Toni Morrison

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In "Strangers," how does Toni Morrison address the concept of "otherness" and "outsiders," and how might this idea of otherness manifest in the marginalization of groups and individuals in society?

In "Strangers," Morrison describes an experience in which she sees a stranger, who has lied about her identity. The author experiences a feeling of shame, not because she has objectified the stranger, but because she has been objectified as well. Morrison explores this idea further by comparing it to the concept of the Other created by Jean Paul Sartre. Because of the gaze of others, Morrison and the stranger are both trapped in their roles as Other: they can be seen and understood in only one way. Morrison suggests that this feeling of shame is similar to what marginalized groups experience on a regular basis. In other words, those individuals whom society identifies as "outsiders" are viewed through a lens that marginalizes them.

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"Strangers," an essay by Toni Morrison, addresses the concepts of "otherness" and "outsiders" with a personal anecdote.

The anecdote begins with Morrison seeing a woman fishing in her neighbor's garden. Morrison explains that her first feelings towards the woman are welcoming. The woman is using a homemade fishing pole and wearing "a man's hat, a well-worn colorless sweater, and a black dress." Upon viewing the stranger's attire, "a feeling of pleasantness washes over [Morrison]." As she talks to the woman, she does not question the woman's claims about herself: Morrison accepts them as factual. The woman says that her name is "Mother Something," that she lives in a "nearby village," and that she has permission from Morrison's neighbor to fish catfish and eel out of that particular pond as often as she likes. Morrison says that the woman seems "witty and full of the wisdom that older woman seem to have a lock on." She expects to see more of the stranger, to even invite her into her own home to become better acquainted.

Unfortunately, she does not see the woman again, and soon discovers that the stranger lied about herself. She was not given permission to fish in the pond—Morrison's neighbor does not know who the woman is. No one else in their community seems to know who the woman is either; no one has even heard of "Mother Something." Soon, Morrison's pleasant, welcoming feelings turn into feelings of "annoyance" and "bitterness." Morrison is annoyed because the woman had used notions of "female camaraderie" to deceive her; she is bitter because the interaction illuminated the shame of otherness for her.

To understand the shame of otherness Morrison identifies in her essay, it helps to compare the anecdote to Jean Paul Sartre's concept of the "Other." Sartre theorized that people perceive others as if peeping through a key hole in a door. In such scenarios, the complex person being viewed is interpreted as an objectified body. When Morrison first spotted the woman, she held preconceived notions about who the stranger should be, and these notions influenced her gaze. When she viewed the stranger's clothing, Morrison interpreted the woman as an object that molded to those preconceived notions of the stranger's identity.

Sartre explains that there is a certain shame that comes when held in the "gaze" of another. A person might understand another person as one dimensional, judging the other to be defined by one or two attributes that they noted while "peeping." For example, one might judge another person as "shy" when gazing upon them in a moment of displayed insecurity. How one exists in the mind of others cannot be changed, which brings about a feeling of shame.

Morrison felt bitter because she had held this stranger—this "Other"—in her gaze. Her gaze limited the woman's personal identity, and she realized bitterly that the woman had done the same to her. In other words, Morrison is bitter—not because of guilt for her own objectification of the stranger, but because she felt the shame of objectification herself.

As the anecdote in "Stranger" illustrates, the Other is interpreted through "images, language, and experience." Morrison explains how images and language manifests as a control dynamic:

These two godlings, language and image, feed and form experience. My instant embrace of an outrageously dressed fisherwoman was due in part to an image upon which my image of her was based. I immediately sentimentalized and appropriated her. I owned her and wanted to (and I suspect she glimpsed it). I had forgotten the power of embedded images and stylish language to seduce, reveal, control. Forgot too their capacity to help us pursue the human project—which is to block the dehumanization of others.

Examples of Morrison's experience can also be identified in the images, language, and experience that are communicated in visual mediums; these representations also have a tendency to marginalize the "Other."

Consider, for example, portrayals of the poor in popular media. The poor are often described as dangerous, criminally minded, child abusers, and alcoholics: generally lacking "wholesome values" altogether. If, however, poor characters don't have these identity-limiting stock characteristics, then the plot usually turns to elevate them to a higher class through some miraculous means of material gain.

Consider, for instance, the films Good Will Hunting and Pretty Woman. In both films, the characters are represented through the gaze of a person from a more privileged class. Viewers experience the "gaze" of the wealthier characters, perceiving impoverished characters from this privileged perspective, which alters the point of view, images perceived, and dialogue exchanged. The "gaze" determines that the poor characters in both films possess attributes that make them "worth helping," and so they are rewarded.

In these instances, there are several techniques utilized through visual storytelling and dialogue to illustrate that, while these characters are poor, they are still "valuable." First, film viewers are shown that these poor characters do not deserve their circumstances. Misfortune has dealt them an unjust hand. It is no fault of their own. Second, the audience is shown that these types of characters are "valuable" people. Will is "wicked smart," and therefore deserves the education that will allow him to contribute to society. Vivian has kept at least some part of herself withheld and chaste (she reserves the intimacy of a kiss from the men she has serviced), and therefore possess a higher "moral value" than other prostitutes in the film; the emotional intimacy she withholds in the form of a kiss qualifies her to be rescued by her "white knight" from her life of sexual bondage.

Ultimately, the media's attempt to represent the plight of the poor limits the complexity of our understanding of the poor. These representations marginalize the poor into acceptable versions of strangers that we can understand and control, just like Morrison experienced in her interaction with the woman in "Strangers."

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In Toni Morrison's essay, "Strangers," the author explores the notion of strangers, folks we do not know, and their impact on our psyche. She uses an example of a fisherwoman as a stranger who intrigues her by her dress and her witty conversation. After the meeting, Morrison looks forward to meeting the stranger again. However, that meeting never takes place, and the author feels both betrayed and disturbed by this experience (para 4) as she has envisioned many more interesting visits with this woman. Morrison created her own image of this stranger, and the stranger failed to live up to her expectations.

Morrison goes on to postulate that we tend to mold strangers into our image of them. These images, combined with language, "saying, listening, reading" (para 5), form the basis of our experience. It is through this reasoning that Morrison explores the notion of otherness. That is, our created images can blur our vision and shape others into what they may or may not prove to be in reality. This complex idea can result in dehumanizing individuals resulting in their marginalization from the rest of society.

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Toni Morrison’s essay “Strangers” was written as an introduction to the book A Kind of Rapture by Robert Bergman. Morrison’s piece explores the judgments we all form about strangers before getting to know them. The assignment topic of otherness and marginalization will give you plenty to discuss about this text.

In planning your essay, first decide what your claim will be on theme of otherness and marginalization. Because this essay needs to be five to seven pages in length, determine an organizing principle around which to build your essay. For example, you may want to examine the three elements of language, image, and experience that Morrison says are the ways humans “access” each other.

Phrase your thesis in one or two sentences in the introduction, being as clear and specific as possible. In your introduction, be sure to include the author’s name and title of the text you are analyzing. It is also a good idea to preview the main points you will discuss. Try beginning your introduction with an idea that shows the importance of the topic. For example, you may want to speak about the idea of otherness, connecting this theme to a broader context and illustrating why this issue is significant.

The part of the prompt asking how the idea of otherness is manifested in the marginalization of people in society seems to be open to your own interpretation, rather than strictly analyzing just the “Strangers” text. This would be a good opportunity to incorporate your other sources to support your argument. I recommend using specific examples from historic or current events that illustrate how different groups have been marginalized. Another possibility of an outside primary source would be to discuss the line that Morrison references from Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit: “Hell is other people,” an idea that directly ties in to the topic of otherness.

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