Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5883
In all of her fiction, Toni Morrison explores the conflict between society and the individual. She shows how the individual who defies social pressures can forge a self by drawing on the resources of the natural world, on a sense of continuity within the family and within the history of...
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In all of her fiction, Toni Morrison explores the conflict between society and the individual. She shows how the individual who defies social pressures can forge a self by drawing on the resources of the natural world, on a sense of continuity within the family and within the history of a people, and on dreams and other unaccountable sources of psychic power. Many of her works also confront some sort of sexual depravity that has become a controlling influence on the lives of the characters.
The Bluest Eye
In The Bluest Eye, Morrison shows how society inflicts on its members an inappropriate standard of beauty and worth, a standard that mandates that to be loved one must meet the absolute “white” standard of blond hair and blue eyes. Morrison’s narrator says that two of the most destructive ideas in history are the idea of romantic love (canceling both lust and caring) and the idea of an absolute, univocal standard of beauty.
In the novel, the most extreme victim of these destructive ideas is Pecola, a young African American girl who finds refuge in madness after she has been thoroughly convinced of her own ugliness (confirmed when she is raped by her own father, Cholly). Mrs. Breedlove, Pecola’s mother, is another victim who gets her idea of an unvarying standard of beauty from romantic motion pictures that glorify white film stars. When she realizes the impassable gap between that ideal and her physical self (she has a deformed foot and two missing teeth), she also gives up any hope of maintaining a relationship with Cholly, her husband, except one of complete antagonism and opposition. Mrs. Breedlove even comes to prefer the little white girl she takes care of at work to her own daughter, Pecola, whom she has always perceived as ugly.
The ideal of unattainable physical beauty is reinforced by the sugary, unattainable world of the family depicted in school readers—of Mother and Father and Dick and Jane and their middle-class, suburban existence. The contrast between that false standard of life and the reality lived by the African American children in the novel makes them ashamed of their reality, of the physical intimacy of families in which the children have seen their fathers naked.
Although Pecola is thoroughly victimized, Freida and Claudia MacTeer, schoolmates of Pecola, do survive with some integrity and richness. Freida seems to accept Shirley Temple as the ideal of cuteness, but her sister Claudia, a center of consciousness in the novel, responds with anger and defiance, dismembering the hard, cold, smirking baby dolls she receives at Christmas. What Claudia really desires at Christmas is simply an experience of family closeness in the kitchen, an experience of flowers, fruit, and music, of security.
Claudia’s anger at the white baby dolls springs from a conviction of her own reality and her own worth. In defense of her own individuality, Claudia rejects Shirley Temple and “Meringue Pie,” the “high yellow” princess, Maureen Peal. It is that defense of her own reality that makes Claudia sympathize with Pecola and try to defend her, even to the point of sacrificing Freida’s money and her own.
Claudia is especially puzzled and regretful that nobody says “poor baby” to the raped Pecola, that nobody wants to welcome her unborn baby into the world. It would be only natural, “human nature,” it seems, for people to sympathize with a victim and rejoice at the creation of a human life. Instead, the springs of human sympathy have been dammed up by social disapproval. Suffering from the self-hatred they have absorbed from the society around them, the members of the black community maintain inflexible social standards and achieve respectability by looking down on Pecola. The two MacTeer sisters appeal to nature to help Pecola and her unborn baby, but nature fails them just as prayer did: No marigolds sprout and grow that year. The earth is unyielding. The baby is stillborn. Eventually, even the two girls become distanced from Pecola, whose only friend is an imaginary one, a part of herself who can see the blue eyes she was promised. Pecola functions as a scapegoat for the society around her, and Claudia’s sympathy later grows into an understanding of how the members of the black community used Pecola to protect themselves from scorn and insult. What finally flowers in Claudia is insight and a more conscious respect for her own reality.
