Toni Morrison

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Karla F. C. Holloway (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Holloway, Karla F. C. “The Lyrical Dimensions of Spirituality: Music, Voice, and Language in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” In Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, edited by Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones, pp. 197-211. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Holloway examines Morrison's use of lyrical female voices in The Bluest Eye and The Song of Solomon as a celebration of African-American spirituality and cultural identity.]

In the final pages of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, an aged, weary, and dying Pilate grants her nephew Milkman her supreme gift—she gives him her voice and urges him to sing. His song, “Oh Sugargirl don't leave me here” that “he could not stop … from coming,” is a passioned embrace of his lineage. Through voicing the “worn old words” of the text that links him to his past, Milkman acknowledges his ancestry.1

Passages like this indicate the ways in which Morrison's literary voice is linked to ancestral and modern voices of the black diaspora. As I read this novel, a distant memory of my mother's singing crystallized. Mother's voice, a constant hymn throughout my childhood, is connected to the voices of my grandmothers, churchwomen, and my black teachers. I remember all of their tones with great specificity, and their words constantly invade my present with their wisdom.

In the novels of black women writers, women's voices claim ownership to a creative word—a force not unlike the West African concept of nommo, in which the creative artistry of voice connects generations.2 Women's voices in these novels are like my mother's; they control and advise through their soft or strident, careful and caring language. These voices make certain that the loss that women of the West African diaspora experienced through the systems of slavery, colonialism, and racism would not be the final measure of their experiences. Instead, an insistent and gendered voice that extended the idea of generation to embody spiritual generation and linguistic creativity salvaged and revised the potential of their womanhood. As a result, the distant and persistent echoes of song maintain a memory, despite the ravages of diaspora fracture, of a West African legacy.

In this essay, I explore the dimensions of voice in two of Toni Morrison's most lyrical novels—Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye. A scene from Morrison's Sula introduces this author's vision of the (re)creative potential of voice.3 I focus on the ways that Morrison's novels reveal the complex and necessary presence of women's voices and song. These voices echo through generations of African and African American women and enact the memories that assure the continuity of their cultural traditions.

Because these voices resonate as well to my own cultural and gendered memories—the rituals, ceremonies, and language of my own experience as an African American woman—I have allowed an italicized voice to emerge in this essay as a means of acknowledging the force and flow of my own memories that persistently invade my reading and scholarly interpretations of Toni Morrison's stories. Instead of insisting that these readings—the scholarly and the personal—distance themselves from each other, Stephanie Demetrakopoulos and I chose to model a “passionate scholarship” that acknowledges feelings as well as ideas as our critical methodology.4 I intend for this essay to indicate the necessity of both voices as they speak to the community of voices who are the universe within and without these stories.

The idea of community may be the most visible cultural context within the stories by black women writers. Whether as text or subtext, the interpretive...

(This entire section contains 6935 words.)

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significance of the community's cultural identity and African genesis plays a critical role in articulating the gendered sphere of its enactment.5

Toni Morrison's novels reveal this community dramatically and sustain its imagery through the cultured and gendered dimensions of language. For example, in Sula there is an immediate reference to voice and song. The novel's opening scene fleetingly reflects the harmonious vision of an African village that its community has lost. Morrison indicates that this town where (by the novel's end) “there will be nothing left of” has “quiet days, when people in valley houses could hear singing sometimes, banjos sometimes … [and see] a dark brown woman in a flowered dress doing a bit of cakewalk … her bare feet … raise the saffron dust” (pp. 4, 5). Morrison quickly brings the disruptive and abusive present into this image. The harmonious, vital village vanishes and the story sustains instead imagery that draws us towards the novel's conclusion where Suicide Day, a noisy celebration of death, is its final image. In Sula's final pages, Shadrack, a man whom the violence of Western civilizations has rendered mute and mad, leads a cacophonous and clamorous clan that has lost its connection to the harmony of the African village that the novel's opening scene briefly glimpses. It is left to Morrison's character, Nel, to recognize and name the nature of this loss in the book's final pages. The stylized presentation of Nel's weeping over the death of her friend Sula recalls a ritual lament.6 In “circles and circles of sorrow,” a lyrical metaphor that evokes both the circumlocutions of her generational legacy as well as the emotive potential of song, Nel's voice folds her grief and loss into one long, lonely cry, “we was girls together,” and signals the spiritual epiphany of this novel.

the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We was girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “Oh Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” It was a fine cry—loud and long—it had no bottom and … no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

(p. 149)

Her voice reconstructs the physical loss of place and potential that are thematic foci in this story, and forces the remnants of her own memories and the community's lost spirit into a dimension that can contain her grief. The generational voice recalled in the embracing, concentric ripples of Nel's soulful cry, resonate for me in three critical ways as I read Morrison's novels.

First, Morrison's own narrative emphases consistently engage a lyrical strategy and foreground a musical motif. Especially in Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye, as well as in her most recent novel, Jazz (1992), the narrative voice regenerates the poetic expressivity of song.

Second, the fictive maternal singers within her stories themselves layer her authorial narrative strategy, repeating its emphasis on the lyrical dimensions of voice and encouraging our attention toward the musical timbre of the words within her worlds.

Finally, Morrison's novels become a catalyst for my personal memories of the lyrical voices of my own mothers—the black women of my family and community whose words follow, instruct and encourage my connection to their traditions.

Nel's echoing cry ululates as a plaintive lament, re-membering the voices of West African women whose songs inscribed the loss of Goree island, and echoing the voices within the ships of the middle passage, the auction block, and the fields of southern plantations. It powerfully evokes the spiritual generational community. Both the idea and the visual presentation of “girls together” and “girlgirlgirl” communicate the interconnectedness of a womanist re-membrance. They illustrate what Demetrakopoulos notes as the “life stages of [Morrison's] women” (New Dimensions, p. 63), and they are for me intimate reminders of maternal singers and storytellers—the linguistic necromancers of my community.


Morrison's novels recall a West African version of reality that allows the coexistence of the spiritual and physical worlds within the same narrative spaces. In these spaces, mythic voices reconstruct an African American universe.7

Consider Milkman's acknowledgment of the power he has gained from Pilate's voice in Song of Solomon. Here, Morrison articulates and merges the creative and mythic traditions of black women who have celebrated the mystical and powerful potential of voice.

Milkman is the focus of this far-ranging and complex story; his birth is foretold in the novel's opening scene. On the day that marks the novel's opening, his mother Ruth, who sells velvet rose petals to local shopkeepers, watches a man threatening to leap from the roof of the city hospital. His Aunt Pilate, a “singing woman,” accompanies this dramatic moment with song. Her melody and its confusing lyrics haunt the story and eventually follow the grown Milkman's flight south to reclaim what he thinks will be material wealth. Instead, he finds the spiritual wealth of his legacy through the intervention of Circe, a highly symbolic sibyl-like figure and Susan (Sing) Byrd. Both women reconnect him to the song and memory of his family. Pilate's song about Solomon (Sugarman), sung at the opening and closing frames of the story, is revealed as the remnants of an ancestral praise-song that celebrates Milkman's great-grandfather who literally lifted his body into the air and flew back to Africa to escape the abuses of slavery. Knowing the legacy of the song allows Milkman to claim dominion over his physical life and ownership of his spirit.

In the summer of their fifth and sixth years, my children devoted themselves to flight. My daughter's attack was methodical. She planned the mechanics of her flight first on paper, with Da Vinci-like designs. Then, scissors, scraps, and collected pigeon-feathers in tow, she lugged her imagination to the backyard and attempted to implement her plan. My son was more direct. He scaled the nearest tree and, wings of plastic garbage bags extended, he magnificently thrust himself into the air. After he and his recyclable wings crumpled to the ground, he'd extract himself from the pile of grass clippings he had chosen as his landing site and return to the tree.

I watched their adventures from the kitchen window. I was, at that time, involved in reviewing African American spirituals for references to flight. “Review” meant singing them, humming them, accompanying my children's flight with them. I was easily distracted from my task, probably because my once-viewed-as-magnificent idea that the source of the symbolic networks in Song of Solomon was somewhere hidden within those early black songs was not developing as I had planned. However, as I watched my children play at what I was researching, I gradually realized that the source of the network was more extensive and more resonant than only those spirituals.

For some time, I had been disturbed with the elusiveness of Song of Solomon. I had struggled to grasp some single solid sense of this novel and had been uncomfortable with what I felt as its shifting presence. As I watched my children at play, I recalled the scene that initiated my review of the spirituals and that clarified for me the novel's context. The extensive and complex network of flight and song is the theme of this story—and its multifaceted and shifting presence is its identity.

Early that spring, before the summer of my children's obsession, my uncle had died. It was an especially difficult occasion for my family. My aunt had died of breast cancer only a few years before that; they had been a young and wonderful family, and two sons were left parentless.

At the funeral service, the minister prayed an extemporaneous prayer to help guide us through those wretched days. The cadence of his voice slowly rose and fell, a contrapuntal accompaniment to the few audible sobs in the gathering. The upper room of the funeral home was heavy with our collected sorrow. As if to relieve some of this pressure, someone in the back of the room began to hum. We all knew the song, so another voice sang the lyrics until all of us softly relinquished our tears or our sighs into this music. The minister's resonant voice became the rhythmic punctuation to our melody. Soon, instead of his prayers, it was the song's lyrics that he called out to us: “Soon one morning when this life is over …”; and we responded “I'll fly away …” And at that moment our spirits were literally lifted up and out of that sorrowful place and sent to rest in some more nurturing, more forgiving dimension. It was an overwhelmingly emotional event and later, as I remembered that day, I remembered most of all the sensation of being elevated from my sorrow and pain. Either that song or that collocation of music and event and emotion sustained and rescued all of us.

That summer Saturday, as I watched my children's developing design on flight, I realized that the background of their play was the background of this novel as well. Pilate's song accompanied incidents of liberation, flight, birth and remembrance. “Soon One Morning” elevated our spirits with the same objective result in those upper rooms of the Detroit funeral parlour.

The haunting poem by Robert Hayden, “O Daedalus, Fly Away Home,” echoes the myth of this novel and repeats the rhythm and substance of African American spirituals.8 The “two wings” reference in Hayden's poem

Night is an African juju man
Weaving a wish and a weariness together to make two wings.
O fly away home fly away

recalls the spiritual's lyrics: “Lord I want two wings to veil my face, Lord I want two wings to fly away” and another's as well: “I'm gonna fly from mansion to mansion—when I'm gone.”

Flight is a recurrent image in these African American songs, and Morrison's story foregrounds cultural metaphors of flight and dominion. This symbolic opportunity for oppressed slaves to free themselves spiritually from the shackles of slavery is the mythic source of this novel. One of the ancestors in this story is Solomon, a member of an ancient tribe of flying Africans, a West African clan whose ability to fly appears even today in legends about this community. Captured and brought to America, these enslaved Africans escaped their bondage by flying back to their African home. The legends of their escape from this continent have been mythologized into the spoken legacy and song of West African and African American history. The rich and complex spirituality of these West Africans paired a miraculous liberation with a similarly miraculous event—the power of flight as transformation and transcendence. Christianity may have offered a religious frame for the displaced African to contextualize this spirituality within the Americas, but the texture of that picture was distinctly black and African. In Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois's description of a southern revival is dominated by imagery that suggests this collusion between flight and the musical cadence and timbre of a spiritual voice:

The black and massive form of the preacher swayed and quivered as the words crowded to his lips and flew at us in singular eloquence. The people moaned and fluttered and then the gaunt-cheeked brown woman beside me suddenly leaped straight into the air and shrieked like a lost soul.9

Flight and song are woven together at every crucial juncture in this novel. Milkman Dead's birth is accompanied by the song of his ancestor Solomon. His cousins Hagar and Reba, and his Aunt Pilate sing it to him when he visits their home. At the end of the novel, the song appears again in an older, revised version. Here, children's voices remind Milkman of his own childhood and he comes to understand how physically close, yet spiritually deaf he had been to the heritage that echoed in the community's music.

In Countee Cullen's poem, “Heritage,” a rhythmic and pulsating verse taunts the poet with an insistent memory of Africa and destroys his equilibrium. Song of Solomon is similarly unrelenting. Until the reader acknowledges the resonance of its voice, and until Milkman makes the necessary journey back and reclaims his past and his community, the myth is discomfiting and the song repeats endlessly and without resolution. From its first gripping funereal imagery of red velvet rose petals scattered across the frozen snow, we know that something will be buried in this book, and something born.

The singing woman … walked through the crowd to the rose-petal lady … she whispered … “A little bird'll be here with the morning.” … The women were looking deep into each other's eyes when a loud roar went up from the crowd … Immediately the singing woman began again:

          O Sugarman done fly
          Sugarman done gone …

Mr. Smith had seen the rose petals, heard the music, and leaped on into the air.

(p. 9)

Women's voices and maternal songs preach cultural wisdom in Morrison's novel. They dictate cultural identity and bring order to the African American community. The universe of this novel is negotiated through linguistic metaphors that make both family and event vulnerable to myth-making and spiritualism. The language and the music of Song of Solomon imaginatively reconstruct cultural memory and are clearly a part of the “spoken library” of African American culture. Morrison has acknowledged her intent to value this collaboration between oracy and literacy in African American communities and to convey to her reader the images and cosmology of black language.

The spoken library … [the] children's stories my family told, spirituals, the ghost stories, the blues, and folk tales and myths, and the everyday … instruction and advice of my own people … I wanted to write out of the matrix of memory, of recollection, and to approximate the sensual and visceral responses I had to the world I lived in … to recreate the civilization of black people … the manners, judgments, values, morals.10

Music is the umbilicus between the children and the men and women they become. In the earliest pages, Milkman's father, Macon, finds himself “surrendering to the sound” of his sister Pilate, who had been “his first caring for” (p. 29). Like his son, Macon feels the absence of Pilate's nurturing presence. His need of her lifeline symbolically engages the creative potential of song and draws him to his sister's window. Macon is vulnerable to her “memory and music” and succumbs, albeit briefly, to his link to the familial unit just inside the window where Pilate frames a generational picture of three singing women—her daughter, Reba, her granddaughter, Hagar, and herself—the elder—the grandmother who sways “like a willow,” tall, strong, gentle, and serene over this scene (pp. 29-30).

Unfortunately, Milkman disrespects the bonds of family and enters into a selfish and abusive relationship with his cousin Hagar that eventually leads to her death. Because his actions fracture Pilate's generational unit, he is left with a debt that extends not only to Hagar's mother and grandmother, but to his own spirit. Milkman disrupts the force and power of their lyrical memories and consequently endangers their generational continuity. The scene of Hagar's funeral, heavy with the musical metaphors of Morrison's methodology make clear this lost lyricism.

Pilate burst in, shouting “Mercy!” … a command … “Mercy?” … a question. It was not enough. The word needed a bottom, a frame. She straightened up, held her head high, and transformed the plea into a note. In a clear bluebell voice she sang it out—the one word held so long it became a sentence—and before the last syllable had died in the corners of the room, she was answered in a sweet soprano: “I hear you.”

(p. 320)

Here, Morrison's narration recalls the West African cultural artistry of call and response.

The people turned around. Reba had entered and was singing too. Pilate neither acknowledged her entrance nor missed a beat. She simply repeated the word “Mercy,” and Reba replied. The daughter standing at the back of the chapel, the mother up front, they sang.

     In the nighttime.
     In the darkness.
     In the morning.
     At my bedside.
     On my knees now.
     Mercy. Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.

They stopped at the same time in a high silence. Pilate … addressed her words to the woman bordered in gray satin who lay before her. Softly, privately, she sang to Hagar …

     Who's been botherin my sweet sugar lumpkin?
     Who's been botherin my baby?
     Who's been botherin my sweet sugar lumpkin?
     Who's been botherin my baby girl?

… “My baby girl.” The three words were still pumping in her throat as she turned away from the coffin.

(pp. 320-322)

At the novel's end, Milkman's surrender to Pilate's song earns him back his spiritual and ancestral place. The echoing strains of the ancient song of Sugarman/Solomon appear again, but this time Milkman is the singer and he is able to regain the power of woman's song. Morrison makes it apparent in this final scene that voice—spoken or sung—contains this potential.

“Sing,” she said. “Sing a little something for me.” Milkman knew no songs, and had no singing voice … but he couldn't ignore the urgency in her voice. Speaking the words without the least bit of a tune, he sang for the lady. “Sugargirl don't leave me here …” [I]t took a while for him to realize she was dead. And when he did, he could not stop the worn old words from coming, louder and louder as though sheer volume would wake her. He woke only the birds, who shuddered off into the air.

(p. 340, my emphasis)

At the moment of Pilate's death, two birds swoop down to the dead Pilate and the reborn Milkman enacting the metaphor of the spiritual “Lord I want two wings.” In his final generous moment, Milkman literalizes the potential of Pilate's song, re-members his grandfather's flight and assures his own salvation. His liberation into the embodied voice of the female enables the reclamation of his birthright.

In Song of Solomon, childhood, ideally a time of intimacy with things spiritual, is threatened by the loss of cultural identity. This novel demands our attention to the possibility that we may reclaim the strength of the spirit if we recall our ancestral songs. When Pilate sings, her face is “all mask; all emotion and passion … left her features and entered her voice” (p. 30). When that African American spiritual calls for “two wings to veil my face,” it is both an affirmation and a promise of the strength of an African spirituality that assures endurance and spiritual dominion.

That summer, when my son pulled himself back into that tree and when my daughter furiously erased her design and modified her drawings, they were assuring themselves a future where flight was always in potentia. It did not need to have been actualized during that season. The next spring, Bem rediscovered that tree and Ayana whirled in March winds as if she had wings. I hummed their imaginations along, firm in my belief that childhood is a spiritual pause—a moment of memory and an assurance of the creative potential held within our cultural legacies.


The Bluest Eye, Morrison's first novel, illustrates the promise of childhood but, with strategies similar to Morrison's later works, challenges her reader to explore with her an alternative text—the bleak remnants of creativity that has no dimension for its expression.

This novel chronicles the destruction of the sensitive, reflective young Pecola Breedlove who is pushed into insanity after her father rapes her. The MacTeer family—mother and father, sisters Claudia and Frieda—is the background image for the more central and symbolic Breedloves, a family of social outcasts internally disintegrating under the weight of various horrors. Pecola's parents are Pauline and Cholly.

The world of the children in this novel is uncompromisingly grim and, accordingly, the haunting strains of the blues accompany its often desolate images.

I thought of Shirley after I read this story. Shirley was a childhood playmate. I remember her linty braids, her snotty, self-assured play, and how the piece of sugar bread and her recitation of real or imagined slights to her leadership of our games kept her lips constantly moving.

The Bluest Eye is a journey into the spaces of cultural and gendered memory, and as I remember Shirley I do not know whether she is the sisters Frieda and Claudia, or whether she is Pecola—whether or not she is a child of hope or of despair. Somehow, though, it does not matter, because this is a novel in which I can recall the scope and feel of my own childhood.

Morrison does not allow me to linger long over the comfort that these early memories bring with them. Instead, she arrests my reverie with an episodic narrative that eventually forces me to understand the rape of the child Pecola. The memories stop here. As strongly as I have known and felt this story of black girlhood, as clearly as I had remembered the slick nauseating feeling of Vaseline or a sugar-coated spoon of Vicks sliding reluctantly down my throat during some distant illness; as longingly as I have recalled those precious and abbreviated hugs and remembered, shuddering, the quick angry switches—it all stops with the rape of the child Pecola.

Morrison both encourages reminiscence and disrupts it with the force of voice in this story. Story-telling and stories told access the narrative structures of this text and compel close and anguished attention.

Claudia's opening reflection tells about planting marigold seeds in the fall of 1941. She and her sister, Frieda, felt that planting the marigolds and then saying “the right words over them” would cause them to blossom, and would alleviate the smothering disarray of their friend's life. They hoped their words would work some magic to erase Pecola's ugliness, ensure the life of the child she carried, obliterate the gossip about her, as well as inform their own ignorance. They must indeed be potent words. The sisters were to learn that year about extremes—innocence, lust, faith, and despair—all equally nonproductive. Claudia's reflection leads her to understand that “there is nothing more to say” because her words cannot contain the overwhelming sorrow of this story. Herein lies its tragedy. When a community's language is disabled by its trauma and when its expressive potential is erased, spiritual desolation is the result. As Claudia, Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove, and finally Pecola lose their verbal expressivity, they fall more deeply into a chasm of despair. But Claudia, who distances herself from the tragedy, ultimately regains the promise of her voice—“I talk about how I did not plant the seeds too deeply” (p. 160, my emphasis)—and survives that year.

Claudia's reflections affirm the value Morrison places in artistic expressivity. She describes a conversation between her mother and one of her friends as a “gently wicked dance” (p. 16), an artistic metaphor that will be recalled to Sula as the “dark brown woman in a flowered dress doing a bit of cakewalk.” Visual and aural artistry exchange their strategies and intimately interact in Morrison's fiction. Whether as dance or song, visual scenery or verbal artistry, all collaborate in The Bluest Eye to indicate how this creative potential is lost in the fractured communities of diaspora peoples.11 Artistic allusions animate the verbal symbol and, in Morrison's work, the animated word is musical. Indeed, the children in this novel listen to their mother's conversation for “truth in timbre” (p. 16).

However, it is the mothers in this novel, studied contrasts, who guide our vision and our hearing. Mrs. MacTeer allows us to understand the impetus toward desolation, and also how to resist it. Claudia and Frieda listen to her voice for signs of her temperament; but it is not only the spoken voice that signals their mother's demeanor.

If my mother was in a singing mood, it wasn't so bad. She would sing about hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me times. Misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother's voice took all of the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet.

(p. 24)

The musical voice, their mother's singing, becomes a means of spiritual catharsis and, following slavery's field days rituals, the mask of song signals surreptitious actions.

My soul look back and wonder / How I got over … In Black America, the oral tradition has served as a fundamental vehicle for “gittin ovuh.” That tradition preserves the Afro-American heritage and reflects the collective spirit of the race. Through song, story, folk sayings, and rich verbal interplay among everyday people, lessons and precepts about life and survival are handed down from generation to generation.12

Language in our communities is a historically powerful medium. In this novel, Claudia reflects that “my mother's fussing soliloquies always irritated and depressed us” (p. 23) and “if Mama was fussing … it was like somebody throwing stones” (p. 24). The actual dialogues between mother and daughters are not particularly eloquent or mellifluous—they contain mostly ordinary sentiments and necessary directives. But it is not only these dialogues that teach the girls how to reflect on their lives. Instead, the melodious fussing soliloquies and the “songs my mother sang” offer them their instruction.

In contrast to the creative expression that Mrs. MacTeer salvages, Mrs. Breedlove (Pecola's mother) has lost her voice. A distant narrator takes over the telling of her story because she has lost contact with sound. Silence characterizes her tragedy. We meet her slipping “noiselessly out of bed” and attempting to regain her control as she berates her husband Cholly to get her some wood. But her tirade may as well be noiseless. It is met by Cholly's silence and the narrator comments that “to deprive her of these [verbal] fights was to deprive her of all the zest and unreasonableness of life” (p. 36). Unlike the sisters' mother, she was unable to claim the refuge of soliloquy or song. Separated from this tradition, all her energy is spent trying to engage in verbal battle one who refuses her fuel for the fire. Although Cholly pours out his “inarticulate fury” on his wife, during their battles they did not “talk or groan or curse” (p. 37). Although Mrs. Breedlove's prayerful conversations with Jesus do attempt some engaged language, her environment is too dark and brutal to allow her this spiritual escape. In consequence, Pauline Breedlove loses any creative, expressive potential and Claudia and Frieda's mother endures.

These women's strength lies in real speech—the creative and generative power of voice. The background of the Breedloves' anger is their inarticulateness, as well as the functional inarticulateness of the words they do exchange. The only time we learn of the potential force and violence of Mrs. Breedlove's words is when they are directed toward Pecola. And we shudder at the intensity of the mother's bitter confrontation of her daughter who has spilled blueberry pie on the floor of the white folks' kitchen.

“The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice”—a folk refrain that is a familiar lyric in the African American community—may come to some readers' minds as Morrison sculpts this scene.13 It is a referent that makes obvious the cruel twist within this episode. The mother's words, “hotter and darker than the smoking berries,” cause the girls to “back away in dread” (p. 87). Even more bitter is the final narrative in this section. Here, the little white girl that Polly Breedlove cares for gets the benefit of the warm and soothing language that Pecola desperately needs. With the connotation in mind that the folk line evokes—the positive value of darkness and the pleasure it holds—this scene is pathetically inversive. Instead of her own dark Pecola, Mrs. Breedlove salves the quizzical uneasiness of the white child saying: “Hush. Don't worry none,” in a whisper where “the honey in her words complemented the sundown spilling on the lake” (p. 87).

Pecola is the pathetic victim of her mother's verbal and her father's physical abuse. Both diminish and destroy their daughter. Cholly's violent inarticulateness is easily traced. He is an abandoned child. Everything we learn about his background, every hurting and abusive gesture and every humiliation pushes him toward the extremes he eventually expresses. Guileless, and primed with ready sympathy for the tragically abused Cholly, the reader is easily led to the scene where we are forced to confront Cholly's rape of his daughter. And, as we look back at the life that Morrison has unrelentingly traced as abusive and painful, we almost understand this climactic event.

However, if we don't understand it, Morrison explains that it is only because we lack the musical metaphor.

The pieces of Cholly's life could become coherent only in the head of a musician. Only those who talk their talk through the gold of curved metal, or in the touch of black-and-white rectangles and taut skins and strings echoing from wooden corridors could give true form to his life.

(p. 125)

Because we are denied music's cohesive power in the deafening scene of his child's rape, our understanding of Cholly's fracture is piecemeal and reluctant. The blues that saves Mrs. MacTeer is no solace for Cholly, Pecola, or even the reader who has come to depend on its mediative power. Cholly's creativity is frustrated and fractured, and the balm of spirituals, blues, or jazz (even though they are near—attached to the stories of others in this novel), is unavailable to him. Cholly never speaks again in this novel after a childhood encounter with his father who refuses to acknowledge his paternity. From that moment forward, a narrator presents a third-person perspective of Cholly's thoughts and mediates the music that Cholly cannot claim. Only the narrative's creative mesh enables the reader to bear the story of the rape of his child.

The “floodlight of drink” illumines this dark incident and the sequence of Cholly's emotional releases—“revulsion, guilt, pity, then love”—flow toward his daughter and drag us along with him. We know he was voiceless. Physical expression—his crawl across the kitchen floor toward his wife-like child, his nibble at her ankle, his confusion of tenderness and lust—was all that was left for him. Because he has been rendered inarticulate and silent, the force toward expressive action—an incoherent and blasphemous behavior—explosively speaks for him. Unlike the control Mrs. MacTeer maintains because of her spiritually enabled and creatively engaged song, what is left to Cholly is absolutely uncontrollable. Pecola's only left legacy is her mother's dim hatred and her father's desperate rage. In this moment of violent abuse, Pecola's own voice is ripped away. She is left silent and insane.

If language and speech do offer retribution and salvation, then Pecola's silence indicates the hopelessness of this child. At the novel's end, Claudia and Frieda sign and say “magic” words and offer Pecola their linguistic enchantment. But Pecola is mute and their incantations—their call to her spirit—have no potential response.

The only insight we have left of Pecola is her own—through the dialogue of her unconscious with itself. For Mrs. MacTeer and her daughters, magic words, song, and soliloquy brought grace. But there was no grace, no mediative musical magic for Pecola. We learn through her internal dialogue that Mrs. Breedlove does not speak to her daughter, that no one at school speaks to her, and that the rape on the kitchen floor was not the only time Cholly violently molested his daughter. We learn that even this internal voice does not bring Pecola solace because it taunts her with the possibility that the blue eyes she dreamed of having are not quite blue enough.

At the novel's end, the pathetic Pecola—who was “so sad to see” sifts through the garbage. Her sky-blue eyes and the sunflowers that grow wild around her metaphorically mix light and air into the earthy refuse of a garbage dump. Sadly, the image of waste remains the most powerful metaphor in the story. There are no words left to explore her loss, and no song can embrace or contain her spiritual desolation. This pitiful vision—clear, uncompromised, and silent—is all that remains.

I've grown past my childhood memory of Shirley and her sugar bread sandwiches and her brother June-bug. Shirley's memories of me may be similar—if they exist at all. And perhaps Morrison is saying that the extremes of our childhood memories etch themselves against the present only if we have the voices, or call upon the music, or re-member the refrains clearly enough to recall them into our lives at the critical moments of conflict and crisis. Today, my mother's hymnal sits on my piano. I've placed it inside a worn lacy leather bookcover that once covered a bible in my grandmother's home. Mother's inscription on the inside cover says “For my children—so that they might remember.” This is Toni Morrison's legacy as well. If we remember our mothers' singing, we embrace the hymn of generation.

In the literature of black women writers, interpretive spaces gain cultural dimensionality through metaphoric and linguistic manipulations of ancestral patterns of oracy. Mythic recursion, a recherche du temps perdu, is the linguistic vehicle that embodies the creative vision in Toni Morrison's novels. Her recovery of the language of creative generation encourages the memories of music in our own lives. They enable the clear and powerful reach of a lyrical voice that emerges inversively from the tragedy of the child Pecola, whose lost soul is symbolically imaged through her silence. It swells with the magical, powerful older women of Song of Solomon, whose voices and songs insist on a return to our state of natural grace; and it sweeps through the Bottom land of Sula until Nel, full of the memory of her friend Sula cries “circles and circles” of sorrow around that memory. Morrison's novels celebrate a woman-centered spirituality, the reclamation of legacy, and the righteous and lyrical acknowledgment of a memory of things past.


  1. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), p. 340. Parenthetical references in the text are to this edition.

  2. Among the Dogon of the Upper Volta, the spirits of Nummo were represented by the divine number of eight—the symbol of speech. In Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (Oxford University Press, 1965), Marcel Griaule interviewed an elder of that clan, Ogotemmeli, who explained that “when Nummo speaks, what comes [forth] is a warm vapour which conveys, and itself constitutes speech … the first word had been pronounced before the genitalia of a woman … and came from a woman's genitalia” (pp. 18, 20). In the 1970s, some African American literary essays and anthologies used the concept of nommo (Nummo) to associate that sense of creative generation with their work. See, for example, Paul Harrison, The Drama of Nommo (New York: Grove Press, 1972) and William H. Robinson, ed., Nommo: An Anthology of Modern Black African and Black American Literature (New York: Macmillan, 1972). The attention to Afrocentric critique in the 1970s and 1980s, and the enthusiastic, but often superficial embrace of the term in critical essays and reviews, led literary theorist Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in a speech before the African Literature Association, to call for “no mo' nommo.”

  3. Toni Morrison, Sula (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973); The Bluest Eye (New York: Washington Square Press, 1970). All references cited in the text are to these editions.

  4. See New Dimensions, p 1. The term is Barbara Du Bois's from her essay, “Passionate Scholarship: Notes on Values, Knowing, and Method in Feminist Social Science,” in Theories of Women's Studies, eds. Gloria Bowles and Renate Duelli Klein (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 112.

  5. See Melvin Dixon, Ride Out the Wilderness (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), for a discussion of the relationship between place and cultural identity in African American literature.

  6. See Elizabeth Tolbert, “The Voice of Lament” in this volume, especially with respect to the ritual aspect of the lamenter's voice and its identity with the feminine.

  7. For an extended discussion of voice in twentieth-century African and African American writers, and a theoretical exploration of the idea of multiple narrative designs, see Karla F. C. Holloway, Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women's Literature (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

  8. Demetrakopoulos's essay in New Dimensions discusses this poem. See especially pp. 86-87 where Demetrakopoulos draws an essential parallel between the literature in this tradition and Morrison's own “eloquent” reflection on this theme of flying and song. Demetrakopoulos quotes Morrison as saying: “That is one of the points of Song: all the men have left someone, and it is the children who remember it, sing about it, mythologize it, make it a part of their family history” (p. 87).

  9. W. E. B. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk (Chicago, 1903; reprinted New York: Fawcett, 1961), pp. 140-41.

  10. Toni Morrison, “On the ‘Spoken Library.’” Excerpts quoted in the English Journal (Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English), February 1978. Morrison further commented that this library must be “interpreted, used” as a source of truth, and that the images, cosmology, and humanity of truth lie within spoken language.

  11. In The Fractured Psyche (unpublished manuscript), Joyce Pettis explains the notion of fracture with critical insight relevant to the traditions of African American women's literature. Pettis suggests “linking the ability to talk in certain culturally specific ways … maintain[s] a fragile mental equilibrium” in Paule Marshall's work, and implicates the work of other black women writers as well in “Talk as Defensive Artifice,” African American Review 26, 1 (Spring 1992), 109-117.

  12. Geneva Smitherman, Talkin and Testifyin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), p. 73.

  13. The epigraph in Wallace Thurman's novel, The Blacker the Berry (Macauley, 1929; reprinted New York: Macmillan, 1970), cites these lines. Within the African American community, this well-known aphorism reflects on the sweet sensuality and value of a dark-skinned woman. Although sensuality is not relevant to this scene, skin color certainly is.

This essay is a version of three of my chapters from Karla Holloway and Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, New Dimensions of Spirituality: A BiRacial and BiCultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987). I extend my appreciation to the publishers for permission to reprint this text.


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Toni Morrison 1931-

(Born Chloe Anthony Wofford) American novelist, nonfiction writer, essayist, playwright, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Morrison's career through 2003. See also Toni Morrison Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 4, 10, 22.

Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first African American to win this honor. Morrison's novels explore issues of African-American female identity in stories that integrate elements of the oral tradition, postmodern literary techniques, and magical realism to give voice to the experiences of women living on the margins of white American society. As a best-selling African-American female author, Morrison represented a breakthrough for other black women novelists to succeed in the mainstream publishing industry. She received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Song of Solomon (1977), the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Beloved (1987), and the 1996 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Four of her novels were chosen for the Oprah Winfrey national book club, and Beloved was adapted to film as a major motion picture produced by and starring Winfrey.

Biographical Information

Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford, on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, where her father worked as a ship welder. She was very close in age to her sister, with whom she formed a strong bond that has continued throughout her life. Morrison was encouraged by her family to read, and spent much of her childhood at the local library. She graduated with a B.A. from Howard University in 1953, and went on to complete an M.A. in English literature at Cornell University in 1955. She was married in 1958 and had two sons, but divorced in 1964, and became a single mother. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she worked as an instructor at Texas Southern University in Houston and at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She served as an editor for Random House publishers from 1965 to 1983. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), was expanded from a short story she had written while still in college. Although The Bluest Eye received scant notice at first, Morrison's career as a nationally recognized author was launched with the success of Sula (1973), her second novel, after which The Bluest Eye was retrospectively given renewed consideration as an important work of fiction. While continuing to write novels and children's books, as well as editing several essay collections on issues of race in America, Morrison has taught as a guest professor in English and humanities at a number of colleges and universities, including the State University of New York at Albany and at Purchase, Yale University, Bard College, Harvard University, and Trinity College at Cambridge University in England. Since 1989, she has maintained a post as professor of humanities at Princeton University.

Major Works

Morrison's overarching thematic concern throughout her oeuvre is with issues of African-American female identity in the contemporary world. Her novels offer complex examinations of problems within the African-American community, power dynamics between men and women, and issues of racism in relations between black and white America. Morrison's primary interest lies with the experiences of African-American women, whose quests for individual identity are integrally intertwined with their community and their cultural history. Her fictions are self-consciously concerned with myth, legend, storytelling, and the oral tradition, as well as with memory, history, and historiography, and have thus been recognized as postmodern meta-narratives. Morrison's stories are conscious of African cultural heritage as well as African-American history, thus demonstrating the importance of the past to the struggles of contemporary African Americans. She employs strong elements of Black English in her dialogue and narration to express the importance of language in the formation of identity. Her novels often employ elements of magic, fantasy, and the supernatural, such as the character in Song of Solomon who can fly, or the ghost of a dead child who appears in Beloved.The Bluest Eye, her first novel, is set in the 1940s and addresses issues of race and beauty standards through the figure of Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old African-American girl who dreams of having blue eyes and long, blond hair. After Pecola is raped by her father and becomes pregnant as a result, she descends into insanity and insists that she has “the bluest eyes in the whole world.” Morrison's next three novels, Sula,Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby (1981), are generally regarded as a trilogy. Sula centers on the powerful bonds of friendship between Sula Peace and Nel Wright, who meet as girls and maintain their friendship into adulthood. This bond is ruptured, however, when Nel finds her husband in bed with Sula. In Sula, Morrison explores the importance of female friendship in the formation of individual identity, which in reality is often superseded by women's relationships with men. Song of Solomon centers on the character of Milkman Dead, who is born in the North but journeys to the South, where he discovers that he is a descendant of Solomon, a member of a mythical West African tribe whose members can fly. According to legend, these Africans, captured and enslaved in America, escaped their bondage by flying back to Africa. Song of Solomon explores issues of African-American history and myth in the formation of individual identity. Tar Baby is set on the Isle de Chevaliers in the Caribbean, in contemporary times. With the character of Jadine Childs, a successful fashion model and student of art history, Tar Baby examines the dilemmas of assimilation and cultural identity among middle-class African Americans. Morrison's subsequent three novels, Beloved,Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1998), are often loosely grouped as another trilogy, each set in a different period of African-American history: Beloved takes place during the post-Civil War era, with flashbacks to the years of slavery in the South; Jazz is set during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s; and Paradise is set during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and 1970s. Beloved combines elements of magical realism with the tradition of the African-American slave narrative in the story of Halle, a former slave struggling to raise her children in the post-Civil War era. Halle once killed her own infant in order to save it from a life of slavery, and the ghost of this dead child comes back to haunt her home as an adolescent girl called Baby Suggs. Jazz concerns a romantic triangle between a woman named Violet, her husband Joe, and an eighteen-year-old girl named Dorcas, whom Joe falls in love with. Joe's passion for Dorcas ultimately results in his shooting and killing her. Enraged by her husband's betrayal, Violet goes to the girl's funeral and cuts the face of the corpse with a knife. As Barbara Williams Lewis pointed out in her essay “The Function of Jazz in Toni Morrison's Jazz,” Morrison's narrative structure and voice in Jazz are based on the structural elements of jazz music. Paradise explores the tensions between the all-black town of Ruby and an all-women convent located on the outskirts of the town. Threatened by the empowerment of women within the convent community, the men of Ruby invade it and massacre the women living there. Love (2003) takes place at the site of a once-luxurious vacation resort catering to African-American visitors. Narrated by L., the former cook at the closed-down resort, Love concerns the internecine struggles between two women, Heed and Christine, over the affections of Bill Cosey, the now-deceased owner of the resort. Heed and Christine began as girlhood friends. Their friendship was destroyed, however, when Cosey, Christine's fifty-two-year-old grandfather, purchased the eleven-year-old Heed from her parents so that he could take her as his child bride. Heed and Christine, now old women, both live in the mansion of the closed-down resort, fiercely battling one another over the ambiguous and still-unsettled will Cosey had scribbled on a restaurant menu. Love examines the different types of love felt by Heed, Christine, and several other women for the deceased man who was—and remains after death—the center of their lives.

Critical Reception

Morrison's novels have been almost universally praised by reviewers, and have been the subject of numerous academic books and essays in the fields of gender studies, ethnic studies, postmodern theory, literary theory, and cultural studies. Many critics praised Morrison's complex treatment of issues of African-American identity in her novels. Gurleen Grewal expressed Morrison's concern with African-American identity throughout her oeuvre in stating, “African Americans must negotiate a place for themselves within a dominant culture; how they situate themselves with respect to their own history and culture is a pervasive theme of Morrison's novels.” Yvonne Atkinson described Morrison's use of Black English as central to her narrative voice, asserting, “Morrison has enveloped the written word in the oral tradition: the use of words from Black English and rituals and style of the oral tradition enhance her texts, and the systems of language, the style, and the lexicon of Black English that Morrison uses in her novels bear Witness to African-American culture.” Karla K. Holloway examined the ways in which Morrison utilizes a lyrical narrative voice in The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon to express African-American experience and construct a sense of cultural identity in the African Diaspora. Holloway asserted, “Morrison's novels recall a West African version of reality that allows the coexistence of the spiritual and physical worlds within the same narrative spaces. In these spaces, mythic voices reconstruct an African-American universe.” Rob Davidson commented on the ways in which Morrison's Beloved,Jazz, and Paradise, loosely grouped as a trilogy, function as meta-narratives about the construction of African-American identity; Davidson stated, “One of the most important concerns in the trilogy is the ‘use value’ of narrative. Storytelling is historiography in Morrison's fiction, and in each novel she carefully examines the role of narrative in the reconstitution of both the individual self and society at large.” In an entry on Toni Morrison for the book Postmodernism: Key Figures, Thomas B. Howe observed that Morrison's use of multiple narrative voices in many of her fictions is a key element of her work. Howe noted, “Morrison's fictions repeatedly challenge cultural traditions defined by patriarchal, assimilationist, and totalizing standards. Ever since her first novel … she has set herself in opposition to the European American white mainstream by portraying and celebrating unique, powerful voices of marginalized women from American history and contemporary American life.”

Love, Morrison's latest novel, has been met with rave reviews. Thulani Davis observed, “A distillation of many of [Morrison's] earlier themes, notably the theft of girlhood and wars over times now gone, Love is a rich parable about the damaging past as a demagogue ruling the present.” Adam Langer commented, “Taut and uncompromising, Love is a compact meditation on the aftermath of the civil rights movement, a chilling ghost story about a friendship destroyed by the whims of a wealthy and respected patriarch, an epic saga about the generation gap, a concise reflection on the African-American experience in the twentieth century.” Deborah E. McDowell noted that Love may be regarded as “a retrospective or compendium” of Morrison's thematic treatment of love in her earlier works. McDowell observed that Morrison's oeuvre as a whole represents “a philosophical journey into the heart of love, at times a darkened continent blazed by Morrison's luminous prose, her dazzling lyricism, her labor of love.”

Jan Furman (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Furman, Jan. “Black Girlhood and Black Womanhood: The Bluest Eye and Sula.” In Toni Morrison's Fiction, pp. 12-33. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Furman examines the significance of family and community to developing a personal sense of African-American female identity in Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Sula.]

From the beginning of her writing career Morrison has exercised a keen scrutiny of women's lives. The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison's first and second novels, are to varying extents about black girlhood and black womanhood, about women's connections to their families, their communities, to the larger social networks outside the community, to men, and to each other. Lending themselves to a reading as companion works, the novels complement one another thematically and may, in several ways, be viewed sequentially.1 (Morrison calls her first four novels “evolutionary. One comes out of the other.”2 In The Bluest Eye she was “interested in talking about black girlhood,” and in Sula she “wanted to move to the other part of their life.” She wanted to ask, “what … do those feisty little girls grow up to be?”)3The Bluest Eye directs a critical gaze at the process and symbols of imprinting the self during childhood and at what happens to the self when the process is askew and the symbols are defective. In Sula, Morrison builds on the knowledge gained in the first novel, revisits childhood, and then moves her characters and readers a step forward into women's struggles to change delimiting symbols and take control of their lives. But excavating an identity that has been long buried beneath stereotype and convention is a wrenching endeavor, and Morrison demonstrates in Sula that although recasting one's role in the community is possible, there is a price to be paid for change.


The opening lines of The Bluest Eye incorporate two signifying aspects of Morrison's fiction. The first sentence, “Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941,”4 emanates from the African-American community, capturing the milieu of “black women conversing with one another; telling a story, an anecdote, gossip[ing] about some one or event within the circle, the family, the neighborhood.”5 The line also demonstrates Morrison's urge to connect with her reader by choosing “speakerly” phrasing that has a “back fence connotation.” Morrison explains:

The intimacy I was aiming for, the intimacy between the reader and the page, could start up immediately because the secret is being shared at best, and eavesdropped upon, at the least. Sudden familiarity or instant intimacy seemed crucial to me then, writing my first novel. I did not want the reader to have time to wonder “what do I have to do, to give up, in order to read this? What defense do I need, what distance maintain?” Because I know (and the reader does not—he or she has to wait for the second sentence) that this is a terrible story about things one would rather not know anything about.6

The line's foreboding aura charitably prepares the reader for powerful truths soon to be revealed. The pervading absence of flowers in 1941 sets that year off from all others and produces a prophetic and ominous quality which unfolds in the second line: “We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby that the marigolds did not grow” (3). Exploiting the child speaker's naive but poignant logic, Morrison requires the reader, during this first encounter, to be accountable, to acknowledge a dreadful deed and respond to its dreadful consequences. “If the conspiracy that the opening words announce is entered into by the reader,” Morrison explains, “then the book can be seen to open with its close: a speculation on the disruption of ‘nature’ as being a social disruption with tragic individual consequences in which the reader, as part of the population of the text, is implicated.”7 This three-way collaboration between author, speaker, and reader is the effect for which Morrison strives in all her novels.

From this profoundly stirring beginning Morrison advances to an equally moving examination of Pecola's life—her unloving childhood, her repudiation by nearly everyone she encounters, and finally the complete disintegration of self. Through it all Morrison exposes and indicts those who promulgate standards of beauty and behavior that devalue Pecola's sensitivities and contribute to her marginalized existence.

The search for culprits is not arduous. The storekeeper who sells Mary Jane candies to Pecola avoids touching her hand when she pays and barely disguises his contempt for her: “She looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity ought to lodge. … The total absence of human recognition—the glazed separateness. … It has an edge; somewhere in the bottom lid is the distaste. … The distaste must be for her, her blackness … and it is the blackness that accounts for, that creates, the vacuum edged with distance in white eyes” (36-37). The white Yacobowski is condemned for his cultural blindness, but he is not the only one responsible for Pecola's pain. Responsibility must be shared by blacks who assuage their own insults from society by oppressing those like Pecola who are vulnerable. Little black boys jeer and taunt her with “Black e mo. Black e mo. Yadaddsleepsnekked” (50), defensively ignoring the color of their own skins. But “it was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seem to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds …” (50).

Teachers ignore Pecola in the classroom, giving their attention instead to a “high-yellow dream child with long brown hair” (47) and “sloe green eyes” (48). And when this same high-yellow Maureen Peal declares to Pecola and the MacTeer sisters “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos” (56), she is dangerously affirming intraracial acceptance of the world's denigration of blackness. “Respectable,” “milk-brown” women like Geraldine see Pecola's torn dress and uncombed hair and are confronted with the blackness they have spent lifetimes rejecting. For Morrison these women are antithetical to the village culture she respects. They attend to the “careful development of thrift, patience, high morals and good manners” (64) as these are defined by white society. And they fear “the dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions” (64) because these qualities are defined by black society. They are shamed by the “laugh that is too loud, the enunciation a little too round; the gesture a little too generous. They hold their behind in for fear of a sway too free; when they wear lipstick, they never cover the entire mouth for fear of lips too thick, and they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair” (64). As one of these women, Geraldine executes the tyranny of standardized beauty that enthralls some in the black community and terrorizes too many others.

When Pecola stands in Geraldine's house—tricked there by Geraldine's hateful son—she transgresses a line demarking “colored people” from “niggers,” light-skinned from dark, hand-me-down whiteness from genuine culture. In her innocence Pecola does not perceive the transgression or its consequences. To her, Geraldine's world and house are beautiful. The house's ordered prettiness sharply contrasts the shabby makedo appearance of the Breedloves' storefront. Geraldine, however, does perceive Pecola's outrageous breech, and the hurting child that Pecola is becomes a “nasty little black bitch” (72) in Geraldine's mouth. Geraldine sets her teeth against any recognition of some part of who she is in Pecola. To Pecola, Geraldine is “the pretty milk-brown lady in the pretty gold and green house” (72). To Morrison, she is a shadow image of the Dick-and-Jane life, a sadistic approximation of the storybook people. Through her Morrison demonstrates that such a life as Geraldine's is only validated by exclusion of others.

Michael Awkward discusses this “purgative abuse” of Pecola in terms of the black community's guilt about its own inability to measure up to some external ideal of beauty and behavior. Pecola objectifies this failure (which results in self-hatred) and must be purged. She becomes the black community's shadow of evil (even as the black community is the white community's evil). “In combating the shadow … the group is able to rid itself ceremonially of the veil that exists within both the individual member and the community at large. To be fully successful, such exorcism requires a visibly imperfect, shadow-consumed scapegoat” like Pecola.8

Even her parents, Cholly and Pauline Breedlove, relate to Pecola in this way. Ironically named since they breed not love but violence and misery, Cholly and Pauline eventually destroy their daughter, whose victimization is a bold symbol of their own despair and frustrations. In the pathos of their defeated lives, Morrison demonstrates the process by which self-hatred becomes scapegoating.

Pauline's lame foot makes her pitiable and invisible until she marries Cholly. But pleasure in marriage lasts only until she moves from Kentucky to Ohio and confronts northern standards of physical beauty and style. She is despised by snooty black women who snicker at her lameness, her unstraightened hair, and her provincial speech. In the movie theaters she seeks relief from these shortcomings through daydreams of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. But even in high heels, makeup, and a Harlow hairstyle Pauline is a failure. “In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap,” (95) which she deposits on her husband and children who fail by “the scale of absolute beauty … she absorbed in full from the silver screen” (95). Eventually, Pauline gives up on her own family and takes refuge in the soft beauty surrounding her in the Fisher home, where she works—the crisp linens, white towels, the little Fisher girl's yellow hair. She cannot afford such beauty and style. In the Fisher house, however, she has dominion over creditors and service people “who humiliated her when she went to them on her own behalf [but] respected her, were even intimidated by her, when she spoke for the Fishers” (101). With the Fishers she had what she could not have at home—“power, praise, and luxury” (99). By the time Pecola finds herself awkwardly standing in the Fisher's kitchen, responsible for the spilled remains of a freshly baked pie at her feet, Pauline is incapable of a mother's love and forgiveness. Her best response is knocking Pecola to the floor and running to console the crying Fisher child.

In substituting fierce intolerance of her family for love, Pauline refuses what she cannot transform. Her husband is an irresponsible drunk; the son and daughter are sloven. Only she has order and beauty and only in the Fisher house. Under these conditions Pauline is reborn as self-righteous martyr with no time for movies, unfulfilled dreams, and foolish notions of romantic love. “All the meaningfulness of her life was in her work. … She was an active church woman … defended herself mightily against Cholly … and felt she was fulfilling a mother's role conscientiously when she pointed out their father's faults to keep them from having them, or punished them when they showed any slovenliness, no matter how slight, when she worked twelve to sixteen hours a day to support them” (100).

Like Pauline, Cholly too is driven by personal demons which he attempts to purge in violence against his family. Pauline does not see or understand Cholly's hurts, but Morrison represents them as remarkably egregious. Callously abandoned on a garbage dump by his mother, years later Cholly searches for the father who also discards him. His response to his father's angry denunciations—crying and soiling his pants—eclipses any opportunity for emotional maturity and returns him, in a sense, to the helplessness of his abandonment in infancy. After the rejection, in a nearby river he seeks relief, even rebirth, curled for hours in the fetal position with fists in eyes. For a while he finds consolation in “the dark, the warmth, the quiet … [engulfing him] like the skin and flesh of an elderberry protecting its own seed” (124). Protection is short-lived, however. There is no prelapsarian innocence available to Cholly.

In marrying Pauline, Cholly seems fully recovered from these earlier traumas. Initially, he is kind, compassionate, protective, but these feelings too are fleeting. He retreats from her emotional dependence, he is humiliated by economic powerlessness, and he mitigates his frustrations in drink and abuse. In turning on Pauline, Cholly fights whom he can and not whom he should. This is the lesson of childhood learned when he is forced by armed white men who discover him with Darlene in the woods to continue his first act of sexual intimacy while they watch and ridicule. When the men leave in search of other prey, Cholly realizes that hating them is futile, and he decides instead to hate Darlene for witnessing his degradation. He could not protect her so he settles for despising her. Later Pauline comes to stand for Darlene in Cholly's mind: “He poured out on her the sum of all his inarticulate fury and aborted desires” (37). Cholly, then, needs Pauline to objectify his failure.

His treatment of Pecola may also be seen in terms of scapegoating but not entirely. While Pecola's ugliness is an affront to Pauline's surreptitious creation of beauty in the Fisher house, it is a sad reminder to Cholly of not only his unhappiness but Pecola's as well. Such concern makes him a somewhat sympathetic character. He is one of Morrison's traveling men, one whose freedom to do as he pleases is jeopardized by dependent, possessive women. He has roamed around dangerously, carelessly, irresponsibly, lovingly. The appealing contradiction of his life could find expression only in black music. “Only a musician would sense, know, without even knowing that he knew, that Cholly was free. Dangerously free” (125). After his mother's abandonment and his father's rejection, Cholly has little to loose, and his behavior is disdainful of consequences. “It was in this godlike state that he met Pauline Williams,” (126) and marriage to her threatens to conquer him.

