Toni Morrison

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Toni Morrison American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The term “Magical Realism,” often used to describe the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez, has also been applied to the fiction of Morrison. Though the thematic concerns of her work are in most other ways very different from those of Nobel laureate García Márquez, one does find in Morrison’s fiction the same sense of the reality of magic, which (especially in her case) springs from a fundamental belief in the truth at the center of folklore.

The development of the use of folklore can be traced in Morrison’s novels. It begins in The Bluest Eye, in which the sample from a child’s reader that begins the novel is treated as a bit of contemporary folklore. It is an artificially constructed, white, middle-class folklore, however, which may not reveal a fundamental truth about anyone’s life and which certainly does not apply to the lives of the black residents of Lorain, Ohio. Nevertheless, the main character, Pecola, is shown as having accepted the view of the world that this children’s story encourages, even though it is a view which leaves no room for the realities of her life.

Sula, Morrison’s second novel, incorporates characters that seem almost mythic, much as figures in folklore. There is the light-skinned man called Tar Baby and the three boys that Eva Peace takes into her household. Each one is named Dewey, and their identities begin to meld together. Perhaps most notably, there is the character Shadrack, who returned feebleminded from World War I and who becomes a mysterious hermit living on the edge of the black community of Medallion (called “the Bottom”). He celebrates National Suicide Day each year. He eventually leads many within the community to their deaths in deserted tunnels near the town. Although the action in Sula is often strange and mysterious, it reflects the uncanny realism of myth.

It is in Song of Solomon that folklore, as such, comes explicitly to the foreground. Not only is there a minor character who appears as a ghost, but also the premise of the novel is adapted from African American folklore. The main character, Milkman Dead, uses a child’s rhyme he overhears to uncover the secret of his own past, namely that his great-grandfather was one of the legendary men who supposedly escaped slavery by flying back to Africa. To become a complete person, Milkman not only has to make a connection to this folkloric ancestry but also must find how this ancestry can and cannot be applied to his own life.

Tar Baby explicitly continues the attempt to update and apply traditional black folklore to modern society and literature. The Rastafarian Son begins to perceive upper-class Jadine as a Tar Baby figure, someone who will trap him, and the last lines of the novel, describing Son running away “Lickety-split. Lickety-split,” reinforce his connection to Brer Rabbit. It is probably in Beloved that Morrison uses magical and folkloric elements in the most fiercely original way.

Beloved concerns itself with the plight of Sethe, an escaped slave who, facing recapture, kills her youngest daughter rather than let that daughter grow up in slavery. The novel begins several years later, when Sethe and a surviving daughter, Denver, are living in the post-Civil War era in a house they believe to be haunted by this infant’s ghost. Shortly after the haunting ceases, a young woman appears who introduces herself as “Beloved”—the only word on Sethe’s daughter’s gravestone.

Beloved is actually the first part of a trilogy of novels that Morrison would complete in the 1990’s with Jazz and Paradise. In this trilogy Morrison moves her focus from folklore to history. In Beloved, she explores the history of slavery. In Jazz, she explores the history of the Jazz Age or the Harlem Renaissance. Finally, in Paradise , she explores a little-known fact of African American history: the founding of all-black towns in the West in the years following the end of the Civil War. All three of these novels are fictional, but each of them...

(The entire section is 6,410 words.)