Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

In Love , Toni Morrison tackles the hardest questions, whether mysteries of the heart or social injustice, through the lens of love and, by extension, its opposite, hate. At its core is a multi-generational family drama revolving around a patriarch’s love, unfolding within dramatic twentieth-century US events. Set primarily in...

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In Love, Toni Morrison tackles the hardest questions, whether mysteries of the heart or social injustice, through the lens of love and, by extension, its opposite, hate. At its core is a multi-generational family drama revolving around a patriarch’s love, unfolding within dramatic twentieth-century US events. Set primarily in African American coastal communities, moving from the turn of the century through the 1960s, Love draws the reader into American social issues of injustice, racism, and institutionalized discrimination, along with efforts both to cope with and to solve them.

After Bill Cosey’s death, his children and grandchildren struggle to understand who he loved best in life and thus who will now inherit his legacy. The rivalries are more than squabbles; one character describes her relatives as “fire ants.” Bill had created a fabulous resort, uniquely available to and prized by African Americans; it is described as a “haven” more than a “playground.” The reader continues to wonder if the twisting vagaries of love, and the aftershocks from withholding it, will threaten that legacy enough to completely disintegrate the strained family. The political and social climate of the US occupies almost equal billing with the family saga, however. The symbol and the reality of Bill’s success via his resort-hotel, and the multifaceted effects of later desegregation on black prosperity, help to keep the social dimensions grounded.

Challenging social conventions was part of Bill’s attitude toward life, including taking an eleven-year-old girl, Heed, as his wife, and thus having a granddaughter, Christine, the same age as his wife. The long-lasting feud between his wife and granddaughter, vying after Bill's death not only for the inheritance but the love it represents, gives structure to a sometimes diffuse plot. If his mistress, Celestial, had been ostensibly the object of his love, she might find a way to gain her legacy as well. And those who are outside the family but deeply entrenched in the resort—notably its cook, named just L, whose reflections form a refrain—remind the reader of the continued pressure of class within sectors of society.

Although Bill is in many ways the backbone of the Cosey family, it is the impact of his life through the feelings and beliefs of his descendants and their families that dominate the book. Each of them struggles not only to forge their own path in life but also to understand—and sometimes deliberately reject—the weight of Bill’s troubled life. Chapter titles such as Friend, Benefactor, Lover, Husband, Guardian, and Father may refer specifically to dimensions of him, but it remains open if they are more symbolic than real. Because many of the characters present in the contemporary time period venture far beyond the often claustrophobic world of the resort, they bring different social issues back with them and ensure attention to the complex, racially charged environment of the times.

Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1788

Toni Morrison has dealt with the complexities of love before—parental love, love between friends, romantic love, even supernatural love. Its need and its absence seem to be at the heart of every novel she has written, from her very first, The Bluest Eye (1970), through Paradise(1998). This incarnation of Love, her brief, intricate eighth novel, begins with a monologue, a soft, reassuring woman’s voice that introduces both characters and setting. The voice belongs to L, a chef and “an old woman embarrassed by the world.” An important fixture in this world, she has been around so long that no one remembers her full name anymore, although she will eventually reveal it to the reader. She holds all the secrets: She is the Chorus, the Wise Woman from Up Beach, the area where the poorest black folks live. L is able to bridge the distance between present and past as if they are one; her hum begins and ends the novel.

The most important character is Bill Cosey, once a powerful and respected man; the title of each chapter names one of the many roles he fills. Without him there would be no story, yet he is never really there. Viewed only through the eyes or thoughts of those who remember him, Cosey represents the past. His ghost pervades the book, and his influence continues to affect the present. Tall, handsome, rich, Cosey adores his first wife, who thinks far less of him when she discovers that his wealth comes from a police informer, his father, Dark Cosey. Dark worshiped money and was willing to sink to whatever level needed to acquire it, but he spent very little. When Bill Cosey inherits this blood money, he rejects his father’s greed and determines instead to spend his inheritance on everything the father despised: clothes, food, music, pleasure. He is generous with his money—or not, depending on who is speaking. Neither plaster saint nor scoundrel, he is both.

