance and enjoyment in Frieda’s pain. Claudia thinks that Frieda is suffering in love. She cannot tell the difference between what she imagines and Frieda’s molestation. Claudia is shocked to see Frieda sobbing and presumes that Henry physically injured her. She then asks her sister what he did. Just walk right up to them, and pinch their hands? (100). Claudia believes that Frieda’s “love”, which Mr. Henry professed, must have hurt her somehow.

Claudia’s ideas about love and pain are also influenced by the blues songs her mother sings. As a child, Claudia hears her mother “sing about hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me times. It was her sweet voice and melting eyes that made me long for the hard times. I wanted a life without ‘a tiny di-itime to my named’ (25). Claudia is moved by the beautiful voice of her mother and her sorrowful song. She longs for love that can break one’s heart. Claudia understands that love is powerful and promises to break hearts and cause pain. The only thing that can bring relief in this situation is a song. Claudia dreams of a romantic love that is so deep and intense, it will leave her in pain.

The greens and blues of my mother’s voice made me feel that the pain of losing “my man” was worth it. I was convinced that the pain was not just bearable but also sweet. Claudia’s mother sings a bittersweet song to her, which teaches her that love is difficult. It is beautiful but also complex and speaks of pain in a beautiful way. Claudia, as well as the reader realizes how complex love can be when it is coupled with pain.

Pecola has also no concept of love, sexual or familial. Pecola muses while sitting next to the prostitutes above her flat, and eventually turns to the one example of love which she is familiar with: her parents. “Into her eyes, a picture of Cholly Breedlove with Mrs. Breedlove was projected. He was making sounds that sounded like he had pain in his throat. It was as if a thing held him there and would not let him go. Choking noises and Silence” (57). Sex, universally considered a pleasure and a love-based act, is described as painful and even deadly. This scene replaces the pleasure and procreation that comes with intercourse, and instead focuses on the pain and terror of imminent death. Cholly’s wife makes painful noises during their sex, which reminds Pecola that someone is suffocating. Pecola’s experience of sex in this scene is overshadowed by the painful sensation of choking. She believes that sex has become a form asphyxiation. Cholly’s initial description of her love for sex and how it caused more damage than good predicts Pecola’s rape.

The relationship between pain and love changes dramatically within the experiences of Claudia and Pecola. Claudia is experiencing love that’s tinged with pain. The pain Claudia anticipates and feels intensifies love. It does not change it but enhances it. Claudia knows, from the love that she receives, that intense love can be painful. Claudia finds it bittersweet to be able to experience the intense pain of love.

Pecola, however, is a victim of a more sinister love. Cholly’s love for his daughter is comparable to the love the MacTeers have for Frieda and Claudia, but there are too many pains in his work. Cholly’s love is more painful than the MacTeers, who are known to be deeply in love. For the Breedloves family, pain doesn’t enhance or increase love. Instead, it envelops the emotion and obscures its true meaning.

Morrison said that she wrote The Bluest Eye based on the concepts of “beauty and miracles” as well as her own self-image (Otten 653). The novel’s core is a story of the limits and extents of love. The Bluest Eye portrays love as an assortment of emotions or actions that cause pain. This painful love may be a result of the racial and self-deprecating issues at the heart of the story. However, to reduce the relationship to cause and effect is to devalue Morrison’s depiction. The Bluest Eye portrays a love that is both ordinary and important. Suffering is nothing new. In fact, “heartache,” a term that’s commonplace in our culture, perfectly combines these two emotions. Morrison, on the other hand, presents love in a way that allows rapes to be viewed as acts of love. This is a revolutionary approach. Claudia and Pecola both experience sexual and familial love in a very different way, and they also endure the pain associated with it. Their experiences differ in how they deal with love and pain.

Cited Works

No, the original phrase should not be changed.

Morrison, Toni. Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, tells the story of a young African-American girl in the 1940s who is desperate to have blue eyes, believing that they will bring her beauty and acceptance. Vintage Books, Random House, Inc., New York, 1970.


Otten, Terry. Modern Fiction Studies 39.3-4.

(1993): 651-667. Project MUSE is a digital repository of scholarly materials. Web. November 22, 2009


  • tobyevans

    Toby Evans is an educational blogger and school teacher who uses her blog to share her ideas and experiences with her students and fellow educators. She is passionate about helping her students learn and grow, and uses her blog as a way to share her knowledge and insights with the world.