Morrison, Toni (Vol. 22)
Toni Morrison 1931–
Black American novelist and editor.
Morrison's fiction usually involves the initiation of young black women who must confront the tensions of both racism and sexism. Within a compelling narrative, Morrison uses symbolism, foreshadowing, flashbacks, myth, inner monologues, and authentic dialect.
(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 10, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6: American Novelists since World War 11.)
Phyllis R. Klotman
Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye (1970) is a female Bildungsroman, a novel of growing up, of growing up young and black and female in America. The story centers around the lives of two black families, the McTeers and the Breedloves, migrants from the South, living in Lorain, Ohio. But its emphasis is on the children, Claudia and Frieda McTeer and Pecola Breedlove—their happy and painful experiences in growing up, their formal and informal education. In fact, education by the school and society is the dominant theme of The Bluest Eye.
The novel opens with three versions of the "Dick and Jane" reader so prevalent in the public schools at the time (the 1940s) of the novel. Morrison uses this technique to juxtapose the fictions of the white educational process with the realities of life for many black children. The ironic duality of the school/home experience is illuminated through the ingenious structure of the novel. The "Dick and Jane" referent effectively introduces the fictional milieu of Morrison's characters; it is one with which we are all familiar…. It is the world of the first-grade basic reader—middle-class, secure, suburban and white, replete with dog, cat, non-working mother and leisure-time father…. This first version of the simulated-reader quotation is clear, straight, rendered in "Standard English"—correct and white. The second, while it repeats the message exactly, assumes a different...
(The entire section is 1098 words.)
Anne Z. Mickelson
In her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), Toni Morrison deals with children and that element of belief by many black people, as she sees it, that an ultimate glory is possible. Pecola Breedlove yearns for blue eyes as the next best thing to being white. Blue eyes become for her a symbol of pride and dignity. She seeks the glory of blue eyes through prayer … and eventually through madness when, believing that blue eyes have finally been granted her, she walks about flapping her arms like wings, convinced that she can fly. Secure in her madness, she has no knowledge that she has become the town pariah.
The author's second novel, Sula (1974), expands the theme of pariah by charting her heroine's odyssey from childhood to adulthood…. Toni Morrison develops the theme by focusing on two women and their friendship: an extraordinary friendship in which one is a rebel who becomes the town's scandal, and the other a conformist who does all the proper things expected of her. Analyzing their different households at the age of twelve, Morrison brings together the components of their lives with a fine sympathy for a friendship which, though broken, ultimately assumes a dramatic meaning for the story and the women. Though it is Nel, the conformist woman, who voices the idea that Sula had been her glory, the book ends with each woman's thoughts centered on the other, despite the fact that no reconciliation has taken place. (pp....
(The entire section is 3730 words.)
Jane S. Bakerman
[Toni Morrison] has achieved major stature through the publication of only three novels. The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973) are brief, poetic works which explore the initiation experiences of their black, female, adolescent protagonists. Song of Solomon (1977) is a much longer but still lyrical story relating Macon (Milkman) Dead's search for familial roots and personal identity. Milkman's development is framed and illuminated by the maturation stories of three women important in his life, and the presence of these subplots in the tale of a male protagonist is a good indication of the importance of female initiation in Morrison's thought.
For Toni Morrison, the central theme of all her work is [love]…. Certainly, this theme is evident in The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon, their female characters searching for love, for valid sexual encounters, and, above all, for a sense that they are worthy. (p. 541)
In Toni Morrison's novels, she joins her basic theme with the initiation motif, and the initiation experiences, trying and painful as they are, fail. Pilate invents her own standards and lives almost outside society, a choice which eventually brings tragedy upon her family. Sula rebels and is rejected. Nel marries; Corinthians takes a lover, and both are diminished. Hagar and Pecola attempt to transform themselves; Hagar dies, and Pecola goes mad. All live lives of profound...
(The entire section is 2166 words.)
Because Toni Morrison is black, female, and the author of Song of Solomon …, one expects from her a fiction of ideas as well as characters.
Tar Baby has both. And its so sophisticated a novel that Tar Baby might well be tarred and feathered as bigoted, racist, and a product of male chauvinism were it the work of a white male—say, John Updike, whom Morrison brings to mind.
One of fiction's pleasures is to have your mind scratched and your intellectual habits challenged. While Tar Baby has shortcomings, lack of provocation isn't one of them. Morrison owns a powerful intelligence. It's run by courage. She calls to account conventional wisdom and accepted attitude at nearly every turn of her story. She wonders about the sacrifice of love, the effects of racial integration, the intention of chartity. Continually she questions both the logic and morality of seeking happiness or what Freud said passes for it, freedom from pain, by living in social accommodation. Although Morrison tells a love story—indeed, she tells two or three stories about love—her narrative lines run to complexities far beyond those of physical or emotional bonding….
Tar Baby opens as a black American merchant sailor jumps his Swedish ship and swims toward Isle des Chevaliers, a Haitian island owned by a handful of U.S. millionaires…. He tells Valerian Street, the 75-year-old imperious...
(The entire section is 789 words.)
Toni Morrison seems to be returning…. risk and mischief to the contemporary American novel, and never more extravagantly than in "Tar Baby," her fourth and most ambitious book. (pp. 1, 30)
[In] "Tar Baby," Miss Morrison gives us a candy manufacturer named Valerian Street, a white man….
