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Toni Morrison is a famous fiction author who has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize. She is considered one of the top writers in the genre of African American literature, and her books are universally praised for their descriptive detail and the realistic dialogue between her black characters. While she has written many other works, perhaps her best known are Beloved and Song of Solomon. Morrison's books have achieved such success primarily because of her writing style, filled with dramatic prose and epic conflicts, and accompanied by rich character development. Her characters are easy to identify with for black Americans, but her epic stories appeal to a wider audience as well.
Born in Ohio, she grew up in a community that was beset by a degree of uncomfortable racial tension. She was originally named Chloe Anthony Wofford. Both her parents were migrant sharecroppers who had moved to the North to escape the pervasive problems of Southern racism. While the South was theoretically being forced by the federal government to move towards equality, most southern states had adopted policies that continued a systematic discrimination against blacks to keep the whites in political power. Segregation was common in the American South, and Wofford's parents believed that they would be better able to raise a family and to make a living in Ohio, where at least the government did not encourage systemic discrimination and racism through segregation or unfair voting laws.
Morrison 's parents were both sharecroppers, and she got her immersion into the culture of black storytelling when her father would share stories that he had remembered from his parents and his friends. These stories wove a tapestry of the black experience, and caused Morrison to become interested in the storytelling process, specifically in becoming an author. Toni went to Howard University where she had her name changed from Chloe to Toni, and she finished her graduate degree at Cornell University where she studied American literature. (Liukkonen, 2008)
Beloved is one of Morrison's most popular works, and it contains a great deal of autobiographical information, or at least certain themes that Morrison saw in her own life and the lives of people around her. To begin with, Sethe is virtually turned into a baby machine by the way the white society was structured. It was legal for slave women to be used as breeders to expand slave numbers, which reduced black female humanity and status. Sethe fled this by running to Ohio, the same place where Morrison's parents had moved to escape a more minor, but still quite serious, type of government encouraged oppression. Beloved also contains recurring mentions of African religion and culture, something that Morrison may have picked up from her father during his story telling sessions. Even though slavery was disruptive to the way of life for many black Americans, it didn't keep them from practicing some of the same rituals and customs that they had held dear in Africa, and passing on these traditions was one of the only way that slaves and their descendants had of holding on to the mother country that they had been taken from. (Brown, 1995, 456)
Beloved, the character, functions in two separate roles as a spirit. In one role she is the literal returned spirit of the dead child, and she answers questions about the afterlife. However, according to Morrison, she also represents a survivor from a slave ship having crossed over the Atlantic. In both of these contexts, Beloved has gone through some sort of huge transformation, and she sits on the other side of that journey to comment on what it was like. As a survivor from a slave ship, she has passed into a figurative afterlife that is nothing like the world she came from before the passage across the Atlantic Ocean. In a way, this is much like death. It is a separation from everything that was familiar, an arduous and uncertain journey, and finally being deposited on the shores of a foreign land for which nothing could have prepared her. Morrison comments, "Both things are possible, and there's evidence in the text to that both things could be approached, because the language of both experiences - death and the Middle Passage - is the same." (Darling, 1988, p5)
Beloved also features numerous stylistic components that set it apart from other works of the genre. Morrison interweaves a musical cadence throughout the novel, giving much of the dialogue and descriptive language a unique tone. In addition, music is mentioned as a central theme in the novel. A passage from Beloved shows just how important music is as a primary method of communication. "In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning there was the sound, and they all knew what the sound sounded like.... building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did the wave of sound was wide enough to knock the pods off chestnut trees." (Morrison, 1998, p. 259) This has both a spiritual implication (being a parody of the biblical verse from John 1:1) and a historical one by reminding the reader that African music was around long before anyone was communicating through speech. (Morrison, 1998, p. 259)