In romanticizing Cholly, Morrison defies the unflattering orthodoxy of black maleness and makes peace with the conflict between responsibility to family and freedom to leave. Morrison respects the freedom even as she embraces the responsibility. In the freedom she sees “tremendous possibility for masculinity among black men.”9 Sometimes such men are unemployed or in prison, but they have a spirit of adventure and a deep complexity that interests Morrison. No doubt she views their freedom as a residue of the “incredible … magic and feistiness in black men that nobody has been able to wipe out.”10 Cholly exercises his freedom, but not before he commits a heinous crime against Pecola. Even his crime, however, is tempered by the author's compassion for Cholly. Coming home drunk and full of self-pity, Cholly sees Pecola and is overcome with love and regret that he has nothing to relieve her hopelessness. “Guilt and impotence rose in a bilious duct. What could he do for her—ever? What give her? What say to her? What could a burned-out black man say to the hunched back of his eleven-year-old daughter?” (127). His answer is rape—in spite of himself. In rendering this incomprehensible instance, Morrison captures the curious mixture of hate and tenderness that consumes Cholly. “The hatred would not let him pick her up” when the violation is over; “the tenderness forced him to cover her” (129). The awful irony of his position is overwhelming. In the end Cholly's complexity dominates the moment. Having never been parented, “he could not even comprehend what such a relationship should be” (126). And being dangerously free, he has no restraints.

Morrison does have sympathy for Cholly (she admits that she connects “Cholly's ‘rape’ by the white men to his own of his daughter”11), but he is not absolved; he dies soon after in a workhouse. And Morrison does not minimize his crime against his daughter. Pecola's childlike “stunned silence,” “the tightness of her vagina,” the painfully “gigantic thrust,” her “fingers clinching,” her “shocked body,” and finally her unconsciousness bear witness to Morrison's aim in the novel to represent Pecola's perspective, to translate her heartbreak. “This most masculine act of aggression becomes feminized in my language,” Morrison says. It is “passive,” she continues, “and, I think, more accurately repellent when deprived of the male ‘glamor of shame’ rape is (or once was) routinely given.”12

Feminizing language does not lead Morrison to comfortable binary oppositions of good and evil, feminine and masculine. Rather, it leads to a sensitive treatment of the complex emotions that determine character, male and female. In Morrison's writing there are no easy villains to hate; there are no predictable behaviors.

Just as Cholly is not as reprehensible as he might be, Pauline is not as sympathetic as she might be if she were stereotypically portrayed as an abused wife and as a mother. In fact, Pauline in some sense is as culpable as Cholly for Pecola's suffering. Cholly's love is corrupt and tainted, but Pauline is unloving. After the rape Morrison subtly alludes to the difference: “So when the child regained consciousness, she was lying on the kitchen floor under a heavy quilt, trying to connect the pain between her legs with the face of her mother looming over her” (129). Is Pauline associated with the pain? She did not physically rape Pecola, but she has ravaged the child's self-worth and left her vulnerable to assaults of various proportions.

With single-minded determination Pauline survives, but Pecola withdraws into the refuge of insanity. Like the dandelions whose familiar yellow heads she thinks are pretty, Pecola is poisoned by rejection. But unlike the dandelions, she does not have the strength to persist, and in madness she simply substitutes her inchoate reality with a better one: she has blue eyes which everyone admires and envies. In pathetic conversations with an imaginary friend, Pecola repeatedly elicits confirmation that hers are “the bluest eyes in the whole world” (161), that they are “much prettier than the sky. Prettier than Alice-and-Jerry Storybook eyes” (159).

Pecola's sad fantasy expresses Morrison's strongest criticism of a white standard of beauty that excludes most black women and that destroys those who strive to measure up but cannot. Everywhere there are reminders of this failure: the coveted blond-haired, blue-eyed dolls that arrive at Christmas, Shirley Temple movies, high-yellow dream children like Maureen Peal. And for Pecola the smiling white face of little Mary Jane on the candy wrapper, “blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort” (38). In desperation Pecola believes that nothing bad could be viewed by such eyes. Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove (Pecola's name for her mother) would not fight; her teachers and classmates would not despise her; she would be safe. And, ironically, perhaps Pecola is right. With the blue eyes of her distorted reality comes the awful safety of oblivion.

Pecola's tragedy exposes the fallacy of happily-ever-after storybook life. Morrison repeatedly calls attention to this falseness. In the prologue and chapter headings are recounted the elementary story of Dick and Jane, mother and father:

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane? See the cat. It goes meow-meow. Come and play. Come play with Jane. The kitten will not play. See Mother. Mother is very nice. Mother, will you play with Jane? Mother laughs. Laugh, Mother, laugh. See Father. He is big and strong. Father, will you play with Jane? Father is smiling. Smile, Father, smile. See the dog. Bowwow goes the dog. Do you want to play with Jane? See the dog run. Run, dog, run. Look, look. Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane. They will play a good game. Play, Jane, play.


In two subsequent versions Morrison distorts the Dick-and-Jane text. In bold print with no spacing between words, these latter passages take on a frenetic tone that signals perversion of communal perfection for Morrison's characters, who do not blithely run and play and live happily ever after. In removing standard grammatical codes, symbols of Western culture, Morrison expurgates the white text as she constructs the black. Timothy Bell aptly points out that “Morrison is literally deconstructing the essential white text, removing capitalizations, punctuation, and finally the spacing until the white text is nothing more than a fragmentation of its former self at the beginning of the chapter.”13 Home for Pecola is not the green and white picture-perfect house of white myth. Home is a storefront where mother and father curse and fight, brother runs away from home, and sister wishes with all her soul for blue eyes. Pecola appropriates the storybook version of life because her own is too gruesome. In her life she is subject to other people's cruel whims to which she can offer no voice of protest.

Indeed, she has no voice in this text at all, a condition which loudly echoes her entire existence. She has no control over the events in her life and no authority over the narrative of those events. That authority goes to twelve-year-old Claudia, who narrates major portions of Pecola's story with compassion and understanding. Claudia and her older sister Frieda are the “we” of the opening paragraph. They witness Pecola's despair and try to save her. “Her pain agonized me,” Claudia says, “I wanted to open her up, crisp her edges, ram a stick down that hunched and curving spine, force her to stand erect and spit the misery out on the streets” (61). But the sisters fail. They do not save Pecola from her breakup. As the girls mourn their failure, Morrison chronicles the loss of their innocence. But unlike Pecola's short-circuited innocence, their loss is part of a natural ritual of growing up.

Morrison proffers Claudia and Frieda as foils to Pecola. They are strong and sturdy; Pecola is not. Claudia's independence and confidence especially throw Pecola's helplessness into stark relief. For Claudia, blue-eyed dolls at Christmas and Shirley Temple dancing with Bojangles Robinson are unappealing and even insulting. With youthful but penetrating insight, she declares her exemption from “the universal love of white dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals” (148).

Claudia and her sister traverse Morrison's landscape of black girlhood. Bound by a social environment that is hostile to their kind, they have “become headstrong, devious and arrogant” (150) enough to dismiss limitations and believe that they can “change the course of events and alter a human life” (150). With ingenious faith in themselves, Claudia and Frieda attempt to rescue Pecola and her baby. They would make beauty where only ugliness resided by planting marigolds deep in the earth and receiving the magic of their beauty as a sign of Pecola's salvation. When neither marigolds nor Pecola survive, the girls blame a community that is seduced by a white standard of beauty and that makes Pecola its scapegoat: “All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. … We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength” (160).

For the most part their parents, Mr. and Mrs. MacTeer, save Claudia and Frieda from this sort of persecution. Mr. MacTeer (unlike Cholly) acts as a father should in protecting his daughter from a lecherous boarder. Mrs. MacTeer's place is not in a white family's kitchen, but in her own, where familiar smells hold sway and where her singing about “hard times, bad times and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me times” (28) proclaims that pain is endurable, even sweet. To her daughters she bequeaths a legacy of compassion for others and defiance in the face of opposition. Her love for them was “thick and dark as Alaga syrup” (7). The MacTeers embody the communal resiliency at the heart of black culture.

Mrs. MacTeer is not one of Morrison's ancestors—a person wise in the ways of life who transmits that wisdom and knowledge of self to the uninitiated. She is, however, one of Morrison's nurturers. Claudia remembers the feel of her mother's hands on her forehead and chest when she is sick: “I think,” she says, “of somebody with hands who does not want me to die” (7). Mrs. MacTeer takes Pecola in when Cholly burns his family out. She presides over Pecola's first menses, hugging her reassuringly (the only hug the adolescent Pecola ever receives; Mrs. Breedlove's hugs and assurances are reserved for the little Fisher girl). But Mrs. MacTeer's influence in Pecola's life is short in duration. With no one else available Pecola turns to the whores who live upstairs over the storefront for instruction given lovingly. China, Marie, and Poland stand in opposition to the Geraldines in the community. They are not pretentious heirs to false puritanical values, and Morrison respects their unvarnished natures. “Three merry gargoyles. Three merry harridans,” they are quick to laugh or sing. Defying all stereotypes of pitiable women gone wrong, they make no apologies for themselves and seek no sympathy. “They were not young girls in whores' clothing, or whores regretting their loss of innocence. They were whores in whores' clothes, whores who had never been young and had no word for innocence” (43). Pecola loves these women, and they are more than willing to share the lessons they've learned, but their lessons are wrong for Pecola. They can tell her stories that are breezy and rough about lawless men and audacious women. But they cannot teach her what she wants most to know: how to be loved by a mother and father, by a community, and by a society.

For that she turns in the end to Soaphead Church, the itinerant spiritualist and flawed human being. A pedophile and con man, Soaphead has not transcended the pain of life's humiliations and is deeply scarred. Morrison describes him as “that kind of black”14 for whom blackness is a burden to be borne with self-righteous indignation. Of West Indian and colonial English ancestry that has long been in social decline, Soaphead, existing at the bottom of the descent, is “wholly convinced that if black people were more like white people they would be better off.”15 He, therefore, appreciates Pecola's yearning for blue eyes. But Soaphead's powers are fraudulent as are his claims to have helped Pecola by “giving” her blue eyes; he does little more than use her in his own schemes of revenge against God and man. With no one to help her counteract the love of white dolls with blue eyes, Pecola cannot help herself, and she is obliged to be the victim—always.

Indeed the effects of Pecola's devastation are unrelenting as measured in the passing of time in the novel—season after season: Morrison names each of the novel's sections after a season of the year, beginning with autumn and ending with summer. The headings are ironically prophetic preludes to the story segments. They stand out as perverse contradictions of Pecola's experiences: thematic progression is not from dormancy to rebirth as the autumn to spring movement would suggest. There is no renewal for Pecola. In spring she is violated; by summer she is annihilated. Morrison uses this disruption of nature to signal the cosmic proportion of Pecola's injury.

SULA (1973)

The Bluest Eye was not commercially successful at the time of its publication (its popularity has risen in tandem with Morrison's reputation). Yet, it did inaugurate its author's public literary life. After writing it, Morrison became a frequent reviewer in the New York Times and an authoritative commentator on black culture and women's concerns. Three years later Sula was both a commercial and critical triumph. It was excerpted in Redbook and widely reviewed. The Book-of-the-Month Club selected it as an alternate, and in 1975 it was nominated for the National Book Award.

If The Bluest Eye chronicles to some extent an annihilation of self, Sula, on the contrary, validates resiliency in the human spirit and celebrates the self. In Sula Morrison returns to the concerns of girlhood explored in her first novel, but this time she approaches her subject in celebration, as if to see what miracles love and friendship may accomplish for Sula and Nel that they could not for Pecola, Claudia, and Frieda.

Sula Peace and Nel Wright are each the only daughter of mothers whose distance leaves the young girls alone with dreams of someone to erase the solitude. When they first met, “they felt the ease and comfort of old friends.”16 Indeed “their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on” (44). Sula's spontaneous intensity is relieved by Nel's passive reserve. Sula loves the ordered neatness of Nel's home and her life, and Nel likes Sula's “household of throbbing disorder constantly awry with things, people, voices and the slamming of doors …” (44). Over the years “they found relief in each other's personality” (45).

In examining their friendship, Morrison tests its endurance. As she says, not much had been done with women as friends; men's relationships are often the subject of fiction, but what about women's strongest bonds? As perfect complements, one incomplete without the other, Sula and Nel together face life, death, and marriage, and eventually they also must face separation. Throughout, Morrison affirms the necessity of their collaboration.

Adolescence for Nel and Sula is marked not by individuation, but by merger, as a single, provocative play scene illustrates. In the summer of their twelfth year, with thoughts of boys and with “their small breasts just now beginning to create some pleasant discomfort when they were lying on their stomachs” (49), the girls escape to the park. In silence and without looking at each other, they begin to play in the grass, stroking the blades. “Nel found a thick twig and, with her thumbnail, pulled away its bark until it was stripped to a smooth, creamy innocence” (49). Sula does the same. Soon they begin poking “rhythmically and intensely into the earth,” making small neat holes. “Nel began a more strenuous digging and, rising to her knee, was careful to scoop out the dirt as she made her hole deeper. Together they worked until the two holes were one and the same” (50). In their symbolic sexual play, Nel and Sula, unlike Pecola, have absolute control in this necessary right of passage (without the intrusion of a masculine presence) which conjoins them until, like the holes, they are one and the same.

Two other significant moments define their intimacy as well. The first is Sula's cutting off the tip of her finger in response to a threat by a group of white boys whose menacing bodies block the girl's route home. If she could do that to herself, what would she do to them, Sula asks the shocked boys. The second is the death of Chicken Little, the little boy whose body Sula swings around and around in play until her hands slip, and he flies out over the river and drowns. Nel watches, and no one discovers their culpability. At the graveside they hold hands. “At first, as they stood there, their hands were clenched together. They relaxed slowly until during the walk back home their fingers were laced in as gentle a clasp as that of any two young girlfriends trotting up the road on a summer day wondering what happened to butterflies in the winter” (56-57).

Not even Nel's marriage dissolves their “friendship [that] was so close, they themselves had difficulty distinguishing one's thoughts from the other's” (72). They are both happy; Nel becomes a wife, and Sula goes to college. Ten years later Sula's return imparts a magic to Nel's days that marriage had not. “Her old friend had come home. … Sula, whose past she had lived through and with whom the present was a constant sharing of perceptions. Talking to Sula had always been a conversation with herself” (82). Their lives resume an easy rhythm until Nel walks into her bedroom and finds her husband and Sula naked. Not surprisingly, this episode supersedes the women's friendship. Jude leaves town, Nel, and their children, and Nel blames Sula. Three years later, when Nel visits a dying Sula, she asks, “Why you didn't love me enough to leave him alone. To let him love me. You had to take him away” (125). Sula replies, “What you mean take him away? … If we were such good friends, how come you couldn't get over it?” (125).

With Sula's question Morrison calls into doubt the primacy of Nel's marriage over the women's friendship, intimating that their friendship may even supplant the marriage. Years after Sula's death, Nel comes to this realization at her friend's grave. “All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude. … We was girls together. … O Lord, Sula … girl, girl, girlgirlgirl” (149).

Nel and Sula's estrangement offers Morrison an opportunity to examine women's lives in and out of marriage. As girls Nel and Sula had cunningly authored the dimensions of their own existence without the permission or approval of their families or the community. “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be” (44). Morrison does not elaborate further on the specific nature of their creation, but clearly each positions herself just outside the village perspective, thinking and behaving with a certain independence. “In the safe harbor of each other's company they could afford to abandon the ways of other people and concentrate on their own perceptions of things” (47).

The experience that determines Nel's perspective is a train ride with her mother. The two travel for days from Ohio to New Orleans for Nel's great-grandmother's funeral. Her mother's shuffling acquiescence in the face of the white conductor's hostility during the trip, the sullen black male passengers whose refusal to help her mother reflects their own helpless humiliation, the indignity of squatting to relieve themselves in the brush in full view of the train, her mother's stiff shame of her own creole mother's life as a prostitute—all these experiences teach Nel lessons about other people's vulnerabilities. Back home in the safety of her bedroom she resolves to develop her strengths. Looking in the mirror, she whispers to herself “I'm me. … I'm me. I'm not their daughter. I'm not Nel. I'm me. Me …” (24). Adopting me-ness as her mantra, Nel gathers power and joy, and the “strength to cultivate a friend [Sula] in spite of her mother” (25). Nel's daring is eclipsed, however, by marriage to Jude. For Helene Wright, Nel's mother, marriage is one of the neat conditions of living that defines a woman's place, and Nel accepts a similar arrangement for herself. Nel does not choose Jude; she accepts his choosing her as a way of completing himself. Without Nel, Jude is an enraged “waiter hanging around a kitchen like a woman” (71) because bigotry keeps him from doing better. “With her he was head of a household pinned to an unsatisfactory job out of necessity. The two of them together would make one Jude” (71). In marrying Jude, Nel gives up her youthful dreams (before she met Sula) of being “wonderful” and of “trips she would take, alone … to faraway places” (25). In marrying Jude, she gives up her me-ness.

Predictably, when Jude leaves, after his betrayal with Sula, Nel suffers psychic disintegration, and later, after a necessary recovery, she endures shrinkage of the self. She considers the release that may come with death, but that will have to wait because she has three children to raise. In this condition Nel wraps herself in the conventional mantle of sacrifice and martyrdom and takes her place with the rest of the women in the community. Although Nel does not discover it until after Sula's death and she is old, the real loss in her life is that of Sula and not Jude. And the real tragedy is that she has allowed herself to become less than she was.

Sula is different from Nel. It is Sula's rebellious spirit that fuels the intermittent moments of originality that Nel manages to have. In Sula's presence Nel has “sparkle or sputter” (618). Sula resists any authority or controls, and Morrison offers her as one of the lawless individuals whose life she is so fond of examining. From Sula's days in childhood when she retreated to the attic, she rebels against conventionality. She is surprised and saddened by Nel's rejection of her over Jude. She had not expected Nel to behave “the way the others would have” (635). But nothing, not even her closest and only friend's censures will force Sula to abridge herself.

Even near death Sula will have none of Nel's limitations. To the end she proclaims, “I sure did live in this world. … I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me” (645). Sula's me-ness remains intact; she has not betrayed herself as Nel has, and any loneliness she feels is a price she is willing to pay for freedom.

By and large, Sula's assessment of her past is credible. Only once has she come close to subsuming herself to some other, named Ajax. Shortly after Ajax shows up at her door with a quart of milk tucked under each arm, Sula begins to think of settling down with him. All of the men in her past had, over the years, “merged into one large personality” (104) of sameness. “She had been looking … for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be—for a woman” (104). But those thoughts exist before she meets Ajax; he is different in some ways. He brings her beautiful and impractical gifts: “clusters of black berries still on their branches, four meal-fried porgies wrapped in a salmon-colored sheet of the Pittsburgh Courier, a handful of jacks, two boxes of lime Jell-Well, a hunk of ice-wagon ice …” (104). Sula is most interested in him, however, because he talks to her and is never condescending in conversation. “His refusal to baby or protect her, his assumption that she was both tough and wise—all that coupled with a wide generosity of spirit … sustained Sula's interest and enthusiasm” (110).

Their interlude ends when Ajax discovers Sula's possessiveness. For the first time Sula wants to be responsible for a man and to protect him from the dangers of life. Giving in to a nesting instinct that is new for her, she is on the verge of making his life her own. But before that happens Ajax leaves, and Sula has only his driver's license as proof of his ever having been there. Sula's sorrow is intense, but short-lived, unlike Nel's enduring suffering for Jude. In the end, when Nel accuses her of never being able to keep a man, Sula counters that she would never waste life trying to keep a man: “They ain't worth more than me. And besides, I never loved no man because he was worth it. Worth didn't have nothing to do with it. … My mind did. That's all” (124). Sula had needed Nel, but she had never needed a man to extend herself. Even in lovemaking she had manufactured her own satisfaction, “in the postcoital privateness in which she met herself, welcomed herself, and joined herself in matchless harmony” (107). With Ajax those private moments had not been necessary, but without him Sula abides. The self, Morrison instructs, should not be liable in its own betrayal.

Sula is, without doubt, a manifesto of freedom, and that fact in large part accounts for its popularity with readers and critics who champion its triumphant chronicle of a black woman's heroism. That does not mean, however, that the novel approximates the ideal or that Sula's character is not flawed. Morrison describes her as an artist without a medium. “Her strangeness … was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for” (105). An art form augments life by giving it purpose; perhaps it teaches the individual compassion, but without it someone like Sula is, as Morrison describes her, strange, naive, and dangerous.

In this view Sula is without an essential quality of humanity. She has taken little from others, but more important she has given little.17 She does not mean others harm: “She had no thought at all of causing Nel pain when she bedded down with Jude” (103), but without the moderating and mediating influence of her own humanity, Sula is unthinking and childlike. It is as if some crucial element of consciousness had been arrested in childhood when she overheard her mother say to a friend that she loved Sula but did not like her or when “her major feeling of responsibility [for Chicken Little's death] had been exorcised” (102). After that, “she had no center, no speck around which to grow” (103). The most bizarre episodes of her conduct may be understood in this context: feeling no emotion but curiosity while watching her mother burn to death, putting her grandmother in a nursing home for no good reason, and, of course, having sex with her best friend's husband.

Imperfect as she is, however, Sula does escape the falseness and emptiness of Nel's life. As Nel takes her place beside the other women in the community, she and they are identified with spiders, whose limitations keep them dangling “in the dark dry places … terrified of the free fall” (104). And if they do fall, they envision themselves as victims of someone else's evil. Sula, on the other hand, is one of Morrison's characters who is associated with flight, the metaphor for freedom. Sula is not afraid to use her wings fully to “surrender to the downward flight” (104). She is unafraid of the free fall.

Flight in Morrison is usually associated with men and not with women, who are more often than not Morrison's nurturers. Of course, Morrison offers neither quality by itself as the archetypal model; in the best scenarios the individual is capable of both nurturance and flight. Indeed, Nel and Sula are incomplete without each other. As Morrison says, “Nel knows and believes in all the laws of that community. She is the community. She believes in its values. Sula does not. She does not believe in any of those laws and breaks them all. Or ignores them.”18 But both positions are problematic, Morrison continues: “Nel does not make that ‘leap’—she doesn't know about herself [she does not discover until too late, for example that she had watched Chicken Little's drowning with excitement]. … Sula, on the other hand, knows all there is to know about herself. … But she has trouble making a connection with other people and just feeling that lovely sense of accomplishment of being close in a very strong way.”19 Nurturance without invention and imagination is analogous to flight without responsibility. Ajax is the only other character in the novel who is identified with flying. He loves airplanes, and he thinks often of airplanes, pilots, “and the deep sky that held them both” (109). When he takes long trips to big cities, other people imagine him pursuing some exotic fun that is unavailable to them; in truth, he is indulging his obsession with flying by standing around airports watching planes take off.

Metaphorically, Ajax is always in flight—from conventionality. Without work, but willing to be responsible for himself, Ajax does not take cover in domesticity. Unlike Jude, who is only half a man without Nel as his refuge from life's injustices, Ajax does not need Sula to kiss his hurts and make them better. Unlike Jude, Ajax has self-esteem that is not diminished by white men's refusal of work, and unlike Jude, he does not run away and leave behind a wife and children. Ajax does leave Sula, but his action is not a betrayal. Ajax and Sula had come together, not as fractional individuals in need of the other to be complete, but as whole people, and when that equation is threatened by Sula's possessiveness, Ajax leaves for Dayton and airplanes. Of men like Ajax Morrison writes:

They are the misunderstood people in the world. There's a wildness that they have, a nice wildness. It has bad effects in a society such as the one in which we live. It's pre-Christ in the best sense. It's Eve. When I see this wildness gone in a person, it's sad. This special lack of restraint, which is a part of human life and is best typified in certain black males, is of particular interest to me. … Everybody knows who “that man” is, and they may give him bad names and call him a “street nigger”; but when you take away the vocabulary of denigration, what you have is somebody who is fearless and who is comfortable with that fearlessness. It's not about meanness. It's a kind of self-flagellant resistance to certain kinds of control, which is fascinating. Opposed to accepted notions of progress, the lock step life, they live in the world unreconstructed and that's it.20

As characters in flight both Ajax and Sula stand in opposition to the community that is firmly rooted in ritual and tradition. As the devoted son of “an evil conjure woman” (109), whom most regarded as a neglectful mother, Ajax is accustomed to rebuffing public opinion, and as a man he is given a license to do so. As a woman Sula must take that license, and in the fray she alienates the community. Sula returns to town after ten years and refuses to honor the town's ceremonies: “She came to their church suppers without underwear, bought their steaming platters of food and merely picked at it—relishing nothing, exclaiming over no one's ribs or cobbler. They believed that she was laughing at their God” (99). Soon the town names her a devil and prepares to live with its discovery. In fact, Morrison says, the town's toleration of Sula is in some way a measure of their generosity: “She would have been destroyed by any other place; she was permitted to ‘be’ only in that context, and no one stoned her or killed her or threw her out.”21

Clearly, however, the town needs Sula as much as or perhaps more than she needs it. In giving the novel an extraordinary sense of place,22 Morrison builds the community's character around its defense against this internal threat. Sula is not the only danger, but for a time she is the most compelling. Her defiance unifies the community by objectifying its danger. Women protected their husbands; husbands embraced their wives and children. “In general [everyone] band[ed] together against the devil in their midst” (102). No one considered destroying Sula or running her out of town. They had lived with evil and misfortune all of their lives; it “was something to be first recognized, then dealt with, survived, outwitted, triumphed over” (102).

The predominant evil in their lives, more pervasive and enduring than Sula, is the external force of oppression. Morrison's characteristic treatment of bigotry is not to delineate the defining episodes of white hatred but instead to direct attention to the black community's ingenious methods of coping: using humor, garnering strength from folk traditions, and perversely refusing to be surprised or defeated by experience. Residents of the Bottom waste little time complaining and get on with the business of their lives. Morrison captures here, as she does elsewhere, the rhythms of the black community: men on the street corner, in pool halls; women shelling peas, cooking dinner, at the beauty parlor, in church, interpreting dreams, and playing the numbers, working roots.

Yet, Morrison says, the music and dance belie the pain of men without work and of families living on the frayed edges of the prosperous white town below. Each contact with life beyond the borders of the Bottom recalls the isolating constraints of race prejudice: Helene's brutal reminder by the train conductor that her place is in the car with the other blacks; Sula and Nel's encounter with the four white teenagers who determine the physical boundaries of the girl's world by forcing them to walk in roundabout circuitous routes home from school; Shadrack's arrest by police who find him “wandering” in the white part of town. Even dead Chicken Little's space is designated by the bargeman who drays the child's body from the river, dumps it into a burlap sack, and tosses it in a corner. The sheriff's reports that “they didn't have no niggers in their country, but that some lived in those hills “cross the river, up above Medallion,” (54) underscores the expectation that black life will not spill out of the hills. Morrison acknowledges the destructiveness of this enforced separation, but she also treats the isolation ironically by converting its negative meaning into a positive one. Cordoned off as they are, the people are self-sufficient; they create a neighborhood within those hills “which they could not break”23 because it gives continuity to their past and present.

In assigning character to the Bottom, Morrison establishes worth in terms of human relationships. As she says:

there was this life-giving very, very strong sustenance that people got from the neighborhood. … All the responsibilities that agencies now have were the responsibilities of the neighborhood. So that people were taken care of, or locked up or whatever. If they were sick, other people took care of them; if they were old, other people took care of them; if they needed something to eat, other people took care of them; if they were mad, other people provided a small space for them, or related to their madness or tried to find out the limits of their madness.24

Shadrack's presence in the Bottom is evidence of the community's willingness to absorb the most bizarre of its own. When Shadrack returns from World War I and does not know “who or what he was … with no past, no language, no tribe” (10), he struggles “to order and focus experience” (12) and to conquer his fear of death. The result is National Suicide Day, which Shadrack establishes as the third of January, believing “that if one day a year were devoted to it [death] everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free” (586). At first frightened of him, in time people embrace him and his day. Once they “understood the boundaries and nature of his madness, they could fit him, so to speak, into the scheme of things” (13). That is, according to Morrison, the black community's way.

Sula's mother, Hannah, and grandmother Eva had borne their share of these community responsibilities in the big house where youth, old age, disease, and insanity kept company. (Eva takes the life of her son, Plum, but Morrison treats it as an act of compassion, not of selfishness.) Sula is different, however. In refusing to become a part of the community, she refuses a part of her cultural and personal history. Her determination to define herself and to redefine a woman's role places her at odds with the community. And yet, the community makes room for her in a way perhaps that no other place would. There are both variety and cohesiveness in the Bottom, where characters as unlike as Sula, Nel, Ajax, and Shadrack coexist. “There are hundreds of small towns” like Medallion, Morrison explains, “and that's where most black people live. … And that's where the juices came from and that's where we made it, not made it in terms of success but made who we are.”25

Morrison suggests that this quality of neighborhood life is endangered. As the buildings and trees are leveled in the Bottom to make room for a new golf course and as blacks leave the hills to occupy spaces vacated by whites in the valley below, Morrison wonders if economic and social gains are worth the sacrifice of community, because without community the cultural traditions that inform character are lost to future generations.


  1. I am using the term sequel broadly to suggest a continuation of theme rather than a continuation of plot and identifiable characters. The novels reflect Morrison's desire to follow up her exploration of female friendships in childhood and adulthood.

  2. Nellie Y. McKay, “An Interview with Toni Morrison,” Contemporary Literature 24 (Winter 1983): 413-29. Rpt. in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah (New York: Amistad, 1993) 399.

  3. Robert B. Stepto, “‘Intimate Things in Place’”: A Conversation with Toni Morrison,” Massachusetts Review 18 (Autumn 1977): 473-89. Rpt. in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah (New York: Amistad, 1993) 386.

  4. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970) 3. Subsequent references will appear in parentheses in the text.

  5. Toni Morrison, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (Winter 1989): 20.

  6. Morrison, “Unspeakable” 21.

  7. Morrison, “Unspeakable” 22.

  8. Michael Awkward, “‘The Evil of Fulfillment’: Scapegoating and Narration in The Bluest Eye,Inspiriting Influences, Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women's Novels (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) 75. See also Chikwenye Ogunyemi's “Order and Disorder in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye,Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 19 (1977): 112-20.

  9. Stepto 386.

  10. Stepto 384.

  11. Morrison, “Unspeakable” 23.

  12. Morrison “Unspeakable” 23.

  13. Timothy B. Powell, “Toni Morrison: The Struggle to Depict the Black Figure on the White Page,” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Winter 1990): 752. For other clever readings of the Dick and Jane story in The Bluest Eye, see Shelly Wong, “Transgression as Poesis in The Bluest Eye,Callaloo 13 (Summer 1990): 471-81; Phyllis Klotman, “Dick-and-Jane and the Shirley Temple Sensibility in The Bluest Eye,Black American Literature Forum 13 (Winter 1979): 123-25; and others.

  14. Stepto 389.

  15. Stepto 388.

  16. Toni Morrison, Sula (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973) 44. Subsequent references will appear in parentheses in the text.

  17. Maureen T. Reddy (“The Tripled Plot and Center of Sula,Black American Literature Forum 22 (Spring 1988) 29-45) enlarges this view of Sula's deficiencies. Reddy, surprisingly, labels Sula a woman with “no true inner core of self [who] tries to appropriate Nel's by doing what Nel does, including having sex with Jude” (37). According to Reddy, “In spite of her deathbed claim that she ‘sure did live in this world’ and her insistence that she owns herself, Sula never reaches real self understanding because she has no abiding self to understand nor any way of creating a self …” (37). Reddy's interpretation does not negate the view that Sula inspires Nel to act imaginatively. What Sula does not have and what Nel offers her is definition and order. Each has something that the other needs.

  18. Stepto 381.

  19. Stepto 382.

  20. Claudia Tate, “Conversation with Toni Morrison,” Black Women Writers at Work, ed. Claudia Tate (New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1983) 125-26.

  21. Tate 343.

  22. All of Morrison's novels have an extraordinary sense of place, but in Sula the author says she felt place “very strongly, not in terms of the country or the state, but in terms of the details, the feeling, the mood of the community, of the town.” See Stepto 378.

  23. Stepto 379.

  24. Stepto 379.

  25. Stepto 380.

Selected Bibliography


The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. London: Chatto & Windus, 1979.

Sula. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973. London: Allen Lane, 1974.

Song of Solomon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. London: Chatto & Windus, 1978.

Tar Baby. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. London: Chatto & Windus, 1981.

Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. London: Chatto & Windus, 1987.

Jazz. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992.

Literary Criticism

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Edited Volume

Race[ing] Justice, [En]gender[ing] Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. New York: Pantheon, 1992.

Selected Uncollected Essays

“What the Black Woman Thinks About Women's Lib.” New York Times Magazine 22 August 1971: 14ff.

“Behind the Making of the Black Book.” Black World 23 (February 1974): 86-90.

“Rediscovering Black History.” New York Times Magazine 11 August 1974: 14ff.

“A Slow Walk of Trees.” New York Times Magazine 4 July 1976: 104ff

“Memory, Creation, and Writing.” Thought 59 (December 1984): 385-90.

“Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” Black Women Writers (1950-1980). Ed. Marie Evans. New York: Doubleday, 1984. 339-45.

“The Site of Memory.” Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Ed. William Zinsser. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 101-24.

“Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (Winter 1989): 1-34.

“Lecture and Speech of Acceptance, Upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Lecture in Literature. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Selected Interviews

Carabi, Angels. “Toni Morrison.” Belle Lettres (Winter 1994): 38-39; 86-90.

Davis, Christina. “Interview with Toni Morrison.” Presence Africaine (First Quarterly, 1988). Rpt. in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993.

Jones, Bessie W. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” The World of Toni Morrison. Ed. Bessie W. Jones and Audrey L. Vinson. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1985.

LeClair, Thomas. “‘The Language Must Not Sweat’: A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” New Republic 184 (21 March 1981): 25-30.

Lester, Rosemarie K. “An Interview with Toni Morrison, Hessian Radio Network, Frankfurt, West Germany.” Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Ed. Nellie Y. McKay. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988. 47-54.

McKay, Nellie Y. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Contemporary Literature 24 (Winter 1983): 413-29. Rpt. in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993.

Naylor, Gloria, and Toni Morrison. “A Conversation.” Southern Review 21 (1985): 567-93.

Schappell, Elissa, and Claudia Brodsky Lacour. “Toni Morrison: The Art of Fiction.” Paris Review 128 (Fall 1993): 83-125.

Stepto, Robert B. “Intimate Things in Place: A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Massachusetts Review 18 (Autumn 1977): 473-89. Rpt. in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993.

Tate, Claudia. “Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Black Women Writers at Work. Ed. Claudia Tate. New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1983. 117-31.

Selected Critical Books, Collected Articles, and Special Journal Editions

Bjork, Patrick. The Novels of Toni Morrison: The Search for Self and Place within the Community. New York: Lang, 1992. Discusses five novels and examines how cultural and communal values, beliefs, and customs contribute to the protagonists' search for identity and place.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Volume of reviews, interviews, previously published and new critical essays on Morrison's work. Extensive bibliography of critical books and essays.

Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. Examines the folk traditions in Morrison's novels and proposes that Morrison goes beyond the casual use of folklore to a replication of the culture that gives rise to folk traditions. Devotes a chapter to each of Morrison's first five novels.

Heinz, Denise. The Dilemma of “Double-Consciousness”: Toni Morrison's Novels. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993. Describes an ever-enlarging artistic perspective in Morrison's work which expands from the individual, to the family, community, and then to society.

Holloway, Karla F. C. and Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulous. New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1987. A subjective approach to a scholarly reading of Morrison's texts. Each author takes a turn interpreting novels in terms of her academic and cultural background.

Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond. Toni Morrison's Developing Class Consciousness. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1991. Devotes a chapter to each of Morrison's novels, except Jazz. Treats each novel as a solution to some aspect of “oppression afflicting African people” and defines each novel as a reflection of Morrison's growing social consciousness.

McKay, Nellie, ed. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Interviews with Morrison, essays on her fiction, and selected reviews of her first four novels.

Otten, Terry. The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989. Compact and thoughtful examination of Morrison's evolving moral vision.

Samuels, Wilfred D., and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990. Examines Morrison's narrative style and her theme of self-discovery.

Selected Critical Articles

Awkward, Michael. “‘Unruly and Let Loose’: Myth, Ideaology, and Gender in Song of Solomon.Callaloo 13 (Summer 1990): 482-98. Discusses Morrison's revision of African and Western myths in Song of Solomon which is seen to reflect, to an extent, feminist ideology.

———. “‘The Evil of Fulfillment’: Scapegoating and Narration in The Bluest Eye.Inspiriting Influences, Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women's Novels. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. 57-95. Thoughtful discussion of Morrison's placement within the African American literary tradition.

Bakerman, Jane S. “Failures of Love: Female Initiation in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” American Literature 52 (January 1981): 543-63. A problematic reading of female failure in The Bluest Eye,Sula, and Song of Solomon.

Blake, Susan L. “Folklore and Community in Song of Solomon.Melus 7 (1980): 77-82. Sees Milkman's journey in Song of Solomon as not only a discovery of individual and family identity but as an essential discovery of community.

Bryant, Cedric Gael. “The Orderliness of Disorder: Madness and Evil in Toni Morrison's Sula.Black American Literature Forum 24 (Winter 1990): 731-45. Discussion of the balanced tension between unsocialized individuals—those who are crazy, mentally deficient, evil—and the communities that keep them.

Christian, Barbara. “Community and Nature: The Novels of Toni Morrison.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 7 (February 1980): 65-78. Examines Morrison's use of Nature (the land) to define community (place, setting) and character in Sula,The Bluest Eye, and Song of Solomon.

Coleman, Alisha R. “One and One Make One: A Metacritical and Psychoanalytic Reading of Friendship in Toni Morrison's Sula.CLA Journal 37 (December 1993): 145-55.

Coleman, James W. “The Quest for Wholeness in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby.Black American Literature Forum 20 (Spring/Summer 1986): 63-73. General discussion of the quest for identity in Sula,The Bluest Eye,Song of Solomon and Tar Baby.

Cowart, David. “Faulkner and Joyce in Morrison's Song of Solomon.American Literature 62 (March 1990): 87-100. Locates Morrison's accomplishment within a larger literary tradition.

Guerrero, Edward. “Tracking ‘The Look’ in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Winter 1990): 761-73. Explores Morrison's delineation of white male standards of beauty in her first five novels.

Halloway, Karla F. C. “Beloved: A Spiritual.” Callaloo 13 (1990): 516-25. Sees Beloved as a revision of the historical record of black women's experiences. Examines the literary devices Morrison uses to transform one woman's history into cultural myth.

Harris, A. Leslie. “Myth and Structure in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.Melus 7 (Fall 1980): 69-76. Finds myth in Song of Solomon to be a universalizing force which broadens the novel's appeal.

Lee, Dorothy H. “The Quest for Self: Triumph and Failure in the Works of Toni Morrison.” In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Marie Evans; Intro. Stephen E. Henderson. (Garden City, N. Y.: Anchor-Doubleday, 1984): 346-60. Approaches each of Morrison's first four novels as a variation on Morrison's singular concern with the relationship between community and the individual quest for identity; sees the quest as an organizing principle in Morrison's work.

Montgomery, Maxin Lavon. “A Pilgrimage to the Origins: The Apocalypse as Structure and Theme in Toni Morrison's Sula.Black American Literature Forum 23 (Spring 1989): 127-37. Proposes that although catastrophe abounds in Sula, it is not a signal of defeat as it is in the Western apocalyptic vision, but is an opportunity for self-definition and rebirth.

Munro, C. Lynn. “The Tattooed Heart and The Serpentine Eye: Morrison's Choice of an Epigraph for Sula.Black American Literature Forum 18 (Winter 1984): 150-54. Treats Tennessee Williams's play The Rose Tattoo as an analog to Sula.

Paquet, Sandra Pouchet. “The Ancestor as Foundation in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Tar Baby.Callaloo 13 (1990): 499-515. Discusses Hurston's and Morrison's novels as evidence of the authors' belief in the restorative significance of folk myth and knowledge of ancestry.

Powell, Timothy B. “Toni Morrison: The Struggle to Depict the Black Figure on the White Page.” Black American Literature Forum 24 (Winter 1990): 747-60. Working with her first three novels, defines Morrison's success in resurrecting the black self, black culture, the black text which have, since slavery, been systematically repressed.

Reddy, Maureen T. “The Tripled Plot and Center of Sula.Black American Literature Forum 22 (Spring 1988): 29-45. Proposes that Sula has not one but three protagonists: Sula/Nel, Shadrack, and the black community. Each of their stories contribute to a central antiwar theme in the novel.

Rosenburg, Ruth. “Seeds in Hard Ground: Black Girlhood in The Bluest Eye.Black American Literature Forum 21 (Winter 1987): 435-45. General discussion of The Bluest Eye as a long-delayed chronicle of black girlhood.

Schmudde, Carol E. “Knowing When to Stop: A Reading of Toni Morrison' Beloved.CLA Journal 37 (December 1993): 121-35. Discusses the novel's treatment of cultural significance in defining the limits of human suffering.

Smith, Valerie. “The Quest for and Discovery of Identity in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.Southern Review 21 (Summer 1985): 721-32. Examines Song of Solomon as “the only one of Morrison's [first three] novels in which her protagonist completes successfully his/her search for psychological autonomy” (721).

Stein, Karen F. “Toni Morrison's Sula: A Black Woman's Epic.” Black American Literature Forum 18 (Winter 1984): 146-50. Summary reading of Sula as a heroic tale about the black woman's experience.

Story, Ralph. “An Excursion into the Black World: The ‘Seven Days’ in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.Black American Literature Forum 23 (Spring 1989): 149-58. Focuses on the Seven Days organization in Song of Solomon as grounded in contemporary and nineteenth-century black history.

Traylor, Eleanor W. “The Fabulous World of Toni Morrison: Tar Baby.” Confirmation. Creative and very general reading of Tar Baby as a modern fable.

Turner, Darwin T. “Theme, Characterization and Style in the Works of Toni Morrison.” In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Ed. Mari Evans; Intro. Stephen E. Henderson (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor-Doubleday, 1984): 361-69.

Wong, Shelley. “Transgression as Poesis in The Bluest Eye.Callaloo 13 (Summer 1990): 471-81. Traces the technical strategies Morrison uses in The Bluest Eye to deconstruct European American cultural values that are hostile to blackness and examines the textual strategies used to combat that hostility.

Secondary Bibliography

Middleton, David L. Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1987. Two hundred and twenty-three annotations of anthologies, recordings, reviews, interviews, books, and articles on Morrison. Also lists Morrison's awards, honors, and memberships.

Principal Works

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The Bluest Eye (novel) 1970

Sula (novel) 1973

The Black Book [editor] (nonfiction) 1974

Song of Solomon (novel) 1977

Tar Baby (novel) 1981

Dreaming Emmett (play) 1986

Beloved (novel) 1987

Jazz (novel) 1992

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (essays) 1992

Rac-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality [editor and author of introduction] (essays) 1992

*The Dancing Mind (speech) 1997

Paradise (novel) 1998

The Big Box [with Slade Morrison; illustrations by Giselle Potter] (juvenilia) 1999

I See You, I See Myself: The Young Life of Jacob Lawrence [with Deba Foxley Leach, Suzanne Wright, and Deborah J. Leach] (juvenilia) 2001

Book of Mean People [with Slade Morrison; illustrations by Pascal Lemaître] (juvenilia) 2002

Love (novel) 2003

Who's Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper? [with Slade Morrison] (juvenilia) 2003

*This work contains the text of Morrison's 1996 acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Barbara Williams Lewis (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Lewis, Barbara Williams. “The Function of Jazz in Toni Morrison's Jazz.” In Toni Morrison's Fiction: Contemporary Criticism, edited by David L. Middleton, pp. 271-81. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

[In the following essay, Lewis argues that Morrison's Jazz may be categorized as a “jazz novel,” in that the narrative structure of the story is based on stylistic techniques of jazz music.]

It don't mean a thing
If it ain't got that swing.
Doo wop, doo wop, doo wop, doo wah …

—Duke Ellington, 1932

If we look at the beginning and end of Toni Morrison's Jazz, the novel appears to be structurally backwards. The opening paragraph tells the whole story: Joe Trace

… fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church.


So, we know what happens and to whom. But these few lines “ain't got that swing,” and are essentially meaningless until we read the rest of the book. Once we get to the end, however, we are left with the impression that the story is unfinished, will continue, and will repeat itself.

I thought of this as a flaw in Morrison's writings. In an interview conducted by Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work, Morrison says that when she finishes a book she misses “the characters, their company, the sense of possibility in them” (Tate, 131). This statement validated, for me, the suspicion that Toni Morrison, with all her great talent, simply does not know how to bring closure to her narratives.

During my research for an earlier version of this paper, I discovered the term “jazz literature.” Then I realized that Morrison's stylistic approach in Jazz is no accident; it is a very carefully structured technique that she executes supremely well as I will show in this essay. Nor is it the first time she has used it; much of her work, especially Beloved and Sula are jazz novels. Moreover, the jazz text is not even Morrison's invention; I am thinking particularly of Ann Petry's The Street. As Gayl Jones points out:

The writer's attempt to imply or reproduce musical rhythms can take the form of jazz-like flexibility and fluidity in prose rhythms (words, lines, paragraphs, the whole text), such as non-chronological syncopated order, pacing or tempo. A sense of jazz—the jam session—can also emerge from an interplay of voices improvising on the basic themes or motif of the text, in key words or phrases.

(Jones, 200)

Thus, while the unnamed narrator assumes omniscient authority over the text, each of the main characters of Jazz takes a turn telling the story from her/his point of view.

Before I move into my analysis of the text, I think it is important to examine some of the elements of jazz and its presumed origin(s), usage and meanings.

No one is exactly certain how the word jazz originated. Emerging sometime around 1910, the term is usually associated with the folk mores of black men, and therefore its roots have been linked to Africa. Eileen Southern, author of The Music of Black Americans, suggests that jazz may have derived from an itinerant black musician named Jazbo Brown whose appreciative audience chanted, “More, Jazbo! More, Jaz, more!” (Southern, 362).

The development of jazz and the creation of Morrison's Jazz complement each other in terms of historical accuracy. The novel is set in the 1920s, and it was in the 1920s that jazz began to flourish. As blacks migrated from the south to the north prior to and during the '20s they demanded “their kind of music” (Southern, 363)—the kind that reflected their plight. Performers used their songs to express their inner-most feelings as is exemplified in pieces such as “John Henry,” “Down by the Riverside,” and “This Thing Called Love.”

Jazz is a music with a vocabulary of its own: a break is a brief flurry of notes played by the soloist during a pause in the ensemble playing. You will recall that the narrator of Jazz calls them “‘cracks’ … Not openings or breaks, but dark fissures in the globe light of the day” (22). A riff is a short phrase repeated over and over again by the ensemble—the way the story is told about the death of Dorcas. A sideman is any member of the orchestra other than the leader—in this case side woman, the narrator of Jazz.

As Southern points out:

The most salient features of jazz derive directly from the blues. Jazz is a vocally oriented music; its players replace the voice with their instruments, but try to recreate its singing style and blue notes by using sliding, whining, growling, and falsetto effects. Like the blues, jazz emphasizes individualism. The performer is at the same time the composer, shaping the music in style and form. A traditional melody or harmonic framework may serve as the takeoff point for improvisation, but it is the personality of the player and the way he [sic]1 improvises that produces the music … the preexistent core of musical material … is generally short. The length of the jazz piece derives from repetition of the basic material.

(Southern, 363)

This sounds like a summary of Morrison's Jazz. The “core” of the material is short; as I mentioned earlier, it is all on the first page. The length of the novel is derived from “repetition of the basic material.”

Like jazz, Jazz moves back and forth in time. At one moment we are in 1906, then 1926, then back again:

Arriving at the train station in 1906, the smiles they both smiled at the women with little children, strung like beads over suitcases, were touched with pity. They liked children. Loved them even. Especially Joe, who had a way with them. But neither wanted the trouble. Years later, however, when Violet was forty, she was already staring at infants, hesitating in front of toys displaced at Christmas.


This passage is extremely important. It gives us insight into Violet's character. She has, indeed, a bad case of the blues. Though we know that she is physically as strong as John Henry's Polly Ann—she “could handle mules, bale hay and chop wood as good as any man” (105)—she suffers from “mother hunger” as she remembers her last miscarried child. Violet owns a parrot that says “I love you,” sleeps with a doll, tries to steal a baby, and is haunted by the memory of that last child, “a girl probably” (108). But her loss is as deliberate as the melody of a jazz piece. Yet, she is unwilling to accept the blame for her abortion. Instead, she blames the child for not being strong enough to survive the “mammymade poison” of “soap, salt and castor oil” (109). She makes the connection that her daughter and Dorcas would have been the same age, and at this point, Violet replaces “the daughter who fled her womb” with her husband's lover: “bitch or dumpling, the two of them, mother and daughter, could have walked Broadway together” (108).

The language in Jazz represents “the name of the sound, and the sound of the name,” as Morrison quotes on the fly sheet. That is to say, Morrison chooses words that keep the concept of jazz on the forefront. The word slide, for example, is associated with a trombone, indeed, “The Trombone Blues” (21). Joe Trace says, “The quiet money whispers twice: once when I slide it in my pocket; once when I slide it out” (123, my emphasis). And the narrator tells us: “He forgets a sun that used to slide up like the yolk of a good country egg …” (34).2 One can almost hear the slide of a trombone, or the lonesome wail of a saxophone.

The notion of sliding symbolizes the slipperiness of Joe Trace. He slips out of prosecution for the murder of Dorcas because “nobody actually saw him do it” (4). The reader, too, forgives him because he “cried all day … and that was as bad as jail” (4). Also, Dorcas' death is not entirely Joe's fault; he shoots her in the shoulder, but Dorcas chooses to bleed to death, as shall be discussed in detail later.

Joe has no ties, except for Violet whom he treats “like a piece of furniture” (123). He admits to changing “into new seven times” before he meets Dorcas. He does not leave us wondering what those changes are, and we experience a break in Jazz as I defined it earlier: Joe names himself after his parents abandon him. The second change occurs when Joe is taught how to hunt and “trained to be a man” (125). He marries Violet in 1893, the third change. In 1906 he and Violet travel to Rome, where they board a train to the City and find menial labor. The move from West Fifty-third to uptown constitutes the fifth change, the one Joe thinks is his “permanent self” (127). But Joe changes again when, during the riots of 1917, he is rescued by a white man. Then, two years later, he changes for the seventh time when he “danced in the street” as the colored troops of the 369th Regiment marched proudly through the streets of New York.3

I mention these changes—these variations in the character of Joe Trace, because they illustrate the concept of jazz in Jazz. Joe continues to change, especially in the epiphany we witness here:

I dismissed the evil in my thoughts because I wasn't sure that the sooty music the blind twins were playing wasn't the cause. It can do that to you, a certain kind of guitar playing. Not like the clarinets, but close. If that song had been coming through a clarinet, I'd have known right away. But the guitars—they confused me, made me doubt myself, and I lost the trail. Went home and didn't pick it up again until the next day when Malvonne looked at me and covered her mouth with her hand. Couldn't cover her eyes, though; the laugh came flying out of there.


The clarinet has a single reed; its notes are easier to follow. But the guitar, with its variable ranges, has six strings that can be played simultaneously. The melody (Dorcas) is difficult to trace.

The guitar has a special value in the text of Jazz. In the 1920s the guitar emerged as leader of the jazz ensemble. Southern writes:

… they worked out special devices—drawing the blade of a knife across the strings of the guitar as they played …—to produce whining tones reminiscent of the human voice, so that their instrument could “talk”. …

(Southern, 371)

Joe Trace is the leader of the ensemble; all action is centered around his relationship with Dorcas. Joe realizes that, like the guitar, he has been played. Here, too, the music takes on a character of its own. Joe calls it “the sooty music” that “confused” him. Earlier, the narrator alludes to the diabolic nature of jazz from Alice Manfred's point of view: “… she was no match for a City seeping music that begged and challenged each and every day. ‘Come,’ it said. ‘Come and do wrong’” (67).

