In all of her fiction, Toni Morrison explores the conflict between society and the individual. She shows how the individual who defies social pressures can forge a self by drawing on the resources of the natural world, on a sense of continuity within the family and within the history of a people, and on dreams and other unaccountable sources of psychic power. Many of her works also confront some sort of sexual depravity that has become a controlling influence on the lives of the characters.
The Bluest Eye
In The Bluest Eye, Morrison shows how society inflicts on its members an inappropriate standard of beauty and worth, a standard that mandates that to be loved one must meet the absolute “white” standard of blond hair and blue eyes. Morrison’s narrator says that two of the most destructive ideas in history are the idea of romantic love (canceling both lust and caring) and the idea of an absolute, univocal standard of beauty.
In the novel, the most extreme victim of these destructive ideas is Pecola, a young African American girl who finds refuge in madness after she has been thoroughly convinced of her own ugliness (confirmed when she is raped by her own father, Cholly). Mrs. Breedlove, Pecola’s mother, is another victim who gets her idea of an unvarying standard of beauty from romantic motion pictures that glorify white film stars. When she realizes the impassable gap between that ideal and her physical self (she has a deformed foot and two missing teeth), she also gives up any hope of maintaining a relationship with Cholly, her husband, except one of complete antagonism and opposition. Mrs. Breedlove even comes to prefer the little white girl she takes care of at work to her own daughter, Pecola, whom she has always perceived as ugly.
The ideal of unattainable physical beauty is reinforced by the sugary, unattainable world of the family depicted in school readers—of Mother and Father and Dick and Jane and their middle-class, suburban existence. The contrast between that false standard of life and the reality lived by the African American children in the novel makes them ashamed of their reality, of the physical intimacy of families in which the children have seen their fathers naked.
Although Pecola is thoroughly victimized, Freida and Claudia MacTeer, schoolmates of Pecola, do survive with some integrity and richness. Freida seems to accept Shirley Temple as the ideal of cuteness, but her sister Claudia, a center of consciousness in the novel, responds with anger and defiance, dismembering the hard, cold, smirking baby dolls she receives at Christmas. What Claudia really desires at Christmas is simply an experience of family closeness in the kitchen, an experience of flowers, fruit, and music, of security.
Claudia’s anger at the white baby dolls springs from a conviction of her own reality and her own worth. In defense of her own individuality, Claudia rejects Shirley Temple and “Meringue Pie,” the “high yellow” princess, Maureen Peal. It is that defense of her own reality that makes Claudia sympathize with Pecola and try to defend her, even to the point of sacrificing Freida’s money and her own.
Claudia is especially puzzled and regretful that nobody says “poor baby” to the raped Pecola, that nobody wants to welcome her unborn baby into the world. It would be only natural, “human nature,” it seems, for people to sympathize with a victim and rejoice at the creation of a human life. Instead, the springs of human sympathy have been dammed up by social disapproval. Suffering from the self-hatred they have absorbed from the society around them, the members of the black community maintain inflexible social standards and achieve respectability by looking down on Pecola. The two MacTeer sisters appeal to nature to help Pecola and her unborn baby, but nature fails them just as prayer did: No marigolds sprout and grow that year. The earth is unyielding. The baby is stillborn. Eventually, even the two girls become distanced from Pecola, whose only friend is an imaginary one, a part of herself who can see the blue eyes she was promised. Pecola functions as a scapegoat for the society around her, and Claudia’s sympathy later grows into an understanding of how the members of the black community used Pecola to protect themselves from scorn and insult. What finally flowers in Claudia is insight and a more conscious respect for her own reality.
Sula also explores the oppressive nature of white society toward African Americans, evident in the very name of the “Bottom,” a hillside community that had its origin in the duplicitous white treatment of an emancipated black slave who was promised fertile “bottom land” along with his freedom. In a bitterly ironic twist, the whites take over the hillside again when they want suburban houses that will catch the breeze. In taking back the Bottom, they destroy a place, a community with its own identity. In turn, the black community, corrupted by white society, rejects Sula for her experimenting with her life, for trying to live free like a man instead of accepting the restrictions of the traditional female role.
