Toni Morrison's Contributions to American Literature
Disclaimer: This dissertation has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional dissertation writers. You can view samples of our professional work here.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.
Chapter One: Toni Morrison's Contribution to American Literature
Paradoxically, immortality is not achieved through the defeat of biological death, but rather through the indomitability of the spirit, which leaves behind the fruits of wisdom and humanity, putting forevermore things in a different perspective for generations to come. This, however, is not a smooth and linear process and nor does it leave one untransformed. Referring to the motto above, Toni Morrison's lifelong work has been an accurate reflection of her and her race's upheaval. Albeit she fictionalizes her novels to a great extent, her work does not fail to constitute a palindromic iteration of her thoughts, feelings, and experiences - felt both directly and vicariously. To be more precise, if we overlook the minute details of her novels, one cannot tell where her fiction ends and her life begins, or vice-versa: they read the same, regardless of whether we “read” them from fiction to reality or from reality to fiction. This mirror in which Toni Morrison sees herself - and whose projections “fall” on the surface of our own interpretations and are thusly decoded and re-encoded - is not hung there for the purpose of throwing vanity glances; instead she uses it to question the endlessness of possibilities and that of answers to such broad questions as those relating to racism in the U.S. or to an idealistic state of affairs.
My books are always questions for me. What if? How does it feel to...? Or what would it look like if you took racism out? Or what does it look like if you have the perfect town, everything you ever wanted? And so you ask a question, put it in a time when it would be theatrical to ask, and find the people who can articulate it for you and try to make them interesting. The rest of it is all structure, how to put it together. (Rustin)
Timing is of immediate importance, as Toni Morrison herself points out, especially since her debut novel appeared on the cusp of the civil rights and feminist movement: a time of great transformations and unparalleled historical significance. She times the appearance of The Bluest Eye so well that its impact reverberates strongly into the present. This is no wonder since her writing is not intended to cater for the general masses, nor does it follow the narrow furrows and strictures of fiction writing which are usually implicitly understood. The importance of her work does not only extend along the dimension of aesthetic value: her work is not cathartic in the sense of presenting true beauty loftily idealized; instead she endows her fictional voices with daring, cunning, resolve, resilience; they are often the loud or muffled voices of the surprisingly articulate and heart-rending insane, the latter perversion of mind being perceived in relation with mind-numbing senseless conformity. One may never tell where artistry begins and ends and to what extent her literary offerings will shape future mentalities, but one thing is for sure: her unquenchable thirst for racial justice and her innovative techniques will never cease to challenge our take on things.
If only to weave a flimsy mesh of interpretation around Toni Morrison's undeniably invaluable contribution on American literature and beyond, a closer scrutiny of her work would be most auspicious, especially if we proceed along the lines of racial formation, the importance of family and community, identity, conformity, independence, allegiance, displacement and all the binaries therefrom.
Racial Formation and Toni Morrison's Literary Manifest
Racial formation never has never been and never will be (one could safely imagine) a smooth and linear phenomenon of innocuous application. Not only that, but never has there been a time in American history when race wasn't a troublesome matter, from the initial clash between the early settlers who achieved the “conquest of paradise” and the native population, through every aspect of affirmative action, to present frictions with and around immigrants and the border (i.e. with Mexico), all still wrapped in the warm blanket of the American covenant.
The exodus of people crossing the ocean has always been a defining feature of the rugged American fabric and trouble and tension an inherent aftermath, for as Thomas Sowell puts it:
The peopling of America is one of the great dramas in all human history. Over the years, the massive stream of humanity—45 million people—crossed every ocean and continent to reach the United States. They came speaking every language and representing every nationality, race, and religion. (qtd. in Girgus 64)
Even though noble rank has been outlawed by the very Constitution of the United States, this does not necessarily ensure the homogeneity of multiethnicity. The social tension described by American sociologist Thomas Sowell and quoted by Sam B. Girgus in “The New Ethnic Novel and the American Idea” is that caused by the conflicting values brought to the American land, together with languages, customs, and, more importantly, creeds and moral values that this veritable Tower of Babel is still finding very difficult to take in and transform into a meld of acceptable conformity. A tendency existed and steeply evolved in the not very long course of American history to assert the superiority of the Aryan waspish faction of the American nation over all other non-Aryan groups. Since the budding nation's ideals have always been slightly adumbrated by the skulking presence of slavery, the African-American paradigm of socio-cultural and political struggle has been conferred upon special significance and attention.
As such, the status of African-Americans has undergone severe and painful shifts, from the moment they were brought to America as slaves, until at least quite recently.
These days, the life of African-Americans in the United States is undoubtedly improved, a fact which can easily be proven by the recent election of the first “black” president in the entire history of this country. Not only at the highest level, but in all walks of life evidence exists of inclusion in the earnest of members of society belonging to the African-American race.
Albeit banned on some level - for instance Executive Order 8802 issued by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt banned outright discrimination in the case of jobs related to the federal government and defence contractors - open discrimination continued throughout the decades, the segregation and gerrymandering trailing for many decades. Several boiling pressures, however, undermined these discriminatory tactics, such as the Brown vs. Board of Education of 1954 or the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. These and other actions precipitated the adoption of affirmative action, a bomb which exploded in the face of Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who had to make efforts to redress these social injustices through - as some like to call it - “positive” or “reverse” discrimination, in spite of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, a veritable gem of rhetoric. His world-famous 1963 I Have a Dream speech is a watershed moment not only for the Civil Rights Movement - a cause that is brilliantly, persuasively and most important, peacefully championed - but for every group that during the course of (American) history had been discriminated against. In it he advocates equality and fraternity, the vital prerequisites of coexistence in a sphere so decidedly multiethnic that, as Herman Melville phrases it, “You can not spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world.” (qtd. in Girgus 65).