Sula also explores the oppressive nature of white society toward African Americans, evident in the very name of the “Bottom,” a hillside community that had its origin in the duplicitous white treatment of an emancipated black slave who was promised fertile “bottom land” along with his freedom. In a bitterly ironic twist, the whites take over the hillside again when they want suburban houses that will catch the breeze. In taking back the Bottom, they destroy a place, a community with its own identity. In turn, the black community, corrupted by white society, rejects Sula for her experimenting with her life, for trying to live free like a man instead of accepting the restrictions of the traditional female role.
Sula provokes the reader to question socially accepted concepts of good and evil. As Sula is dying, she asks her girlhood friend Nel, “How do you know that you were the good one?” Although considered morally loose and a witch by the townspeople, the unconventional Sula cannot believe herself to be an inferior individual. Contrasting the traditional role of mother and churchwoman that Nel has embraced, Sula’s individuality is refreshing and intriguing. Despite her death, Sula maintains an independence that ultimately stands in proud opposition to the established network of relationships that exists within conventional society.
The novel shows that the Bottom society encompasses both good and evil. The people are accustomed to suffering and enduring evil. In varying degrees, they accept Eva’s murder of her drug-addict son, Plum, and Hannah’s seduction of their husbands, one after another. The community, nevertheless, cannot encompass Sula, a woman who thinks for herself without conforming to their sensibilities. They have to turn her into a witch, so that they can mobilize themselves against her “evil” and cherish their goodness. Without the witch, their goodness grows faint again. Like Pecola, Sula is made a scapegoat.
Growing up in the Bottom, Sula creates an identity for herself, first from the reality of physical experience. When she sees her mother, Hannah, burning up in front of her eyes, she feels curiosity. Her curiosity is as honest as Hannah’s admission that she loves her daughter Sula the way any mother would, but that she does not like her. Hearing her mother reject her individuality, Sula concludes that she has no one to count on except herself.
In forging a self, Sula also draws on sexual experience as a means of feeling both joy and sadness and as a means of feeling her own power. Sula does not substitute a romantic dream for the reality of that physical experience. She does finally desire a widening of that sexual experience into a continuing relationship with Ajax, but the role of nurturing and possession is fatal to her. Ajax leaves, and Sula sickens and dies.
A closeness to the elemental processes of nature gives a depth to the lives of the Bottom-dwellers, although nature does not act with benevolence or even with consistency. Plum and Hannah, two of Eva’s children, die by fire, one sacrificed by Eva and one ignited by capricious accident. Chicken Little and several of those who follow Shadrack on National Suicide Day drown because acts of play go wrong and inexplicably lead to their destruction. Sula’s supposed identity as a witch is connected to the plague of robins that coincides with her return to the Bottom. The people of the Bottom live within nature and try to make some sense of it, even though their constructions are strained and self-serving.
On one level, Sula refuses any connection with history and family continuity. Her grandmother Eva says that Sula should get a man and make babies, but Sula says that she would rather make herself. On the other hand, Sula is a descendant of the independent women Eva and Hannah, both of whom did what they had to do. It is at least rumored that Eva let her leg be cut off by a train so that she could get insurance money to take care of her three children when BoyBoy, her husband, abandoned her. When her husband died, Hannah needed “manlove,” and she got it from her neighbors’ husbands, despite community disapproval. In their mold, Sula is independent enough to threaten Eva with fire and to assert her own right to live, even if her grandmother does not like Sula’s way of living.
To flourish, Morrison suggests, conventional society needs an opposite pole. A richness comes from the opposition and the balance—from the difference—and an acceptance of that difference would make scapegoats unnecessary. The world of the Bottom becomes poorer when Sula dies.
Song of Solomon
In Song of Solomon, Morrison again traces the making of a self. The novel is a departure for Morrison in that theprotagonist is not female but a young man, Milkman Dead. Milkman grows up in a comfortable, insulated, middle-class African American family, the grandson of a doctor on his mother’s side and the son of a businessman, whose father owned his own farm. Son of a doting mother, Milkman is breast-fed a long time, the reason for his nickname, and is sent to school in velvet knickers. Guitar Baines, a Southside black, becomes Milkman’s friend and an ally against the other children’s teasing.
