Morrison, Toni (Vol. 194)
Toni Morrison 1931-
(Born Chloe Anthony Wofford) American novelist, nonfiction writer, essayist, playwright, and children's writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Morrison's career through 2003. See also Toni Morrison Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 4, 10, 22.
Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first African American to win this honor. Morrison's novels explore issues of African-American female identity in stories that integrate elements of the oral tradition, postmodern literary techniques, and magical realism to give voice to the experiences of women living on the margins of white American society. As a best-selling African-American female author, Morrison represented a breakthrough for other black women novelists to succeed in the mainstream publishing industry. She received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Song of Solomon (1977), the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Beloved (1987), and the 1996 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Four of her novels were chosen for the Oprah Winfrey national book club, and Beloved was adapted to film as a major motion picture produced by and starring Winfrey.
Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford, on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, where her father worked as a ship welder. She was very close in age to her sister, with whom she formed a strong bond that has continued throughout her life. Morrison was encouraged by her family to read, and spent much of her childhood at the local library. She graduated with a B.A. from Howard University in 1953, and went on to complete an M.A. in English literature at Cornell University in 1955. She was married in 1958 and had two sons, but divorced in 1964, and became a single mother. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she worked as an instructor at Texas Southern University in Houston and at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She served as an editor for Random House publishers from 1965 to 1983. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), was expanded from a short story she had written while still in college. Although The Bluest Eye received scant notice at first, Morrison's career as a nationally recognized author was launched with the success of Sula (1973), her second novel, after which The Bluest Eye was retrospectively given renewed consideration as an important work of fiction. While continuing to write novels and children's books, as well as editing several essay collections on issues of race in America, Morrison has taught as a guest professor in English and humanities at a number of colleges and universities, including the State University of New York at Albany and at Purchase, Yale University, Bard College, Harvard University, and Trinity College at Cambridge University in England. Since 1989, she has maintained a post as professor of humanities at Princeton University.
Morrison's overarching thematic concern throughout her oeuvre is with issues of African-American female identity in the contemporary world. Her novels offer complex examinations of problems within the African-American community, power dynamics between men and women, and issues of racism in relations between black and white America. Morrison's primary interest lies with the experiences of African-American women, whose quests for individual identity are integrally intertwined with their community and their cultural history. Her fictions are self-consciously concerned with myth, legend, storytelling, and the oral tradition, as well as with memory, history, and historiography, and have thus been recognized as postmodern meta-narratives. Morrison's stories are conscious of African cultural heritage as well as African-American history, thus demonstrating the importance of the past to the struggles of contemporary African Americans. She employs strong elements of Black English in her dialogue and narration to express the importance of language in the formation of identity. Her novels often employ elements of magic, fantasy, and the supernatural, such as the character in Song of Solomon who can fly, or the ghost of a dead child who appears in Beloved. The Bluest Eye, her first novel, is set in the 1940s and addresses issues of race and beauty standards through the figure of Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old African-American girl who dreams of having blue eyes and long, blond hair. After Pecola is raped by her father and becomes pregnant as a result, she descends into insanity and insists that she has “the bluest eyes in the whole world.” Morrison's next three novels, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby (1981), are generally regarded as a trilogy. Sula centers on the powerful bonds of friendship between Sula Peace and Nel Wright, who meet as girls and maintain their friendship into adulthood. This bond is ruptured, however, when Nel finds her husband in bed with Sula. In Sula, Morrison explores the importance of female friendship in the formation of individual identity, which in reality is often superseded by women's relationships with men. Song of Solomon centers on the character of Milkman Dead, who is born in the North but journeys to the South, where he discovers that he is a descendant of Solomon, a member of a mythical West African tribe whose members can fly. According to legend, these Africans, captured and enslaved in America, escaped their bondage by flying back to Africa. Song of Solomon explores issues of African-American history and myth in the formation of individual identity. Tar Baby is set on the Isle de Chevaliers in the Caribbean, in contemporary times. With the character of Jadine Childs, a successful fashion model and student of art history, Tar Baby examines the dilemmas of assimilation and cultural identity among middle-class African Americans. Morrison's subsequent three novels, Beloved, Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1998), are often loosely grouped as another trilogy, each set in a different period of African-American history: Beloved takes place during the post-Civil War era, with flashbacks to the years of slavery in the South; Jazz is set during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s; and Paradise is set during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and 1970s. Beloved combines elements of magical realism with the tradition of the African-American slave narrative in the story of Halle, a former slave struggling to raise her children in the post-Civil War era. Halle once killed her own infant in order to save it from a life of slavery, and the ghost of this dead child comes back to haunt her home as an adolescent girl called Baby Suggs. Jazz concerns a romantic triangle between a woman named Violet, her husband Joe, and an eighteen-year-old girl named Dorcas, whom Joe falls in love with. Joe's passion for Dorcas ultimately results in his shooting and killing her. Enraged by her husband's betrayal, Violet goes to the girl's funeral and cuts the face of the corpse with a knife. As Barbara Williams Lewis pointed out in her essay “The Function of Jazz in Toni Morrison's Jazz,” Morrison's narrative structure and voice in Jazz are based on the structural elements of jazz music. Paradise explores the tensions between the all-black town of Ruby and an all-women convent located on the outskirts of the town. Threatened by the empowerment of women within the convent community, the men of Ruby invade it and massacre the women living there. Love (2003) takes place at the site of a once-luxurious vacation resort catering to African-American visitors. Narrated by L., the former cook at the closed-down resort, Love concerns the internecine struggles between two women, Heed and Christine, over the affections of Bill Cosey, the now-deceased owner of the resort. Heed and Christine began as girlhood friends. Their friendship was destroyed, however, when Cosey, Christine's fifty-two-year-old grandfather, purchased the eleven-year-old Heed from her parents so that he could take her as his child bride. Heed and Christine, now old women, both live in the mansion of the closed-down resort, fiercely battling one another over the ambiguous and still-unsettled will Cosey had scribbled on a restaurant menu. Love examines the different types of love felt by Heed, Christine, and several other women for the deceased man who was—and remains after death—the center of their lives.
Morrison's novels have been almost universally praised by reviewers, and have been the subject of numerous academic books and essays in the fields of gender studies, ethnic studies, postmodern theory, literary theory, and cultural studies. Many critics praised Morrison's complex treatment of issues of African-American identity in her novels. Gurleen Grewal expressed Morrison's concern with African-American identity throughout her oeuvre in stating, “African Americans must negotiate a place for themselves within a dominant culture; how they situate themselves with respect to their own history and culture is a pervasive theme of Morrison's novels.” Yvonne Atkinson described Morrison's use of Black English as central to her narrative voice, asserting, “Morrison has enveloped the written word in the oral tradition: the use of words from Black English and rituals and style of the oral tradition enhance her texts, and the systems of language, the style, and the lexicon of Black English that Morrison uses in her novels bear Witness to African-American culture.” Karla K. Holloway examined the ways in which Morrison utilizes a lyrical narrative voice in The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon to express African-American experience and construct a sense of cultural identity in the African Diaspora. Holloway asserted, “Morrison's novels recall a West African version of reality that allows the coexistence of the spiritual and physical worlds within the same narrative spaces. In these spaces, mythic voices reconstruct an African-American universe.” Rob Davidson commented on the ways in which Morrison's Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise, loosely grouped as a trilogy, function as meta-narratives about the construction of African-American identity; Davidson stated, “One of the most important concerns in the trilogy is the ‘use value’ of narrative. Storytelling is historiography in Morrison's fiction, and in each novel she carefully examines the role of narrative in the reconstitution of both the individual self and society at large.” In an entry on Toni Morrison for the book Postmodernism: Key Figures, Thomas B. Howe observed that Morrison's use of multiple narrative voices in many of her fictions is a key element of her work. Howe noted, “Morrison's fictions repeatedly challenge cultural traditions defined by patriarchal, assimilationist, and totalizing standards. Ever since her first novel … she has set herself in opposition to the European American white mainstream by portraying and celebrating unique, powerful voices of marginalized women from American history and contemporary American life.”
Love, Morrison's latest novel, has been met with rave reviews. Thulani Davis observed, “A distillation of many of [Morrison's] earlier themes, notably the theft of girlhood and wars over times now gone, Love is a rich parable about the damaging past as a demagogue ruling the present.” Adam Langer commented, “Taut and uncompromising, Love is a compact meditation on the aftermath of the civil rights movement, a chilling ghost story about a friendship destroyed by the whims of a wealthy and respected patriarch, an epic saga about the generation gap, a concise reflection on the African-American experience in the twentieth century.” Deborah E. McDowell noted that Love may be regarded as “a retrospective or compendium” of Morrison's thematic treatment of love in her earlier works. McDowell observed that Morrison's oeuvre as a whole represents “a philosophical journey into the heart of love, at times a darkened continent blazed by Morrison's luminous prose, her dazzling lyricism, her labor of love.”
The Bluest Eye (novel) 1970
Sula (novel) 1973
The Black Book [editor] (nonfiction) 1974
Song of Solomon (novel) 1977
Tar Baby (novel) 1981
Dreaming Emmett (play) 1986
Beloved (novel) 1987
Jazz (novel) 1992
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (essays) 1992
Rac-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality [editor and author of introduction] (essays) 1992
*The Dancing Mind (speech) 1997
Paradise (novel) 1998
The Big Box [with Slade Morrison; illustrations by Giselle Potter] (juvenilia) 1999
I See You, I See Myself: The Young Life of Jacob Lawrence [with Deba Foxley Leach, Suzanne Wright, and Deborah J. Leach] (juvenilia) 2001
Book of Mean People [with Slade Morrison; illustrations by Pascal Lemaître] (juvenilia) 2002
Love (novel) 2003
Who's Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper? [with Slade Morrison] (juvenilia) 2003
*This work contains the text of Morrison's 1996 acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution...
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SOURCE: Holloway, Karla F. C. “The Lyrical Dimensions of Spirituality: Music, Voice, and Language in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” In Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, edited by Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones, pp. 197-211. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Holloway examines Morrison's use of lyrical female voices in The Bluest Eye and The Song of Solomon as a celebration of African-American spirituality and cultural identity.]
In the final pages of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, an aged, weary, and dying Pilate grants her nephew Milkman her supreme gift—she gives him her voice and urges him to sing. His song, “Oh Sugargirl don't leave me here” that “he could not stop … from coming,” is a passioned embrace of his lineage. Through voicing the “worn old words” of the text that links him to his past, Milkman acknowledges his ancestry.1
Passages like this indicate the ways in which Morrison's literary voice is linked to ancestral and modern voices of the black diaspora. As I read this novel, a distant memory of my mother's singing crystallized. Mother's voice, a constant hymn throughout my childhood, is connected to the voices of my grandmothers, churchwomen, and my black teachers. I remember all of their tones with great specificity, and their words constantly invade my...
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SOURCE: Furman, Jan. “Black Girlhood and Black Womanhood: The Bluest Eye and Sula.” In Toni Morrison's Fiction, pp. 12-33. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Furman examines the significance of family and community to developing a personal sense of African-American female identity in Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Sula.]
From the beginning of her writing career Morrison has exercised a keen scrutiny of women's lives. The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison's first and second novels, are to varying extents about black girlhood and black womanhood, about women's connections to their families, their communities, to the larger social networks outside the community, to men, and to each other. Lending themselves to a reading as companion works, the novels complement one another thematically and may, in several ways, be viewed sequentially.1 (Morrison calls her first four novels “evolutionary. One comes out of the other.”2 In The Bluest Eye she was “interested in talking about black girlhood,” and in Sula she “wanted to move to the other part of their life.” She wanted to ask, “what … do those feisty little girls grow up to be?”)3The Bluest Eye directs a critical gaze at the process and symbols of imprinting the self during childhood and at what happens to the...
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SOURCE: Lewis, Barbara Williams. “The Function of Jazz in Toni Morrison's Jazz.” In Toni Morrison's Fiction: Contemporary Criticism, edited by David L. Middleton, pp. 271-81. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.
[In the following essay, Lewis argues that Morrison's Jazz may be categorized as a “jazz novel,” in that the narrative structure of the story is based on stylistic techniques of jazz music.]
It don't mean a thing If it ain't got that swing. Doo wop, doo wop, doo wop, doo wah …
—Duke Ellington, 1932
If we look at the beginning and end of Toni Morrison's Jazz, the novel appears to be structurally backwards. The opening paragraph tells the whole story: Joe Trace
… fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church.
So, we know what happens and to whom. But these few lines “ain't got that swing,” and are essentially meaningless until we read the rest of the book. Once we get to the end, however, we are left with the impression that the story is unfinished, will continue, and will repeat itself....
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SOURCE: Grewal, Gurleen. “Prospero's Spell and the Question of Resistance: Tar Baby.” In Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison, pp. 79-95. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Grewal asserts that Morrison's Tar Baby examines African-American struggles over issues of identity in a postmodern, postcolonial world.]
And neither world thought the other world's thought, save with a vague unrest.
—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
Ninety-five per cent of my people poor ninety-five per cent of my people black ninety-five per cent of my people dead you have heard it all before O Leviticus O Jeremiah O Jean-Paul Sartre
and now I see that these modern palaces have grown out of the soil, out of the bad habits of their crippled owners the Chrysler stirs but does not produce cotton the Jupiter purrs but does not produce bread
out of the living stone, out of the living bone of coral, these dead towers; out of the coney islands of our mind-
less architects, this death of sons, of songs, of sunshine; out of this dearth of coo ru coos, home- less pigeons, this perturbation that does not signal health.
—Edward Brathwaite, “Caliban”
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SOURCE: Atkinson, Yvonne. “Language that Bears Witness: The Black English Oral Tradition in the Works of Toni Morrison.” In The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable, edited by Marc C. Conner, pp. 12-30. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
[In the following essay, Atkinson argues that the Black English oral tradition, grounded in African-American culture, forms the foundation of Morrison's fiction.]
Toni Morrison has said, “I tend not to explain things very much, but I long for a critic who will know what I mean when I say ‘church’ or ‘community,’ or when I say ‘ancestor,’ or ‘chorus.’ Because my books come out of those things and represent how they function in the [B]lack cosmology” (McKay, “Interview” 151). As this comment confirms, the oral tradition of Black English is the foundation of Morrison's work.
