Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. Her mother’s family had come to Ohio from Alabama via Kentucky, and her father had migrated from Georgia. Morrison grew up with a love of literature and received her undergraduate degree from Howard University. She received a master’s degree from Cornell University, completing a thesis on William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Afterward, she taught at Texas Southern University and then at Howard, in Washington, D.C., where she met Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica. The marriage lasted six years, and Morrison gave birth to two sons. She and her husband divorced while she was pregnant with her second son, and she returned to Lorain to give birth. She then moved to New York and became an editor at Random House, specializing in black fiction. During this difficult and somewhat lonely time, she began working on her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which was published in 1970.
Morrison’s first novel was not an immediate success,
but she continued to write. Sula, which appeared
in 1973, was more successful, earning a nomination
for the National Book Award. In 1977, Song of
Solomon launched Morrison’s national reputation, winning
her the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Her most well-known work, Beloved, appeared
The Bluest Eye contains a number of
autobiographical elements. It is set in the town where Morrison
grew up, and it is told from the point of view of a nine-year-old,
the age Morrison would have been the year the novel takes place
While its historical context is clear, the literary context of The Bluest Eye is more complex. Faulkner and Woolf, whose work Morrison knew well, influenced her style. She uses the modernist techniques of stream-of-consciousness, multiple perspectives, and deliberate fragmentation. But Morrison understands her work more fundamentally as part of a black cultural tradition and strives to create a distinctively black literature. Her prose is infused with black musical traditions such as the spirituals, gospel, jazz and the blues. She writes in a black vernacular, full of turns of phrase and figures of speech unique to the community in which she grew up, with the hope that if she is true to her own particular experience, it will be universally meaningful. In this way, she attempts to create what she calls a “race-specific yet race-free prose.”
In the afterword to The Bluest Eye, Morrison explains her goal in writing the novel. She wants to make a statement about the damage that internalized racism can do to the most vulnerable member of a community—a young girl. At the same time, she does not want to dehumanize the people who wound this girl, because that would simply repeat their mistake. Also, she wants to protect this girl from “the weight of the novel’s inquiry,” and thus decides to tell the story from multiple perspectives. In this way, as she puts it, she “shape[s] a silence while breaking it,” keeping the girl’s dignity intact.