as though some mysterious all-knowing master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ . . . [a]nd they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.
While the use of the word “master” suggests a connection to the history of slavery, the Breedloves’ ugliness has been both foisted on them and chosen, an identity that is destructive but that still gives a sense of meaning to their existence. Mrs. Breedlove’s sense of martyrdom is similar. While it is clear that in some sense she consents to, and even chooses, the abuse she takes from her husband, it is also clear that this abuse damages her. The violence gives her life meaning, gives her days dramatic shape, and gives her the opportunity to exercise her imagination, but it is clear that these things are deeply wrong. The meaning she finds is senseless violence, the dramatic shape is tragic, and this exercise of her imagination is self--destructive. It appears that the will to make meaning out of one’s life can be a negative power as well as a positive one, especially if one’s life has been damaged by mistreatment.
This chapter also introduces the symbolic story that Pecola fantasizes for her own life. She decides that if she had beautiful blue eyes, her life would magically right itself. She wants blue eyes for two reasons—so that she can change what she sees, and so that she can change how others see her. For Pecola, these reasons are interchangeable because she believes that how people see her (as ugly) creates what she sees (hurtful behavior). While her brother has the option of running away from these terrible domestic scenes, Pecola, a young girl with fewer choices, believes she can change what she sees only by changing herself. There are moments when she temporarily succeeds in breaking the destructive connection between what she sees and how people see her. When she considers that dandelions might be beautiful, she implicitly recognizes that beauty can be created by seeing rather than by being seen. By the same logic, she could redefine herself as beautiful even without blue eyes. But her humiliation at the grocer’s store reinforces the old idea that ugliness is inherent and cannot be changed by a different way of perceiving the world. When the grocer looks at her with a blankness tinged with distaste, she does not consider that he is ugly—she only considers herself to be so. After she leaves the grocery store, she briefly experiences a healthy anger, but it gives way to shame. Pecola interprets poor treatment and abuse as her own fault. She believes that the way people observe her is more real than what she herself observes.