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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, ...

(The entire section contains 10744 words.)

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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

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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 unconscionably socializes—its young with callous disregard for the cultural richness and diversity of its people. (p. 123)

The epitome of the good, the true, and the beautiful is, of course, Shirley Temple. Morrison uses the contrast between Shirley Temple and Pecola, like the contrasting versions of "Dick and Jane," to underscore the irony of black experience. Whether one learns acceptability from the formal educational experience or from cultural symbols, the effect is the same: self-hatred. Pecola's actual experience cannot be found in "Dick and Jane," for in the school primer, society denied her existence. In yearning to be Shirley Temple, she denies her own: "A little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment."…

Very early in the novel, Pecola's terribly pathetic desire to be Shirley Temple is demonstrated by her fascination with Frieda's blue-and-white Shirley Temple mug. She would inundate herself with milk (three quarts worth) just to hold the cup with "the silhouette of Shirley Temple's dimpled face,"… and gaze fondly into the blue eyes. It is in fact the blue eyes for which Pecola prays nightly; they are the answer to all things….

Pecola does not have joy and love to balance the pain and ugliness of her "normal" everyday experiences. Growing gradually into puberty is a luxury denied her. So she retreats into madness, a madness that includes the blue eyes she has prayed for, bestowed upon her by a "magic man," Soaphead Church, a strange outcast of a man suffering from his own delusions. (p. 124)

Pecola takes on some of the scapegoat characteristics that Trueblood has in Ellison's Invisible Man, at least for those in the black community. While Trueblood is rejected by the Blacks, he is supported by the white community and "displayed" as a kind of atavistic throwback, a comforting reminder of the dark, libidinous forces truly civilized man has repressed. The white community in the world of Morrison's novel has little or nothing to do with Pecola: She is rejected out of hand. But Claudia, struggling toward maturity and understanding, finally perceives the depth of her involvement in Pecola's descent into madness: "All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness…."

Nature serves as the unifying element in the novel. Each of the major sections is designated by season from autumn to summer. Time moves back and forth for the characters, whose lives unfold against the natural but inexorable progression of the seasons. The novel sets up its own tensions between the natural and unnatural, between the aberrations of nature and those of man. What makes the earth unyielding? What aborts life and stunts the growth of nature's offspring? These are the questions explored by the novelist through the marigold imagery and through the pattern of relationships intricately worked out around an act of violence against a child.

Although the Dick-and-Jane and Shirley Temple techniques set up a dichotomy between black experience and white culture, the issue of growth and development set into the framework of the Bildungsroman points to the commonality of human experience. All stages of life from birth to death are engaged. The rite of passage, initiating the young into womanhood at first tenuous and uncertain, is sensitively depicted. We also learn about the beauty and ugliness of the lives of women at the other end of the continuum—old women whose lives "were synthesized in their eyes—a purée of tragedy and humor, wickedness and serenity, truth and fantasy."… The Bluest Eye is an extraordinarily passionate yet gentle work, the language lyrical yet precise—it is a novel for all seasons. (p. 125)

Phyllis R. Klotman, "Dick-and-Jane and the Shirley Temple Sensibility in 'The Bluest Eye'" (© Indiana State University 1979; reprinted with the permission of the author and Indiana State University), in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 13, No. 4, Winter, 1979, pp. 123-25.

Anne Z. Mickelson

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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, violence, the paradox of good and evil, the world of black society: its code, superstitions, plus fable, song, and myth.

The achievement of this novel is its willingness and ability not only to explore these areas in further detail, but to use black folklore, the ready acceptance of the supernatural, and magic as part of black culture. (p. 135)

Many of Morrison's characters in [Song of Solomon] believe in the capacity of the mind to see through the chinks of the cavern—even the money-hungry and materialistic Macon Dead. But it is Macon's sister Pilate who emerges as the most powerful figure in the book with her calm acceptance of this world, as well as of another reality other than the fixed one of the world. She is thoroughly at home with herself, and has the kind of sensibility which is not disturbed by anything she experiences or witnesses. There is something splendidly pagan and primitive about her, and she is represented at the time we first meet her as having the power to evoke from others various reflections of her own kindliness and understanding. Implicitly, the author establishes Pilate's capacity for placing herself in harmony with the laws of the earth and nature. Within the orbit of Morrison's moral vision, these laws have to do with the truths of the human heart. They are the necessity to demonstrate courage, endurance, sympathy, and desire to help others, while surviving with dignity. (p. 136)