As the novel progresses, and as Milkman discovers the reality of his family and friends as separate people with their own griefs and torments, Milkman comes to feel that everyone wants him dead. (Ironically, Milkman’s last name actually is “Dead,” the result of a drunken clerk’s error when Milkman’s grandfather was registering with the Freedmen’s Bureau.) Milkman learns that his mere existence is extraordinary, as even before his birth, his father tried to kill him. Milkman survived that threat through the intercession of his mother and, especially, of his aunt, Pilate, a woman with no navel. After having been conjured by Pilate into making love to his wife again, years after he had turned against her, Macon Dead wanted the resulting baby aborted. Ruth, the baby’s mother, out of fear of her husband, took measures to bring about an abortion, but Pilate intervened again and helped Ruth to find the courage to save the child and bear him.
In the present action of the novel, Hagar, Milkman’s cousin, his first love and his first lover, pursues him month after month with whatever weapon she can find to kill him. Hagar wants Milkman’s living life, not his dead life, but Milkman has rejected her, out of boredom and out of fear that he will be maneuvered into marrying her. At this point, he does not want to be tied down—he wants freedom and escape.
Hagar, like Pecola of The Bluest Eye, feels unlovely and unloved, rejected because Milkman does not like her black, curly hair. Pilate says that Milkman cannot not love her hair without not loving himself because it is the same hair that grows from his own body. Hagar is another victim of an absolutely univocal standard of beauty, and she is a character who needs a supporting society, a chorus of aunts and cousins and sisters to surround her with advice and protection. Instead, she has only Pilate and Reba, grandmother and mother, two women so strong and independent that they do not understand her weakness. Unhinged by Milkman’s rejection of her, Hagar chases Milkman with various weapons, is repeatedly disarmed, and finally dies in total discouragement.
Trying to find out about his family’s past, Milkman travels to Virginia, to Shalimar, a black town, where the men in the general store challenge him to fight, and one attacks him with a knife. Milkman does not understand why these people want his life, but they think he has insulted and denied their masculinity with his powerful northern money and his brusque treatment of them, by not asking their names and not offering his own.
The most serious threat to Milkman’s life, however, turns out to be Guitar, Milkman’s friend and spiritual brother. When Guitar tries to kill Milkman, he is betraying the reality of their friendship for the idea of revenge against whites and compensation for the personal deprivation he has suffered. Guitar thinks that Milkman has a cache of gold that he is not sharing with him, so he decides to kill him. Guitar rationalizes his decision by saying that the money is for the cause, for the work of the Seven Days, a group of seven black men sworn to avenge the deaths of innocent blacks at the hands of the whites.
Milkman’s being alive at all, then, is a triumph, a victory that he slowly comes to appreciate after coming out of his comfortable shell of self-involvement. Unwillingly, Milkman comes to know the suffering and grief of his mother and father and even his sisters Magdalene and Corinthians. The decisive experience in his self-making, however, is the quest for Pilate’s gold on which his father sets him. In the first stage, the men are convinced that Pilate’s gold hangs in a green sack from the ceiling of her house, and Guitar and Milkman attempt to steal it. The two friends succeed in taking the sack because the women in the house are simply puzzled, wondering why the men want a sack that is really full of old bones. In leaving the house, however, the two men are arrested, and Pilate must rescue them and the bones by doing an Aunt Jemima act for the white policemen. Milkman’s father, Macon, is convinced that the gold still exists somewhere, and Milkman sets out to find it by going back to Pennsylvania, where Macon and Pilate grew up, and later to Virginia, where the previous generation lived.
Milkman’s making of a self includes many of the archetypal adventures of the heroes of legend and myth. Like other heroes of legend, Milkman limps, with one leg shorter than the other, a mark of his specialness. Like Oedipus’s parents, his parents try to kill him early in his life. There is a wise old lady who gives him help and advice. He goes on a quest for a treasure, and he hopes for gold and the hand of a beautiful princess. He solves a puzzle or riddle to achieve his quest and confirm his identity. He has a transcendent experience and reaches heights of prowess (he can fly). When his people turn against him, he gives his life for them.