Language is more than a form of communication: it reveals the concepts that shape the significance and legacy beyond the word itself. Language defines a culture's style and method of looking at life and the individual's place within that culture. It is also “the margin,” the demarcator of beauty, and the repository of a culture's defining boundaries: right, wrong, good, bad, and its liminal thresholds (Kristeva, “Ethics” 231; see also O. Davis). The study of language requires that the researcher acknowledge that the...
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SOURCE: Duvall, John N. “The Authorized Morrison: Reflexivity and the Historiographic.” In The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison: Modernist Authenticity and Postmodern Blackness, pp. 119-51. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
[In the following essay, Duvall examines elements of metafiction in relation to African-American female identity in Morrison's Beloved,Jazz, and Paradise.]
With Tar Baby, Morrison lays to rest much of her anxiety about her identity as an African-American woman novelist. This is what I mean by “the authorized Morrison.” She has in the course of her preceding fictions largely authorized herself, constructing a powerful position from which to write and speak. If this study contributes anything to an understanding of Morrison, it is the way her identifying fictions—her first four novels—do not simply thematize identity formation, they perform it. As I have argued, it is a highly self-reflexive process: as Morrison writes, she enacts the identity she was not certain she had, thereby constituting that very identity. The Morrison who writes Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise is more confident that the funk can rise economically; in other words, she feels less inclined to celebrate a black identity exclusively linked to poverty.
No longer needing to allegorize her struggle to become an authentic African-American woman, Morrison nevertheless, at various moments in her later historiographic trilogy, continues to meditate on authorship and the social role the artist may play in relation to the community. I do not intend my discussion of Morrison's latest three novels to be full and complete readings; rather, I want to place these fictions in the context that this study has emphasized—the autobiographical impulses that animate various moments within the writing. Although no longer as prominent a feature as it was in her earlier novels, the reflexive contemplation Morrison begins on authorship with Soaphead Church in The Bluest Eye continues through such characters in her historiographic trilogy as Baby Suggs, Sethe's mother-in-law in Beloved; the unnamed, disembodied narrator of Jazz, who is strong enough to question her own productive powers; and a final marginal figure from Paradise, Patricia Best, the light-complexioned black woman whose historical writing interprets the hidden meaning of genealogy in the all-black town of Ruby, Oklahoma.
NO UNCLE TOM: BABY SUGGS, ARTIST OF THE BODILY SPIRIT
Certainly no American text of the sort I am discussing was ever written for black people—no more than Uncle Tom's Cabin was written for Uncle Tom to read or be persuaded by.
—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark
Previously, I have used Morrison's interviews and criticism to create various purchases on her fiction. I would like, however, to move in a different direction here to suggest that Beloved may provide clues about Morrison's developing critical sensibility, a sensibility that would manifest itself a year after the publication of her fifth novel in her lecture, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” In other words, how does Morrison's fifth novel look if one reads it for her development of a critique of Enlightenment impulses in nineteenth-century American literature? For Morrison, Stowe's failure to acknowledge the black reader means that Uncle Tom's Cabin exemplifies the larger failure of the American novel to recognize its implication in the construction of racism (Playing 16-17). Certainly in Morrison's fictional rendering of slavery, the African-American reader is always addressed. But Morrison's relation to Stowe, I wish to argue, goes beyond a passing comment to the intertextual fabric of Beloved.
In Beloved, Morrison begins to make a clearer turn to a fiction that is historiographic in the sense Linda Hutcheon has identified as postmodern. For Hutcheon, novels such as Beloved “juxtapose what we think we know of the past (from official archival sources and personal memory)” with alternative representations that emphasize “the postmodern epistemological questioning of the nature of historical knowledge”; such an emphasis allows the reader to ask, “Which ‘facts’ make it into history? And whose facts?” (Politics 71). Morrison's turn toward alternative history is signaled by Beloved's most immediate intertext, the archive of slave narratives in general and more particularly the story of Margaret Garner.1 While working at Random House, Morrison served as the unacknowledged editor for an alternative history of everyday African Americans, The Black Book (1974), a portion of which included excerpts from slave narratives. Later Morrison came across Garner's story. While working on Beloved in 1985, Morrison claims to have known about Garner only through a “newspaper clipping”; however, as the novelist continues discussing Garner's escape from Kentucky, Morrison reveals a familiarity that seems to exceed a single newspaper clipping:
[Garner] lived in a little neighborhood just outside of Cincinnati and she had killed her children. She succeeded in killing one; she tried to kill two others. She hit them in the head with a shovel and they were wounded but they didn't die. And there was a smaller one that she had at her breast. The interesting thing, in addition to that, was the interviews that she gave. She was a young woman. In the inked pictures of her she seemed a very quiet, very serene-looking woman and everyone who interviewed her remarked about her serenity and tranquility. She said, “I will not let those children live how I have lived.”
Morrison goes on to tell about Garner's mother-in-law's reaction to the killing. More recently Morrison responded to a question regarding her reading of slave narratives and their relation to Beloved:
I wouldn't read them for information because I knew that they had to be authenticated by white patrons, that they couldn't say everything they wanted to say because they couldn't alienate their audience […]. Their narratives had to be very understated. So while I looked at the documents and felt familiar with slavery and overwhelmed by it, I wanted it to be truly felt. I wanted to translate the historical into the personal.
Claiming little specific knowledge (nor wanting more regarding Garner), Morrison can presumably merge fiction and history in a fashion that will personalize and politicize the past. The earlier quotation, however, suggests that Morrison is more aware of the historical record concerning Garner than she admits, and the reason may have something to do with a desire to conceal another intertext, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.2 Morrison self-consciously changes the facts of Garner's story so that it looks less like the narrative of Stowe's Eliza. Margaret Garner, like Eliza, escapes across the partially frozen Ohio River; Morrison, however, changes this detail in Sethe's crossing of the Ohio.3 This is an interesting twist on an author-directed form of intertextuality. Her earlier titles Song of Solomon and Tar Baby explicitly invite the reader to think about the biblical chapter and the folk tale; now, however, Morrison's novel directs the reader's attention to Uncle Tom's Cabin because of the fictive moves that create difference and seem almost to say, “Don't think of Stowe's novel.” Yet Stowe's narrative insists on manifesting itself.4 But what specifically identifies this nineteenth-century novel as an intertext of Beloved?
In chapter 39 of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Simon Legree's abused mistress, Cassy, develops the plan whereby she and Emmeline (whom Legree plans to succeed Cassy) will escape by hiding in the attic of the cruel master's house. Her stratagem is based on “the memory of an old ghost legend” (396), which in turn is rooted in the death of a woman slave whom Legree apparently tortured and killed in that garret. By clever contrivances, Cassy convinces Legree that the attic is indeed haunted, so that when she and Emmeline appear to escape into the swamp, they may safely return to hide in the garret until Legree exhausts himself searching the swamp.
While actually carrying out the first part of this plan (the apparent escape into the swamp) with Legree in hot pursuit, Emmeline falters: “O Cassy, I'm going to faint!” Cassy responds, pulling a stiletto and says: “If you do, I'll kill you!” (401). This moment, in which a woman who has lost her daughter threatens the young woman who is that lost daughter's metaphorical substitute, resonates particularly with a central moment in Toni Morrison's Beloved—Sethe's successful killing of her baby daughter, Beloved, when the mother realizes she and her children will be taken back into slavery. Cassy's relation to Sethe becomes even clearer in the life history that Cassy narrates to Tom. She tells him how she killed a son out of love. Cassy's first son, fathered by the master whom she loved, had been taken from her after the master sold her; she reasons, therefore, that her second son's life—given the violent disruptions of the black family under slavery—would not be worth living and so gives the baby laudanum (364). Taken together, Sethe's and Cassy's infanticides suggest the way Beloved rewrites Uncle Tom's Cabin, a rewriting that refuses the vision of Stowe's Christian world and simultaneously posits an Africanist realm of spirituality. Unlike spirituality in Stowe's novel, in which the tortured black body of Uncle Tom can be released only by death into eternal salvation, whatever paradise can be achieved in Morrison's novel must happen in relation to the body.
Several other overt parallels between Beloved and Uncle Tom's Cabin remain despite Morrison's apparent attempt to deflect the reader's attention from the connection.5 Like Eliza, who lives in comfort and apparent security from the market economy of slavery at the Harris farm in Kentucky, Sethe also lives on a Kentucky farm where the human dignity of the slaves appears secure. In both novels, this tranquil state terminates suddenly: in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Mr. Shelby must sell two of his slaves or risk losing his farm; in Beloved, the death of the good master allows the sadistic schoolteacher to take over. In response, both Eliza with her child and Sethe, pregnant with Denver, escape to Ohio. But here the parallels begin to break down. Eliza's story quickly moves toward comedy. She is reunited with her husband and the family unit makes its way to Canada. In fact, except for the Christian martyr Tom, all of Stowe's major characters find integration into a larger community. Eliza is reunited with her mother, just as Cassy is reunited with her daughter. Even the sting of Uncle Tom's death is mitigated by the narrator's certain knowledge that Tom goes to meet his Maker. In a novel that purports to reveal the horrors of slavery, it oddly becomes a sort of fairy tale, a wish fulfillment nominated as “truth stranger than fiction. How can it be otherwise, when a system prevails which whirls families and scatters their members, as the wind whirls and scatters the leaves of autumn? These shores of refuge, like the eternal shore, often unite again, in glad communion, hearts that for long years have mourned each other as lost” (424). Beloved's reunions, on the other hand, are far from easy or fortunate. Paul D finds Sethe only accidentally and after years of wandering. And he is not her husband. Moreover, Morrison's novel addresses ambiguously the mother-daughter reunion. Not all haunted houses lead to happy homes.
Chapter 42 of Uncle Tom's Cabin claims, with Stowe's Fieldingesque irony, to be “An Authentic Ghost Story.” Cassy, who, unlike Sethe, is not haunted by the killing of her child, decides to “haunt” Legree as part of her plan to escape with Emmeline. She begins leaving the garret at night dressed in a sheet and appears to Legree one night thus attired. In doing so she brings to bear an understanding of Legree's fear of the slave he killed in the attic and of his recurring dread of the rough way he treated his dying mother. Cassy's action drives Legree into insanity that hastens his death. So in one sense, the figure of the ghost in Legree's plantation house is the simplest of the three. Cassy, as the reader is well aware, is the “ghost,” a ploy she uses to defeat an evil man.
In another sense, though, the ghost in Legree's house is complicated by Stowe's Christian world picture.6 Speaking of Legree, who returns from a night of drinking, the narrator tells us: “let a man take what pains he may to hush it down, a human soul is an awful, ghostly, unquiet possession for a bad man to have” (417). To figure the soul as a ghost, however, pulls against the narrator's assertion that Legree's superstitious nature is a trait “common to coarse and uninstructed minds” (367-68), for what is Legree's superstition but an intimation of his ghostly soul? That is to say, it is precisely Legree's superstition that is closest to his spirituality and the possibility of his redemption. In Legree's house, then, ghosts are simultaneously affirmed and denied: the narrator's overt rhetoric makes the idea of ghosts laughable, while Stowe's Christian vision assures us of a different supernatural, the realm of heaven and angels.
Stowe's Christian supernatural emerges in the contrasting yet parallel death scenes of two of Tom's masters—the good New Orleans master, St. Clare, and the vicious planter, Legree. On St. Clare's deathbed in Stowe's aptly titled chapter “Reunion,” the good man has a vision of his mother: “Just before the spirit parted, he opened his eyes, with a sudden light, as of joy and recognition, and said, ‘Mother!’ and then he was gone!” (318). Not only does St. Clare encounter his mother's ghost in the moment of his dying, he himself is denominated as one—“spirit.” Just as Tom's good master is ushered into eternity by his mother, so too is Legree met by his mother who will lead him to eternal damnation. Although initially it was Cassy's acting that drove Legree to distraction, it is Legree's mother who comes to his deathbed, “a stern, white, inexorable figure, saying, ‘Come! come! come!’” (418).
The distinction, we might say, is between ghosts and holy ghosts or angels, which—as appearance of these two mothers at the deaths of their sons would suggest—aligns these maternal ghosts with a feminine principle in Stowe's discourse. This feminine principle has everything to do with an opposition between reason and feeling.7
And those with the most natural relation to feeling in Stowe's world are women, children, and African Americans. The dying Eva's relation to her father, St. Clare, and Tom's relation to his various masters underscore Stowe's world picture. Eva, for example, leads her father to Christ, but only by the assertion of her belief, a belief that cannot be grounded on reason. Tom's relation to St. Clare duplicates Eva's, since Tom vows never to leave until “Mas'r St. Clare's a Christian” (306). Tom, like Eva, bases his appeal not on reason but on faith. From the outset we are told that Tom is simple. His stature as Christian tragic hero resides in his spiritual greatness, his ability to feel the logos, not to reason with it:
Uncle Tom was a sort of patriarch in religious matters in the neighborhood. [… H]e was looked up to with great respect, as a sort of minister among them; and the simple, hearty, sincere style of his exhortations, might have edified even better educated persons. But it was in prayer that he especially excelled. Nothing could exceed the touching simplicity, the childlike earnestness of his prayer, enriched with the language of Scripture, which seemed so entirely to have wrought itself into his being as to have become a part of himself, and to drop from his lips unconsciously. […] And so much did his prayer always work on the devotional feeling of his audiences, that there seemed often a danger that it would be lost altogether in the abundance of the responses which broke out everywhere around him.
Tom's religion, like Romantic poetry, is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions. Tom, however, readily grants St. Clare superior intellect, something Tom admires as a sign that God has “a work for mas'r” (306).