Sula provokes the reader to question socially accepted concepts of good and evil. As Sula is dying, she asks her girlhood friend Nel, “How do you know that you were the good one?” Although considered morally loose and a witch by the townspeople, the unconventional Sula cannot believe herself to be an inferior individual. Contrasting the traditional role of mother and churchwoman that Nel has embraced, Sula’s individuality is refreshing and intriguing. Despite her death, Sula maintains an independence that ultimately stands in proud opposition to the established network of relationships that exists within conventional society.
The novel shows that the Bottom society encompasses both good and evil. The people are accustomed to suffering and enduring evil. In varying degrees, they accept Eva’s murder of her drug-addict son, Plum, and Hannah’s seduction of their husbands, one after another. The community, nevertheless, cannot encompass Sula, a woman who thinks for herself without conforming to their sensibilities. They have to turn her into a witch, so that they can mobilize themselves against her “evil” and cherish their goodness. Without the witch, their goodness grows faint again. Like Pecola, Sula is made a scapegoat.
Growing up in the Bottom, Sula creates an identity for herself, first from the reality of physical experience. When she sees her mother, Hannah, burning up in front of her eyes, she feels curiosity. Her curiosity is as honest as Hannah’s admission that she loves her daughter Sula the way any mother would, but that she does not like her. Hearing her mother reject her individuality, Sula concludes that she has no one to count on except herself.
In forging a self, Sula also draws on sexual experience as a means of feeling both joy and sadness and as a means of feeling her own power. Sula does not substitute a romantic dream for the reality of that physical experience. She does finally desire a widening of that sexual experience into a continuing relationship with Ajax, but the role of nurturing and possession is fatal to her. Ajax leaves, and Sula sickens and dies.
A closeness to the elemental processes of nature gives a depth to the lives of the Bottom-dwellers, although nature does not act with benevolence or even with consistency. Plum and Hannah, two of Eva’s children, die by fire, one sacrificed by Eva and one ignited by capricious accident. Chicken Little and several of those who follow Shadrack on National Suicide Day drown because acts of play go wrong and inexplicably lead to their destruction. Sula’s supposed identity as a witch is connected to the plague of robins that coincides with her return to the Bottom. The people of the Bottom live within nature and try to make some sense of it, even though their constructions are strained and self-serving.
On one level, Sula refuses any connection with history and family continuity. Her grandmother Eva says that Sula should get a man and make babies, but Sula says that she would rather make herself. On the other hand, Sula is a descendant of the independent women Eva and Hannah, both of whom did what they had to do. It is at least rumored that Eva let her leg be cut off by a train so that she could get insurance money to take care of her three children when BoyBoy, her husband, abandoned her. When her husband died, Hannah needed “manlove,” and she got it from her neighbors’ husbands, despite community disapproval. In their mold, Sula is independent enough to threaten Eva with fire and to assert her own right to live, even if her grandmother does not like Sula’s way of living.
To flourish, Morrison suggests, conventional society needs an opposite pole. A richness comes from the opposition and the balance—from the difference—and an acceptance of that difference would make scapegoats unnecessary. The world of the Bottom becomes poorer when Sula dies.
Song of Solomon
In Song of Solomon, Morrison again traces the making of a self. The novel is a departure for Morrison in that theprotagonist is not female but a young man, Milkman Dead. Milkman grows up in a comfortable, insulated, middle-class African American family, the grandson of a doctor on his mother’s side and the son of a businessman, whose father owned his own farm. Son of a doting mother, Milkman is breast-fed a long time, the reason for his nickname, and is sent to school in velvet knickers. Guitar Baines, a Southside black, becomes Milkman’s friend and an ally against the other children’s teasing.