Like Sula, too, Milkman creates a self from the reality of physical experience, the processes of nature, a connection to history and family continuity, and springs of human possibility through myth, dreams, legends, and other sources of psychic power. Milkman reaches an understanding of physical experience and the processes of nature in a struggle against the physical environment. As a rich city boy, Milkman was insulated from nature, but in his trip south to try to get the gold, he overcomes a series of physical obstacles to reach the cave where Macon and Pilate in their youth encountered white people and gold. Milkman gets there only after falling into the river and climbing up twenty feet of rock, splitting his shoes and the clothes that mark him as a city man. During the trip, Milkman loses his possessions—trunk, clothes, and whiskey—and he makes it on his own, in a place where his father’s name and father’s money do not protect him. Milkman succeeds in finding Circe, who years ago sheltered Pilate and Macon when their father was killed, and he reaches the cave, where there is no longer any gold.
Milkman also encounters nature as an obstacle to be overcome when, after the knife fight in Shalimar, he is invited to go on a coon hunt into the woods with the older men of Shalimar. Again, Milkman undergoes a test, having to move through the woods in the dark, having to show the courage and physical endurance necessary to be one of the hunters. Milkman also experiences the music of the hunt, the communication between the men and the dogs, the language before language, of a time when people were so close to their physical reality that they were in harmony with all creatures.
Milkman also creates himself in searching for his origins. In searching for his fathers, he discovers himself; like Telemachus of Greek mythology and James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, Milkman must find the reality of his fathers to know his own potential. Milkman’s original pursuit of the gold seems to be an impulse he gets from his father, the man of business, and even from his father’s father, who was a lover of property. The quest, however, changes as Milkman pursues it, finding the thread of his family’s history. Stopping in Pennsylvania, Milkman hears the stories of the men who knew his father and grandfather and who rejoice in their successes. The story of the Dead family dramatizes the dream and the failure of that dream for blacks in America. When the older Macon Dead was killed by white men for his flourishing farm, the possibilities of his neighbors were narrowed and their lives scarred. Seeing his father and grandfather through their former neighbors’ eyes helps Milkman to understand better the pride that Macon had when he said that his father had let Macon work side by side with him and trusted him to share in his achievements.
In Shalimar, Milkman also learns about his great-grandfather by piecing together the memories of people there and by deciphering a children’s game and song, a song about Solomon and Rynah that seems to be interspersed with nonsense words. Milkman matches this song to a song that he had heard Pilate sing about Sugarman. He solves the riddle of the song, and he even figures out what the ghost of Pilate’s father meant when he said, “Sing,” and when he told Pilate to go get the bones. Finally, he discovers that his grandmother was an American Indian, Singing Bird, and that his great-grandfather, Solomon, was one of the legendary flying Africans, the father of twenty-one sons, a slave who one day flew back to Africa. His grandfather Jake had fallen through the branches of a tree when Solomon dropped him, trying to take his last baby son back with him. Learning about that magic enables Milkman himself to fly when he surrenders to the air and lets himself be upheld.
Milkman creates a self so that he can share it and even sacrifice it for a friend. With Pilate, Milkman buries the bones of Jake, his grandfather, on Solomon’s Leap. Guitar, who has continued to stalk Milkman, shoots and kills Pilate, but Milkman, saying to Guitar, “Do you want my life? Take it if it is any good to you,” leaps into the air and flies. Guitar is free to kill his friend, but Milkman soars. The ending of the novel shows the transcendence of the spirit, as the hero achieves his destiny. The satisfaction of the ending, which also soars into legend, comes from the triumph of the human spirit, the triumph that even death cannot destroy. Song of Solomon is a beautiful, serious, funny novel that moves beyond the social to the mythic.
Tar Baby explores three kinds of relationships: the relationships between blacks and whites; the relationships within families, especially between parents and children; and the relationships between African American men and women. In the epigraph to the novel, Saint Paul reproaches the Corinthians for allowing contentions to exist among their ranks; the quotation serves to foreshadow the discord that abounds in the novel’s relationships.