Tom's ministrations to his masters never deviates, no matter what kind of man his master is. Tom is as good and faithful a servant to Legree as he was to Mr. Shelby or to St. Clare. Refusing only to harm other slaves, Tom is a model of subservience on the Legree plantation. Stowe's Christian world picture, for all its assertion of the moral superiority of true Christian women, slaves, and children, ultimately reinscribes what Jacques Lacan has termed the Name-of-the-Father, paternal authority that functions as linguistic construct (Lacan 199). The faithful wife, the humble slave, or the dutiful child may remind the husband, the master, or the father of the good and the true, but authority always resides with the male. And it is the duty of the wife, the slave, and the child to submit to male authority, even when it is questionable, and to leave punishment of the bad man (that is, the failed embodiment of the father function) to that ultimate symbolic Father, God. Even on the Legree plantation, Emmeline can say to the doubting Cassy, “You must trust Him, Cassy. […] He is our Father!” (406). The most persistent contradiction in Stowe's novel, then, is that while it scrutinizes earthly manifestations of patriarchy, in the final instance it resoundingly affirms patriarchy as transcendent design, thus remaining well within the logocentrism of God the Father.
As Uncle Tom's Cabin and Beloved meditate on community, they begin to chart a parent's possible motivation for sacrificing a child. If Uncle Tom's Cabin argues for the efficacy of women in a spiritual patriarchy, Beloved functions in part to recover a realm of spirit that is outside and prior to transcendence conceived of in masculine tropes.8 A key difference is marked by the nature of ghosts in Morrison's novel. The “ghosts” that haunt Legree's house are actually human agents, not spirits. In Beloved, 124 Bluestone Road is indeed visited by an authentic ghost.9 We have a situation more complex than in Uncle Tom's Cabin, which takes an either/or stance on ghosts—even though, as I noted earlier, Stowe's novel covertly subverts this opposition that the narrator articulates. Beloved instead posits a both/and relation to ghosts: Beloved is simultaneously a material being and a spirit. But whose spirit? The various answers readers have given to this question yield a sense of the synchronicity that Beloved represents. She is Sethe's dead child come home, she is Seth's hanged mother reincarnated, she is spirit of the Middle Passage; Beloved is, in short, a metonymy for the “Sixty Million and more” of the book's dedication, a number representing those killed, raped, or otherwise physically and psychologically damaged in the history of the American slave trade. As such, Beloved is not the Word but rather the “rememory” made flesh. Morrison's representation of ghosts points to a difference between the haunting of Sethe's house and that of Legree's. This difference turns on the way spirituality is articulated through religious language, particularly in Uncle Tom's Cabin and Beloved. As the intersection of the material body and the spirit, the impregnated Beloved serves as a figure for the religious thinking of Baby Suggs. Her spirituality resonates with the Dogon creation myth that mourns the lost possibilities of androgyny and the female in the fallen world.
In Morrison's rewriting of Uncle Tom's Cabin, she apparently omits “the hero of our story” (Stowe 28), Uncle Tom. Tom, the religious patriarch of the Shelby farm, however, is recast in the maternal figure of Baby Suggs. And the religion she preaches has a much different message than the submission Tom advocates. Thinking about the atrocities committed by white people in the aftermath of the Civil War, Stamp Paid asks himself, “What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?” (180). But in Beloved, Tom's Jesus can neither succor nor explain. Although Tom dies in certainty of meeting his Heavenly Father, Baby Suggs dies in doubt; nevertheless, Beloved in its fictive resolution triumphantly affirms her religion of the maternal body. In the clearing where she held her ceremonies, Baby Suggs, shunning the patriarchal Word, “did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure”; instead, “she told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine”:
“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. […] Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together […]. This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. […] And all your inside parts that they'd just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.
If Tom's Christianity is the religion that legitimizes a masculine libidinal economy that privileges the transmission of the patriarchal Word in the father-son relationship (with woman as the ghostly go-between), then Baby Suggs's religion of the body envisions a fleshy and fluid spirit suggestive of the maternal body. In the opening sentence of her sermon, an interesting expression leads in two directions simultaneously—“we flesh.” The strangeness of the words points to an irreducible tension. Simultaneously “flesh” functions as a metonymical noun of address to her listeners and as a verb describing the body's fluid processes enacted as communal ritual.
But her role as preacher of the flesh also reveals Baby Suggs as the synthesis of Morrison's previous representations of the artist figure, particularly as this character develops aspects of Pilate Dead. Clearly, Baby Suggs is the master of an expressive form, unlike the many maimed or near artists of Morrison's previous fiction. Having healed herself through the writing of her first four novels, Morrison now figures an artist who can truly heal the community in ways that a Soaphead Church or a Sula cannot. In the female preacher of Beloved, one might say, Morrison reveals her aspirations for her art and communal role. Rather than art imitating life, life follows art, for Baby Suggs seems to model the role of public intellectual that Morrison has come to play since the late 1980s. Neither an Uncle Tom nor an artist manqué, Baby Suggs weds the aesthetic to both the spiritual and the ethical, suggesting the enlarged public role Morrison would carve out for herself in order to comment more broadly on racism in America.
But even as Morrison imagines the larger potential for expression, the specter of marginality arises once again, for Baby Suggs, like all of Morrison's artist figures, risks becoming isolated from the community. This of course is precisely what happens when she gives too much of herself in the aftermath of the feast she prepares for her daughter-in-law, recently escaped from slavery. Reproducing the miracle of Tom's Jesus (the feeding of the multitude), Baby Suggs only earns the community's resentment by her fantastic excess. It is in fact this prosperity that marks Baby Suggs's difference from so many of Morrison's earlier characters whose authenticity seems to depend on a life that is economically pinched. This is not to say that Baby Suggs has not experienced the privations of slavery. She may have gained her daughter-in-law but her son is denied her. Moreover, Baby Suggs's prosperity is relative; she is hardly wealthy, but in this all-black, post-Civil War community, she has more than she needs and more than others. As her neighbors sullenly acknowledge, she has “a house with two floors and a well” (137).
Acknowledging that “she had overstepped” (138) by giving too much of her gifts (thus flaunting her blessings), Baby Suggs senses the ill will of the black community just prior to the arrival of schoolteacher and ensuing tragedy. As she hoes her garden, she recalls her seven children taken from her, naming four of them, and tries to imagine them grown. The last of the four names points to the reflexivity and unfinished business of self-fashioning latent in the moment. She asks herself, “Does Ardelia still love the burned bottom of bread?” (139). By having the novel's central figuration of the artist invoke the first name of Morrison's maternal grandmother, the secret Ardelia of Chloe Wofford, the author seems to come to terms with whatever might be threatening in that name. In a sense Morrison becomes the grandmother's mother and thus claims herself as her own ancestor.
Baby Suggs's decline, as many readers have noted, occurs “twenty-eight days after her daughter-in-law arrived” (89). This time period, the menstrual cycle, anticipates a different flowing of female blood, Sethe's slitting her daughter's throat. The flowing of blood also is linked to another flowing of bodily fluids, Sethe's milk, milk intended for the child whose blood she spills. Here both Luce Irigaray's feminist theory and Baby Suggs's sermon speak together to comment on the crime schoolteacher's nephews perpetrate on Sethe's maternal body. In Halle's telling, schoolteacher and his nephews are good Christians (37), yet the nephews' act of stealing Sethe's milk is a figure of the division of body and spirit, a moment erecting boundaries between self and other. The stealing of Sethe's milk is Beloved's primal scene—that which must be simultaneously repressed and repeated. In fact the novel literally repeats the violation as a moment of Enlightenment discourse: schoolteacher records with the ink Sethe has made for his “scientific” investigation into race his nephews' rape of her; for schoolteacher, Sethe's pain is invisible and serves only as another moment for him to attempt to know her essential racial identity.
Sethe's killing her daughter creates a symbolic economy based on the maternal body in which her act reverses and repays schoolteacher's kinsmen: child's blood replaces mother's milk. The sight of Sethe's holding her slaughtered child renders schoolteacher's nephew unable to explain, paralyzed by “the flow of some shameful liquid” (Irigaray 237). The amazed white male audience of Sethe's act observe from the position of male subjectivity “that finds everything flowing abhorrent”: “Horrible to see: bloody. Fluid has to remain that secret remainder, of the one. Blood, but also milk, sperm, lymph, saliva, spit, tears, humors, gas, waves, airs, fire … light. All threaten to deform, propagate, evaporate, consume him, to flow out of him and into another who cannot be easily held on to” (Irigary 237). Sethe's repayment in this fluid economy reverses by asserting that the boundaries of self exceed the individual body, a position figured strikingly by her nursing the infant Denver shortly thereafter so that the baby ingests simultaneously mother's milk and sister's blood.
Beloved's climactic moment—the hot summer day when the community of women comes to purge 124—is the clearest moment of the primal scene's repetition and serves as an ontological unhinging as it blurs the boundary between past and present. The day becomes a chance for Sethe to choose differently than she did eighteen years earlier. In this repetition, a minor character helps us again see the difference between Uncle Tom's God the Father and Baby Suggs's religion of the body. As Edward Bodwin returns to his Sweet Home, the house of his childhood that he and his sister rented to Baby Suggs, he is, for all appearances, a benevolent patriarch and member of “the Society,” a local group originally founded to oppose slavery. Yet in his private thoughts he is the excluded son, whose return to 124 is crowded with memories of the tin soldiers he hid from “his father, probably, a deeply religious man who knew what God knew and told everybody what it was” (260). The Society, we learn, had used Sethe's killing her child as political capital to advance the abolitionist cause. But despite Bodwin's ostensibly progressive politics, his personal vanity regarding his dark mustache and white hair leads to an interesting moment of reflection:
Twenty years ago when the Society was at its height in opposing slavery, it was as though his coloring was itself the heart of the matter. The “bleached nigger” was what his enemies called him, and on a trip to Arkansas, some Mississippi rivermen, enraged by the Negro boatmen they competed with, had caught him and shoe-blackened his face and his hair. Those heady days were gone now; what remained was the sludge of ill will; dashed hopes and difficulties beyond repair.
The appellation “bleached nigger” points to the way that Bodwin, in Morrison's critical terms, is playing in the dark. The regret in his meditation seems at odds with the fact that the Society's chief objective has been achieved: the slaves are free. Essentially Bodwin longs for the good old days of slavery so that he might again be an abolitionist freedom fighter and media star. In his self-willed incomprehension of what is implied by his desires, Bodwin stands convicted, along with Tar Baby's Valerian Street, of “the crime of innocence” (Tar Baby 242). In his desire to return to the pre-Civil War condition of slavery, Bodwin's complicity with schoolteacher is underscored, for both schoolteacher's punishment and Bodwin's (preferably infinitely deferred) liberation of African-American bodies depends on a white male authority.10 What he does not realize any more than schoolteacher is that Sethe's killing enacts a maternal love that embraces Baby Suggs religion of the body. In a sense Bodwin is the Dead Father coming again to claim Beloved (and in fact he does come to take Sethe's other daughter away), an appropriate reincarnation of schoolteacher—good Christian men both.
Sethe's decision to attack schoolteacher/Bodwin rather than kill Beloved (“spirit” woman)/Beloved (child) serves as a therapeutic reenactment that purges Sethe's haunted memory and signals Beloved's departure. But the moment also allows the community to atone for its guilt at having resented Baby Suggs's good fortune and generosity. In coming forward as a group, the thirty women suggest a different kind of religious thinking, one that affirms Baby Suggs's religion of the body. Even as they are deciding what course of action to take, the language of the women echoes Baby Suggs's message; speaking of Beloved, Ella says:
“It's sitting there. Sleeps, eats and raises hell. Whipping Sethe every day.”
“I'll be. A baby?”
“No. Grown. The age it would have been had it lived.”
“You talking about flesh?”
“I'm talking about flesh.”
The last two lines, suggesting the call-response form of an African-American church service, particularly echo one of Baby Suggs's lines from the Clearing—“This is flesh I'm talking about here” (88). It is particularly significant that Ella speaks at this moment. Although biographical information about Morrison consistently identifies her mother as Ramah Wofford, something curious appears on Morrison's birth certificate. In the space provided for the mother's name, “Ramah Willis” appears but carroted above and before “Ramah” and in the same hand is “Ella.” (See Morrison's birth certificate, reproduced in chapter 2.) The legal status of “Ella” is not clear. Is it a nickname by which Ramah Wofford was known? Whatever this name's status, it appears clear that Morrison's mother insisted on its addition to the legal document that is her daughter's birth certificate. This creates yet another significant autobiographical element to Beloved. Baby Suggs, mother to Ardelia, is also the spiritual ancestor to Ella, so that Morrison's depiction of the artistic impulse through Baby Suggs becomes even more highly freighted; there is an implied line of metaphorical descent from Baby Suggs through Ardelia and Ella to Chloe. In the symbolic logic of the novel, then, although Baby Suggs is gone, her religion of the maternal body animates the community's movement toward redemption. The afterlife that Baby Suggs's words achieve is what Morrison surely desires for her own words—that they be remembered. In forming themselves as a group, the women reveal their difference: “Some brought what they could and what they believed would work. Stuffed in apron pockets, strung around their necks, lying in the space between their breasts. Others brought Christian faith—as shield and sword. Most brought a little of both” (257). This passage indicates the continuity of older African belief systems in America, even when those beliefs had to survive by going underground and merging with the forms of the master's religion. But the clearest affirmation of Baby Suggs's spirituality is that the group of thirty women goes behind the patriarchal Word of Christianity for origin: “They stopped praying and took a step back to the beginning. In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like” (259). It is precisely this presymbolic sound that gives Sethe the courage to rewrite the ending to schoolteacher's first visit.11
Baby Suggs's religion of the maternal body, affirmed by the cry of the community of women, serves as a different point of entry for rethinking the categories of patriarchy than Stowe's affirmation of God the Father. Moreover, Beloved's community of women creates a nuanced sense of gender as it relates to the possibility of religious transcendence, one that will find its fullest expression in Paradise. Morrison's engagement of Uncle Tom's Cabin, by creating an intertextual space that maps what Morrison finds intolerable about Stowe's representation of race and gender, points to the criticism she would soon write in “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” and Playing in the Dark.
