Toni Morrison Morrison, Toni (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toni Morrison 1931–

Black American novelist and editor.

Morrison's fiction usually involves the initiation of young black women who must confront the tensions of both racism and sexism. Within a compelling narrative, Morrison uses symbolism, foreshadowing, flashbacks, myth, inner monologues, and authentic dialect.

(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 10, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6: American Novelists since World War 11.)

Phyllis R. Klotman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye (1970) is a female Bildungsroman, a novel of growing up, of growing up young and black and female in America. The story centers around the lives of two black families, the McTeers and the Breedloves, migrants from the South, living in Lorain, Ohio. But its emphasis is on the children, Claudia and Frieda McTeer and Pecola Breedlove—their happy and painful experiences in growing up, their formal and informal education. In fact, education by the school and society is the dominant theme of The Bluest Eye.

The novel opens with three versions of the "Dick and Jane" reader so prevalent in the public schools at the time (the 1940s) of the novel. Morrison uses this technique to juxtapose the fictions of the white educational process with the realities of life for many black children. The ironic duality of the school/home experience is illuminated through the ingenious structure of the novel. The "Dick and Jane" referent effectively introduces the fictional milieu of Morrison's characters; it is one with which we are all familiar…. It is the world of the first-grade basic reader—middle-class, secure, suburban and white, replete with dog, cat, non-working mother and leisure-time father…. This first version of the simulated-reader quotation is clear, straight, rendered in "Standard English"—correct and white. The second, while it repeats the message exactly, assumes a different visual appearance on the page which is less clear yet still comprehensible although written without proper capitals or punctuation…. The third, the wording of which is likewise unaltered, is completely run together, one long collection of consonants and vowels seeming to signify nothing….

These three versions are symbolic of the lifestyles that the author explores in the novel either directly or by implication. The first is clearly that of the alien white world (represented by the Fisher family) which impinges upon the lives of the black children and their families while at the same time excluding them. The second is the lifestyle of the two black McTeer children, Claudia and Frieda, shaped by poor but loving parents trying desperately to survive the poverty, the Northern cold and Northern style of racism they encounter in Ohio. The Breedloves' lives, however, are like the third—the distorted run-on—version of "Dick and Jane," and their child Pecola lives in a misshapen world which finally destroys her. The simulated "here is the house" quotation, with its variants, serves several purposes: as a synopsis of the tale that is to follow, and as a subtly ironic comment on a society which educates—and...

(The entire section is 1098 words.)

Anne Z. Mickelson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), Toni Morrison deals with children and that element of belief by many black people, as she sees it, that an ultimate glory is possible. Pecola Breedlove yearns for blue eyes as the next best thing to being white. Blue eyes become for her a symbol of pride and dignity. She seeks the glory of blue eyes through prayer … and eventually through madness when, believing that blue eyes have finally been granted her, she walks about flapping her arms like wings, convinced that she can fly. Secure in her madness, she has no knowledge that she has become the town pariah.

The author's second novel, Sula (1974), expands the theme of pariah by charting her heroine's odyssey from childhood to adulthood…. Toni Morrison develops the theme by focusing on two women and their friendship: an extraordinary friendship in which one is a rebel who becomes the town's scandal, and the other a conformist who does all the proper things expected of her. Analyzing their different households at the age of twelve, Morrison brings together the components of their lives with a fine sympathy for a friendship which, though broken, ultimately assumes a dramatic meaning for the story and the women. Though it is Nel, the conformist woman, who voices the idea that Sula had been her glory, the book ends with each woman's thoughts centered on the other, despite the fact that no reconciliation has taken place. (pp. 124-25)

Toni Morrison combines the psychological, the symbolic, and the philosophical in her portraits of Nel and Sula in order to demonstrate that each complements the other. There is a hint of Dostoevsky's The Double and the Dostoevskyan idea that in every person there lurks a double. Morrison's fictional method is character counterpoint, rather than the Dostoevskyan technique of encompassing the timid and the masterful in one figure. (pp. 125-26)

A radically fresh approach to the theme of rebellion is that the author works with symbols and the psychological to establish Nel and Sula as projections of different aspects of the same character. In appeareance one is light, the other dark. Nel's skin is described as the color of wet sand, while Sula's is a heavy brown color and she has a birthmark over one eye….

The symbolic use of names is important. Nel (knell) connotes the pealing note of doom on which Nel's life ends not once but three times, with each separation from Sula. The first time is when Nel marries and Sula goes away for ten years. The second time is the break with Sula over Jude, Nel's husband, with whom Sula sleeps briefly. The third and most poignant is Nel's realization that in Sula's grave is buried the passion, the life, the fun, and the healthy womanhood which Sula represented. On the other hand, Sula's name suggests an abbreviation of Suleiman, The Magnificent….