In Tar Baby, Morrison depicts not a self-contained black society but an onstage interaction between blacks and whites. The novel juxtaposes two families, a white family of masters and a black family of servants. The white family includes a retired candy maker, Valerian Street, and his wife, Margaret, once the “Principal Beauty of Maine,” who is now in her fifties. The couple’s only son, Michael, lives abroad; his arrival for Christmas is expected and denied by various characters. The black family consists of Sydney Childs, who is Valerian’s valet and butler, and Sydney’s wife, Ondine, who serves as cook and housekeeper. They are childless, but their orphan niece, Jadine, plays the role of their daughter. (Valerian has acted as Jadine’s patron, paying for her education at the Sorbonne.)
The pivotal character in the novel, who enters and changes the balance of power and the habitual responses of the families, is a black man who rises out of the sea. His true name is Son, although he has gone by several aliases. The veneer of politeness and familiarity between the characters is shaken by Son’s abrupt appearance. Uncomfortable racial and personal assumptions are put into words and cannot be retracted. The Principal Beauty is convinced that Son has come to rape her: What else would a black man want? (Jadine is convinced that if Son wants to rape anyone, it is she, not Margaret.) Sydney finds Son a threat to his respectability as a Philadelphia black, because when Son appears, the white people lump all blacks together. Ondine seems less threatened, but most of her energy goes into her running battle with the Principal Beauty. Jadine is apprehensive at Son’s wild appearance, and later she is affronted by his direct sexual approach. Only Valerian welcomes Son. He sees Son as a vision of his absent son, Michael, and he invites him to sit down at the dining table and be a guest.
Son’s coming is the catalyst that causes timeworn relationships to explode when Michael does not come for Christmas. His failure to appear leads to the revelation that the Principal Beauty abused her son as a child, pricking him with pins and burning him with cigarettes. Ondine, the black woman, finally hurls this accusation at Margaret, the white, and makes explicit what the two women have known mutually since the beginning. Valerian, who has been haunted by the memory of Michael as a lonely child who would hide under the sink and sing to himself, is hit with a reality much harsher than he has known or admitted.
Structured as it is in terms of families, the whole novel revolves around family responsibilities, especially between parents and children. Michael Street does not come home for Christmas, but the abuse he suffered as a child seems to justify his absence. Thus, the undutiful mother Margaret has thrown the whole family off balance. In the black family, later in the novel, attention is drawn to the undutiful daughter Jadine, although it seems implied that she has learned this undutifulness, partly at least, from whites, wanting her individual success to be separate from family ties and responsibilities. This undutifulness also springs from a question of identity. In Paris, even before she comes to Valerian’s island, Jadine feels affronted by a beautiful, proud, contemptuous African woman in yellow who buys three eggs and carries them on her head. She is herself and embodies her tradition consummately, exhibiting balance and physical grace that symbolize spiritual poise. Jadine feels diminished and threatened by the African woman, who spits at her. The scorn sends Jadine back to her family, Sydney and Ondine.
Jadine is similarly disturbed by her dream of the women with breasts, the mothers, who reproach her for not joining that chain of mothers and daughters who become mothers with daughters. Although Jadine herself is an orphan, reared by Ondine and Sydney and owing much to their care, she refuses to take the self-sacrificing role of the woman who cares for her family. Jadine wants money and the power it brings in the white world. Eventually she wants to run her own business, perhaps a boutique. Also, she may choose a white husband, like the man who bought her a seductive sealskin coat.
Jadine is the Tar Baby of the novel, and Son is Br’er Rabbit from the Uncle Remus stories. As the Tar Baby, Jadine acts as a possible trap for Son set by his enemies, white society. Jadine, who has absorbed many white values, wants money and success. Son wants something purer, something associated with nature (he is associated with the sea and the beauty of the savannahs) and with family tradition. Nature, direct physical experience, and family traditions that are integral to personal identity are all important values in Son’s existence. Son has a home—the completely black town of Eloe—and there he abides by the ideas of respectability held by his father and his aunt Rosa. (He asks Jadine to sleep at Aunt Rosa’s, apart from him, and he comes to her secretly only when she threatens to leave if he does not.) To amuse herself in the traditional town, in which she is uncomfortable, Jadine takes photographs of the people and steals their souls, stealing their individual beauty and grace. In the photographs, they seem graceless, poor, and stupid, even to Son, who usually sees them with loving eyes.