THE AUT(H)O(R)-EROTICS OF NARRATION: PLAYING WITH TEXTUAL PLEASURE
“The postmodern tendencies in Morrison's fiction,” notes Philip Page, “are even more explicit in Jazz than in her previous fiction” (159). Although Page writes this before the publication of Paradise, his assertion about the postmodern quality of Morrison's sixth novel is appropriate. Jazz indeed seems to play with and directly thematize “such Derridean concepts as the différance, the trace, and the breach” (Page 159). Perhaps the most obvious instance of this is the self-named character, Joe Trace, who derives his name himself from the only secure knowledge he has about his mother, Wild—that she disappeared without a trace. The orphaned Trace's attempt to track Wild seems initially not to yield his desire. Searching for any minimal sign of her acknowledgment, he finds nothing. Nothing, that is, until Felice communicates to him the dying words of the girl, Dorcas, who Joe shot. Dorcas's words make present a verbal trace substituting for the absent maternal body and serve as the long deferred moment of acknowledgment. Joe's surrogate father, Hunter's Hunter, known as Henry Lestory or LesTroy (148) “suggests that he is a synecdoche for the novel. Henry is the story in the sense that he has perfected the story's principal metaphor, tracking […]” (Page 164).12 Between the trace and the story lies the metafictionality of Jazz, a story full of improbable reconciliations: between husband and wronged wife, between the wife who mutilated her husband's lover's corpse and that girl's aunt, between the middle-aged lover and the girl he kills, between a son and a father whom the son initially hoped to kill.
One thing to note about the story of Jazz, particularly the one in the novel's present (1926), is that the possibilities of black identity are played out in a different economic environment than Morrison uses in her earlier fiction. Harlem in the 1920s with its black-owned businesses represents a prosperous African-American community. Whether she intends it or not, Morrison's sixth novel seems to comment on her first. Like Cholly and Pauline Breedlove, Joe and Violet Trace leave the racism of the rural South for the economic promise of the North. From the time they arrive in New York City in 1906 through the 1920s, the Traces (unlike the Breedloves) are upwardly mobile. Joe finds progressively better paying jobs that afford the Traces a number of life's small comforts. And though both the Breedloves and the Traces experience tragedy in their new homes, the Traces transcend the tragic denouement that the plot wishes to impose. In The Bluest Eye, the Breedloves' move to Lorain, Ohio, encodes the loss of one form of authenticity—that of the rural black community. But for the Traces, whatever African-American identity they forge by the end of Jazz does not depend exclusively on their embracing rural black poverty.
Despite the undeniable importance of Joe and Violet's reconciliation, the larger reconciliation of this novel happens not at the level of the story but of the discourse—the narration itself and the narrator, Morrison's figuration once again of the artist. Morrison's representation of authorship participates in the profoundly metafictional orientation of Jazz. Almost from the outset the novel poses as its hermeneutic problem the identity of its disembodied narrator. When the narrator announces “I haven't got any muscles, so I can't really be expected to defend myself” (8), the reader's hunt for an elusive identity begins. Although there is no definitive evidence that the narrator is either black or female, Eusebio Rodrigues thoughtfully explores the issue of who speaks by looking closely at the novel's epigraph from the gnostic text The Nag Hammadi. Since this first-person voice in the epigraph is the goddess Thunder, the first-person narrator's reference to her narration as “my storm” (219) suggests for Rodrigues that the narrator is a “female immanence of the divine” (261). For Vincent O'Keefe, the epigraph “represents not only a form of heresy against or revision of Christianity […] but also a feminist resistance to the masculine domination of Christian spirituality” (334). If one accepts Rodrigues's and O'Keefe's arguments, then there seems to be a clear link from the representation of an alternative spirituality in Beloved to the narrative consciousness of Jazz. Baby Suggs's project, in effect, is continued by the narrator of Jazz, yet the later artist figure has a much more dialogical conception of her authority, one that allows her to transcend the isolation of artistic production. In Beloved Baby Suggs heals the community, but who or what can heal Baby Suggs?
The consensus view sees the narrator of Jazz as female, and I certainly follow that convention, but I want to retain another sense of the narrator's sexual identity. For Henry Lewis Gates, Jr., the narrator's indeterminacy extends to the matter of a determinate sex: “it is neither male nor female […]. It is both and neither” (“Jazz” 54). Gates is right to emphasize indeterminacy, and given the novel's conclusion, I wish to stress his claim that the narrator is both male and female, if not always simultaneously so, then alternately.13 As the narrator's pleasure is delineated, it seems as though this speaker represents the emotional bisexuality of artistic production. Whatever the exact identity of the narrator, as the teller of the story, she certainly figures the author function. Early in her representation of herself she says, “I lived a long time, maybe too much, in my own mind. People say I should come out more. Mix. I agree that I close off in places, but if you have been left standing, as I have, while your partner overstays at another appointment, or promises to give you exclusive attention after supper, but is falling asleep just as you have begun to speak—well, it can make you inhospitable if you aren't careful, the last thing I want to be” (9). Doreatha Drummond Mbalia in fact directly equates the narrator with Morrison on the grounds that, like the narrator who speaks of problems with “a partner,” Morrison “experienced problems with her mate”; moreover like the narrator, “the novelist […] may live too much in the mind. It is this similarity that makes narrator and author a part of the narrative structure” (636). Whether one wishes to read this moment quite so autobiographically, Mbalia's reading certainly underscores the way the narrator figures authorship and its discontents.
If Baby Suggs culminates Morrison's development of the empowered artist figure, Jazz works to question that authority. This questioning occurs in the narration and the progressive loss of authority experienced by the first-person narrator who is not a character in the story she tells of both parental and sexual love lost and found. The narrator's confident predictions at the beginning (which outline the story and intimate a denouement of violent repetition when Felice again triangulates the relationship between Joe and Violet Trace) turn to uncertain speculation about Golden Gray and finally to a frank admission of error and limitation. But for all the acknowledgment of fallibility, the narrator remains remarkably free from anxiety, a sign of Morrison's fuller comfort with her authorial role. From this new position of comfort, Jazz returns us to the collapsed space of sexual and textual pleasure, but now not as that which must be repressed as it was in Sula. Instead, Jazz's more playful narration suggests that the healing that Baby Suggs imagines in her spiritual art may also flow back to the artist through the person of the reader.
I want to turn, then, to the conclusion of Morrison's sixth novel because it is there that the narrator begins to dismantle her authority. Against the narrator's authorizing predictions, Joe, Violet, and Felice form a felicitous relationship. It is not necessary, of course, to believe that Morrison is fooled in the same way as her narrator is by the unpredictability of these characters; nevertheless, the narrator of Jazz encodes the multiple paradoxes of Morrison's own relation to authority. In short, the author seems to use her narrator to comment on the psychic determinism of her early fiction in which the individual often is doomed to repeat later in life the prior insult and injury that defines his or her adult subjectivity. Cholly Breedlove serves as the paradigmatic example of the early type of character in Morrison's fiction for whom “the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself” (Jazz 220). Psychologically raped by the white men who interrupt his first attempt at coitus, abandoned by his mother, rejected by his father, Cholly cannot but repeat the insult in his relation with Mrs. Breedlove. Even more devastatingly, he literalizes his psychological rape by raping his daughter, an act that marks the full extent of his limited ability to love. Sula's subjectivity, though aesthetically refined, is marked by her overhearing her mother's claim to love but not like her; as a result, Sula is doomed to repeat the loss of intimacy in her relationship with both Nel and Ajax. Though he discovers authenticity in his journey when he accepts Pilate's values, Milkman's life up to that point has been shaped by his oedipal struggle with the father.
Even beyond the content of her earlier fictions of identity formation, Morrison seems in Jazz to comment on her earlier modernist narration in The Bluest Eye. That first novel begins with two prefaces, both of which suggest psychic determinism. The repetition of the text of a standard elementary school primer, in which each iteration removes more markers of capitalization and punctuation, suggests the way the racialism of the primer's representation of a white world moves from consciousness to the unconscious. Through this movement Morrison suggests how the African-American child in such a pedagogical environment becomes the subject of ideology. The second preface to The Bluest Eye tells the story in miniature, as many modernist texts do, so that the reader must attend not to the pleasure of discovery but to an analysis of the logic of tragedy predicated on psychological repetitions. The first four pages of Jazz, of course, by giving a version of the complete story, seem to do what the second prefacing gesture of The Bluest Eye accomplishes. But in the later novel this modernist technique is undone.
Only in Beloved does Morrison fully imagine a way that the past could be rewritten. Sethe has a chance to choose again and, given her second chance, affirms the maternal religion of Baby Suggs. But if Beloved emphasizes the maternal body, Jazz points the reader to the erotic female body. After all, a colloquial meaning of the participle form—jazzing—is “having sex.” In this regard, what the narrator identifies as her erroneous pride in believing her narration is infallible is linked to an autoerotic sexuality. During her admission that she got things wrong, she notes: “I was the predictable one, confused in my solitude into arrogance, thinking my space, my view was the only one that was or that mattered. I got so aroused while meddling, while finger-shaping, I overreached and missed the obvious” (220). Solitude, as we have seen in so many of Morrison's previous figurations of the artistic subject position—from Soaphead Church to Baby Suggs—is risky, leading to Church's aberrant sexual desires and to Baby Suggs's overreaching. But by the end of Jazz, the narrator's sexual object choice shifts away from the self (as suggested by the controlling and perhaps masturbatory pleasures of finger-shaping) and toward another, a move in which the narrator announces her previously unspoken desires.
One of the ways this movement manifests itself is Morrison's turn to a more postmodern poetics that blurs the boundaries between the mimetic—the world the novel represents—and the diegetic—the telling of the story. The clearest instance of this blurring occurs near the end when the narrator's meditation turns to the voiceless woman known as Wild, a disturbing figure to the men of the novel because her presence is known only by her absence, but whose absence is experienced as an eerie presence:
I'd love to close myself in the peace left by the woman who lived there and scared everybody. Unseen because she knows better than to be seen. After all, who would see her, a playful woman who lived in a rock? Who could, without fright? Of her looking eyes looking back? I wouldn't mind. Why should I? She has seen me and is not afraid of me. She hugs me. Understands me. Has given me her hand. I am touched by her. Released in secret.
Here the narrator receives in a clear and unambiguous fashion what Joe Trace has longed for all his life—Wild's direct and unmediated acknowledgment. But what might this acknowledgment mean? The touch the narrator receives from Wild of course makes no sense in terms of realistic representation. Wild would be long dead and yet the supernatural possibility that allows Joe's mother to manifest herself through the youthful Dorcas permits one to imagine a Wild who could still be part of the present time of narration. On the one hand, Wild's touch, read in the context of Joe's search for his absent mother, seems to make her the timeless goddess figure's mother—Wild as the ancestor of Thunder. On the other hand, a different context is established by the novel's concluding paragraphs, one in which the narrator's being touched and hugged by Wild figures a movement away from a controlling self-arousal toward another sense of erotic possibility. In this regard, Wild's embrace echoes Sula's desire for the intimate female companion who can complete her; thus one might articulate a logic of Jazz: the character in the story who is body but not voice (Wild) completes the chief character of the discourse (the narrator) who is voice without body.
Not only is a boundary crossed when a character within the story embraces the teller of the tale who is outside the story. A further limit is imaginatively transgressed in the final two paragraphs of the novel. Now the embrace occurs between the narrator, the character that figures the author function, and the reader.14 And although the real reader seems to be encompassed by the fiction, that reader, I will argue, is positioned in a particular fashion. One arrives at this sexualized moment from an odd and paradoxical admission on the narrator's part. Commenting on the reconciled love of Joe and Violet, the narrator laments:
I envy them their public love. I myself have only known it in secret, shared it in secret and longed, aw longed to show it—to be able to say out loud what they have no need to say at all: That I have loved only you, surrendered my whole self reckless to you and nobody else. That I want you to love me back and show it to me. That I love the way you hold me, how close you let me be to you. I like your fingers on and on, lifting, turning. I have watched your face for a long time, now, and missed your eyes when you went away from me. Talking to you and hearing you answer—that's the kick.
What is striking in this description is the narrator's assertion of a difference between her passion, which has always remained secret, and Joe and Violet's open heterosexuality. The narrator's closeted passion has remained unnamed, yet paradoxically, in the moment of enunciation, it becomes the unspeakable thing spoken.
But then the final paragraph seems to dissolve the issue of sexuality by turning the matter into a riddle:
But I can't say that aloud; I can't tell anyone that I have been waiting for this all my life and that being chosen to wait is the reason I can. If I were able I'd say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.
Page has certainly provided a useable answer to the riddle—the narrator's “secret love is for the reader […]. She imagines that she is the book and therefore that the reader holds her […]” (173-74). Such a solution does open the novel up in interesting ways. Fully confident regarding her authority (in ways that Morrison was not in her first four novels), the narrator can now risk giving that identity away in the apparent sexual gift that the narrator makes of herself at novel's end. In authorizing the reader to complete the meaning of her text, Morrison reverses Roland Barthes's poetics of pleasure from The Pleasure of the Text. Instead of the reader's bliss that results from one's turning one's text of pleasure into writerly activity, Morrison articulates the storyteller's bliss at being remade.
Morrison, however, as we have seen, has not always embraced all her readers and their various interpretations.15 Here I want to introduce the possibility (only finally to reject it) that Jazz may be working to position its ideal reader as female. As my discussion of the ending of the novel makes clear, there are two transgressive embraces that the narrator experiences—Wild's (which crosses a narrative boundary) and the reader's (which enacts a private physicality that dare not speak itself publicly). If one reads the two moments relationally, so that the former (a woman-woman embrace) is the context for understanding the later, then it would be possible to argue that this novel specifically positions its reader as female. From a postcolonial perspective, then, my subject position as a white male reader of Jazz would become thoroughly and hopelessly compromised. As Franz Fanon argues in chapter 2 of Black Skin, White Masks (“The Woman of Color and the White Man”), the possibility of “authentic love” between such a pair will remain “unattainable” so long as racialized thinking exists. If the novel constructs the ideal reader as female, I should not even be reading Morrison—let alone writing about her—for to do so would position me as the always already colonizing white male who subjugates the sexualized body of the black woman.