The story of Pilate is part of a black family history which spans almost a century of American history. It is given special enrichment through the tracing of many lives. More notably, it forms a fascinating parallel with the odyssey of her nephew Milkman, who is the other chief character in the story. The fullness of the book even incorporates within it an ironic twist on the Faulknerian theme: the collapse of a proud, white Southern family, and the faithful black retainer who continues to serve with humility and devotion. Braided in with the lives of the black people is also a brief story of the decline of a white family whose men killed Pilate's father…. The dominant motif in the book, however, is not revenge, but the proud realization by a black family of who and what they are. Morrison's fiction is the opposite of Richard Wright's in this respect. Where Wright finds no sustaining values in the past of black people, Morrison celebrates the past. Pilate, Macon, and Milkman, whose last name is Dead, did not just drop from nowhere. They go back to a long line of succession. There was a beginning. A source. It is this knowledge which gives them a sense of renewal; even Macon experiences renewal in a small way. (p. 138)

The design of the book is sprawling and the narrative texture depends on a great many cumulative effects. Together with the author's allusions and indirect use of archetypal patterns about Pilate, she never lets us lose sight of the fact that Pilate is a woman grounded firmly in the social reality of black society. Pilate's twenty-year odyssey, and her subsequent life in the small town in which she finally settles not far from her brother (to his rage, embarrassment and shame over her unconventional life), enables the author to move further than in the previous novel in her discussion of black society and women—married and unmarried.

The young Pilate, alone and completely dependent on her own resources, cannot find acceptance…. [Her] life takes on a habitual pattern. She is either asked to leave the community, or she is deserted by these people who simply disappear during the night, since they are migrant workers. Pilate, however, resists any sense of permanent personal displacement. (p. 141)

The writer is careful not to make Pilate into a romantic Pantheist. Hence, we see Pilate appraising her situation, the social scene, and debating the means of personal salvation available to her. She does this with no semblance of self-pity, sentiment, and brooding introspection…. Like Sula, she decides to take "the free fall," but in a different way.

She rejects the traditional image of woman by cutting off her hair, binding it into a turban and wearing clothes functional to her way of life. With two people now to support (daughter and granddaughter), she looks around the social scene, and realizing that throats are thirsty as long as there is prohibition, she becomes a bootlegger, making and selling wine and whiskey. The author stresses that Pilate never loses her humanity, nor debases herself and other women by allowing traffic in women flesh. She only sells wine and whiskey (author's italics). There is no consumption on the premises. Thus Pilate soon enjoys that status so difficult for black women (and white women) to acquire—economic independence. As an economically-independent woman, she is able to function outside of patriarchal values and rise successfully above the social forces which are a constant threat to the black woman. (pp. 141-42)

Interestingly enough, while Morrison presents women who eventually free themselves somehow from an unnatural life, Pilate's daughter and granddaughter are portrayed differently. Although leading a natural life in some respects, they are essentially weak women. (p. 145)

Ironically, Pilate, who is able to break out of the enclosures of conventional thinking and make a brave and happy life for herself, cannot inspire either woman in her house to follow her example. The author tries to get around it by hinting that Reba is somewhat simple-minded, and that Hagar is one of those pretty, spoiled black women who either want to kill or die for love. Perhaps the more plausible answer is that Pilate exercises individual will, whereas the others simply do not.

The explorations of the lives of these women reveal a growth in the author's feminist consciousness not present in the previous novel. Alternatives are possible, says the author, and in the character of Pilate she creates a woman who finds life worth living and lives it. Perhaps, Toni Morrison would not care to be discussed in terms of feminist consciousness, but the fact remains that her depiction of Pilate stresses that Pilate's pattern of living does not follow the achievement pattern associated with successful men. Pilate is always the humanist….

The order of things is questioned and judged not only from social and moral viewpoints, but also from the metaphysical. If Pilate is not accepted by kin and society, she is very much at home with her dead father, who appears before her periodically with advice. One piece of advice is to go back to the cave and collect the bones of the dead man, which she does. It makes for the extraordinary ending to the book: for the bones are really those of her father. Their proper burial adds a note of the classic to the details of family history. (p. 146)

Life and death, then, hold no terrors for Pilate, whose sense of contact with this and other worlds is a natural one. She is able to survive in a society which denies her "partnership in marriage, confessional friendship, and communal religion."… The author concludes her tribute to Pilate by commenting that Pilate makes a life for herself in which for sixty-eight years she has shed no tears since the day Circe offered her white bread and storebought jam. In return for rudeness, she extends politeness, and her concern for troubled people ripens with the years. Yet for some reason, as in Sula, the woman who dares to live by her own rules must die. True, Pilate doesn't disappear from life at the early age that Sula does, but she is rendered with such loving detail that her death from the shot of a black killer comes as a shock to the reader….

Needless to say, in Pilate Morrison finds a powerful voice that fulfills the promise of a personality who has resolved the seminal conflict between the claims of nature and the claims of culture. However, Song of Solomon, unlike the writer's previous novels, gives men a more prominent place, and specifically Milkman, son of Macon Dead and nephew of Pilate. The book is fairly equally divided between the respective journeys of Pilate and Milkman. Both take the standard path of the formula observed in mythology: separation, initiation, and return. The connection with mythology is elusive. (p. 147)

Certainly, one hears overtones of the Jason myth and his quest for the Golden Fleece in Milkman's search for gold and his desertion of Hagar, whose name means to forsake. But, since Morrison is working with a reality of her own which is not primarily connected with logic, science, and related fields, her language is often symbolical, and particularly her use of names….