The attitude taken by American people concerning the preference for or against affirmative action is linked to what everyone was educated to believe. The factor that leaves the greatest imprint on our mind is education and the vehicles for achieving this, such as literature, films, and other media, to say nothing of standardized school curricula and society at large. It is the first of these vehicles that will be investigated in what follows, tracing Toni Morrison's efforts as an epitomic endeavour, in order to isolate its influence on our belief system, values and life choices. Significantly, an original national literature was the first mark of America's declaration of independence from Europe's influence and the African-American one the declaration of independence from “white” hegemony.
Benjamin Franklin believed that “A good example is the best sermon” (qtd. in Marcovitz 55), while Emerson, the father of transcendentalism urged the American people to be self-reliant above all. Though a maverick at heart throughout his entire glorious existence - which, while dappled with tragedy, his work has been no less prolific in spite of all his hardships and his originality, humour and unmatched industriousness - Mark Twain, The Father of American Literature, has been a most controversial and compliant figure (only in the sense of providing such an inspiring string of examples in the sense of self-reliance) in his time and continues to be so even today. If at first his masterpiece - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - was criticized for the language and subject matter by both his contemporaries and later admirers (Ernest Hemingway would provide a notable example) for being trite and vulgar and even excoriated by public libraries such as the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts or New York's Brooklyn Public Library, recent controversy has been focused around racial matters. Critics are split between those regarding the portrayal of Jim as disparaging and as a consequence offensive and those who find Jim's superstitious behaviour to be an indication of an alternative perception of our bond with nature, or a more powerful connection with our spiritual side, to say nothing of the steep dissonance between the Waspish past and the politically correct present.
In Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is analysed from the perspective of the importance of the Africanist presence, a presence much silenced and only timidly analyzed for decades. Discussed in terms of socio-historic development, the distinction between “black” and “white” themed by Twain's novel reaches a peak in the mid-nineteenth century, as evidenced in Toni Morrison's interpretation. This can be verified by the juxtaposition between Jim's utter love for his masters and the “baroque” (Morrison 57) torture Huck and Tom subject him to. The “white” line of argumentation is brilliantly outlined in Mark Twain's masterpiece and shrewdly detected by Morrison, who finds Jim “unassertive, loving, irrational, passionate, dependent, inarticulate”, which is exactly how the “others” are perceived. The religious, scientific, political, cultural and societal practices were so fashioned around the time when Mark Twain lived as to legitimate slavery and abuse. Starting from the assertion that white people around Jim seek forgiveness and supplication - veritable keystone concepts in Christian religions which, however, did not extend to everyone, considering the hovering doubt about the existence of the soul of the “others”, they (i.e. religions through their cloistered leaders) instead providing convenient ways for turning a blind eye on slavery and even extermination - on condition that he accept his inferiority. Thus, she argues, only a representative of the African-American race could have been painfully humiliated by children after being presented as a father and an adult, while no one, not even a white convict, could have been submitted to this kind of treatment.
Toni Morrison's discourse is by no means vituperative: she does not intend any reversed oppression through her writing, either in Playing in the Dark or in any of her works of fiction. However, her writing is so compelling that when Beloved does not win her the National Book Award, as many as forty-eight African-American authors and critics write to the New York Times claiming her literary prowess, which afterwards earns her the laurels of the Pulitzer Prize, and rightly so. Her lack of bias is evident when she praises the former President Bill Clinton calling him the “'first black President', since he displayed 'almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas'” (Cooke), while her discursive equanimity can be traced from the way she analyses the Africanist presence in literature and the way it is regarded from the perspective of its relationship to mainstream literature and criticism:
Like thousands of avid but nonacademic readers, some powerful literary critics in the United States have never read, and are proud to say so, any African-American text. It seems to have done them no harm, presented them with no discernible limitations in the scope of their work or influence. I suspect, with much evidence to support the suspicion, that they will continue to flourish without any knowledge whatsoever of African-American literature. (Playing in the Dark 13)
While she does not wish to challenge or criticise anyone for their views and choices, Toni Morrison cannot bear to look the other way when the literary Jim Crow era is still so fiercely enforced. That it might be convenient for anyone to ignore any slice of reality or exclude any of the fibres in the fabric of a nation is quite obvious, and while this approach does not impair our intellect, it does however limit our understanding. This selective interpretation of things which leaves Africanist representation in a cone of darkness is especially significant, since it underpins racism and it bolsters its moral justification, especially along the lines of racial formation: a deeply-seated phenomenon which pervades every aspect of life in America and a very hurtful process for those slighted by it. The relevance of racial formation is underscored throughout Toni Morrison's work and, in their extensive study entitled Racial Formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, the two American sociologists who developed racial formation theory, argue that race is an artificial concept, because the bases according to which any particular individual can be labelled as “white”, “black”, and so on, may start from certain biological traits, but race transcends these. To illustrate the point, a person of “mixed blood” is considered from the point of view of North American and then Latin American racial identification whereby the same categorization would have the same individual first “black” and then unable to “pass” as “black”. At the other extreme, Brazilian legislation is willing to accept the assignation of several racial categories to various members of the same family.
In addition to being intricate and far-reaching, these considerations help provide grounding for our study of Toni Morrison's work and its impact on American literature and even life in America and also help account for the perception of other races by the early settlers, whose religious and even scientific tenets had to be broached to accommodate these “new” categories, such as the “noble savage,” and dispute the very existence of their soul. This blatant dismissal of a person's soul based solely on the abstract and arbitrary consideration of race is an outrage that Toni Morrison starkly exposes in Beloved, about which Susanna Rustin comments the following in “The Guardian”:
It is a novel of unspeakable horrors. But even more than the physical brutality, Morrison confronts us with the irreparable harm done by what Margaret Atwood described in a review as "one of the most viciously antifamily institutions human beings have ever devised", a system that sought to deprive human beings of what it is that makes them human. (Rustin)
Sethe, her heroine, learns the truth and is shocked to realise that her masters, whom she is so devoted to, are taught to distinguish between her human and animal characteristics, which means, in other words, that she is but a soulless beast of burden.