Pursuing his interests, Cosey buys a decaying whites-only club on the humid eastern seaboard and transforms it into a deluxe hotel and resort for well-to-do African Americans. L, who cooks for him nearly fifty years, is the hotel chef. Cosey takes local people out of the low-wage shellfish cannery at Up Beach and offers them better jobs and a more prosperous economy, even though his hotel does not welcome them except as employees. By the 1940’s the genial, popular Cosey is a widower, and Cosey’s Hotel and Resort is famous nationwide as “the best good time this side of the law,” attracting excellent jazz and decorous gambling.

The Cosey women revolve around him like satellites. The first is his daughter-in-law, May, the widow of his only son, who died young of walking pneumonia and left May with their daughter, Christine. When Cosey temporarily withdraws from the world to mourn his boy, L and May run the hotel in his place. May continues to devote her life to Cosey, allowing L to raise Christine. In later years Christine will harbor a great deal of anger toward her grandfather, believing that he consistently ignored her in favor of her former friend, Heed the Night Johnson.

When these two little girls first meet on the beach, Christine invites Heed for ice cream. They are soon best friends, although May never approves, despising the poor, illiterate Johnsons. However, the girls’ friendship falters when Cosey, in a sudden infatuation with eleven-year-old Heed, announces that he is going to marry her. Naïve little Heed, too dark-skinned ever to dance in the Cotton Club, is sold by her father for two hundred dollars and a new pocketbook. Both May and Christine (who will become her best friend’s granddaughter by marriage) resist the union to the point of hiding Heed’s wedding gown. Soon jealous Christine runs away from home, to a wild and difficult life. The broken friendship, the shift in the two girls’ relationship, is at the heart of a lifetime of bitterness.

Many other women grace Cosey’s life, all of them tangential except one: the beautiful, scarred Celestial, always glimpsed on the horizon and never quite real. Celestial, who comes from a long line of sporting women and is fiercely independent, has an ongoing affair with Cosey and is the only woman to whom he ever feels truly connected. Although everyone is aware of Celestial, and the adult Heed even knows that Cosey dreams of her, no one wants to mention her directly. As children, Christine and Heed use her name as a code for something smart and daring.

Beginning in the 1960’s, the cannery odor becomes a problem for the hotel. The resort has already noted a decline as the better class of guests gradually leaves. Cosey himself has moved his family out of the hotel and into nearby Silk, where they become the first black family in town. He charges that whites have cheated him by allowing him to buy up the oceanfront, knowing that the smell would discourage guests. After refusing to allow his black neighbors to purchase some of his depreciating land, he sells out to white developers, creating considerable ill will. The community that once looked up to him now talks of him behind his back.

Cosey seems to decline too; his interests dwindle to whiskey and good music. L tartly comments, “He wasn’t fit to think.” The doctor attributes Cosey’s sudden death, at eighty-one, to a heart attack. However, May (who has become decidedly strange since civil rights disturbances began, donning an army helmet and burying things in the sand) assumes that the school busing controversy killed him. L says it was heartache, but his enemies believe it was syphilis. Christine, returning home for his funeral, expects to inherit her grandfather’s house and hotel, but the widow Heed contests the questionable will. At the funeral, the two women have a terrible argument over the coffin. Christine produces a switchblade, but L stops them both. The next day L quits her job and moves back to Up Beach. May gradually sickens and dies, and Heed cannot manage the hotel alone. Finally, it is boarded up.

In the novel’s present action, some twenty years after Bill Cosey’s death, a homeless young woman in a miniskirt and high boots arrives in Silk to answer a newspaper advertisement. She is Junior Viviane, seeking a position as companion and secretary. Directed to the Cosey home, she comes face-to-face with Christine and Heed, living together now in hostile coexistence. Christine, an excellent cook, keeps house for both of them. Heed, “the meanest woman on the coast,” is crippled by arthritis and stays mostly in her upstairs room. Heed tells Junior privately that she is writing a history of the Cosey family and needs a research assistant, but what she really wants is someone who can help her produce a new will that leaves everything to her. She and Junior are worthy adversaries; each slyly evaluates the other, and Junior is hired.

Sandler Gibbons, formerly a waiter at the hotel and now a retired security guard, recalls the fishing trips he took with Bill Cosey, even though Cosey was much older. They would drink whiskey laced with hot coffee and talk almost as equals. Sandler thinks Cosey was lonely, remembering how his eyes “radiated pain like cracked glass.” While Sandler’s wife Vida, the former hotel receptionist, idolizes Cosey, Sandler understands that the past is not pure, just “stifled.” He is reminded of a stag party on Cosey’s boat, where three or four women, including Celestial, were present for the guests’ enjoyment. Recognizing a deeper sickness within the old man, he is not fooled by the myth of Cosey.

The novel plays out against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, from the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi through bus boycotts and church bombings to the unrest of Vietnam. These events deeply affect May, who becomes clinically paranoid, and Christine, whose lover heads a group of underground revolutionaries.

This would not be a Morrison novel without at least a hint of the supernatural, most obviously L’s mention of the Police-heads, “dirty things with big hats who shoot up out of the ocean to harm loose women and eat disobedient children.” These thunderclouds that turn into gigantic bearded heads return sporadically, heralding disaster for the local residents. Only Celestial dares to defy them. Another disturbing influence is Cosey’s portrait, with which Junior is so obsessed that she dreams of him as well as talks to him. In a sense, the portrait seduces her, driving her to ever wilder behavior with Sandler’s adolescent grandson Romen, who is also sorely tempted. Amoral, insatiable Junior’s mashed toes make one bare foot appear to him like a hoof in the darkened room.

On the other hand, the language of Love can be downright beautiful. Morrison’s characteristic lyricism can be found even in the kitchen: “A bouquet of steam wandered away from water lifting to a boil on the stove,” or “A tomato slice exposed its seedy smile.” Her vision of the deserted Cosey Hotel evokes its glory days: “The shift of a shutter hinge sounds like the cough of a trumpet; piano keys waver a quarter note above the wind so you might miss the hurt jamming those halls and closed-up rooms.”

L’s memorable voice winds in and out of the story, a steadying influence. In an epilogue she sums up Cosey, who was “adept, you know, at spotting needy, wild women. . . . You could call him a good bad man, or a bad good man . . . an ordinary man ripped, like the rest of us, by wrath and love.” She alone is able to see him clearly and whole. Everyone, especially Bill Cosey, depends on her, as does the book.

Typically, Toni Morrison demands much of her reader, and in Lovenothing is accidental. With so many viewpoint characters, the “truth” of the story is never clear-cut. Dates, allusions, suspended coherence—all the information is there, but everything is murky, oblique. Morrison is very good at hiding details in plain sight, and part of the pleasure lies in fitting those details together. Like the much longer Paradise, this intense novel is challenging to follow, and as rewarding.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 22 (August 1, 2003): 1926.

The Christian Science Monitor, October 28, 2003, p. 15.

Ebony 58, no. 12 (October, 2003): 24.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 15 (August 1, 2003): 984.

Library Journal 128, no. 17 (October 15, 2003): 99.

The Nation 277, no. 20 (December 15, 2003): 30-32.

New Statesman 132, no. 4667 (December 8, 2003): 50-51.

The New York Review of Books 50, no. 19 (December 4, 2003): 18-20.

The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 2003, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 35 (September 1, 2003): 60-61.

Time 162, no. 18 (November 3, 2003): 75.

Women’s Review of Books 31, no. 3 (December, 2003): 8-9.

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