What we have in Song of Solomon, with Milkman's story, is that constant in American literature—the undertaking of the journey to free oneself. Pilate's efforts to liberate herself from cramped conditions of living are a result of society's rejection of her. Milkman's energies are concentrated on liberating himself from the confining and bitter atmosphere of his father's home, from the role thrust upon him—being his father's flunky—and from the provincial town in which he lives. (p. 148)

Milkman's journey arrests his selfish egotism and puts him on a whole new path of thinking about himself and the world. He learns about isolation, terror, suffering, survival, joy, triumph, and coming together. Though the ending is deliberately ambiguous, because Guitar is waiting for him with a gun, we get a strong feeling that Milkman will live. Pilate has instilled in him the life-affirming principle, and Milkman will be able to return with his newfound knowledge and help others. (p. 149)

Morrison's tracing of Milkman's journey through Pennsylvania and Virginia can be regarded, in many places, as in the tradition of the picaresque, in which each episode brings the protagonist into contact with some aspect of black society. But, in fact, it can more profitably be examined as a journey in which each place becomes a test of character and soul, with the results that the hero grows in understanding as he learns bits of family history and starts piecing it together. History becomes a choral symphony to Milkman, in which each individual voice has a chance to speak and contribute to his growing sense of well-being.

The pattern is something like this. In Reverend Cooper's parsonage, Milkman hears that it was right in this room that Pilate's snuff box was soldered. The information makes him feel "real."… He also learns more details about his grandfather's murder, as well as the fact that the killers were never brought to justice. It forces him to think about justice and injustice, something that as the son of a prosperous black man he has not had much occasion to do. (pp. 150-51)

His next step is to survey the acres which his grandfather cleared single-handed, and which are now as overgrown as his grandfather found them. The sight arouses his admiration and pride in his ancestor and he feels diminished because of the life he has led personally. Later, attacked by black men, he realizes that the flaunting of his prosperity (well-cut suit, expensive luggage, good Scotch) is an affront to those less fortunate than he. Finally, faced with the unknown when he goes on a hunting expedition with older black men, he proves his manhood and achieves harmony with nature and man in the forest.

None of these episodes is fully realized, but they form a chain. Together with Milkman's increasing excited realization that he is no longer on the scent of gold, but looking for his origins, we discover the change from callous, selfish, uncaring man to caring man. In the end, the revelation that the town in which his great grandfather lived had just about everything named after him, and that there is even a legend about his ancester, brings him exultation.

It is this legend surrounded in the romantic myth of man flying which raises some problems for me. The story holds that Milkman's ancestor lifted his arms one day and soared into space toward Africa, leaving wife and twenty children behind…. The effect of the story on Milkman is electrifying: "Oh, man! He didn't need no airplane. He just took off; got fed up. All the way up! (author's italics)…. No more bales!… Nor more shit!… Lifted his beautiful black ass up in the sky and flew on home … and the whole damn town is named after him."…

All of the events of the journey, then, coalesce in a single vision—flying. The black man must fly, thinks Milkman. The book's structure reinforces the idea. It begins with the unsuccessful attempt of a black man to fly on the day Milkman is born, and ends with the story of the successful flight of Milkman's ancestor. A question is inevitable: flight from what, one asks? Poverty? Home? Wife? Children? Yes. It is the traditional poor man's divorce, common in life and in fiction…. It is interesting that Toni Morrison, whose attitude on desertion of family in Sula is uncompromising, should have softened her thinking. (pp. 151-52)

Anne Z. Mickelson, "Winging Upward, Black Women: Sarah E. Wright, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker," in her Reaching Out: Sensitivity and Order in Recent American Fiction by Women (copyright © 1979 by Anne Z. Mickelson), The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1979, pp. 112-74.∗

Jane S. Bakerman

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[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 of all her work is [love]…. Certainly, this theme is evident in The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon, their female characters searching for love, for valid sexual encounters, and, above all, for a sense that they are worthy. (p. 541)

In Toni Morrison's novels, she joins her basic theme with the initiation motif, and the initiation experiences, trying and painful as they are, fail. Pilate invents her own standards and lives almost outside society, a choice which eventually brings tragedy upon her family. Sula rebels and is rejected. Nel marries; Corinthians takes a lover, and both are diminished. Hagar and Pecola attempt to transform themselves; Hagar dies, and Pecola goes mad. All live lives of profound isolation in a society which does not want them. (pp. 542-43)

[The Bluest Eye] is effective because of the importance of its theme and the skill with which the inevitability of the failed initiation is developed through the compelling foreshadowing encounters. This device keeps the story convincing even while distancing Pecola from the reader, perhaps the final dramatization of her hopelessness and her eventual ostracism from a society which would rather destroy than accept her.

