In language, syntax and semantics are two essential elements and so can be located everywhere in Toni Morrison’s novels. Syntax refers to the way words are arranged, including their sequence. Semantics is concerned with meaning of words and larger units of language. The difference between literal meaning and connotation is addressed in semantics. Other aspects of meaning include figurative language such as metaphor.
Part of Morrison’s artistry and skill derives from her command of these elements of language. She employs varied syntax to correspond to a particular object, such as developing imagery or characterization. Semantic elements found in Morrison’s writing include metaphor and her exploration of the multiple meanings that may be attached to a specific concept.
Examples of the way she deploys syntax in Tar Baby can be found in a description of a man who jumps overboard and swims away from a boat. Morrison varies syntax and sentence length to convey important information about the water and the man’s movement through it. After a long sentence with multiple clauses and phrases comes another relatively long sentence, with the adverb placed first for emphasis. The third sentence is short and declarative. This progression corresponds to the man’s increasing comfort and speed.
The water was so soft and warm that it was up to his armpits before he realized he was in it. Quickly he brought his knees to his chest and shot forward. He swam well.
Syntax can also be used to create images, sometimes in connection with vivid narrative of events or description of a character. In Beloved, Denver’s memory of the baby spirit’s attack on their dog, Here Boy, provides images that convey the spirit’s viciousness as well as insights into the character of her mother, Sethe. Several other mentions of Sethe being so tough (“she never looked away” from horrible sights) are followed by this long sentence describing violent action; Morrison places that characterization at the end.
And when the baby’s spirit picked up Here Boy and slammed into the wall hard enough to break two of his legs and dislocate his eye, so hard he went into convulsions and chewed up his tongue, still her mother had not looked away.
In Tar Baby, in the longer passage that contains the lines discussed above for syntax, Morrison’s use of semantics is also evident. The importance of the water and the man’s understanding of it are expanded by the inclusion of metaphors, similes, and personification for its elements and qualities. The idea of the water as a human-like female is accentuated through numerous references to “her” behavior toward the man.
By moving from “water” to “water-lady,” as the situation worsens, Morrison may imply the man’s fear of women more generally.
But when he tore open the water in front of him, he felt a gentle but firm pressure along his chest, stomach, and down his thighs. Like the hand of an insistent woman it pushed him. He fought hard to break through but couldn’t. The hand was forcing him away from shore. ... Still the water-lady cupped him in the palm of her hand and nudged him out to sea. ... Just as suddenly the water-lady removed her hand and the man swam toward the boat.