The idea of drawing a blade across the strings of a guitar symbolizes not only dislocation and severed ties, but also the overall image of violence in the City: “Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half” (7); “Black women were armed; black women were dangerous and the less money they had the deadlier the weapon they chose” (77); and, of course, Violet wields a blade as she approaches Dorcas' coffin.

So, Jazz thematically represents a contrast of good and evil. Everything everybody does in this book can be excused, in effect, because it is the music that makes them do it. The music—that “lowdown music,” that manifests itself in “(s)ongs that used to start in the head” and then dropped on down, “down to places below the sash and the buckled belts” (56); that “nasty” music that somehow connects itself to the “silent black women and men” (57), anger, riots, and violence; the “something evil” that “ran the streets and nothing was safe—not even the dead” (9).

Like Sula Peace in Morrison's Sula, the community needs a scapegoat, someone or something upon which to unload their burden of guilt. Music serves this purpose.

Even in making that comparison we can see another element of jazz: repetition. As I mentioned earlier, there are intratextual repetitions in Jazz. There are also intertextual repetitions, as well. In Sula, Shadrack proclaims a “National Suicide Day” (Sula, 41), January 3, 1941. In Jazz, Violet's mother commits suicide by throwing herself down a well. Violet, herself, tries to cut the face of the dead Dorcas on January 3, 1926 (9). When Dorcas chooses to die from a gunshot wound in her shoulder, she repeats the suicide of Violet's mother.

Sula Peace watches her mother, Hannah, burn to death because she is “interested.” Dorcas, whose mother dies in a house fire, “must have seen the flames, must have, because the whole street was screaming” (57). Each girl remains silent as her mother dies. And the end of each novel is open, without a final chord.

I can remember a time in my childhood when my mother and I listened to “Sepia Serenade,” a radio show intended for black audiences. Songs like “Work with Me Annie” and its sequel, “Annie Had a Baby, Can't Work No Mo'” permeated the walls of our little house. Then my mother “got religion,” as we say, and the “devil's music” was no longer allowed in our home.

But music is not the only role that jazz plays in Jazz. The Dictionary of Word Origins explains that jazz:

… originated in a West African language, was for a long time a Black slang term in America for ‘strenuous activity,’ particularly ‘sexual intercourse’. …


In fact, the word jazz—(nouns, verbs and adjectives)—can mean a number of things: business, affairs, nonsense, bureaucratic red tape, sex, etc., and especially gossip or signifying, which is precisely what our narrator does. She tells the story, with a difference, because surely she was not present at the actual crime. And it is she who admits near the end that she doesn't know exactly what happened. In other words, she presents herself as an authority on the lives of Violet, Joe, Dorcas and Felice when she says, “Sth, I know that woman … Know her husband, too” (3), and then “changes her tune,” so to speak, when she realizes that she has been watched as much as she did the watching:

I thought I knew them and wasn't worried that they didn't really know me … they knew me all along … they watched me … and when I was feeling most invisible, being tight-lipped, silent and unobservable, they were whispering about me to each other …

So I missed it altogether. I was sure one would kill the other. I waited for it so I could describe it … the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack and no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle. … they danced and walked all over me. Busy they were, busy being original, complicated, changeable—human. …


What does this mean? Well, if we go back to page six of the text, the narrator introduces (but does not name) Felice: “another girl with four marcelled waves … that's how that scandalizing threesome on Lennox Avenue began. What turned out different was who shot whom” (emphasis mine). She predicts another murder, another climax to the story. The reader anticipates this action as the story unfolds, but it never happens. No one else gets shot. Or, rather, I should say, no one except the narrator who gets “shot down” in her prophesy. She, too, experiences an epiphany. Her own imagination has betrayed her: “It never occurred to me that they were thinking other thoughts, feeling other feelings, putting their lives together in ways I never dreamed of” (221). With that thought she realizes that she has not even known herself.

I am aware that critics have tried to “de-genderize” the narrator, and that my reference to her as female is unpopular. Interestingly, John Leonard, in his article, “Her Soul's High Song,” suggests that the narrative voice is “the book itself” (718). This argument has some merit when we consider the last lines of the book: “Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it … because look, look. Look where your hands are now” (229). But it brings up the question, can a book write itself? I think it is safer to say that the narrator tries to write her own story and discovers that she is the open book we are reading. I see her as a character similar to Mrs. Hedges in The Street. Or, perhaps she solicits the reader's participation in the “remake” of this Jazz. Whatever the explanation, everybody knows somebody who knows everybody's business except her own.4 The fact that she has no name is another example of Morrison's brilliance; anonymity is a key element of gossip. (You did not hear it from me.)

In an article entitled “Riffs on Violence,” Paul Gray discusses what he terms “the unsolved mystery” of Jazz. Gray argues that the novel “never answers the question of ‘why’?” I disagree. I think that Joe, Dorcas and the narrator form an ensemble that tells us exactly why Joe shoots Dorcas and why she chooses to die, although the psyche behind the why is far beyond the realms of my psychoanalytic expertise.

Joe brings gifts to his lover. At each meeting he gives her money, or candy, or cologne. He is devoted to her just as she is: “He didn't care what I looked like. I could be anything, do anything—and it pleased him” (190). But Dorcas is not happy with that. She needs a challenge, like Acton. She wants someone who wants to change her; she wants a man everybody else wants. She tells Joe that he makes her sick, and threatens, “You bring me another bottle of cologne I'll drink it and die you don't leave me alone” (189). Dorcas would rather be dead than stay with Joe. She knows he is coming for her; he's been searching for five days. She begins to “see him everywhere” (190). He will never let her go.

Thanks to Malvonne's laughter, Joe knows about Acton, one of the “wise, young roosters” who don't have to do anything except “wait for chicks to pass by and find them” (132). He equates Dorcas with Eve: “you were the reason Adam ate the apple and its core” (133). She is the forbidden fruit he wants to “bite … chew up … and … carry around for the rest of my life” (134). He experiences a kind of love he has never known before: “I didn't fall in love, I rose in it” (135). She has given him life, meaning. Like the phoenix, he is renewed.

When Malvonne laughs, she laughs at Joe, a laugh which says, in essence, there's no fool like an old fool. Joe is humiliated, stripped of his manly pride. He can take anything from Dorcas as long as he is allowed to sustain the illusion that he possesses her, and as long as her abuse is private. When she takes that away from him, he tracks her down and shoots—“Frankie and Johnny” in reverse.

When Violet tries to cut the dead girl's face, she wants to strip Dorcas of identity, to sever her ties with Joe, to “de-face” her, in other words. With Dorcas, Violet does not have to face the possibility that something is “wrong” with her. Her failure in that attempt forces her to come to terms with the desire Joe has for the girl. She then chooses to fuse herself with Dorcas, to “re-make” herself in an effort to recapture Joe's love. She learns how to dance like the girl, wear make-up like Dorcas, listen to the same kind of music. She conducts quite an extensive investigation into the life of Dorcas and even places on her mantle a picture of the girl “alive at least and very bold” (6), so that she and Joe could look at it “in bewilderment” (6).

Joe jazzes Dorcas. In so doing, he jazzes over Violet. Joe sells cosmetics; Violet fixes hair. They are both in the business of making women look jazzy.

So, Morrison's choice of title is not based solely on the theme of music in the lives of her characters. It is a manifestation of the conditions of life among migratory Negroes, their family love, romantic love and desire. It is an ongoing development of her writing style that bears the absence of a final chord and leaves the reader wanting something more. And it is, indeed, a mastery of technique used to give voices to women, and ears to all who would hear.


  1. If this is done by six influential people usage will begin to change quickly. Most of the great jazz vocalists have been women, and many fine instrumentalists, too.

  2. The egg is also connected with the fertility that has been separated from the child-bearing by abortion.

  3. For more information see Franklin and Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom, (New York: Knopf, 1988), pp. 297-318.

  4. Consider what Job tells Jason in The Sound and the Fury: “You fools a man whut so smart he cant even keep up wid hisself” (pp. 311-12).

Works Cited

Ayto, John. The Dictionary of Word Origins. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 1947, 1981.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Faulkner, William. [1929 and 1956] The Sound and the Fury. New York: The Modern Library. 1992.

Gray, Paul. “Riffs on Violence.” Time, April 27, 1992, 69.

Jones, Gayl. Liberating Voices, Oral Tradition in African-American Literature. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Leonard, John. “Her Soul's High Song.” The Nation, May 25, 1992, 706-18.

Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Plume, 1973.

———. Jazz. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Petry, Ann. The Street. Boston: Beacon Press, 1946.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1983.

Tate, Claudia. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum Publishing Corporation, 1983.

Further Reading

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Middleton, David L. Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1987, 186 p.

Includes considerable criticism on Morrison's first four novels, as well as other writings, interviews, and anthologies.

Mix, Debbie. “Toni Morrison: A Selected Bibliography.” Modern Fiction Studies 39, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1993): 795-818.

Bibliography covering selected criticism on Morrison's novels.


Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. “Gendering the Genderless: The Case of Toni Morrison's Beloved.Obsidian II 8, no. 1 (spring-summer 1993): 1-17.

Examines the blurring of conventional notions of gender in Beloved.

Bell, Bernard W. “Beloved: A Womanist Neo-Slave Narrative; or Multivocal Remembrances of Things Past.” In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison's “Beloved,” edited by Barbara H. Solomon, pp. 166-76. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1998.

Examination of Beloved as a black feminist text that gives voice to those silenced by slavery.

Bidney, Martin. “Creating a Feminist-Communitarian Romanticism in Beloved: Toni Morrison's New Uses for Blake, Keats, and Wordsworth.” Papers on Language & Literature 36, no. 3 (summer 2000): 271-301.

Contends that critics generally ignore Morrison's regeneration of the work of the major British romantic poets in Beloved.

Cormier-Hamilton, Patrice. “Black Naturalism and Toni Morrison: The Journey Away from Self-Love in The Bluest Eye.MELUS 19, no. 4 (winter 1994): 109-27.

Provides discussion of the idea of self-love, and Pecola's struggles against loving herself and her race.

Dickerson, Vanessa D. “Summoning SomeBody: The Flesh Made Word in Toni Morrison's Fiction.” In Recovering the Black Female Body: Self-Representations by African American Women, edited by Michael Bennett and Vanessa D. Dickerson, pp. 195-216. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Analysis of how Morrison's characters recover and repossess the black female body.

Duvall, John N. “Descent in the ‘House of Chloe’: Race, Rape, and Identity in Tar Baby.” In The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison, pp. 99-117. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Discusses the importance of Morrison's fourth novel, the critically neglected Tar Baby, and its intertextual references to the Book of Genesis.

Eckard, Paula Gallant. “Toni Morrison.” In Maternal Body and Voice in Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith, pp. 33-37. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002.

Explores how Morrison combines myth and reality in her treatment of maternal experience in The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved.

Galehouse, Maggie. “‘New World Woman’: Toni Morrison's Sula.Papers on Language & Literature 35, no. 4 (fall 1999): 339-62.

Explores the independent nature of Sula's title character and raises questions about her accessibility to the reader.

Gillespie, Diane and Missy Dehn Kubitschek. “Who Cares? Women-Centered Psychology in Sula.” In Toni Morrison's Fiction: Contemporary Criticism, edited by David L. Middleton, pp. 61-91. New York: Garland, 1997.

Praises Morrison's representation of female psychological development in Sula.

Iyasere, Solomon O. and Marla W. Iyasere, eds. Understanding Toni Morrison's “Beloved” and “Sula”: Selected Essays and Criticisms of the Works by the Nobel Prize-winning Author. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Pub. Co., 2000, 381 p.

Thorough examination of Morrison's works, including a lengthy bibliographic resource.

Langer, Adam. “Star Power.” Book (November/December 2003): 40-6.

Provides an overview of Morrison's life and career and discusses her novel Love.

McDowell, Deborah E. “‘The Self and the Other’: Reading Toni Morrison's Sula and the Black Female Text.” In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay, pp. 77-90. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988.

Maintains that in Sula, Morrison creates a different kind of identity for the black female in America.

McKay, Nellie. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Contemporary Literature 24, no. 4 (winter 1983): 413-29.

McKay talks with Morrison about black women's writing and her first four novels.

Mitchell, Angelyn. “‘Sth, I Know That Woman’: History, Gender, and the South in Toni Morrison's Jazz.Studies in the Literary Imagination 31, no. 2 (fall 1998): 49-60.

Asserts that in Jazz, Morrison fuses her primary concerns: the lives of black women and the historical circumstances of life in the South.

Peach, Linden. “The 1990s: Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1998).” In Toni Morrison, pp. 126-71. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Provides discussion of the themes, motifs, and structure, as well as the cultural and historical context, of Jazz and Paradise.

Peterson, Nancy J. “Toni Morrison Double Issue.” Modern Fiction Studies 39, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1993): 461-794.

A special double issue containing essays by a variety of critics on Morrison's novels and her place in the literary canon.

Rigney, Barbara Hill. The Voices of Toni Morrison. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991, 127 p.

Examination of Morrison's position within the discourses of both race and gender.

Storhoff, Gary. “‘Anaconda Love’: Parental Enmeshment in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.Style 31, no. 2 (summer 1997): 290-309.

An examination of the dysfunctional families—both matriarchal and patriarchal—that populate Song of Solomon.

Taylor-Guthrie, Danille, ed. Conversations with Toni Morrison, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994, 293 p.

Collection of interviews and conversations between Morrison and various authors and critics including Alice Childress, Robert Stepto, Gloria Naylor, and Bill Moyers.

Trace, Jacqueline. “Dark Goddesses: Black Feminist Theology in Morrison's Beloved.Obsidian II 6, no. 3 (winter 1991): 14-30.

Discussion of specific qualities of black feminism and theology in Beloved treating Morrison's use of goddess mythology and its contribution to a new theology for African-American women.

Wagner, Linda W. “Toni Morrison: Mastery of Narrative.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick, pp. 191-204. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.

Critical assessment of the narrative techniques employed by Morrison in her first four novels.

Willis, Susan. “Eruptions of Funk: Historicising Toni Morrison.” In Reading the Past: Literature and History, edited by Tamsin Spargo, pp. 44-55. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Originally published in 1987, Willis's essay argues that Morrison's novels explore the question of how to maintain an African-American cultural identity in contemporary society.

Additional coverage of Morrison's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 22; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 3; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 42, 67, 113, 124; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 10, 22, 55, 81, 87, 173; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 33, 143; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied, Multicultural, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Feminist Writers; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 2, 4; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 6, 8, 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vol. 57, 144; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 5; Twayne's United States Authors; and Twentieth Century Romance and Historical Writers.

Gurleen Grewal (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Grewal, Gurleen. “Prospero's Spell and the Question of Resistance: Tar Baby.” In Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison, pp. 79-95. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Grewal asserts that Morrison's Tar Baby examines African-American struggles over issues of identity in a postmodern, postcolonial world.]

And neither world thought the other world's thought, save with a vague unrest.

—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Ninety-five per cent of my people poor
ninety-five per cent of my people black
ninety-five per cent of my people dead
you have heard it all before O Leviticus O Jeremiah
          O Jean-Paul Sartre
and now I see that these modern palaces have grown
out of the soil, out of the bad habits of their crippled owners
the Chrysler stirs but does not produce cotton
the Jupiter purrs but does not produce bread
out of the living stone, out of the living bone
of coral, these dead
towers; out of the coney
islands of our mind-
less architects, this death
of sons, of songs, of sunshine;
out of this dearth of coo ru coos, home-
less pigeons, this perturbation that does not signal health.

—Edward Brathwaite, “Caliban”

Juxtaposing the provincial with the metropolitan and charting various geographies of class, Tar Baby depicts the struggle over cultural definitions and identifications in a postmodern world. In Tar Baby, Morrison allows the reader to see the African American crisis of identity and alignment in colonial and postcolonial terms. Located between the two metropolitan capitals of New York and Paris in the French Caribbean, controlled by American and French capital and built by Haitian labor, the small island of Isle de Chevaliers serves as the setting for the characters' diasporic departures and arrivals. “The tale of the diaspora,” according to Michael Hanchard, “holds a subversive resonance when contrasted with that of the nation-state. … It suggests a transnational dimension to black identity, for if the notion of an African diaspora is anything it is a human necklace strung together by a thread known as the slave trade.”1 Though Morrison activates this subversive dimension of the setting, it is important to note that Tar Baby is not so much about the Caribbean as it is about the contemporary dilemmas of African Americans. It is about Jadine Childs and Son Green's relations with each other, their positioning vis-à-vis Eloe, Florida, and New York City—the black South and black North—and their relations with the dominant culture and its institutions. African Americans must negotiate a place for themselves within a dominant culture; how they situate themselves with respect to their own history and culture is a pervasive theme of Morrison's novels. White American Valerian Street's mansion—the master's house—becomes symbolic of the dominant socioeconomic and commodifying cultural space from which the black characters seek routes of escape. The novel, however, does not offer any viable routes; what it does offer is a troubled critique.

It is worth noting here that Tar Baby re-examines conflicts that have surfaced forcefully in the three previous novels. One can better appreciate what Morrison is attempting to do in this novel's contemporary setting if one recalls the first novel, The Bluest Eye, in which class hierarchies fissure race solidarity and weaken cultural identity. Just as The Bluest Eye draws black characters of both genders from disparate classes (and shades) and situates them in one master narrative, a diverse class of black characters are brought together under the master's house in Tar Baby's French Caribbean. The strategy of both novels is to unify the characters in their conflicting allegiances by grounding them in a dominant text. The Bluest Eye does so metaphorically by employing the Dick-and-Jane text; Tar Baby does so by situating the black characters in the white master's house. Pecola Breedlove's failure to achieve selfhood in 1941 gives way four decades later to Jadine's apparent success; however, on deeper analysis, the two women are merely different sides of the same coin. Pecola is convinced she is ugly because evidence is everywhere; on billboards, in the eyes of black and white adults, within the home and outside it. Jadine has no doubt she is beautiful because the evidence lies in the cover of Elle flaunting her face. But Jadine is no more self-defined than Pecola. As a fashion model she has subscribed to an aesthetics of commodification; as a student of art history, she has become properly Eurocentric. She tells Valerian, “Picasso is better than an Itumba mask. The fact that he was intrigued by them is proof of his genius, not the mask-maker's” (74). Here Jadine Childs is the native in whom the hegemonic project of colonization is complete.

The novel invests little sympathy for Jadine's predicament. In Song of Solomon, middle-class Milkman Dead's salvation lies in returning to his origins and integrating a subaltern consciousness; but Jadine, his female counterpart in Tar Baby, has no means of getting back to her origins—this culturally orphaned, Sorbonne-educated model has no moorings in the ancestral traditions of resistance and no cultural guides to pilot her consciousness. As a woman, Jadine has less incentive than a character like Milkman Dead to go back to her roots—what she finds are pie women and fertility women. The sought-after “ancient properties” come to have a disturbingly essentialist female character, their signifiers being Thérèse's milk-giving breasts and the African woman's proudly held eggs. Recall Sula's poignant reply to Eva's command that she get married and have babies: “I don't want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.” In Tar Baby, the upwardly mobile Jadine is damned for the same impulse. Sula's desire to make herself receives authorial sympathy while Jadine's individualism appears contemptible. The difference between Sula and Jadine is that the latter is a postintegration, postmodern character carrying the privileges of assimilation along with its bourgeois ills. For all her iconoclasm, Sula is not rebelling against her blackness but protesting the oppression of black women within the culture. Educated and privileged, Jadine both dissociates herself from her blackness and commodifies it in the fashion worlds of New York and Paris. Tar Baby grounds Jadine's apostasy in a historical trajectory of colonization and class mobility by assimilation. Characters like Jadine earn the animus of their creator because they have power to affect, for better or worse, the lives of others—especially those others of the collectivity with whom they deny affiliation—but in them, the historical narrative of black liberation seems to founder in the capitalist ethic of individualism.

Morrison's comments during a 1981 interview are illuminating: “This civilization of black people, which was underneath the white civilization, was there with its own everything. Everything of that civilization was not worth hanging on to, but some of it was, and nothing has taken its place while it is being dismantled. There is a new, capitalistic, modern American black which is what everybody thought was the ultimate in integration. To produce Jadine, that's what it was for. I think there is some danger in the result of that production. It cannot replace certain essentials from the past.”2 Morrison provides more sympathy for Son, the peasant or briar-patch rabbit who gets caught in between two worlds. Enamored by Jadine, he cannot be part of her world, but neither can he remain in his; we leave him practically marooned on the island. The novel attempts to invest Son's cultural dislocation with meaning from the mythic past, with the emancipatory meaning of the word maroon. (The OED gives as its first definition, “one of a class of negros, originally fugitive slaves, living in the mountains and forests of Dutch Guiana and the West Indies.”) At the same time, Morrison also exposes via Jadine the sexism of a subaltern black man such as Son. These competing claims of racial, class, and gender identity make Tar Baby a troubled and troubling novel, even as its explosive text of race relations ensured its author the cover of Newsweek.

The reason for this commercial success appears to be its provocative Manichean theme. Jean Strouse wrote in that Newsweek cover story: “In the new novel, Tar Baby, Morrison takes on a much larger world than she has before, drawing a composite picture of America in black and white.” Nellie McKay accounts for the greater popularity of Song of Solomon and Tar Baby by suggesting that these novels “are considerably less confusing, threatening, or intimidating for white readers than the earlier books.” She also explains that “their ‘black texts’ were often unrecognized.”3 Indeed, if Tar Baby's black text was recognized, the romantic affair/battle of wits between a jet-setting fashion model and a Rastafarian-looking black man would be much more perturbing; the banter-filled dialogue between the white master and his black butler would cease to be an entertaining spectacle. Linking several narratives of bondage and insurgency—the tar baby folk tale, the maroon story of slave insurrection, and Shakespeare's TempestTar Baby stages a contemporary parable of alienation and resistance to economic and cultural imperialism.

Bringing Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American characters together under the master's roof, the novel activates the oppressive history that brought them there by recreating the dramatic conflicts of The Tempest. Parallels between Shakespeare's island ruled by Prospero and the Caribbean islands colonized by West European powers are readily apparent. The Tempest has been read and performed as the prototype of a colonialist narrative; Sylvan Barnet cited as an example of this interpretation Jonathan Miller's 1970 production of the play in London, in which Caliban appears as a black, uneducated field hand, Ariel as a black house slave, and Prospero as the exploiting slave owner. In The Pleasures of Exile, West Indian writer George Lamming explored these Tempest relationships: “If Prospero could be seen as the symbol of the European imperial enterprise, then Caliban should be embraced as the continuing possibility of a profound revolutionary change initiated by Touissant L'Ouverture in the Haitian war of independence.”4 Morrison's imaginary island off Dominique is named Isle de Chevaliers after the island's founding revolutionaries, the African slaves who slipped their French yoke three hundred years before. Representing different class interests, the various characters in Tar Baby play out the tensions between Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban and the attendant themes of power, betrayal, and resistance. In a complication of the Tempest plot, Morrison has Son (Caliban) fall in love with the Sorbonne-educated, mulatta Jadine, who in her role as Miranda is more Valerian's daughter than her foster-father/uncle Sydney's.

In the Caribbean, Valerian Street, the white American industrialist known as “the Candy King,” lives the life of an exile as does Shakespeare's magician Prospero; like the latter's, Valerian's control over his domain seems absolute. He buys the island for himself as a refuge in his retirement from the candy business; “over the years he sold off parts of it,” inaugurating the erosion of life on the island.5 The economic exploitation of the island's resources and its people, the social and cultural displacement of the local folk, is articulated allegorically by the disastrous changes in the natural landscape, the flora and fauna and seasons:

The men had already folded the earth where there had been no fold and hollowed her where there had been no hollow, which explains what happened to the river. It crested, then lost its course, and finally its head. Evicted from the place where it had lived, and forced into unknown turf, it could not form its pools and waterfalls, and ran every which way. The clouds gathered together, stood still and watched the river scuttle around the forest floor, crash headlong into the haunches of hills with no notion of where it was going, until exhausted, ill and grieving, it slowed to a stop just twenty leagues short of the sea.

The clouds looked at each other, then broke apart in confusion. Fish heard their hooves as they raced off to carry the news of the scatterbrained river to the peaks of hills and the tops of the champion daisy trees. But it was too late.


Critics have expressed their dislike of the personification of nature: John Irving finds it excessive, Pearl K. Buck resents the “incessant anthropomorphizing of nature,” and according to Richard Falk, the use of pathetic fallacy burdens the prose. However, this personification is meaningful if we see it as an extension of the Caliban theme. As George Lamming notes, “Caliban himself like the island he inherited is at once a landscape and a human situation.” Along with the erosion of land—and of a people's relation to it—occurs the erosion of a world view, a way of inhabiting the universe. The stripping of the rain forest begun by the prosperous Valerian invokes Prospero's speech in which he recounts the deeds of the “rough magic” by which he dominated the “elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves” of the isle:

… I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azure vault
Set roaring war …
… the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar. …

In Tar Baby, ecological damage is the visible counterpart of cultural displacement, both long-term effects of colonization. The landscape ravaged by the dictates of capitalism becomes a metaphor of cultural rootlessness in a novel whose characters are displaced or in exile of one kind or another: Valerian and his wife Margaret, their son Michael, the servants Sydney and Ondine, Jadine and Son—all are unsettled beings. In Tar Baby, the landscape's own story of colonization and subjection establishes a moral and political ground from which to assess the actions of the characters on the island. One thinks of Edward Brathwaite's poems, which make a similar moral appeal. In the poem “Hex” in Mother Poem, a collection about the poet's homeland in Barbados, Brathwaite personifies Barbados as “black sycorax my mother” with “a white trail of salt … upon her cheek,” for “all have dealt treacherously with her”: “all the peaks, the promontories, the coves, the glitter / bays of her body have been turned into money / the grass ploughed up and fed into mortar of houses / for master for mister for massa for mortal baas.”6

On top of a hill, on this land of the diminished rain forest, sits the symbol of metropolitan control: Valerian's mansion, L'Arbe de la Croix. In this natural paradise, his greenhouse is “a place of controlled ever-flowering life to greet death in” (53). Instead of the natural exuberant life of the tropics, Valerian as demigod imposes his own airless greenhouse with the characteristic disregard of the colonizer for existing rhythms and patterns of life in the colony. The cross (Croix) is an appropriate symbol of colonial intrusion into the garden (Arbe), since natives' conversion to Christianity marked the colonial variant of the postlapsarian divided self.

Like Caliban's isle in Shakespeare, the Isle de Chevaliers is full of sounds and presences, not all of which are restful. Roaming the island in freedom are the ancient slaves: black, blind, and riding naked on horseback, their mythic presence haunts the island and supplements the range of black subjects and histories assembled. Though eclipsed, black oppositional sentiment is projected and preserved in this mythic presence. The American Valerian abides by the colonial French version of the island's legend/history: “one hundred French chevaliers were roaming the hills on horses. Their swords were in their scabbards and their epaulets glittered in the sun. Backs straight, shoulders high—alert but restful in the security of the Napoleonic Code.” For Son, on the other hand, “one hundred black men on one hundred unshod horses rode blind and naked through the hills and had done so for hundreds of years. They knew the rain forest when it was a rain forest, they knew where the river began, where the roots twisted above the ground” (206). Frantz Fanon's words come to mind: “Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature.”7 The novel traces the contentions among the various characters, indexed in the novel's epigraph (“For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren … that there are contentions among you”), to their colonial origins.

Prospero rules over his servants, Ariel and Caliban, by creating in classic colonial style hierarchies of class—airy Ariel being superior to earthy, menial Caliban. The role of Ariel, who answers to Prospero's every beck and call, is shared by Sydney, the butler, and his wife Ondine, the cook. Like Ariel to Prospero, they have bonded themselves to Valerian, following him from Baltimore to Philadelphia to the Caribbean. The underclass is situated outside the house in the yard; they are the local blacks, Gideon and Thérèse, whose names are not considered worth knowing by their American superiors. Sydney and Ondine hail them by the generic names Yardman and Mary. They share the status of Caliban with the native son of the American South, Son (William Green), who is “among that great underclass of undocumented men,” the “Huck Finns,” “Nigger Jims,” and “Calibans” (166). Sydney and Ondine disown any sense of connection with Son, who “wasn't a Negro—meaning one of them” (102). The haglike figure of Thérèse resembles Caliban's mother Sycorax, who, while physically absent in The Tempest, is marked as Prospero's adversary. This Sycorax figure comes to life in Thérèse when, in the last scene of Tar Baby, she has Caliban/Son choose between Jadine and the resisting slave ancestors. Just as the Tempest ends with Miranda's departure, leaving Caliban to regain the island for himself, Tar Baby ends with Jadine's departure, leaving Son roaming the island and the reader figuring the meaning of his predicament.

As important as The Tempest to the novel's signifying system is the recurrent motif of the tar baby taken from black folklore. There are many variations of the tar baby story, only the basic outline of which is relevant to the novel: resourceful Brer Rabbit of the briar patch has a trap set for him by Brer Fox; the trap is an attractive figure of tar to which Brer Rabbit is meant to become stuck. In the folk tale, the fascinated Brer Rabbit does become entangled in the tar; the more he struggles the more he is stuck; he only escapes to his briar patch by wile. Son and Jadine are implicated in double roles as both snarer and ensnared. Although the narrative perspective shifts from Son as Brer Rabbit-Jadine as entrapper to Jadine as Brer Rabbit-Son as entrapper, the narrative viewpoint is less sympathetic to Jadine's entrapment. While Son has affiliations with the mythic swamp horsemen, Jadine refuses to affiliate herself with the swamp women, either the mythic beings of the island or real ones like Thérèse and Alma Estée working in Valerian's backyard and Son's relatives in Florida.

Son is himself a tar baby whose blackness confronts Jadine. We witness Son enter the sleeping Jadine's bedroom in an attempt “to breathe into her the smell of tar and its shining consistency before he crept away” (120). On her way home from a picnic trip, Jadine gets stuck in the swamp while Son is away getting gasoline for the jeep. Walking towards the mossy floor beneath the shade of trees, Jadine, sketch pad in hand, “sank up to her knees”: “She dropped the pad and charcoal and grabbed the waist of a tree. … She struggled to lift her feet and sank an inch or two farther down into the moss-covered jelly. The pad with Son's face badly sketched looked up at her and the women hanging in the trees looked down at her. … The women looked down from the rafters of the trees and stopped murmuring. They were delighted when they first saw her, thinking a runaway child was restored to them. But upon looking closer they saw differently. This girl was fighting to get away from them” (182-83). Son's sketched image looking up from the swamp identifies him as the tar baby—Sydney identified Son, a native of Florida, as a “stinking, ignorant swampnigger” (100). Finding herself in the predicament of Brer Rabbit, Jadine struggles with tar, her blackness. This scene builds upon two earlier scenes in which we find her struggling with her racial identity. Structurally, the scene recalls when Jadine, preening in a fur coat sent her by a Parisian admirer, sees Son's black face confronting her in her bedroom mirror and “struggle[s] to pull herself from his image” (114). More thematically, it recalls Jadine's uncomfortable yet wistful encounter with an African woman, a stranger in a Parisian supermarket; the arrogance and “unphotographable beauty” of “that mother/sister/she” clearly impresses Jadine, who carries her own blackness with ambivalence (46). Suddenly it is important for Jadine to be approved by this tar woman; however, on her way out the African woman spits in Jadine's direction, leaving her derailed. Jadine's fall in the swamp prefigures her trip with Son to Florida, where she feels smothered by the women of Eloe. While Son is able to identify himself with the maleness represented by the horsemen, Jadine cannot identify with the swamp women, the female counterparts of the resisting ancestors.

Here Tar Baby revisits from another direction the conflict of nationalism and feminism raised in Sula. In Sula, the community was reproved for failing to appreciate a feminist position; in Tar Baby, Jadine is reproved for repudiating the counternationalist project of cultural resistance. Instead of sympathizing with Jadine's refusal of oppressive gender roles (as she perceives them among the women of Eloe), the novel valorizes the strength, the “exceptional femaleness” of peasant women's cultural traditions. Swamp and tar become metaphors for this strength: “The women hanging from the trees were … arrogant—mindful as they were of their value, their exceptional femaleness; knowing as they did that the first world of the world was built with their sacred properties; that they alone could hold together the stones of pyramids and the rushes of Moses's crib” (183). These women with “ancient properties,” and those the novel is dedicated to, held the community together like tar and did not consider themselves weak. To Jadine, swamp and tar have properties that impede. She does not want “to settle for wifely competence when she could be almighty, to settle for fertility rather than originality, nurturing instead of building” (269). However, the novel levels this feminist point of view with Son's: “She kept barking at him about equality, sexual equality, as though he thought women were inferior. He couldn't understand that” (268). Using Son's point of view, Morrison informs the reader about the history of black women's struggle, one that the politics of liberal feminism does not engage: “[His ex-wife] Cheyenne was driving a beat-up old truck at age nine, four years before he could even shift gears, and she could drop a pheasant like an Indian. His mother's memory was kept alive by those who remembered how she roped horses when she was a girl. His grandmother built a whole cowshed with only Rosa to help. In fact the room Jadine has slept in, Rosa built herself which was why it didn't have any windows. Anybody who thought women were inferior didn't come out of north Florida” (268). These rural black women have no need for the gains of a liberal feminism, whose ideal of equality Jadine defends. The struggles of these black women have to do with poverty and physical hardship, a history Jadine cannot comprehend. In representing the chasms of class, Morrison questions Jadine's achievement of emancipation from the perspective of the women she defines herself against, for “underneath her efficiency and know-it-all sass” are delicate wind chimes: “Nine rectangles of crystal, rainbowed in the light. Fragile pieces of glass tinkling as long as the breeze was gentle” (220); her room appears “uncomfortable-looking” and fragile, “like a dollhouse for an absent doll” (131). What she is liberated from is responsibility to her aged aunt and uncle, her culture, her history, all of which is burdensome and restrictive to her. Jadine, who is happy “making it” in the city, urges Son, who is not “able to get excited about money,” to “get able,” “get excited” (171).

If Son is a tar-baby trap for Jadine, he is also Brer Rabbit, a black man who is caught in the white farmer/master's tar baby. Though Son's support for his own people has not been weakened by a hegemonic education, which he has resisted, he does succumb to Jadine's way of seeing things. However, Son also receives his share of authorial criticism for his provincial, nostalgic, and unrealistic outlook: his naive attitude toward money, his idealization of the black woman in her maternal role, and his romanticization of Eloe. He is hurt by Jadine's contemptuous view of his folk and their traditional black ways; her grimly realistic definition of the briar patch competes with Son's sentimental picture. She reveals as false consciousness Son's many assumptions about the wholesomeness of the agrarian past. There is nothing romantic about poverty, nothing autonomous about an all-black town run by white electricity, nothing enabling about not being educated or part of the institutions of modernity. Jadine delivers these hard critiques and must, in turn, hear from Son the scathing critique of postmodernity—there is nothing pretty about being objectified on the cover of a fashion magazine, nothing positive about conforming to the dehumanizing creed of high capitalism, nothing valuable in being educated to forget where she came from, nothing humane about her relationship to her aunt and uncle, nothing inspiring in the aesthetics of consumption. This impasse between them is symptomatic of a larger crisis of the third world locked in the arms of the first.

Jadine's uncritical alignment of herself with Valerian's world is criticized in no uncertain terms. The mix of eros and the erosion of self that characterizes Son's relationship with Jadine is prefigured in the image of Jadine's nude figure lying on the black coat made of the fur of ninety baby seals. That Son is identified with an area that has ninety black houses in Eloe has chilling significance. Having accepted the death of ninety seals as the price for her self-indulgence, Jadine succeeds in making Son willing to accept his alienation from Eloe as the price of his future with her. Jadine has ceased to be a daughter and threatens to take away his identity as Son, “the name that called forth the true him,” for the “other selves were … fabrications of the moment, misinformation required to protect Son from harm and to secure that one reality at least” (139). Looking at the photos Jadine had taken of his family and friends in Eloe, Son finds himself thinking “they all looked stupid, backwoodsy, dumb, dead. …” However, his next thought is, “I have to find her”: “Whatever she wants, I have to do it, want it” (272-73). For Son, a vital identification—and along with it a way of being in the world—is being undermined, a stability eroded. He is stuck and lost. The difficulty Son as Brer Rabbit has in outsmarting the fox is the crisis in Morrison's adaptation of the folk tale. The triumphant ending of the tar baby tale creates a tension: although Son cannot see a way out, the tale impresses upon the reader the need for freedom from this contemporary state of bondage.

In order to better understand Morrison's indictment of Jadine, it is necessary to go back a century and glance at black abolitionist and suffragist Frances Harper's Iola Leroy, a novel that attempted to articulate the meaning of emancipation for black women following Reconstruction. Iola is a woman of mixed descent, the daughter of a plantation owner who has grown up considering herself white. Forced into slavery then rescued by Union soldiers during the Civil War, Iola Leroy has the option of passing for white at the end of the war but chooses to ally herself with her race. This, at the time of Jim Crow segregation, is a significant act charged with idealism. The forging of an intellectual elite committed to the cause of the race is an important theme in Harper's novel. Education is presented as a good investment, enabling assimilating blacks to uplift their race. A century later, Tar Baby, whose black woman protagonist is the antithesis of Iola, presents the bitter fruits of assimilation: an ignorance of black history, an alienated and alienating sense of individualism, and the breakdown of any notion of responsibility. Education does not allow a politics of return to the people, producing instead an educated alienation from the working class.

Both Toni Morrison and Alice Walker are severe on the educated black woman who fastens her metropolitan gaze on the culture from which she came. Alice Walker's story “Everyday Use” is an insightful portrayal of an ideological chasm generated by a displacement of class and culture through education. A young woman named Dee, enabled by her family and community to go to college, becomes the “cultured” one, set apart from both her “backward” sister and her mother, who feel Dee has them “sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice.”8 With a consciousness fashioned by the dominant class, Dee takes snapshots of her family's picturesque poverty to show her college friends. The eye of her camera, like Jadine's eye, freezes people in its alienating frame. That such a gaze comes from one of their own is an outrage to Walker and Morrison; it is a danger endemic to the very process of education.

Both Walker and Morrison would endorse Son's criticism of Jadine's education: “The truth is whatever you learned in those colleges that didn't include me ain't shit. What did they teach you about me? What tests did they give? … And you don't know anything, anything at all about your children and anything at all about your mama and your papa. You find out about me, you educated nitwit!” (264-65). Jadine thinks she is indebted to Valerian for educating her, but, as Son reminds her, it is her aunt and uncle who secured her privileges with their lifetime's labor, securing her “everything. Europe. The future. The world” (26). Sydney and Ondine, of course, have not bargained for her alienation from them. The extent of Jadine's incomprehension of her aunt's needs is made evident in the Christmas present she buys for her, “a stunning black chiffon dress,” and “shoes with zircons studding the heels” (90). She has no idea that her aunt's feet are swollen with pain from a lifetime of standing too long in the kitchen. It is also deeply ironic that Sydney does not claim any kinship with Jadine while he serves her at the table; the laws of class decorum appear to be stronger than the ties of kinship. Sydney “was perfect at those dinners when his niece sat down with his employers, as perfect as he was when he served Mr. Street's friends” (74): “He kept his eyes on the platter, or the table setting, or his feet, or the hands of those he was serving, and never made eye contact with any of them, including his niece” (62). Even when the subject of conversation is Sydney, we are told that “Jadine did not look at her uncle” (75). This charade soon becomes reality; Jadine disowns any responsibility to Sydney and Ondine, leaving them as she leaves Son for upper-class Parisian society.

The poignancy of Ondine and Sydney's situation vis-à-vis their niece is undercut by their own perpetuation of class hierarchies. The reader is meant to share the “disappointment nudging contempt” that Valerian feels at his household's response to Son's intrusion, “for the outrage Jade and Sydney and Ondine exhibited in defending property and personnel that did not belong to them from a black man who was one of their own” (145). Morrison is as sardonic about Margaret Street's fear of the black-man-as-rapist as she is about Sydney's presumed superiority over Son. Margaret refers to Son as a “gorilla”; Sydney tells Son, “If this was my house, you would have a bullet in your head. … You can tell it's not my house because you are still standing upright” (162). The reader is meant to note the bigotry that Sydney displays in differentiating his class from Son's: “I am a Phil-a-delphia Negro mentioned in the book of the very same name. My people owned drugstores and taught school while yours were still cutting their faces open so as to be able to tell one from the other” (163). To maintain his class affiliation, Sydney refuses to communicate with Son and calls Gideon “Yardman” lest their familiarity or fraternity undermine his cultivated position of respectability.

We come away perturbed by Jadine's lone trajectory of success, which, viewed from the dominant ideology of individualism, should seem laudable and appropriate: in avoiding the “ghetto mentality,” she succeeds in making a better life for herself and is able to make choices that ensure her freedom as a woman. But Morrison's critique of this black daughter is unmistakable. For all practical purposes, the role and function of Jadine's education has been to dissolve her debts to her family and culture by taking her out of their orbit. Lerone Bennett, Jr., frames the issue starkly: betrayal is the historic role of the middle class; grown out of the very pores of oppression, it also by its very position abdicates responsibility to an ongoing struggle. This is also the point that Frantz Fanon makes about the educated middle class of postcolonial nations; he appreciates the fact that such an educated class, fostered by the colonial apparatus of power and subjection, is fated to become the tool of capitalism. For Fanon, revolutionary pedagogy lies in the middle class “betray[ing] the calling fate has marked out for it, and put[ting] itself at school with the people.” However, he observes “unhappily” that such a revolutionary trajectory is seldom seen: “rather, [the middle class] disappears with its soul set at peace into the shocking ways … of a traditional bourgeoisie, of a bourgeoisie which is stupidly, contemptibly, cynically bourgeois.”9

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was.” It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. … The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era an attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.

—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

By situating the narrative about Jadine's cultural displacement through education—and through her, Son's displacement—in a neocolonial field and framing it with the legend of a slave insurrection, Morrison accentuates the historical roots of this predicament and registers the need for a contemporary challenge to it. Tar Baby shares with other postcolonial literature what is an abiding concern: “disidentifying whole societies from the sovereign codes of cultural organization, and an inherently dialectical intervention in the hegemonic production of cultural meaning.”10 The impasse generated by Son's encounter with Jadine is a historically charged stalemate pointing to the ways in which education and assimilation have served the race-class structures of society without ushering progressive changes.

In Tar Baby, the reader is left holding the tension of Son's predicament, one that marks the contemporary moment. The final question of choice posed to Son on the personal level—whether or not to follow Jadine—is meant to reverberate as a larger political crisis. Clearly, the problem—identified by Brathwaite as “this perturbation that does not signal health”—is much wider, pertaining to the neocolonial organization of the economy and hegemonic reproduction of the culture of capitalism. When Thérèse asks Son to choose, the two options are cultural erosion (Jadine's lifestyle) or resistance (the blind horsemen's response). “Forget her [Jadine],” Thérèse advises Son. “There is nothing in her parts for you. She has forgotten her ancient properties. … Choose them [the blind horsemen]” (305-306). “Are you sure?” are Son's last words. It is also the question the reader may well ask. Observe, following Benjamin, how the narrative seizes a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger, a danger that affects both the content of the slave tradition of resistance and its receivers. Thérèse is essentially warning Son against “becoming a tool of the ruling classes.”11

The concluding scene of the novel is metaphorical. Son's gradual move from crawling over rocks to standing, walking, and eventually running imply an evolutionary movement. The novel suggests Son's identification with the blind horsemen as “he threw out his hands to guide and steady his going.” That he is engaged in a salutory process is evident by the assistance he gets from the natural environment: “By and by he walked steadier, now steadier. The mist lifted and the trees stepped back a bit as if to make the way easier for a certain kind of man. Then he ran. Lickety-split. Lickety-split” (306). Thus, the ending merges Brer Rabbit's escape from Brer Fox's trap with the blind horsemen's escape from bondage. W. E. B. Du Bois' brooding short story “The Coming of John,” from which comes the first epigraph to this chapter, makes an interesting comparison. It charts the displacement by education of a native son, John, from his own people. It ends with the figure of “a black man hurrying on with an ache in his heart, seeing neither sun nor sea,” while “thundering towards him” is the “noise of horses galloping, galloping on.”12 Son's story also recapitulates the emancipation narrative of the slaves: if the novel's beginning suggests the escape of a fugitive jumping ship, the ending clearly encourages an identification of Son with the fugitive horsemen. The novel suggests that Son's route to freedom is one that requires an engagement with the liberation narrative of the past.

As at the end of Song of Solomon, what we are left with at the end of Tar Baby is a highly suggestive image. Just as Milkman Dead's flying leap is a metaphor for his emergent consciousness, Son's running lickety-split on the terrain of the blind horsemen may be read as a metaphor of pre-emergence, of a nascent form of cultural resistance. Even though the reclamation at the end of the novel remains a metaphoric one, the conclusion effects a disidentification with Prospero's ordering of the world, with what Stephen Slemon calls “the sovereign codes of cultural organization.” Morrison leaves Son at what Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe has called the “crossroads of cultures,” a postcolonial site that has, in his words, “a certain dangerous potency; dangerous because a man might perish there wrestling with multiple-headed spirits, but also he might be lucky and return to his people with the boon of prophetic vision.”13

In terms of Morrison's literary trajectory, the novel seems to be leading inexorably to the exploration in Beloved of slavery, the point of unity where all the disparate segments of black life belong before they disperse. Both Song of Solomon and, to a lesser extent, Tar Baby take their male protagonists to the very edge of the present into an identification with a legendary past as a testimony of a burgeoning awareness. It is not surprising that in her fifth novel, Beloved, she sheds the present entirely to immerse her black characters in the matrix of history and to acquaint the modern reader with the ancient properties of black women. In Beloved, Morrison is able to say what Tar Baby has difficulty articulating from within the fragmentations of postmodernity: “For one lost all lost. The chain that held them would save all or none.”14


  1. Michael Hanchard, “Identity, Meaning, and the African American,” Social Text, XXIV (1990), 40.

  2. Toni Morrison, interview with Charles Ruas, 1981, in Conversations, 105.

  3. Jean Strouse, “Toni Morrison's Black Magic,” Newsweek, March 30, 1981, p. 52; Nellie McKay, Introduction to Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, ed. McKay (Boston, 1988), 6.

  4. See O. Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, trans. Pamela Powesland (New York, 1964); Sylvan Barnet, “The Tempest on the Stage,” in The Tempest, ed. Barnet (New York, 1987), 224; George Lamming, Introduction to The Pleasures of Exile (London, 1984), 6.

  5. Toni Morrison, Tar Baby (New York, 1981), 53. Subsequent page references will be cited within parentheses in the text.

  6. John Irving, “Morrison's Black Fable,” New York Times Book Review March 29, 1981, pp. 1, 30-31; Pearl K. Buck, “Self-Seekers,” Commentary, LXXII (August, 1981), 56-60; Richard Falk, “Fables For Our Times: Six Novels,” Yale Review, LXXI (1982), 254ff.; Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, 118; William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York, 1987), 33-48; Edward Brathwaite, “Hex,” Mother Poem (Oxford, Eng., 1977), 45-47.

  7. Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York, 1965), 36.

  8. Alice Walker, “Everyday Use,” in In Love and Trouble (New York, 1973), 50.

  9. Lerone Bennett, Jr., “The Betrayal of the Betrayal: The Crisis of the Black Middle Class,” The Challenge of Blackness (Chicago, 1972), 57; Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 150.

  10. Stephen Slemon, “Monuments of Empire: Allegory/Counter-Discourse/Post-Colonial Writing,” Kunapipi, IX (1987), 14.

  11. Benjamin, Illuminations, 257.

  12. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 262-63.

  13. Slemon, “Monuments of Empire”; Chinua Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays (Garden City, N.Y., 1975), 67.

  14. Morrison, Beloved, 110.

Selected Bibliography

Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York, 1988.

———. Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. Garden City, N.Y., 1975.

Allen, Robert. Black Awakening in Capitalist America. Garden City, N.Y., 1970.

Anchor, Robert. “Bakhtin's Truths of Laughter.” Clio, XIV (1985), 237-57.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York, 1983.

Anderson, Linda. “The Re-Imagining of History in Contemporary Women's Fiction.” In Plotting Change: Contemporary Women's Fiction, edited by Linda Anderson, 129-41. London, 1990.

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana, Il., 1986.

Angelo, Bonnie. “The Pain of Being Black.” Time, May 22, 1989, pp. 120-23.

Antze, Paul and Michael Lambek, eds. Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory. New York, 1996.

Appiah, K. A., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York, 1993.

Armstrong, Paul B. Conflicting Readings: Variety and Validity in Interpretation. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London, 1989.

Awkward, Michael. Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women's Novels. New York, 1989.

Baker, Houston. Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago, 1985.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin, 1981.

———. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington, Ind., 1984.

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston, 1955.

Barrett, Michele. “Ideology and the Cultural Production of Gender.” In Feminist Criticism and Social Change: Sex, Class, and Race in Literature and Culture, edited by Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt, 65-85. New York, 1985.

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Yvonne Atkinson (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Atkinson, Yvonne. “Language that Bears Witness: The Black English Oral Tradition in the Works of Toni Morrison.” In The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable, edited by Marc C. Conner, pp. 12-30. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Atkinson argues that the Black English oral tradition, grounded in African-American culture, forms the foundation of Morrison's fiction.]

Toni Morrison has said, “I tend not to explain things very much, but I long for a critic who will know what I mean when I say ‘church’ or ‘community,’ or when I say ‘ancestor,’ or ‘chorus.’ Because my books come out of those things and represent how they function in the [B]lack cosmology” (McKay, “Interview” 151). As this comment confirms, the oral tradition of Black English is the foundation of Morrison's work.

Language is more than a form of communication: it reveals the concepts that shape the significance and legacy beyond the word itself. Language defines a culture's style and method of looking at life and the individual's place within that culture. It is also “the margin,” the demarcator of beauty, and the repository of a culture's defining boundaries: right, wrong, good, bad, and its liminal thresholds (Kristeva, “Ethics” 231; see also O. Davis). The study of language requires that the researcher acknowledge that the subjects being studied have a language and thereby a culture. For years the debate has raged about the language of slaves and their descendants. Today, the debate centers on whether the language spoken by most African Americans is “correct.” Toni Morrison's fiction dismisses the issue of the correctness of the language, but focuses intensively upon the communal bonding and artistry evident in the language.

Some of our most learned and outspoken Americans have claimed that Africans brought to America as slaves had no art, because they lacked the necessary emotions needed to produce artistry. Thomas Jefferson said of the slave, “Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them” (187-88). Jefferson went on to explain that this lack of feeling in the slave was the reason why the slave produced no art or literature: “Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.—Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry” (189).

When the Africans were brought to America as slaves they were denied the tools needed to create their traditional arts. Without access to these tools, the African slaves found another outlet to express the emotions of their souls: language. The language of the slaves became their canvas and clay. Their voices became the forms through which they practiced their arts. Jefferson, and others like him, were looking for the tangible presentations of art they associated with their own culture. They were looking in the wrong place. They needed to close their mouths and eyes, and listen to the voice of the African slave.

The language the African slave spoke is the foundation of the language spoken by most African Americans today: Black English. According to Geneva Smitherman, Black English is “an Africanized form of English reflecting Black America's linguistic-cultural African heritage and the conditions of servitude, oppression, and life in America. Black language is Euro-American speech with an Afro-American meaning, nuance, tone, and gesture” (Talkin 2). In African American culture, language is an aesthetic: “Many Black English vocabulary items manifest a poetically appropriate representation of rather mundane reality. Not only is the black lexicon a tool, its figurative power and rhetorical beauty complement its survival function” (70; see also Dillard).

Black English is a sophisticated and complex oral language in which voice and visual styling help to create meaning, what Kristeva describes as “beyond and within, more or less than meaning: rhythm, tone, color, and joy, within, through, and across the Word” (Desire 158). Explication in the oral tradition depends on communal knowledge, context, inflection, tone, and non-verbal gestures, as well as words. Claudia, in The Bluest Eye, describes this experience when she says, “we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre” (16).

Toni Morrison is aware of and concerned with “the language black people spoke”; as she has famously stated, the language “must not sweat. It must suggest and be provocative at the same time. It is the thing that black folks love so much—the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them. … Its function is like a preacher's: to make you stand up out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself. The worst of all possible things that could happen, would be to lose that language” (LeClair 123). The language of Morrison's texts mirrors the oral tradition of Black English. The story being told is defined by the systems of language that are evident in the oral tradition. Fitting the intricate oral tradition of language into a written form is problematic. Written language does not contain symbols to represent the inflection, tone, and non-verbal gestures of Black English. As Smitherman notes, “the real distinctiveness—the beauty—in the black sound system lies in those features which do not so readily lend themselves to concrete documentation—its speech rhythms, voice inflections, and tonal patterns” (Talkin 17).