That's when I stopped because I heard my name, and then I took a few steps to where I could see what they was doing. Schoolteacher was standing over one of them with one hand behind his back. He licked a forefinger a couple of times and turned a few pages. Slow.
I was about to turn around and keep on my way to where the muslin was, when I heard him say, "No, no. That's not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don't forget to line them up." I commenced to walk backward, didn't even look behind me to find out where I was headed.
I just kept lifting my feet and pushing back. When I bumped up against a tree my scalp was prickly. [...] Flies settled all over your face, rubbing their hands.
My head itched like the devil. Like somebody was sticking fine needles in my scalp. I never told Halle or nobody. (Beloved 224)
This episode in Sethe's existence can never be erased nor her pain alleviated. The suffering she is caused is absolute and boundless. Her feelings of outrage surge like torrents in her brain and she feels utterly discombobulated. This memory will forever haunt her; it will shape her future and her attitude towards life, her behaviour towards her children, and it will serve as a constantly open wound. What's even more tragic is that this mind-boggling injustice spared no one: men, women, or children.
Remembering his own price, down to the cent, that schoolteacher was able to get for him, he wondered what Sethe's would have been.
What had Baby Suggs' been? How much did Halle owe, still, besides his labor? What did Mrs. Garner get for Paul F? More than nine hundred dollars? How much more? Ten dollars? Twenty? Schoolteacher would know. He knew the worth of everything. It accounted for the real sorrow in his voice when he pronounced Sixo unsuitable. (266)
Proceeding along these lines of dehumanization, monetary worth is assigned to each individual and that is the extent of one's value when assessed by the slave owner. Reality is raw, harsh, and beyond shocking, but sugar-coating it would not help if we are to learn the truth about racism and racial formation. The accuracy of Toni Morrison's writing - in spite of the degree of fictionalization - is the keystone of her discourse. It is her head-on confrontation of the underlying reality that lends Toni Morrison her uniqueness and that has earned her - in equal measure - respect and criticism.
Despite the narrative voices that assert their own individuality in Toni Morrison's works, Sam B. Girgus comments on present-day African-American literary discourse, finding it too elaborate, and somewhat digressive to the detriment of thematic concerns such as the daily life, values, sorrows, tragedies, successes, woes, accomplishments, and so forth. He argues his point by referring to African-American writers Toni Morrison and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
...both Morrison and Gates typify qualities of ethnicity that are common to many of the writers in the literary and cultural renaissance under discussion. They all write in English even when extolling a particular vernacular speech, dialect, or region. They are all extremely sophisticated artists who use the most complex modern and postmodern techniques to convey their highly individualized visions of experience. Although rooted in ethnic communities and concrete historic situations, their works as cultural artifacts and products are nevertheless aspects of complicated technological and bureaucratic systems of cultural and social production that often differ from the language, values, and daily life of the cultures for which they speak. (Girgus 61)
This may be so if we for instance pick up Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-awarded novel Beloved where we find passages of stream of consciousness, dialectal dialogue, flashbacks from the past and the conflation of past and present resulting in a destabilized horizon of racial and individual formation. Toni Morrison's formal education may have driven a wedge between herself and the culture she was born into and which she proudly represents, but she still manages to put together an incredible manifesto that reaches deeper truths and meanings with absolute valences. In her novel the three heroines - mother and two daughters - have overlapping individualities and they represent good and evil in equal measure. Their existences are nonlinear and they run both ways along the temporal axis. This is especially true of Sethe, the mother, whose past still haunts her and impacts greatly her present and future; an impact which extends to her family as well.
The state of nonlinearity, conflation, and duality is also found in other novels, such as The Bluest Eye or Sula, in which the heroines manage to become displaced from their status, they are isolated from their respective families and friends, and are forced into pursuing painful valences of individuality. From this point of view, Toni Morrison herself manages to overreach her scope by challenging the perceptions, values, mores, and principles we are ingrained with by society and education. Agnes Suranyi, a contributor to “The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison”, edited by Justine Tally, expresses just such a view: “The borderline between decent women and man-eating prostitutes is erased; only the latter are capable of giving love to Pecola, whose quest for it elsewhere is futile.” (16-17). This view is of great significance because it epitomizes Toni Morrison's take on life: nothing in her work is “fed” to us already masticated; it is quite the contrary that occurs: we have to interpret the facts stated, the innuendoes, the streams of consciousness, the multifaceted and split personalities, their actions and inactions all by ourselves, through our own filters and open up to a more thorough interpretation that must override dated tenets.
Applying the above stated, upon perusing Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, one cannot miss the connection between melding and overlapping identities and the life of people struggling with racial formation and being forced into conformity and assimilation. This assertion is further reinforced by the fact that Sethe lived in the time of the Underground Railroad, a time which saw a sharp increase in the severity of punishments for escaping bondage. The tenseness of life on the black / white divide is passed on to later generations who carry on with their incessant frictions all the way to Martin Luther King Jr. and beyond.
In a 2004 interview with Rachel Cooke for “The Observer” Toni Morrison successfully proves why the battle with racism is not yet over, in spite of all the things that have changed since the beginning of affirmative action.