It is here, however, that I wish to return to Gates's sense of the indeterminacy of the narrator's sexual identity. If we read the narrator as both female and male, then the embrace between narrator and reader is large indeed, for it recognizes a wide variety of sexual-textual pleasures. The narrator's Whitmanesque acknowledgment of the reader's touch admits that there are a multitude of religions of the body, so that the touch represented in the final sentence may be imagined as occurring between man and woman, man and man, or woman and woman; the embrace, in fact, may even be intergenerational or interracial. The overcontrolling narrator of Jazz who learns to accept limitations on “her” authority seems to encode Morrison's recognition that she no longer needs to attempt to control the meaning of her published novels by telling critics what kind of reading is appropriate. The pleasure of the text, both that of the writer and the reader, allows for a polymorphously perverse (con)textuality.
With this sense of the resonance of the novel's conclusion, I want to return briefly to Morrison's relation to William Faulkner, which was the focus of chapter 4 of this study. His novel Absalom, Absalom!, one of Morrison's recurring texts of pleasure, seems to have moved her from readerly pleasure to writerly bliss. I began my discussion of Jazz by listing the novel's improbable reconciliations. One addition to my earlier list might be Morrison's relation to Faulkner. Her comments published in 1993 in which she speaks of her “fascination” with Faulkner as she details a line-by-line reading she performed of Absalom for her students at Princeton provide a specific context for thinking about Faulkner's novel in relation to Jazz.16 Given the time frame of these remarks, Morrison's careful reading of Absalom, Absalom!, which led to her classroom lecture, appears to have occurred during the time she was writing Jazz.
Morrison's unpublished lecture, then, becomes a crucial intertext to Jazz, pointing to her engagement with Faulkner on race and the possibilities of acknowledgement. But if Morrison uses Faulkner's Go Down, Moses as a kind of scaffolding for Song of Solomon, her reading of Faulkner manifests itself more playfully in her later novel. This is not to say that her purpose is not serious. Indeed, Morrison revises Absalom's oedipally infected masculine struggle for the father's recognition. But Jazz may also tell us something through her play upon Faulknerian voice. Particularly in the unnumbered sections six and seven of Jazz, Morrison produces a pastiche of Faulknerian style, subject matter, and plot through her narrator's at times uncertain history of the racially mixed Golden Gray. In Absalom, lines of family relations are obscured by Thomas Sutpen's refusal to acknowledge the children he fathers by black women. Miscegenation in Faulkner's novel happens exclusively when African-American women have children by white fathers. Within that frame, however, Faulkner teases at the supreme horror of his Southern white community: what if a black man slept with a white woman? This question is central to Quentin and Shreve's construction of Henry Sutpen's motive for murdering Charles Bon. The seductive, charming Charles Bon serves as the white Southern community's repressed ideological horror: if white men can father black men who appear white, then these same “white” black men can beget black children on white women. These are the issues and questions Morrison directly addresses in her critical mapping of the ideological boundaries of Faulkner's already searching examination of “the insanity of racism.”
Morrison's Golden Gray starts out by reproducing the desire of Charles Bon but ends perhaps by revising the choice of Etienne Bon. Like Charles Bon, Golden Gray is the product of miscegenation, yet Morrison reverses Faulknerian genealogy: Golden is the son of a privileged white woman, Vera Louise Gray, and a dark-skinned slave, Henry LesTroy (or Lestory). Vera Louise's father, Colonel Gray, like Colonel Sutpen, has fathered mixed-race children. His discovery of his daughter's sexual behavior leaves him devastated, and in an act that recalls Sutpen's repudiation of his Haitian wife, Colonel Gray disavows his relationship with his daughter, giving her a large sum of money to go away.
It is here that one key element of Morrison's rewriting of Absalom stands out. Thomas Sutpen, the patriarch who wishes to design a lasting empire, becomes the obsession of all of those—the sons, the daughters, and wife—he denies; however, unlike Faulkner's Southern colonel, Morrison's is peripheral. Sutpen's first wife may live only for revenge, but Colonel Gray's daughter goes off to Baltimore with her servant, True Belle, to raise her son, and never gives her father another thought. Old Gray's money, however, allows Vera Louise to raise Golden Gray as a gentleman, much as Sutpen's money allows his first wife to raise their light-complexioned, mixed-race son, Charles Bon, in luxury.
Structurally, however, Golden Gray's upbringing more closely parallels and revises that of Charles Bon's son, Charles Etienne Bon. Both Gray and Etienne are raised by a white woman and a black woman. Both have their sense of their white identity disrupted by unexpected knowledge of their mixed racial background. Still, in Gray's desire to discover the absent father, he recalls Charles Bon's obsession, though with a difference: Bon seeks Sutpen, the white father, for recognition; Gray initially seeks LesTroy to kill him. Raised culturally white in the code of noblesse oblige, Gray is confronted with Henry Sutpen's dilemma. LesTroy, after all, is the black man who slept with his white mother, and his white identity tells him he should kill the scoundrel. Yet when he enters LesTroy's cabin and sits on his father's bed, Golden Gray is faced with Charles Bon's sense of loss. What Bon desires from his father, is “the living touch of that flesh warmed before he was born by the same blood which it had bequeathed him to warm his own flesh with, to be bequeathed by him in turn to run hot and loud in veins and limbs after that first flesh and then his own were dead” (255). Returning to Gray's experience of loss in Jazz, one can see how Morrison's novel creates a pastiche of Faulkner's distinctive language:17
Only now, he thought, now that I know I have a father, do I feel his absence: the place where he should have been and was not. Before, I thought everybody was one-armed, like me. Now I feel the surgery. The crunch of bone when it is sundered, the sliced flesh and the tubes of blood cut through, shocking the bloodrun and disturbing the nerves. They dangle and writhe. Singing pain. Waking me with the sound of itself, thrumming when I sleep so deeply it strangles my dreams away. There is nothing for it but to go away from where he is not to where he used to be and might be still. Let the dangle and the writhe see what it is missing; let the pain sing to the dirt where he stepped in the place where he used to be and might be still. I am not going to be healed, or to find the arm that was removed from me. I am going to freshen the pain, point it, so we both know what it is for.
Does Morrison's pastiche of Faulkner mean that Morrison gains no critical distance on his text?18 No, but that distance arises not intertextually but intratextually. Having reproduced one version of Faulknerian masculinity, potentially tragic in its sense of fatality and intention, Morrison fashions a way to avoid that tragedy. Gray's rhetorical flight, the double of Charles Bon's, is grounded when LesTroy returns home. He tells Gray that he will accept the young man as a son if he can act like a son but warns, “don't bring me no whiteboy sass” (173), an expression that works to deflate Gray's “Faulknerian” tragic rhetoric.
Morrison, however, in activating the Faulknerian intertext, invites the reader to participate in a reexamination of his work. The only clear intersection between Absalom, Absalom! and Jazz may be the way Golden Gray's pain parallels Charles Bon's. But having made this move, Morrison authorizes the reader to think in the space between the two novels. If I am less certain of other moments where Morrison gestures to Faulkner, my movement from father (Charles) to son (Etienne), although less sure, remains in the spirit of Morrison's novelistic “reading” of Faulkner.
If one accepts the Faulknerian resonance in Morrison's narrator, then there is a striking passage, one underscoring the metafictional nature of her narration, when the narrator stops to comment on her construction of the story. She claims to have gotten the portrayal of Golden Gray wrong in a way that eerily recalls Morrison's discussion of Faulkner's delayed and disguised portrayal of race in Absalom, a portrayal that she characterized in The Paris Review interview, quoted earlier, as “not the point anyway”:
What was I thinking of? How could I have imagined him so poorly? Not noticed the hurt that was not linked to the color of his skin, or the blood that beat beneath it. But to some other thing that longed for authenticity, for a right to be in this place, effortlessly without needing to acquire a false face […].
Now I have to think this through, carefully, even though I may be doomed to another misunderstanding. I have to do it and not break down. Not hating him is not enough; liking, loving him is not useful. I have to alter things. I have to be a shadow who wishes him well, like the smiles of the dead left over from their lives.
The repeated pronouns in this passage—“he” and “him”—seem not simply to describe the relation between narrator and character but perhaps also to point to a commentary from one author to another. In this moment, Morrison appears almost to speak in coded form of her revision of and relation to Faulkner. Whether Morrison here stands to Faulkner as the narrator does to Golden Gray, it is in Morrison's second, revised portrayal of Golden Gray that the figure who seems to be altered is Charles Bon's son, Etienne.
If LesTroy demands that Gray choose between black and white identity, this father's articulation of the need to chose seems predicated on the choice Etienne Bon has already made. Like Golden Gray, Etienne is presented with a clear choice between black and white, but how he chooses sets him apart in Faulkner's depiction of racially mixed characters. Faulkner's most fully developed black male characters of mixed race choose whiteness as the core of their identity. (When they do choose blackness, as Etienne Bon does, it is portrayed as a terrible mistake.) Lucas Beachamp in Go Down, Moses, for example, fixes his genealogical pride in his descent from Carothers McCaslin, the man who has raped Lucas's grandmother and great-grandmother.19 Etienne chooses blackness through an identification with his mother, but only to emphasize his cultural wounding; Gray also finally chooses blackness, ostensibly through an identification with a black father, though in fact it is as much his union with the voiceless African-American woman, Wild, that creates identity.
Morrison initially leaves Gray's decision much less clear than Etienne's, but through Joe Trace's quest for acknowledgement from Wild, Joe's absent mother, the reader discovers the material trace that reveals Gray's choice. (Joe Trace, one of the central figures of the novel's plot of the present, must be read through his relation to his lost mother, so that his desire for acknowledgement from his mother also comments on and revises Charles Bon's desire for acknowledgement from his father.) The personal items and male clothing belonging to Golden Gray that Joe discovers in Wild's cave reveal that Golden has chosen blackness through cohabitation with Wild.
In this regard, Wild works to reclaim the figure of the nameless black woman whom Etienne Bon marries. Clearly one of Faulkner's most embarrassing representations of race (even acknowledging its source as Mr. Compson), this woman, who never is given a voice, is described as “coal black and ape-like” (166). Etienne's choice of blackness, an act that seems to defy black masculine identity even while proclaiming such identity, suggests a racial self-loathing; his marriage to the African-American woman, as Mr. Compson imagines, is done to injure Judith, the white woman who urges him to pass for white. Etienne's defiance of the white woman who helped raise him serves as an ongoing act of vengeance against white culture. Golden Gray, however, learns to love the black woman whom he initially found disgusting. Once again, “Faulknerian pastiche” seems to be an appropriate way to name Morrison's use of language when she records Gray's immediate nausea at the sight of the obviously pregnant “berry-black woman”; his revulsion at the “black, liquid female” (Faulkner, Light 144-45) almost exactly duplicates Joe Christmas's fear and loathing of women. Gray, however, is able to put aside his youthful sense of injury and move past his fear of the feminine. As a result his choice of blackness becomes an act of love, one in which he accepts a new identity and creates his earthly paradise with Wild.
THE ANXIETY OF WRITING YOUR BEST: PARADISIACAL DE-SCRIPTION
As I argue previously in this study, Tar Baby begins Morrison's critique of the all-black agrarian community as the site of African-American authenticity. Milkman Dead's paradise—Shalimar, Virginia—sours in Jadine Child's experience of Eloe, Florida. Paradise expands this critique by thoroughly exploding Milkman's sense of both completed authenticity and the essential goodness of a racially pure black community. Ruby, Oklahoma, stands as Morrison's most economically prosperous all-black community, one desperately in need of spiritual renewal; that spiritual renewal, however, does not (as her earlier fiction so often did) demand the return to poverty as the ground of identity. Despite this novel's expansion of the critique of Song of Solomon's stand on authenticity, Paradise in a number of ways represents Morrison's return to the thematics and tropes of her third novel particularly and of her early fiction more generally. In her early fiction, female subjectivity almost always grows out of violation—child abuse, spousal abuse, molestation, or rape. In particular, Paradise returns us to the troubled relation between men and women, particularly when African-American men's sense of identity parallels that of the patriarchal structures of middle-class white culture. Song of Solomon criticizes a masculine identity that sees women as property; Milkman may have worked through this problem, but it is an identity that makes Jadine reject even Son and his agrarian community.
Gender politics, however, moves to the background in both Beloved and Jazz, concerned as they are with building bridges between African-American women and men. In Beloved, white men are the rapists of both African-American women and men, and in Jazz even the middle-aged man who murders his teenage lover becomes a sympathetic figure.20 But in the tensions between the patriarchal town of Ruby and the women-centered space of the Convent, Morrison comes back to gender and the issue of who has the right to define and name. “What is ours?” and “what must we protect and defend?” are the questions the men in Paradise constantly ask themselves. What the men do, they do “for Ruby” (18). The name itself is a metonymy inasmuch as how the men perceive and protect their town—named for one of their women—is reflected in how they treat each individual wife and daughter.
I argued earlier that Song of Solomon uses the figure of doe hunting to define and critique a particular form of patriarchal masculine identity. This figure returns in the opening chapter of Paradise in which a group of men from Ruby, good hunters whose ostensible goal is to protect their cult of true black womanhood, makes the seventeen-mile trek to the Convent to slaughter the women who have created a home there. The men who enter the Convent discover what they want to see—“the devil's bedroom, bathroom, and his nasty playpen” (17)—gathering the rumors of the past twenty years into a narrative that make these women the dangerous Other; unlike their decorous women, the Convent women in these men's eyes are child murderers, lesbians, temptresses, and witches who have turned the former Convent in to a coven. What is actually more threatening is that these women have claimed, out of their abuse, the power to name and identify themselves. This is the unspoken reason for the raid on the Convent. The Convent women's proximity to Ruby means that Ruby's women have an alternative model for conceiving of themselves.
In resorting to murder, these men simply take the logic of Song of Solomon's Seven Days a step further. Despite claiming to kill white people out of a love for black people, the Seven Days, as I pointed out in chapter 4, actually functions to protect African-American men's property interests in black women. The men of Ruby construct a narrative in which their protection of their black women authorizes their killing of one white girl and four “[b]odacious black Eves unredeemed by Mary” who in the moment of the killing run “like panicked does” (18).21 The collective male perspective on their task is articulated in the thoughts of one of the men who has invaded the Convent:
Certainly there wasn't a slack or sloven woman anywhere in town and the reasons, he thought, were clear. From the beginning its people were free and protected. A sleepless woman could always rise from her bed, wrap a shawl around her shoulders and sit on the steps in the moonlight. And if she felt like it she could walk out the yard and on down the road. No lamp and no fear. A hiss-crackle from the side of the road would never scare her because whatever it was that made the sound, it wasn't something creeping up on her. Nothing for ninety miles around thought she was prey. She could stroll as slowly as she liked, think of food preparations, war, of family things, or lift her eyes to stars and think of nothing at all. Lampless and without fear she could make her way. And if a light shone from a house up a ways and the cry of a colicky baby caught her attention, she might step over to the house and call out softly to the woman inside trying to soothe the baby. The two of them might take turns massaging the infant stomach, rocking, or trying to get a little soda water down. When the baby quieted they could sit together for a spell, gossiping, chuckling low so as not to wake anybody else.