As one example, in The Bluest Eye Morrison captures the inflection, tone, and non-verbal gestures of the oral tradition when the women's “conversation is like a wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires”:

“I kind of thought Henry would marry her one of these days.”

“That old woman?”

“Well, Henry ain't no chicken.”

“No, but he ain't no buzzard, either.”

“He ever been married to anybody?”


“How come? Somebody cut it off?”

“He's just picky.”

“He ain't picky. You see anything around here you'd marry?”

“Well … no.”


The playfulness, laughter, and camaraderie come through the written word and so do the smiles, the head-tilted-to-the-side, the “huh,” and the hand-on-the-hip presence of the women. Morrison does not identify the speakers, but each line is indented, indicating a turn-taking process. The shortness of the turns implies a rapid fire, compressed conversation that is spontaneous, possibly overlapping, just like an oral conversation between friends. The reader is not told where the conversation is taking place—at a card table, in the kitchen, or over a backyard fence. Morrison leaves spaces for the reader to fill. She knows that there will be “holes and spaces” in the text that are caused by writing down an oral language, but Morrison also expects the reader to fill in those gaps with communal knowledge: “My writing expects, demands participatory reading. … We (you, the reader, and I, the author) come together to make this book, to feel this experience” (Tate 164). This participatory involvement mirrors the ritual of storytelling from the Black English oral tradition. The reader who is aware of the Black English oral tradition is also aware that he/she is obligated to participate in this conversation. The participation could be a “humh” at the end of the dialogue signifying understanding and appreciation, or it could be a smile, a laugh, a head wag, or it could put you in the mind of other women who shared their lives through conversation with friends.

The gaps and spaces created when an oral language is written down also mirror the oral tradition's use of language as an identifying marker, a marker of those who are part of the community and those who are not. In the African American culture correct Black English usage demonstrates group identification. In The Bluest Eye, the patterns of grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, and language rituals that the three whores use follow the customs of Black English oral traditions. Because they observe appropriate language characteristic of their culture, the three whores are “correct.” The stark contrast between the discourse of the whores and the description of the whores by the narrator further illustrates their inclusion within their community. The elevated Common English used by the narrator in the description of the whores acts as a mirror reflecting the differences between the whores' language and that of the narrator. This language difference duplicates code-switching used in the Black English oral tradition. Code-switching refers to the alternating use of two different languages in a discourse. Morrison's use of code-switching is another indication of inclusion and exclusion. The whores are part of their community and so is the reader who understands their inclusion without the explanation provided by the narrator.

The narrator, using elevated Common English, re-defines and re-explains the whores in terms that can be understood by the non-Black English speaker: “Three merry gargoyles. Three merry harridans” (47).1 The word choice in this description is interesting. The juxtaposition of merry, which suggests high-spirted gaiety, with gargoyle and harridans illustrates the complex positions the three whores play in the make-up of their community. (It is interesting to note that these gargoyles, literally and figuratively, live above the Breedloves, just as architectural gargoyles are usually found on the top of structures.) The description of these three women as gargoyles and harridans is appropriate. They scold and can be vicious, but at the same time they are part of a system that gives their community a form of protection. Like the gargoyles of Gothic architecture, they are the conductors of and safeguards for their community. And just in case the reader is still trying to fit these three women into the stereotypical mold of the pathetic, coarse, “prostitutes created in novels” (47), the narrator simply and totally debunks the notion. The three whores are striking and they are associated with beauty: “Poland singing—her voice sweet and hard, like new strawberries” (43). They are associated with the Black English oral tradition and are controllers and extollers of the power of the spoken word. The whores' conversation is very aural. They are storytellers who Signify, that is, they engage in the art of verbal battle, what Clarence Major defines as “‘performance’ talk” (416); the whores, through their Signifyin talk, pass on the beliefs and values of their community.

In Signifyin there is almost always a berating, censuring aspect to the discourse. According to Smitherman, Signifyin is “the verbal art of ritualized insult, in which the speaker puts down, needles, talks about (signifies on) someone, to make a point or sometimes just for fun. It exploits the unexpected, using quick verbal surprises and humor” (Black Talk 206). This sense of Signifyin is somewhat distinct from the way Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his influential study The Signifying Monkey, understands the term. Gates's version of “Signifyin(g)” is based on “refiguring what we might think of as key canonical topi and tropes received from the black [English oral] tradition itself” (xxii). But Gates's theory does not take the “put down” aspect of Signifyin into consideration, and his theory also does not accommodate the reaffirmation of communal identity that is evident in Signifyin from the Black English oral tradition. Rather, Gates's theory is more closely related to rhetoric of the Black English oral tradition of Call/Response and Witness/Testify. While African American writers certainly “read each other, and seem intent on refiguring what we might think of as key canonical topi and tropes received from the black [English oral] tradition itself,” the writers are Called on to Respond to what they have Witnessed in the works of other African American authors. Their Response becomes their Testimony and a reaffirmation of community. Gates claims to have “at last located within the African and Afro-American traditions a system of rhetoric and interpretation that could be drawn upon both as figures for a genuinely ‘black’ criticism and as frames through which I could interpret, or ‘read,’ theories of literary criticism” (ix), but he fails to ground his system of rhetoric in African American traditions; rather, the African American traditions become marginalized in his quest to “read” literary criticism (here read Eurorpean literary criticism). He says he is “attempt[ing] to lift the discourse of Signifyin(g) from the vernacular to the discourse of literary criticism” (xi), but he fails to realize that the discourse of Signifyin does not need to be “lifted” from the vernacular; rather it needs to be examined as a discourse and as a language system within the vernacular. Smitherman's definition of Signifyin, in contrast, comes from and is inclusive of traditional African American culture. She does not feel the need to legitimize Signifyin by lifting it to the heights of “Derrida's neologism” (Signifying Monkey 46), but rather treats the Black English oral tradition with the grace and dignity it deserves as the language system of proud people.

Signifyin is an act of delineation; it is didactic and inclusive. In the Black English oral tradition, when one is Signified on one must acknowledge the Signification. An indication of Pecola's otherness is the inversion of the Signifyin act that takes place with Pecola and the three whores. Though the three whores Signify in the presence of Pecola, they cannot be the doorway through which Pecola gains entry into the community because Signifyin in the oral tradition is age specific. The only time an adult and child participate in the act of Signifyin is in a parent/child dynamic, when the child is being taught a lesson or is being guided by the adult. Claudia and Frieda know the rules of discourse of their community: “We didn't initiate talk with grownups; we answered their questions” (22). With the whores, Pecola inverts the community rules of discourse because she initiates the conversation: “The women were friendly, but slow to begin talk. Pecola always took the initiative with Marie, who, once inspired, was difficult to stop” (44). Pecola does not participate verbally or non-verbally, staying outside of the Signifyin act:

“All I know is, them bandy little legs of yours is every bit as old as mine.”

“Don't worry ‘bout my bandy legs. That's the first thing they push aside.”

All three of the women laughed.


In fact, Pecola is so far outside this communal activity that she is almost invisible or under erasure. The whores do not acknowledge Pecola's presence and talk over and around her, which, in the Black English oral tradition, signifies her “otherness.” Pecola could gain entrance to her community by practicing the communal rules of discourse, but she has not learned these rules at home and so she is lost. Claudia and Frieda do not, as they should, invite Pecola into the community through their discourse with her. Like Milkman in Song of Solomon, Pecola needs a Pilate to guide her through this initiation, just as Pilate guides Milkman when she begins his lessons of discourse by correcting Guitar when he says, “Hi” (Song 36). This illustrates Morrison's concern with the act of rituals. Part of the reason that Pecola's story is told is because a necessary ritual was not performed, and thus a gap was created that needs to be closed. Thus The Bluest Eye can be read as a cautionary tale because, like Beloved, it is a story that should not be repeated.

Other examples of Black English oral traditions are the Signifyin acts of the “Three quarts of milk” soliloquy of Mrs. MacTeer in The Bluest Eye (22), “When Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith” (145) of Sula, and the first private conversation between Son, “the nigger in the wood pile,” and Jadine in Tar Baby (83, 112-27). In “Three quarts of milk” (98), Mrs. MacTeer is not only venting her anger, she is teaching her daughters one of the rhetorical tropes of their culture, how to Signify, and she is teaching them life lessons about greed and self reliance (“My mother knew that Frieda and I hated milk and assumed Pecola drank it out of greediness”); family and community values (“There's a limit to everything”); and parenting responsibilities (“‘Folks just dump they children off on you and go on ‘bout they business’”) (22-23). Mrs. MacTeer as a caretaker of her cultural mores is an apt instructor for her children and the reader. It is important to examine what is being said as well as who is saying it.

Sula's Signifyin “When Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith” speech to Nel is not only Signifyin on Nel, it is also Signifyin on America. The form of this Signification begins with a dialectic of the improbable: “‘Oh, they'll love all right. … After all the old women have lain with the teenagers … after all the black men fuck all the white ones … when Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith and Norma Shearer makes it with Stepin Fetchit’” (145-46). The contradictions of “old” and “teenager” lying together escalates to “weathervane[s]” “mount[ing] … hogs” (146). Sula is Signifyin on Nel and the people of the Bottom as well as on American puritanical views of sex and racial prejudices.

In Tar Baby, when Son Signifies on Jadine he is not only putting her down, he is also demonstrating that he is part of the community while she is not. This face-to-face confrontation takes place just after Jadine has received her coat made of “the skin of the baby seals” (112). When Jadine asks Son what his name is, he replies, “‘What do you like? Billy? Paul? What about Rastus?’” (115). Rastus—the name of the Black figure on the Cream of Wheat box—is one of those names, like Sambo or Steppinfetchit, whose history brings to mind the stereotypical Uncle Tom: sleepy-eyed, lazy-acting, stupid, and buffoonish. By using this name, Son is Signifyin on Jadine. Son's use of the name Rastus also illustrates the importance of his name: “the name most truly his wasn't on any of the Social Security card, union dues cards, discharge papers. … Son. It was the name that called forth the true him. The him that he never lied to, the one he tucked in at night and the one he did not want to die. The other selves were like the words he spoke—fabrications of the moment, misinformation required to protect Son from harm and to secure that one reality at least” (139). The importance of his name is also a form of Signification; as Barbara Hill Rigney argues, “The primary significance of the name Son is … not to denote an individual self (‘He did not always know who he was, but he always knew what he was like’[165]), but to place that self in a context of relationship: Son is a son of Africa and also a son of the American black male experience, the ‘Nigger Jims … Staggerlees and John Henrys’ (166) … his name being his … connection with community and black tradition” (43). Just as she earlier failed to recognize Gideon's true name, instead referring to him as “Yardman” (a serious insult in Black English, to call out his name and indicate disdain for his social position and his very self) (115), Jadine does not recognize the significance of Son's Signifyin or that Son's name connects him to his community. Jadine's response to Son's “Rastus” is “‘Don't be funny. What is your name’” (115)—which is inappropriate. She should have come back with a statement that indicated that she heard and understood his reprimand. Son is signaling to the reader that he knows who he is and what Jadine is: fragmented and outside of her community.

Morrison uses language to define those who are a part of their community and those who are not. In Song of Solomon Macon Dead demonstrates he is outside of his community when he breaks the language codes of the community. Macon is a landlord and Mrs. Bains is one of his tenants who has taken on the care of her grandchildren. When she comes to ask him if he will extend her some credit for her rent, he crosses the boundaries of community principles: “When Macon Dead got to the front door of his office he saw a stout woman … standing a few feet away. Macon unlocked his door, walked over to his desk, and settled himself behind it. As he was thumbing through his accounts books the stout woman entered” (21). Macon's actions of sitting while this elderly woman stands is just the beginning of his breach of community boundaries:

“Afternoon Mr. Dead, sir. I'm Mrs. Bains. Live over at number three on Fifteenth Street.”

“Yes, Mrs. Bains. You got something for me?”

“Well, that's what I come to talk to you about. You know Cency left all them babies with me. And my relief check ain't no more'n it take to keep a well-grown yard dog alive—half alive, I should say.”

“Your rent is four dollars a month, Mrs. Bains. You two months behind already.”

“I do know that, Mr Dead, sir, but babies can't make it with nothing to put in they stomach.”

Their voices were low, polite, without any hint of conflict.

“Can they make it in the street, Mrs. Bains? That's where they gonna be if you don't figure out some way to get me my money.”

“No sir. They can't make it in the street. We need both, I reckon. Same as yours does.”


Macon separates himself from his community when he allows Mrs. Bains to make the first greeting, and his separation is further indicated when he later does not realize that Mrs. Bains has Signified on him. Macon does not respond; he does not participate in the Signifyin act which demonstrates his isolation. Mrs. Bains repeatedly refers to Macon as “sir,” effectively putting him in the position as controller, master, or The Man, not a favorable position in the African American community (see Major 470).

In these early glimpses of Pilate and Macon the reader is shown who has the knowledge of communal mores, who is a reliable storyteller, and—crucially—who has the power of the word, nommo, the African concept that constitutes “the driving power … that gives life and efficacy to all things” (Jahn 101). Pilate's power and position in the community is tied to her nommo. She is initiator of ritual and the keeper of community. She is a griot, the figure who, as D'Jimo Kouyate describes it, “maintain[s] a cultural and historical past with that of the present. … the oral historian and educator in any given society” (Gross and Barnes 179); Pilate teaches people to know themselves and their place within their community. The first time she talks with Milkman and Guitar, she teaches them how to speak their language, and she teaches them how to listen:


The woman looked up. First at Guitar and then at Milkman.

“What kind of word is that?” Her voice was light but gravel-sprinkled. Milkman kept on staring at her finger, manipulating the orange. Guitar grinned and shrugged. “It means hello.”

“Then say what you mean.”

“Okay. Hello.”

“That's better. What you want?”

“Nothin. We just passin by.”

“Look like you standin by.”

“If you don't want us here, Miss Pilate, we'll go.” Guitar spoke softly.

“I ain't the one with the wants. You the one wants something.”

“We wanna ask you something.” Guitar stopped feigning indifference. She was too direct, and to keep up with her he had to pay careful attention to his language.


Pilate not only gives these young boys a language lesson, she also demonstrates to the reader that they need to learn to “listen” carefully too. When she says, “‘You the one wants something’” to Guitar, she is alerting the reader and Guitar to an aspect of Guitar's nature that later proves prophetic.

Some of Morrison's most memorable characters wield the power of the word. They are tellers of tales: Claudia in The Bluest Eye, Eva in Sula, Pilate in Song of Solomon, Therese in Tar Baby, Baby Suggs and Sethe in Beloved, and the narrator of Jazz. These characters may not appear to be the “traditional” models of correctness and beauty, but in Morrison's novels beauty is perceived through a different lens, the lens of language. These non-traditional characters become the griots of Morrison's fictional worlds, caretakers of knowledge, guardians of history.

In Morrison's novels, as in the oral tradition, who is telling the tale is as important as the story being told. In Song of Solomon, both Macon and Pilate tell stories, but while Pilate is a storyteller of power, Macon lacks perception and feelings. He is isolated and fragmented, and he does not even know it, while Pilate is centered within her community. When the reader is introduced to Pilate, she has “[h]er head cocked to one side, her eyes fixed on Mr. Robert Smith, she sang in a powerful contralto: O Sugarman done fly away” (6). Her song is a story that connects to the epigraph (“The fathers may soar / And the children may know their names”), to Mr. Smith's flight, and to the stories of The Africans who Could Fly. Her song binds her to her community. Macon has lost the ability to participate in his community's oral tradition: “when he was just starting out in the business of buying houses, he would lounge around the barbershop and swap stories with the men there. But for years he hadn't had that kind of time, or interest” (52). Macon fails to participate in one of the community rituals of individual actualization through group discourse. Macon must participate or he is outside of the circle of his community. When he does not participate he is absenting himself from a ritual practice that allows all to be heard and all to listen, a practice that reaffirms the participants' membership in their community.

Reaffirmation of community is one of the hallmarks of Black English. Systems of language within the Black English oral tradition are systems that call for the participants to reaffirm their cultural roots, community, and themselves. One of those systems is Call/Response, defined by Smitherman as “stating and counter stating; acting and reacting.” It is “spontaneous verbal and nonverbal interaction between speaker and listener in which all of the speaker's statements (‘calls’) are punctuated by expressions (‘responses’) from the listener.” Call/Response is collaborative improvisation that is a characterization of common content and shared experience. It is also an outward expression of group that indicates a connection, a shared history and culture. It unifies the listener and the speaker. Response also allows the Caller to know that the audience approves of what she is saying and/or how she is saying it; it is immediate validation: “The process requires that one must give if one is to receive, and receiving is actively acknowledging another” (Talkin 119, 104, 108). In the African American community, when people pass each other in hallways, on streets, at stop lights, et cetera, they acknowledge each other's presence through verbal and/or non verbal signals; they Call and Respond to each other. Macon does not do this: “He hailed no one and no one hailed him. There was never a sudden braking and backing up to shout or laugh with a friend” (32). Macon's failure to participate in Call and Response further demonstrates his fragmentation and isolation.2

In Song of Solomon, there are layers of Call/Response when Macon stands outside of Pilate's house listening to the women inside singing: “Macon walked on, resisting as best he could the sound of the voices that followed him” (28). Pilate, Reba, and Hagar are singing a Call/Response song to each other, but their song is also Calling to Macon: “They were singing some melody that Pilate was leading. A phrase that the other two were taking up and building on. Her powerful contralto, Reba's piercing soprano in counterpoint, and the soft voice of the girl, Hagar … pulled him like a carpet tack under the influence of a magnet” (29). This passage is also Calling to the reader to Respond. It Calls on the reader to empathize with Macon's fragmentation. The reader becomes a Witness to his isolation, loneliness, and inability to participate.

African American writers have combined the rhetoric of Call/Response with Witness/Testify, another part of the word-of-mouth facet of the African American community: “In the African-American grain, stories were told in unceasing collaboration between the storyteller and his audience, the black community. Call-and-response was so fundamental to the form and meaning of the tales that anyone, black or white, allowed into the circle was bound to become a participant as well as a witness” (Callahan 71). Morrison allows the reader to become part of the “circle” of storytelling and thereby Witnesses. In African American culture Witness/Testify, like Signifyin and Call/Response, uses the act of communication as a metaphor for the unity expressed in the traditional African world view. The act of Witness/Testify is tangible proof that symbolizes or serves as evidence to validate one's existence as part of the group. In the oral tradition of Black English, Witness and Testify go hand in hand: one who Witnesses has an obligation to Testify. To Witness is to affirm, attest, certify, validate, and observe. Thus Smitherman defines Testifying as a “concept referring to a ritualized form of black communication in which the speaker gives verbal witness to the efficacy, truth, and power of some experience in which all blacks have shared” (Talkin 58).

Witness/Testify is a shared collective memory, a cultural ritual that promotes solidarity and cohesion, creating a living archive of African American culture. Witnessing is shared experience, emotional, physical, communal, historical—it is social empathy. Testifying articulates and validates the shared experience through gesture, sign, symbol, or verbal expression. In both the oral tradition and in literature, the participants of Witness/Testifying must “bear witness” to the joys and sorrows of life, and then they must Testify, tell, pass on, share the event with others. Witness/Testify assumes shared experience by the teller and the hearer: it creates and maintains spiritual kinship. Those who Witness have a responsibility to preserve and tell the tale. In written discourse, the reader becomes both symbolic and actual participant in the storytelling event through shared experience, shared emotional response, and connection made by the communal aspect of the event.

Morrison achieves this connection in Beloved when Baby Suggs leads the Testimony in the meetings at the Clearing:

After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.

“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.


The “company” in the Clearing are physically mirroring the spiritual kinship of the Call/Response ritual when they respond to the Call by entering the circle in the Clearing: “‘Let the grown men come,’ she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees” (87). The ritual in the Clearing is a Testimony to “the only grace they could have” (89). The reader becomes both a Witness—we are allowed to see and hear this Testimony through the written word—and a Testifier—we are Called to Respond just as the people in the Clearing are Called to respond with “their … mouths and [they] gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh” (89). Through Call/Response and Witness/Testify, Morrison make a connection between Baby Suggs, the people in the Clearing, and the reader.

In Jazz, the reader is a Witness for Violet, for Joe, and for the narrator. The reader is also a Witness to the story that is being told, and through discussion of the story the reader Testifies. The narrator of Jazz is participating in the act of Call/Response because she is a reminder, a Call to remember, all those tellers of tales, both in fiction and in life, who have sat on front porches, on stoops, at windows, and Witnessed the world pass by. This narrator follows a tradition of fictional sentries who Witness and Tell: the watchers on the porch in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Mrs. Hedges in Ann Petry's The Street are characters who piece together their world from the scraps of information they glean from the lives of people around them. The reader, like these sentries, pieces together Joe and Violet's story through the fabric of language. I am a Witness to Joe and Violet's story and now you too have become a Witness and you are now obligated to Testify.

The reader who understands the implicit values and behavioral models taken from Black English oral traditions will have an understanding of Morrison's texts that “evolves out of the culture, the world, the given quality out of which [Morrison] write[s]” (McKay, “Interview” 151). Each culture has its own systems of value and beauty that are defined by language. In Song of Solomon Ruth may appear, to those unaware of African American culture, to be correct and beautiful while Pilate is strange and even ugly. But when viewed through the lens of their culture, Ruth is strange and Pilate is beautiful. Pilate is first described in juxtaposition to Ruth:

The singer [Pilate], standing at the back of the crowd, was as poorly dressed as the doctor's daughter was well dressed. The latter had on a neat grey coat with the traditional pregnant-woman bow at her navel, a black cloche, and a pair of four-button ladies' galoshes. The singing woman wore a knitted navy cap pulled far down over her forehead. She had wrapped herself up in an old quilt instead of a winter coat. Her head cocked to one side, her eyes fixed on Mr. Robert Smith, she sang in a powerful contralto.


On the surface, this description seems to demonstrate the unpleasantness of Pilate's appearance in comparison to Ruth's attractiveness, but in the Black English oral tradition, the surface meaning of words is rarely the complete meaning. Definitions of words and word usage are derived from the Black English oral tradition of linguistic reversal, using negative terms with positive meanings as well as contextual meaning, a practice of exchanging or masking one linguistic process with another language known as calquing or loan translation.

Morrison uses language to define Ruth and Pilate within the social context of their community and culture. When the descriptions of Ruth and Pilate are read with a knowledge of the Black English oral tradition, the reader understands that Pilate is being praised while Ruth is being censured. The description of Ruth's and Pilate's clothing is a telling point in this narrative. Pilate is dressed “poorly” and Ruth “well” (5). Ruth's “neat gray coat” is analogous not only with wealth and prosperity, but also with Whiteness. The “traditional pregnant-woman” outfit is customary in the White community. Even the description of Ruth's hat, “black cloche,” and foot wear, “four button ladies' galoshes,” distinguishes her from the African American community, while the description of Pilate immerses her in her community, especially the “old quilt instead of a winter coat” (6). The narrator says Ruth “had on a neat gray coat,” but Pilate “wrapped herself up in an old quilt” (5, emphasis added). Ruth is so passive that it seems as if she had been dressed by someone else, while Pilate is dynamic—she makes an active choice to wear a quilt instead of the more conventional coat. Perhaps the most revealing indicators of the description of these two women is that Ruth is voiceless while Pilate sings in a “powerful contralto” (6). In the African American culture, oral language is prized, and Pilate is a master of oral language, while Ruth is silent. Pilate, like the three whores of The Bluest Eye, has and uses the power of words: they sing, they are storytellers, they have the power to name and thereby define, and they are the criterion by which others are judged.

Other examples of the Black English oral traditions that Morrison uses are the references to the music that serve as filler and background in her texts: Baby Suggs's allusions in Beloved: “‘Lay em down, Sethe. Sword and shield. Down. Down. Both of em down. Down by the riverside. Sword and shield. Don't study war no more’” (86, emphasis added); the song Halle hears that signals the time for them to escape: “‘Hush, hush. Somebody's calling my name. Hush, hush. Somebody's calling my name. O my Lord, O my Lord, what shall I do?’” (224); and Sixo's death song (225). These songs are sacred songs, songs that are emotional and historical sites. They are a communal discourse about life. They are also part of the oral tradition of Call/Response and Witness/Testify: both Baby Suggs's and Halle's songs are Call/Response songs, requiring a lead singer and an answering chorus. They also Call on the person who is knowledgeable about the oral tradition and Church to Respond with a pause—to remember other times when those songs were sung. That pause is the act of Witness/Testify and a reaffirmation of community ties.3 Similarly, in Jazz traces of music flow throughout the story. Song titles (“The Trombone Blues” [21]), lyrics (“Turn to my pillow where my sweetman used to be … how long, how long, how long” [56]), and names of performers (Slim Bate's Ebony Keys [5]) add a richness to the text and infuse the story with the sound and feel of the city of the 1920s and 30s.

Morrison does not always use punctuation to identify the lyrics or titles of songs. She sometimes slips them into the narrative like a faint hum, or a radio turned down low. And just as when you hear snatches of a song from a radio, the memory of the song and the place you heard it flash through your mind, sometimes the song stays in you mind and you carry it until you hear another song. The narrator's description of the City in Jazz has that quality: “Big-legged women with pink kitty tongues …” (7). You can hear the song being played, or if you have not heard it before, if, as Paul D said, you do not understand the words or you do not know them, you can still understand. Through understanding, the reader participates in the event, as in the narrator's description of Dorcas's thoughts on the delicious music in Jazz: “Dorcus lay on a chenille bedspread … knowing that there was no place to be where somewhere … somebody was not licking his licorice stick, tickling the ivories, beating his skins, blowing off his horn while a knowing woman sang ain't nobody going to keep me down you got the right key baby but the wrong keyhole you got to get it bring it and put it right here, or else” (60). The litany of lyrics becomes like that sound right on the edge of consciousness that tantalizes the hearer/reader to listen harder, lean toward the place where the music comes from, and pay close attention. Morrison, like Pilate, is teaching the reader how to participate in the discourse of her novel and the discourse of African Americans through the uses of the Black English oral tradition.

The wonder and the beauty of Morrison's use of music in her text is that she can move you from the mourner's bench, to a jook joint, or to an uptown club in the city.4 Morrison entices the reader's participation by leaving the music unfocused. She does not tell the reader who is singing or playing “‘Hit me but don't quit me’” (59), and so the reader can determine the mood of the music by imagining the performer: Billie Holiday, feisty, determined, hard living and hard loving; Ella Fitzgerald, wistful, smooth, and bluesey; or Ben Webster with a mournful sax, crying out in despair. The music also allows the text a sense of freedom in that the mood of the music can change; it is not static. The center-less nature of the music allows the reader to participate in the Black English oral tradition of improvisation.

The plasticity of the oral tradition is also evident in its vocabulary (see Sale). Sula's “I disremember” (116), Beloved's “rememories” (95), and the “Who misraised you?” (20) of Jazz are all examples of how language is molded to fit the situation and the speaker. Morrison has said, “There are certain things I cannot say without recourse to my language” (LeClair 123). She uses phrases and terms that are unique to Black English: in The Bluest Eye, “Big Mama” (21), which means “one's grandmother, ‘big’ implying ‘older’ rather then ‘larger’” (Major 325). Because the term “Big Mama” is a Southern phrase, it is a continuation, a link, not only between generations, but also between the North and the South, past and present.

In Sula, Eva says Uncle Paul is “Triflin’” (68), which Smitherman describes as “a person who fails to do something that he/she is capable of doing; inadequate, lazy, having no get-up-and-go” (Black Talk 227). The label of triflin also implicitly shows disdain and disrespect for the person it marks. Eva also tells Hannah, “‘Stepping tall, ain't you?’” (68). According to Smitherman, steppin means, “Walking, often with a decisive purpose” (Black Talk 215). The meaning of Eva's statement refers to moving with a definite intention, knowing where you are going and how you are going to get there. It also implies that others are observing you and you are aware of this observation. Eva's “‘Stepping tall, ain't you?’” in this instance means that Hannah may believe that she is special, prosperous, has some power to know where she is going, and what she is going to do once she gets there, but underlying all of this is the ironic twist that though it may seem positive, Hannah's prosperity is based on a false assumption and that she is thinking more highly of herself than she should.

In Song of Solomon, Guitar asks Milkman, “‘What you opening your nose for?’” (102) which means, to have a strong emotional response, “to be under another's spell” (Major 325). (This phrase also has strong sexual connotations, and often describes some male or female so caught up in their sexual partner that they have lost themselves—they have given away their power to someone who could use it to destroy them.) It also implicitly means that Milkman is vulnerable because the full statement from Black English is usually something like, “Got your nose open so wide somebody could drive a truck through it.” When one is “under another's spell,” one is unprotected and out of control, at the mercy of someone else. Ironically, in the end it is Guitar who has his nose open, for he falls under the spell of mythical gold and Milkman is in control when he leaps into “the killing arms of his brother” (337). In Beloved the narrator says of Sixo's death song that it was “hatred so loose it was juba” (227). In America, Juba became the name of a dance and the term for a wild, free, joyous occasion. The juxtaposition of hatred and juba creates such a dichotomy that it establishes a dynamic image of hatred so unbounded that it is a joyous happening, rancor unleashed.

Morrison does not define or explain these terms from the Black English oral tradition in her text—indeed Morrison is frustrated at the tradition of “explanation” in African-American literature: “there was so much explanation,” she says of the Black writing that preceded her, “the Black writers always explained something to somebody else. And I didn't want to explain anything to anybody else!” (Bakerman 38). For Morrison, explanation is part of the critical, not the creative, process. Morrison's use of the oral tradition helps to establish a context which in turn creates meaning in her stories. The Black English oral traditions evident in her texts evoke echoes of emotions which in turn resound between the text and the reader. Morrison has enveloped the written word in the oral tradition: the use of words from Black English and the rituals and style of the oral tradition enhance her texts, and the systems of language, the style, and the lexicon of Black English that Morrison uses in her novels bear Witness to African American culture. Following in the discourse of that culture, readers of Morrison's texts are given the opportunity—the invitation—to participate in the storytelling event. To borrow Hélène Cixous's phrase, Morrison writes with “the flesh of language” (52) from the vantage point of a people who live, and thrive, within the context of historical and political realities not of their making. The language of her texts “makes you stand up out of your seat, makes you loses yourself and hear yourself” (LeClair 123), because it is grounded in African-American culture.


  1. The traditional name given to the “correct or proper” language used by the dominant culture of the United States is usually Standard English. The word Standard sets up a hierarchy. If there is a standard than anything else must be sub-standard. The word common can also be problematic, but in this instance it refers to the discourse of the dominant community as a whole: the familiar, the prevalent method of discourse that has been designated as the language of the dominate culture.

  2. In a similar instance, Morrison uses the ritual of “speaking” to define the moment in Beloved when Denver becomes whole and a member of her community. Stamp Paid is talking to Paul D about Denver, and states:

    “I'm proud of her. She is turning out fine. Fine.”

    It was true. Paul D saw her the next morning when he was on his way to work and she was leaving hers. Thinner, steady in the eyes, she looked more like Halle than ever.

    She was the first to smile. “Good morning, Mr. D.”

    “Well, it is now.” Her smile, no longer the sneer he remembered, has welcome in it.

    (266, emphasis mine)

    In the Black English oral tradition, the younger person acknowledges an older person. If the younger person must be prompted to do this then that person is demonstrating her/his lack of upbringing. Similarly, Morrison uses “speaking” in Tar Baby to demonstrate that Jadine is not part of her community because she does not participate in language rituals that are valid in the African American community: Son greets her three times with “Morning” (96) and she does not respond.

  3. A particularly poignant moment of the failure of Call/Response occurs in Beloved, when Sixo's song Calls on Paul D but Paul D does not respond: “He thinks he should have sung along. Loud, something loud and rolling to go with Sixo's tune, but the words put him off—he didn't understand the words. Although it shouldn't have mattered because he understood the sound” (227). Sixo's death is a remembrance of an unfulfilled cultural ritual that haunts Paul D—he did not answer Sixo's Call.

  4. The “mourner's bench” is usually the front pew in a traditional African American Baptist or Methodist church. During Revival, sinners, backsliders, and the unsaved sit on the mourner's bench while the saved try to convert them and bring them back into the fold. The word “jook,” derived from West African languages, means wicked. In America, jook joints were, and are, places where people go to have a good time, singing, dancing, talking. They are usually little hole-in-the-wall places on the outskirts of “civilization.” “Uptown club” is a term that refers to a place where the musicians feel at home. Fats Waller's song “Lounging at the Waldorf” is a signifyin song that distinguishes between uptown and downtown clubs: “Downtown we got drums but we muffle them. They [White people] like jazz, but in small doses … Uptown jazz ain't stiff with propriety.” African American musicians would play downtown clubs for mostly White audiences for money, and when their set was over they would go uptown and play for mostly Black audiences.

Works Cited

Bakerman, Jane. “The Seams Can't Show: An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie 30-42.

Callahan, John F. In the African-American Grain. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Davis, Ossie. “The Language Is My Enemy.” Revelations. Ed. Tersa M. Redd. Massachusetts: Ginn, 1991. 3.

Dillard, J. L. Black English. New York: Vantage, 1972.

Gross, Linda, and Marian Barnes. Talk That Talk. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Trans. Thomas Goza, Alice Jardine, and Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

———. “The Ethics of Linguistics.” Modern Criticism and Theory. Ed. David Lodge. New York: Longman, 1988. 230-39.

LeClair, Thomas. “The Language Must Not Sweat: A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie 119-28.

Major, Clarence, ed. Juba to Jive. New York: Penguin, 1970.

McKay, Nellie. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie 138-55.

Morrison, Toni. “Afterword.” The Bluest Eye. New York: Penguin, 1994. 209-16.

———. “Behind the Making of The Black Book.Black World February 1974: 86-90.

———. Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

———. The Bluest Eye. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.

———. “City Limits, Village Values: Concepts of the Neighborhood in Black Fiction.” Literature and the Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature. Eds. Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1981. 35-43.

———. The Dancing Mind: Speech upon Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, on the Sixth of November, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Six. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

———. Jazz. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

———. “Memory, Creation, Writing.” Thought 59 (1984): 385-90.

———. “Mercy.” Four Songs set for soprano, cello, and piano by Andre Previn. Performed by Sylvia McNair, Yo-Yo Ma, and Previn. From Ordinary Things, Sony Classical compact disc, 1997.

———. The Nobel Lecture. New York: Norton, 1993.

———. Paradise. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

———. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

———. “Preface.” Toni Cade Bambara. Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions. New York: Pantheon. vii-xi.

———. Rev. of Amisted 2, New African Literature and the Arts, and The Black Aesthetic. New York Times Book Review 28 February 1971: 5, 34.

———. Song of Solomon. New York: Penguin, 1987.

———. Sula. New York: Penguin, 1973.

———. Tar Baby. New York: Penguin, 1982.

———. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (1989): 1-34.

———. “Virginia Woolf's and William Faulkner's Treatment of the Alienated.” Thesis. Cornell University, 1955.

———. “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women's Lib.” The New York Times Magazine, 22 August 1971: 14-15, 63-66.

Tate, Claudia. “Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie 156-70.

John N. Duvall (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Duvall, John N. “The Authorized Morrison: Reflexivity and the Historiographic.” In The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison: Modernist Authenticity and Postmodern Blackness, pp. 119-51. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

[In the following essay, Duvall examines elements of metafiction in relation to African-American female identity in Morrison's Beloved,Jazz, and Paradise.]

With Tar Baby, Morrison lays to rest much of her anxiety about her identity as an African-American woman novelist. This is what I mean by “the authorized Morrison.” She has in the course of her preceding fictions largely authorized herself, constructing a powerful position from which to write and speak. If this study contributes anything to an understanding of Morrison, it is the way her identifying fictions—her first four novels—do not simply thematize identity formation, they perform it. As I have argued, it is a highly self-reflexive process: as Morrison writes, she enacts the identity she was not certain she had, thereby constituting that very identity. The Morrison who writes Beloved,Jazz, and Paradise is more confident that the funk can rise economically; in other words, she feels less inclined to celebrate a black identity exclusively linked to poverty.

No longer needing to allegorize her struggle to become an authentic African-American woman, Morrison nevertheless, at various moments in her later historiographic trilogy, continues to meditate on authorship and the social role the artist may play in relation to the community. I do not intend my discussion of Morrison's latest three novels to be full and complete readings; rather, I want to place these fictions in the context that this study has emphasized—the autobiographical impulses that animate various moments within the writing. Although no longer as prominent a feature as it was in her earlier novels, the reflexive contemplation Morrison begins on authorship with Soaphead Church in The Bluest Eye continues through such characters in her historiographic trilogy as Baby Suggs, Sethe's mother-in-law in Beloved; the unnamed, disembodied narrator of Jazz, who is strong enough to question her own productive powers; and a final marginal figure from Paradise, Patricia Best, the light-complexioned black woman whose historical writing interprets the hidden meaning of genealogy in the all-black town of Ruby, Oklahoma.


Certainly no American text of the sort I am discussing was ever written for black people—no more than Uncle Tom's Cabin was written for Uncle Tom to read or be persuaded by.

—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

Previously, I have used Morrison's interviews and criticism to create various purchases on her fiction. I would like, however, to move in a different direction here to suggest that Beloved may provide clues about Morrison's developing critical sensibility, a sensibility that would manifest itself a year after the publication of her fifth novel in her lecture, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” In other words, how does Morrison's fifth novel look if one reads it for her development of a critique of Enlightenment impulses in nineteenth-century American literature? For Morrison, Stowe's failure to acknowledge the black reader means that Uncle Tom's Cabin exemplifies the larger failure of the American novel to recognize its implication in the construction of racism (Playing 16-17). Certainly in Morrison's fictional rendering of slavery, the African-American reader is always addressed. But Morrison's relation to Stowe, I wish to argue, goes beyond a passing comment to the intertextual fabric of Beloved.

In Beloved, Morrison begins to make a clearer turn to a fiction that is historiographic in the sense Linda Hutcheon has identified as postmodern. For Hutcheon, novels such as Beloved “juxtapose what we think we know of the past (from official archival sources and personal memory)” with alternative representations that emphasize “the postmodern epistemological questioning of the nature of historical knowledge”; such an emphasis allows the reader to ask, “Which ‘facts’ make it into history? And whose facts?” (Politics 71). Morrison's turn toward alternative history is signaled by Beloved's most immediate intertext, the archive of slave narratives in general and more particularly the story of Margaret Garner.1 While working at Random House, Morrison served as the unacknowledged editor for an alternative history of everyday African Americans, The Black Book (1974), a portion of which included excerpts from slave narratives. Later Morrison came across Garner's story. While working on Beloved in 1985, Morrison claims to have known about Garner only through a “newspaper clipping”; however, as the novelist continues discussing Garner's escape from Kentucky, Morrison reveals a familiarity that seems to exceed a single newspaper clipping:

[Garner] lived in a little neighborhood just outside of Cincinnati and she had killed her children. She succeeded in killing one; she tried to kill two others. She hit them in the head with a shovel and they were wounded but they didn't die. And there was a smaller one that she had at her breast. The interesting thing, in addition to that, was the interviews that she gave. She was a young woman. In the inked pictures of her she seemed a very quiet, very serene-looking woman and everyone who interviewed her remarked about her serenity and tranquility. She said, “I will not let those children live how I have lived.”

(Naylor 206-207)

Morrison goes on to tell about Garner's mother-in-law's reaction to the killing. More recently Morrison responded to a question regarding her reading of slave narratives and their relation to Beloved:

I wouldn't read them for information because I knew that they had to be authenticated by white patrons, that they couldn't say everything they wanted to say because they couldn't alienate their audience […]. Their narratives had to be very understated. So while I looked at the documents and felt familiar with slavery and overwhelmed by it, I wanted it to be truly felt. I wanted to translate the historical into the personal.

(Schappell 103)

Claiming little specific knowledge (nor wanting more regarding Garner), Morrison can presumably merge fiction and history in a fashion that will personalize and politicize the past. The earlier quotation, however, suggests that Morrison is more aware of the historical record concerning Garner than she admits, and the reason may have something to do with a desire to conceal another intertext, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.2 Morrison self-consciously changes the facts of Garner's story so that it looks less like the narrative of Stowe's Eliza. Margaret Garner, like Eliza, escapes across the partially frozen Ohio River; Morrison, however, changes this detail in Sethe's crossing of the Ohio.3 This is an interesting twist on an author-directed form of intertextuality. Her earlier titles Song of Solomon and Tar Baby explicitly invite the reader to think about the biblical chapter and the folk tale; now, however, Morrison's novel directs the reader's attention to Uncle Tom's Cabin because of the fictive moves that create difference and seem almost to say, “Don't think of Stowe's novel.” Yet Stowe's narrative insists on manifesting itself.4 But what specifically identifies this nineteenth-century novel as an intertext of Beloved?

In chapter 39 of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Simon Legree's abused mistress, Cassy, develops the plan whereby she and Emmeline (whom Legree plans to succeed Cassy) will escape by hiding in the attic of the cruel master's house. Her stratagem is based on “the memory of an old ghost legend” (396), which in turn is rooted in the death of a woman slave whom Legree apparently tortured and killed in that garret. By clever contrivances, Cassy convinces Legree that the attic is indeed haunted, so that when she and Emmeline appear to escape into the swamp, they may safely return to hide in the garret until Legree exhausts himself searching the swamp.

While actually carrying out the first part of this plan (the apparent escape into the swamp) with Legree in hot pursuit, Emmeline falters: “O Cassy, I'm going to faint!” Cassy responds, pulling a stiletto and says: “If you do, I'll kill you!” (401). This moment, in which a woman who has lost her daughter threatens the young woman who is that lost daughter's metaphorical substitute, resonates particularly with a central moment in Toni Morrison's Beloved—Sethe's successful killing of her baby daughter, Beloved, when the mother realizes she and her children will be taken back into slavery. Cassy's relation to Sethe becomes even clearer in the life history that Cassy narrates to Tom. She tells him how she killed a son out of love. Cassy's first son, fathered by the master whom she loved, had been taken from her after the master sold her; she reasons, therefore, that her second son's life—given the violent disruptions of the black family under slavery—would not be worth living and so gives the baby laudanum (364). Taken together, Sethe's and Cassy's infanticides suggest the way Beloved rewrites Uncle Tom's Cabin, a rewriting that refuses the vision of Stowe's Christian world and simultaneously posits an Africanist realm of spirituality. Unlike spirituality in Stowe's novel, in which the tortured black body of Uncle Tom can be released only by death into eternal salvation, whatever paradise can be achieved in Morrison's novel must happen in relation to the body.

Several other overt parallels between Beloved and Uncle Tom's Cabin remain despite Morrison's apparent attempt to deflect the reader's attention from the connection.5 Like Eliza, who lives in comfort and apparent security from the market economy of slavery at the Harris farm in Kentucky, Sethe also lives on a Kentucky farm where the human dignity of the slaves appears secure. In both novels, this tranquil state terminates suddenly: in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Mr. Shelby must sell two of his slaves or risk losing his farm; in Beloved, the death of the good master allows the sadistic schoolteacher to take over. In response, both Eliza with her child and Sethe, pregnant with Denver, escape to Ohio. But here the parallels begin to break down. Eliza's story quickly moves toward comedy. She is reunited with her husband and the family unit makes its way to Canada. In fact, except for the Christian martyr Tom, all of Stowe's major characters find integration into a larger community. Eliza is reunited with her mother, just as Cassy is reunited with her daughter. Even the sting of Uncle Tom's death is mitigated by the narrator's certain knowledge that Tom goes to meet his Maker. In a novel that purports to reveal the horrors of slavery, it oddly becomes a sort of fairy tale, a wish fulfillment nominated as “truth stranger than fiction. How can it be otherwise, when a system prevails which whirls families and scatters their members, as the wind whirls and scatters the leaves of autumn? These shores of refuge, like the eternal shore, often unite again, in glad communion, hearts that for long years have mourned each other as lost” (424). Beloved's reunions, on the other hand, are far from easy or fortunate. Paul D finds Sethe only accidentally and after years of wandering. And he is not her husband. Moreover, Morrison's novel addresses ambiguously the mother-daughter reunion. Not all haunted houses lead to happy homes.

Chapter 42 of Uncle Tom's Cabin claims, with Stowe's Fieldingesque irony, to be “An Authentic Ghost Story.” Cassy, who, unlike Sethe, is not haunted by the killing of her child, decides to “haunt” Legree as part of her plan to escape with Emmeline. She begins leaving the garret at night dressed in a sheet and appears to Legree one night thus attired. In doing so she brings to bear an understanding of Legree's fear of the slave he killed in the attic and of his recurring dread of the rough way he treated his dying mother. Cassy's action drives Legree into insanity that hastens his death. So in one sense, the figure of the ghost in Legree's plantation house is the simplest of the three. Cassy, as the reader is well aware, is the “ghost,” a ploy she uses to defeat an evil man.

In another sense, though, the ghost in Legree's house is complicated by Stowe's Christian world picture.6 Speaking of Legree, who returns from a night of drinking, the narrator tells us: “let a man take what pains he may to hush it down, a human soul is an awful, ghostly, unquiet possession for a bad man to have” (417). To figure the soul as a ghost, however, pulls against the narrator's assertion that Legree's superstitious nature is a trait “common to coarse and uninstructed minds” (367-68), for what is Legree's superstition but an intimation of his ghostly soul? That is to say, it is precisely Legree's superstition that is closest to his spirituality and the possibility of his redemption. In Legree's house, then, ghosts are simultaneously affirmed and denied: the narrator's overt rhetoric makes the idea of ghosts laughable, while Stowe's Christian vision assures us of a different supernatural, the realm of heaven and angels.

Stowe's Christian supernatural emerges in the contrasting yet parallel death scenes of two of Tom's masters—the good New Orleans master, St. Clare, and the vicious planter, Legree. On St. Clare's deathbed in Stowe's aptly titled chapter “Reunion,” the good man has a vision of his mother: “Just before the spirit parted, he opened his eyes, with a sudden light, as of joy and recognition, and said, ‘Mother!’ and then he was gone!” (318). Not only does St. Clare encounter his mother's ghost in the moment of his dying, he himself is denominated as one—“spirit.” Just as Tom's good master is ushered into eternity by his mother, so too is Legree met by his mother who will lead him to eternal damnation. Although initially it was Cassy's acting that drove Legree to distraction, it is Legree's mother who comes to his deathbed, “a stern, white, inexorable figure, saying, ‘Come! come! come!’” (418).

The distinction, we might say, is between ghosts and holy ghosts or angels, which—as appearance of these two mothers at the deaths of their sons would suggest—aligns these maternal ghosts with a feminine principle in Stowe's discourse. This feminine principle has everything to do with an opposition between reason and feeling.7

And those with the most natural relation to feeling in Stowe's world are women, children, and African Americans. The dying Eva's relation to her father, St. Clare, and Tom's relation to his various masters underscore Stowe's world picture. Eva, for example, leads her father to Christ, but only by the assertion of her belief, a belief that cannot be grounded on reason. Tom's relation to St. Clare duplicates Eva's, since Tom vows never to leave until “Mas'r St. Clare's a Christian” (306). Tom, like Eva, bases his appeal not on reason but on faith. From the outset we are told that Tom is simple. His stature as Christian tragic hero resides in his spiritual greatness, his ability to feel the logos, not to reason with it:

Uncle Tom was a sort of patriarch in religious matters in the neighborhood. [… H]e was looked up to with great respect, as a sort of minister among them; and the simple, hearty, sincere style of his exhortations, might have edified even better educated persons. But it was in prayer that he especially excelled. Nothing could exceed the touching simplicity, the childlike earnestness of his prayer, enriched with the language of Scripture, which seemed so entirely to have wrought itself into his being as to have become a part of himself, and to drop from his lips unconsciously. […] And so much did his prayer always work on the devotional feeling of his audiences, that there seemed often a danger that it would be lost altogether in the abundance of the responses which broke out everywhere around him.


Tom's religion, like Romantic poetry, is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions. Tom, however, readily grants St. Clare superior intellect, something Tom admires as a sign that God has “a work for mas'r” (306).

Tom's ministrations to his masters never deviates, no matter what kind of man his master is. Tom is as good and faithful a servant to Legree as he was to Mr. Shelby or to St. Clare. Refusing only to harm other slaves, Tom is a model of subservience on the Legree plantation. Stowe's Christian world picture, for all its assertion of the moral superiority of true Christian women, slaves, and children, ultimately reinscribes what Jacques Lacan has termed the Name-of-the-Father, paternal authority that functions as linguistic construct (Lacan 199). The faithful wife, the humble slave, or the dutiful child may remind the husband, the master, or the father of the good and the true, but authority always resides with the male. And it is the duty of the wife, the slave, and the child to submit to male authority, even when it is questionable, and to leave punishment of the bad man (that is, the failed embodiment of the father function) to that ultimate symbolic Father, God. Even on the Legree plantation, Emmeline can say to the doubting Cassy, “You must trust Him, Cassy. […] He is our Father!” (406). The most persistent contradiction in Stowe's novel, then, is that while it scrutinizes earthly manifestations of patriarchy, in the final instance it resoundingly affirms patriarchy as transcendent design, thus remaining well within the logocentrism of God the Father.

As Uncle Tom's Cabin and Beloved meditate on community, they begin to chart a parent's possible motivation for sacrificing a child. If Uncle Tom's Cabin argues for the efficacy of women in a spiritual patriarchy, Beloved functions in part to recover a realm of spirit that is outside and prior to transcendence conceived of in masculine tropes.8 A key difference is marked by the nature of ghosts in Morrison's novel. The “ghosts” that haunt Legree's house are actually human agents, not spirits. In Beloved, 124 Bluestone Road is indeed visited by an authentic ghost.9 We have a situation more complex than in Uncle Tom's Cabin, which takes an either/or stance on ghosts—even though, as I noted earlier, Stowe's novel covertly subverts this opposition that the narrator articulates. Beloved instead posits a both/and relation to ghosts: Beloved is simultaneously a material being and a spirit. But whose spirit? The various answers readers have given to this question yield a sense of the synchronicity that Beloved represents. She is Sethe's dead child come home, she is Seth's hanged mother reincarnated, she is spirit of the Middle Passage; Beloved is, in short, a metonymy for the “Sixty Million and more” of the book's dedication, a number representing those killed, raped, or otherwise physically and psychologically damaged in the history of the American slave trade. As such, Beloved is not the Word but rather the “rememory” made flesh. Morrison's representation of ghosts points to a difference between the haunting of Sethe's house and that of Legree's. This difference turns on the way spirituality is articulated through religious language, particularly in Uncle Tom's Cabin and Beloved. As the intersection of the material body and the spirit, the impregnated Beloved serves as a figure for the religious thinking of Baby Suggs. Her spirituality resonates with the Dogon creation myth that mourns the lost possibilities of androgyny and the female in the fallen world.

In Morrison's rewriting of Uncle Tom's Cabin, she apparently omits “the hero of our story” (Stowe 28), Uncle Tom. Tom, the religious patriarch of the Shelby farm, however, is recast in the maternal figure of Baby Suggs. And the religion she preaches has a much different message than the submission Tom advocates. Thinking about the atrocities committed by white people in the aftermath of the Civil War, Stamp Paid asks himself, “What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?” (180). But in Beloved, Tom's Jesus can neither succor nor explain. Although Tom dies in certainty of meeting his Heavenly Father, Baby Suggs dies in doubt; nevertheless, Beloved in its fictive resolution triumphantly affirms her religion of the maternal body. In the clearing where she held her ceremonies, Baby Suggs, shunning the patriarchal Word, “did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure”; instead, “she told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine”:

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. […] Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together […]. This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. […] And all your inside parts that they'd just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.


If Tom's Christianity is the religion that legitimizes a masculine libidinal economy that privileges the transmission of the patriarchal Word in the father-son relationship (with woman as the ghostly go-between), then Baby Suggs's religion of the body envisions a fleshy and fluid spirit suggestive of the maternal body. In the opening sentence of her sermon, an interesting expression leads in two directions simultaneously—“we flesh.” The strangeness of the words points to an irreducible tension. Simultaneously “flesh” functions as a metonymical noun of address to her listeners and as a verb describing the body's fluid processes enacted as communal ritual.