'I don't pass without insults. Let me give you an example. I walk into the Waldorf Astoria in New York to check in. We're going to have a drink, and then my friend is going to go home. She stands behind me, as I check in. Finally, the guy says, "Oh, are you registering too?" He thought I was the maid. My friend was trembling with anger. It was so personal. But the irony of it was that I was on the cover of a magazine that month, and there were these posters with my face on them all over New York.' (qtd. in “The Observer”)
The Bluest Eye - her debut novel - for instance, has had its popularity delayed many a year precisely because of the stark way in which Toni Morrison approached taboo subjects and because she strived to prove that “black” did not equal “ugly”. Growing up is difficult and the girls in the novel find their race assignation - which is no fault of theirs - a difficult burden to carry around. They do not have the easier lives of the lighter-skinned people in their community and their perceived ugliness is a feature which gradually seeps into their consciousness to such a degree that it becomes overbearing. The validity of this externally-imposed ugliness is reinforced not only by the white members of society, but by the very families themselves. In Pecola's case, her own mother finds her daughter repulsive and troublesome, choosing to love a white child more than her own - an unforgivable and heinous deed. But then the destabilization of identity is a practice quite common for Toni Morrison, and rightly so, because although identity is formed at an early stage in our existence, the vector of external factors leave multiple indelible marks upon the essence of our character. For Toni Morrison's characters the insurmountable obstacles they have to overcome take too great a toll on their resilience, which ultimately becomes defeated. This reciprocal allegoric relationship between private and collective (in this case racial) identity is a true-to-life representation of many generations of oppressed African-Americans and their struggles to survive in a disparaging mainstream society.
In Sula, the African-American writer uses the Bottom as a twofold metaphor: on the one hand the location of this neighbourhood is on top of a hill which, as the slave owner explains to the slave, is the bottom of the world from where God is watching and from which “the blacks” took “small consolation in the fact that every day they could literally look down on the white folks” (11), while on the other we see little black girls being picked on by the most recent immigrants who themselves would endure abuse, thus continuing this loop which is closed by the proximity to God that the hills afford them.
The ramifications do not stop here: it seems that in any place in the novel, any novel of Toni Morrison's, there is a starting point for a new insight, for a new interpretation, for a kernel of postmodernist truth about life and literature, for novel literary technique and what it entails for both the novel itself as a genre, as well as for the reader and his/her perception of things that's constantly being challenged, just like the reader's matrix of social tenets and belief system.
Possibly the best example of this is served by the story which inspired Toni Morrison to write Beloved, the story of the African-American woman who would rather kill her own daughter than suffer to have her returned to bondage. As Nellie Y. McKay, the co-editor alongside William L. Andrews of “Toni Morrison's Beloved - A Casebook” states another critic's point of view (i.e. Karla F. C. Holloway, writer of “Beloved: A Spiritual”), Toni Morrison really manages to come up with a fresh and reinvigorating approach
For example, with myth as a dominant feature of Beloved, Morrison not only reclaims the Garner story from those who interviewed her after her child's death and expressed enormous surprise at her calm but also, as mythmaker, achieves a complete revision of the episode. [...] The oral and written history that Morrison revises, consciously and unconsciously felt, considers many aspects of each life and reflects an alternative perspective on reality. [...] In addition, Morrison, like many other African and African-American writers, often defies the boundaries separating past, present, and future time. This allows her to free Beloved from the dominance of a history that would deny the merits of slave stories. As Morrison's creation, Beloved is not only Sethe's dead child but the faces of all those lost in slavery, carrying in her the history of the "sixty million and more." Holloway sees Beloved as a novel of inner vision: the reclamation of black spiritual histories. (15)
As Morrison herself points out in the novel, the press has no interest in presenting the truth detachedly. It also does not concern itself with such “trite” topics as the abominable abuses of slavery and it does not give praise where praise is due. Instead, it engages in shameless hectoring of a mother who kills her own daughter. If taken out of context, we would expect it to do no less and, but for Toni Morrison's reframing and revamping of the story, we probably wouldn't have given the story a second thought. But we cannot be left to stand idle before such brazen hypocrisy as regarding Sethe more animal than human, and then a murderess guilty of a heinously premeditated act done whilst in full possession of her faculties. Furthermore, her case is stripped of context, just as the plethora of various other deeds similarly perpetrated as a result of extraordinary duress. This time around Morrison gives ample space to her heroine to justify her actions, while not allowing her, however, to be absolved of the guilt she must bear until the end, hence the muddled border between temporal references, actions, characters, and individualities, which again escape their expected linearity and contiguity.
Perception is a fickle thing, especially when something is stretched, filtered, re-filtered, decoded and re-encoded, challenged and stereotyped and warped in every way imaginable. We cannot assert our identity as long as we are unable to find the appropriate compromise between the adoption and rejection of every aspect that is debatable and that can be transacted over this social Carrefour of exchanges.
But, more importantly, we can no longer acquiesce in this moral comfort zone set out by society, which overshadows whole groups based on artificial considerations, especially when the relativism of the preceding adjective becomes too overbearing and too painful to stand. The point being made here is that while maybe artificial in essence, the segregation inflicted on these groups - and others, as well (while Toni Morrison is clearly concerned with the African-American case, it cannot fail to be propitious to generalise an assertion that we should internalise already - if we haven't done so - and apply to any case in which double standards might occur) is absorbed by those whose mental health is abused incessantly and whose resilience truly worn out and even suppressed. What Toni Morrison attempts is to sow the seeds of individual and discernible thought willing and capable enough to probe things deeper than the shallowness of their outward appearance. Toni Morrison's works are soul-wrenching panegyrics dedicated to the memory of the former slaves and her contemporaries who were still enslaved through omission and discrimination, as well as a testimony of the noblest and most dedicated application of one's moral ideals.
Chapter Two: The Importance of Family and Community in Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Sula
Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.
It is no secret or surprise that, first family and then family and community, have the greatest impact on our personality, shaping and reshaping our existence, validating and supporting our preferences and choices or going to great lengths to lay stumbling blocks in our path towards achieving these. Furthermore, the conceptions and principles professed within familial confines are based on the patterned behaviour of one's surrounding environment. This, in turn is founded on what is deemed just and acceptable behaviour leading to harmony and cooperation and is related to civic duty.
