Morrison, Toni (Vol. 10)
Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi
Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is a novel portraying in poignant terms the tragic condition of blacks in a racist America. In her criticism of American life, she has structured her work in triadic patterns beginning with the reproduction of a passage three different times as the first three paragraphs of the work. Other triadic patterns emerge in her presentation of the tragedy of black life in relation to blacks, whites, and God or existential circumstances worked out through her thematic approach involving the problems of sex, racism, and love (or the dearth of love); in the aspect of ritual expressed through the scapegoat mechanism with the cat, the dog, and the girl, Pecola, as agents; and in the typology in the characterization affecting the three black family women—Geraldine, Mrs. MacTeer, and Mrs. Breedlove—and the three black prostitutes—The Maginot Line, China, and Poland. The pattern is concretized by the dictum that is generally accepted in the social milieu of the novel, a dictum which is clearly expressed by Calvin Hernton: "if you are white you are all right; if you are brown you can stick around; but if you are black … get back."
The opening paragraph of the novel in its simplicity and clarity could have been taken from a primer. The paragraph deals, quite ironically it turns out, with a white American ideal of the family unit—cohesive, happy, with love enough to spare to pets. It is a fairy-tale world, a dream world, childlike in extreme—it is desirable, but for man, particularly the black man, it is unattainable. (p. 112)
After the orderliness of the first paragraph, the same passage is reproduced as the second paragraph but without punctuation marks. The lack of punctuation shows some disorder in a world that could be orderly; however, the world is still recognizable….
The third paragraph is a repetition of the first but without punctuation and without world division, and it demonstrates the utter breakdown of order among the Breedloves. Thus we have three possible family situations: first Geraldine's (a counterfeit of the idealized white family), further down the MacTeers', and at the bottom the Breedloves'. They are all manifestations of the social concept of the family, just as the first three paragraphs are identical except that circumstances have changed the premise implicit in the ideal of the first paragraph. The Mother-Father-Dick-Jane concept is finally transmuted to the Mrs. Breedlove-Cholly-Sammy-Pecola situation. The transmutation is Morrison's indirect criticism of the white majority for the black family's situation and for what is taught to the black child in...
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[Song of Solomon] moves slowly, but with gathering momentum, into the heart of that myth-making impulse, pressing ever deeper on the human pain that is its motive force….
As readers of her previous novels, The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1974), know, Toni Morrison is an extraordinarily good writer. Two pages into anything she writes, one feels the power of her language and the emotional authority behind that language. The world she creates is thick with an atmosphere through which her characters move slowly, in pain, ignorance, and hunger. And to a very large degree Morrison has the compelling ability to make one believe that all of us (Morrison, the characters, the reader) are penetrating that dark and hurtful terrain—the feel of a human life—simultaneously.
Unfortunately, in Song of Solomon, Morrison's ability is not exercised to the largest degree. At a certain point one begins to feel a manipulativeness in the book's structure, and then to sense that the characters are moving to fulfill the requirements of that structure. Once this happens, the plausibility of Milkman's search into the mythic, magical heart of the fear of leaving childhood—the book's central metaphor—begins to disintegrate. Revelations seem to be set up like pieces on a chessboard, and the "magic" loses its ability to command suspended disbelief.
With any other writer, this could be...
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Toni Morrison's first two books—"The Bluest Eye" with the purity of its terrors and "Sula" with its dense poetry and the depth of its probing into a small circle of lives—were strong novels. Yet, firm as they both were in achievement and promise, they didn't fully forecast her new book, "Song of Solomon." Here the depths of the younger work are still evident, but now they thrust outward, into wider fields, for longer intervals, encompassing many more lives. The result is a long prose tale that surveys nearly a century of American history as it impinges upon a single family. In short, this is a full novel—rich, slow enough to impress itself upon us like a love affair or a sickness….
"Song of Solomon" isn't, however, cast in the basically realistic mode of most family novels. In fact, its negotiations with fantasy, fable, song and allegory are so organic, continuous and unpredictable as to make any summary of its plot sound absurd; but absurdity is neither Morrison's strategy nor purpose. The purpose seems to be communication of painfully discovered and powerfully held convictions about the possibility of transcendence within human life, on the time-scale of a single life. The strategies are multiple and depend upon the actions of a large cast of black Americans, most of them related by blood. But after the loving, comical and demanding polyphony of the early chapters …, the theme begins to settle on one character and to...
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[Song of Solomon] and to an even greater extent Morrison's earlier novels The Bluest Eye and Sula,… entirely concern black people who violate, victimize, and kill each other…. No relationships endure, and all are founded on exploitation. The victimization of blacks by whites is implicit but not the subject. The picture given by … Morrison of the plight of the decent, aspiring individual in the black family and community is more painful than the gloomiest impressions encouraged by either stereotype or sociology….
Song of Solomon is a picaresque and allegorical saga of a middle-class northern black family, the Deads, in particular of the son Milkman Dead, but also of parents, sisters, aunts, cousins, and, when Milkman eventually travels south in search of treasure and family history, of numerous distant connections. The resemblance to Roots is perhaps the least satisfying thing about the book; the characters are apt at any moment to burst into arias of familial lore less interesting than their immediate predicaments….
Here, as in Morrison's earlier and perhaps more affecting work, human relationships are symbolized by highly dramatic events. In Sula a mother pours gasoline over her son and lights it, and, in another place, a young woman watches with interest while her mother burns. But the horrors, rather as in Dickens, are nearly deprived of their grisliness by the...
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Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is a fine novel exuberantly constructed and stylistically full of the author's own delight in words. Morrison has a strong narrative voice and much of her novel's charm comes from an oral tradition, the love of simply telling, for example, how places and people got their names and how these names—Not Doctor Street, Ryna's Gulch, a boy called Milkman, Mr. Solomon, women known as Pilate, Sing and Sweet—contain history. There is an enchantment in Morrison's naming, a heightening of reality and language. Though each name is almost mythical it can be explained factually…. In Song of Solomon lives are as strange as folk tales and no less magical when they are at last construed.
Toni Morrison has written a chronicle of a black family living in a small industrial city on the shores of Lake Michigan, but the method of the book is to enlarge upon the very idea of family history, to scrape away at lore until truth is revealed. (pp. 185-86)
Song of Solomon is so rich in its use of common speech, so sophisticated in its use of literary traditions and language from the Bible to Faulkner, that I must add it is also extremely funny. Toni Morrison has a wonderful eye for the pretensions of genteel blacks and the sort of crude overstatements made by small time revolutionaries. Like many fine artists she dares to be corny—there is a funeral scene worthy of Dickens in which a crazed old woman sings "Who's been botherin' my baby girl" over her daughter, a poor deluded creature who has died of a broken heart. And like many great novels at the core it is a rather simple story of a boy growing to maturity…. As for myth, Toni Morrison knows it's dead material unless you give it life—that's art. (p. 186)
Maureen Howard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Spring, 1978.