Though the initiations of Sula Peace and Nel Wright also fail, Sula differs from The Bluest Eye in both complexity and the assignment of responsibility. Here, while it is still made clear that Sula and Nel are undervalued and that their families legislate toward the initiation failure, both girls make specific decisions and choices which also contribute. Pecola struggles with the fate assigned to her; Sula and Nel help to choose their fates.

Like The Bluest Eye, Sula is highly episodic, and flashbacks dramatize the damage done to adult family members who influence and shape Sula and Nel. In Sula, as in The Bluest Eye, the protagonists undergo a series of experiences, each incorporating racial and sexual overtones, but here the encounters fall into two categories: those undergone individually and those suffered together. The division is important, for the experiences within the families have made the girls what they are as individuals; the experiences outside the families, all shared, indicate one of Morrison's most important points in the novel—the personalities of Sula and of Nel, could they have been merged, would have amounted to one whole person.

Just as their friendship is essential to their well-being as children, so would their learning from one another's faults have made them adult women capable of well-being. The real tragedy in Sula is that Nel and Sula are unable to learn that lesson; their friendship ruptures and they live isolated, frustrated lives. The interrelationship of the girls' personalities, symbolized by their friendship, and the recurring sexual and racial themes provide unity; the results are powerful and effective. (pp. 548-49)

Separated by Nel's resolution to settle for respectable calm, both women live lives of desperate isolation; Sula becomes the scapegoat for the town's ills; Nel lives a cold, severely respectable life as a put-upon woman. Symbolically, neither ever achieves a truly sustaining sexual union. When, finally, they do meet again, for Nel, meeting with the dying Sula is merely a part of her "respectable" role; they converse, but they do not come together, and it takes still longer for Nel to realize that the great loss she has suffered is really the destruction of their friendship, the one chance they had to learn to be full, complete women.

Sula, a more multifaceted book than The Bluest Eye, uses the maturation story of Sula and Nel as the core of a host of other stories, but it is the chief unification device for the novel and achieves its own unity, again, through the clever manipulation of the themes of sex, race, and love. Morrison has undertaken a more difficult task in Sula. Unquestionably, she has succeeded.

Song of Solomon is a somewhat more hopeful book than The Bluest Eye or Sula; Milkman's quest is ironically successful, and this note of modified hope is echoed in the female initiation patterns in that one of them leads to happiness—at least temporary happiness—for the initiated, First Corinthians Dead. Morrison reveals her admirable tendency to adapt rather than to adopt traditional patterns in these initiation stories by delaying the initiations of both Corinthians and her cousin, Hagar Dead, until the women are well beyond their teens; Corinthians is in her forties; Hagar is in her thirties. The device is successful, indicating the extreme difficulty of the black woman's search for self-determination, and certainly the results of these initiations underscore that point.

The initiation of Pilate Dead, however, takes place during her adolescence, as is traditional. During the main action of Song of Solomon, Pilate, aunt of the protagonist, Milkman, has no real identity at all, and in a long flashback, Morrison reveals the reasons for this lack as she recounts Pilate's initiation experiences. Pilate has never known her mother's name, and her father's, that of the first Macon Dead (Milkman's grandfather), was invented by a careless, belittling white official. (pp. 553-54)

[Pilate] painfully learns that she is not welcome in any community…. Twice, she joins bands of pickers and gets on well with them until she takes lovers who report that she has no navel. Taking the lack to be a sign that she is unnatural, the groups expel her. When she finds a haven on an isolated island off the coast of Virginia, she contrives to conceal her belly from her lover, and after their baby is born, refuses to marry him, reasoning that she cannot hide her lack of a navel from a husband forever. She is cut off from permanent sexual commitment, a symbol in Morrison's work for fruitful maturity….

Pilate's initiation is complete; she has learned the lessons of the world. She knows the danger of the white world because it blew her father off the fence; she has learned that the black world cannot or will not truly accept her. Being strong, she undertakes, then to build a world of her own….