According to Freud's structural model of the psyche, the development of the human psyche is a three-stage process which corresponds to the three most important stages in our existence. In the first stage, the id, our psyche is so shaped as to want nothing but to fulfil its own needs and wishes, regardless of those of everyone else. Then, as we start learning to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour - that we are exposed to within the bosom of our family (if only still for the sake of tending to our own needs) - we begin to observe the need to conform and become acquainted with the boundaries of our environment. It is only in this last stage that right and wrong - as we are wont to perceive it within said familial context for the greater good of society - truly become sedimented. If we think about this model of the psyche we realize the significance of family to our personal development and the reciprocating relationship between family and society. The latter has been at length debated and is still a bone of contention even today. Aristotle is the thinker who first addressed the issue of ethics developing the term to mean the well-being of society as a whole; as a political entity. He goes so far as to claim that “human beings are naturally political animals” and that “the good of the multitude is greater and more godlike than the good of the individual”.
He finds the origin of this greater societal good to stem from personal virtue of character. The dichotomy between morality and ethical behaviour is paramount and deserves our careful scrutiny if we wish to understand Toni Morrison's ideas beyond the mere surface of things. The very motto of this chapter is no mere accident. The choice is not marked by haphazard or even serendipity: it reflects the consequence of unethical behaviour on the part of the (moral) individual. Of course, one may assume that this extrapolation is taken out of context, or that the interpretation chosen is refashioned for the purpose at hand, but I would like to contend that it is not. For too long humankind has tended to put things in balance in order to reach a verdict of good or bad; acceptable or unacceptable; moral or immoral; ethical or unethical. In Toni Morrison's Nobel lecture she recounts the story of the old blind woman who is challenged by young people for the purpose of exposing her, and takes the allegory along the path of language. Since she regards language as a (living) organism - signified by the bird in the hands of one of the young people, why couldn't we reshape the allegory to mean our individuality held in the grasp of our hands but challenged and at times scoffed or ignored by family and community? We entreat those around us to not patronise us and accept our choices and beliefs: “Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul.” (Morrison Nobel lecture). While Toni Morrison clearly addresses writers, readers, policy makers, orators, as well as other categories or groups of people who utilize, make or destroy language, our extrapolation is no less potent, because a dead or disused language implies a dead culture and dead culture lack of intelligent life that usually takes place within the sphere of community, with family at the core of this cluster of interrelations. Toni Morrison holds that: “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.” (Nobel lecture) This viewpoint is a crucial bolster for this argument: we are made and broken by narratives and narratives make the cement that holds together the community. As we are about to see, Morrison's novels focus on this aspect a great deal, especially since her heroes and heroines do not suffer - for the greatest part - through objective shortcomings of their own, but rather their spirits are blighted by the reprobating vociferation and standings of the community that are again framed through the perspective of the reciprocating dealings of family and community. In “The Republic: Book V” Plato theorises that the influence of family on its offspring is such that would eventually lead us to abolish the idea of family altogether.
The Aristotelian “common good” is another influence on the private individual. This concept challenges us to ask on what considerations may the community and what agency authorizes it to hold ideals that subsume private choice and individual needs, creeds, moral values, faith, and so on. And, more importantly, how do we know if and to what extent the greater collective good may prevail to the detriment of the individual good? In the course of time, various thinkers have come up with various responses to this question.
Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 - May 6, 1862) - American transcendentalist writer, poet, historian, and philosopher - writes about our duty as upright citizens to resist any form of unlawful government in his renowned essay called “Civil Disobedience” in which he argues in favour of just rebellion. Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 - April 27, 188) - another American transcendentalist philosopher, essayist and poet - argues that our lives must be dedicated to the aim of finding our originality and letting nothing stand in the way of our asserting our self reliance. The way of achieving self-reliance is through following our ingrained virtues that have sprouted from the divine, which he refers to as the Over-soul. Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) - Italian Dominican priest of the Catholic Church, influential philosopher and theologian - develops his philosophical argumentation around the divine rule. According to his reasoning, there are four types of law: eternal, natural, human, and divine. The first - eternal law - is God's ruling, which governs the entire universe and everything in it. Natural law is based on “the first precept of the law, that good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided. All other precepts of the natural law are based on this” (qtd. in Stern 145), while human law is that which stems from the government and which regulates the dealings and goings-on within society. Finally, divine law is the summation of the teachings of the Scripture.
The most obvious observation to be made is that all these great thinkers' argumentations only take into account the ideal case in which the individual is a fully compliant (in spite of the assertion of one's independent thought and action) and “well-greased” “cog” in this “machine” called society. The next salient remark to be made is that all these rights and duties deriving from following the rules of society only apply to privileged groups. If we go back to racial formation, religion has for a long time been a promoter of the subjugation of “lesser” groups of individuals. Not only has it turned a blind eye to racial abuses, but it has even provided solid grounding for blatant discrimination, treating other races as inferior, subpar, savage, etc.
If we think about Thoreau's advice to fight unlawful governing, how could the silenced voices of “wagonload of slaves” who “sang so softly their breath was indistinguishable from the falling snow” (Nobel lecture) revolt against a system that disavowed their humanity in exchange for a fixed monetary value? How could those who had to withstand harsher and harsher regulated abuses even dream of going down this path when just the thought of reaching a haven of freedom would be a castle in the air most of the times? They could have sought protection from the Over-soul, but His representatives on earth would provide quite the contrary. Not only did they not receive the succour usually associated with religious faith, but they would have to fend off persecutions incessantly. And even those could have been easier endured had family ties been allowed to become a bit stronger.