In terms of psychological analysis, the actions of Sula and Nel are "figure splitting"—the separation and projection of character into component parts. Nel is calm, passive, or frightened in a crisis. Sula's emotions erupt in some action that is strong or even violent. (p. 128)

Each significant part of the two women's characterizations, both as children and as women, then, comes from the author's repeated insistence that they are one person split into two; as Sula's grandmother says, "never was no difference."…

In the author's structuring of Sula and Nel, then, they are less persons in their own right than representations of rebel and conformist, which the author views as the black woman's intrinsic conflict. Particularly with Sula, the writer seems to be going beyond such representation, addressing herself to the idea of the great rebel—the one who exceeds boundaries, creates excitement, tries to break free of encroachments of external cultural forces and challenges destiny. What, for example, does she have Sula do? Believing that an unpatterned, unconditioned life is possible, Sula tries to avoid uniformity by creating her own kind of life. (p. 129)

The author, however, is not just working with the idea of the importance of experience. There are times in the book when one gets the impression that in dealing with the theme of a woman's right to an experimental life, the writer is pushing the reader to consider something much more unconventional. This is that the impulse to murder and violence in the human psyche is endemic not only to men; women, too, are capable of violence, Morrison seems to be saying. (p. 130)

In [Sula] the moral initiative which underlies Sula's experimental life is rooted in her capacity to initiate violence, as is illustrated in two childhood scenes. The author hits us with the idea that Nel and Sula as women recall the different scenes of violence with the same emotion—pleasure, or more accurately "satisfaction." Whether or not the author is exploring repressed drives or even pathological complexes, the following two scenes are presented boldly. As a twelve-year-old, Sula drowns Chicken Little when she swings the child around so vigorously that he slips from her hands and lands in the nearby river….

The author follows this immediately with another scene which underscores D. H. Lawrence's idea that no act of murder is "accidental." Sula's mother catches on fire while tending a fire in the yard, and Sula watches her mother's burning not with horror, as would be expected, but with an "interested" expression…. (p. 131)

Without question, the description of the two scenes and the emotions of Sula/Nel has sexual overtones. As Mailer dramatizes with Rojack in An American Dream, the act of murder can be as orgasmic as the act of sexual love. There is more than an implication of this idea in Morrison's novel; disguised as a psychological novel, it is really a novel of ideas prodding us to think on the experimental life for woman…. (p. 132)

Yet the author does not seem at ease with her characterization of Sula, violence, and the experimental life. She steps in with an armload of explanations distributed over several pages. Sula had inherited her grandmother's arrogance and her mother's self-indulgence; she had never felt any obligation to please someone unless their pleasure pleased her; she was as willing to receive pain as to give it; she had never been the same since she overheard her mother Hannah explain that she loved Sula but did not likd her; the boy's drowning had closed something off in her; and so forth.

The author soon drops this line of reasoning and turns with relief to a defense of Sula summed up as: Sula was not afraid of "the free fall."… (It's a phrase which has a possible echo of Milton's Lucifer.) The conventional women of the Bottom were. These women had allowed their husbands to dry up their dreams, and those without men looked like "sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye."… Sooner or later, all died with their aprons on. The writer makes it clear that Sula's one lapse into conventionality, when she falls in love with Ajax and begins to dream of a commitment from him, results in sorrow and the common fate reserved for the black woman—desertion.

Unfortunately, the literary destiny of most rebel women—death—does not spare Sula…. She dies at thirty, but not without stating that her rebellion has been the natural outcome of her dialectic. On her death bed, she sustains her position philosophically by weighing the pros and cons of what is good and bad, renounces the accepted definition of goodness, and reiterates her belief that it is only life that matters. Life is important, life must be lived and duty and suffering on this earth are too high a price to pay for heavenly immortality. (pp. 132-33)

The novel bears the same incompleteness as Sula's search for freedom…. Sula makes of life a defiant gesture which liberates her to an extent, and keeps her from self-pity. She is sustained by her pride in the fact that she walks through life with no blinders on. Yet, there is no happy ending. Sula collapses in the loneliness of the search for freedom, and proves what? That love is necessary? That the human heart cannot entertain equal proportions of good and evil? That everything is not relative? These and other unanswered questions are given more scope in [Morrison's next novel], Song of Solomon. (p. 134)

In this novel, she deals not only with the woman who breaks away from the established society to create an individualistic life for herself, but with the black man who yearns to fly—to break out of the confining life into the realm of possibility—and who embarks on a series of dramatic adventures…. But whether or not the hero, Milkman, as he is nicknamed, will continue to ride the air or die at the hands of his former black friend is unresolved. However, this question, posed at the end for the reader, throws in sharper focus the themes which the writer carries over from her previous books: flight, the journey, family, friendship,...