But her role as preacher of the flesh also reveals Baby Suggs as the synthesis of Morrison's previous representations of the artist figure, particularly as this character develops aspects of Pilate Dead. Clearly, Baby Suggs is the master of an expressive form, unlike the many maimed or near artists of Morrison's previous fiction. Having healed herself through the writing of her first four novels, Morrison now figures an artist who can truly heal the community in ways that a Soaphead Church or a Sula cannot. In the female preacher of Beloved, one might say, Morrison reveals her aspirations for her art and communal role. Rather than art imitating life, life follows art, for Baby Suggs seems to model the role of public intellectual that Morrison has come to play since the late 1980s. Neither an Uncle Tom nor an artist manqué, Baby Suggs weds the aesthetic to both the spiritual and the ethical, suggesting the enlarged public role Morrison would carve out for herself in order to comment more broadly on racism in America.

But even as Morrison imagines the larger potential for expression, the specter of marginality arises once again, for Baby Suggs, like all of Morrison's artist figures, risks becoming isolated from the community. This of course is precisely what happens when she gives too much of herself in the aftermath of the feast she prepares for her daughter-in-law, recently escaped from slavery. Reproducing the miracle of Tom's Jesus (the feeding of the multitude), Baby Suggs only earns the community's resentment by her fantastic excess. It is in fact this prosperity that marks Baby Suggs's difference from so many of Morrison's earlier characters whose authenticity seems to depend on a life that is economically pinched. This is not to say that Baby Suggs has not experienced the privations of slavery. She may have gained her daughter-in-law but her son is denied her. Moreover, Baby Suggs's prosperity is relative; she is hardly wealthy, but in this all-black, post-Civil War community, she has more than she needs and more than others. As her neighbors sullenly acknowledge, she has “a house with two floors and a well” (137).

Acknowledging that “she had overstepped” (138) by giving too much of her gifts (thus flaunting her blessings), Baby Suggs senses the ill will of the black community just prior to the arrival of schoolteacher and ensuing tragedy. As she hoes her garden, she recalls her seven children taken from her, naming four of them, and tries to imagine them grown. The last of the four names points to the reflexivity and unfinished business of self-fashioning latent in the moment. She asks herself, “Does Ardelia still love the burned bottom of bread?” (139). By having the novel's central figuration of the artist invoke the first name of Morrison's maternal grandmother, the secret Ardelia of Chloe Wofford, the author seems to come to terms with whatever might be threatening in that name. In a sense Morrison becomes the grandmother's mother and thus claims herself as her own ancestor.

Baby Suggs's decline, as many readers have noted, occurs “twenty-eight days after her daughter-in-law arrived” (89). This time period, the menstrual cycle, anticipates a different flowing of female blood, Sethe's slitting her daughter's throat. The flowing of blood also is linked to another flowing of bodily fluids, Sethe's milk, milk intended for the child whose blood she spills. Here both Luce Irigaray's feminist theory and Baby Suggs's sermon speak together to comment on the crime schoolteacher's nephews perpetrate on Sethe's maternal body. In Halle's telling, schoolteacher and his nephews are good Christians (37), yet the nephews' act of stealing Sethe's milk is a figure of the division of body and spirit, a moment erecting boundaries between self and other. The stealing of Sethe's milk is Beloved's primal scene—that which must be simultaneously repressed and repeated. In fact the novel literally repeats the violation as a moment of Enlightenment discourse: schoolteacher records with the ink Sethe has made for his “scientific” investigation into race his nephews' rape of her; for schoolteacher, Sethe's pain is invisible and serves only as another moment for him to attempt to know her essential racial identity.

Sethe's killing her daughter creates a symbolic economy based on the maternal body in which her act reverses and repays schoolteacher's kinsmen: child's blood replaces mother's milk. The sight of Sethe's holding her slaughtered child renders schoolteacher's nephew unable to explain, paralyzed by “the flow of some shameful liquid” (Irigaray 237). The amazed white male audience of Sethe's act observe from the position of male subjectivity “that finds everything flowing abhorrent”: “Horrible to see: bloody. Fluid has to remain that secret remainder, of the one. Blood, but also milk, sperm, lymph, saliva, spit, tears, humors, gas, waves, airs, fire … light. All threaten to deform, propagate, evaporate, consume him, to flow out of him and into another who cannot be easily held on to” (Irigary 237). Sethe's repayment in this fluid economy reverses by asserting that the boundaries of self exceed the individual body, a position figured strikingly by her nursing the infant Denver shortly thereafter so that the baby ingests simultaneously mother's milk and sister's blood.

Beloved's climactic moment—the hot summer day when the community of women comes to purge 124—is the clearest moment of the primal scene's repetition and serves as an ontological unhinging as it blurs the boundary between past and present. The day becomes a chance for Sethe to choose differently than she did eighteen years earlier. In this repetition, a minor character helps us again see the difference between Uncle Tom's God the Father and Baby Suggs's religion of the body. As Edward Bodwin returns to his Sweet Home, the house of his childhood that he and his sister rented to Baby Suggs, he is, for all appearances, a benevolent patriarch and member of “the Society,” a local group originally founded to oppose slavery. Yet in his private thoughts he is the excluded son, whose return to 124 is crowded with memories of the tin soldiers he hid from “his father, probably, a deeply religious man who knew what God knew and told everybody what it was” (260). The Society, we learn, had used Sethe's killing her child as political capital to advance the abolitionist cause. But despite Bodwin's ostensibly progressive politics, his personal vanity regarding his dark mustache and white hair leads to an interesting moment of reflection:

Twenty years ago when the Society was at its height in opposing slavery, it was as though his coloring was itself the heart of the matter. The “bleached nigger” was what his enemies called him, and on a trip to Arkansas, some Mississippi rivermen, enraged by the Negro boatmen they competed with, had caught him and shoe-blackened his face and his hair. Those heady days were gone now; what remained was the sludge of ill will; dashed hopes and difficulties beyond repair.


The appellation “bleached nigger” points to the way that Bodwin, in Morrison's critical terms, is playing in the dark. The regret in his meditation seems at odds with the fact that the Society's chief objective has been achieved: the slaves are free. Essentially Bodwin longs for the good old days of slavery so that he might again be an abolitionist freedom fighter and media star. In his self-willed incomprehension of what is implied by his desires, Bodwin stands convicted, along with Tar Baby's Valerian Street, of “the crime of innocence” (Tar Baby 242). In his desire to return to the pre-Civil War condition of slavery, Bodwin's complicity with schoolteacher is underscored, for both schoolteacher's punishment and Bodwin's (preferably infinitely deferred) liberation of African-American bodies depends on a white male authority.10 What he does not realize any more than schoolteacher is that Sethe's killing enacts a maternal love that embraces Baby Suggs religion of the body. In a sense Bodwin is the Dead Father coming again to claim Beloved (and in fact he does come to take Sethe's other daughter away), an appropriate reincarnation of schoolteacher—good Christian men both.

Sethe's decision to attack schoolteacher/Bodwin rather than kill Beloved (“spirit” woman)/Beloved (child) serves as a therapeutic reenactment that purges Sethe's haunted memory and signals Beloved's departure. But the moment also allows the community to atone for its guilt at having resented Baby Suggs's good fortune and generosity. In coming forward as a group, the thirty women suggest a different kind of religious thinking, one that affirms Baby Suggs's religion of the body. Even as they are deciding what course of action to take, the language of the women echoes Baby Suggs's message; speaking of Beloved, Ella says:

“It's sitting there. Sleeps, eats and raises hell. Whipping Sethe every day.”

“I'll be. A baby?”

“No. Grown. The age it would have been had it lived.”

“You talking about flesh?”

“I'm talking about flesh.”


The last two lines, suggesting the call-response form of an African-American church service, particularly echo one of Baby Suggs's lines from the Clearing—“This is flesh I'm talking about here” (88). It is particularly significant that Ella speaks at this moment. Although biographical information about Morrison consistently identifies her mother as Ramah Wofford, something curious appears on Morrison's birth certificate. In the space provided for the mother's name, “Ramah Willis” appears but carroted above and before “Ramah” and in the same hand is “Ella.” (See Morrison's birth certificate, reproduced in chapter 2.) The legal status of “Ella” is not clear. Is it a nickname by which Ramah Wofford was known? Whatever this name's status, it appears clear that Morrison's mother insisted on its addition to the legal document that is her daughter's birth certificate. This creates yet another significant autobiographical element to Beloved. Baby Suggs, mother to Ardelia, is also the spiritual ancestor to Ella, so that Morrison's depiction of the artistic impulse through Baby Suggs becomes even more highly freighted; there is an implied line of metaphorical descent from Baby Suggs through Ardelia and Ella to Chloe. In the symbolic logic of the novel, then, although Baby Suggs is gone, her religion of the maternal body animates the community's movement toward redemption. The afterlife that Baby Suggs's words achieve is what Morrison surely desires for her own words—that they be remembered. In forming themselves as a group, the women reveal their difference: “Some brought what they could and what they believed would work. Stuffed in apron pockets, strung around their necks, lying in the space between their breasts. Others brought Christian faith—as shield and sword. Most brought a little of both” (257). This passage indicates the continuity of older African belief systems in America, even when those beliefs had to survive by going underground and merging with the forms of the master's religion. But the clearest affirmation of Baby Suggs's spirituality is that the group of thirty women goes behind the patriarchal Word of Christianity for origin: “They stopped praying and took a step back to the beginning. In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like” (259). It is precisely this presymbolic sound that gives Sethe the courage to rewrite the ending to schoolteacher's first visit.11

Baby Suggs's religion of the maternal body, affirmed by the cry of the community of women, serves as a different point of entry for rethinking the categories of patriarchy than Stowe's affirmation of God the Father. Moreover, Beloved's community of women creates a nuanced sense of gender as it relates to the possibility of religious transcendence, one that will find its fullest expression in Paradise. Morrison's engagement of Uncle Tom's Cabin, by creating an intertextual space that maps what Morrison finds intolerable about Stowe's representation of race and gender, points to the criticism she would soon write in “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” and Playing in the Dark.


“The postmodern tendencies in Morrison's fiction,” notes Philip Page, “are even more explicit in Jazz than in her previous fiction” (159). Although Page writes this before the publication of Paradise, his assertion about the postmodern quality of Morrison's sixth novel is appropriate. Jazz indeed seems to play with and directly thematize “such Derridean concepts as the différance, the trace, and the breach” (Page 159). Perhaps the most obvious instance of this is the self-named character, Joe Trace, who derives his name himself from the only secure knowledge he has about his mother, Wild—that she disappeared without a trace. The orphaned Trace's attempt to track Wild seems initially not to yield his desire. Searching for any minimal sign of her acknowledgment, he finds nothing. Nothing, that is, until Felice communicates to him the dying words of the girl, Dorcas, who Joe shot. Dorcas's words make present a verbal trace substituting for the absent maternal body and serve as the long deferred moment of acknowledgment. Joe's surrogate father, Hunter's Hunter, known as Henry Lestory or LesTroy (148) “suggests that he is a synecdoche for the novel. Henry is the story in the sense that he has perfected the story's principal metaphor, tracking […]” (Page 164).12 Between the trace and the story lies the metafictionality of Jazz, a story full of improbable reconciliations: between husband and wronged wife, between the wife who mutilated her husband's lover's corpse and that girl's aunt, between the middle-aged lover and the girl he kills, between a son and a father whom the son initially hoped to kill.

One thing to note about the story of Jazz, particularly the one in the novel's present (1926), is that the possibilities of black identity are played out in a different economic environment than Morrison uses in her earlier fiction. Harlem in the 1920s with its black-owned businesses represents a prosperous African-American community. Whether she intends it or not, Morrison's sixth novel seems to comment on her first. Like Cholly and Pauline Breedlove, Joe and Violet Trace leave the racism of the rural South for the economic promise of the North. From the time they arrive in New York City in 1906 through the 1920s, the Traces (unlike the Breedloves) are upwardly mobile. Joe finds progressively better paying jobs that afford the Traces a number of life's small comforts. And though both the Breedloves and the Traces experience tragedy in their new homes, the Traces transcend the tragic denouement that the plot wishes to impose. In The Bluest Eye, the Breedloves' move to Lorain, Ohio, encodes the loss of one form of authenticity—that of the rural black community. But for the Traces, whatever African-American identity they forge by the end of Jazz does not depend exclusively on their embracing rural black poverty.

Despite the undeniable importance of Joe and Violet's reconciliation, the larger reconciliation of this novel happens not at the level of the story but of the discourse—the narration itself and the narrator, Morrison's figuration once again of the artist. Morrison's representation of authorship participates in the profoundly metafictional orientation of Jazz. Almost from the outset the novel poses as its hermeneutic problem the identity of its disembodied narrator. When the narrator announces “I haven't got any muscles, so I can't really be expected to defend myself” (8), the reader's hunt for an elusive identity begins. Although there is no definitive evidence that the narrator is either black or female, Eusebio Rodrigues thoughtfully explores the issue of who speaks by looking closely at the novel's epigraph from the gnostic text The Nag Hammadi. Since this first-person voice in the epigraph is the goddess Thunder, the first-person narrator's reference to her narration as “my storm” (219) suggests for Rodrigues that the narrator is a “female immanence of the divine” (261). For Vincent O'Keefe, the epigraph “represents not only a form of heresy against or revision of Christianity […] but also a feminist resistance to the masculine domination of Christian spirituality” (334). If one accepts Rodrigues's and O'Keefe's arguments, then there seems to be a clear link from the representation of an alternative spirituality in Beloved to the narrative consciousness of Jazz. Baby Suggs's project, in effect, is continued by the narrator of Jazz, yet the later artist figure has a much more dialogical conception of her authority, one that allows her to transcend the isolation of artistic production. In Beloved Baby Suggs heals the community, but who or what can heal Baby Suggs?

The consensus view sees the narrator of Jazz as female, and I certainly follow that convention, but I want to retain another sense of the narrator's sexual identity. For Henry Lewis Gates, Jr., the narrator's indeterminacy extends to the matter of a determinate sex: “it is neither male nor female […]. It is both and neither” (“Jazz” 54). Gates is right to emphasize indeterminacy, and given the novel's conclusion, I wish to stress his claim that the narrator is both male and female, if not always simultaneously so, then alternately.13 As the narrator's pleasure is delineated, it seems as though this speaker represents the emotional bisexuality of artistic production. Whatever the exact identity of the narrator, as the teller of the story, she certainly figures the author function. Early in her representation of herself she says, “I lived a long time, maybe too much, in my own mind. People say I should come out more. Mix. I agree that I close off in places, but if you have been left standing, as I have, while your partner overstays at another appointment, or promises to give you exclusive attention after supper, but is falling asleep just as you have begun to speak—well, it can make you inhospitable if you aren't careful, the last thing I want to be” (9). Doreatha Drummond Mbalia in fact directly equates the narrator with Morrison on the grounds that, like the narrator who speaks of problems with “a partner,” Morrison “experienced problems with her mate”; moreover like the narrator, “the novelist […] may live too much in the mind. It is this similarity that makes narrator and author a part of the narrative structure” (636). Whether one wishes to read this moment quite so autobiographically, Mbalia's reading certainly underscores the way the narrator figures authorship and its discontents.

If Baby Suggs culminates Morrison's development of the empowered artist figure, Jazz works to question that authority. This questioning occurs in the narration and the progressive loss of authority experienced by the first-person narrator who is not a character in the story she tells of both parental and sexual love lost and found. The narrator's confident predictions at the beginning (which outline the story and intimate a denouement of violent repetition when Felice again triangulates the relationship between Joe and Violet Trace) turn to uncertain speculation about Golden Gray and finally to a frank admission of error and limitation. But for all the acknowledgment of fallibility, the narrator remains remarkably free from anxiety, a sign of Morrison's fuller comfort with her authorial role. From this new position of comfort, Jazz returns us to the collapsed space of sexual and textual pleasure, but now not as that which must be repressed as it was in Sula. Instead, Jazz's more playful narration suggests that the healing that Baby Suggs imagines in her spiritual art may also flow back to the artist through the person of the reader.

I want to turn, then, to the conclusion of Morrison's sixth novel because it is there that the narrator begins to dismantle her authority. Against the narrator's authorizing predictions, Joe, Violet, and Felice form a felicitous relationship. It is not necessary, of course, to believe that Morrison is fooled in the same way as her narrator is by the unpredictability of these characters; nevertheless, the narrator of Jazz encodes the multiple paradoxes of Morrison's own relation to authority. In short, the author seems to use her narrator to comment on the psychic determinism of her early fiction in which the individual often is doomed to repeat later in life the prior insult and injury that defines his or her adult subjectivity. Cholly Breedlove serves as the paradigmatic example of the early type of character in Morrison's fiction for whom “the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself” (Jazz 220). Psychologically raped by the white men who interrupt his first attempt at coitus, abandoned by his mother, rejected by his father, Cholly cannot but repeat the insult in his relation with Mrs. Breedlove. Even more devastatingly, he literalizes his psychological rape by raping his daughter, an act that marks the full extent of his limited ability to love. Sula's subjectivity, though aesthetically refined, is marked by her overhearing her mother's claim to love but not like her; as a result, Sula is doomed to repeat the loss of intimacy in her relationship with both Nel and Ajax. Though he discovers authenticity in his journey when he accepts Pilate's values, Milkman's life up to that point has been shaped by his oedipal struggle with the father.

Even beyond the content of her earlier fictions of identity formation, Morrison seems in Jazz to comment on her earlier modernist narration in The Bluest Eye. That first novel begins with two prefaces, both of which suggest psychic determinism. The repetition of the text of a standard elementary school primer, in which each iteration removes more markers of capitalization and punctuation, suggests the way the racialism of the primer's representation of a white world moves from consciousness to the unconscious. Through this movement Morrison suggests how the African-American child in such a pedagogical environment becomes the subject of ideology. The second preface to The Bluest Eye tells the story in miniature, as many modernist texts do, so that the reader must attend not to the pleasure of discovery but to an analysis of the logic of tragedy predicated on psychological repetitions. The first four pages of Jazz, of course, by giving a version of the complete story, seem to do what the second prefacing gesture of The Bluest Eye accomplishes. But in the later novel this modernist technique is undone.

Only in Beloved does Morrison fully imagine a way that the past could be rewritten. Sethe has a chance to choose again and, given her second chance, affirms the maternal religion of Baby Suggs. But if Beloved emphasizes the maternal body, Jazz points the reader to the erotic female body. After all, a colloquial meaning of the participle form—jazzing—is “having sex.” In this regard, what the narrator identifies as her erroneous pride in believing her narration is infallible is linked to an autoerotic sexuality. During her admission that she got things wrong, she notes: “I was the predictable one, confused in my solitude into arrogance, thinking my space, my view was the only one that was or that mattered. I got so aroused while meddling, while finger-shaping, I overreached and missed the obvious” (220). Solitude, as we have seen in so many of Morrison's previous figurations of the artistic subject position—from Soaphead Church to Baby Suggs—is risky, leading to Church's aberrant sexual desires and to Baby Suggs's overreaching. But by the end of Jazz, the narrator's sexual object choice shifts away from the self (as suggested by the controlling and perhaps masturbatory pleasures of finger-shaping) and toward another, a move in which the narrator announces her previously unspoken desires.

One of the ways this movement manifests itself is Morrison's turn to a more postmodern poetics that blurs the boundaries between the mimetic—the world the novel represents—and the diegetic—the telling of the story. The clearest instance of this blurring occurs near the end when the narrator's meditation turns to the voiceless woman known as Wild, a disturbing figure to the men of the novel because her presence is known only by her absence, but whose absence is experienced as an eerie presence:

I'd love to close myself in the peace left by the woman who lived there and scared everybody. Unseen because she knows better than to be seen. After all, who would see her, a playful woman who lived in a rock? Who could, without fright? Of her looking eyes looking back? I wouldn't mind. Why should I? She has seen me and is not afraid of me. She hugs me. Understands me. Has given me her hand. I am touched by her. Released in secret.


Here the narrator receives in a clear and unambiguous fashion what Joe Trace has longed for all his life—Wild's direct and unmediated acknowledgment. But what might this acknowledgment mean? The touch the narrator receives from Wild of course makes no sense in terms of realistic representation. Wild would be long dead and yet the supernatural possibility that allows Joe's mother to manifest herself through the youthful Dorcas permits one to imagine a Wild who could still be part of the present time of narration. On the one hand, Wild's touch, read in the context of Joe's search for his absent mother, seems to make her the timeless goddess figure's mother—Wild as the ancestor of Thunder. On the other hand, a different context is established by the novel's concluding paragraphs, one in which the narrator's being touched and hugged by Wild figures a movement away from a controlling self-arousal toward another sense of erotic possibility. In this regard, Wild's embrace echoes Sula's desire for the intimate female companion who can complete her; thus one might articulate a logic of Jazz: the character in the story who is body but not voice (Wild) completes the chief character of the discourse (the narrator) who is voice without body.

Not only is a boundary crossed when a character within the story embraces the teller of the tale who is outside the story. A further limit is imaginatively transgressed in the final two paragraphs of the novel. Now the embrace occurs between the narrator, the character that figures the author function, and the reader.14 And although the real reader seems to be encompassed by the fiction, that reader, I will argue, is positioned in a particular fashion. One arrives at this sexualized moment from an odd and paradoxical admission on the narrator's part. Commenting on the reconciled love of Joe and Violet, the narrator laments:

I envy them their public love. I myself have only known it in secret, shared it in secret and longed, aw longed to show it—to be able to say out loud what they have no need to say at all: That I have loved only you, surrendered my whole self reckless to you and nobody else. That I want you to love me back and show it to me. That I love the way you hold me, how close you let me be to you. I like your fingers on and on, lifting, turning. I have watched your face for a long time, now, and missed your eyes when you went away from me. Talking to you and hearing you answer—that's the kick.


What is striking in this description is the narrator's assertion of a difference between her passion, which has always remained secret, and Joe and Violet's open heterosexuality. The narrator's closeted passion has remained unnamed, yet paradoxically, in the moment of enunciation, it becomes the unspeakable thing spoken.

But then the final paragraph seems to dissolve the issue of sexuality by turning the matter into a riddle:

But I can't say that aloud; I can't tell anyone that I have been waiting for this all my life and that being chosen to wait is the reason I can. If I were able I'd say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.


Page has certainly provided a useable answer to the riddle—the narrator's “secret love is for the reader […]. She imagines that she is the book and therefore that the reader holds her […]” (173-74). Such a solution does open the novel up in interesting ways. Fully confident regarding her authority (in ways that Morrison was not in her first four novels), the narrator can now risk giving that identity away in the apparent sexual gift that the narrator makes of herself at novel's end. In authorizing the reader to complete the meaning of her text, Morrison reverses Roland Barthes's poetics of pleasure from The Pleasure of the Text. Instead of the reader's bliss that results from one's turning one's text of pleasure into writerly activity, Morrison articulates the storyteller's bliss at being remade.

Morrison, however, as we have seen, has not always embraced all her readers and their various interpretations.15 Here I want to introduce the possibility (only finally to reject it) that Jazz may be working to position its ideal reader as female. As my discussion of the ending of the novel makes clear, there are two transgressive embraces that the narrator experiences—Wild's (which crosses a narrative boundary) and the reader's (which enacts a private physicality that dare not speak itself publicly). If one reads the two moments relationally, so that the former (a woman-woman embrace) is the context for understanding the later, then it would be possible to argue that this novel specifically positions its reader as female. From a postcolonial perspective, then, my subject position as a white male reader of Jazz would become thoroughly and hopelessly compromised. As Franz Fanon argues in chapter 2 of Black Skin, White Masks (“The Woman of Color and the White Man”), the possibility of “authentic love” between such a pair will remain “unattainable” so long as racialized thinking exists. If the novel constructs the ideal reader as female, I should not even be reading Morrison—let alone writing about her—for to do so would position me as the always already colonizing white male who subjugates the sexualized body of the black woman.

It is here, however, that I wish to return to Gates's sense of the indeterminacy of the narrator's sexual identity. If we read the narrator as both female and male, then the embrace between narrator and reader is large indeed, for it recognizes a wide variety of sexual-textual pleasures. The narrator's Whitmanesque acknowledgment of the reader's touch admits that there are a multitude of religions of the body, so that the touch represented in the final sentence may be imagined as occurring between man and woman, man and man, or woman and woman; the embrace, in fact, may even be intergenerational or interracial. The overcontrolling narrator of Jazz who learns to accept limitations on “her” authority seems to encode Morrison's recognition that she no longer needs to attempt to control the meaning of her published novels by telling critics what kind of reading is appropriate. The pleasure of the text, both that of the writer and the reader, allows for a polymorphously perverse (con)textuality.

With this sense of the resonance of the novel's conclusion, I want to return briefly to Morrison's relation to William Faulkner, which was the focus of chapter 4 of this study. His novel Absalom, Absalom!, one of Morrison's recurring texts of pleasure, seems to have moved her from readerly pleasure to writerly bliss. I began my discussion of Jazz by listing the novel's improbable reconciliations. One addition to my earlier list might be Morrison's relation to Faulkner. Her comments published in 1993 in which she speaks of her “fascination” with Faulkner as she details a line-by-line reading she performed of Absalom for her students at Princeton provide a specific context for thinking about Faulkner's novel in relation to Jazz.16 Given the time frame of these remarks, Morrison's careful reading of Absalom, Absalom!, which led to her classroom lecture, appears to have occurred during the time she was writing Jazz.

Morrison's unpublished lecture, then, becomes a crucial intertext to Jazz, pointing to her engagement with Faulkner on race and the possibilities of acknowledgement. But if Morrison uses Faulkner's Go Down, Moses as a kind of scaffolding for Song of Solomon, her reading of Faulkner manifests itself more playfully in her later novel. This is not to say that her purpose is not serious. Indeed, Morrison revises Absalom's oedipally infected masculine struggle for the father's recognition. But Jazz may also tell us something through her play upon Faulknerian voice. Particularly in the unnumbered sections six and seven of Jazz, Morrison produces a pastiche of Faulknerian style, subject matter, and plot through her narrator's at times uncertain history of the racially mixed Golden Gray. In Absalom, lines of family relations are obscured by Thomas Sutpen's refusal to acknowledge the children he fathers by black women. Miscegenation in Faulkner's novel happens exclusively when African-American women have children by white fathers. Within that frame, however, Faulkner teases at the supreme horror of his Southern white community: what if a black man slept with a white woman? This question is central to Quentin and Shreve's construction of Henry Sutpen's motive for murdering Charles Bon. The seductive, charming Charles Bon serves as the white Southern community's repressed ideological horror: if white men can father black men who appear white, then these same “white” black men can beget black children on white women. These are the issues and questions Morrison directly addresses in her critical mapping of the ideological boundaries of Faulkner's already searching examination of “the insanity of racism.”

Morrison's Golden Gray starts out by reproducing the desire of Charles Bon but ends perhaps by revising the choice of Etienne Bon. Like Charles Bon, Golden Gray is the product of miscegenation, yet Morrison reverses Faulknerian genealogy: Golden is the son of a privileged white woman, Vera Louise Gray, and a dark-skinned slave, Henry LesTroy (or Lestory). Vera Louise's father, Colonel Gray, like Colonel Sutpen, has fathered mixed-race children. His discovery of his daughter's sexual behavior leaves him devastated, and in an act that recalls Sutpen's repudiation of his Haitian wife, Colonel Gray disavows his relationship with his daughter, giving her a large sum of money to go away.

It is here that one key element of Morrison's rewriting of Absalom stands out. Thomas Sutpen, the patriarch who wishes to design a lasting empire, becomes the obsession of all of those—the sons, the daughters, and wife—he denies; however, unlike Faulkner's Southern colonel, Morrison's is peripheral. Sutpen's first wife may live only for revenge, but Colonel Gray's daughter goes off to Baltimore with her servant, True Belle, to raise her son, and never gives her father another thought. Old Gray's money, however, allows Vera Louise to raise Golden Gray as a gentleman, much as Sutpen's money allows his first wife to raise their light-complexioned, mixed-race son, Charles Bon, in luxury.

Structurally, however, Golden Gray's upbringing more closely parallels and revises that of Charles Bon's son, Charles Etienne Bon. Both Gray and Etienne are raised by a white woman and a black woman. Both have their sense of their white identity disrupted by unexpected knowledge of their mixed racial background. Still, in Gray's desire to discover the absent father, he recalls Charles Bon's obsession, though with a difference: Bon seeks Sutpen, the white father, for recognition; Gray initially seeks LesTroy to kill him. Raised culturally white in the code of noblesse oblige, Gray is confronted with Henry Sutpen's dilemma. LesTroy, after all, is the black man who slept with his white mother, and his white identity tells him he should kill the scoundrel. Yet when he enters LesTroy's cabin and sits on his father's bed, Golden Gray is faced with Charles Bon's sense of loss. What Bon desires from his father, is “the living touch of that flesh warmed before he was born by the same blood which it had bequeathed him to warm his own flesh with, to be bequeathed by him in turn to run hot and loud in veins and limbs after that first flesh and then his own were dead” (255). Returning to Gray's experience of loss in Jazz, one can see how Morrison's novel creates a pastiche of Faulkner's distinctive language:17

Only now, he thought, now that I know I have a father, do I feel his absence: the place where he should have been and was not. Before, I thought everybody was one-armed, like me. Now I feel the surgery. The crunch of bone when it is sundered, the sliced flesh and the tubes of blood cut through, shocking the bloodrun and disturbing the nerves. They dangle and writhe. Singing pain. Waking me with the sound of itself, thrumming when I sleep so deeply it strangles my dreams away. There is nothing for it but to go away from where he is not to where he used to be and might be still. Let the dangle and the writhe see what it is missing; let the pain sing to the dirt where he stepped in the place where he used to be and might be still. I am not going to be healed, or to find the arm that was removed from me. I am going to freshen the pain, point it, so we both know what it is for.


Does Morrison's pastiche of Faulkner mean that Morrison gains no critical distance on his text?18 No, but that distance arises not intertextually but intratextually. Having reproduced one version of Faulknerian masculinity, potentially tragic in its sense of fatality and intention, Morrison fashions a way to avoid that tragedy. Gray's rhetorical flight, the double of Charles Bon's, is grounded when LesTroy returns home. He tells Gray that he will accept the young man as a son if he can act like a son but warns, “don't bring me no whiteboy sass” (173), an expression that works to deflate Gray's “Faulknerian” tragic rhetoric.

Morrison, however, in activating the Faulknerian intertext, invites the reader to participate in a reexamination of his work. The only clear intersection between Absalom, Absalom! and Jazz may be the way Golden Gray's pain parallels Charles Bon's. But having made this move, Morrison authorizes the reader to think in the space between the two novels. If I am less certain of other moments where Morrison gestures to Faulkner, my movement from father (Charles) to son (Etienne), although less sure, remains in the spirit of Morrison's novelistic “reading” of Faulkner.

If one accepts the Faulknerian resonance in Morrison's narrator, then there is a striking passage, one underscoring the metafictional nature of her narration, when the narrator stops to comment on her construction of the story. She claims to have gotten the portrayal of Golden Gray wrong in a way that eerily recalls Morrison's discussion of Faulkner's delayed and disguised portrayal of race in Absalom, a portrayal that she characterized in The Paris Review interview, quoted earlier, as “not the point anyway”:

What was I thinking of? How could I have imagined him so poorly? Not noticed the hurt that was not linked to the color of his skin, or the blood that beat beneath it. But to some other thing that longed for authenticity, for a right to be in this place, effortlessly without needing to acquire a false face […].

Now I have to think this through, carefully, even though I may be doomed to another misunderstanding. I have to do it and not break down. Not hating him is not enough; liking, loving him is not useful. I have to alter things. I have to be a shadow who wishes him well, like the smiles of the dead left over from their lives.


The repeated pronouns in this passage—“he” and “him”—seem not simply to describe the relation between narrator and character but perhaps also to point to a commentary from one author to another. In this moment, Morrison appears almost to speak in coded form of her revision of and relation to Faulkner. Whether Morrison here stands to Faulkner as the narrator does to Golden Gray, it is in Morrison's second, revised portrayal of Golden Gray that the figure who seems to be altered is Charles Bon's son, Etienne.

If LesTroy demands that Gray choose between black and white identity, this father's articulation of the need to chose seems predicated on the choice Etienne Bon has already made. Like Golden Gray, Etienne is presented with a clear choice between black and white, but how he chooses sets him apart in Faulkner's depiction of racially mixed characters. Faulkner's most fully developed black male characters of mixed race choose whiteness as the core of their identity. (When they do choose blackness, as Etienne Bon does, it is portrayed as a terrible mistake.) Lucas Beachamp in Go Down, Moses, for example, fixes his genealogical pride in his descent from Carothers McCaslin, the man who has raped Lucas's grandmother and great-grandmother.19 Etienne chooses blackness through an identification with his mother, but only to emphasize his cultural wounding; Gray also finally chooses blackness, ostensibly through an identification with a black father, though in fact it is as much his union with the voiceless African-American woman, Wild, that creates identity.

Morrison initially leaves Gray's decision much less clear than Etienne's, but through Joe Trace's quest for acknowledgement from Wild, Joe's absent mother, the reader discovers the material trace that reveals Gray's choice. (Joe Trace, one of the central figures of the novel's plot of the present, must be read through his relation to his lost mother, so that his desire for acknowledgement from his mother also comments on and revises Charles Bon's desire for acknowledgement from his father.) The personal items and male clothing belonging to Golden Gray that Joe discovers in Wild's cave reveal that Golden has chosen blackness through cohabitation with Wild.

In this regard, Wild works to reclaim the figure of the nameless black woman whom Etienne Bon marries. Clearly one of Faulkner's most embarrassing representations of race (even acknowledging its source as Mr. Compson), this woman, who never is given a voice, is described as “coal black and ape-like” (166). Etienne's choice of blackness, an act that seems to defy black masculine identity even while proclaiming such identity, suggests a racial self-loathing; his marriage to the African-American woman, as Mr. Compson imagines, is done to injure Judith, the white woman who urges him to pass for white. Etienne's defiance of the white woman who helped raise him serves as an ongoing act of vengeance against white culture. Golden Gray, however, learns to love the black woman whom he initially found disgusting. Once again, “Faulknerian pastiche” seems to be an appropriate way to name Morrison's use of language when she records Gray's immediate nausea at the sight of the obviously pregnant “berry-black woman”; his revulsion at the “black, liquid female” (Faulkner, Light 144-45) almost exactly duplicates Joe Christmas's fear and loathing of women. Gray, however, is able to put aside his youthful sense of injury and move past his fear of the feminine. As a result his choice of blackness becomes an act of love, one in which he accepts a new identity and creates his earthly paradise with Wild.


As I argue previously in this study, Tar Baby begins Morrison's critique of the all-black agrarian community as the site of African-American authenticity. Milkman Dead's paradise—Shalimar, Virginia—sours in Jadine Child's experience of Eloe, Florida. Paradise expands this critique by thoroughly exploding Milkman's sense of both completed authenticity and the essential goodness of a racially pure black community. Ruby, Oklahoma, stands as Morrison's most economically prosperous all-black community, one desperately in need of spiritual renewal; that spiritual renewal, however, does not (as her earlier fiction so often did) demand the return to poverty as the ground of identity. Despite this novel's expansion of the critique of Song of Solomon's stand on authenticity, Paradise in a number of ways represents Morrison's return to the thematics and tropes of her third novel particularly and of her early fiction more generally. In her early fiction, female subjectivity almost always grows out of violation—child abuse, spousal abuse, molestation, or rape. In particular, Paradise returns us to the troubled relation between men and women, particularly when African-American men's sense of identity parallels that of the patriarchal structures of middle-class white culture. Song of Solomon criticizes a masculine identity that sees women as property; Milkman may have worked through this problem, but it is an identity that makes Jadine reject even Son and his agrarian community.

Gender politics, however, moves to the background in both Beloved and Jazz, concerned as they are with building bridges between African-American women and men. In Beloved, white men are the rapists of both African-American women and men, and in Jazz even the middle-aged man who murders his teenage lover becomes a sympathetic figure.20 But in the tensions between the patriarchal town of Ruby and the women-centered space of the Convent, Morrison comes back to gender and the issue of who has the right to define and name. “What is ours?” and “what must we protect and defend?” are the questions the men in Paradise constantly ask themselves. What the men do, they do “for Ruby” (18). The name itself is a metonymy inasmuch as how the men perceive and protect their town—named for one of their women—is reflected in how they treat each individual wife and daughter.

I argued earlier that Song of Solomon uses the figure of doe hunting to define and critique a particular form of patriarchal masculine identity. This figure returns in the opening chapter of Paradise in which a group of men from Ruby, good hunters whose ostensible goal is to protect their cult of true black womanhood, makes the seventeen-mile trek to the Convent to slaughter the women who have created a home there. The men who enter the Convent discover what they want to see—“the devil's bedroom, bathroom, and his nasty playpen” (17)—gathering the rumors of the past twenty years into a narrative that make these women the dangerous Other; unlike their decorous women, the Convent women in these men's eyes are child murderers, lesbians, temptresses, and witches who have turned the former Convent in to a coven. What is actually more threatening is that these women have claimed, out of their abuse, the power to name and identify themselves. This is the unspoken reason for the raid on the Convent. The Convent women's proximity to Ruby means that Ruby's women have an alternative model for conceiving of themselves.

In resorting to murder, these men simply take the logic of Song of Solomon's Seven Days a step further. Despite claiming to kill white people out of a love for black people, the Seven Days, as I pointed out in chapter 4, actually functions to protect African-American men's property interests in black women. The men of Ruby construct a narrative in which their protection of their black women authorizes their killing of one white girl and four “[b]odacious black Eves unredeemed by Mary” who in the moment of the killing run “like panicked does” (18).21 The collective male perspective on their task is articulated in the thoughts of one of the men who has invaded the Convent:

Certainly there wasn't a slack or sloven woman anywhere in town and the reasons, he thought, were clear. From the beginning its people were free and protected. A sleepless woman could always rise from her bed, wrap a shawl around her shoulders and sit on the steps in the moonlight. And if she felt like it she could walk out the yard and on down the road. No lamp and no fear. A hiss-crackle from the side of the road would never scare her because whatever it was that made the sound, it wasn't something creeping up on her. Nothing for ninety miles around thought she was prey. She could stroll as slowly as she liked, think of food preparations, war, of family things, or lift her eyes to stars and think of nothing at all. Lampless and without fear she could make her way. And if a light shone from a house up a ways and the cry of a colicky baby caught her attention, she might step over to the house and call out softly to the woman inside trying to soothe the baby. The two of them might take turns massaging the infant stomach, rocking, or trying to get a little soda water down. When the baby quieted they could sit together for a spell, gossiping, chuckling low so as not to wake anybody else.


In his mind, Ruby represents the best of all possible worlds for women, but clearly Morrison exposes through this character's thoughts the central unacknowledged contradiction of the male communal narrative that authorizes the hunting of women in the name of protecting womanhood. The women of Ruby may walk without fear but they also do so without a lamp, and they are, by and large, unenlightened about anything but their domesticity. They walk but do not drive and there is really nowhere to go since the nearest town is ninety miles away. It is a safety based on isolation that approximates the carceral. The safety of the women of Ruby, moreover, depends on the good will of Ruby's men. Any reader familiar with Morrison's fiction knows that women who place their dreams of safety in men are compromised, for this fiction repeatedly illustrates that only when women give up such dreams can they begin to form their own identities. The women who subscribe to the town's patriarchal ideology do so at the cost of limiting their possible identities to that of the tender of a man's home and the nurturer of a man's children. But even this cost may be insufficient to purchase safety, since any woman who ever threatens the male order of things immediately moves from the set of “not prey” to that of “prey.”

The attack on the women, set as it is in July 1976, the month of America's Bicentennial, surely serves to remind the reader that the land of the free historically depended on those who were not. Although the historical contraction of American freedom lies in slavery, race is not central to the novel. Race matters, but in an upside down, through-the-looking-glass kind of way. The racially pure black community of Ruby emerges out of the doubled insult of class and colorism. Having migrated from the South to Oklahoma and been denied entry into a community of prosperous, lighter-complexioned African Americans, those who push on to found the town of Haven construct themselves as God's chosen people. After World War II, Haven falls on hard times economically. The sons of Haven's founders move west to form a new town, Ruby, dedicated to the preservation of the same sense of exceptionalism born when their fathers were rejected by the lighter-skinned blacks. Haven and Ruby stand as displaced representations of early American exceptionalism; if the white American male's freedom was enhanced by the presence of the enslaved racial other, as Morrison argues in Playing in the Dark (42-44), something strangely similar occurs in Paradise. For Ruby's men, their exceptionalism and sense of freedom lies in their genetically pure African heritage, unsullied by any drop of white blood. This need for racial purity, of course, explains why the men pay such careful attention to the morality of their women and why a man must own his woman's sexuality.

Although it is not the dominant matter of Paradise, Morrison once again considers the role of artistic production as if to ask what role remains for the artist or writer living in a world with such violent gender and racial politics. Artistic identity—certainly central to Morrison's personal identity—is radically divided in Paradise, figured principally in two very different characters—the orphaned Connie of the Convent and the marginalized Patricia Best of Ruby, two women who specifically attempt to appropriate the power to name and narrate, though in very different ways. Patricia analyzes and critiques; Connie becomes a visionary.

Connie once again reminds the reader of the significance of names. Known through most of the novel as Connie, she becomes spiritually reborn after her encounter with a divine presence, a moment that enables her to reclaim her birth name, Consolata Sosa. With this renewed identity, she becomes the spiritual leader of this community of wounded and abused women. Consolata's spirituality represents a kind of syncretic belief. This belief encompasses, on the one hand, her love for the Reverend Mother (and by extension for the tropes and rituals of the Catholic Church) who saved her from poverty and prostitution in her third-world home. On the other hand, Consolata's faith finds expression in her miraculous powers to heal the body, a power that precedes the logic of the Christian Word. In this latter regard, Consolata is the latest in a line of fictional descent that may be traced back through such earlier characters as Pilate Dead and Baby Suggs. But Consolata takes their spiritualized healing art to another level.

Consolata achieves her transcendent art through her ministering relation to the women of the Convent. In order to initiate the communal healing and to ritualize her invitation to follow her, Consolata prepares a feast for the women and tells them that she will attempt to lead them to the encounter with the divine that she experiences. Outlining the women's naked bodies in the position they select, Consolata address the prone women:

My child body, hurt and soil, leaps into the arms of a woman who teach me my body is nothing my spirit everything. I agreed her until I met another. My flesh is so hungry for itself it ate him. When he fell away the woman rescue me from my body again. Twice she saves it. When her body sickens I care for it in every way flesh works. I hold it in my arms and between my legs. Clean it, rock it, enter it to keep it breath. After she is dead I can not get past that. My bones on hers the only good thing. Not spirit. Bones. No different from the man. My bones on his the only true thing. So I wondering where is the spirit lost in this? It is true, like bones. It is good, like bones. One sweet, one bitter. Where is it lost? Here me, listen. Never break them in two. Never put one over the other. Eve is Mary's mother. Mary is the daughter of Eve.


Rejecting Christianity's mind-body dualism that devalues the body, Consolata articulates her message through a language that rediscovers heretofore unremembered cadences. (Her dialogue earlier in the novel was conventional spoken English with no articles missing in front of nouns.) Consolata's speech to the women is a newer version of Baby Suggs's religion of the maternal body. Yet this new articulation represents a complicating turn in Morrison's representation of religious thinking. This complication grows out of the fact that one of the ways the flesh works is sexual. In her address, Consolata conflates the daughterly love she feels for Mary Magna, the Mother Superior of the former convent, and the sexual love she had with a married man from Ruby, Deacon Morgan. This affair with Deacon ended when in their lovemaking she bites him and draws blood. But in the logic of Consolata's representation, this bodily hunger is simultaneously a spiritual hunger, so that the sexual passion figures the Passion of Christ and the Eucharist—“Take, eat, this is my body”—another instance of the syncretic faith Consolata imagines. Her healing relation to Mary Magna also blurs the sacred and the secular. The biblical references to Eve and Mary are clear, but Consolata is also the fallen Eve who gives life to (indeed almost seems to give birth to Mary Magna) by holding the older woman between her legs.

From this moment, the women of the Convent leave traditionally spoken words behind for a new communion of the body. Morrison describes this practice as their “loud dreaming” (264), a designation that almost seems to describe the “language” used by Sethe, Denver, and Beloved to express their desires when they close themselves off within 124 Bluestone Road. But what is represented in Beloved is only described in Paradise: “In loud dreaming, monologue is no different from a shriek; accusations directed to the dead and long gone are undone by murmurs of love” (264). From this language/not language, the women move to a different medium, painting, in order to fill in the empty spaces of their bodily outlines that Consolata had traced. Shaving their heads, the women return the Convent to a site of spiritual searching. In the climactic expression of their multimedia spirituality, Consolata leads the women into a perfumed summer rain for a cleansing dance on the eve of the men's attack on the Convent:

Consolata started it; the rest were quick to join her. There are great rivers in the world and on their banks and the edges of oceans children thrill to water. In places where rain is light the thrill is almost erotic. But those sensations bow to the rapture of holy women dancing in hot sweet rain. They would have laughed, had enchantment not been so deep.


In her combination of multiple expressive forms—the very forms, one may recall, denied to Sula—Consolata becomes Morrison's performance artist of the soul. Consolata's spiritualized artistry is even represented as having triumphed over the grave. Visiting their families after their own deaths, the spirits of the Convent women continue to enjoy food and sex. Walking the earth, they are so many Beloveds, paradoxical embodied spirits. But although Consolata represents the most transcendent embodiment of artistic possibility in all of Morrison's fiction—one able to overleap even the horizon of death itself—the flight of the artist is grounded by the presence of another artist figure, Patricia Best, who perhaps more directly figures Morrison's own subject position; Patricia, like Morrison herself, writes the story of Ruby. This character seems to register Morrison's recognition that Consolata's expressive forms—body painting and the dance—are not her media. Though she writes of such expression, she still writes. As a writer within the novel, Patricia (known to the community more androgynously as “Pat”) metafictionally represents Morrison in the act of authoring both her best and worst selves. In a sense, Morrison's Best returns us to the anxieties of authorship that Soaphead Church represents in The Bluest Eye.

“Patricia” is the sixth section of Paradise, and the widowed schoolteacher serves (except for a few brief moments) as the focalizer throughout the chapter.22 At times, when we have direct access to her writing, she serves as the narrator. The matter in time present of this section (December 1974) is the preparation for and performance of the town's apparently conventional annual Christmas pageant, as well as Pat's ongoing work on a history of Ruby. In the space between these two texts—Patricia's writing and the children's play—emerges her troubled understanding of the unconscious sexual politics of Ruby's fetishized blackness. Patricia's history is conceived of “as a gift to the citizens of Ruby—a collection of family trees; the genealogies of each of the fifteen families” (187). Having completed the family trees, she decides to supplement them with interesting facts about the origin of people's names. At this point, her project, begun in innocence, immediately meets a certain resistance when she talks to her fellow townspeople and asks, for research purposes, to see family bibles, letters, and marriage certificates. In the face of this resistance, Pat's interest in her supplemental notes grows. In her text, the logic of the supplement takes over, and the unspeakable of the community's sexual politics becomes spoken. In large part, what is unspeakable is the identity that Pat labels in her charts as “8-rock”; this geological metaphor refers to a pure African genealogy that can be traced back to these families' arrival in America in the eighteenth century.

So what began as a gift becomes Pat's attempt to read between the lines of the entries in the family bibles, to get at the meaning of the names that have been struck through. As her writing turns from celebration to critical inquiry of the “town's official story,” Pat believes that she is the only one capable of the task since she has the “keen imagination and the persistence of a mind uncomfortable with oral histories” (188). But in order to fashion her history, she realizes that she cannot rely exclusively on what is officially documented and so must move into the realm of speculation: “she interpreted—freely but, she thought, insightfully because she alone had the required emotional distance” (188). Her emotional distance derives from her sense of difference. But it is precisely this emotional distance that we see collapse in her writing because she and her family are so directly impacted by the town's racial and sexual ideology.

As her section unfolds, Pat arrives at a clearer understanding of her doubled otherness. Given Ruby's color code, her outsider status is primarily a function of her lighter complexion, but this exclusion on the basis of racial identity is doubled by her identity as a writer. As Morrison's artist figures—Soaphead Church, Sula, Pilate, Baby Suggs, and the narrator of Jazz—repeatedly suggest, to be the artist or writer may necessarily entail one's marginality in the very community that one constitutes through the attempt to interpret and represent it.

Pat's inquiry turns deeply personal when she includes her own family history in the larger history of the community. All pretense of emotional distance drops out as she addresses her father, Roger Best, yet by turning to what is intensely personal she begins to inscribe the unspeakable things of Ruby. Referring to one of her father's business interests, his work as the town's mortician, she writes, “Daddy, they don't hate us because Mama was your first customer. They hate us because she looked like a cracker and was bound to have cracker-looking children like me, and although I married Billy Cato, who was an 8-rock like you, like them, I passed the skin on to my daughter, as you and everybody knew I would” (196). Making connections between and among the genealogies, Pat realizes the semi-incestuous nature of her community and that certain unrecorded unions of men and women have occurred outside the sanction of marriage in order to keep the racial bloodline pure.

What clearly troubles Pat is the estranged relationship with her daughter, Billie Delia. Mother and daughter have fallen out over Billie's love for two brothers of one of the 8-rock families, the Pooles. But rather than address this immediately, Pat's manuscript shifts from an address to her father to a letter to her dead mother. Pat believes the town is implicated in her mother's (as well as her stillborn sister's) death during childbirth, interpreting the men's slowness to act on the midwives request to get help as a passive-aggressive sign of the men's desire to get rid of those with lighter skins.

Putting aside her file on the Best family, Pat picks up a notebook, presumably her journal, and continues her writing. With her focus on the trouble with her daughter, Pat's writing becomes confessional. The previous October, their fight over Billie's relation with the Poole boys turned violent, and Pat nearly killed her daughter with an electric iron. Pat writes:

“I didn't mean to hit her so hard. I didn't know I had. I just meant to stop her lying mouth telling me she didn't do anything. I saw them. All three of them back behind the Oven and she was in the middle. Plus I am the one who washes sheets around here.”

Pat stopped, put down her pen and, covering her eyes with her hand, tried to separate what she had seen from what she feared to see. And what did the sheets have to do with it? Was there blood where there should not have been or no blood where there should have been?


Pat's instinctive question of the role that the sheets play points to a crucial metafictional turn. Three pages earlier, the narrator interrupts Pat's address to her dead mother to note: “The words had long ago covered the back of the page, so she was using fresh sheets” (199). The space thus collapses between what the pen inscribes on the manuscript sheets and the blood traces (whether they mark phallic penetration or the absence of menstrual blood) on the sheets of the bedding. Therefore, the (paper) sheets—which decode the racial blood laws of Ruby—have everything to do with Pat's anger directed toward her daughter. Interestingly Morrison herself has spoken of her anger in relation to this mother-daughter relationship: “Now, I did get angry recently, about this daughter [Billie Delia]. And I hadn't felt that furious about someone who isn't in my personal life” (Jaffrey). This interesting conjunction of the author's and her character's anger reminds us of the doubled role Toni and Pat share: they both are engaged in writing the history of Ruby, a writing that maps the abuses of patriarchal cultural.

Unconsciously connecting her textual pleasure (her work on Ruby's history) with what she imagines to be her daughter's sexual pleasure, Pat begins to realize that she too is implicated in the communal judgment of her daughter as sexually promiscuous, a judgment that turns out to be untrue. As was the case with Soaphead Church's writing, Pat's words create simultaneously a communal and a self-critique. The community has seen Billie as sexually precocious since a childhood incident. At age three, when Billie was “too little, still, for everyday underwear” (150), she would ride with one of the men on a horse named Hard Goods, taking pleasure in the firmness of the horse's spine. One Sunday, when offered the ride, she “pulled down her Sunday panties before raising her arms to be lifted” (151). For this, she received a whipping from Pat and a sense of shame. Despite being relegated to promiscuity by both the community and her mother, Billie has remained a virgin.

Patricia's troubled confrontation with genealogy, I think, needs to be read against Milkman's triumphant interpretation of his family's genealogy that is coded in the song sung by the children of Shalimar. Like Milkman, who is suddenly able to interpret the hidden meaning of a coded genealogical text—the iterated children's song—Pat finds the final key to decoding the meaning of her genealogies in the annual play that the children perform. Having returned home from the pageant, Pat understands that the multiple Marys and Josephs stand for the founding families of Ruby. Originally the pageant had represented all nine of the founding families, but that number had dropped to eight and finally seven in the most recent production. She realizes that yet another family has been disallowed for violating the community's rigid rule of blood.