He lives oblivious to a story within his own family—a story too good for me to spoil for the reader…. The family's loyal black cook, Ondine, will reveal the tale; she and her husband, Sydney, the butler, have devoted most of their lives to serving Valerian Street. They are the white man's dream of "good Negroes," which means thay love their master's child as if he were their own, they keep their place, they grow quietly and uncomplainingly old….
They also provide Miss Morrison with an opportunity to exercise her considerable gift for dialogue; this old couple's conversation is sparkling and through it the reader learns the circumstances of Valerian's retirement to the Caribbean. It is both his and his wife's sorrow that their only son won't share this paradise (the mystery of the novel, and it's a gruesome mystery, is why the son, Michael, stays away)….
In "Tar Baby" Toni Morrison lavishes her strongest prose on descriptions of nature….
At times this effort to see the world from nature's point of view seems precious, even cute …, but the richness of the best of these...
(The entire section is 680 words.)
In the past, white folks have figured in Toni Morrison's novels more or less the way adults are portrayed in the TV version of Peanuts—as vague, muffled, offstage voices, menacing or comforting but essentially irrelevant. Tar Baby does posses a pair of white characters, but this book is not much more about them than the others have been….
Symbols multiply and recur, so that the story too often seems merely to exist for the sake of its meaning. At the center are a dozen variations on maternity, natural and unnatural. The questions toward which we are led, inexorably, are "Mamaspoiled black man, will you mature with me? Culture-bearing black woman, whose culture are you bearing?"
The inventive drive that carries us forward is as great as it has been in Morrison's three previous novels. Even more brilliant are the candor and complexity with which Morrison sets forth the dilemmas of co-opted blackness. There is not a shade missing on her spectrum, from the untainted and aboriginal … through small-town, old-time piety, big-city manners, to the sophisticated corruption of Jadine, who wears good boots and take's pictures of the down-home children that make them look as stupid as she thinks they are.
A new myth is being forged, and, like all myths, it is meant to be both an explanation and an exhoriation. But the myth-maker in this case, having set down so indelibly deep pain and...
(The entire section is 375 words.)
The laboring poor of The Bluest Eye, the self-sufficient women and drifting men of Sula, the avaricious middle class and defiantly marginal citizens of Song of Solomon—they are gone, replaced, in Tar Baby, by the rich, their servants, their dependents and the sans culottes who threaten their security. Though much is made of money, fashion, commodities as consciousness, and the experiences open to the privileged, the cultured, and those clever enough to hustle a piece of the action, the people living on Isle des Chevaliers, voluntary exiles all, seem to inhabit a world that is oppressively parochial and provincial….
The people on Isle des Chevaliers have much on their minds…. All are haunted by recurring opaque dreams, by memories of what they have lost, renounced. Inner monologues drift through the heat; themes are pulled out and rummaged through like the many clothes in the several closets. Everyone is poised for a dramatic happening. The table has been set for a troubled Christmas in the sun.
Michael, the prodigal son, does not show up for the holiday feast. But—guess who's coming for dinner—a dirty, hungry black man with "dreadlocks," discovered hiding out in Margaret's closet, is invited by Valerian to eat and drink, much to the consternation of everyone else. His presence confuses further the already tense, tangled relations in the house. (p. 24)
(The entire section is 602 words.)
Toni Morrison weaves a web of such surpassing delicacy and grace that the reader is ensnared for the duration of her mythic journey. Her fables unfold in the landscape of dreams, and the plot of a Morrison book is useful only insofar as it illuminates the allegory she is working. The meanings of Tar Baby … continue to reveal themselves to me slowly, but it's clear that Morrison works her magic charm above all with a love of language. Her soaring lyrical style carries you like a river through the book, sweeping doubt and disbelief away, and it is only gradually that one realizes her deadly serious intent. In Tar Baby she deals with tension; tension between master and servant between men and women, between blacks and whites, and between the younger and older generation of blacks. The theme of racial tension underlies the book like a bedrock, anchoring it firmly in reality despite her sometimes silly fights of fantasy….
An orphan, Jadine was raised by her aunt and uncle Sydney and Ondine Childs, lifelong servants to an eccentric white couple named Valerian and Margaret Street, who have retired to an estate on an obscure Caribbean island. During her visit, the madness that passes for everyday life between the Streets (who have educated Jadine in the finest schools) and the elder Childs is interrupted by the intrusion of an American black man named Son….
Morrison deftly draws the parallel between sexism...
(The entire section is 711 words.)
Pearl K. Bell
The life depicted in Toni Morrison's earlier novels drew its strength from her flawless recollection of a cherished and painful past. Tar Baby is set not on the writer's native ground but on a French island in the Caribbean where she, too, is only a tourist, and the novel seems to have been designed more as a vehicle for bitter judgments than as a reflective rendering of memory. This may account for its disjointed tone, its florid language, and the incongruity of its parts: a lush tropic locale; a gorgeously romantic and doomed love story; a melodramatic family scandal; and the harsh indictment of white civilization that washes over it all.
Tar Baby introduces white characters for the first time—Valerian Street, the wealthy candy manufacturer who paid for Jadine's education, and his wife Margaret, a former Miss Maine with a terrible secret…. [Valerian is] self-mocking, quirky, and generous to a fault—a tyrant with a heart of tarnished gold—and Miss Morrison's portrait of the old man shuttles so erratically between fondness and outrage that he is hard to place in her moral scheme….
The racial and cultural tensions in Tar Baby are played out mainly in the fiery love affair between Jadine and a black fugitive called Son, who opens the can of worms at the heart of Valerian's household, and by implication at the heart of white society as well. In an unrelenting tirade which summons up...
(The entire section is 530 words.)