Individually, Son and Jadine love each other, but they seem unable to find a world in which they can both thrive. Son is an undaunted lover, however, unwilling to let Jadine go, even when she flees from him. Son tries to return to Isle de Chevaliers, Valerian’s island, to get news of Jadine, but the only way he can get there seems to be through the help of Thérèse, a half-blind, fifty-year-old black woman who says that her breasts still give milk. Thérèse takes him by boat to the island of the horsemen. Son has said that he cannot give up Jadine, but Thérèse tells him to join the fabled black horsemen who see with the mind. At the end of the novel, Son is running toward his destiny, whether that be Jadine and some way to make her part of his world or the black horsemen who ride free through the hills. Readers do not know what Son’s fate is to be; they only know that Son is running toward it, just as Br’er Rabbit ran from his enemy Br’er Fox and from the Tar Baby. Like Milkman Dead at the end of Song of Solomon, Son leaps into mythic possibility; like Br’er Rabbit, Son, the black man, is a figure with the power to survive.
In editing The Black Book, a collection of African American historical memorabilia, Toni Morrison discovered an article that would serve as the foundation of her fifth novel. Beloved is based on a true account of a runaway slave mother who, rather than allowing her children to be taken back into slavery, murders three of the four. As the novel begins, Sethe’s sons, Buglar and Howard, have already run away, while Denver, the youngest child, has survived the murder attempt and still lives with her mother in a house beset by the spirit of her murdered sister, Beloved. Morrison deliberately disorients the reader as she delves into the “interior life” of slavery, creating an experience similar to that of slavery as the narrative breaks apart, shifts, and confounds.
The house at 124 Bluestone Road is personified as a tormented being when Beloved returns, emerging from a lake, fully clothed, the same age she would have been had she survived the infanticide. What the spirit wants initially is unclear. Morrison uses metaphorical imagery with tremendous skill, such as in her description of Sethe’s back, a relief map of scars from savage beatings, as resembling the branches of a chokecherry tree. When Paul D, a former slave whom Sethe once knew, moves in, Beloved wreaks havoc. The spirit behaves like an enraged toddler, but the damage she does is that of a full-grown woman. As the ghost continues to threaten her mother and sister, the characters’ thoughts intertwine until the reader cannot be certain which character is which.
Morrison intended Jazz, another novel inspired by a news article, to follow Beloved as the second of a trilogy, although the narrative does not pick up where Beloved ends. Joe Trace, a married man and cosmetics salesman, shoots his teenage lover, Dorcas, at a party. She dies refusing to reveal his name. At her funeral, Violet, Joe’s wife, a hairdresser, defaces the girl’s corpse. Set in 1926, Jazz begins after Violet has cut the dead girl’s face, twenty years after she and Joe arrived in Harlem from the South, where they scraped out a living as sharecroppers. After Dorcas’s funeral, Violet returns home and releases her caged parrot, the only creature in her life who says “I love you” anymore.
The deep, unrealized passion for human contact that Morrison depicts in Beloved takes root in Jazz, but it too becomes messy, dangerous, and out of control. Violet’s mind unravels, and, strangely, she turns to Alice Manfred, Dorcas’s aunt, for comfort. The theme of mother loss, profound and frustrated, also continues in Jazz: Dorcas’s mother burns to death in an intentionally set fire; Violet’s mother throws herself down a well because of her despair over not providing for her children. Years later, Violet longs so achingly for a child that she considers stealing one. It is only at the end of Jazz, when Violet and Joe reconcile and Violet buys a sick parrot that she nurses back to health by playing jazz for it, that there is some hope of a lasting human connection.