Lastly, one could hardly envisage a way to conciliate divine and human, societal, political, and religious law. If we were to abide eternal laws then there would be no room left for the arbitrariness of human laws. Whether instituted by the state or the church, these laws can hardly be considered just from all points of view. First of all, historically and anthropologically speaking - with few isolated exceptions - all societal organisations have been patriarchal. Even today women have predefined gender roles to be filled, usually centring on household activities and child rearing. According to feminist interpretations of family, marriage is a social institution which enables, nay compels the state to interfere in the life of the individual. The state must also ensure the welfare of its future generations, which means the physical and mental development of children must take precedence over other things. This of course means added constraints to the development of a woman's career and accomplishments, since the division of labour will mean added responsibilities. However, Toni Morrison shows that in spite of these added responsibilities, she can still pursue her career:
Well, I really do only two things. It only looks like many things. All of my work has to do with books. I teach books, write books, edit books or talk about books. And the other thing that I do is to raise my children which, as you know, I can do only one minute at a time. (qtd. in McKay 140)
and her results so far have truly complimented her achievements.
Still, the 19th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which was only enacted in 1919 proves that we still live in a patriarchal society that teaches young boys that the mere truth of their gender validates their demand for preferential treatment.
Going back to parenthood, the divine law of the Scripture, and its commandments, of which one runs: “Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (New Jerusalem Bible, Exodus 20.12), Toni Morrison's novels constantly challenge the legitimacy of its rule.
Beloved is a novel built around the lives of three heroines: the mother Sethe and two daughters: Denver and Beloved. The direct aim of this novel is to retell the story of an oppressed and enslaved people whose tragic lives have never been commemorated:
There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There's no 300-foot tower, there's no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn't exist . . . the book had to. (Toni Morrison Society)
This valence of encomium Beloved is charged with is significantly stated at the very onset of the story when Toni Morrison quotes a passage from the Bible: Romans 9:25, to be more precise, which may as well serve as an appropriate incipient inference of her choice of title: “I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.” (New Jerusalem Bible)
This theme of remembrance and commemoration is a recurrent one. While the plot of the novel takes place in a time when slavery had just been abolished, the ghost of past events has not perished with it. A veritable pivotal influence on the story's shape and - more importantly - on the daughters' lives is Sethe's unbearable past, fragments of which are chanted throughout the story. Her past is marked by such heart-breaking events that there is no wonder her take on things is sometimes wild and exaggerated. Since the ghostly presence of the murdered daughter haunts her incessantly, Sethe is forced to relieve her past and it is not until the end of the novel that she can release herself from this spectre when the community gathers to chase Beloved out of Sethe's and their own lives.
So they forgot her. Like an unpleasant dream during a troubling sleep. Occasionally, however, the rustle of a skirt hushes when they wake, and the knuckles brushing a cheek in sleep seem to belong to the sleeper. Sometimes the photograph of a close friend or relative - looked at too long - shifts, and something more familiar than the dear face itself moves there. They can touch it if they like, but don't, because they know things will never be the same if they do.
This is not a story to pass on. Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. (Beloved 319)
This act initiated by the brave Ella - who herself had been a victim of abuse - occurs at a very important moment in the life of Sethe. At this stage Sethe had all but morphed into her late mother-in-law Baby Suggs who isolated herself from the community and family she belonged to and plunged into deep oblivion, remembering only that her first born liked “the burned bottom of bread” (4). If at first she held a job at a restaurant and still functioned in the midst of her community in Cincinnati, providing for her introverted daughter Denver, she gradually becomes a slave to Beloved's every whim. It is now when Sethe almost gives herself wholly to her reclusive animal nature, being completely dehumanized by the parasitic daughter and the painful remembrances stirred in the mind of the former that Ella decides enough is enough: “it infuriated her and gave her another opportunity to measure what could very well be the devil himself against ‘the lowest yet'” (297) and triggers her sense of morality and ethos.
First, she is enraged by this manifestation of evil which challenges and disturbs the comfortable atmosphere of morality and communion in hallowed good the group aspires to during this time of the Reconstruction and blights the existence of one of its members who once was the nexus of it, then fell, was ousted and treated as a pariah, then gingerly and cautiously reaccepted into the midst of the community that Sethe finally retreated from. Subsequent to this initial rage, an amalgamated reaction combining elements of community spirit and common good - to a certain extent, along the lines of Thomas Aquinas's philosophy - and the supplication of the divine brew into the synergetic common conscience the solidarity and impetus that prods them to act as one and dispel Sethe within whom Ella recognises the threat of evil.
This upsurge of rage branches out in a multifarious cloud of significances. The multidimensionality encountered at this point underscores the importance of remembering one's past (in this particular case, the tribulations of the “Sixty million and more” (3)), paying tribute, forgiving transgressions and transgressors, and using it as a lesson for future endeavours after a closer and more in-depth scrutiny of the truth. Of course this last part cannot really be fathomed properly and analysed through the broad-ranging filter of the community. Truth is subservient to the common good and it is disseminated as the voice of community: “Newspapers are recycled as "material," they return to what they are, mere paper: Without primary material produced by slave labor, the history of the masters simply could not be, a fact Sethe stresses: "He liked the ink I made".” (Raynaud 48). This cogent observation adds a new dimension of its own: the interrelating of the two racial categories and the importance of slave labour not only for the economy, but for “white” history and culture, as well.
While the historical period of slavery hasn't usually been probed too deep - a fact Toni Morrison herself undertook to correct - as well as editorial “flashes” chronicling everyday (shocking) events, a lingering effect will always trail along in the minds and hearts of future generations, just as the problems of the past have sometimes foretold the future: “From a woman's point of view, in terms of confronting the problems of where the world is now, black women had to deal with 'post-modern' problems in the nineteenth century and earlier.” (Raynaud 45).