Patricia's epiphany, which allows her a full recognition of her complicity with the community in creating its other (even to the point of making her own daughter an other), leads to a final act that oddly comments on Morrison's own very personal relationship to fire. Overwhelmed by her sense that she has decoded the meaning of the family genealogies—that the purity of the all-African blood lines depends on the men's ownership of their women's sexuality—she understands the threat posed by the Convent women, who aggressively claim their sexual potential, and Billie Delia and herself, who are light-complexioned. Although the fire that destroyed Morrison's beloved home on the Hudson River was entirely accidental, Patricia's relation to the fire is ambiguous. It appears initially that she is fully conscious of what she is doing, standing in front of a fire that she started in an oil drum out in her garden and methodically dropping file after file into the flames. Yet her final words point to a sense of love's labor lost: “‘Dear God,’ she murmured, ‘Dear, dear God. I burned the papers’” (217), words that suggest the destruction is accidental (or at least not fully conscious) and that record her sense of loss. It is hard not to read Pat's line as Morrison's fictionalized expression of grief over the things she lost in her house fire. Not long after the fire, Morrison says in a piece that appeared in the New York Times Magazine, “When I think about the fire, I think I may not ever, ever, ever get over it. And it isn't even about the things. It's about the photographs, plants I nurtured for 20 years, about the view of the Hudson River, my children's report cards, my manuscripts” (Dreifus 74). In 1998 Morrison speaks of her initial sense of loss: “And I lost … I write by hand … I was able to save some books, but I had all my manuscripts, notes from old books, in my bedroom on the second floor, in a little trundle underneath the bed, where there was some storage space. It went up first. I said to somebody later, ‘Why did I think that having those things near me was safer than having them in the basement?’” (Jaffrey).23 These holographic manuscript pages were, as I have argued, the very site and thus the visible traces of the emergence of Morrison's class, racial, gendered, and authorial identities.

Early in this study I suggested that one might locate the Morrison who wrote The Bluest Eye in the space between Pecola Breedlove and Maureen Peal, because in terms of class origin Morrison was closer to Pecola but in terms of childhood appearance, the author more closely approximated Maureen. I would like to conclude with a different pair—the two author figures of Paradise—because I think they help measure the distance Morrison has traveled in her career to date, and I believe they provide a point of departure for future consideration of this Nobel prize-winning author. Morrison hopes that her art performs the same healing that the gifts of Consolata enact but simultaneously fears that her writing, like Pat Best's, may only be able to diagnose the disease of American racialized discourse. Locatable neither exclusively in the realm of spiritual transcendence nor in the throes of authorial doubt, Morrison continues to write her best thing, which since The Bluest Eye has been her identity as an African-American woman novelist.

Having come to the end of what I wish to say about how one might discern the reflexive presence of Morrison within her fiction, a presence that suggests that all writing—much like Consolata's body art with the Convent women—serves as a tracing of the self, I am aware that what I have written can only be a harbinger for a project to come, one fashioned by a different critic. This study will be informed by the as yet unwritten authorized biography of Toni Morrison. But despite that valuable authorization, I hope that this future scholar will take whatever new stories become available to her or him and read them not as the revealed truth, but instead as subsequent chapters in the identifying fictions of Toni Morrison.


  1. Ashraf H. A. Rushdy has thoroughly laid out the historical documents surrounding Margaret Garner, both in the popular press and in abolitionist journals. Rushdy's central assertion, that Morrison has added “a feminist voice” to “revisionist historiography and contemporary fiction,” is unassailable (568).

  2. My thanks to Catherine Gunther Kodat who suggested Morrison's apparent desire to conceal the extent of her knowledge about Margaret Garner.

  3. Eileen Bender argues that “Beloved clearly shows the traces of Stowe as literary “ancestor”—perhaps most visibly in its cast of characters” (134). The characters Bender is most interested in are Eliza and Sethe.

  4. For a different reading of intertextual possibility placing the white and black texts against one another, see Moreland's discussion of Beloved and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (37-63).

  5. In her review of Beloved, Margaret Atwood, for example, suggestively notes that Sethe's escape “makes the ice-floe scene in Uncle Tom's Cabin look like a stroll around the block” (1).

  6. Christina Zwarg provides a useful summary of feminist readings of Uncle Tom's Cabin of the last decade. Her own work examines “the radical nature of Stowe's feminism” through an examination of Stowe's “treatment of fatherhood” (274). Her nuanced reading of the way the blackface George Washington hanging on the wall of Tom's cabin enters a symbolic economy with Tom's own role as black Christ and with the character of Black Sam as “politician” reveals several gaps in patriarchal authority; however, Zwarg's acknowledgement that, despite these subversions of the father, “Tom and Stowe become subsumed under the hierarchical representations of Christianity and patriarchy” corresponds much more closely to my own sense of Stowe's reinscription of a transcendent patriarchy.

    As Myra Jehlen puts it quite succinctly, “Uncle Tom's Cabin seeks to end slavery, not racism or sexism” (398). Jehlen sees a clear limit to Stowe's feminism and poses a particular challenge to those who would assert a matriarchy in the novel. For Jehlen, Rachel Halliday, whose kitchen is the ultimate cite of domesticity and women power, “blesses the restoration of patriarchal power to the slave [George Harris] whose manhood is inextricably a matter of self-possession and of the possession of others, of his wife and child” (392).

  7. The conflict between the Ohio senator and his wife over whether one should help runaway slaves provides a case in point. John Bird tells Mary: “Your feelings are all quite right, dear, and interesting, and I love you for them; but then, we mustn't suffer our feelings to run away with our judgment. You must consider it's not a matter of private feeling; there are great public interests involved […]” (85). John's words divide the world in sharp dichotomies that gender the public and private spheres: men and the public sphere govern by reason; women and the private sphere are the appropriate site of emotion. Yet a woman's feelings, informed by the bible, may lead reason to a higher truth that emotion has intuited. So when Eliza appears at the Birds' house, the senator eventually takes the leading role in assisting her escape. Mary's reactions to her husband's reversal is telling:

    Now, little Mrs. Bird was a discreet woman—a woman who never in her life said, “I told you so!” and, on the present occasion, though pretty well aware of the shape her husband's meditations were taking, she very prudently forebode to meddle with them, only sat very quietly in her chair, and looked quite ready to hear her liege lord's intentions, when he should think proper to utter them.


    Although a touch of irony flirts in the narrator's description of Mary's role here, it is impossible to forget that the word “lord” cannot signify without nodding toward the Lord, the transcendent model for masculine earthly rule.

  8. Lori Askeland has explored a similar thesis, arguing that Morrison examines and revises the ideology of Uncle Tom's Cabin “in a way that avoids reification of a patriarchal power structure” (787). The evidence that she uses is quite different, based on the ideology of nineteenth-century domesticity, and she does not take up intertextual possibilities between Uncle Tom and Baby Suggs.

  9. Elizabeth House's closely argued case that the young woman who appears at 124 is not the ghost of Sethe's daughter “but simply a young woman who has herself suffered the horrors of slavery” (17) usefully corrects those who would take ghostliness to be a simple matter in the novel. However, House's argument overnaturalizes a novel that insists upon a realm beyond the natural. At the outset 124 is unquestionably haunted by an authentic ghost and this ghost's disappearance, occasioned by Paul D's arrival, ushers in the arrival of Beloved.

  10. For Askeland, Bodwin is “the good-intentioned whiteman who still carries in him the ghosts of the patriarchal institution” (801).

  11. Harryette Mullen has described this scene in terms of Kristeva's chora, a space prior to naming and “associated with the maternal semiotic” that parallels “Morrison's chorus of mothers unnaming the unspeakable desire that precedes language” (263). The limitation of this fictive resolution is that, while an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the narrative, it does not provide a clear guideline for overturning patriarchal language. The cry of the women is before language. Does this mean that there is no language a woman can speak that will not speak her own oppression? The ending of Beloved does not resolve the issue, and we are left with the implication at least that to enter the Symbolic compromisingly positions women much as Sethe is positioned in relation to a different fluid produced by her laboring body, the ink she makes. This flowing substance is appropriated by her master, schoolteacher, who writes the “scientific” treatise that authorizes his nephews' the appropriation of her milk. Still, as Morrison notes, the novel's role is to stage a problem, not to provide a “recipe” for solving it (“Rootedness” 341).

  12. Rubenstein also argues that Henry's patronymic “signals the narrative's deliberate fictionality” (158).

  13. One reason for thinking of the supernatural narrator of Jazz in this fashion comes from the representation of spirituality in Paradise. In Morrison's most recent novel, Consolata is visited by a god/goddess figure that alternately manifests itself as male and as female.

  14. Rubenstein notes that “Morrison explicitly places in the reader's hands the responsibility for constructing the meaning of her text, affirming the imaginative collaboration between narrator and reader” (162). What needs to be underscored, though, is the profoundly sexual figuration of this collaboration.

  15. For example, in chapter 3 I detail Morrison's repudiation of the lesbian reading of Sula.

  16. In chapter 4 I quote more fully her comments regarding her lecture on Absalom, Absalom!

  17. Philip Weinstein also uses this passage as a clue to Morrison's rewriting of Faulkner (147-48).

  18. Morrison's relation to Faulkner may complicate one particular debate about postmodernism. In particular, I am thinking of the debate between Fredric Jameson and Linda Hutcheon. For Jameson, postmodern narrative is ahistorical (and hence politically dangerous), playing only with pastiched images and aesthetic forms that produce a degraded historicism (see chapter 1 of Postmodernism); for Hutcheon, as I discuss in my opening chapter, postmodern fiction remains historical, precisely because it problematizes history through parody, and thus retains its potential for cultural critique. Thus, Hutcheon's celebration of the power of postmodern parody to produce historical thinking stands in direct opposition to Jameson's despair over postmodernism, which for him is not an oppositional aesthetic but only the cultural logic of multinational capitalism. Jazz's pastiche of Faulknerian textuality complicates Jameson's and Hutcheon's positions because Morrison's pastiche may actually perform the cultural work that Hutcheon ascribes to parody.

  19. Some readers may object to my use of the word “rape,” but the dynamics of master and slave make any notion of consent impossibly problematic.

  20. Beloved in particular seems like an intervention in the critical commentary by African-American writers, such as Ishmael Reed, who were critical of the portrayal of the African-American male in the fiction of black women authors such as Alice Walker.

  21. Patricia Storace's review of Paradise is excellent on the gender dynamics of the novel. Storace notes that the “women of Ruby […] live in the mansion of freedom, a freedom granted to them, which they do not possess—they are free to live the lives whose purpose and limits are imagined for them by Ruby men […].”

  22. When asked by an interviewer about her sense of achievement in Paradise, Morrison somewhat cryptically remarks, “I wanted another kind of confrontation with Patricia, the one who kept the genealogies together” (Jaffrey).

  23. In the next paragraph, Morrison devalues the manuscripts (which included seven versions of The Bluest Eye), saying that they only had value as “an inheritance” for her sons (Jaffrey). The fact, however, that Morrison chose to focus on them first (rather than the loss of her children's report cards) and the halting fashion in which she expresses the loss suggests that the later comments serve as a kind of cover for the deep sense of loss she feels regarding the manuscripts.

Works Cited

I. Primary Morrison Material


Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.

The Bluest Eye. 1970. New York: Plume, 1994.

Jazz. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Paradise. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Song of Solomon. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Sula. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Tar Baby. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Criticism and Essays

“Faulkner and Women.” Faulkner and Women. Ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1986. 295-302.

“The Official Story: Dead Man Golfing.” Birth of a Nation'hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case. Ed. Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky Lacour. New York: Pantheon, 1997. vii-xxviii.

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

“Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” Evans, 339-45.

“A Slow Walk of Trees (as Grandmother Would Say) Hopeless (as Grandfather Would Say.” The New York Times Magazine 4 July 1976: 104+.

“Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (1989): 1-34.

[Chloe Ardellia Wofford]. “Virginia Woolf's and William Faulkner's Treatment of the Alienated.” M.A. thesis. Cornell U, 1955. [Note: Morrison uses the middle name recorded on her birth certificate on the title page of her thesis, but it is spelled “Ardellia” rather than “Ardelia.”]

Interviews and Profiles

Although MLA style calls for 1) listing interviews by the last name of the figure interviewed and 2) internal citations using a short title, this becomes confusing since so many of Morrison's interviews have identical or similar titles; therefore, I cite interviews by the last name of the interviewer. Whenever the interviews have been reprinted in Conversations with Toni Morrison (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994) edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie, I have cited that volume. The term “profile” includes any article or review for which Morrison has supplied oral or written comments to the author.

Bakerman, Jane. “The Seams Can't Show: An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie, 30-42. Rpt. from Black American Literature Forum 12.2 (1978): 56-60.

Bigsby, Christopher. “Jazz Queen.” The Independent [London]. 26 April 1992, Sunday Review Page, 28. Online. Nexis. 20 Ap. 1996.

Brown, Cecil. “Interview with Toni Morrison.” Massachusetts Review 36 (1995): 455-73.

Charles, Pepsi. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Nimrod 21.2 (1977): 43-51.

“Conversation with Alice Childress and Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie, 3-9. Rpt. from Black Creation Annual 1974-1975. 90-92.

DeWitt, Karen. “Song of Solomon.” Washington Post. 30 Sept 1977: C1, C3.

Dreifus, Claudia. “Chloe Wofford Talks about Toni Morrison.” New York Times Magazine 11 Sept. 1994: 72-75.

Gray, Paul. “Paradise Found.” Time 19 Jan. 1998: 62-68.

Jaffrey, Zia. “The Salon Interview.” Salon 2 Feb. 1998. 20 Oct. 1998.

Jones, Bessie W. and Audre Vinson. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie, 171-187. Rpt. from The World of Toni Morrison (Debuque: Kendall Hunt, 1985): 127-51.

Koenen, Anne. “The One Out of Sequence.” Taylor-Guthrie, 67-83. Rpt. from History and Tradition in Afro-American Culture, ed. Gunther Lenz. (Frankfurt: Campus, 1984): 207-21.

LeClair, Thomas. “The Language Must Not Sweat: A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Conversations with Toni Morrison. Taylor-Guthrie, 119-128. Rpt. from New Republic 21 March 1981: 25-29.

McKay, Nellie. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie, 138-55. Rpt. from Contemporary Literature 24 (1983): 413-429.

Medwick, Cathleen. “Toni Morrison.” Vogue April 1981: 288+.

Morales, Robert. “Toni Morrison.” The Vibe Q May 1998. 19 Nov. 1998.

“Morrison, Toni.” Contemporary Authors. Vol. 29-32. 1972.

“Morrison, Toni.” Current Biography Yearbook. 40th ed. 1979.

Naylor, Gloria. “A Conversation: Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie, 188-217. Rpt. from Southern Review 21 (1985): 567-593.

Neustadt, Kathy. “The Visits of the Writers Toni Morrison and Eudora Welty.” Taylor-Guthrie, 84-92. Rpt. from Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin Spring 1980: 2-5.

Ruas, Charles. “Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie 93-118. Rpt. from Conversations with American Writers (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984): 215-243.

Schappell, Elissa. “The Art of Fiction CXXXIV.” The Paris Review 129 (1993): 83-125.

Stepto, Robert. “Intimate Things in Place: A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie, 10-29. Rpt. from Massachusetts Review 18 (1977): 473-489.

Strouse, Jean. “Toni Morrison's Black Magic.” Newsweek 30 March 1981: 52-56.

Tate, Claudia. “Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie 156-170. Rpt. from Black Women Writers at Work (New York: Continuum, 1983): 117-131.

Watkins, Mel. “Talk with Toni Morrison.” New York Times Book Review 11 Sept. 1977. 48, 50.

Wilson, Judith. “A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Taylor-Guthrie 129-37. Rpt. from Essence July, 1981: 84-6, 128.

II. Secondary Sources

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. 1973. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill, 1975.

———. Roland Barthes. 1975. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill, 1977.

Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

———. Go Down, Moses. 1942. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

———. Light in August. 1932. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Gates, Henry Lewis, Jr. “Jazz (1992).” Gates and Appiah, 52-55.

———. “Preface.” Gates and Appiah ix-xiii.

———. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Gates, Henry Lewis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993.

Irigaray, Luce. “Volume-Fluidity.” 1974. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 227-40.

Page, Philip. Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison's Novels. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1852. New York: Dutton, 1909.

Carolyn M. Jones (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Jones, Carolyn M. “Sula and Beloved: Images of Cain in the Novels of Toni Morrison.” In Understanding Toni Morrison's “Beloved” and “Sula”: Selected Essays and Criticisms of the Works by the Nobel Prize-Winning Author, edited by Solomon O. Iyasere and Marla W. Iyasere, pp. 338-56. Troy, New York: Whitston Publishing Company, 2000.

[In the following essay, Jones examines the significance of references to the biblical story of Cain and Abel in Morrison's Sula and Beloved. Jones argues that Morrison's references to this mythical story suggest a connection between memory, community, and individual identity.]

In The Mark of Cain, Ruth Mellinkoff rejects the single modern image of Cain she examines, Hesse's Demien, as an “intentionally distorted” treatment of the myth. In Hesse's novel, she claims,

the interpreter has designed his interpretation to serve his own purpose—a self-conscious twisting to achieve personal ends. Clarification or elaboration of biblical texts is not the primary goal; rather, biblical elements are used to enhance the interpreter's particular point of view about something he is critical of in his contemporary society.


Displacements of myth in contemporary fiction, however, are not distortions but are intertextual examinations of the place and function of myth in contemporary life. Myth as a point of reference is archetypal memory, fixed in time and space; but as writers utilize myth, they signify on it, displace its original meanings. This displacement, as Charles Long explains, “gains its power of meaning from the structure of the discourse itself without the signification being subjected to the rules of the discourse” (1). This allows “the community [to] undercut this legitimized signification with a signification upon this legitimated signifying” (2). Thus, the minority writer or community may emphasize a meaning or an implication of a myth that the “master narrative,”1 the ideological script that the Western world imposes on “others,” refuses to consider, and may signify the original meaning into the background, giving primary authority to the signification over the master's trope. Thinking and writing about myth in the modern world is, to use Henry Louis Gates's term, double-voiced, representing a process of both repetition and revision (22, 50, 60).

Thinking on Cain has been subject to this process of signification. Writers, working with the Biblical myth, have focused on the meaning and form of Cain's mark. Various answers for what the mark was have been offered—either a mark on Cain's forehead2 or a blackening of Cain's face, connecting him with Ham as a father of the black race (Mellinkoff 77).3 Cain himself has been called the mark, a pariah identifiable by his marked body—either his trembling, groaning, or incessant wandering.4 Yet, what strikes me about the Cain myth, reading it in a hermeneutical and intertextual relationship to Morrison's Sula and Beloved, is Cain's complete refusal to remember and to mourn. Cain denies responsibility both for his brother and for his act: “Am I my brother's keeper?” (Genesis 4.9). And he seeks to protect himself: “Lord, my punishment is greater than I can bear” (Genesis 4.13). Cain, concerned with self, lets sin in the door, but more importantly, he refuses to acknowledge his effect on the “other”; he refuses to remember and to mourn his brother Abel. This refusal marks him, and tattoo becomes taboo: He is set apart as both dangerous and holy.

Sethe and Sula, both victims and victimizers, reenact the myth of Cain. Sethe is the beloved slave who is “remarked” as an animal when Schoolteacher's odious nephews drink her breast milk while Schoolteacher “remarks,” writes down her reactions, using the ink that Sethe herself made. They then mark the experience on her body, whipping her and creating a chokeberry tree on her back. Sethe's mark limits her. It is the sign of her slavery, and with the return of Beloved, it traps her in 124 Bluestone. Sula, with her rose birthmark, is denied identity by her mother, and she murders a childhood friend, throwing him accidentally into the Ohio River. Yet Sula, in contrast to Sethe, claims absolute freedom, which is symbolized by her mark. Both Sethe and Sula commit Cain's act, although they do not act out of jealousy as Cain does. Sethe acts out of pure desperation, and Sula, who feels Cain's sense of rejection, kills accidentally. They also bear Cain's mark, a mark that sets each woman apart both from personal identity and from community, and each must undergo mourning and memory to find and define the self.

Understanding and transcending the mark has to do with coming to terms with the past. Memory is a special and essential category for Toni Morrison. To “rememory” is to make an act of the moral imagination and to shape the events of one's life into story. Even events that must be put behind one must be subjected to the formative power of memory then “disremembered,” put into their proper place in the individual's life. The process of mourning is a special and essential kind of memory, because it creates a hermeneutic between the self and the “other.” As Deborah E. McDowell says, “the process of mourning and remembering … leads to intimacy with the self, which is all that makes intimacy with the others possible” (85). Yet both Sethe and Sula forsake this intimacy. Sethe, alone at the grave of the child she murdered, trades ten minutes of sex for seven letters: Beloved. Later, at the funeral of Baby Suggs, Sethe refuses to accept the support of the community, and members of the community, in turn, abandon her. Sethe feels that she has no self, except in the role of mother.5 Sula, a rejected child who becomes a woman who refuses to be defined by anyone except herself, sits apart as Chicken is mourned and, later, dies alone. Both women deny themselves and are denied a sense of self and a place in community. Sula finds her centered and unbounded existence is one of exile, and she seeks boundaries in herself, in the community of Medallion, and in her friend Nel; Sethe finds that motherhood is not an affirmation of her identity but another manifestation of her mark.

When Paul D, the man whose compassion is his blessedness (Beloved 272), stands behind Sethe, holding her breasts and kissing the chokeberry tree on her back, he is affirming Sethe's whole self, though the course of the novel is run before Sethe herself can make this affirmation. Sethe's sense of her identity comes from denying the chokeberry tree, which is completely dead to feeling, and from affirming her breasts, her role as mother, having “milk enough for all” (100, 198). The victim becomes victimizer as she, having enjoyed twenty-eight days of freedom, sees Schoolteacher coming to take her and her children back to Sweet Home plantation. A terrified Sethe takes her children to the coal shed at the back of 124 Bluestone Road and cuts the throat of her “almost crawling!” baby girl. The “lessons” of Sweet Home and the murder are what Sethe avoids. She, thus, traps herself in time and in space, in a house haunted by her baby's ghost, keeping the past at bay and losing the future, “not having any dreams of her own” (20). Paul D begins to break apart this stagnation and to chase away the spirit, but he cannot do Sethe's rememory for her. Beloved, though she has many dimensions, is memory: The child that Sethe murdered comes to demand explanation, the child, that, as Mae Henderson says, Sethe must rebirth in her remarking on her own story.

Sethe thinks she is “junkheaped … because she loved her children” (174), but though her individual “sin” is murder, her community sin is her pride. Baby Suggs, Sethe's mother-in-law, begins the cycle of pride. Baby's motto is “‘Good is knowing when to stop’” (87), but she violates that maxim when Sethe and Denver arrive safely at her house. Brought buckets of blueberries by Stamp Paid, she and Sethe make a feast for the entire community, and the satiated community becomes suspicious of the Suggs family. The animosity created by this excess is a second origin of Beloved. Baby Suggs smells the anger of the community, but behind it she smells Beloved, a ghost in black shoes (138). The community does not warn Baby that the slavecatchers are coming to her house and, thus, participates in the murder of the child.

Sethe compounds this sin of pride and alienation when Baby Suggs dies. The community will not enter the house, so Sethe refuses to go to the funeral. At the graveside, the community does not sing for Baby and to support Sethe, so Sethe does not eat their food, and they do not eat hers. A funeral is a ritual of mourning which binds the individual and the community in an act of remembrance and which, potentially, is a point of reconciliation. Here, both Sethe and her community deny themselves this opportunity. Each refuses to engage in the rememory that will articulate Baby Suggs's place in the public sphere and that will honor her spirit as an ancestor. Thus, the individuals are denied access to her power in their private lives. There is loss on both sides. By ostracizing Sethe, the community commits a sin of pride against Baby Suggs, and Sethe, in her pride, freezes memory and makes her life stagnant. In essence, both are marked; both become images of Cain. For Sethe, this mark is deep, for it completely isolates her. Ella, for example, understands Sethe's rage but not Sethe's decision to refuse the help of the black community. Neither does she understand Sethe's act. Ella believes Sethe's rage to have been prideful and misdirected.

In Sethe's act, blood and breast milk, rage, pride, end love become one. When Sethe tells the story of her escape, she stresses that she did it alone, out of love for the children: Nobody could take care of them like she could. Nobody could nurse them like she could. Nobody else would mother them like Sethe. Like Odysseus, who cries “Nobody” and must become “Nobody,” Sethe loses herself in her mother role. Morrison says that Sethe is a

woman [who] loved something other than herself so much [that] she had placed all of the value of her life in something outside herself. … [This is] interesting because the best thing that is in us is also the thing that makes us sabotage ourselves, sabotage in the sense that our life is not as worthy, or our perception of the best part of ourselves … what is it that nearly compels a good woman to displace the self, herself?

(Naylor and Morrison 584-585)

For Sethe, the tree on her back is nothing compared to the fact that Schoolteacher's boys took her milk, but we realize that the two emblems are the same. The primary, destructive connection of mark and milk is illustrated as Denver, the miracle child born while Sethe is running north, drinks from Sethe's breast right after the murder of Beloved, taking in her sister's blood with her mother's milk. Enacting her extreme and exclusive self-definition as mother, Sethe becomes what Schoolteacher defined her as: an animal without memory. Baby Suggs tells us that “‘Good is knowing when to stop.’” Sethe's love, like Cain's for God, becomes one with Sethe's pride and rage. Sethe argues that, by killing her baby, she kept her safe from the dehumanization of slavery. The children are her only self, her “best things”—she claims she “wouldn't draw breath without [her] children” (203)—and she will destroy rather than surrender them. Paul D, listening to the story, thinks that more important than Sethe's act is her claim (164), that maybe there is something worse than slavery. And there is.

Stamp Paid tells us that whites so feared the black people that they enslaved that they had to deny completely the humanity of blacks. So whites, whom Baby Suggs says have no limits, are savages, and project onto the blacks that savagery:

… it wasn't the jungle that blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.

Meantime, the secret spread of this new kind of whitefolks' jungle was hidden, silent, except once in a while when you could hear its mumbling in places like 124.


The “worse sin” is to let that jungle loose. What is worse than slavery is to let the soul become so contorted that the only self you are is the self that the master defines for you. Sethe stops Schoolteacher, but she destroys her child and nearly herself. Paul D tells Sethe that she has two legs, not four; she is human, not animal. Accepting Schoolteacher's definition of herself creates Sethe's “thick love,” the love that is “safety with a hand-saw” and that keeps Sethe from knowing where the world stops and where she begins. This love denies that the children are true “others.” Like Schoolteacher's “thick mind,” the excess of reason which allows him to deny the humanity of the human beings on whom he conducts his experiments, Sethe's “thick love” is an excessive love that allows her to destroy what she has created, to deny the humanness of her own child.

Beloved is the child that Sethe has to rebear in order to rememory the mother role and to grieve. In essence, what marks Sethe as Cain is that she refuses to acknowledge the implications of her act and to mourn properly her child. Her pride becomes a shield against her grief. Beloved shatters that defense; she takes Sethe deep into the truth that, until she mourns, she is still a slave. The three hand-holding shadows of Paul D, Sethe, and Denver which make a tentative family are replaced by Beloved, Sethe and Denver—a mother and her children. The silent jungle speaks in 124, and Sethe is isolated in her role as mother and with her pain, denying there is a world outside her door. Eventually, even Denver is excluded, as Beloved and Sethe create anew the Cain image, the victim-victimizer/masterslave relationship. Beloved seeks “the join” (213) to become what Sethe says she is, her best self; she draws off Sethe all that is vital until she is “pregnant” with Sethe, becoming the mother. Sethe, finally facing her memories, rejoices in the return of human feelings, yet she is as trapped in them as she was in her denial. She loses the remnants of her self and enjoys the pain.

Denver tells us that Sethe does not want to be forgiven (252). The relationship between the two becomes hostile, as Sethe is denied Beloved's forgiveness and as Beloved drives Sethe to self-destruction, Denver, frightened, ventures into the community. Wearing Beloved's shoes (243), she too makes a return from the grave that 124 has become. Denver, who was a child and innocent in Sethe's and the community's sin against Baby Suggs, can be touched by Baby's spirit. She is forced by Baby Suggs to give up her defense and face the future:

But you said there was no defense.

‘There ain't.’

Then what do I do?

‘Know it, and go on out the yard. Go on.’


Denver, who realizes that she has a self of her own to preserve (252), becomes the agent of reconciliation. She, the child who ingested blood and breast milk, is as much a symbol of Sethe's pride as is Beloved. Denver, too, has been exiled, trapped in Sethe's memories. But Baby's spirit tells Denver that life is risk, and only through risk, relationship, and rememory is the self formed. Armed with this knowledge, Denver acts. She practices what her mother could not at the funeral—humility—and does what her mother could not—she asks for help. Her humility causes the community, especially the women, to rally around the family in 124.

Ella, taking Baby Suggs's maxim to heart, recognizes that Beloved is excess, that, though the mother killed the child, “‘… the children can't just up and kill the mama’” (256). What follows this recognition is a repetition of the past—a recreation of the moment of the murder and the flooding of memory into the present so that reconciliation can take place. The women go to 124 Bluestone. They remember the feast that Baby Suggs prepared for them; they remember themselves young. They make the primal sound that they did not make for Baby at her funeral: They mourn. Meanwhile, Mr. Bodwin, the abolitionist who has helped the Suggs family, drives toward the house. Sethe believes that he is Schoolteacher, come for Beloved, and runs towards him with an ice pick. This time, she attacks the master and not the child, and this time, the child saves the mother. Denver, the flesh-and-blood child nursed on blood and milk, throws her mother to the ground, and the women of the community collapse on them like a mountain, a symbol of solidity and endurance. This action honors Baby Suggs even as it saves Sethe and affirms Denver's independence. Thus, on the level of community, rememory is accomplished.

The reenactment of Sethe's memory and that of the community exercises Beloved, restoring the Suggs family to its place in the order of things. Still, Sethe is not yet saved. She can hate the master, but she cannot love herself. She remains in exile. Like Baby Suggs before her, she takes to her bed, feeling that, without her child, there is no future, no possibility for living and for change:

… ‘Paul D?’

‘What, baby?’

‘She left me.’

‘Aw, girl. Don't cry.’

‘She was my best thing.’


Paul D, who has decided that he wants to put his story next to Sethe's, affirms verbally the action he made in the beginning of the novel when he held Sethe's breasts in his hands and kissed the scar on her back:

‘Sethe,’ he says, ‘me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.’

He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are.’

Sethe cries, “‘Me? Me?’” (273), a timid identification of her own self, but a bold step out of her exile. Paul D, who has made his own odyssey in the course of the novel acknowledges the link between Sethe's breasts and her back, and helps Sethe to see that they are not in opposition to one another but can be balanced if integrated into Sethe's identity. Paul D offers an alternative to the “thick love” of the victim-victimizer cycle. Thick love would rather destroy than mourn, rather face exile than put its story beside that of another. Sethe has to yield her fierce pride to become her true self. The end of the novel dramatizes Sethe's coming to wholeness, the first step in Cain's return.

Baby Suggs's spirit said to Denver, as the girl hesitated on the edge of the porch, that the life of a black person is not a battle; it is a rout. The whites have already won, and the only defense is to accept the defeat whites made on the terms of power and to claim another kind of victory. That victory comes when one takes the risk to suffer and to understand. The curse of Cain, of guilt and alienation, is broken when Sethe can mourn and when she can tell the tale with moral imagination and, thereby, find a truth different from the master's truth. The thick love, erupting from the jungle, has to be first remembered, then “disremembered,” let be. The silent story, exemplified by Beloved, is “not a story to pass on” (274)—a story neither to ignore nor to forget.6

If Sethe is a woman trying to find herself, Sula Peace, at first seems to be a complete self. Her birthmark seems to confirm this wholeness and difference, distinguishing her from other “heavy brown” (Sula 52) girls:

[It] spread from the middle of the lid toward the eyebrow, shaped something like a stemmed rose. It gave her otherwise plain face a broken excitement and blue-blade threat. … The birthmark was to grow darker as the years passed, but now it was the same shade as her gold-flecked eyes, which, to the end, were as steady and clean as rain.


As Sula develops, the birthmark on her eye changes. When she is thirteen, the rose develops a stem, and as Sula grows older, the mark grows darker.

Her mark is interpreted in various, mostly negative, ways throughout the novel: Nel's children think of the mark as a “scary black thing” (97-98), and Jude, Nel's husband, who gets angry when Sula will not participate in the “milkwarm commiseration” he needs to feel like a man, thinks that Sula has a copperhead over her eye (103). The community, indicting the evil Sula for every accident that befalls it, recognizes the mark as the sign of a murderer: They “cleared up for everybody the meaning of the birthmark over her eye; it was not a stemmed rose, or a snake, it was Hannah's [Sula's mother's] ashes marking her from the very beginning” (114). Nel thinks that the mark gives Sula's glance “a suggestion of startled pleasure” (96). Only Shadrack recognizes the mark as a sign of Sula's developing self: “She,” he thinks, “had a tadpole over her eye” (156).

Like Sethe, Sula is both a victim and a victimizer, becoming both at the age of twelve, when her identity is forming. Sula experiences two things that create her radical self. First, Sula overhears her mother say that she loves Sula but does not like her (57). After this incident, Sula and her friend Nel go to the river and there encounter a friend, Chicken Little. While swinging him around, Sula accidentally throws him into the river:

The water darkened and closed quickly over the place where Chicken Little sank. The pressure of his hard and tight little fingers was still in Sula's palms as she stood looking at the closed place in the water. They expected him to come back up, laughing. Both girls stared at the water.


At Chicken's funeral, we realize that something is wrong in this community. As Reverend Deal preaches, the members of the community mourn not for the dead child, but for themselves:

They did not hear all of what he said; they heard the one word, or phrase, or inflection that was for them the connection between the event and themselves. For some it was the term ‘Sweet Jesus.’ And they saw the Lamb's eye and the truly innocent victim: themselves.

This image of individuals mourning only for themselves is intensified in Nel. She stands even more removed from the mourning process because she, afraid of being caught, separates herself from Sula and casts herself as the innocent victim: “… she knew that she had ‘done nothing’” (65). Though Nel will reconcile with Sula after the funeral, during the ritual, she leaves Sula completely alone for the first time: “Nel and Sula did not touch hands or look at each other during the funeral. There was a space, a separateness, between them” (64).

Sula, alone, “simply cried” (65). Yet, Sula's tears neither heal the great pain that she has experienced nor do they signify mourning for Chicken Little. Her inability to mourn marks her as one set apart, like Cain. The rejection by her mother and the death of Chicken, the events that Sula cannot rememory, make Sula what she is:

As willing to feel pain as to give pain, to feel pleasure as to give pleasure, hers was an experimental life—ever since her mother's remarks sent her flying up those stairs, ever since her one major feeling of responsibility had been exorcised on the bank of a river with a closed place in the middle. The first experience taught her there was no other that you could count on; the second that there was no self to count on either. She had no center, no speck around which to grow.


With nothing to depend on, not even herself, Sula patterns her life on being unsupported and unconventional, on the free fall that requires “invention” and “a full surrender to the downward flight” (120). Sula is, at once, all self and no self: an artist with no medium, energy without form (121). Refusing participation in community, Sula finds no “other” against whom she can define herself. Her energy and curiosity seek limits throughout the novel, finding the only real limit in death.

There are four temporary boundaries for Sula: the madman Shadrack and his promise, her best friend Nel, her beloved Ajax, and the community of Medallion. Shadrack's promise to Sula, along with her mother's rejection and the death of Chicken Little, becomes the basis of all her actions. Afraid that Shadrack saw Chicken Little drown, Sula runs to his house. There Shadrack makes Sula a promise: “‘Always’” (62), answering “a question she had not asked [the promise of which] licked at her feet” (63). Shadrack promises Sula, who comes to him in his isolation and becomes “his visitor, his company, his guest, his social life, his woman, his daughter and his friend,” that he, who controls death through National Suicide Day, will keep her safe from death:

… he tried to think of something to say to comfort her, something to stop the hurt from spilling out of her eyes. So he had said ‘always,’ so she would not have to be afraid of the change—the falling away of skin, the drip and slide of blood, and the exposure of bone underneath. He had said ‘always’ to convince her, assure her, of permanency.


Shadrack ensures that Sula never has to mourn or to remember. Hers is a life of forward movement; for Sula, there is only the moment. This sense of her permanence, of her immortality, is Sula's true mark—her blessing and her curse. It frees her to experiment, to work through the range of experience, while it ensures that she will find only repetition because she cannot critically evaluate what she does. For Sula, “… doing anything forever and ever [i]s hell” (108). Yet in her incessant wanderings, Sula finds the same thing everywhere. The sense of her own permanence also takes away from her two essential things: fear and compassion. Lack of fear makes her hurt herself to save herself; for example, she cuts off the end of her finger to save herself and Nel—who misinterprets the act—from a group of white bullies (54-55, 101). Lack of compassion lets her interestingly watch her mother Hannah burn and enjoy her jerking and dancing. Sula says, “‘I never meant anything’” (147), and she is honest and right. No experience, from the most trivial—someone's chewing with his mouth open—to the most important—her mother's death—has any ultimate meaning to Sula. The darkening and spreading of the birthmark is the symbol of the tyranny of Sula's eye/I. Because Sula cannot take the perspective of the “other,” she can see neither herself nor anyone else clearly.

That tyranny of the eye/I includes even Nel, Sula's best friend, who is “the closest thing to both an other and a self” that Sula finds. Sula cannot understand that, though they see together, are one eye, they are also two throats: They have different needs and are not “one and the same thing” (119). Sula forces Nel to define herself; Sula knows Nel's name as she will not know Ajax's (120). Sula, however, refuses to be defined, for she feels that she knows herself intimately (121). She demands that Nel want nothing from her and accept all aspects of her (119)—even her adultery with Nel's husband Jude. Sula's sleeping with Jude is not personal; it is merely another of Sula's “experiences.” Sexuality, for Sula, is not the attempt to meet with an “other,” but with herself. It is an attempt to find that center that she has lost:

There, in the center of that silence was not eternity but the death of time and a loneliness so profound the word itself had no meaning. For loneliness assumed the absence of other people, and the solitude she found in that desperate terrain had never admitted the possibility of other people. She wept then … [in] the postcoital privateness in which she met herself, welcomed herself, and joined herself in matchless harmony.


Sexuality becomes a site of memory, but not one of meeting. Sexuality is, for Sula, a place where she recovers the self that her mother took away, the self on which she can depend. It is the way to experience and to mourn the death of her dislocated self that Shadrack promised she would never experience. It is a limit, and limitation is what Sula unconsciously seeks.

Sula's desire for boundaries is best illustrated in her love for Ajax. Only Ajax, a man as strong and as free as herself, makes her desire to join the self that she finds in the sexual act with an “other,” to return from her Cain-like exile in taking responsibility for another person. With Ajax, Sula feels the desires of possession and of attempting to know a person other than herself. Their lovemaking is symbolized as a tree in loam—fertile, rich, and moist (130-131)—and Sula wants to look through all the layers of Ajax to find his center, to reach the source of that richness. Ajax, however, desires the Sula that is separate, complete in her solitude. He, like Sula, is a gold-eyed person, a true individual (Tate 125), and he leaves Sula when she wants to limit him by making him hers alone. When she says, “‘Lean on me’” (133), Sula is asking Ajax to give up his freedom—to become bound to her, and to bind himself to him and to the community. Ajax rejects this relationship for the radical freedom that he has learned from his mother, another outsider: “He dragged [Sula] under him and made love to her with the steadiness and the intensity of a man about to leave for Dayton” (134).

Marriage, like mourning, is a ritual that binds the self to the beloved, to the community, and to God. The loss of Ajax, and with him Sula's one attempt at joining with another in marriage and with the community of Medallion, destroys Sula. When she finds his driver's license, she realizes that, in contrast to Nel, Ajax is someone whose name she did not know. She sees that, when she “said his name involuntarily or said it truly meaning him, the name she was screaming and saying was not his at all.” A name indicates the essence of a human being, and Ajax has not given Sula that deep understanding of himself. Sula realizes that she would have had to destroy him to get it: “‘It's just as well he left. Soon I would have torn the flesh from his face just to see if I was right about the gold and nobody would have understood that kind of curiosity’” (136). Faced with this loss, Sula becomes like the headless solider that Shadrack sees his first day in the war (8). Sula's body goes on, but she has lost her head, just like her paper dolls'. Sula's headless paper dolls indicate Sula's having lost herself, having given up her name, to Ajax and her being unable to “hold her head up,” to maintain herself in the face of this loss: “‘I did not hold my head stiff enough when I met him and so I lost it just like the dolls’” (136). The image of paper dolls also suggests emptiness of body, mind, and soul, and that emptiness leads to Sula's death.

Medallion and her grandmother's room provide a final limit for the boundless energy that is Sula. Sula returns to Medallion because she has exhausted the experience of Nashville, Detroit, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Macon, and San Diego (120). Toni Morrison has said that Sula returns because she simply cannot live anywhere else. Though Sula is recognized as evil, the community more than tolerates her, and, again, we see that something is wrong in Medallion. Medallion is only a community when it has Sula for a center, when her “evil” draws its members together in fear. Bad mothers take care of their children; wives love their husbands to keep them out of Sula's bed; and every disaster, large and small, has a reason—Sula. The community is bound in hate and refuses to mourn Sula after her death. The people accept the news of her death as good and attend the funeral only “to verify [the witch's] being put away” (150). They leave Sula to the white people, making her only “a body, a name, and an address” (173)—denying her essence and dishonoring her. Thus, the question of the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River?” is answered affirmatively, but in a deadly way, by Sula's spirit. The destruction of the community at the end of the novel is accomplished through Sula's element—water. That ruin comes because the community's refusal to mourn marks it. The power of her spirit indicates Sula's centrality, negative or not, in Medallion. Both are Cain, and each destroys the other. Sula takes the community with her in her return to the womb, her “sleep of water” (149).

Medallion and her grandmother's house and room are, for Sula, the end; they represent the closure of the circle of her experience. Left by Ajax, Sula thinks, “‘There aren't any more new songs and I have sung all the ones there are’” (137). Sula refuses to look back, and there is no future for her. In contrast to Sethe at the end of Beloved, Sula will not yield. Unlike Baby Suggs, who goes to bed broken, Sula is defiant to the end, as her final conversation with Nel illustrates:

[Nel] opened the door and heard Sula's low whisper. ‘Hey, girl.’ Nel paused and turned her head but not enough to see her.

‘How you know?’ Sula asked.

‘Know what?’ Nel still wouldn't look at her.

‘About who was good. How you know it was you?’

‘What you mean?’

‘I mean maybe it wasn't you. Maybe it was me.’


Sula—and we have to admire her—affirms her own mode of being in the world. All that is left for her to experience is death. Dying, she faces a sealed window—the window from which her grandmother threw herself while trying to save Hannah, Sula's mother. The boarded window soothes Sula “with its sturdy termination, its unassailable finality” (148). The closed room represents the end of the tyranny of the eye/I, the closing off of Sula's single perspective, and the womb, the place where Sula can be completely alone, completely herself, free of distraction and curled up in water. The promise of “Always,” the promise of permanence, can be fulfilled only in death, in “a sleep of water always” (149).

For the living Sula, the mark becomes a sign of the completeness that is her incompleteness—the mark of the independent self who, like Cain, refuses to acknowledge the need for and the importance of the “other.” Even in dying, she will not apologize to and reach out for Nel, her Abel. For the dead Sula, the mark is a sign of her permanence, her power, and her beauty. Shadrack's promise, then, is broken in one sense, but in another it is fulfilled. After her death, Sula recognizes that she needs community—specifically, that she needs Nel:

She was dead.

Sula felt her face smiling. ‘Well, I'll be damned,’ she thought, ‘it didn't even hurt. Wait'll I tell Nel.’


This need for the “other” is confirmed after death. Sula becomes her sister's keeper; thus, Sula lives on as Nel feels the presence of her dead friend. Nel realizes tint she never missed her husband Jude at all but that she did miss Sula: “‘We was girls together. … O Lord, Sula, … girl, girl, girlgirlgirl’” (174). That “girl” is Nel. Shocked into seeing herself by Eva's assertion that Nel, too, is guilty and that Nel and Sula are alike, Nel realizes that Sula was right: There was no difference between them (169). This recognition leads Nel to mourn her other self. Doing her rememory and mourning her friend, Nel finds her own eye twitching as she takes on the mark and is reborn.7 After her childhood trip to New Orleans, Nel cried “me” five times, praying to be wonderful (28-29). Taking on Sula's mark, she begins to become that “me.” Like Sethe at the end of Beloved, Nel finds that her story is bound with the story of another, and that connection, which transcends death, becomes the path to finding her identity.

Morrison has said that Sula and Nel make up one whole person: Sula is ship, the “New World Black Woman,” and Nel safe harbor, the “Traditional Black Woman” (Moyers interview).8 Neither is complete alone. That sense of our finitude and the necessity for contact with the “other” that is central to the Cain myth is what Toni Morrison retains in the stories of her marked women. She illustrates the sense of the risk of human life and human relationships that the Biblical myth contains, even as she signifies on the myth to affirm the healing power of memory and of ritual. She presents to us the human being, marked by oppression and/or by an act done in desperation and fear and set outside of the boundaries of community. That fallen human, however, cannot be sent “east of Eden” but must be reconciled to the self and to the community for the sake of both. In a community that has suffered through slavery and reconstruction, not a member can be lost. Cain cannot be banished forever but, somehow, must come home, lest both Cain and community be forever marked. The black community is a people in mourning, reconstructing itself through memory: This is not a story to pass on.

For Morrison, the mark must not be passed on, for it always carries possibility; it is not just a sign of alienation but one of latent beauty and wholeness. Sethe's chokeberry tree is potentially beautiful—the blood from her back makes roses on her bed (Beloved 93)—and organic—it might have cherries (17). When Sethe accepts her mark, she finds the true meaning of her name. She is no longer Cain, the exile, but is both Set, crucified by the tree on her back,9 and Seth, the son who carries on the line of Adam and Eve and who foreshadows Christ.10 The tree marks her as one of those cast out of Eden, yet the tree also connects her to her mother, marked with a cross, and the group of African slaves who were all marked in that way. Thus, the mark becomes a sign of community, identity, and wholeness; and Sethe, the chosen child, has to remember the stories and witness her people's history—and her own. The tree also becomes a symbol of Sethe's own power. Sethe's act, however brutal, signals individual defiance to the oppression of slavery and the beginnings of claiming and defining the self, of breaking the physical and psychological boundaries of oppression. Like the trees at Sweet Home and like Paul D's sapling, however, Sethe finally bends and, thus, survives—even prevails.

In contrast, Sula's mark is that of a self who is absolutely unbounded and free. The mark as rose and snake signifies the beauty and danger of Sula's kind of freedom. Ultimately, it symbolizes her absolute refusal to see life, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, from more than one window, from any perspective other than her own. This immense, unchecked power is destructive both for the self, as we see when Sula dies alone, and for the community, as we see when the people of Medallion refuse to recognize Sula's importance and are destroyed by the angry spirit of the dead Sula. Alone, Sula, as Morrison says, is a warning. Balanced after death, however, with the loving and stable power of Nel, who takes on the task of mourning and memory, the mark becomes tadpole and not snake. That is, it signals the development of the self and creates the compassion—the ability to be a self but also to see with the “other”—that is the basis of true community.

Both Sula and Sethe must embrace and even, finally, celebrate the mark of Cain which sets each apart but which also makes each unique—and so must their communities. Toni Morrison shows us in Beloved and Sula that we are bound together through story and through action. Memory, for the oppressed person, is a private story that must be understood, but it must also be shared. Thus, memory is also a public story made permanent as myth and reenacted through ritual—in these novels, the funeral. Myth and ritual bind the person to the group and to the sacred. Steinbeck, in East of Eden, says that the Cain story is “the symbol story of the [rejected, guilty] human soul” (240). The way out of that guilt and rejection, for Toni Morrison, is to claim the mark as a symbol of the self and willingly to undergo what one has been forced to undergo in the past. The act of rememory is a private and a public act of homecoming; it is like water, forever moving, forever trying to get back to where it was (“Site” 119).


  1. Morrison used this term in an interview with Bill Moyers.

  2. “To protect [Cain] from the onslaught of the beasts, God inscribed one letter of his Holy Name upon his forehead,” writes Louis Ginzberg (112). Mellinkoff offers other examples: In Symmachus's Life of Abel, Cain returns home with a “terrible sign on his forehead” (30). See also Amoul Greban's “Mystere de la Passion” and Byron's “Cain.” Others place the mark on the cheek or on the arm (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer).

  3. The Genesis Rabbah says that God “beat Cain's face with hail, which blackened like coal, and thus he remained with a black face.” Medieval art picks up this concept of blacks as evil. An alternate reading is found in Ginzberg, where Cain is given leprosy (112).

  4. “… the decree had condemned him to he a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth,” observes Ginzberg (111). This is the origin of the idea of the Wandering Jew.

  5. For an interesting discussion of the mother-daughter issue in Beloved, see Horvitz.

  6. For a discussion of the last lines of the novel, see Holloway 517.

  7. Munro (150-154) clearly connects Sula's mark with Nel as well as with Sula.

  8. See also Naylor and Morrison 577-578, and Stepto 216-217.

  9. “The furka or ‘fork’ was the cross on which the Egyptian god Set was crucified,” notes Walker. “As the original of the Biblical Seth, the ‘supplanter’ of [Abel], Set ruled the alternating halves of the year in Egypt's predynastic sacred king-cult. … Annual rebirth of the world was said to be achieved by the blood of Set, which was spread over the fields” (36).

  10. Seth, observes Ginzberg, “was one of the thirteen men born perfect in a way. … Thus, Seth became, in a genuine sense, the father of the human race, especially the father of the pious” (121).

Works Cited

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Ginzberg, Louis. The Legends of the Jews. Vol. 1. Trans. Henrietta Szold. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968.

Holloway, Karla F. C. “Beloved: A Spiritual.” Callaloo 13 (1990): 516-525.

Horvitz, Deborah. “Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved.Studies in American Fiction 17 (Autumn 1989): 157-167.

Long, Charles H. Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.

McDowell, Deborah E. “‘The Self and the Other’: Reading Toni Morrison's Sula and the Black Female Text.” Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Ed. Nellie Y. McKay. Boston: Hall, 1988. 77-90.

Mellinkoff, Ruth. The Mark of Cain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.

———. Interview with Bill Moyers. “The World of Ideas.” 14 September 1990.

———. “The Site of Memory.” Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Ed. William Zinsser. Boston: Houghton, 1987. 101-124.

———. Sula. 1973, New York: Plume, 1987.

Munro, C. Lynn. “The Tattooed Heart and the Serpentine Eye: Morrison's Choice of an Epigraph for Sula.Black American Literature Forum 18 (1984): 150-154.

Naylor, Gloria and Toni Morrison. “A Conversation.” Southern Review 21.3 (1985): 567-593.

Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Bantam, 1952.

Stepto, Robert B. “‘Intimate Things in Place’: A Conversation with Toni Morrison.” Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. 213-229.

Tate, Claudia. “Toni Morrison.” Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum 1983. 117-131.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. New York: Harper, 1988.

Rob Davidson (essay date fall 2001)

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SOURCE: Davidson, Rob. “Racial Stock and 8-Rocks: Communal Historiography in Toni Morrison's Paradise.Twentieth-Century Literature 47, no. 3 (fall 2001): 355-73.

[In the following essay, Davidson examines the role of narrative as a means of constituting community identity in Morrison's Paradise.]

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

—Walter Benjamin (258)

With the publication of Paradise in 1998, Toni Morrison completed a trilogy of historical novels that began with Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992). Broadly speaking, Morrison's trilogy is concerned with “re-membering” the historical past for herself, for African Americans, and for America as a whole: Beloved reconsiders the periods of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Jazz reconsiders the Harlem Renaissance, and Paradise is principally concerned with the Vietnam and civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the most important concerns in the trilogy is the “use value” of narrative. Storytelling is historiography in Morrison's fiction, and in each novel she carefully examines the role of narrative in the reconstitution of both the individual self and society at large. But Morrison's method and focus for her project have evolved and widened over the course of the trilogy. Beloved and Jazz are principally concerned with the process of the individual reconstitution of the self, most notably for the characters of Sethe, Paul D, and Violet and Joe Trace. In Paradise, Morrison no longer concentrates on the individual process of reconstitution. While the individual process is still important—and intimately related to the communal—Morrison is more interested in assessing the role of narrative in the community as a whole. The protagonist of Paradise is, in fact, the community of Ruby, Oklahoma—including the rag-tag band of Convent women who live on its fringes.

