“Beauty”, as defined by the Encarta Dictionary is ‘pleasing personal appearance'. The Bluest Eye is set in the nineteen-sixties; a time when one’s perception of beauty was heavily influenced by the colour of one’s skin and the household they grew up in, among other factors.
To this effect, it is seen that Pecola and Claudia – two young black girls, have very different understandings on what beauty is in general, and what it means to them personally.
Claudia lives in a loving and caring household as opposed to Pecola who lives in a household that is the epitome of the blacks’ self-hatred of their ‘ugliness’. This is so profound that Pecola’s own parents deemed her an ‘ugly child’ when she was born. It is this that differentiates Pecola from Claudia, and even though Claudia is also a victim of these biased ‘universal standards of beauty’, she is able to transcend the devastating consequences of society’s perception of the beautiful woman for a number of reasons:
First, Claudia is not the stereotypical girl of her age in that she is not infatuated with having ‘blue eyes and blonde hair’. She detests Shirley Temple and casually sweeps aside all the hype surrounding her. In doing so, she rejects what the world has accepted as ‘universal standards of beauty’. When she was given a doll (“The big, the special, the loving gift was always a big, blue-eyed Baby Doll”, (page 13)) she did not know what to do with it. In fact, she destroys it to literally try and ‘find’ the ‘beauty’, as if ‘beauty’ was a thing – represented by an object. However, this is not the case, and considering the definition of beauty as being ‘pleasing personal appearance’, it is clear that Claudia completely ignores this ‘pleasing appearance’ – meaning that she sees nothing pleasing about the appearance of the doll.
Moreover, in Claudia not knowing what to do with the doll and wanting to dismember it to find out where this supposed beauty lies, she, indirectly and quite out-rightly, rejects these universal standards of beauty.
This is confirmed when she says:
The other dolls, which were supposed to bring me great pleasure, succeeded in doing quite the opposite. When I took it to bed, its hard unyielding limbs resisted my flesh – the tapered fingertips on those dimpled hands scratched. If, in sleep, I turned, the bone-cold head collided with my own. It was a most uncomfortable, patently aggressive sleeping companion. To hold it was no more rewarding. (pages 13 and 14)
In the lines above, Claudia vividly describes everything that is wrong with the doll. Instead of being something that would calm and relax her, something that would keep her occupied for long periods of time, the doll was a source of agitation and discomfort to Claudia. She also says:
“I could love it. But I could examine it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable. Break off the tiny fingers, bend the flat feet, loosen the hair, twist the head around, and the thing made one sound – a sound they said was the sweet and plaintive cry “Mama”, but which sounded to me like the bleat of a dying lambâ€¦ (page 14)
Perhaps, in trying to find this ‘beauty’ (and in the process, dissecting the doll) Claudia is trying to find the source of the white ‘superiority’, and when she is not able to find this beauty, for her, personally, this white superiority is ended. Thus, mentally, she is now in a frame of mind that allows her to transcend the devastating consequences of society’s perception if the beautiful woman.
Furthermore, a sense of individuality and uniqueness is brought out when Claudia says “From the clucking sounds of the adults I knew that the doll represented what they thought was my fondest wish”, (page 13). Even the adults, who were black, had come to accept these ‘white’ standards of beauty, and in giving such a gift to their daughter, they are effectively advocating these standards of beauty to their children. But Claudia has this individuality about her and this is explicitly portrayed when her mother says “You-don’t-know-how-to-take-care-of-nothing. I-never-had-a-baby-doll-in-my-whole-life-and-used-to-cry-my-eyes-out-for-them. Now-you-got-a-beautiful-one-and-you-tear-it-up-what’s-the-matter-with-you?” This just shows that even Mrs. MacTeer was surprised when Claudia destroyed the doll she was given for Christmas. However, it can also be noted that Mrs. MacTeer expected Claudia to like the doll. This could be for two reasons – one, because other girls of her age like dolls, and two – because she liked dolls when she was young (as she says so). In making this sweeping generalization, it can be inferred that the adults did not take into account the individual likes and dislikes of people, and their entire belief that Claudia would like the doll was grounded on the assumption that because they liked dolls, their children would also like dolls.
Second, Claudia is an extremely compassionate girl, who shows maturity beyond her age. Unlike Pecola, – who is submissive – Claudia is brave and stands up for her beliefs. Initially, she dissevers the doll that she is given as a present just because she doesn’t like dolls. Then, she defends Pecola when she is surrounded by the group of boys. Finally, in order to save Pecola’s baby, Freida and Claudia sacrifice money and their bicycle to ensure that “the baby that everybody wanted dead” (page 149) survives. Claudia tells the reader that the only reason that explains her bravery is “Our limitations were not known to us – not then.” (page 150). This then implies that she was not affected by, or had not yet been exposed to the self-hatred that was so prevalent amongst the rest of the society. In addition, she is not affected by the universal standards of beauty that Pecola has succumbed to.
Thus, her compassion and bravery allow her to transcend the devastating consequences of society’s perception if the beautiful woman.
Third, Claudia’s response to Maureen Peal is an interesting one. Initially, like everyone else, Claudia is jealous of Maureen, the attention she enjoys at school, and the popularity she quickly gains. She, like everyone else, wants all that Maureen has. However, this soon changes, and Claudia no longer feels jealous of or threatened by Maureen. She stays true to her beliefs, and does not embrace Maureen’s supposed superiority that is based on her ‘beauty’. She does however realise that there is something that the MacTeers and Pecola lack, which Maureen has, that makes her ‘beautiful’ in the eyes of society. Crucially, Claudia is clever enough to realise that she does not hate Maureen – but rather she hates what makes Maureen beautiful. It is this actualisation that allows her to see through this façade of supposed beauty that Maureen has brought with her and hence transcend the devastating consequences of society’s perception of the beautiful woman.
Fourth, are the differences in the household Claudia lives in versus the household Pecola lives in. Not only does the household make a difference, but also the parents of the respective girls – i.e. Pauline and Mrs. MacTeer. Pauline essentially rejects her own child to go and work for a rich white family. She enjoys maintaining a meticulous home for these white ‘masters’ and ensures that the white baby girl is looked after and loved (“She became what is known as an ideal servant, for such a role filled practically all her needs” (page 98)).
These are courtesies that she does not even extend to her own family. A prime example of this misdirected malignant care is when the boiling-hot blueberry pie falls on Pecola when she is in the kitchen of Pauline’s workplace. Even though Pecola gets severely burnt, her mother pays more attention to white girl who is crying and wondering what will be of the spilt pie. Moreover, Pauline then turns on Pecola and tackles her to the floor where she almost beats her for being so silly and clumsy.
Claudia’s home, on the other hand, is stable and she finds love and support within her family. Unlike Cholly and Pauline, who keep on having violent fights and have to mutually agree not to kill each other, Claudia’s parents are more loving and caring toward their children. Thus, the atmosphere in the MacTeer house is not like that in the Breedlove home – one that is unsuitable for a family and especially for a baby girl like Pecola (who already suffers from being darker than everyone else and who thinks that having blue eyes will make her beautiful just because society thinks that having blue eyes makes one beautiful).
In this way, Claudia receives this integral moral support from her family – including her sister, Freida – and it is support (that Pecola lacks) that enables her to evade the consequences of society’s perception of the beautiful woman.
There are several factors, incidents and instances that steer Claudia away from emulating the ‘universal standards of beauty’ but it is the combination of all of these that allow her to transcend the devastating consequences of society’s perception of the beautiful woman.