But Pilate's place within those boundaries is marginal; she is the black district's bootlegger, and people come to her house for goods, not for companionship. Her world is both huge and small…. It is small in that it includes almost no people except her daughter, Reba; her granddaughter, Hagar—and her father's ghost; "'I seen him since he was shot…. It's a good feelin to know he's around. I tell you he's a person I can rely on. I tell you something else. He's the only one'."… Her father's spirit becomes the source of the wisdom around which she constructs her life. (pp. 555-56)

Pilate does not really understand her father's messages at all; she cannot because she does not know her family history. The self-definition she builds, the world view she constructs based upon his advice keeps her sane and active, but it further isolates her, cuts her off from her community. Pilate's initiation has failed because her family have not been able to equip her for success, and the resulting singularity also colors and controls the lives of her daughter and granddaughter. The failure of Pilate's way of life foreshadows Hagar's tragedy. (p. 556)

It is significant that Hagar's single act of rebellion takes place during Milkman's first visit to her home, for he is responsible for her long delayed initiation. The cousins become lovers and remain lovers for years. For Hagar, the commitment is absolute …; Milkman represents something of her own, and he also represents a regulated life quite different, potentially, from the careless, disorganized life of her family. But Milkman never considers Hagar seriously as a mate, and he finally breaks off the affair.

With nothing on earth to cling to but her concept of herself as Milkman's lover, Hagar fails her initiation test. She sees herself only as she imagines he sees her and comes to doubt her own very great beauty. In her view, that is the one means she has to hold Milkman, and holding Milkman is the only thing worth doing. When she comes to believe that he prefers another kind of beauty, she has nothing, and she determines to kill him. (pp. 557-58)

All her life Hagar has known (as all of Southside knows) that the white community has no use for her; all her life she has known that she is only marginally tolerated by the black community. For a time, she has believed that her beauty, passion, and desirability were the keys to a life structured around Milkman. When he rejects her, when it is time for her to initiate herself into a life of her own, she cannot, and when even violence fails her (her attempts to murder Milkman abort), she decides to transform herself. She intends to sacrifice her one great asset, her beauty, to change herself into the kind of woman Milkman will love and value forever. Even this attempt, impassioned, chaotic, and pitiful as it is, fails, and in the process, Hagar becomes fatally ill. She cannot possibly succeed because nothing in her life has prepared her to define herself; she cannot succeed even in imitating Milkman's "real" girl friends because nothing in her background arouses in him a sense of her true value. There remains nothing else for her to do but to die.

At first glance, the story of Milkman's sister, First Corinthians Dead, seems to be a sharp contrast to the tragic story of Hagar, her cousin, though like Hagar's initiation, Corinthians' is delayed until late in her life, and also like Hagar's, it centers around her willingness to meet the needs of a man. But unlike Hagar, Corinthains manages the accommodation. (pp. 559-60)

Her most important test comes when she meets and falls in love with Henry Porter, who does yard work for a living. The pair date like teenagers, but Porter never meets the Deads; Corinthians dreads her father's reaction…. Eventually, Porter forces the issue, telling Corinthians that she must defy her father or give up her lover. When Corinthians makes her choice, she does so by subjugating and humiliating herself completely…. (p. 561)

Once her choice is made, Corinthians is happy with it; she suppresses the hatred born of shame…. She even summons the courage to move away from the Deads' home and into a place she and Porter share. The sexual phase of her initiation, like the economic phase, seems to be acceptable to her, given the fact that she can make the necessary accommodations. And there is one further factor here. In a very real way, Corinthians has rejected her father's false values, values assumed and copied from whites, by embracing Porter, for Porter also has a secret life. He is one of the Seven Days, a band of black men who avenge their race every time the white community murders a black. (p. 562)

Song of Solomon, then, offers three portraits of women whose initiation experiences fail because their families have not prepared them for the transition into fruitful maturity. Each of the three defines herself only according to the standards and desires of a beloved man: Pilate lives her entire life under her misapprehension of her father's messages; Hagar dies because she cannot be the kind of woman Milkman desires; and Corinthians abandons the self-image she has cherished for a lifetime to find menial work in a white-controlled world and to find sexual release with a man who demands that she submit completely. Of the three, only Corinthians has any chance for even modified happiness. Corinthians' slim chance makes Song of Solomon Morrison's least despairing portrait of the black woman's condition. At best, this note of hope is muted.

In her fiction, then, Morrison has united her theme, the explorations of love, and a traditional device, the initiation motif, along with a series of brilliantly dramatized foreshadowing events, skillfully made frames, and splendid characterizations. The resulting novels are compelling statements of the failure of human values. The inversion of a traditional motif—that is, the treatment of failed initiations—is successful, its effect devastating. The achievement is remarkable, making it clear that Toni Morrison is, indeed, a major American novelist. (p. 563)

Jane S. Bakerman, "Failures of Love: Female Initiation in the Novels of Toni Morrison," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1981 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. 52, No. 4, January, 1981, pp. 541-63.

Webster Schott

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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 attitude at nearly every turn of her story. She wonders about the sacrifice of love, the effects of racial integration, the intention of chartity. Continually she questions both the logic and morality of seeking happiness or what Freud said passes for it, freedom from pain, by living in social accommodation. Although Morrison tells a love story—indeed, she tells two or three stories about love—her narrative lines run to complexities far beyond those of physical or emotional bonding….