The particularization Toni Morrison makes can be extended beyond the range of black African-American women to women in general even today (sic), but the compelling case of Sethe / Margaret Garner (the conflation is purposefully intended, in spite of the novel not being written along the lines of realism) reinforces Toni Morrison's words and provokes us to reread them, just like the circular manner she employs in writing the novel urges us to reread it and reassess the heroines' act (both real and fictional). Going back to Sethe's previous assertion, we can also infer another sort of interrelation: that of the individual and the community: “...the ink I made” (45). In this instance Sethe restates her privileged status in the community that once she had been at the heart of, alongside her mother-in-law, for she feels superior - not necessarily to someone in particular, but to this despised caste she belonged to:
Sethe understood it then, but now with a paying job and an employer who was kind enough to hire an ex-convict, she despised herself for the pride that made pilfering better than standing in line at the window of the general store with all the other Negroes. She didn't want to jostle them or be jostled by them. Feel their judgment or their pity, especially now. (Beloved 223)
This is an important counterpoint when regarded alongside Ella's reaction and alacrity. However, the diffidence she shows is rooted into something real and extremely painful: on the one hand there is the recollection of her scientifically-studied inferiority which confers her a more animalistic side than would otherwise be the case for a white person - a view which is then reinforced in the press after her filicide - and, on the other the community's failure to alert her of schoolteacher's looming approach.
She, however, is not alone in her aloofness. At heart everyone feels the need of belonging and validation. The former is repeated over and over through three episodes of uninterruptible trails of thought into which Sethe and her two daughters lapse, the binding element for the mother and Denver being Beloved and for Beloved her mother. Along this backdrop of isolation and belonging Paul D also reminisces about his past camaraderie with fellow men literally bound to him in slave labour and about the time he spent in the company of other women he temporarily lived with. In spite of all these memories he fails to attach himself to anyone and even forsakes Sethe, whom he fails to connect with. A more forceful and weighty representation of solitude and belonging inherently conjoined is provided by Beloved's internal and quasi-subconscious soliloquy which is brilliantly rendered by Toni Morrison to allegorize the baptismal and purifying resurfacing and redemption of bound and intertwined communal destiny of a racial group forced into a symbolic sepulchral ritual in the midst of skinless people.
On a different and rather marginal note, Denver's stepping out into the world marks an important phase in her life. The mental and physical lassitude Sethe allows herself to revel in forces Denver to step out of her comfort zone and reach out to the community who reciprocates her gesture and welcomes her. At this point Denver becomes more mature and starts better showing her age than when she was engrossed in more childish and solitary pursuits. Even Paul D, who meets her in the street, can see the progress she has made and senses the fact that she has started assuming adult responsibilities, caring about her family's welfare enough to think about managing to find a second job. This gut-wrenching shift that propels her out into the world is also due to the stuffy atmosphere of the household that completely ousts her.
Revisiting the passage that lies at the end of Beloved, the community of Cincinnati is once more involved in the relationship between Sethe and her murdered daughter, helping the former let go of her past, atoning somewhat for their earlier involvement. Ella's individual feelings of rage are transposed onto the group and the energy she transmits is evenly multiplexed among the members of the posse who have come to chase Beloved and what she purports away, so they voice but one voice and will but one wish. In leaving her elegant dress behind, Beloved vacates her persona and is ultimately dismissed as a signifier for Sethe's past. Beloved is for the most part selectively erased and the memory of her constructed and wiped out upon the community's whim. The severed familial tie of Sethe and Denver is perhaps allowed to re-emerge, but the novel leaves it in the air.
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison's literary debut, is a story that puts forth many themes and affords us many avenues of thought and study. One theme we may - with genuine post-modernist uncertainty - assign chief importance to is that of the role of family and community. This time, if we appeal to our innate moral virtue, we may as well embrace Plato's conclusion regarding the necessity of the dissolution of family. Alternatively, we may conjecture that this case study of familial interactions is the exception that reinforces the rule. While some critics have tended to append this to an agenda or another (e.g. the feminist movement), we are safe to assume that Toni Morrison's effort overachieves the somewhat unidirectional quality of a simple cautionary tale or fable in the classical sense. It seems that the more we read her novels, interviews and literary criticism, the more we discover that Toni Morrison is a prophet of what we are heading towards: a world so full of uncertainty and so overworked with meaning, symbolism, struggles and shape-shifting values on the constant verge of redefining, that our only chance of surviving is a sharpening of our senses and of our intellect.
After slavery, when fresh-born blacks ceased to represent a supply of unpaid labor, agents of the law, the economy, the academy and the Government began to view the black family as problematic in every way. The education of black children, the employment of black adults, housing, medical care, food - whites suddenly began to regard these normal needs as insupportable burdens, and supposed solutions to ''the problem'' of the black family destroyed some families and disfigured others.
That blacks in America were able to maintain families at all and that these families endured after the Civil War is amazing. Perhaps because of this unexpected survival, historians usually treat the black family as a special phenomenon or trivialize it beyond recognition. (The Family Came First)
This interpretation of the African-American family and its meaning is what this critical endeavour hinges on and - more significantly - the theoretical grounding of the novel. Though not expressly stated as such, the atmosphere of the novel is that of inflicted stigma and perceived ugliness that pervades everyday life and besmirches the innocence of childhood. Ugliness is a constant presence and it never ceases to be juxtaposed by the blueness associated with perceived mainstream beauty.
If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they'd say, "Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn't do bad things in front of those pretty eyes."
Pretty eyes. Pretty blue eyes. Big blue pretty eyes. Run, Jip, run. Jip runs, Alice runs. Alice has blue eyes. Jerry has blue eyes. Jerry runs. Alice runs. They run with their blue eyes. Four blue eyes. Four pretty blue eyes. Blue-sky eyes.