As the novel progresses, and as Milkman discovers the reality of his family and friends as separate people with their own griefs and torments, Milkman comes to feel that everyone wants him dead. (Ironically, Milkman’s last name actually is “Dead,” the result of a drunken clerk’s error when Milkman’s grandfather was registering with the Freedmen’s Bureau.) Milkman learns that his mere existence is extraordinary, as even before his birth, his father tried to kill him. Milkman survived that threat through the intercession of his mother and, especially, of his aunt, Pilate, a woman with no navel. After having been conjured by Pilate into making love to his wife again, years after he had turned against her, Macon Dead wanted the resulting baby aborted. Ruth, the baby’s mother, out of fear of her husband, took measures to bring about an abortion, but Pilate intervened again and helped Ruth to find the courage to save the child and bear him.
In the present action of the novel, Hagar, Milkman’s cousin, his first love and his first lover, pursues him month after month with whatever weapon she can find to kill him. Hagar wants Milkman’s living life, not his dead life, but Milkman has rejected her, out of boredom and out of fear that he will be maneuvered into marrying her. At this point, he does not want to be tied down—he wants freedom and escape.
Hagar, like Pecola of The Bluest Eye, feels unlovely and unloved, rejected because Milkman does not like her black, curly hair. Pilate says that Milkman cannot not love her hair without not loving himself because it is the same hair that grows from his own body. Hagar is another victim of an absolutely univocal standard of beauty, and she is a character who needs a supporting society, a chorus of aunts and cousins and sisters to surround her with advice and protection. Instead, she has only Pilate and Reba, grandmother and mother, two women so strong and independent that they do not understand her weakness. Unhinged by Milkman’s rejection of her, Hagar chases Milkman with various weapons, is repeatedly disarmed, and finally dies in total discouragement.
Trying to find out about his family’s past, Milkman travels to Virginia, to Shalimar, a black town, where the men in the general store challenge him to fight, and one attacks him with a knife. Milkman does not understand why these people want his life, but they think he has insulted and denied their masculinity with his powerful northern money and his brusque treatment of them, by not asking their names and not offering his own.
The most serious threat to Milkman’s life, however, turns out to be Guitar, Milkman’s friend and spiritual brother. When Guitar tries to kill Milkman, he is betraying the reality of their friendship for the idea of revenge against whites and compensation for the personal deprivation he has suffered. Guitar thinks that Milkman has a cache of gold that he is not sharing with him, so he decides to kill him. Guitar rationalizes his decision by saying that the money is for the cause, for the work of the Seven Days, a group of seven black men sworn to avenge the deaths of innocent blacks at the hands of the whites.
Milkman’s being alive at all, then, is a triumph, a victory that he slowly comes to appreciate after coming out of his comfortable shell of self-involvement. Unwillingly, Milkman comes to know the suffering and grief of his mother and father and even his sisters Magdalene and Corinthians. The decisive experience in his self-making, however, is the quest for Pilate’s gold on which his father sets him. In the first stage, the men are convinced that Pilate’s gold hangs in a green sack from the ceiling of her house, and Guitar and Milkman attempt to steal it. The two friends succeed in taking the sack because the women in the house are simply puzzled, wondering why the men want a sack that is really full of old bones. In leaving the house, however, the two men are arrested, and Pilate must rescue them and the bones by doing an Aunt Jemima act for the white policemen. Milkman’s father, Macon, is convinced that the gold still exists somewhere, and Milkman sets out to find it by going back to Pennsylvania, where Macon and Pilate grew up, and later to Virginia, where the previous generation lived.
Milkman’s making of a self includes many of the archetypal adventures of the heroes of legend and myth. Like other heroes of legend, Milkman limps, with one leg shorter than the other, a mark of his specialness. Like Oedipus’s parents, his parents try to kill him early in his...
(The entire section is 5883 words.)