Tar Baby opens as a black American merchant sailor jumps his Swedish ship and swims toward Isle des Chevaliers, a Haitian island owned by a handful of U.S. millionaires…. He tells Valerian Street, the 75-year-old imperious Philadelphia candy king, whose retirement retreat he invades, that his name is William Green. But he calls himself Son.

Son fascinates Morrison. He personifies freedom. She says he comes from that "great underclass of undocumented men … day laborers and musclemen, gamblers, sidewalk merchants, migrants … part-time mercenaries, full-time gigolos, or curbside musicians," all distinguished by "their refusal to equate work with life and an inability to stay anywhere for long."…

Part of Morrison's attraction to Son is literary fantasy. She sees him as kin to Huck Finn or Nigger Jim, Caliban or John Henry, and other mythic wayfarers. But mostly, I think, Morrison sees Son as the official heroic black male. Son doesn't jive or wear gold chains. He is proud of his farmer father. He jumps ship because he is homesick for Eloe, Florida. His yearnings are toward his sources, not a future of assimilation.

Son also thinks black woman, not white, and finds her at Valerian Street's estate. He gets her—for a while, anyway—after turning the established order upside down. (p. 1)

While it's not clear why the family fight drives Jadine into Son's arms, Morrison wills it. Perhaps it's because Jadine sees "savannas in his eyes." The pair flee to New York. Jadine tries to remake Son into an upwardly mobile black male. He takes her to his beginnings in Eloe, where rooms have no windows, unmarried couples don't sleep in the same bed, and Son takes orders from his father, "Old Man." The bond breaks. Jadine heads for Paris by way of Isle des Chevaliers. Son comes back too late, bounding through the beach trees like a god, "Lickety-lickety-lickety split."

There is so much that is good, sometimes dazzling, about Tar Baby—poetic language (despite pathetic fallacies), arresting images, fierce intelligence—that after climbing past the stereotyped marriage of Valerian and Margaret Street, one becomes entranced by Toni Morrison's story. The settings are so vivid the characters must be alive. The emotions they feel are so intense they must be real people.

The ideas Morrison suggests—that blacks seek ways to hate whites, that black people cannot be fully human on white values, that integration is another way of control, that physical prowess is embedded in black masculinity are arguable enough to keep you awake at night.

But something is missing in Tar Baby. It's a credible set of motives. Would a penniless, homesick Son jump ship in the Caribbean to get back to Florida and then head first to New York? Would Jadine drop 25 years of rearing, education, and conscience for a semi-literate she knew two weeks and slept with, perhaps, twice? Would a manipulator and observer as shrewd as Valerian Street miss the signs that his only child was verging on psychosis, and do nothing? Margaret's explanation for torturing her child is no explanation; she had a maid to soften the impact of child-rearing. Logic takes flight in Tar Baby.

To believe Toni Morrison's characters isn't to believe their dramatic behavior. They are real people—in a story. The reason we can't credit their behavior is because, except for the most minor of figures, their actions are determined by Morrison's convictions, not their histories. Such is the curse of novels of ideas. (pp. 1-2)

Webster Schott, "Toni Morrison: Tearing the Social Fabric," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981 The Washington Post), March 22, 1981, pp. 1-2.

John Irving

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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 their place, they grow quietly and uncomplainingly old….

They also provide Miss Morrison with an opportunity to exercise her considerable gift for dialogue; this old couple's conversation is sparkling and through it the reader learns the circumstances of Valerian's retirement to the Caribbean. It is both his and his wife's sorrow that their only son won't share this paradise (the mystery of the novel, and it's a gruesome mystery, is why the son, Michael, stays away)….

In "Tar Baby" Toni Morrison lavishes her strongest prose on descriptions of nature….

At times this effort to see the world from nature's point of view seems precious, even cute …, but the richness of the best of these passages (a description of the death of a river, for example) makes Miss Morrison's excesses tolerable.

Less tolerable, however, is her excessive use of dialogue: too much of the story is told through dialogue—and not only through the old couple's conversations. Their niece, Jadine, a super-educated, super-beautiful young woman, a Paris model who "made those white girls disappear. Just disappear right off the page," has a love affair with an escaped criminal, a poor, uneducated north Florida black. This affair is the book's erotic and dramatic center. Jadine and her lover Son (his father was called Old Man) passionately and violently debate the best way for blacks to be independent of the white man's world. Their arguments are lengthy and become tedious, but they vividly expose the novel's racial tensions….