This essay will focus on the Ruby-centered narratives in Paradise, which focus on the patriarchy and emphasize a rigidly controlled communal historiography predicated on the subordination of the individual to the group.1 Steward and Deacon Morgan—Ruby's recognized leaders—employ, enforce, and defend this communal narrative. The “Patricia” section of Paradise then offers a complex counter-reading of Ruby's patriarchal historiography. The essay will conclude with a consideration of how the town as a whole narratively responds to the Convent massacre, and how that event impacts the patriarchal structure of the town.

Isolated from the outside world, its very existence predicated on racial separatism. Ruby, Oklahoma, is experiencing growing pains in 1976. The descendants of its founding fathers—the 8-rocks, as Patricia Best Cato calls them2—control every essential aspect of the town, from the general stores to the banks. Deacon and Steward Morgan are twin brothers at the heart of the patriarchal system that has governed Ruby since its founding. Descendants of one of the original founding fathers, they are deeply engaged in preserving their idea of what Ruby should be. Their motivations are not solely—or even principally—moral or idealistic. Rather, the Morgans zealously desire to preserve the status quo, which means to preserve their power.

Ironically, neither Steward nor Deacon Morgan have any children. Steward and Dovey are infertile, while Deacon and Soane's sons died in Vietnam. Their nephew, K. D. Morgan, is “their hope and their despair” (55)—the sole male heir to the Morgan fortune and power. In the opening pages of the “Grace” section of Paradise, the Morgans and the Fleetwoods meet at the Fleetwood house to discuss a problem: K. D. has struck his girlfriend, Arnette Fleetwood (daughter of one of the town's most prominent families). The men want to settle the problem on their own terms. In Ruby no outside judicial force is wanted or needed. The men like to believe a woman is safe enough to walk around the town at night unescorted because “Nothing for ninety miles around thought she was prey” (8). Given the violent opening section of the book, that line is savagely ironic.

Of course, no women are present when the men discuss K. D. and Arnette. The men have, however, called in an outsider to negotiate a truce: Richard Misner, Ruby's Baptist preacher, whom the Morgans consider a potential threat. His socially progressive ideas are part of the problem, but to the Morgans, the real threat is that Misner “could encourage strange behavior; side with a teenage girl; shift ground to Fleetwood. A man like that, willing to throw money away, could give customers ideas. Make them think there was a choice about interest rates” (56).

To the elder Morgans, K. D.'s brashness presents less a moral problem than a threat to the status quo. The need to call in an outsider like Misner to negotiate between the 8-rock families weakens the Morgans' position. Despite the moral talk in the heated exchange at the Fleetwood house, the Morgans want, above all else, to remain in control. When the verbal negotiations begin to stall, Misner unwittingly threatens the status quo by asking K. D. why he hit Arnette: “He expected this forthright question to open up a space for honesty, where the men could stop playing bear and come to terms” (59). Jeff Fleetwood, Arnette's father, curtly responds: “We don't care about why. … What I want to know is what you going to do about it?” (60).

The unspoken answer to Misner's question concerns the “open secret” of Arnette's pregnancy (K. D. is the father, of course). There is a silent consensus not to broach that topic, but to quickly conclude the negotiations. K. D. agrees to apologize, and the elder Morgans promise to assist with Arnette's upcoming college expenses. When Steward asks if Arnette might not change her mind about going to college, Jeff snaps, “I'm her father. I'll arrange her mind” (61). At the first mention of college, Steward asks when school begins. Told it starts in August, he asks if Arnette will be ready by then. The subtext is, as I read it, that Steward is contemplating when Arnette's baby would be due. When Jeff Fleetwood vows to arrange his daughter's mind, the suggestion may be that he will get her out of town in time to spare the town any disgrace.3

The exchange in the Fleetwood house exemplifies how things work in Ruby: the town elders negotiate on behalf of the younger men and all the women. Deals are cut in the back room, and a blind eye is turned toward unfortunate accidents like Arnette's pregnancy. Above all else, the 8-rocks want to preserve the town's stability, and, of all the elders, the Morgans are most interested in preserving the status quo.

The hierarchy demonstrates its power again in the “Seneca” section, when the older and younger males discuss the Oven—a centerpiece of the town carried from its original site in Haven, Oklahoma, to the town of Ruby. The Oven's motto has been partially erased or broken; the younger generation wants to update it to read “Be the Furrow of His Brow,” whereas the older generation wants to preserve the original version, “Beware the Furrow of His Brow.” Interestingly, neither group knows for certain what the original message was; the elders are relying on the memory of Esther Fleetwood (86-87). The heated exchange—again moderated by Richard Misner—is telling. Deacon Morgan fiercely condemns the younger men: “Nobody, I mean nobody, is going to change the Oven or call it something strange. Nobody is going to mess with a thing our grandfathers built. … They dug the clay—not you.” Misner's response indicates his sympathies: “Seems to me, Deek, they are respecting it. It's because they do know the Oven's value that they want to give it new life.” Royal Beauchamp seconds the sentiment, claiming, “It's our history too, sir. Not just yours.” Deacon curtly responds, “That Oven already has a history. It doesn't need you to fix it” (85-86).

The scene exposes competing concepts of communal historiography. The older generation is firmly committed to its extant narrative. As they understand it, the story includes every fact about how the 8-rocks got to Haven and the meaning of that ordeal. They are loathe to change it. Misner and the younger generation want to rewrite the extant narrative. For them, history is open and dynamic.

The debate surrounding the Oven's motto involves not merely a question of authority, but also one of authorship. E. L. Doctorow reminds us that

There is no history except as it is composed. There are no failed revolutions, only lawless conspiracies. All history is contemporary history, says Benedetto Croce in History as the Story of Liberty: “However remote in time events may seem to be, every historical judgment refers to present needs and situations.” That is why history has to be written and rewritten from one generation to another. The act of composition can never end.


The younger generation of Ruby wants to do precisely that—rewrite history. Again, the real issue for the Morgans is power, which the older men will not give up. When the youths claim that changing the motto to “Be” would reinforce the idea that “We are the power,” the older men cry blasphemy and Steward Morgan ends the debate with a blunt threat: “If you, any one of you, ignore, change, take away, or add to the words in the mouth of that Oven, I will blow your head off just like you was a hood-eye snake” (87).

In Paradise, every potential threat to the status quo becomes an emergency for the Morgans and their sympathizers. It may be something as commonplace as a car full of white teenagers whistling at young girls; in this case, the gun-toting men of the town surround the offenders and wordlessly bully them into leaving (12-13). When the threat becomes more palpable, as with the younger men who seek to assert themselves by reinscribing the message on the Oven, the older men threaten them verbally. And as the assault on the Convent demonstrates, to preserve their power the older men are capable of terrible violence. Walter Benjamin writes:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm.


This captures the essence of the Morgan mentality: the perpetual “state of emergency” is one of their chief tactics for retaining power, as it justifies—in their minds, at least—practically any course of action.

Of course, the Morgans are not merely brute terrorists. Their strategy for maintaining their position can be more subtle: they understand, on some level, the power of narrative to establish moral authority, and this is why communal historiography—that is, a tightly controlled version of the town's history—becomes paramount. As the Oven debate shows, when anyone challenges the elders' position, the elders offer a recitation of communal history, because the community's extant historical narrative recounts a long history of terror and abuse—from the horrors of slavery to the modern-day exodus known to the residents of Ruby as the Disallowing—and this narrative serves as a justification for their “state of emergency.” Paradise foregrounds this strategy in its opening section:

The twins have powerful memories. Between them they remember the details of everything that ever happened—things they witnessed and things they have not. … And they have never forgotten the message or the specifics of any story, especially the controlling one told to them by their grandfather—the man who put the words in the Oven's black mouth. A story that explained why neither the founders of Haven nor their descendants could tolerate anybody but themselves.


The “controlling” story is the Disallowing—the story of how 158 freed black slaves left “Mississippi and two Louisiana parishes” (13) in 1890 and at every stop were turned away by whites, by Native Americans, and by fellow blacks for being “too poor, too bedraggled-looking” (14). Morgan historiography is based on memory and oral history. Apart from family Bibles, few or no documents record town history, which is passed down orally from father to son.

Morrison takes great pains to establish the legitimacy of the “state of emergency” that Ruby believes in; historically, there is cause for it. But Morrison also refuses to idealize this approach; she understands that such militant defensiveness carries the potential for abuse and corruption. Whatever the valid historical reasons for Ruby's defensiveness, they do not justify the quasi-fascistic impulses of men like Steward Morgan—to say nothing of the assault on the Convent.

Ruby's elders have converted the narrative of the Disallowing into political dogma, an ideology that allows them any measure of terror or violence so long as it defends (what they deem) the town's common interests. The ironic final sentence of “Ruby” underscores this point: “God at their side, the men take aim. For Ruby” (18). Linda Hutcheon writes:

Ideology—how a culture represents itself to itself—“doxifies” or naturalizes narrative representation, making it appear as natural or common-sensical … it presents what is really constructed meaning as something inherent in that which is being represented.


This point calls to mind Patricia Storace's astute observation that the men of Ruby seek “the perpetual overarching authority of the creator at the moment of creation” (66). Understandably, Deacon and Steward Morgan—and the other men of their generation—desperately want to be the authors of their own history. Their history, however, becomes a closed book, not a text to be rewritten—or, for that matter, reinterpreted—with each generation.

The men of Ruby believe unfailingly—dogmatically—in their own constructed history; but the moral basis for this belief has eroded, and the elders now cling to it less for moral reasons (though they freely employ the rhetoric of morality) than for a brute desire to preserve their powerful position at any cost. Musing on the debate over the Oven's motto, Steward Morgan admits that

Personally he didn't give a damn. The point was not why it should or should not be changed, but what Reverend Misner gained by instigating the idea. … He wondered if that generation—Misner's and K. D.'s—would have to be sacrificed to get to the next one.


Not only individuals but whole generations may be sacrificed to an inflexible history. Steward “remembered every detail of the story his father and grandfather told …” (95).

If the patriarchs of Ruby are overly rigid in their adherence to their version of history, the women are not. Paradise complicates every version of history it presents, continually urging broader contexts that undermine and problematize the conservative approach of the men. History is obviously gendered in Paradise. Not surprisingly, then, women frequently construct competing versions of Ruby's history, though they hide them from the men.

For example, Dovey Morgan feels that arguing over the Oven's motto is pointless. “Specifying it, particularizing it, nailing meaning down, was futile” (93). Soane Morgan goes even further, believing that

Minus the baptisms the Oven had no real value. What was needed back in Haven's early days had never been needed in Ruby. … The women nodded when the men took the Oven apart, packed, moved and reassembled it. But privately they resented the truck space given over to it. …

Oh, how the men loved putting it back together; how proud it had made them, how devoted. A good thing, she thought, as far as it went, but it went too far. A utility became a shrine. …


The most radical reconsideration of patriarchal history in Paradise is articulated by Patricia Best Cato in the “Patricia” section, which includes a reconsideration of the most treasured of all the patriarchal grand narratives: the Disallowing.

Philip Page argues that Toni Morrison's novels

are postmodern, not in the sense of extreme self-referentiality or in the mockery of narration, but in their privileging of polyvocalism, stretched boundaries, open-endedness, and unraveled binary oppositions. In her novels, time is nonlinear, the forms are open, multiple voices are heard, and endings are ambiguous because Morrison insists on the necessity of continual and multiple reworkings—for characters, narrators, author, and readers. Forming an identity, authoring a text, telling a story, and reading or listening to a text must be ongoing, not fixed in time, place, or position. Since wholeness is illusory and division is endemic, one must explore the fragmentations through multiple visions.


Rafael Pérez-Torres presents a similar argument. He defines Beloved as a postmodern novel on the grounds of its use of pastiche, in which “Numerous voices retell the same event, each from different perspectives, none taking precedence over the others” (106). This process, one of “repetition and variation” (107), is “the primary strategy of Morrison's text” (104).

Morrison employs this strategy of pastiche, or “repetition and variation,” in “Patricia,” one of the most fascinating portions of Paradise. Patricia Best Cato is Ruby's self-appointed local historian, who collects and records the town's various family trees. But the townspeople resent her prying questions and shut “Invisible doors.” The instinctual defensiveness of her fellow townspeople prompts Patricia to abandon “all pretense to objective comment.” Rather, “The project became unfit for any eyes except her own” (187). In Ruby, all communal history is patriarchal and rigidly controlled. As a woman, then, she must pursue the project as an exercise in personal historiography. This is a familiar theme in Morrison's work, and it is of central importance to Paradise (though it is more directly addressed in the Convent-centered narratives). Ultimately, however, Patricia's exercise in personal historiography proves to be of limited use.

Patricia's failure contrasts sharply with similar situations in both Beloved and Jazz. Mae G. Henderson analyzes Sethe's “reconstitution of self” and suggests that this process—the construction of identity, rather than the discovery of it—is central to Morrison's artistic vision in the novel. Morrison continues to explore this issue in Jazz. In that novel, Violet demonstrates “literary archeology” at work—“the imaginative and reconstructive recovery of the past” (Henderson 66). Violet, if she is to survive, must do what Sethe has to do, namely, “liberate her present from the ‘burden of the past’ … reconstitute the past through personal narrative” (72). More specifically, Violet, like Sethe.

must imaginatively reconstitute, or “re-member,” her history “in such a way as to change the meaning of those events for [her] and their significance” … it is the (re)configuration of the past which enables one to refigure the future.4


The question of agency is crucial in this process. Alice Manfred tells Violet Trace that there is no use in remaining passive, a victim of her deranged thoughts regarding her husband Joe and his adulterous affair with Dorcas. “Nobody's asking you to take it,” Alice says, “I'm saying make it, make it!” (113). Violet and perhaps Sethe—and the women of the Convent—learn this assertion over the past, this command of the facts and the willingness to manipulate them.

Patricia Best Cato is not as successful in her attempt at literary archaeology, and it is worth thinking carefully about the reasons why she fails. One reason, of course, is gender. Patricia is investigating a rigidly patriarchal system that, as we have seen, constantly invokes a “state of emergency.” Fiercely defensive of the status quo, the town shuts its “invisible doors” on Patricia's project. But she persists. Poring over old family trees and finding countless women with “only one name” or “women with generalized last names,” Patricia realizes that, in Ruby, a woman's identity “rested on” the man she married (187). She is interested in the gaps and omissions left by the patriarchal version of history:

The town's official story, elaborated from pulpits, in Sunday school classes and ceremonial speeches, had a sturdy public life. Any footnotes, crevices or questions to be put took keen imagination and the persistence of a mind uncomfortable with oral histories. Pat had wanted proof in documents where possible to match the stories, and where proof was not available she interpreted—freely but, she thought, insightfully because she alone had the required emotional distance.


Patricia's “free and insightful” interpretation of facts is essential to the historiographer openly seeking a fresh viewpoint on old ideas. Linda Hutcheon holds that

Historians never seize the event directly and entirely, only incompletely and laterally—through documents … [and] texts. … History does not so much say what the past was; rather, it says what it is still possible to know—and thus represent—of it.


In her reconsideration, Patricia must inevitably reread the Disallowing—and how that defining series of events has continued to shape the Ruby of 1974 (the date of the “Patricia” section). Patricia believes the rejection by fellow blacks is the great unspoken, unacknowledged keystone of the town's identity and definition of self: “Everything anybody wanted to know about the citizens of Haven or Ruby lay in the ramifications of that one rebuff out of many” (189). That there could be a color line in the black community must have come as a shock to the original 8-rocks: “Now they saw a new separation: light-skinned against black. Oh, they knew there was a difference in the minds of whites, but it had not struck them before that it was of consequence, serious consequence, to Negroes themselves” (194). For Patricia, it follows that this realization becomes the foundation of the town's isolationism and its desire to keep family lines and racial stock “pure.” In a world where both lighter-skinned blacks and whites despise the darker-skinned blacks, the 8-rocks never feel safe.

But must this always be the case? Patricia wonders why the men who left to fight in World War II—a group that included Steward and Deacon Morgan—did not end the “state of emergency” upon their return:

[I]t could have been over and done with. Should have been over and done with. The rejection, which they called the Disallowing, was a burn whose scar tissue was numb by 1949, wasn't it? Oh, no. Those that survived that particular war came right back home, saw what had become of Haven, heard about the missing testicles of other colored soldiers; about medals being torn off by gangs of rednecks and Sons of the Confederacy—and recognized the Disallowing, Part Two.


The “state of emergency” that prompted the men to move from Haven to Ruby has persisted to 1976—along with the attendant prejudices against both outsiders and lighter-skinned blacks. Patricia's deduction of this fact prompts a chain of realizations. For example, she intuits the true reason behind Menus Jury's chronic drunkenness—Menus returned from the Vietnam war with a woman he loved, but the town collectively “[forced] him to give back or return the woman he brought home to marry,” a “pretty sandy-haired girl from Virginia” (195).

Patricia's speculations carry profound personal implications; in a letter to her father, she realizes why the town has distanced itself from the Best family: “They hate us because she [Patricia's mother] looked like a cracker and was bound to have cracker-looking children like me, and although I married Billy Cato, who was an 8-rock like you, like them, I passed the skin onto my daughter” (196). This realization offers a cogent explanation for why the town ostracizes Patricia's daughter. Billie Delia. Billie Delia is denigrated not for the stated moral reason—an innocent childhood event of dropping her britches in public when she was three years old (150-51), which led townspeople to label her a “loose woman”—but for the unstated reason: she is light-skinned. Ironically, Billie Delia is considered a loose woman when, in fact, she is still a virgin, “untouched” at Arnette's wedding (151). Arnette Fleetwood, the “racially pure” daughter of Jeff Fleetwood, is in fact pregnant outside of wedlock, yet the town supports her because she is dark-skinned. Skin color trumps morality every time in Ruby.

For Patricia, the implications of the town's racism are profound. Patricia once struck Billie Delia with a pressing iron, and had

missed killing her own daughter by inches. … Pat realized that ever since Billie Delia was an infant, she thought of her as a liability somehow. … The question for her now in the silence of this here night was whether she had defended Billie Delia or sacrificed her.5


The answer, sadly, seems clear, though Patricia doesn't wholly realize its implications until the Christmas pageant, an event that will also articulate the limits—and ultimate failure—of Patricia's personal and communal history projects.

The highlight of the annual Christmas pageant, a dramatic reenactment of the Disallowing, conflates the town's modern exodus with the story of Christ's birth: an obvious attempt to secure a spiritual and religious foundation for the community. During the pageant, Patricia and Richard Misner engage in a debate about historicism. Misner has been using his Sunday school classes as a forum for introducing new ideas to the community: “Unlike most of the folks here, we read newspapers and different kinds of books. We keep up” (208). And Misner promotes an open forum: “Isolation kills generations. It has no future” (210). He is progressive, open-minded, and sincerely concerned with the civil-rights struggles of the era. He presents an African-oriented cultural view that, given Ruby's hyperdefensive stance, is not well received by the town, including Patricia. Confronted with the “radical” views of an outsider—outsider and enemy “mean the same thing” in Ruby, she tells Misner (212)—Patricia reverts to isolationism, rejecting a pro-Africa agenda and insisting that “Africa doesn't mean anything to me. … Slavery is our past” (209-10).

Frustrated with Ruby's isolationism, Misner asks Patricia to imagine “a real earthly home. Not some fortress you bought and built up and have to keep everybody locked in or out. A real home.” Like other Ruby residents confronted with prying questions, she is evasive and curt: “You preaching, Reverend” (213). Offered the world, she chooses Ruby.

But it is Misner's simplest question—why seven families are represented on stage during the Christmas pageant, rather than the nine original founding families (211)—that has the most impact. Patricia realizes that as certain families have married outsiders and brought in lighter-skinned blacks, they have been quietly removed from the reenactment—written out of the town's 8-rock history. Emboldened by her discovery, Patricia finds the courage to question her 8-rock father, Roger Best, noting that “the holy families get fewer and fewer. … It was skin color, wasn't it? … The way people get chosen and ranked in this town” (215-16). Roger's response—like Patricia's in her conversation with Misner—is again typical: a curt denial followed by a long silence.

Patricia is obviously at the edge of some revelation: she has discovered—and even dared to articulate—the town's racism. But what Patricia does next is one of the most ambiguous and problematic gestures in this complex novel: she burns all her research, her letters, and her town history project. While this makes her feel “clean” and prompts her to laugh (217), as the project burns to cinders, she realizes again that the Morgans are in charge of Ruby, and muses on the bizarre fact that no one ever dies in—that is, within the town limits—of Ruby:

Did they [the Morgans] really believe that no one died in Ruby? Suddenly Pat thought she knew all of it. Unadulterated and unadulteried 8-rock blood held its magic as long as it resided in Ruby. That was their recipe. That was their deal. For Immortality.

Pat's smile was crooked. In that case, she thought, everything that worries them must come from women.

“Dear God,” she murmured. “Dear, dear God. I burned the papers.”


Is Patricia lamenting her impulsive act or celebrating it? The reader can imagine either or both. In the reading I prefer, Patricia realizes that her role as a woman has a certain potential power in “worrying” the Morgans, and that she has erred in burning the manuscripts because now she has no textual proof for her claims. Patricia's act completely undermines her position as a textual historiographer of Ruby; the town will henceforth have an oral history rigidly controlled by men.

Of course, Patricia's work has ultimately been a historiography of the self and has led to new knowledge of her position within Ruby's hierarchy. But as we saw in her exchanges with both Richard Misner and her father, Roger Best. Patricia doesn't want to push too hard or venture too far from the “official history.” Burning her work ends her project of personal reconstitution.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation for this act comes from the example of Patricia's daughter, Billie Delia: if one does not agree with the official history and politics, the only option is to leave town. And that is too dear a price for Patricia to pay. This is why Patricia is so surprisingly different from Sethe, Violet Trace, and the women of the Convent. In the character of Patricia Best Cato, Morrison creates a female character who fails at—or defensively backs away from—the liberating process of reconstituting the self through “literary archaeology.”

The final example of communal historiography in the Ruby-centered narratives comes in “Save-Marie,” when the townspeople are trying to make sense of the men's brutal massacre at the Convent. Within a week of the event, there are “two editions of the official story” (296). In the first, the nine men tried to talk to the Convent women and urge them “to leave or mend their ways,” and violence somehow followed. In the second, five men—Steward, Deacon, and K. D. Morgan; Sergeant Person; and Wisdom Poole—went to the Convent with the intention of evicting the women, while four others—Harper and Menus Jury and Arnold and Jeff Fleetwood—followed, trying to restrain the other five. When the Convent women responded with violence, one of the five men shot and killed the white woman in a fit of anger. Again, greater violence somehow followed (296-97).

The first version, of course, is the Morgan rendition; it is predicated on solidarity and common purpose. The second version—authored by the Fleetwoods and Jurys—demonstrates crevices within the 8-rocks. Patricia Best Cato, however, has concocted three more, unofficial, versions. The women were killed

(a) because [they] were impure (not 8-rock); (b) because [they] were unholy (fornicators at the least, abortionists at most); and (c) because [the men] could—which was what being an 8-rock meant to them and also what the ‘deal’ required.”


Of the five posited versions, the last squares with my thesis in this essay: that the 8-rock men—who intimidate and threaten their own townsfolk into submission—execute the Convent women not for moral reasons but as a show of strength. They assert themselves so that Richard Misner and the younger generation—and any would-be upstarts, like Patricia Best Cato—understand who is in charge. While I think this is a compelling explanation, one must admit that no single explanation can satisfactorily explain the assault, which, in the complex weave of Paradise, results from mixed and sordid motives.

Richard Misner tries unsuccessfully to sort through the various versions to get at the truth. There are simply too many versions of the event: “Other than Deacon Morgan, who had nothing to say, every one of the assaulting men had a different tale and their families and friends (who had been nowhere near the Convent) supported them, enhancing, recasting, inventing misinformation” (297). This period of exponentially multiplying versions of the assault is Ruby's most postmodern moment. As Linda Hutcheon notes, “What is foregrounded in postmodern theory and practice is the self-conscious inscription within history of the existing, but usually concealed, attitude of historians toward their material” (74). This “self-conscious inscription” motivates each family to change the story as they tell it “to make themselves look good” (Paradise 297). Hutcheon, quoting Barbara Foley, argues that

The postmodern situation is that a “truth is being told, with ‘facts’ to back it up, but a teller constructs that truth and chooses those facts.” … In fact, that teller—of story or history—also constructs those very facts by giving a particular meaning to events. Facts do not speak for themselves in either form of narrative: the tellers speak for them, making these fragments of the past into a discursive whole.


For Lone DuPres, this communal process of “enhancing, recasting, [and] inventing information” is dispiriting: “she became unhinged by the way the story was being retold; how people were changing it to make themselves look good.” She refrains from openly criticizing her neighbors, however, because she sees a potential for rebirth. Remembering that because the bodies of the slain women all mysteriously disappear no one feels the need to call the (white) police into the town, Lone decides “God had given Ruby a second chance” (297).

Deacon Morgan does his part to satisfy the town's need for penance. While his brother, Steward, remains “insolent and unapologetic” (299), Deacon walks barefoot (he is customarily seen driving his luxury sedan) to Richard Misner's house, of all places, where he indirectly confesses to his adulterous affair with Connie Sosa, one of the murdered Convent women (though he will not name her). Deacon also relates to Misner the story of his twin grandfathers, Coffee and Tea, who were held at gunpoint by whites and ordered to dance. One brother, Tea, danced. Coffee, who refused to dance, was shot in the foot. As a result of the incident, Coffee never again spoke to his brother. Deacon admits to Misner that he is unsure which brother is at fault: the brother who danced to save his feet or the brother who defiantly took the bullet but chose to lose a brother. Misner, understanding Deacon's tale as an indirect plea for guidance, urges Deacon to forgive and to love Steward. When Deacon says “I got a long way to go, Reverend,” Misner assures him “You'll make it. … No doubt about it” (303).

The implications for the Morgan twins' tight grip on the town seem obvious: there can never again be complete consensus between the brothers: “the inside difference was too deep for anyone to miss” (299). Sensing this fissure in the heretofore united front of the 8-rock leaders, the citizens openly criticize some of the men. Wisdom Poole, for example, is harshly chastised for the massacre:

Seventy family members held [Poole] accountable … for scandalizing their forefathers' reputations, giving him no peace or status, reprimanding him daily until he fell on his knees and wept before the entire congregation of Holy Redeemer.


Deacon's and Wisdom's public displays of regret seem to satisfy the town: people are loathe to call the police into Ruby, anyway, as it would only stir up trouble.

While Paradise concludes before we can see the long-term aftermath of the massacre, Richard Misner articulates his final thoughts on Ruby. Misner inwardly chastises the town for thinking “they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him. … Ruby, it seemed to him, was an unnecessary failure. How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it.” Nevertheless, Misner decides to stay in the town, “among these outrageously beautiful, flawed and proud people” (306). The ending suggests, perhaps, that there is hope yet for Ruby—that the town has indeed been granted a second chance, as Lone DuPres guessed.

If there is hope that Ruby's patriarchs can change, it most certainly resides in the town's reborn son, Deacon Morgan. Deacon's change is as close as Morrison allows any male in the novel to a sense of the individual reconstitution of the self—a process reserved in Morrison's fiction primarily for women like Sethe and Violet Trace, though some men, like Paul D and Joe Trace, also experience the process. In Ruby, only Patricia Best Cato experiences a limited version of it; the women of the Convent do experience it, albeit too briefly.

Nevertheless, the individual reconstitution of the self is crowded to the margins of Paradise by a broad, messy picture of a community. In Morrison's earlier fiction, an individual's personal reconstitution always occurs outside the framework of the larger community. In Beloved, Sethe has the advantage of the relative isolation of 124 Bluestone road; in Jazz, Violet Trace retires to Alice Manfred's apartment for time away from the loud world; in Paradise, the women have the Convent, literally on the fringes of polite society. Patricia Best Cato's biggest obstacle, perhaps, is that she has no safe zone, no refuge. As a citizen of Ruby and the daughter of an 8-rock father, she has no place to hide. And patriarchal society strictly enforces rules for women: the Morgans do not hesitate to respond forcefully to perceived threats—be it Menus Jury's light-skinned fiancée or the Convent women's alleged immorality.

Patricia Storace suggests that Morrison's novel functions as both “a serious work of fiction” and a parable, and argues that

Paradise is a novel about pioneers laying claim to a country, and, less explicitly, about the ways in which possession of this country has been extended and justified through stories, stories kneaded strongly into the image of the country itself, so that the story of its claiming almost irresistibly evokes images of white founding fathers.


Storace is correct to point to the form of the parable; Paradise is, on the broadest metaphorical level, a provocative allegory of nationhood. Paradise opens in July of 1976—the bicentennial of the United States. It is no coincidence that the angry group of men hunting down the Convent women are the descendants of the founding fathers of Ruby, Oklahoma. And it is no coincidence that these men are black, and that the first woman they kill is white. When one reads the novel allegorically, as a reconfiguration of the founding of the United States, Morrison's vision of totalizing patriarchal historiography takes on double weight. And this vision is worth heeding as the United States enters the next millennium.


  1. In contrast, the Convent-centered story lines emphasize matriarchy and privilege personal historiography (the individual reconstitution of the self). Unfortunately, a full investigation of this subject is beyond the scope of this essay. In some sense, my focus goes against the spirit of the novel. Morrison has taken great pains to weave all the story lines of Paradise together, creating a patchwork narrative that demonstrates the ways lives overlap and entangle in any community.

  2. The term 8-rock refers to “a deep deep level in the coal mines” (Paradise 193).

  3. It therefore follows that it is Arnette who shows up at the Convent on the final page of the “Grace” section, claiming that she's “been raped and it's almost August” (77). The narrator's comment—“Only part of that was true”—suggests that Arnette is looking for someone to help her abort her baby, and that she hopes claiming to have been raped will inspire the Convent women to help.

  4. Obviously, the Convent in Paradise is a site for female reconstitution, both spiritual and communal. Despite radical isolation and occasional infighting, Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas experience a rich sense of sororitas which, under the guiding hand of Consolata and her “loud dreaming,” leaves the women “altered,” calmed, and “no longer haunted” (265-66) by their troubled pasts.

  5. The line distinctly echoes Steward's earlier thought about sacrificing Misner's and K. D.'s generation “to get to the next one” (94)—and the chilling effect is the same.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, 1968. 255-66.

Doctorow, E. L. “False Documents.” Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays 1977-1992. New York: Harper, 1994. 151-64.

Henderson, Mae G. “Toni Morrison's Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text.” Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text. Ed. Hortense J. Spillers. New York: Routledge, 1991, 62-86.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Morrison, Tom. Jazz, New York: Plume, 1993.

———. Paradise. New York: Knopf. 1998.

Page, Philip. Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison's Novels. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1995.

Pérez-Torres, Rafael. “Knitting and Knotting the Narrative Thread—Beloved as Postmodern Novel.” Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches. Ed. Nancy J. Peterson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997, 91-109.

Storace, Patricia. “The Scripture of Utopia.” New York Review of Books 11 June 1998, 64-69.

Thomas B. Hove (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Hove, Thomas B. “Toni Morrison.” In Postmodernism: The Key Figures, edited by Hans Bertens and Joseph Natoli, pp. 254-60. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002.

[In the following essay, Hove provides an overview of elements of postmodernism in Morrison's fiction.]

Although she regards herself first and foremost as an African-American writer, Toni Morrison's work shares several features with a widespread tendency in postmodern fiction—shared by American writers as diverse as Leslie Marmon Silko, Ishmael Reed, and Thomas Pynchon—to confront, question, and ultimately supplement dominant cultural narratives. Morrison's fictions repeatedly challenge cultural traditions defined by patriarchal, assimilationist, and totalizing standards. Ever since her first novel, The Bluest Eye, came out in 1969, she has set herself in opposition to the European American white mainstream by portraying and celebrating unique, powerful voices of marginalized women from American history and contemporary American life.

Formally, Morrison's impulse to supplement totalizing narratives is reflected in her characteristic fictional technique of letting a variety of voices from the African-American present and past offer their own accounts of themselves. This technique serves several important purposes: it resists the imperialistic impulses associated with the effort to formulate one and only one version of our world and the people in it, particularly with regard to America and African-Americans; it invites readers to participate in the construction of truth and meaning by learning a sympathetic tolerance for a variety of voices; and it highlights the fact that the protagonist throughout Morrison's fiction is not a single heroic figure but rather the collective, which in her work refers to all the members, past and present, of the African-American community. Morrison's humanitarian concerns are obviously much wider, but the African-American community remains her central focus because she wants to retrieve, celebrate, and preserve its accomplishments, values, and traditions in the face of global and mainstream American threats to its survival.

Against this racially charged social backdrop, Morrison's work can be read as a series of reactions against a patriarchal, ethnocentric white version of modernism and cultural politics. In her insistence on the centrality of African-American culture to her characters' lives, she challenges not only the values of the high modernist tradition but also its forms, especially its linguistic forms. In her article “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” (1989), for example, she comments on her deliberate attempts to give voice to certain forms of black speech that only African-American audiences would be familiar with. “Quiet as it's kept,” the first phrase of The Bluest Eye, inaugurates this tendency in her career. Another small but notable example of this tendency is her use of the sound-effect “sth” in both Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992). This small example also evokes Morrison's frequent attempts to translate linguistic forms from the oral to the written tradition without allowing the official forms of written convention to eradicate the forms and expressions characteristic of oral traditions.

As is commonplace in postmodern theory and fiction, Morrison emphasizes the centrality of language not only as a repository of culture but as the primary medium of social interaction. In both its form and content, her fiction dramatizes the importance of controlling language and using it as a resource for liberation, self-expression, recognition, and communion. At the same time, however, her fiction documents the various ways language can be misused for purposes of domination, oppression, dehumanization, and extermination. Morrison has commented most directly on these issues in her 1993 Nobel Lecture, in which she narrates the fable of a blind, black woman storyteller whose cultural authority is mockingly challenged by a group of youths from the dominant culture outside of which she lives. Initially, the woman puts the children off with an enigmatic response that challenges them to decide whether they wish to perpetuate humiliating social practices through language or instead use language as a medium for exchanges of love and respect. When she begins to see that the children have come to her not out of a cruel impulse to mock her with linguistic trickery but rather out of a genuine desire to learn from her, she invites them to join her in the communion of language. The fable ends on a note of hope that language, particularly in its narrative form, can bring people from hostile social backgrounds together in an act of shared creation. “Look,” the old woman says. “How lovely it is, this thing we have done—together.” Examples of such cooperation and reconciliation via language abound throughout Morrison's fiction, usually when her characters realize that their shared language ought to work against the divisions and conflicts set in motion by competitive or oppressive forces in the white mainstream.

But in spite of these moments of cooperation and reconciliation, Morrison's fictional and nonfictional works carefully balance hope with an unflinching acknowledgment of the forces that can imprison language and misuse it as an instrument of predatory domination. The most obvious example of this misuse is the enterprise of classifying humans according to skin color and “race.” As with recent social-scientific and historiographic treatments of race, Morrison illustrates how such classificatory schemes have been used not only to justify inhumane practices like slavery but also to help perpetuate them by supplying bogus justifications for their continuance. This enterprise is most vividly portrayed through the figure known as “Schoolteacher” in Beloved, whose actions embody the connections between linguistic classification and dehumanizing social practices. The worst of these practices are, for obvious historical reasons, those inflicted by whites on blacks, for example the Biblical and pseudo-scientific classificatory schemes that were used to justify chattel slavery. Morrison also documents the self-destructive legacy of these schemes within the African-American community by showing the variety of ways her black characters mistreat one another on account of differences in shading. For example, the “8-rocks” of Paradise (1998), named after a particularly dark grade of coal, found the town of Ruby because whites, Indians, and lighter-skinned blacks have rejected them. But within their self-enclosed community, the dark-skinned 8-rocks come to regard themselves as an aristocracy, and some of them justify their abuses of power by appealing to the bogus criterion of skin color. In this instance and several others, Morrison suggests the need for more fluid views of social identity, an aim she shares with contemporary social scientists who have taken up arms against divisive social practices based on pseudo-biological classificatory schemes.

On the creative rather than essayistic side of her challenges to hegemonic narratives and oppressive misuses of language, Morrison sets out to lend eloquent expression to the people, stories, voices, and forms of life that these narratives have typically disregarded, devalued, and silenced. Some examples of these traditionally neglected forms of life are the following: a rejected and sexually abused young girl (Pecola in The Bluest Eye); a radically independent social outcast (Sula from Sula [1973]); a folkloric family history initially lost to the vicissitudes of oral transmission and geographic displacement (Song of Solomon [1977]); people who do not fit existing racial identities (Jadine from Tar Baby [1981], Golden Gray from Jazz); two lonely orphans and a deaf-mute woman (Twyla, Roberta, and Maggie from “Recitatif”); a woman who is forced to kill to prevent her child from being seized by her former slaveowner (Sethe from Beloved); a teenaged girl murdered by her middle-aged lover (Dorcas from Jazz); a commune made up of outcast women (the Convent women from Paradise). Within the stories that focus on these marginalized figures, Morrison frequently alludes to actual historical incidents that have until only recently been left out of official historical records. This was one of the purposes of The Black Book, a documentary history she edited and which presents an extensive collage of African-American cultural documents. But her fiction, much like that of Ishmael Reed, incorporates a wide variety of scenes from African-American history that challenge triumphalist versions of mainstream American historiography: Margaret Garner's desperate infanticide (Beloved); the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis (Jazz); the neglect, mistreatment, and irrational hostility toward black veterans of the two world wars (Sula,Song of Solomon,Jazz,Paradise); the unpunished 1955 murder of Emmett Till (Song of Solomon); the 1963 bombing that killed four girls in a Birmingham church (Song of Solomon). Similarly, Morrison's only full-length work of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark (1992), calls attention to a hitherto suppressed “Africanist presence” in American literary history.

In keeping with her emphasis on communal concerns, Morrison's fictions work against the elitist high modernist ideal of the individual hero or genius who transcends the limitations of his or her community. Most of the time, Morrison debunks her characters when they pursue quests for solitary fulfillment and disregard collective concerns, as in her treatments of Milkman's quest for gold (Song of Solomon), Sethe's and Beloved's sadomasochistic relationship (Beloved), Joe Trace's yearning for lost youth (Jazz), and the 8-rocks' efforts to preserve their “pure” community from global forces of social change (Paradise). By contrast, when Morrison's initially self-centered figures display some form of altruistic or communal concern, it is a sign of their potential redemption, which most often lies in a closer state of communion with their geographic or ancestral African-American roots. If one follows this theme throughout her work, one can see why Morrison continually asserts her difference from the European-American modernist tradition. Instead of allowing herself to be inserted in that tradition, she claims that what she tries to do in fiction has more in common with jazz and with the African-American oral traditions in which she grew up. These inspirations for her fiction should constantly be kept in mind, for they remind those who want to assimilate her into traditional European-American cultural traditions that she considers her African-American cultural identity as the most important basis of her artistic endeavors.

Nevertheless, it is a logical consequence of literature's circulation in global society that Morrison's fictional technique can also be compared usefully with that of non-African-American writers, particularly because her narrative forms share many surface features with them even though their origins differ. For example, she has often been compared to Woolf and Faulkner, both of whom Morrison happened to study in graduate school. In addition, her work is permeated with many of the classic Hellenic and Hebraic themes and motifs from Western art and culture. Usually, however, when Morrison uses Western themes and motifs, she is trying to suggest that her characters are making the wrong moves, as when Milkman and Guitar's quest for gold echoes Jason and the Argonauts' morally dubious quest for the Golden Fleece. By contrast, Morrison's characters most often find authenticity, value, and redemption in African and African-American folk traditions. But Morrison does not simply replace one system of cultural authority with another, for she also subjects these folk traditions to critical scrutiny, especially when they manifest patriarchal values. The most memorable instance of such a use and critique of African and African-American folk traditions appears in Song of Solomon, where Solomon's flight to freedom from slavery is questioned by a woman who wonders how many family members he left behind in the thralls of slavery. This example illustrates what might be labeled a moral norm in Morrison's fiction: what's good is what's good for the community as a whole, not for some isolated member of it unaware of his or her ties and obligations to others.

Sometimes, Morrison's style achieves a modernist grandeur that threatens to swallow her fictions' social subject matter into itself. But her constant focus on the communal concerns and political survival of the African-American community, as well as her acknowledgment of the unique identities of individuals within that community, resist the modernist bent toward privileging aesthetic mastery over social engagement. The best illustration of her art acknowledging its limits occurs at the end of Jazz, where the narrator acknowledges her inability to fully define the people she is trying to imagine. This narrative move reflects a step back from the modernist tendency to allow the aesthetic to absorb the actual, as in the work of Henry James and Faulkner, whose characters often conspicuously think and speak according to the syntax, cadences, and vocabulary of their author's peculiar style.

A more important line of comparison for Morrison herself, lies in her narrative technique's affinities with the call-and-response pattern of African oral storytelling. According to one current critical consensus, “non-Western” oral traditions invite a collaborative and democratic relation between storyteller, subjects, and audience. Morrison's recurring technique of moving from one narrative voice to another works against the model of narrative authority that allows one primary voice or style to absorb all other voices into its overarching, complex coherence. To a degree, Morrison's use of multiple points of view resembles Faulkner's attempt in Absalom, Absalom! to portray the same events from a variety of perspectives and according to a variety of interpretations. But while Faulkner's principal narrators Quentin and Shreve eventually seem to master the material they reconstruct by solving the mystery of the Sutpens' motivations, Morrison's narrators are more willing to acknowledge the limitations of their knowledge and to admit that human motivation poses mysteries that we will never fully be able to penetrate or define. This epistemological impasse is also reflected in Morrison's treatment of ethics. If the motivations of Morrison's characters are ultimately impenetrable, then ethical decisions and judgments must always be tentative, provisional, and based on varying degrees of uncertainty. Morrison brings out this ethical problem most vividly in Beloved, which avoids siding with only one of the variety of reactions to Sethe's attempts to kill her children rather than allow the slaveholders to abduct them back into slavery.

Morrison's characters remain mysteries also because their identities do not conform to traditional patriarchal or mainstream expectations. Her most interesting characters have decentered subjectivities, for both positive and negative reasons that lead to sometimes fulfilling, sometimes damaging consequences. Morrison's female protagonists are typically outcasts with no coherent sense of identity, and there are at least two causes for their lack of coherence. On the one hand, her strong females refuse to submit to the traditional roles available to them in their communities, usually because these roles have been imposed by either white or patriarchal interests. On the other hand, without any satisfactory social traditions to fall back on, or without any open-minded communities that will accept their unique identities, Morrison's women must strike out on their own and create new, nontraditional identities for themselves. Some of these women—Pecola from The Bluest Eye, Twyla and Roberta from “Recitatif,” Violet from Jazz, and the women who come to the Convent in Paradise—have no stable sense of identity because they are victims who have been rejected, neglected, or abused. Other women—Sula, Pilate from Song of Solomon, Jadine from Tar Baby, Sethe from Beloved, Dorcas from Jazz, and Connie from Paradise—willfully place themselves in opposition to the people and traditions that demand their conformity and threaten their quests for authenticity. Ultimately, both types of women must carry out improvisatory quests for identity, and they complete these quests with varying degrees of success.

Inevitably, these women's quests run parallel to their encounters with and navigations through racial politics. The two most interesting encounters with racial politics are the stories of Sula (Sula) and Jadine (Tar Baby). Morrison has described Sula as “quintessentially black, metaphysically black … new world black and new world woman extracting choice from choicelessness, responding inventively to found things. Improvisational. Daring, disruptive, imaginative, modern, out-of-the-house, outlawed, unpolicing, uncontained and uncontainable. And dangerously female” (Morrison 1989: 25). Sula must resist the customs and gender roles expected of her in the traditional black community of Medallion. Jadine from Tar Baby, on the other hand, embodies Morrison's most extensive treatment of an African-American woman coming to terms not only with gender roles but with the problems and freedoms of racial indeterminacy. Although Jadine is light-skinned enough to be accepted by the white-dominated fashion industries of Paris and New York, she is haunted by ethnic inauthenticity and by a sense of having betrayed the African side of her ethnic heritage. Other characters who illustrate the cultural and personal problems associated with racial ambiguity are Maureen Peal (The Bluest Eye), Milkman's mother Ruth and her father Dr. Foster (Song of Solomon), Dorcas (Jazz), and Golden Gray (Jazz). The sociological significance of these stories lies in the variety of ways they challenge the simple-minded, oppressive American practice of defining “blackness” according to the “one-drop” rule, and of characterizing blackness as something to be reviled, a theme Morrison addresses from a literary-historical standpoint in Playing in the Dark.

In conjunction with her resistance to totalizing worldviews, all of Morrison's novels conclude in a semantically open-ended way. In The Bluest Eye, Pecola's identity disintegrates, and the consequences of her pregnancy are left shrouded in mystery. At the end of Song of Solomon, Guitar lunges murderously at Milkman, but Morrison never reveals whether the two men fall to their deaths or Milkman miraculously “rides the air.” Tar Baby concludes with Jadine disappearing, for better or worse, to Paris as her ex-lover, Son, embarks on an uncertain quest with supernatural overtones. “Recitatif” leaves its characters' racial identities, their attitudes toward each other, and their memories of cruelties both suffered and committed indeterminate. In the final chapter of Beloved, the narrator self-contradictorily claims, “This is not a story to pass on,” and Morrison never allows us to pin down who or what, exactly, Beloved is. At the end of Jazz, Joe and Violet Trace seem to have learned how to love each other, but the narrator expresses her uncertainty about understanding the true nature of their relationship. Finally, Paradise ends with the citizens of Ruby hushing up their slaughter of the Convent women, but there are signs that the community cannot ward off influences from the outside world forever. Such open-ended conclusions confirm that Morrison refuses to settle upon one worldview as definitive, or to leave her readers satisfied that everything coheres in a world riven by slavery and its legacies of oppression and racially based hostility. Nevertheless, Morrison invites her readers to build with her and her characters something out of this world's rubble that might be new and beautiful—as the storyteller of her Nobel Lecture says, “Together.”

Peter J. Capuano (essay date spring 2003)

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SOURCE: Capuano, Peter J. “Truth in Timbre: Morrison's Extension of Slave Narrative Song in Beloved.African American Review 37, no. 1 (spring 2003): 95-103.

[In the following essay, Capuano examines references to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), by Frederick Douglass, in Morrison's Beloved.]

His voice was faint. A rustle of leaves. Then Reb lifted his head and began to croon in a tongue incomprehensible to me. Another mourner began to sing. Then another. The sound swelled, expanded, ate space, filled the woods like a splash of wind, blended with the air, turned and touched off, one by one, the different voices of the others, then Reb sang louder—or, better, bellowed like a steer. Abruptly, they stopped, my own face was hot and thick, the tears flew back into my nose when I sniffled and burned my throat. It was then, as Reb drove home the first nail to seal his son's casket, as I felt the sound of metal ring on metal in the deepest coils of my ears, that a voice behind me, toadlike, said:

“At least he was spared the mines, eh, Andrew?”

(Charles Johnson, Oxherding Tale)

In her 1987 novel Beloved, Toni Morrison acknowledges and even borrows from Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative, but she also makes a resolute break from its rhetorical and political objectives. Historical differences between the audiences of Douglass and Morrison account for a large part of their contrasting styles, particularly in their treatment of slave song. Since Douglass composed his Narrative as a fugitive slave in the early 1840s, he was aware of his principally white audience and also of his precarious task of presenting an attack not on white America, but on the institution of slavery itself. Douglass's judicious decision to report the bleakness of slavery with austerity of tone allows him to present this attack successfully. He relies heavily on factual evidence, rather than on the tremendously emotional slave songs, to present the most appalling scenes of brutality endured by the slaves in his narrative.

This shrewd emphasis on the factual enables Douglass to navigate between the specific facts and the general nature of slavery in a way that informs rather than offends his audience. In 1845 Douglass could not afford to focus repeatedly on the “ineffable sadness” of slave songs or on the songs' reflection of “souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish,” even though he reports early in the Narrative that “every tone [is] a testimony against slavery” (58). As readers, we learn the importance of slave song at the outset, but we learn far more about the exact number of Colonel Lloyd's slaves, horses, and plantation acreage throughout the remainder of the narrative. We come to know the exact assignments involved in Edward Covey's wheat-fanning operation with a precision that leaves us unsatisfied with the important but brief description of the songs reverberating through the pinewoods of the Great House Farm at the outset of the narrative. Despite this, Douglass's task of uncovering the truth of slavery's brutality without mitigating that truth with indignant protestations has proven to be at once inhibiting and fecund. The awareness of this predicament limits his treatment of slave song in the 1845 Narrative, but it also creates a colossal paradigm of song's importance for many contemporary authors such as Toni Morrison and Charles Johnson, who explore similar topics.

Morrison's Beloved responds deliberately and exhaustively to the description of slave song that appears at the outset of Douglass's 1845 Narrative. The fact that Morrison is not inhibited by the pressing need to abolish slavery allows her to explore the specificity of the slave songs to a degree that Douglass simply could not risk in 1845. The essential goal of Douglass's Narrative in 1845 was to inform what William Lloyd Garrison dubbed a “stubbornly incredulous” white audience of slavery's politically sanctioned barbarity (40). Since Morrison is not inhibited by the socio-political exigencies taken on by Douglass, she is free to focus more on song as a point of access into the reverberating effects of slavery's horrors—the same horrors that Douglass relates to his readers with a conspicuous deficit of emotion. The project of Morrison's novel is to register and index the vital relationship between the “personhood” of African Americans and the specific songs of former slaves. This is to say that the original description of slave song in Douglass, looming in the background of Morrison's novel, shapes her handling of music and song, her insistence on its signal importance as an indicator of human status in Beloved.

Morrison's consistent but subtle use of song takes the reader beyond the horrifying facts of Douglass's narrative and into the more profoundly emotional turmoil of a post-emancipation community. Morrison reverses the traditional slave narrative format and expands the scope of the reader's comprehension by investigating a crime committed by the oppressed rather than by the oppressor. Through her exploration of the black experience within slavery and beyond, Morrison shows how song defines and affirms slave “personhood” in a world where slave humanity is constantly challenged and denied. Morrison's treatment of song in Beloved provides the reader with a testimony that is significantly different from the testimonies set forth in the slave narratives. Morrison's testimony does not end with the establishment of slavery's barbarity; it chronicles her characters' endurance and ability to survive during and after these periods of physical brutality and psychological abuse. The principal characters of the novel—Sethe, Paul D, and Sixo—all associate song with their humanity and use it as a shield against indignity and despair. In this way, Morrison relies on the rubric of the “sorrow songs” from Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative in Beloved to challenge a contemporary audience to recognize slave humanity beyond the simple (but no less important) acknowledgment of slavery's brutality.

Often in Beloved, when characters cannot read or write or even talk about the brutality they experience as slaves, they sing to affirm their participation in life and defend their status as human beings. Song offers slaves the opportunity to express their personal testimonies while remaining within the framework of their larger cultural experiences—all without actually speaking of their shame and trauma. Although Nellie McKay does not specifically identify song as a response to the silencing of slave stories in the introduction to her Beloved casebook, she acknowledges the need for an alternate slave “voice:” “So grotesque were many [slave] experiences, and so vulnerable did they feel, that for them the act of remembering was risky, shameful, and dangerous” (10). Song fulfills the need for what McKay calls an “alternate voice.” The slaves of Beloved defend their personhood and revive their endurance when it is challenged and violated by “mossy teeth,” numerical measurements, and leg irons. For these reasons, it is fitting that Sethe characterizes Paul D, a man who endures enormous physical and psychological abuse, as a “singing man” at the outset of the novel (39; italics mine).

Traditionally, critics have either ignored song as a legitimate vehicle for establishing slave humanity or have limited their appraisal of song. Margaret Atwood notes how the theme of “tyrannical price” runs through Beloved but stops short of offering analysis of how slaves combat this tyranny with song and re-establish their humanity by singing about life (49). The slaves of Beloved have their humanity stripped from them throughout the novel, as cold statisticians like Schoolteacher attempt to calculate and record their “animal” tendencies above and beyond their “human” characteristics. In one such instance, Paul D learns “the dollar value of his weight, his strength, his heart, his brain, his penis, and his future” but responds by singing of the “bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life” in order to confirm his humanity in the face of Schoolteacher's dehumanizing “value” equations (226, 108).