Paradise, Morrison’s seventh novel, like her previous two, was inspired by a little-known event in African American history, this time the post-Civil War westward migration of former slaves set on establishing their own all-black utopias. The all-black town in the book is named Ruby. Shifting back and forth across a century of time, Paradise begins in 1976, when a group of Ruby’s settlers’ male descendants attack a mansion-turned-convent of women, convinced that the town’s survival is threatened by the women’s eschewing of male companionship and their questionable pasts.
The story of Ruby’s establishment is related: The town is founded as a response not only to white racism but also to other African Americans who turned away would-be settlers in other towns for having skin that was “too black.” Twin brothers Deacon and Steward, the town’s elders, are deeply committed to keeping Ruby as pristine and trouble-free as possible. Together, they symbolize Ruby’s twin identity and conscience.
Initially, Ruby has no crime and therefore needs no police. There is no hunger; those who have resources assist those in need. However, the town’s total isolation from the outside world proves to be its undoing as the rebellion of the 1960’s youth movement seeps into Ruby. A ragtag group of women, most escaping either abusive relationships or the responsibilities of motherhood, settle outside Ruby. Among others, there is Consolata, the maternal leader; Seneca, abandoned as a child by her teenage mother; and Pallas, a white woman fleeing her wealthy but negligent parents. The violent confrontation between the men of Ruby and the self-exiled women is brought on, in part, by the black men’s anger at women who have willfully chosen a life without men.
In Love, Morrison deconstructs familial relationships in an African American community that has been strongly influenced by the presence of Bill Cosey, a wealthy black man who owned a resort hotel that catered to both blacks and whites during the years just before and during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Christine, Cosey’s granddaughter, and Heed are the main characters; as old women, they have an intense hatred for each other. Their animosity seems to be based on Heed’s marriage to Cosey—Heed was an uneducated, poverty-stricken eleven-year-old child when she was sold into marriage with Cosey. Until late in the novel, readers are led to believe that, with the marriage, Heed usurped Christine’s place in her grandfather’s affections.
As in many of Morrison’s novels, a shifting narrative perspective provides insight into the characters, in this case the women and the man around whose life theirs seemingly revolved. Monologues from L, the spirit for whom the novel is named, provide what seem to be the most strongly objective point of view on the women’s past. L is able to understand what motivates Christine, the granddaughter who was thrown aside by her best friend’s marriage to her grandfather, as well as the confusion and insecurity of Heed, the child tied to a fifty-two-year-old man. Additionally, L provides insight into May, Christine’s mother and Bill Cosey’s daughter-in-law.
Sandler and Vida Gibbons are comparatively minor characters whose memories of Cosey provide more insight into the depraved man who had such a strong hold over the community. Though introduced early, Sandler reveals his true connection to Cosey only a little at a time. Sandler reminisces about fishing trips with Cosey but neglects to reveal that those fishing trips included sexual escapades. Heed and Christine both add their own flashbacks to the narrative, clarifying that their adult hatred of each other stems more from the devastation that Heed and Cosey’s marriage wrought on both than from a problem between the girls. Intertwined with the stories of the other characters is the story of Romen, the Gibbonses’ grandson, and Junior Viviane, a troubled young woman who answers Heed’s advertisement for a companion. Junior’s ravenous hunger for food, shelter, and sex reflect Bill Cosey in many ways.
Bill Cosey seems to be the central axis around which all of the women’s lives revolve. His sexual appetite is seemingly boundless. He is well known for his affairs with women during and between his marriages, including a relationship with his daughter-in-law, but a darker side emerges as readers recognize that his marriage to an eleven-year-old child is just the tip of his depravity. There is also the suggestion that he has molested his granddaughter and had homosexual relations not only with Sandler Gibbons but also with rich and influential white men in the community. Cosey’s significance is primarily as an agent of separation and of unity. His depraved sexual behavior started a rift between the girls that his marriage to Heed increased. Each lost her best friend as a result of fear that the other would see the manner in which Cosey’s depravity had shadowed her own soul. Though the story is really about Christine and Heed, Cosey unifies the characters in complicated ways that leave readers wondering whether he was good or bad.