In his mind, Ruby represents the best of all possible worlds for women, but clearly Morrison exposes through this character's thoughts the central unacknowledged contradiction of the male communal narrative that authorizes the hunting of women in the name of protecting womanhood. The women of Ruby may walk without fear but they also do so without a lamp, and they are, by and large, unenlightened about anything but their domesticity. They walk but do not drive and there is really nowhere to go since the nearest town is ninety miles away. It is a safety based on isolation that approximates the carceral. The safety of the women of Ruby, moreover, depends on the good will of Ruby's men. Any reader familiar with Morrison's fiction knows that women who place their dreams of safety in men are compromised, for this fiction repeatedly illustrates that only when women give up such dreams can they begin to form their own identities. The women who subscribe to the town's patriarchal ideology do so at the cost of limiting their possible identities to that of the tender of a man's home and the nurturer of a man's children. But even this cost may be insufficient to purchase safety, since any woman who ever threatens the male order of things immediately moves from the set of “not prey” to that of “prey.”
The attack on the women, set as it is in July 1976, the month of America's Bicentennial, surely serves to remind the reader that the land of the free historically depended on those who were not. Although the historical contraction of American freedom lies in slavery, race is not central to the novel. Race matters, but in an upside down, through-the-looking-glass kind of way. The racially pure black community of Ruby emerges out of the doubled insult of class and colorism. Having migrated from the South to Oklahoma and been denied entry into a community of prosperous, lighter-complexioned African Americans, those who push on to found the town of Haven construct themselves as God's chosen people. After World War II, Haven falls on hard times economically. The sons of Haven's founders move west to form a new town, Ruby, dedicated to the preservation of the same sense of exceptionalism born when their fathers were rejected by the lighter-skinned blacks. Haven and Ruby stand as displaced representations of early American exceptionalism; if the white American male's freedom was enhanced by the presence of the enslaved racial other, as Morrison argues in Playing in the Dark (42-44), something strangely similar occurs in Paradise. For Ruby's men, their exceptionalism and sense of freedom lies in their genetically pure African heritage, unsullied by any drop of white blood. This need for racial purity, of course, explains why the men pay such careful attention to the morality of their women and why a man must own his woman's sexuality.
Although it is not the dominant matter of Paradise, Morrison once again considers the role of artistic production as if to ask what role remains for the artist or writer living in a world with such violent gender and racial politics. Artistic identity—certainly central to Morrison's personal identity—is radically divided in Paradise, figured principally in two very different characters—the orphaned Connie of the Convent and the marginalized Patricia Best of Ruby, two women who specifically attempt to appropriate the power to name and narrate, though in very different ways. Patricia analyzes and critiques; Connie becomes a visionary.
Connie once again reminds the reader of the significance of names. Known through most of the novel as Connie, she becomes spiritually reborn after her encounter with a divine presence, a moment that enables her to reclaim her birth name, Consolata Sosa. With this renewed identity, she becomes the spiritual leader of this community of wounded and abused women. Consolata's spirituality represents a kind of syncretic belief. This belief encompasses, on the one hand, her love for the Reverend Mother (and by extension for the tropes and rituals of the Catholic Church) who saved her from poverty and prostitution in her third-world home. On the other hand, Consolata's faith finds expression in her miraculous powers to heal the body, a power that precedes the logic of the Christian Word. In this latter regard, Consolata is the latest in a line of fictional descent that may be traced back through such earlier characters as Pilate Dead and Baby Suggs. But Consolata takes their spiritualized healing art to another level.
Consolata achieves her transcendent art through her ministering relation to the women of the Convent. In order to initiate the communal healing and to ritualize her invitation to follow her, Consolata prepares a feast for the women and tells them that she will attempt to lead them to the encounter with the divine that she experiences. Outlining the women's naked bodies in the position they select, Consolata address the prone women:
My child body, hurt and soil, leaps into the arms of a woman who teach me my body is nothing my spirit everything. I agreed her until I met another. My flesh is so hungry for itself it ate him. When he fell away the woman rescue me from my body again. Twice she saves it. When her body sickens I care for it in every way flesh works. I hold it in my arms and between my legs. Clean it, rock it, enter it to keep it breath. After she is dead I can not get past that. My bones on hers the only good thing. Not spirit. Bones. No different from the man. My bones on his the only true thing. So I wondering where is the spirit lost in this? It is true, like bones. It is good, like bones. One sweet, one bitter. Where is it lost? Here me, listen. Never break them in two. Never put one over the other. Eve is Mary's mother. Mary is the daughter of Eve.
Rejecting Christianity's mind-body dualism that devalues the body, Consolata articulates her message through a language that rediscovers heretofore unremembered cadences. (Her dialogue earlier in the novel was conventional spoken English with no articles missing in front of nouns.) Consolata's speech to the women is a newer version of Baby Suggs's religion of the maternal body. Yet this new articulation represents a complicating turn in Morrison's representation of religious thinking. This complication grows out of the fact that one of the ways the flesh works is sexual. In her address, Consolata conflates the daughterly love she feels for Mary Magna, the Mother Superior of the former convent, and the sexual love she had with a married man from Ruby, Deacon Morgan. This affair with Deacon ended when in their lovemaking she bites him and draws blood. But in the logic of Consolata's representation, this bodily hunger is simultaneously a spiritual hunger, so that the sexual passion figures the Passion of Christ and the Eucharist—“Take, eat, this is my body”—another instance of the syncretic faith Consolata imagines. Her healing relation to Mary Magna also blurs the sacred and the secular. The biblical references to Eve and Mary are clear, but Consolata is also the fallen Eve who gives life to (indeed almost seems to give birth to Mary Magna) by holding the older woman between her legs.
From this moment, the women of the Convent leave traditionally spoken words behind for a new communion of the body. Morrison describes this practice as their “loud dreaming” (264), a designation that almost seems to describe the “language” used by Sethe, Denver, and Beloved to express their desires when they close themselves off within 124 Bluestone Road. But what is represented in Beloved is only described in Paradise: “In loud dreaming, monologue is no different from a shriek; accusations directed to the dead and long gone are undone by murmurs of love” (264). From this language/not language, the women move to a different medium, painting, in order to fill in the empty spaces of their bodily outlines that Consolata had traced. Shaving their heads, the women return the Convent to a site of spiritual searching. In the climactic expression of their multimedia spirituality, Consolata leads the women into a perfumed summer rain for a cleansing dance on the eve of the men's attack on the Convent:
Consolata started it; the rest were quick to join her. There are great rivers in the world and on their banks and the edges of oceans children thrill to water. In places where rain is light the thrill is almost erotic. But those sensations bow to the rapture of holy women dancing in hot sweet rain. They would have laughed, had enchantment not been so deep.
In her combination of multiple expressive forms—the very forms, one may recall, denied to Sula—Consolata becomes Morrison's performance artist of the soul. Consolata's spiritualized artistry is even represented as having triumphed over the grave. Visiting their families after their own deaths, the spirits of the Convent women continue to enjoy food and sex. Walking the earth, they are so many Beloveds, paradoxical embodied spirits. But although Consolata represents the most transcendent embodiment of artistic possibility in all of Morrison's fiction—one able to overleap even the horizon of death itself—the flight of the artist is grounded by the presence of another artist figure, Patricia Best, who perhaps more directly figures Morrison's own subject position; Patricia, like Morrison herself, writes the story of Ruby. This character seems to register Morrison's recognition that Consolata's expressive forms—body painting and the dance—are not her media. Though she writes of such expression, she still writes. As a writer within the novel, Patricia (known to the community more androgynously as “Pat”) metafictionally represents Morrison in the act of authoring both her best and worst selves. In a sense, Morrison's Best returns us to the anxieties of authorship that Soaphead Church represents in The Bluest Eye.
“Patricia” is the sixth section of Paradise, and the widowed schoolteacher serves (except for a few brief moments) as the focalizer throughout the chapter.22 At times, when we have direct access to her writing, she serves as the narrator. The matter in time present of this section (December 1974) is the preparation for and performance of the town's apparently conventional annual Christmas pageant, as well as Pat's ongoing work on a history of Ruby. In the space between these two texts—Patricia's writing and the children's play—emerges her troubled understanding of the unconscious sexual politics of Ruby's fetishized blackness. Patricia's history is conceived of “as a gift to the citizens of Ruby—a collection of family trees; the genealogies of each of the fifteen families” (187). Having completed the family trees, she decides to supplement them with interesting facts about the origin of people's names. At this point, her project, begun in innocence, immediately meets a certain resistance when she talks to her fellow townspeople and asks, for research purposes, to see family bibles, letters, and marriage certificates. In the face of this resistance, Pat's interest in her supplemental notes grows. In her text, the logic of the supplement takes over, and the unspeakable of the community's sexual politics becomes spoken. In large part, what is unspeakable is the identity that Pat labels in her charts as “8-rock”; this geological metaphor refers to a pure African genealogy that can be traced back to these families' arrival in America in the eighteenth century.
So what began as a gift becomes Pat's attempt to read between the lines of the entries in the family bibles, to get at the meaning of the names that have been struck through. As her writing turns from celebration to critical inquiry of the “town's official story,” Pat believes that she is the only one capable of the task since she has the “keen imagination and the persistence of a mind uncomfortable with oral histories” (188). But in order to fashion her history, she realizes that she cannot rely exclusively on what is officially documented and so must move into the realm of speculation: “she interpreted—freely but, she thought, insightfully because she alone had the required emotional distance” (188). Her emotional distance derives from her sense of difference. But it is precisely this emotional distance that we see collapse in her writing because she and her family are so directly impacted by the town's racial and sexual ideology.
As her section unfolds, Pat arrives at a clearer understanding of her doubled otherness. Given Ruby's color code, her outsider status is primarily a function of her lighter complexion, but this exclusion on the basis of racial identity is doubled by her identity as a writer. As Morrison's artist figures—Soaphead Church, Sula, Pilate, Baby Suggs, and the narrator of Jazz—repeatedly suggest, to be the artist or writer may necessarily entail one's marginality in the very community that one constitutes through the attempt to interpret and represent it.
Pat's inquiry turns deeply personal when she includes her own family history in the larger history of the community. All pretense of emotional distance drops out as she addresses her father, Roger Best, yet by turning to what is intensely personal she begins to inscribe the unspeakable things of Ruby. Referring to one of her father's business interests, his work as the town's mortician, she writes, “Daddy, they don't hate us because Mama was your first customer. They hate us because she looked like a cracker and was bound to have cracker-looking children like me, and although I married Billy Cato, who was an 8-rock like you, like them, I passed the skin on to my daughter, as you and everybody knew I would” (196). Making connections between and among the genealogies, Pat realizes the semi-incestuous nature of her community and that certain unrecorded unions of men and women have occurred outside the sanction of marriage in order to keep the racial bloodline pure.
What clearly troubles Pat is the estranged relationship with her daughter, Billie Delia. Mother and daughter have fallen out over Billie's love for two brothers of one of the 8-rock families, the Pooles. But rather than address this immediately, Pat's manuscript shifts from an address to her father to a letter to her dead mother. Pat believes the town is implicated in her mother's (as well as her stillborn sister's) death during childbirth, interpreting the men's slowness to act on the midwives request to get help as a passive-aggressive sign of the men's desire to get rid of those with lighter skins.
Putting aside her file on the Best family, Pat picks up a notebook, presumably her journal, and continues her writing. With her focus on the trouble with her daughter, Pat's writing becomes confessional. The previous October, their fight over Billie's relation with the Poole boys turned violent, and Pat nearly killed her daughter with an electric iron. Pat writes:
“I didn't mean to hit her so hard. I didn't know I had. I just meant to stop her lying mouth telling me she didn't do anything. I saw them. All three of them back behind the Oven and she was in the middle. Plus I am the one who washes sheets around here.”
Pat stopped, put down her pen and, covering her eyes with her hand, tried to separate what she had seen from what she feared to see. And what did the sheets have to do with it? Was there blood where there should not have been or no blood where there should have been?
Pat's instinctive question of the role that the sheets play points to a crucial metafictional turn. Three pages earlier, the narrator interrupts Pat's address to her dead mother to note: “The words had long ago covered the back of the page, so she was using fresh sheets” (199). The space thus collapses between what the pen inscribes on the manuscript sheets and the blood traces (whether they mark phallic penetration or the absence of menstrual blood) on the sheets of the bedding. Therefore, the (paper) sheets—which decode the racial blood laws of Ruby—have everything to do with Pat's anger directed toward her daughter. Interestingly Morrison herself has spoken of her anger in relation to this mother-daughter relationship: “Now, I did get angry recently, about this daughter [Billie Delia]. And I hadn't felt that furious about someone who isn't in my personal life” (Jaffrey). This interesting conjunction of the author's and her character's anger reminds us of the doubled role Toni and Pat share: they both are engaged in writing the history of Ruby, a writing that maps the abuses of patriarchal cultural.
Unconsciously connecting her textual pleasure (her work on Ruby's history) with what she imagines to be her daughter's sexual pleasure, Pat begins to realize that she too is implicated in the communal judgment of her daughter as sexually promiscuous, a judgment that turns out to be untrue. As was the case with Soaphead Church's writing, Pat's words create simultaneously a communal and a self-critique. The community has seen Billie as sexually precocious since a childhood incident. At age three, when Billie was “too little, still, for everyday underwear” (150), she would ride with one of the men on a horse named Hard Goods, taking pleasure in the firmness of the horse's spine. One Sunday, when offered the ride, she “pulled down her Sunday panties before raising her arms to be lifted” (151). For this, she received a whipping from Pat and a sense of shame. Despite being relegated to promiscuity by both the community and her mother, Billie has remained a virgin.