Robert O'Meally speaks at length of how Douglass's Narrative uses many “black sermonic devices to prepare the reader for [its] spiritual message,” but fails to include song among the many “oratorical techniques” employed by Douglass (196, 201). Ironically, O'Meally concerns himself with the Narrative's sermonic quality and its relation to the black church while overlooking the fact that slave songs were “a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains” (Douglass 58; italics mine). Ashraf Rushdy, in his article “Daughters Signifyin(g) History,” uses Henry Louis Gates's definition of the “speakerly text” to situate Beloved in the African-American literary tradition. Rushdy argues that Beloved's narrative structure takes on “a dialogic form that is akin to music or black preaching” but never identifies the role of song in what he calls a “musical narrative” (56). Likewise, Marilyn Mobley notes how Beloved employs “the trope of memory” to make the slave experience more “accessible” to contemporary readers (357). She does not analyze, though, the crucial role that song plays in the characters' recollection of these horrifying memories. Mobley makes a brief and oblique analysis of song as she mentions the way the fragmented stories of each character “illustrate the call and response pattern of the African-American oral tradition,” but she misses an opportunity to investigate the significance of these particular slave songs, offering as they do a distinctive cultural voice to the African-American oral tradition. With Morrison's Beloved, we hear the spoken stories of Paul D, Sixo, Baby Suggs, and Sethe, and we are also aware of their songs that bear witness to the unspeakable horrors of slavery—those experiences whose shame transcends even the spoken word.

Whereas Douglass cites the importance of slave song for the first and last time at the end of his narrative's second chapter, Morrison establishes song as imperative to her characters' survival during nearly every chapter of Beloved. She includes the ability to sing among the barest and most rudimentary essentials of human existence early in the novel. At the house on Bluestone Road, if Paul D could “walk, eat, sleep, [and] sing,” he could survive and “asked for no more” (41). Morrison also has Paul D sing while he mends “things he had broken the day before,” in an effort to reconstruct his life after physical and emotional trials have shattered his identity at prison camp in Alfred, Georgia. Morrison emphasizes the importance of singing to Paul D's survival through her repeated acknowledgment at the outset of the novel that his songs “were too loud [and] had too much power for the little house chores he was engaged in” (40). In reality, Paul D's songs help him to reconstruct the broken pieces of his past life in Georgia more than to reset and glaze the table at 124 Bluestone Road.

The songs that Paul D sings upon his arrival at Sethe's house solidify both his autonomous and his collective participation in the black experience of slavery. On the individual level, Paul D “change[s] the words,” “throwing in a line if one occur[s] to him” to establish an element of personal testimony in the song (40). In this crucial depiction of Paul D's singing, Morrison actually invokes the paradigm of song established by Frederick Douglass at the end of his narrative's second chapter:

The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for many miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out—if not in the word, in the sound;—and as frequently in one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. Into all of their songs they would manage to weave something of the Great House Farm. … They would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves.


In this way, slaves could bring their singular experiences to a song without relation to anyone else. On the other hand, song allows the slaves an opportunity to participate in the larger history of the black experience of shame, suffering, and endurance. If the thought did not come out in Paul D's individual word, it came out in the tone of the song. Therefore, by changing the lines of the songs he sings at 124, Paul D establishes the autonomy of his particular experience while affirming his participation in and his endurance of the institution of slavery. It is interesting to note that, as her character Paul D accomplishes this, Morrison aligns Beloved within a tradition larger (and more important) than its Pulitzer Prize scope: the troping of song in American slave narratives. The specificity of Paul D's songs later in Beloved, though, exposes a primary difference between Morrison and Douglass. Douglass establishes the crucial relationship between slaves and their songs, but Morrison probes deeper into the specifics of this relationship.

The cryptic nature of Paul D's character provides a particularly apposite site for Morrison to begin the process of extending Douglass's paradigm. Paul D's most gruesome experience occurs while under the supervision of Schoolteacher at Sweet Home, after Mr. Garner's death. Because of Schoolteacher's empirical (but no less brutal) division of “slaves” and “humans,” and because he announces himself “with a coach full of paper” to record these discrepancies, Rafael Perez-Torres accurately suggests that Schoolteacher “becomes the speaking subject of slavery's discourse” (186). Paul D's dehumanizing experience with Schoolteacher is so physically and psychologically grueling that he has “never talked about it” and never “told a soul” (71). In one of the most solemn episodes of the novel, Paul D confides to Sethe that he could never speak to anyone about having his “tongue held down by iron” while looking at the roosters who had more freedom “to be and stay” than he (71-72). Nellie McKay characterizes Paul D's dilemma as the “wish to forget and the necessity to remember,” but she stops short of identifying song as a vehicle for Paul D to accomplish both the forgetting and the remembering (12). That Paul D never told another human being about the Schoolteacher experience but “sang it sometimes” reveals the significance and the depth Morrison gives to song. In a world where relatives and friends suddenly vanish never to be seen again as a matter of everyday legal policy, Paul D cannot afford to speak to another person, but silence only embitters the internal anguish. Singing about the traumatic event empowers Paul D to confront his horrific past and make meaning of his dehumanizing experiences.

Paul D's horrific experience at prison camp in Georgia is an episode in which Morrison shows the power of song to combat even the worst and most dehumanizing despair. Song in Beloved not only “mends broken things,” but it also gives Paul D the endurance to survive the chain gang in Georgia, where his humanity is aggressively violated. Paul D uses song to defend his humanity when it is denied most by “wooden boxes,” “cage doors,” “leg irons,” and “bit[s] of foreskin” (107-08). As Morrison notes, “The songs from Georgia were flatheaded nails for pounding and pounding and pounding” (40). These songs give Paul D the strength to brook eighty-six days of pounding rock and eighty-six nights while “reaching for air” (110). Most notably, as Paul D and other prisoners “danc[ed] two-step to the music of hand-forged iron,” they sang to affirm their humanity while being worked and tied like animals:

They sang the women they knew; the children they had been; the animals they had tamed themselves or seen others tame. They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.


Morrison's inclusion of the specific topics of the slave songs from Georgia allows the reader to identify more closely with incredibly complex ideas of identity and worth during and after the chattel experience. She extends the concept of “weaving” from Douglass's description of the Great House Farm songs to include the specific song topics. The emphasis on the “animal” in these particular songs allows the slaves in Georgia's prison camp to establish themselves as human beings capable of acknowledging their humanity, even when their oppressors refuse to do the same. By singing about mules and dogs, pork and fish, relationships and pleasures, the slaves assert their humanity and defend themselves against the atrocities of the camp. Perhaps most importantly, Morrison's specific exploration of song reveals how “the men got through” chattel slavery and its horrifying reverberations even after emancipation (108).

The prison camp songs from Georgia bear a striking resemblance to those that Douglass includes in his 1845 Narrative because both place more emphasis on the sound than on the actual words. In Douglass's Narrative, for example, the slaves “compose and sing as they go along,” placing meaning “if not in the word, in the sound.” He even goes so far as to say that the words of his Great House Farm songs would appear “unmeaning” despite their profundity: Slaves “would sing, as a chorus, words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves” (57). Morrison extends the trope of this same “sound significance” in her Georgia songs as the prisoners “garbl[e] the words so that they [can] not be understood” while they “trick the words so that their syllables yield up other meanings” (108). Frederick Douglass establishes the context for this intangible, mutating element of the slave song when he enjoins his readers to go “deep in the pine woods” of Colonel Lloyd's plantation and to “analyze the sounds that pass through the chambers of his soul” as the slaves sing what many would call “unmeaning jargon” (57-58; italics mine). Morrison extends this belief and, therefore, has the prisoners of Alfred, Georgia, sing songs with “garbled words” and “tricked syllables” to show the contemporary reader that the sound reflects more of the slaves' humanity than the words could ever reveal.

Sound alone registers the humanity of Beloved's slaves most incisively when Schoolteacher captures Paul A, Paul D, Sixo, and the Thirty-Mile Woman as they attempt to escape from slavery at Sweet Home. Caught and facing death by firing squad for their bold transgression, Sixo “grabs the mouth of the nearest pointing rifle” and “begins to sing” (225; italics mine). The white men find it impossible to shoot Sixo as he sings because the song locates “personhood” among slavery for a group of slave catchers who are conditioned to see only the “animals” of Schoolteacher's calculations. Slave catchers are trained to kill animals in leg irons with bits in their mouths—not human beings singing songs. Morrison acknowledges this discrepancy as the white men wait “with five guns trained on [Sixo] while they listen” to his song. Realizing that his song makes him far too human to shoot, one white man finally “hits Sixo in the head” to make him stop singing. Ironically, Schoolteacher changes his mind about wanting Sixo alive; his song must have convinced Schoolteacher “that he was too human ever to become a docile slave.” Only after Sixo “is through with his song” do the white men see a slave and proceed to burn him alive (226).

Henry Bibb and Frederick Douglass refer to the institution of slavery as “the man destroying system” in their narratives, and Morrison tropes this idea of universal human degradation in Beloved. Morrison's revision of the traditional slave narrative comes, though, as she offers song as a response to the degradation.

Just as Captain Auld, Mrs. Auld, and Mr. Covey are rendered less human by the effects of their association with slavery, so too are the white characters in Morrison's novel. As Houston A. Baker, Jr., points out, “Douglass is aware of American slavery's chattel principle, which equated slaves with livestock, and he is not reluctant to employ animal metaphors to capture the general inhumanity of the system” (76). Morrison shows how Schoolteacher and the slave catchers from Beloved act with the same barbarity and inhuman cruelty that epitomizes slave treatment during the chattel experience of the slave narrative. Because they are involved in what Douglass calls the “soul-killing” business of keeping slaves, Schoolteacher and the other white men of Beloved are reduced to subhuman behavior. Morrison derives this principle of categorical human degradation from Douglass's Narrative. As Baker points out, slavery has a uniquely pernicious identity resulting from its power to degrade all it touches:

Douglass's work is a chronicle of the “soul-killing” effect slavery had on both master and slave. Time and time again in the Narrative men's hopes for a better life are crushed: humans are whipped and slaughtered like animals; men and women are changed into maniacal and sadistic creatures by power; the strength of body and mind is destroyed by an avaricious and degrading system.


Morrison's Beloved, however, does not simply chronicle the degradation set in motion by slavery; the novel also reveals how slaves use song to combat the inhuman protocol adopted by the oppressors. In this way, Morrison compels her audience to acknowledge the draconian punishment for an “offense” that needs no hyperbole—the act of burning alive a singing man who tries to escape a life of slavery.

Sixo establishes his humanity in front of the white men with his song, and the fact that Morrison does not record the words of this song is testimony to the higher significance of its sound. With Paul D's misunderstanding of the words to Sixo's song, Morrison shows the reader how the words to slave songs are belittled by the content of their sound. Her awareness of the precision with which Douglass locates the arresting inadequacy of these “would be” words is crucial to Morrison's project with sound in Beloved. Douglass reports early in his narrative: “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do” (57). Caught by Schoolteacher and the slave catchers, Paul D thinks he should have sung “something loud and rolling to go with Sixo's tune, but the words put him off—he didn't understand the words” (227). By including this information, Morrison establishes the slave song as the ultimate projection of the human experience—one where words have no meaning and the sound carries every inch of sorrow and despair harbored inside the members of the enslaved community.

Melvin Dixon's article “Singing Swords: The Literary Legacy of Slavery” refers to these songs as “fundamental assessments of the collective human experience” (298). If this is valid, Paul D confirms his participation in the human experience as he remarks that his confusion “shouldn't have mattered because he understood the sound: hatred so loose it was juba” (227). The term juba comes from the name of the chief drummer in the jubilee songs who pounded out the rhythms on celebration days of black culture. Morrison's choice to include the juba dance in this section solidifies the connection between Sixo and Paul D and calls the reader to look at them not as slaves, but as human beings with a native culture.

Beyond this, Morrison's inclusion of the juba song at such a grave and desperate section of the novel reinforces the expansive range of emotion harbored within the “sorrow songs” that Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois acknowledge in their own writings. In his Narrative, Douglass reports that the songs of Colonel Lloyd's slaves at the Great House Farm “reveal at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness” (57). Douglass's songs were sung in “complaint” for “souls boiling over in the bitterest anguish,” but they were also sung as “a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” Sixo's song in front of the slave catchers certainly has within it some of this “complaint,” but the reference to “juba” suggests more of what Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, calls “faith in the ultimate justice of things” (213).

This work of enormous cultural and literary significance asserts that the common possession of a “soul” unites and defines humanity. Du Bois essentially extends Douglass's finding that “the souls of black folk” are revealed in the “sorrow songs.” To Du Bois, the song of the black slave is “the most beautiful expression of the human experience born this side of the seas.” Du Bois expands Douglass's belief that the songs recognize the deepest sadness and highest joy of a slave:

[The songs] tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways. … Through all the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is a faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes the assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins.

(207, 213-14)

Perhaps it is Sixo's song of hope—his “triumph and calm confidence” in the ultimate justice of things—that evokes such a barbaric and inhuman response from Schoolteacher and the slave catchers in Beloved when they burn him alive.

Morrison also explores the complex relationship between song and humanity with her depiction of Beloved's unique origin—the events that surround Sethe's murder of her own child. She shifts song's function slightly to accommodate Sethe's unusual isolation from her own people. With Paul D and Sixo, Morrison's use of song defends the personhood of slaves, but with Sethe, song defines and affirms the neighborhood's decision to banish her. Immediately after murdering her daughter Beloved, Sethe exits through “a throng of black faces” but with no “cape of sound to hold and steady her on her way.” The crucial absence of song highlights the fact that even Sethe's black neighbors regard her as inhuman for having murdered her own child. If Sethe had acted less barbarically, her personhood would have been recognized by the spectators and “the singing would have begun at once.” Also, Morrison juxtaposes Sethe's seeming inhumanity with the “creatures” and “cannibals” that are mentioned on the pages immediately preceding Sethe's emergence from the house on Bluestone Road. In the same way that the “four horsemen” regard the slaves as having “gone wild,” Morrison's choice to omit song in this episode shows how Sethe's own people believe her to be somehow less than human. The black neighbors wait until the cart carrying Sethe “head[s] west” before they make any sound at all (152). This conspicuous deficiency of song reveals the neighborhood consensus of Sethe's barbarity and ultimately signifies her formal banishment from the community.

On the other hand, Morrison uses the prevalence of song at the end of the novel to re-establish Sethe's humanity. After supporting a twenty-year policy of banishment from the neighborhood, the women in Sethe's community begin to question their harsh treatment and wonder about the “killed one” (Beloved) who has suddenly reappeared in the flesh. Ella, a deeply compassionate woman who had been “shared by husband and son” during puberty, finally convinces the other women that “rescue [from banishment i]s in order” for Sethe (256). Ella manages to persuade the others that “the idea of past errors taking control of the present” is an unjust burden on another human being and “so thirty women walk slowly, slowly toward 124.” Morrison reinstates song here to reflect the change in the neighbor women's assessment of Sethe's humanity. The women sing in chorus and create a “music” that is “wide enough to knock the pods off chestnut trees” as Sethe stands in the doorway holding Beloved's hand (261). In one of the novel's most numinous images, the thirty women of the neighborhood join in song to create a sound so harmonious and powerful that it “br[eaks] the back of words.” Karla Holloway misses a crucial opportunity to acknowledge this powerful element of song when she remarks that all the voices in the novel come together at times into “a tightened poetic chant” (72). Far beyond chanting, the “singing women” in this section confirm Sethe's re-instatement into the neighborhood, into motherhood, and, most importantly, into humanity. Ironically, the neighborhood women recognize their own inhuman lack of compassion in a way that the white characters of the novel never do.

Through this use of song in Beloved, Morrison forces the reader to identify with the humanity of her characters in the darkest era of American history, where bestiality preempts morality. Song affords the characters of her novel a form of personal testimony against the horrors of their past, and it strengthens them for the difficulties they come to accept as their future. Throughout the novel, Morrison shows how song not only has the power to “break the back” of words, but how it also destroys the numbers that the Schoolteachers of the world calculate so inhumanely. Just as the slaves' “savagery” assures Schoolteacher's “civilization,” Beloved's victims use song to reclaim and affirm their personhood in an aggressively inhuman world. Each time Baby Suggs adjures Sethe to “lay down [her] sword,” Morrison reveals how the characters pick up a song and use it as a shield to defend and affirm their humanity. Much as Sethe “talk[s] about love with a handsaw,” Toni Morrison's Beloved speaks to its readers about humanity with a song (164).

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Haunted by Their Nightmares.” New York Times Book Review 13 Sep. 1987: 1, 49-50.

Baker, Houston A. Jr. Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1972.

Dixon, Melvin. “Singing Swords: The Literary Legacy of Slavery.” The Slave's Narrative. Ed. Charles Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. 298-318.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. An American Slave, 1845. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Holloway, Karla. “Beloved: A Spiritual.” Callaloo 13 (Summer 1990): 516-25.

McKay, Nellie, ed. Toni Morrison's Beloved: A Casebook. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

Mobley, Marilyn Sanders. “A Different Remembering: Memory, History, and Meaning in Beloved.Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. 357-65.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. New York: Penguin, 1988.

O'Meally, Robert. “Frederick Douglass' 1845 Narrative: The Text Was Meant to be Preached.” Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction. Ed. Dexter Fisher. New York: MLA, 1979. 192-211.

Perez-Torres. “Between Presence and Absence: Beloved, Postmodernism, and Blackness.” McKay 179-202.

Rushdy, Ashraf. “Daughters Signifyin(g) History: The Example of Toni Morrison's Beloved.American Literature 64 (1992): 567-97.

Toni Morrison and Anne-Marie O'Connor (interview date 15 October 2003)

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SOURCE: Morrison, Toni, and Anne-Marie O'Connor. “Love and the Outlaw Women.” Los Angeles Times (15 October 2003): E1.

[In the following interview, Morrison discusses her career and her novel Love.]

Distinguished American novelist Toni Morrison is in her Manhattan apartment, talking about “outlaw women.” Dressed in a flowing black shirt and pants, with luminous strands of pearls around her neck and long, graying braids twisting down her back, Morrison chooses her words carefully, her voice low, soft and forceful.

“Outlaw women who don't follow the rules are always interesting to me,” she begins, her eyes thoughtful and expressive, “because they push themselves, and us, to the edge. The women who step outside the borders, or who think other thoughts, define the limits of civilization, but also challenge it.”

A string of these women have peopled the novels of this Nobel laureate, from Song of Solomon to Sula and Paradise. But today, Morrison is talking about Celestial, the enigmatic, elusive presence in her new novel, Love.

Celestial haunts Bill Cosey, the autumnal patriarch who is the central character of Love, just like the faded memory of the glory days of his personal empire: a chic seaside resort for stylish, well-to-do blacks that flourished in a segregated America.

Cosey was a “race man,” one of those looked up to and admired in their heyday for making it in a white world, but then, years later, becoming “what some wings of the civil rights movement called bourgeois,” Morrison says, “so they had to defend themselves, and suffered some of the consequences of the successes of the civil rights movement.”

As segregation waned, “blacks did not have to depend on black businesses,” Morrison says, “so there were some gains and some losses.”

Lurking amid the remains of Cosey's once-glamorous kingdom are many kinds of love—along with the complex array of dependencies, attachments and appetites that sometimes pass for love.

Cosey has racked up more than a few of these since his rakish belle epoque. There is Heed the Night, named for a passage in Corinthians, the 11-year-old girl he chose as his bride, plucking her out of a settlement on the wrong side of the tracks. There is Christine, the granddaughter who leaves home and becomes an activist during the civil rights movement, but returns years later to claim what she views as her inheritance.

And there is Celestial, the majestic woman—though she made her living as a prostitute—who seemed to ask nothing more from Cosey than to stand as an equal at his side. And it is she who inspires in him the rarest feeling, of romantic love.

If Love seems to take a close look at the dynamics of relationships between men and women, “most novels do,” Morrison points out. As she wrote the book, she was thinking about “a certain kind of license that men have and that we give them, complicated roles that they may not be able to shoulder.”

“Patriarchy is assumed, but women have to agree to the role,” she says. “You have to say, ‘This is the most important person in my life.’ It's not that [Cosey] gobbles them up, but they allow themselves to be eaten. When you're able to stop blaming other people—your father, your grandfather, your husband—for your shortcomings or confusion or failure, then language is possible, and so is love.”

Morrison is sitting below a row of windows that let in a gentle morning light. Her apartment is filled with modern art: some drawings in ink by Robert Motherwell, a sensual sculpture of a carved wooden male torso partly covered with shimmering gold leaf, a Modernist still life by California artist Ray Saunders. Behind her is an African mask and a pastel portrait of herself as a very young woman.

She was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931. Her father was a ship welder. Past profiles of Morrison have described her grandfather as a slave or a sharecropper, but today, she eschews such biographical shorthand.

“I hate that stuff. I just hate it,” she says. “Everybody who's an African American has to be rooted in that. My grandfather was a person, and what he really was was a musician. He played violin. He played dancing music. But that never makes it into the press.”

Morrison was a voracious reader. She dates her love of language and narrative to her childhood, in the days before mass media, when her family gathered together and told stories. As a child, “you sat and listened,” Morrison says. “There were stories for entertainment. We were encouraged to tell stories to adults and repeat stories we had heard.”

Her mother worked nights to see her through college. She graduated from Howard University in 1953, and after a seven-year marriage to an architect, she divorced and became a single mother to their two boys.

Working full time in the publishing industry, she found the time to write her first novel, The Bluest Eye, a story that explores the ravaging impact of racism on the self-image of one fragile little girl. Later came Song of Solomon, a saga of two families that became a bestseller and placed her squarely on the map of popular fiction.

Beloved, a novel haunted by the ghost of a child killed to save her from slavery, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and in 1993, Morrison became the first African American to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. In 1998, she published Paradise, about an assault by town patriarchs on a multiracial group of women living on the community's outskirts: “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.”

Today, Morrison is charismatic and understated, as complex and multifaceted in conversation as the densely layered themes that wind through her novels. She teaches at Princeton, and perhaps it is no surprise that many of her most creative students want to be filmmakers.

Yet she doesn't see the novel, its solitary, undistilled vision contrasting with the collaborative process of film, in much danger.

“It's in a class by itself,” she said. “There are 26 letters in the alphabet. They're like [musical] notes. Its reach can be right around the throat, or its fingers can play in the mind. It's so intimate as an art form.”

Love is deeply anchored by the raw intimacy and vividly human characters that ground all of Morrison's books. There is the moment when one of her favorite characters, the teenage Romen, can't bring himself to take part in a gang rape. Instead, he frees the girl, converting the scorn and derision of his friends into self-loathing—until he is redeemed with his sensual initiation by the sultry, feral Junior, one of the book's more memorable characters.

And at the heart of the novel, there is Cosey, the self-made man who realized the dream of economic empowerment long before Malcolm X declared it a revolutionary strategy. As the civil rights movement reshapes the world around him, history itself becomes a protagonist, stepping into the question, as Morrison puts it, of “what to do about the consequences of centuries and centuries of racial oppression?”

“To reduce it to its simplest and most common denominator, race is at the heart of democracy,” she says. “These are not the struggles of minority groups. These are the struggles of the survival and flourishing of democracy.

“That's the canvas of this book, upon which I hoped to paint these people who grew up around this resort, a kind of apogee of black entrepreneurship that could be self-contained. Everyone who could afford it went, and those who couldn't listened or were proud of it.”

The book marks the resumption of a long working relationship with Robert Gottlieb, who edited such earlier Morrison works as Beloved and Song of Solomon, then decamped in 1987 to edit the New Yorker for six years.

Gottlieb finds Love remarkable. “So many characters, so much action is compressed into a rather short novel, yet it never seems frantic or over-compressed. You can be large without being long,” he says.

He recalls editing Sula, a Morrison novella so exquisitely crafted it was, in Gottlieb's words, “like a sonnet.”

Traces of that spare poetry thread through Love. Like the moment when Celestial walks naked into the sea.

“She's unfettered and unencumbered,” Morrison says. “I wanted that scene. She goes into the water, she goes into the night. She's fluffing her hair. I wanted the notion of a free female, or a licensed one, anyway.”

Ron Charles (review date 28 October 2003)

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SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “Prisoners of One Man's Affection.” Christian Science Monitor (28 October 2003): 15.

[In the following review, Charles discusses the interrelationships among the characters in Morrison's Love.]

Readers who know Toni Morrison's work only from her surreal classic Beloved will be surprised by the subtlety and humor of her new novel. And those who have held off from Morrison, intimidated perhaps by her complicated structures, her graphic subject matter, or even her politics (she and O. J. are the only ones still looking for that small-gloved killer), should start here with Love. This is the carefully crafted work of a storyteller entirely unburdened by her Nobel Prize. No pretension deadens her rhythm, no self-importance forces her wit, no presumption of Significance bloats her significant insights.

The story floats in the glorious past of a shuttered hotel, “the best and best-known vacation spot for colored folk on the East Coast.” Bill Cosey, long dead, was the larger-than-life proprietor whose “pleasure was in pleasing,” who promised his guests “the best good time this side of the law.” What he saw, which other entrepreneurs didn't, was a market for black entertainment, a classy establishment where black men and women could enter the front door, enjoy a fine meal, and hear the best music.

But now, only the women remain, women Cosey raised and married and hired and flattered—old women locked in battle. Hidden away upstairs is Heed, his arthritic second wife, “the meanest woman on the coast.” Down below in the kitchen, Cosey's granddaughter, Christine, storms away. They've already survived other rivals, and now each one is waiting for the other to die. Cosey's ambiguous will has kept his estate in limbo, and so Heed and Christine have hunkered down for a war of emotional attrition with biannual skirmishes, “bruising fights with hands, feet, teeth, and soaring objects.”

Morrison plays up the gothic comedy of these warring old women well, but she also presses deep into the complexity of their ruined affection for each other. Trapped in Cosey's old mansion, both realize “the fights did nothing other than allow them to hold each other. Like friendship, hatred needed more than physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself.”

Morrison narrates as a kind of erotic tease, holding back information even while tempting us with it. The reasons for this cold war between Heed and Christine creep into the story, slowly at first, gradually bringing to light the horrors we've grown to suspect but can't admit. Those two Mississippi wonders, William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, would feel right welcome in this old house.

Cosey's cook, L, the only person who ever exercised any control over him and his cat-fighting women, provides an astute commentary on the mossy past and the overcharged present. Her wisdom extends from okra to sex in an age that doesn't know anything about the first and thinks it knows everything about the second. But she speaks only to us. For the world, the world so shameless, she only hums, her “way of objecting to how the century is turning out.”

While the story laces into the past, the static conflict between Heed and Christine is disrupted by the arrival of Junior, an opportunistic girl who answers Heed's ad for a personal secretary. Her abusive family, years in juvenile detention, and a stint in prison have taught Junior well in the arts of survival and lying. But those are familiar skills for Heed and Christine, and each women feels confident the girl can be bent to her cause against the other, ignoring the fact that Bill Cosey, even from the grave, has won himself another crooked little heart.

When Morrison published Beloved in 1987, the screech of that saw-wielding ghost was enough to tear away what patina remained on the Southern plantation, the “rebel culture” still defended—remarkably—by fans of the Confederate flag. But in Love her voice has lowered to wry asides, whispers of gossip about the white power structure that ground away at Cosey despite his apparent freedom. She is, as always, the most profound commentator alive about the effects of living under the threat of white attack, white reprisal, white humiliation. But the moral palette of this novel displays a full range of colors, providing as powerful a defense as ever against critics who claim her men are all demons, her women all victims.

Ultimately, Love reaches a point of real reconciliation, but it's cast, as it must be, in the dark light of lives wasted in conflict, spent trying to satisfy a patriarch who should have been denied. Unlike the other women who've sacrificed everything for Cosey, only L, his cook for 50 years, understands that “he was an ordinary man ripped, like the rest of us, by wrath and love.” She knows the corrosive effects of private shame that eat away at self-worth, leaving only myths undisturbed. Disturbing such myths may be the greatest of Morrison's many skills.

Hilary Mantel (review date 8 December 2003)

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SOURCE: Mantel, Hilary. “Ghost Writer.” New Statesman 132, no. 4667 (8 December 2003): 50-1.

[In the following review, Mantel provides a plot synopsis of Morrison's Love, and offers a favorable assessment of the novel.]

Toni Morrison has said in interviews that readers sometimes ask her: “Why don't you write about white people?” You could come off your ground and on to ours, they suggest; because you are an artist you “transcend” divisions. They mean to flatter her; yet what they mean is both insulting and absurd. No group has a bigger share in the power of narrative than any other. All Morrison's work exists to remind us of this. The cultural default position is still “white, male”, but Morrison has shown through her distinguished career that there are other eyes to look through and other mouths through which to speak, and that these visions and discourses are in no way “alternative”; if you are black, and a woman, they are simple, central and natural.

Her new book [Love] interweaves the stories of a group of black women, some old and some young, some living and some dead. Their common focus is the long-deceased Bill Cosey, one-time owner of Cosey's Resort, a coastal hotel that had its heyday around 1942. It was a pleasure-ground for the black professional classes, a place to dine and dance and sleep in fine linen sheets, to laugh, relax, gamble and forget the insults of a segregated society. Morrison evokes magnificently the rustle of chiffon skirts, the trailing scent of jasmine on ocean breezes, a sky (before light pollution) swathed in stars. It is Eden, almost; one day into the pleasure garden worms a skinny little girl called Heed The Night, offspring of a feckless, violent family—you would say she was from the wrong side of the tracks, except there are no tracks where Heed's people live.

Sometimes, Morrison suggests, two children move towards each other with an emotion like love at first sight; it creates a bond that only the most extreme circumstances can undo. Cosey has a granddaughter, Christine, and she and Heed become closer than sisters, close as if they lived in one skin. But Bill is a widower, and one day he notices Heed running through his hotel; he touches the nipple of her ungrown breast. A short while later they are married. Heed is 11 years old. Her prospects are transformed, her family paid off. Christine's security is shattered. Jealousy and uncomprehending rage make her dangerous. She is sent away from home. Disaster engulfs her. Love turns to a lifelong enmity. When the book begins, Heed and Christine are old women, still squabbling over Cosey's will, which he scribbled on a menu while half-drunk. They are really squabbling over which one Cosey loved the most.

Was Cosey worth it? The male characters are only lightly sketched. It is women who have a call on our attention. A girl called Junior turns up at the house the old women share. Heed has advertised for help. She wants to write her life story, she says. Really, she wants to talk about the past, and to pursue her quarrel with Christine in sneaky new ways. Can Junior help her? Junior says she can do anything. She has just got out of custody, originates in the same badlands as Heed herself. Sexy, blunt, predatory in her cheap, creaking leather jacket, she brings a whiff of the bus station and the street into the house where the old ladies live among heavy furnishings, each isolated in her own pool of lamplight. Her brashness scatters the ghosts, women who exist less as presences than echoes. There is May, Christine's mother, who was a preacher's daughter, and the mysterious L, whose name is never made known to us: perhaps it is Love? Then there is Bill Cosey's true love, the “sporting woman” Celestial, with her scarred face and unknowable past. It is hard work to disentangle these women's parts in the narrative, or free their voices from each other. Perhaps that is the point; their stories have grown together. Some are foregrounded—Junior is a pungent presence on the page—but others, especially Celestial, have a less differentiated and more archaic quality. When Cosey's ghost starts to manifest to Junior, it seems that Morrison has reached lazily into a box named “proven effects”. Morrison seems to be shrugging and saying to the reader: You do the work—after all, you've read this book before.

In a sense we have. As time passes, it seems that Morrison's 1987 masterpiece, Beloved, contains all her other books, and unwritten books as well. Having read this story of a woman who kills her child rather than condemn her to slavery, you will be wiser and much sadder, more experienced, too, as if you had learnt to read for the second time. Love offers more muted effects. But the power of Morrison's language is intact, and its strengths are in the atmosphere she builds, of the coast and the country behind it: the massing black clouds rushing onshore, which the local people call Police-heads, because they “like to troll at night”. Police-heads open their wide maws and swallow lives and hopes; behind the narrative is a society engulfed by protest and riven not just by racial but by economic divisions. While the cities are burning, Cosey's Resort slides a little towards the sand and the waves; the passionate women age; the creativity that fuels hatred as well as love begins to flag.

When Morrison writes at her best, you can feel the workings of history through her prose. Beneath the surface the social order creaks and shudders, as if the seas were rising and the rocks were beginning to shift. In the rinsing sorrow of her narratives and their powerful pull on our hearts, she is a tragic artist; ferocious rather than ironic, she takes language seriously and makes it work for her.

It is interesting to compare this book with a sample of what the white males are writing now. You note their wounded death's-head grins, their techno-posturing and street-smarts, their pallid vapidity. Style has dissipated into mannerism, muscularity degenerated to twitches and tics; the power has gone elsewhere. With a Pulitzer, a National Book Foundation medal and the Nobel Prize in the bag, Morrison may feel she can afford to stretch and relax a little while the sands shift, her themes regroup and her words remember themselves.

Thulani Davis (review date 15 December 2003)

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SOURCE: Davis, Thulani. “Not Beloved.” Nation 277, no. 20 (15 December 2003): 30-2.

[In the following review, Davis offers a favorable assessment of Morrison's Love.]

Toni Morrison's slim new novel, Love, may seem, at first glance, to fit within a group of books one could crudely call Morrison Lite, not requiring any heavy lifting from the reader like her masterpieces, Beloved and Song of Solomon. But the appearance is deceptive. A distillation of many of her earlier themes, notably the theft of girlhood and wars over times now gone, Love is a rich parable about the damaging past as a demagogue ruling the present. And as with a number of her books, the story is passed from one character to another and gathers details and clarity as it is seen from one angle, then the next. Like a multifaceted stone, this intimate tale of seven women and one man is cut to refract the light as each of its characters sees it, turning their eyes round a reflecting center.

That center, the late Bill Cosey, the owner of a once-popular black beach resort in the South, is the most prominent ghost in the novel, and as such he can seem empty like glass, idealized by memory like the moonlight on his hotel's Sooker Bay. In other lights, he is cold, foolish or corrupt. But like other Morrison ghosts, Bill Cosey represents that damaging past. In the novel's present, his child bride, Heed, and granddaughter, Christine, the only survivors of a much-romanticized past, are in a bitter struggle over ownership of his property, symbolized by a will written on an old hotel menu. When a streetwise and homeless young woman named Junior Viviane comes to their home to work for Heed (and, Junior quickly realizes, to help Heed secure control of the estate), memories are set free and a final battle is put into motion. In the course of this battle, the stories of all of Cosey's women emerge, as well as a picture of a community of women that seems helpless, contentious and hateful.

Heed (her full name is Heed the Night), Cosey's tenacious widow from the wrong side of the tracks, calls him “Papa” and prefers to remember him as the “wonderful man” who “picked her out of all he could have chosen. Knowing she had no schooling, no abilities, no proper raising …” Christine, Heed's childhood friend, is a three-time runaway, a refugee from marriage and the Black Power movement. She sees herself as “the one left behind, Miss Second Best” and views Cosey as her betrayer. The two are caught in a fight to the death.

Love opens with a Morrison overture, weaving strains of the novel's poetry into a mysterious beckoning into the story and the company of the ever-present ghost. This prologue is titled “Love”—one of the rare occasions in the book when the word is actually used. The narrator, slyly named only L., grabs her victims by the eyeballs with one of the author's startling first sentences: “The women's legs are spread wide open, so I hum.”

L. is herself a ghost, who explains that she is “an old woman embarrassed by the world,” and romances us into the 1940s, when “Cosey's Hotel and Resort was the best and best-known vacation spot for colored folk on the East Coast.” The hotel, where L. was the well-loved cook, bragged of names from a glamorous past—Lil Green, Fatha Hines, Jimmy Lunceford—and the perfection of places long gone; it “had more handsome single men per square foot than anyplace outside of Atlanta or even Chicago.” Despite the hyperbole, the easy living 1940s milieu at the heart of the book feels lived down to the lemon cake, and the good times feel like familiar kitchen-table stories.

If Cosey is the enticing face of black success in “George Raft suits,” then L. is the black woman downstairs stirring the pots, raising the children, keeping the secrets, who leaves his funeral walking the beach in three-inch heels. L., whose name no one can remember, knows love as mercy. She is a perfect rendering of those shadowy African-Americans—surrogates and enablers—Morrison describes in a collection of lectures, Playing in the Dark, as lurking, ignored, yet defining all others in so much American fiction. She is an invention of the later Toni Morrison, a compassionate mediator between warring extremes.

Love's setting evokes places in Florida or the Carolinas where black beach towns once flourished, but does not attempt any particular regional flavor or history. This resort was a cosmopolitan enclave where folks came from all over—sought out in part because it was for the select few and excluded the nearby African-Americans who might have brought in the local flavor. The fault lines of class difference and class pretension are carefully delineated. The regular folk lived in Up Beach, which of course was not by the beach, and worked in a cannery that sent the occasional bad odor toward the luxury hotel.

Morrison painstakingly describes the privilege of those with diamond stickpins, fine cigars and monogrammed silver, pointedly contrasting it with a world in which a child's bedroom is a luxury. Up Beach folk, she tells us, were viewed by the elite as “beach rats who bathed in a barrel and slept in their clothes,” who “never used two pieces of flatware to eat.” While less artful writers often produce caricatured upper-class blacks, Morrison creates a believable crew of upper-crust Negroes who send their kids to boarding schools, know how to “dress a bed,” set a table and be discreet with their indiscretions.

Less successful is the attempt to limn Heed's struggle to elevate her Up Beach speech to leave an educated impression when she hasn't been to school. While the laughter over her mistakes is apt for those characters who hold themselves superior, some of the errors—saying “professionate” for professional or calling a man “very marriage-ing”—strain belief, like taking salad made with mayonnaise to the beach. The looming “police-head” ghosts that threaten reckless women and unruly children don't seem to fit or to be needed; the humans in a Morrison novel are much scarier. But these are quibbles.

Each chapter title names an archetypal male role, such as Friend, Benefactor, Lover, Husband, Guardian, Father. Fortunately, Morrison takes an oblique angle on these terms. Besides, her character Cosey rarely fulfilled any of those roles for anyone. Instead, one finds love confused with infatuation, lust, possession, masochism, delusion. There is love as substitution, love as mourning. Love as expecting abandonment and getting it. Love as habit, hate, charity and, just once, love as the real thing.

“Each story has a monster in it who made them tough instead of brave,” L. says. “All over the world, traitors help progress” by strengthening the survivors. Morrison's traitors often liberate those around them, but seldom without high cost. If Cosey is Love's monster, then Love shows the many uses people make of such a person.

Vida, a grateful former employee of Cosey's hotel, says “his pleasure was in pleasing.” Her husband, Sandler, who took the man fishing and liked him, remembers a calculating Cosey saying, “If you kill the predators, the weak will eat you alive.” The couple was liberated by Cosey from a destiny of struggle, maybe impoverishment. The cost, though, was to live with lies. Romen, the grandson they are raising, is liberated, in a manner of speaking, from teenage-macho posturing and fear of his own sweet nature by working in the Cosey house. Junior, Heed's assistant, seduces him into kinky sexual trysts. Junior is momentarily liberated from not belonging, from shutting out memories of a dead father, and thinks of Cosey as her “Good Man,” with “kind eyes that promised to hold a girl steady on his shoulder while she robbed apples from the highest branch.” The cost of their fling could be someone's death.

May, Cosey's devoted daughter-in-law, was saved by marriage from one stifling life only to end up a servant in another. As Cosey saw it, she fit into his world well because she “showed signs of understanding what superior men require.” But when he dispossessed her, it cost her her sanity. Last, Celestial, a familiar Morrison spirit, grew up in a household of sporting women. She may also have been a child rescued by Cosey's son. Her love for Cosey cost her her dignity.

“Each had been displaced by another; each had a unique claim on Cosey's affection,” Morrison writes of the women in Love. Her target, however, seems to be patriarchy and the ways women have accommodated it by mistaking entrapment for love. All in all, the women of this novel are helpless in Cosey's world and have no ability to make change inside marriages, low-wage employment, prostitution and, especially, girlhood. They fight petty domestic wars. More than loving Bill Cosey, they obeyed him.

There are curious echoes of Sula in Love, such as crazy May “turning … to the cooler side of the bed” as she dies, just as Sula does. Yet in the new novel, Morrison rejects some of the solutions of her earlier characters. “There's not much sense,” she writes in Love “in wasting time and life trying to put a woman in the asylum just to end up chipping ice for her to suck on,” a prominent choice made in the earlier novel. “Where's the gain in setting fire to the nest you live in if you have to live in the ashes for fifty years?” L. asks, again recalling a vivid central image in Sula. In Love, she pointedly revisits the deadly poisonous weeds in Sula's first sentence. Is this recurrence accidental or the insistence of a repeated theme?

The love almost defeated in this novel is the same love as in The Bluest Eye and Sula, and shown in other forms in Jazz and Paradise—a love with roots in girlhood, like that of Pecola and Claudia, Sula and Nel. Theirs is a love that unfolds hearts that have been closed by the discovery that mothers can turn away from a child's loving gaze or that, to quote Jazz, “no one loves them because they are not really here.” While Love may not have the disturbing beauty of Sula or Morrison's other great novels, its mercies may bring a wider audience into her contentious, rewarding universe.

Deborah E. McDowell (review date December 2003)

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SOURCE: McDowell, Deborah E. “Philosophy of the Heart.” Women's Review of Books 21, no. 3 (December 2003): 8-9.

[In the following review, McDowell discusses the theme of love in Morrison's Love.]

What is this thing called love that cannot stand alone, but depends on modifiers and conjunctions to complete it, to give it heft and meaning? There is “brotherly” love, “platonic” love, “puppy” love, “courtly” love, and of course, that most vexing, confounding, ever-elusive “romantic” love. Love often shows up in common parlance with a partner, as in love and death, love and lust, love and hate, love and war, and that reverent, consecrated pairing, love and marriage, which “go together like a horse and carriage,” in the words of the popular ditty ending with the rhyming couplet, “This I tell you brother, you can't have one without the other.” We know, of course, that we can and more often do have one without the other: marriage without love and, conversely, love without marriage. A loveless marriage, sullied from the start, is the mainspring of Toni Morrison's latest novel, Love, a marriage between the 52-year-old Bill Cosey (his second) and his 11-year-old child bride, Heed the Night, whom Cosey purchases from her father for $200 and a pocketbook.

You can guess you're in a Toni Morrison novel when you encounter such a situation, not to mention a character named Heed the Night, whose relatives are named Solitude, Righteous Morning, Winsome, and Joy. Reading on, you find that Heed has hired a young sex-pot and reform school parolee named Junior, whose toes have merged together to form a hoof (Pan perhaps?); by then you know for certain that you have landed on Morrison's narrative planet, populated by the outcast and dismembered, the uncanny and grotesque. When Junior appears, wearing no underwear, answering Heed's ad for a secretary and companion, Cosey has been long dead, leaving behind his next of kin: Heed, his widow, and Christine, his granddaughter, who were once intimate childhood friends. Eight months older than her former playmate cum bride cum grandmother, Christine is sent away following the marriage, exiled from the house “throbbing with girl flesh made sexy.” After Cosey's death, she returns to Silk, the coastal town where Cosey had established “the best and best-known vacation spot for colored folk on the East Coast.” Like a character in a Greek tragedy, she is determined to exact her revenge on Heed, the woman who displaced her in her grandfather's favor and affection; but more, to assert her “claim of blood” on Cosey's estate, “equal to Heed's claim as widow.”

Encamped in separate quarters in the three-story house that Cosey built at One Monarch Street, Heed and Christine engage in pitched battles, “bruising fights with hands, feet, teeth and soaring objects,” before settling into an “unnegotiated cease-fire.” Nearly as famous a residence as Beloved's 124 Bluestone Road, Cosey's imposing house, resembling a church, harbors several ghosts of its own, perhaps none more haunting than the ghost of Cosey.

Just who was this Bill Cosey? What motivated him to marry a girl almost 50 years his junior? What manner of man was he, who had “women fighting so hard for his attention you'd think he was a preacher”? While the entire cast of female characters seems obsessed with Cosey—May, his daughter-in-law; Vida, the former receptionist at his resort; L, its former cook and the narrator; and Junior, the randy secretary—the novel revolves around Heed and Christine, these two friends turned mortal enemies, who have squandered their lives (and their friendship) nursing and rehearsing grudges and resentments decades old. As with all of Morrison's narratives, the reader will have to wrestle with this book, which is not brought easily to heel. Like her previous novels, this one is elliptical and slow to give away its secrets and then, at that, in jagged pieces. We come to know Cosey and his women shard by shard.

A “handsome giant,” a “heavy drinker,” and a committed womanizer, whose “pleasure was in pleasing,” Cosey is descended from a “long line of quiet prosperous slaves and thrifty freedmen.” Rumored like his father to be a police informant, he is deemed nonetheless the “county's role model,” whose blood-soaked money financed Cosey's Hotel and Resort, now boarded up and much of its surrounding acreage sold in parcels to developers who throw up slapdash houses that blight the town of Oceanside. The awe and envy of the townspeople eking out a hardscrabble existence at a fish cannery, Cosey's resort “lived on even after the hotel was dependent for its life on the [local blacks] it once excluded” from its doors.

But even when we learn these surface details, Cosey remains much the mystery man, who takes shape and texture from what each person needs and finds in his portrait, which once hung behind the hotel's reception desk, and now above Heed's bed, “Painted from a snapshot,” the portrait is gilded by each viewer, spun from the filaments of fantasy. For Heed, the image is “exactly like” the man. “What you see there is a wonderful man,” she tells Junior, who has already found in Cosey's portrait the man she needs to see: both the father and the “Good Man” she never had. His “kind eyes … promised to hold [her] steady on his shoulders,” through “an orchard of green Granny apples heavy and thick on the boughs.”

This vision of paradise and plenitude embodied in a person is bound to be shattered, especially since, in this book, Cosey, the love object, the beau ideal, is himself so shattered—“an ordinary man” with “cracked-glass eyes” who has been “ripped … by wrath and love.”

Cosey isn't the only character “ripped” by love in this novel, in which acts of violence, present and remembered, are much the norm. A girl named Pretty Fay is gang raped; Junior's uncles chase her in a truck, seemingly for sport, running her over and crushing her toes. Heed sets Christine's bed on fire, and Christine shows up at Cosey's funeral with a switchblade in her hand. But perhaps the quintessential act of violence is Cosey's marriage to Heed, which “laid the brickwork for [his] ruination” and hers, as well—all because he wanted to replace the son he'd lost, and for that “only an unused girl would do.” No child issues from the marriage and Cosey—“the dirty one who introduced [Heed] to nasty,” to the reek of “liquor and an old man's business”—sees the error of his ways and returns to his long-time lover, the mysterious Celestial, a “sporting woman,” whose “face [is] cut from cheek to ear.”

One might reasonably wonder why there is so much violence in a book called Love, why violence repeatedly usurps the space that love might hold. Commonly the fantasied antidote to psychic wounds and losses, real and imagined, love is an expected unguent, a form of medication, pain's “natural” anodyne. But Morrison takes a harsher, tougher, less romantic view of love, one fashioned from the accumulated wisdom of the ages, a wisdom infused throughout her novels. While this novel must be seen on its own terms, of course, it is also useful to place it in the context of Morrison's earlier work.

In Love she reprises her most familiar scenes and situations of love gone badly wrong, twisted and distorted into surrealistic shapes, often bizarre beyond belief. One thinks of the possessive/protective love that compels Sethe to kill her baby girl, Beloved, in an effort to spare her the certain social death of slavery; the obsessive love that leads Joe Trace, the older man, to fatally shoot Dorcas, his younger lover (Jazz); the God-like love that compels Eva to burn her drug-addicted son alive, or the self-sacrificing love that drives her to hurl her crippled body from a top-floor window in a futile effort to save her daughter engulfed in flames (Sula). But Morrison's exploration, from book to book, of love in all its guises began, significantly, with the love of whiteness as physical ideal. Pecola's tragic, ultimately maddening, yearning for blond hair and blue eyes in The Bluest Eye set the template in many ways for the work that followed. Indeed, Morrison's poignant, finely wrought dramatization of Pecola's ardent desire for the “look of love” (at least in the Western world) is underneath it all, a desire to be loved, noticed, recognized. It is in The Bluest Eye that Morrison condemns the idealization of “physical beauty,” along with its counterpart, “romantic love,” the two “most destructive ideas in the history of human thought,” she writes. Her first novel's penultimate paragraph could serve as an epigraph to the latest:

Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly … The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover's inward eye.

As the heart's desire of Love, Bill Cosey is literally frozen in the glare of his lovers' inward eyes—Heed's, Christine's, Junior's, Vida's, L's, and May's—becoming whatever each needs him to be: “Friend,” “Stranger,” “Benefactor,” “Lover,” “Husband,” “Guardian,” “Father,” the roles that double as the chapter titles, the last of which is, tellingly, “Phantom.”

Love is ultimately abstract in its treatment, more philosophy of love than its expression. But if this seems the least emotionally felt, the least passionately surcharged of Morrison's novels, it is perhaps because her aim is not to write a love story, at least as that genre is conventionally understood, with expectations of sweaty palms and lustful scenes of romance required or renewed. Love's terms here are far from “cozy.” There are no bedroom scenes of couples like Violet/Violent and Joe Trace lying underneath the covers in the dark, whispering to each other what is in their hearts, tenderly exploring each other's bodies; no Sula mounting her lover, looking into his “golden eyes and the velvet helmet of [his] hair, rocking, swaying” to the “creeping disorder that was flooding her hips”; no First Corinthians “tilt[ing] [her lover's] chin up with her fingers and plant[ing] a feathery kiss on his throat.” Despite all of Cosey's rumored lovers, his “pleasure in pleasing,” there are few descriptions of pleasure in this text, except perhaps for Junior's trysts with Romen, the 16-year-old male Heed hires as yardman and errand boy.

What can we really ever know of love, the novel seems implicitly to ask, especially since so many other things come masquerading in its name: greed, obsession, betrayal, possessiveness, jealousy, envy, and above all love's impostor, sex, “the clown of love.” According to this novel's mysterious narrator, who prizes secrecy, sex stands, much the same as violence, in the place where love might be. Women especially “open their legs rather than their hearts,” which hide the wounded “sugar child, the winsome baby girl curled up somewhere inside,” playing in their minds their own versions of a somebody-done-somebody-wrong song that another's wished-for body will set all to right. Because both Christine and Heed each cast the other as the wronging partner in her life's drama, “Big Daddy” Cosey, the leading man, gets off scot-free. As the novel moves, perhaps too hastily, to its conclusion. Heed and Christine arrive at the mutual realization that Cosey was indeed an illusion, “everywhere and nowhere,” that each had “made him up.” But they reach the greater realization that they “could have been living [their] lives hand in hand instead of looking for Big Daddy everywhere.” In seeking to “possess” Cosey and then his material legacy, these former friends forget they once “belonged” to the other, “shar[ing] stomachache laughter, a secret language, and knew, as they slept together that one's dreaming was the same as the other one's.”

This language is reminiscent of Sula's deathbed memory of the days when she and Nel were “girls together,” so close that they merged to form “two throats … one eye and … had no price.” Morrison here reprises that earlier novel's exploration of how women turn into rivals and competitors for men (more boys than men), whose affections are always splintered, divided, far-flung. According to the narrator in Love, “Having men meant sharing them,” although every lover typically wants “the largest slice,” unwilling if not ill-prepared to “know the real” love, “the better kinds, where losses are cut and everybody benefits. It takes a certain intelligence to love like that.” Few of Morrison's characters seem endowed with such intelligence, their lives and choices attesting to the far more common reality that love and intelligence are mutually exclusive. We tend to love first and think later, if at all.

If Morrison ultimately offers a more sobering, cold-eyed view of love than one might hope to find in a novel titled Love, she has blown a kiss, as it were, to her most ardent readers, has tendered a kind of valentine—a retrospective or compendium of her earlier takes on love. The distance between the first words proper of The Bluest Eye (1970)—“Quiet as its kept”—and those of this new novel—“the women's legs are spread wide open”—represents not merely a chronological sweep but a philosophical journey into the heart of love, at times a darkened continent blazed by Morrison's luminescent prose, her dazzling lyricism, her labor of love.


Morrison, Toni (Vol. 10)


Morrison, Toni (Vol. 22)