What's so powerful, and subtle, about Miss Morrison's presentation of the tension between blacks and whites is that she conveys it almost entirely through the suspicions and prejudices of her black characters. It is the white world that has created this, and in the constant warring between Sydney, Ondine and Jadine, and between Jadine and Son, Miss Morrison uncovers all the stereotypical racial fears felt by whites and blacks alike. Like any ambitious writer, she's unafraid to employ these stereotypes—she embraces the representative quality of her characters without embarrassment, then proceeds to make them individuals too. (p. 30)

"Tar Baby" is, of course, a black novel, a novel deeply perceptive of the black's desire to create a mythology of his own to replace the stereotypes and myths the white man has constructed for him. It is also a book about a woman's anger at—and her denial of—her need for an impossible man, and in this regard it is a woman's novel too…. Yet Toni Morrison's greatest accomplishment is that she has raised her novel above the social realism that too many black novels and women's novels are trapped in. She has succeeded in writing about race and women symbolically….

Some readers will find the overlapping narrative structure an irritation; this is one of the problems with Miss Morrison's dependence on dialogue to advance and fill in the story. Some readers may resist the movement toward myth in the book's deliberately symbolic ending—and some complaints, some wish to know more concretely what happens, may be justified….

But Toni Morrison is less interested in the final details of her characters lives than she is interested in demonstrating the vast discrepancies between the places black people end up and the places they seek. (p. 31)

John Irving, "Morrison's Black Fable," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 29, 1981, pp. 1, 30-1.

Rosellen Brown

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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 inventive drive that carries us forward is as great as it has been in Morrison's three previous novels. Even more brilliant are the candor and complexity with which Morrison sets forth the dilemmas of co-opted blackness. There is not a shade missing on her spectrum, from the untainted and aboriginal … through small-town, old-time piety, big-city manners, to the sophisticated corruption of Jadine, who wears good boots and take's pictures of the down-home children that make them look as stupid as she thinks they are.

A new myth is being forged, and, like all myths, it is meant to be both an explanation and an exhoriation. But the myth-maker in this case, having set down so indelibly deep pain and confusion, in her anger and hope adopts the tone of the scold more often than that of the prophet. The judgments on these characters have been made; in fact, the characters themselves turn out, disappointingly, only to serve single ulterior purposes.

A simplifying grid has been laid across their vital independent lives, and it ends by covering over too many fine lines and intricate shadings.

Toni Morrison has made herself into the D. H. Lawrence of the black psyche, transforming individuals into forces, idiosyncrasy into inevitability. Along the way, Tar Baby has yielded up, for the sake of its grand scheme, some of the irreducible mystery, the fluidity of Morrison's best work.

Rosellen Brown, "Grits and Grace," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1981, by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 14, No. 15, April 13, 1981, p. 42.

Darryl Pinckney

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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 minds…. All are haunted by recurring opaque dreams, by memories of what they have lost, renounced. Inner monologues drift through the heat; themes are pulled out and rummaged through like the many clothes in the several closets. Everyone is poised for a dramatic happening. The table has been set for a troubled Christmas in the sun.

Michael, the prodigal son, does not show up for the holiday feast. But—guess who's coming for dinner—a dirty, hungry black man with "dreadlocks," discovered hiding out in Margaret's closet, is invited by Valerian to eat and drink, much to the consternation of everyone else. His presence confuses further the already tense, tangled relations in the house. (p. 24)

Picking out what happens in Tar Baby is like trying to keep one's balance in a swamp. The writing is so elaborate that it distracts and obscures. Many labored metaphors and phrases that are not quite true images occur….

Imposing human qualities on inanimate objects does not make Isle des Chevaliers more interesting or more deeply felt. The narrative often conveys the thoughts of the characters in the same manner, which only serves to make their feelings indecipherable.

The attempt to evoke unknown places poetically and to suffuse the work with a feeling of myth and magic suggests the high, assertive styles of such writers as Carpentier, Asturias, or Marquez. But the language of Tar Baby is, at best, strained, and the convoluted verbal conjurings make for a tone that is overreaching, taxing to the ear….

It is hard to know what Morrison means by [her allusions to the tar baby myth], difficult to decide what her characters represent. In anthropological studies such as those of Melville Herskovits one finds that a tar baby is a monster who stalks the woods near plantations, preying on children. Tar Baby is also the subject of a well-known folk tale about a trickster thief who gets trapped in his own snare. Both are applicable to this novel—perhaps. Folklore, of a kind, has always percolated through Morrison's work.

Many of Morrison's previous concerns are here—having to do with the inner life of black women and especially the offhand, domestic violence and conjugal brutality that burn out daily life. Much of the recent fiction by Afro-American women contains these themes. Their message is new and arresting, as if, in the past, the worries of the kitchen or the bedroom were not sufficiently large to encompass the intense lives of black people in a racist society. But Tar Baby's sense of such experience is inchoate, muffled. One wishes for the fierce concentration, the radical economy of the novels of Gayl Jones as they describe the inner world of black women in language that is harsh, disturbing, and utterly unsentimental. (p. 25)

Darryl Pinckney, "Every Which Way," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 7, April 30, 1981, pp. 24-5.