Patricia's troubled confrontation with genealogy, I think, needs to be read against Milkman's triumphant interpretation of his family's genealogy that is coded in the song sung by the children of Shalimar. Like Milkman, who is suddenly able to interpret the hidden meaning of a coded genealogical text—the iterated children's song—Pat finds the final key to decoding the meaning of her genealogies in the annual play that the children perform. Having returned home from the pageant, Pat understands that the multiple Marys and Josephs stand for the founding families of Ruby. Originally the pageant had represented all nine of the founding families, but that number had dropped to eight and finally seven in the most recent production. She realizes that yet another family has been disallowed for violating the community's rigid rule of blood.
Patricia's epiphany, which allows her a full recognition of her complicity with the community in creating its other (even to the point of making her own daughter an other), leads to a final act that oddly comments on Morrison's own very personal relationship to fire. Overwhelmed by her sense that she has decoded the meaning of the family genealogies—that the purity of the all-African blood lines depends on the men's ownership of their women's sexuality—she understands the threat posed by the Convent women, who aggressively claim their sexual potential, and Billie Delia and herself, who are light-complexioned. Although the fire that destroyed Morrison's beloved home on the Hudson River was entirely accidental, Patricia's relation to the fire is ambiguous. It appears initially that she is fully conscious of what she is doing, standing in front of a fire that she started in an oil drum out in her garden and methodically dropping file after file into the flames. Yet her final words point to a sense of love's labor lost: “‘Dear God,’ she murmured, ‘Dear, dear God. I burned the papers’” (217), words that suggest the destruction is accidental (or at least not fully conscious) and that record her sense of loss. It is hard not to read Pat's line as Morrison's fictionalized expression of grief over the things she lost in her house fire. Not long after the fire, Morrison says in a piece that appeared in the New York Times Magazine, “When I think about the fire, I think I may not ever, ever, ever get over it. And it isn't even about the things. It's about the photographs, plants I nurtured for 20 years, about the view of the Hudson River, my children's report cards, my manuscripts” (Dreifus 74). In 1998 Morrison speaks of her initial sense of loss: “And I lost … I write by hand … I was able to save some books, but I had all my manuscripts, notes from old books, in my bedroom on the second floor, in a little trundle underneath the bed, where there was some storage space. It went up first. I said to somebody later, ‘Why did I think that having those things near me was safer than having them in the basement?’” (Jaffrey).23 These holographic manuscript pages were, as I have argued, the very site and thus the visible traces of the emergence of Morrison's class, racial, gendered, and authorial identities.
Early in this study I suggested that one might locate the Morrison who wrote The Bluest Eye in the space between Pecola Breedlove and Maureen Peal, because in terms of class origin Morrison was closer to Pecola but in terms of childhood appearance, the author more closely approximated Maureen. I would like to conclude with a different pair—the two author figures of Paradise—because I think they help measure the distance Morrison has traveled in her career to date, and I believe they provide a point of departure for future consideration of this Nobel prize-winning author. Morrison hopes that her art performs the same healing that the gifts of Consolata enact but simultaneously fears that her writing, like Pat Best's, may only be able to diagnose the disease of American racialized discourse. Locatable neither exclusively in the realm of spiritual transcendence nor in the throes of authorial doubt, Morrison continues to write her best thing, which since The Bluest Eye has been her identity as an African-American woman novelist.
Having come to the end of what I wish to say about how one might discern the reflexive presence of Morrison within her fiction, a presence that suggests that all writing—much like Consolata's body art with the Convent women—serves as a tracing of the self, I am aware that what I have written can only be a harbinger for a project to come, one fashioned by a different critic. This study will be informed by the as yet unwritten authorized biography of Toni Morrison. But despite that valuable authorization, I hope that this future scholar will take whatever new stories become available to her or him and read them not as the revealed truth, but instead as subsequent chapters in the identifying fictions of Toni Morrison.
Ashraf H. A. Rushdy has thoroughly laid out the historical documents surrounding Margaret Garner, both in the popular press and in abolitionist journals. Rushdy's central assertion, that Morrison has added “a feminist voice” to “revisionist historiography and contemporary fiction,” is unassailable (568).
My thanks to Catherine Gunther Kodat who suggested Morrison's apparent desire to conceal the extent of her knowledge about Margaret Garner.
Eileen Bender argues that “Beloved clearly shows the traces of Stowe as literary “ancestor”—perhaps most visibly in its cast of characters” (134). The characters Bender is most interested in are Eliza and Sethe.
For a different reading of intertextual possibility placing the white and black texts against one another, see Moreland's discussion of Beloved and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (37-63).
In her review of Beloved, Margaret Atwood, for example, suggestively notes that Sethe's escape “makes the ice-floe scene in Uncle Tom's Cabin look like a stroll around the block” (1).
Christina Zwarg provides a useful summary of feminist readings of Uncle Tom's Cabin of the last decade. Her own work examines “the radical nature of Stowe's feminism” through an examination of Stowe's “treatment of fatherhood” (274). Her nuanced reading of the way the blackface George Washington hanging on the wall of Tom's cabin enters a symbolic economy with Tom's own role as black Christ and with the character of Black Sam as “politician” reveals several gaps in patriarchal authority; however, Zwarg's acknowledgement that, despite these subversions of the father, “Tom and Stowe become subsumed under the hierarchical representations of Christianity and patriarchy” corresponds much more closely to my own sense of Stowe's reinscription of a transcendent patriarchy.
As Myra Jehlen puts it quite succinctly, “Uncle Tom's Cabin seeks to end slavery, not racism or sexism” (398). Jehlen sees a clear limit to Stowe's feminism and poses a particular challenge to those who would assert a matriarchy in the novel. For Jehlen, Rachel Halliday, whose kitchen is the ultimate cite of domesticity and women power, “blesses the restoration of patriarchal power to the slave [George Harris] whose manhood is inextricably a matter of self-possession and of the possession of others, of his wife and child” (392).
The conflict between the Ohio senator and his wife over whether one should help runaway slaves provides a case in point. John Bird tells Mary: “Your feelings are all quite right, dear, and interesting, and I love you for them; but then, we mustn't suffer our feelings to run away with our judgment. You must consider it's not a matter of private feeling; there are great public interests involved […]” (85). John's words divide the world in sharp dichotomies that gender the public and private spheres: men and the public sphere govern by reason; women and the private sphere are the appropriate site of emotion. Yet a woman's feelings, informed by the bible, may lead reason to a higher truth that emotion has intuited. So when Eliza appears at the Birds' house, the senator eventually takes the leading role in assisting her escape. Mary's reactions to her husband's reversal is telling:
Now, little Mrs. Bird was a discreet woman—a woman who never in her life said, “I told you so!” and, on the present occasion, though pretty well aware of the shape her husband's meditations were taking, she very prudently forebode to meddle with them, only sat very quietly in her chair, and looked quite ready to hear her liege lord's intentions, when he should think proper to utter them.
Although a touch of irony flirts in the narrator's description of Mary's role here, it is impossible to forget that the word “lord” cannot signify without nodding toward the Lord, the transcendent model for masculine earthly rule.
Lori Askeland has explored a similar thesis, arguing that Morrison examines and revises the ideology of Uncle Tom's Cabin “in a way that avoids reification of a patriarchal power structure” (787). The evidence that she uses is quite different, based on the ideology of nineteenth-century domesticity, and she does not take up intertextual possibilities between Uncle Tom and Baby Suggs.
Elizabeth House's closely argued case that the young woman who appears at 124 is not the ghost of Sethe's daughter “but simply a young woman who has herself suffered the horrors of slavery” (17) usefully corrects those who would take ghostliness to be a simple matter in the novel. However, House's argument overnaturalizes a novel that insists upon a realm beyond the natural. At the outset 124 is unquestionably haunted by an authentic ghost and this ghost's disappearance, occasioned by Paul D's arrival, ushers in the arrival of Beloved.
For Askeland, Bodwin is “the good-intentioned whiteman who still carries in him the ghosts of the patriarchal institution” (801).
Harryette Mullen has described this scene in terms of Kristeva's chora, a space prior to naming and “associated with the maternal semiotic” that parallels “Morrison's chorus of mothers unnaming the unspeakable desire that precedes language” (263). The limitation of this fictive resolution is that, while an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the narrative, it does not provide a clear guideline for overturning patriarchal language. The cry of the women is before language. Does this mean that there is no language a woman can speak that will not speak her own oppression? The ending of Beloved does not resolve the issue, and we are left with the implication at least that to enter the Symbolic compromisingly positions women much as Sethe is positioned in relation to a different fluid produced by her laboring body, the ink she makes. This flowing substance is appropriated by her master, schoolteacher, who writes the “scientific” treatise that authorizes his nephews' the appropriation of her milk. Still, as Morrison notes, the novel's role is to stage a problem, not to provide a “recipe” for solving it (“Rootedness” 341).
Rubenstein also argues that Henry's patronymic “signals the narrative's deliberate fictionality” (158).
One reason for thinking of the supernatural narrator of Jazz in this fashion comes from the representation of spirituality in Paradise. In Morrison's most recent novel, Consolata is visited by a god/goddess figure that alternately manifests itself as male and as female.
Rubenstein notes that “Morrison explicitly places in the reader's hands the responsibility for constructing the meaning of her text, affirming the imaginative collaboration between narrator and reader” (162). What needs to be underscored, though, is the profoundly sexual figuration of this collaboration.
For example, in chapter 3 I detail Morrison's repudiation of the lesbian reading of Sula.
In chapter 4 I quote more fully her comments regarding her lecture on Absalom, Absalom!
Philip Weinstein also uses this passage as a clue to Morrison's rewriting of Faulkner (147-48).
Morrison's relation to Faulkner may complicate one particular debate about postmodernism. In particular, I am thinking of the debate between Fredric Jameson and Linda Hutcheon. For Jameson, postmodern narrative is ahistorical (and hence politically dangerous), playing only with pastiched images and aesthetic forms that produce a degraded historicism (see chapter 1 of Postmodernism); for Hutcheon, as I discuss in my opening chapter, postmodern fiction remains historical, precisely because it problematizes history through parody, and thus retains its potential for cultural critique. Thus, Hutcheon's celebration of the power of postmodern parody to produce historical thinking stands in direct opposition to Jameson's despair over postmodernism, which for him is not an oppositional aesthetic but only the cultural logic of multinational capitalism. Jazz's pastiche of Faulknerian textuality complicates Jameson's and Hutcheon's positions because Morrison's pastiche may actually perform the cultural work that Hutcheon ascribes to parody.
Some readers may object to my use of the word “rape,” but the dynamics of master and slave make any notion of consent impossibly problematic.
Beloved in particular seems like an intervention in the critical commentary by African-American writers, such as Ishmael Reed, who were critical of the portrayal of the African-American male in the fiction of black women authors such as Alice Walker.
Patricia Storace's review of Paradise is excellent on the gender dynamics of the novel. Storace notes that the “women of Ruby […] live in the mansion of freedom, a freedom granted to them, which they do not possess—they are free to live the lives whose purpose and limits are imagined for them by Ruby men […].”
When asked by an interviewer about her sense of achievement in Paradise, Morrison somewhat cryptically remarks, “I wanted another kind of confrontation with Patricia, the one who kept the genealogies together” (Jaffrey).
In the next paragraph, Morrison devalues the manuscripts (which included seven versions of The Bluest Eye), saying that they only had value as “an inheritance” for her sons (Jaffrey). The fact, however, that Morrison chose to focus on them first (rather than the loss of her children's report cards) and the halting fashion in which she expresses the loss suggests that the later comments serve as a kind of cover for the deep sense of loss she feels regarding the manuscripts.
I. Primary Morrison Material
Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
The Bluest Eye. 1970. New York: Plume, 1994.
Jazz. New York: Knopf, 1992.
Paradise. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Song of Solomon. New York: Knopf, 1977.
Sula. New York: Knopf, 1973.
Tar Baby. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Criticism and Essays
“Faulkner and Women.” Faulkner and Women. Ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1986. 295-302.
“The Official Story: Dead Man Golfing.” Birth of a Nation'hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case. Ed. Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky Lacour. New York: Pantheon, 1997. vii-xxviii.
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.
“Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” Evans, 339-45.
“A Slow Walk of Trees (as Grandmother Would Say) Hopeless (as Grandfather Would Say.” The New York Times Magazine 4 July 1976: 104＋.
“Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (1989): 1-34.
[Chloe Ardellia Wofford]. “Virginia Woolf's and William Faulkner's Treatment of the Alienated.” M.A. thesis. Cornell U, 1955. [Note: Morrison uses the middle name recorded on her birth certificate on the title page of her thesis, but it is spelled “Ardellia” rather than “Ardelia.”]
Interviews and Profiles
Although MLA style calls for 1) listing interviews by the last name of the figure interviewed and 2) internal citations using a short title, this becomes confusing since so many of Morrison's interviews have identical or similar titles; therefore, I cite interviews by the last name of the interviewer. Whenever the interviews have been reprinted in Conversations with Toni Morrison (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994) edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie, I have cited that volume. The term “profile” includes any article or review for which Morrison has supplied oral or written comments to the author.
Bakerman, Jane. “The Seams Can't Show: An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie, 30-42. Rpt. from Black American Literature Forum 12.2 (1978): 56-60.
Bigsby, Christopher. “Jazz Queen.” The Independent [London]. 26 April 1992, Sunday Review Page, 28. Online. Nexis. 20 Ap. 1996.
Brown, Cecil. “Interview with Toni Morrison.” Massachusetts Review 36 (1995): 455-73.
Charles, Pepsi. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Nimrod 21.2 (1977): 43-51.
“Conversation with Alice Childress and Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie, 3-9. Rpt. from Black Creation Annual 1974-1975. 90-92.
DeWitt, Karen. “Song of Solomon.” Washington Post. 30 Sept 1977: C1, C3.
Dreifus, Claudia. “Chloe Wofford Talks about Toni Morrison.” New York Times Magazine 11 Sept. 1994: 72-75.
Gray, Paul. “Paradise Found.” Time 19 Jan. 1998: 62-68.