(The entire section is 3730 words.)

Jane S. Bakerman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Toni Morrison] has achieved major stature through the publication of only three novels. The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973) are brief, poetic works which explore the initiation experiences of their black, female, adolescent protagonists. Song of Solomon (1977) is a much longer but still lyrical story relating Macon (Milkman) Dead's search for familial roots and personal identity. Milkman's development is framed and illuminated by the maturation stories of three women important in his life, and the presence of these subplots in the tale of a male protagonist is a good indication of the importance of female initiation in Morrison's thought.

For Toni Morrison, the central theme...

(The entire section is 2166 words.)

Webster Schott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Because Toni Morrison is black, female, and the author of Song of Solomon …, one expects from her a fiction of ideas as well as characters.

Tar Baby has both. And its so sophisticated a novel that Tar Baby might well be tarred and feathered as bigoted, racist, and a product of male chauvinism were it the work of a white male—say, John Updike, whom Morrison brings to mind.

One of fiction's pleasures is to have your mind scratched and your intellectual habits challenged. While Tar Baby has shortcomings, lack of provocation isn't one of them. Morrison owns a powerful intelligence. It's run by courage. She calls to account conventional wisdom and accepted...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

John Irving

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toni Morrison seems to be returning…. risk and mischief to the contemporary American novel, and never more extravagantly than in "Tar Baby," her fourth and most ambitious book. (pp. 1, 30)

[In] "Tar Baby," Miss Morrison gives us a candy manufacturer named Valerian Street, a white man….

He lives oblivious to a story within his own family—a story too good for me to spoil for the reader…. The family's loyal black cook, Ondine, will reveal the tale; she and her husband, Sydney, the butler, have devoted most of their lives to serving Valerian Street. They are the white man's dream of "good Negroes," which means thay love their master's child as if he were their own, they keep...

(The entire section is 680 words.)

Rosellen Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the past, white folks have figured in Toni Morrison's novels more or less the way adults are portrayed in the TV version of Peanuts—as vague, muffled, offstage voices, menacing or comforting but essentially irrelevant. Tar Baby does posses a pair of white characters, but this book is not much more about them than the others have been….

Symbols multiply and recur, so that the story too often seems merely to exist for the sake of its meaning. At the center are a dozen variations on maternity, natural and unnatural. The questions toward which we are led, inexorably, are "Mamaspoiled black man, will you mature with me? Culture-bearing black woman, whose culture are you bearing?"...

(The entire section is 375 words.)

Darryl Pinckney

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The laboring poor of The Bluest Eye, the self-sufficient women and drifting men of Sula, the avaricious middle class and defiantly marginal citizens of Song of Solomon—they are gone, replaced, in Tar Baby, by the rich, their servants, their dependents and the sans culottes who threaten their security. Though much is made of money, fashion, commodities as consciousness, and the experiences open to the privileged, the cultured, and those clever enough to hustle a piece of the action, the people living on Isle des Chevaliers, voluntary exiles all, seem to inhabit a world that is oppressively parochial and provincial….

The people on Isle des Chevaliers have much on their...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Susan Lydon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toni Morrison weaves a web of such surpassing delicacy and grace that the reader is ensnared for the duration of her mythic journey. Her fables unfold in the landscape of dreams, and the plot of a Morrison book is useful only insofar as it illuminates the allegory she is working. The meanings of Tar Baby … continue to reveal themselves to me slowly, but it's clear that Morrison works her magic charm above all with a love of language. Her soaring lyrical style carries you like a river through the book, sweeping doubt and disbelief away, and it is only gradually that one realizes her deadly serious intent. In Tar Baby she deals with tension; tension between master and servant between men and women,...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Pearl K. Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The life depicted in Toni Morrison's earlier novels drew its strength from her flawless recollection of a cherished and painful past. Tar Baby is set not on the writer's native ground but on a French island in the Caribbean where she, too, is only a tourist, and the novel seems to have been designed more as a vehicle for bitter judgments than as a reflective rendering of memory. This may account for its disjointed tone, its florid language, and the incongruity of its parts: a lush tropic locale; a gorgeously romantic and doomed love story; a melodramatic family scandal; and the harsh indictment of white civilization that washes over it all.

Tar Baby introduces white characters for the...

(The entire section is 530 words.)