Susan Lydon

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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, between blacks and whites, and between the younger and older generation of blacks. The theme of racial tension underlies the book like a bedrock, anchoring it firmly in reality despite her sometimes silly fights of fantasy….

An orphan, Jadine was raised by her aunt and uncle Sydney and Ondine Childs, lifelong servants to an eccentric white couple named Valerian and Margaret Street, who have retired to an estate on an obscure Caribbean island. During her visit, the madness that passes for everyday life between the Streets (who have educated Jadine in the finest schools) and the elder Childs is interrupted by the intrusion of an American black man named Son….

Morrison deftly draws the parallel between sexism and racism; Jadine's only choice is which trap to fall into. (p. 40)

Something in Jadine's refusal to submit to Son diminishes her as a woman. In her assimilation into white culture has she lost so much of her connection to her roots, abdicated so much of her responsibility to her people, that she must spend her life with a white man who sends her a coat made from the skins of brutally slaughtered baby seals? The recurrence of such violent images underscores the theme of racism, and its parallel to sexism. Jadine is trapped by both, and she is pursued by inner demons: the women who haunt her dreams, offering their breasts to her, the feeling that she can't compete with the "statewide pussy" of Son's former wife. Jadine is neither black woman nor white woman; the subservience of her aunt and uncle to their white employers is as much an impossibility for her as the militance Son wishes upon her. Michael, the forever absentee son of the Streets, has encouraged her to have political consciousness, but she is hopelessly vain and self-centered. And where, in reality, is there for her to go?

In Emma Bovary's time it was society that limited women. When oppression has become internalized, as it has in the women who fear success and the realization of their own power, society no longer needs to impose explicit external limitations. Jadine has been educated to think like a man; yet she is unable to live like a man without forgetting her ancient properties. Here the ironic detachment of the novelist mirrors the detachment which has served as a survival tool through generations of oppression. Morrison offers no options for her heroine; in fact she is a good deal more sympathetic to Son, who is one of the most fully rendered, sexy, interesting male characters I've encountered in a woman's novel for quite some time. Son adores Jadine; with the respectful love of, say, John Lennon for Yoko Ono. But Son's love makes demands on Jadine that she is unable to fulfill without losing herself. Who is the tar baby in the title?… This is an unresolved mystery of the book, whose strength ultimately lies not in its story, but in the vitality of Morrison's prose: the voice of the matriarch survivor…. [Her] prose is extravagant and rich, informed by a femaleness as mysterious as the story, and as fecund as the Caribbean island on which it takes place. Perhaps what Morrison tells us about Jadine is that she is no longer either female enough or black enough, culturally speaking, to retain this power. (p. 41)

Susan Lydon, "What's an Intelligent Woman to Do?" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice (and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1981), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 27, July 1-7, 1981, pp. 40-1.∗

Pearl K. Bell

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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 first time—Valerian Street, the wealthy candy manufacturer who paid for Jadine's education, and his wife Margaret, a former Miss Maine with a terrible secret…. [Valerian is] self-mocking, quirky, and generous to a fault—a tyrant with a heart of tarnished gold—and Miss Morrison's portrait of the old man shuttles so erratically between fondness and outrage that he is hard to place in her moral scheme….

The racial and cultural tensions in Tar Baby are played out mainly in the fiery love affair between Jadine and a black fugitive called Son, who opens the can of worms at the heart of Valerian's household, and by implication at the heart of white society as well. In an unrelenting tirade which summons up memories of the black-power assaults on white America in the 60's and which puts no distance between character and author, Son pours out his wrath on the white barbarians….

Son's very name implies that the continuity of the black people, as Miss Morrison sees it, can survive only by resisting every white encroachment on its wholeness.

Though Miss Morrison tries to dramatize the lovers' irreconcilable views, one senses a good deal of ambivalence and evasiveness beneath her uncompromising racial severity, and this may explain the pointless extravagance of her style in Tar Baby, which leans heavily on the pathetic fallacy…. After a while the incessant anthropomorphizing of nature becomes grotesque. (p. 57)

Even the title of Tar Baby contributes to the underlying confusion of Miss Morrison's story, her failure to consider the way a metaphor can mislead. In the Uncle Remus story, a tar baby is the black doll a white farmer puts into the cabbage patch to trap the thieving rabbit. As Son hurls the tale at his lover's head in their final quarrel, Valerian becomes the white man who made tar baby Jadine—but how, then, does Son stand for the rabbit who outsmarts the farmer and runs away? Why does he desperately try to find Jadine after she runs back to Paris? None of this makes much sense, and perhaps Miss Morrison had nothing more allusive in mind than the blackness and stickiness of tar, which will cling to Jadine no matter how completely she imagines herself accepted in the white world. It is a depressing judgment, but Tar Baby does not convince us that it must be true. (pp. 57-8)

Pearl K. Bell, "Self-Seekers," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 72, No. 2, August, 1981, pp. 56-60.∗

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