Jaffrey, Zia. “The Salon Interview.” Salon 2 Feb. 1998. 20 Oct. 1998.
Jones, Bessie W. and Audre Vinson. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie, 171-187. Rpt. from The World of Toni Morrison (Debuque: Kendall Hunt, 1985): 127-51.
Koenen, Anne. “The One Out of Sequence.” Taylor-Guthrie, 67-83. Rpt. from History and Tradition in Afro-American Culture, ed. Gunther Lenz. (Frankfurt: Campus, 1984): 207-21.
LeClair, Thomas. “The Language Must Not Sweat: A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Conversations with Toni Morrison. Taylor-Guthrie, 119-128. Rpt. from New Republic 21 March 1981: 25-29.
McKay, Nellie. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie, 138-55. Rpt. from Contemporary Literature 24 (1983): 413-429.
Medwick, Cathleen. “Toni Morrison.” Vogue April 1981: 288＋.
Morales, Robert. “Toni Morrison.” The Vibe Q May 1998. 19 Nov. 1998.
“Morrison, Toni.” Contemporary Authors. Vol. 29-32. 1972.
“Morrison, Toni.” Current Biography Yearbook. 40th ed. 1979.
Naylor, Gloria. “A Conversation: Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie, 188-217. Rpt. from Southern Review 21 (1985): 567-593.
Neustadt, Kathy. “The Visits of the Writers Toni Morrison and Eudora Welty.” Taylor-Guthrie, 84-92. Rpt. from Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin Spring 1980: 2-5.
Ruas, Charles. “Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie 93-118. Rpt. from Conversations with American Writers (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984): 215-243.
Schappell, Elissa. “The Art of Fiction CXXXIV.” The Paris Review 129 (1993): 83-125.
Stepto, Robert. “Intimate Things in Place: A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie, 10-29. Rpt. from Massachusetts Review 18 (1977): 473-489.
Strouse, Jean. “Toni Morrison's Black Magic.” Newsweek 30 March 1981: 52-56.
Tate, Claudia. “Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie 156-170. Rpt. from Black Women Writers at Work (New York: Continuum, 1983): 117-131.
Watkins, Mel. “Talk with Toni Morrison.” New York Times Book Review 11 Sept. 1977. 48, 50.
Wilson, Judith. “A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie 129-37. Rpt. from Essence July, 1981: 84-6, 128.
II. Secondary Sources
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. 1973. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill, 1975.
———. Roland Barthes. 1975. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill, 1977.
Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
———. Go Down, Moses. 1942. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
———. Light in August. 1932. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Gates, Henry Lewis, Jr. “Jazz (1992).” Gates and Appiah, 52-55.
———. “Preface.” Gates and Appiah ix-xiii.
———. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Gates, Henry Lewis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993.
Irigaray, Luce. “Volume-Fluidity.” 1974. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 227-40.
Page, Philip. Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison's Novels. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1852. New York: Dutton, 1909.
SOURCE: Jones, Carolyn M. “Sula and Beloved: Images of Cain in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” In Understanding Toni Morrison's “Beloved” and “Sula”: Selected Essays and Criticisms of the Works by the Nobel Prize-Winning Author, edited by Solomon O. Iyasere and Marla W. Iyasere, pp. 338-56. Troy, New York: Whitston Publishing Company, 2000.
[In the following essay, Jones examines the significance of references to the biblical story of Cain and Abel in Morrison's Sula and Beloved. Jones argues that Morrison's references to this mythical story suggest a connection between memory, community, and individual identity.]
In The Mark of Cain, Ruth Mellinkoff rejects the single modern image of Cain she examines, Hesse's Demien, as an “intentionally distorted” treatment of the myth. In Hesse's novel, she claims,
the interpreter has designed his interpretation to serve his own purpose—a self-conscious twisting to achieve personal ends. Clarification or elaboration of biblical texts is not the primary goal; rather, biblical elements are used to enhance the interpreter's particular point of view about something he is critical of in his contemporary society.
Displacements of myth in contemporary fiction, however, are not distortions but are intertextual examinations...
(The entire section is 7471 words.)
SOURCE: Davidson, Rob. “Racial Stock and 8-Rocks: Communal Historiography in Toni Morrison's Paradise.” Twentieth-Century Literature 47, no. 3 (fall 2001): 355-73.
[In the following essay, Davidson examines the role of narrative as a means of constituting community identity in Morrison's Paradise.]
There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
—Walter Benjamin (258)
With the publication of Paradise in 1998, Toni Morrison completed a trilogy of historical novels that began with Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992). Broadly speaking, Morrison's trilogy is concerned with “re-membering” the historical past for herself, for African Americans, and for America as a whole: Beloved reconsiders the periods of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Jazz reconsiders the Harlem Renaissance, and Paradise is principally concerned with the Vietnam and civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s.
One of the most important concerns in the trilogy is the “use value” of narrative. Storytelling is historiography in Morrison's fiction, and in each novel she carefully examines the role of narrative in the reconstitution of both the individual self and society at large. But Morrison's method and focus for her project have evolved and widened over...
(The entire section is 6687 words.)
SOURCE: Hove, Thomas B. “Toni Morrison.” In Postmodernism: The Key Figures, edited by Hans Bertens and Joseph Natoli, pp. 254-60. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002.
[In the following essay, Hove provides an overview of elements of postmodernism in Morrison's fiction.]
Although she regards herself first and foremost as an African-American writer, Toni Morrison's work shares several features with a widespread tendency in postmodern fiction—shared by American writers as diverse as Leslie Marmon Silko, Ishmael Reed, and Thomas Pynchon—to confront, question, and ultimately supplement dominant cultural narratives. Morrison's fictions repeatedly challenge cultural traditions defined by patriarchal, assimilationist, and totalizing standards. Ever since her first novel, The Bluest Eye, came out in 1969, she has set herself in opposition to the European American white mainstream by portraying and celebrating unique, powerful voices of marginalized women from American history and contemporary American life.
Formally, Morrison's impulse to supplement totalizing narratives is reflected in her characteristic fictional technique of letting a variety of voices from the African-American present and past offer their own accounts of themselves. This technique serves several important purposes: it resists the imperialistic impulses associated with the effort to formulate one and only one...
(The entire section is 3010 words.)
SOURCE: Capuano, Peter J. “Truth in Timbre: Morrison's Extension of Slave Narrative Song in Beloved.” African American Review 37, no. 1 (spring 2003): 95-103.
[In the following essay, Capuano examines references to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), by Frederick Douglass, in Morrison's Beloved.]
His voice was faint. A rustle of leaves. Then Reb lifted his head and began to croon in a tongue incomprehensible to me. Another mourner began to sing. Then another. The sound swelled, expanded, ate space, filled the woods like a splash of wind, blended with the air, turned and touched off, one by one, the different voices of the others, then Reb sang louder—or, better, bellowed like a steer. Abruptly, they stopped, my own face was hot and thick, the tears flew back into my nose when I sniffled and burned my throat. It was then, as Reb drove home the first nail to seal his son's casket, as I felt the sound of metal ring on metal in the deepest coils of my ears, that a voice behind me, toadlike, said:
“At least he was spared the mines, eh, Andrew?”
(Charles Johnson, Oxherding Tale)
In her 1987 novel Beloved, Toni Morrison acknowledges and even borrows from Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative, but she also...
(The entire section is 5125 words.)
SOURCE: Morrison, Toni, and Anne-Marie O'Connor. “Love and the Outlaw Women.” Los Angeles Times (15 October 2003): E1.
[In the following interview, Morrison discusses her career and her novel Love.]
Distinguished American novelist Toni Morrison is in her Manhattan apartment, talking about “outlaw women.” Dressed in a flowing black shirt and pants, with luminous strands of pearls around her neck and long, graying braids twisting down her back, Morrison chooses her words carefully, her voice low, soft and forceful.
“Outlaw women who don't follow the rules are always interesting to me,” she begins, her eyes thoughtful and expressive, “because they push themselves, and us, to the edge. The women who step outside the borders, or who think other thoughts, define the limits of civilization, but also challenge it.”
A string of these women have peopled the novels of this Nobel laureate, from Song of Solomon to Sula and Paradise. But today, Morrison is talking about Celestial, the enigmatic, elusive presence in her new novel, Love.
Celestial haunts Bill Cosey, the autumnal patriarch who is the central character of Love, just like the faded memory of the glory days of his personal empire: a chic seaside resort for stylish, well-to-do blacks that flourished in a segregated America.
(The entire section is 1412 words.)
SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “Prisoners of One Man's Affection.” Christian Science Monitor (28 October 2003): 15.
[In the following review, Charles discusses the interrelationships among the characters in Morrison's Love.]
Readers who know Toni Morrison's work only from her surreal classic Beloved will be surprised by the subtlety and humor of her new novel. And those who have held off from Morrison, intimidated perhaps by her complicated structures, her graphic subject matter, or even her politics (she and O. J. are the only ones still looking for that small-gloved killer), should start here with Love. This is the carefully crafted work of a storyteller entirely unburdened by her Nobel Prize. No pretension deadens her rhythm, no self-importance forces her wit, no presumption of Significance bloats her significant insights.
The story floats in the glorious past of a shuttered hotel, “the best and best-known vacation spot for colored folk on the East Coast.” Bill Cosey, long dead, was the larger-than-life proprietor whose “pleasure was in pleasing,” who promised his guests “the best good time this side of the law.” What he saw, which other entrepreneurs didn't, was a market for black entertainment, a classy establishment where black men and women could enter the front door, enjoy a fine meal, and hear the best music.
But now, only the women...
(The entire section is 824 words.)
SOURCE: Mantel, Hilary. “Ghost Writer.” New Statesman 132, no. 4667 (8 December 2003): 50-1.
[In the following review, Mantel provides a plot synopsis of Morrison's Love, and offers a favorable assessment of the novel.]
Toni Morrison has said in interviews that readers sometimes ask her: “Why don't you write about white people?” You could come off your ground and on to ours, they suggest; because you are an artist you “transcend” divisions. They mean to flatter her; yet what they mean is both insulting and absurd. No group has a bigger share in the power of narrative than any other. All Morrison's work exists to remind us of this. The cultural default position is still “white, male”, but Morrison has shown through her distinguished career that there are other eyes to look through and other mouths through which to speak, and that these visions and discourses are in no way “alternative”; if you are black, and a woman, they are simple, central and natural.
Her new book [Love] interweaves the stories of a group of black women, some old and some young, some living and some dead. Their common focus is the long-deceased Bill Cosey, one-time owner of Cosey's Resort, a coastal hotel that had its heyday around 1942. It was a pleasure-ground for the black professional classes, a place to dine and dance and sleep in fine linen sheets, to laugh, relax, gamble and...
(The entire section is 1070 words.)
SOURCE: Davis, Thulani. “Not Beloved.” Nation 277, no. 20 (15 December 2003): 30-2.
[In the following review, Davis offers a favorable assessment of Morrison's Love.]
Toni Morrison's slim new novel, Love, may seem, at first glance, to fit within a group of books one could crudely call Morrison Lite, not requiring any heavy lifting from the reader like her masterpieces, Beloved and Song of Solomon. But the appearance is deceptive. A distillation of many of her earlier themes, notably the theft of girlhood and wars over times now gone, Love is a rich parable about the damaging past as a demagogue ruling the present. And as with a number of her books, the story is passed from one character to another and gathers details and clarity as it is seen from one angle, then the next. Like a multifaceted stone, this intimate tale of seven women and one man is cut to refract the light as each of its characters sees it, turning their eyes round a reflecting center.
That center, the late Bill Cosey, the owner of a once-popular black beach resort in the South, is the most prominent ghost in the novel, and as such he can seem empty like glass, idealized by memory like the moonlight on his hotel's Sooker Bay. In other lights, he is cold, foolish or corrupt. But like other Morrison ghosts, Bill Cosey represents that damaging past. In the novel's present, his child bride,...
(The entire section is 1724 words.)
SOURCE: McDowell, Deborah E. “Philosophy of the Heart.” Women's Review of Books 21, no. 3 (December 2003): 8-9.
[In the following review, McDowell discusses the theme of love in Morrison's Love.]
What is this thing called love that cannot stand alone, but depends on modifiers and conjunctions to complete it, to give it heft and meaning? There is “brotherly” love, “platonic” love, “puppy” love, “courtly” love, and of course, that most vexing, confounding, ever-elusive “romantic” love. Love often shows up in common parlance with a partner, as in love and death, love and lust, love and hate, love and war, and that reverent, consecrated pairing, love and marriage, which “go together like a horse and carriage,” in the words of the popular ditty ending with the rhyming couplet, “This I tell you brother, you can't have one without the other.” We know, of course, that we can and more often do have one without the other: marriage without love and, conversely, love without marriage. A loveless marriage, sullied from the start, is the mainspring of Toni Morrison's latest novel, Love, a marriage between the 52-year-old Bill Cosey (his second) and his 11-year-old child bride, Heed the Night, whom Cosey purchases from her father for ＄200 and a pocketbook.
You can guess you're in a Toni Morrison novel when you encounter such a situation, not to mention a...
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Middleton, David L. Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1987, 186 p.
Includes considerable criticism on Morrison's first four novels, as well as other writings, interviews, and anthologies.
Mix, Debbie. “Toni Morrison: A Selected Bibliography.” Modern Fiction Studies 39, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1993): 795-818.
Bibliography covering selected criticism on Morrison's novels.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. “Gendering the Genderless: The Case of Toni Morrison's Beloved.” Obsidian II 8, no. 1 (spring-summer 1993): 1-17.
Examines the blurring of conventional notions of gender in Beloved.
Bell, Bernard W. “Beloved: A Womanist Neo-Slave Narrative; or Multivocal Remembrances of Things Past.” In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison's “Beloved,” edited by Barbara H. Solomon, pp. 166-76. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1998.
Examination of Beloved as a black feminist text that gives voice to those silenced by slavery.
Bidney, Martin. “Creating a Feminist-Communitarian Romanticism in Beloved: Toni Morrison's New Uses for Blake, Keats, and Wordsworth.” Papers on Language & Literature 36, no. 3 (summer 2000):...
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