Blue - like Mrs. Forrest's blue blouse eyes. Morning-gloryblue-eyes. AliceandJerrybluestorybook-eyes. Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she had prayed. Although somewhat discouraged, she was not without hope. To have something as wonderful as that happen would take a long, long time. Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty. She would see only what there was to see: the eyes of other people. (The Bluest Eye 47)
But then we can argue that, after all, “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”. This perception of beauty, or rather the randomness of this association - blue equals beautiful and the superlative of beauty is “the bluest eye”, which is not at all dissimilar to the association between white and good, desirable, graceful and between black and bad, undesirable, shameful - is undeniably a societal construct. “Ugly” is a disgraceful qualifier and reveals the pettiness and malevolence of the assessor and this assignation is even more terrible as it is flung into the face of a child. Traces of expected behaviour are present in the text and they reveal the mind-numbing comforts of conformity and they illustrate the consequences of adopting re-regurgitated opinions and value systems at stark face value. The caveat is worded through the agency of pre-text, which Agnes Suranyi interprets thusly: “The three-fold repetition of the pre-text, a descent into chaos, shows the lack of meaning of the text for poor black children; the text without spaces challenges the reader to make sense of a senseless world and calls for compassion.” (14)
Compassion, empathy and understanding represent terms of great aesthetic value, especially when viewed from the perspective of ethics. Torrents of pages can and have been written on these topics. Sermons encompass them, speeches, meetings, summits, social work ethics, and the list goes on and on. But when placed upon a pedestal of high and mighty philosophic argument solely for the looking or when beaming from the firmament of social conduct, they lose all their potential for and idealized virtue. “Poor black children” (14) are the moot arguments of social justice and society. A caveat we must observe is that, in spite of the impression of general truths being conveyed, these assertions should not be taken to mean that nothing has changed and that racial formation is still at the apogee of blatant abuse, but rather they should be viewed from the stance of Toni Morrison's first-hand experiences in the sixties' America and the observations she makes, conclusions she reaches and ideas and interpretations she issues forth in her novels. They are given the “cold shoulder” of ignorance and are denied the implicit succour of innocence and the compassion that should accompany it. This treatment will prove a terrible blow to a young person's budding of self-confidence and self-worth. As he recounts his own “rape” by white men, Cholly reveals the emotional abuse that stifles his spiritual and physical development and leaves a scar that can never be erased, even by heavy drinking.
Sullen, irritable, he cultivated his hatred of Darlene. Never did he once consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless. His subconscious knew what his conscious mind did not guess—that hating them would have consumed him, burned him up like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke. He was, in time, to discover that hatred of white men—but not now. Not in impotence but later, when the hatred could find sweet expression. For now, he hated the one who had created the situation, the one who bore witness to his failure, his impotence. (The Bluest Eye 157)
The hegemony wielded by the white men, purposefully hyperbolized to such a definitive extent, has deleterious consequences on the young Cholly who displaces his unwarranted shame on someone even more innocent than himself: Darlene. This deeply-ingrained perceived inferiority will follow him for a long time, as we are led to believe and mechanism of defence such as hatred will follow suit later on, at a time when they are less useful than at the time of the “rape”. This displacement of guilt is very significant because it reinforces an earlier account of African-American women's evolution from girlhood all the way to very old age when pain and death have already given their worst. From this account we learn that African-American women are the unsung sacrificial lambs of the African-American community in Lorain Ohio who must be ready to accept any blow dealt their way and still live up to the claim of their feminine charm and innate sensitivity their gender role ascribes them:
“They beat their children with one hand and stole for them with the other. The hands that felled trees also cut umbilical cords; the hands that wrung the necks of chickens and butchered hogs also nudged African violets into bloom; the arms that loaded sheaves, bales, and sacks rocked babies into sleep.” (142)
The generalization of this assertion can be swept and stretched to cover most of the entire North American territory and can also be taken to mean something more absolute and general, given the still lingering makeup of society all over the world. This standpoint (i.e. concerning African-American women) is expressed over and over by Toni Morrison, who celebrates the valour, resolve, industriousness, ingenuity and resilience of African-American women who took abuse from everyone; “The only people they need not take orders from were black children and each other” (142). All these tribulations are not uplifting and they do not provide positive character-shaping experiences. They only erode physical beauty which is tentatively perceived, unstable and fleeting anyway, but their baptism of fire finally comes to fruition when they are awarded freedom.
However, Pecola herself fails to develop resilience strong enough to withstand all these calluses inflicted upon African-American women by family and community. As previously stated, the author herself does not cater for the faint of heart. In order for us to know the truth, we need to know all of it, not just the palatable pieces. There is an episode in which Pecola wants to make a purchase from a store owned by a white man who would not take her money. He would not take her money not because he is fond of the little Pecola. On the contrary, he is disgusted to touch the black hands that innocently extend him the money for her purchase. One cannot express one's rage and stupor aptly enough to rise to the fiendish occasion. The palimpsest of races and ethnicities also gives leverage to one group over another and this is seen on more than one occasion. This reaches such absurd proportions that parents teach their children to avoid the company of other children who are darker-skinned than themselves; hence Pecola's dream of blue eye(s). Even more absurd and painful is the fact that Pecola's own mother loves her less than the white child of the family in whose household she serves. To her Pecola is exactly the way society varnishes her: ugly.
Even her drunken father saw her as such. He saw himself in the same light and was flummoxed by the amount of love he received from his daughter, in spite of everything. He realises that she is unloved and decides to correct that himself, but is remiss about the moral implications of physical love he subjects Pecola to. Realising his deeds, the father flees, following a pattern of neglectful husband and fathers that Toni Morrison rightly exposes. Pauline Breedlove (or Polly, as her moniker goes in the white household she serves fails to heed her daughter's pain or offer her any consolation. Her surname itself would make one think positive thoughts, but no more scathing an oxymoron could have been thought for Pecola instead. Society itself washes its hands and distances itself from Pecola, who might as well have been a leper. It wills her baby's death, ascribing it with anomalies and swaddling it with a shroud of abhorrence and achieves this (if not necessarily by direct implication). All in all, Pecola Breedlove is the beautiful dandelion whose categorization as undesired weed precludes its aesthetic value and inner beauty and she is viewed as such by the community that
Cite This Dissertation
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below: