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Reading The Bluest Eye with Dick and Jane

November 9, 2015

Toni Morrison begins The Bluest Eye with what might be an unfamiliar reference. The first page of the novel starts with the following abrupt sentences: “Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house.” Those lines–and others like them–reappear from time to time, often at the beginning of major sections of the book. With each repetition, the words become increasingly garbled and indistinct.

The lines are meant to echo a series of children’s books that was popular during the 1940s and50s. The books were primers, intended to help young children learn to read, and they featured a “typical” family–a mother, a father, and three children. Dick_and_JaneBecause they reflected the wholesome values of mid-century, mainstream America, the adventures of Dick, Jane, and Sally were a common feature of early education for many students.

Given the nature of the images here, it probably isn’t difficult to see how Morrison, an African-American author, is working against some of the assumptions about American life that are evident in the Dick and Jane readers. I think it’s useful, though, to consider how we might read The Bluest Eye in light of – or in response to – these children’s books. How does Morrison use this text as a source in constructing an argument with her novel? How does Pecola’s narrative problematize the version of reality we get in “The World of Dick and Jane,” and what is the result when those problems go unacknowledged?

You can read more about the Dick and Jane books here at the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_and_Jane.

Or here, at the web site for a past rare books exhibit at the University of Virginia: http://rarebookschool.org/all-programs/exhibitions/dick-and-jane/.

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