Morrison herself claimed that she was trying to "reflect the aesthetic tradition of Afro-American culture" by transforming its non written artistic styles into something that could be read and appreciated by outsiders. Eckstein (2006) believes that Morrison wrote a particular musical style into each of her characters that reflected, when read as a whole, a narrative of the creation of Afro-American music in the United States. For example, he claims that Beloved is the personification of the origins of African music, primal beats and oral traditions. The idea of a spirit child returning to its parent is common in Yaruba mythology. Baby Suggs is a metaphor for the gospel tradition. She sermonizes and sings, and she is typical of the spiritual style of music and rhythm that African music developed upon its transplant into the United States. Paul D. represents the secular blues, with his southern chain gang background and his deeply rhythmic dialogue style. Lastly, even the white character Amy Denver represents something musically related. She is the bridge by which African music adopted American folk and spiritual traditions, she uses stylized English which stands apart from the black vernacular used by other characters. (Eckstein, 2006, pp. 271-283)
Caesar (1994) revisits Beloved to look at one incident of violence, and what that says about the way in which Morrison viewed the concept of motherhood and its role in slave culture. Specifically, he looks at the incident of infanticide in which Sethe cuts the throat of her baby. It is impossible to separate the anxiety of motherhood in this situation from the additional psychological burden of slavery. Thus, the act of infanticide stemmed from both motherhood and from slavery, specifically from the circumstances created when both mix. Caesar claims that Sethe felt even more trapped by the concept of motherhood than by slavery itself. When she was asked to have Paul D's baby, her first response was one of profound despair because it meant she would have to go through the motherhood process being a slave to emotions and to forced caring. (Caesar, 1994, pp. 111-120)
In The Bluest Eye, Morrison begins her novel with a section that reads as though taken directly out of a primary school reader. She writes, "Here is the House. It is Green and White. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green house. They are very happy."(Morrison, 1970, 1) This shows how black students were presented with the ideal of beauty and happiness through their education, but it was an ideal that had no room for black people. The names of the family are very white, and the green and white house is reminiscent of the type of house that middle class white families would be living in in their predominately white suburbs. Thus, education itself, instead of lifting blacks out of their society induced rut, instead reinforces the belief that beauty is synonymous with white and that black is just another way to say disordered.
The Bluest Eye was Morrison's first book, and she expressed regret that she had tackled such a complex issue while still an amateur author. At the same time, her lack of experience gives the book a rawer quality, and it is much more emotional and less descriptive than her later works. The novel is set in Lorain, Ohio in the early 1940s so the book itself takes an a roughly autobiographical edge to it. Lorain was Morrison's hometown, and she writes some of her own experiences into the story about the lives of three schoolchildren growing up in a hostile town. The Bluest Eye contains a poignant passage in which Pescola prays every night for God to give her blue eyes so she might be beautiful, a sign that her image of beauty is based not on her heritage or on her parents, but on the Shirley Temple mug that she so coveted.
Whiteness being synonymous with beauty is the main theme in The Bluest Eye. There are also tangent themes running through the novel. Morrison also wants to drive home the concept that the very idea of beauty is unattainable if one is always striving for someone else's ideal of beauty. For example, Pecola sees blue eyes as being the pinnacle of beauty, but obviously no matter what she does she will be unable to ever attain this standard. The only way Pecola is able to achieve beauty in this way is by going insane, because she would never affect physical changes so instead her mind has to change her reality for her. Morrison instead wants to emphasize that the only attainable beauty is the idea of beauty that someone holds in their own head. This idea of beauty is separate from what society or popular culture expects of a person, but it is an attainable standard.
The themes of martyrdom and Stockholm syndrome also make appearances in the novel. Most of the characters that Morrison writes into her novels are martyrs in some way. The women who chose to stay at home to care for their daughters, those typical stay at home mothers, sacrifice their youth and the potential for self fufillment of their dreams in order to raise children. The children are thus a type of burden, and one could look at motherhood as being a type of slavery, as examined in Beloved. Pecola sees herself as a martyr for beauty, carrying ugliness so that those around her can find beauty. In addition, Pecola's friends sacrifice their money for Pecola and her child. In a way, the discussion of martyrdom is very depressing. Where many books are very positive towards self sacrifice, and stress the rewards that selflessness can bring, Blue Eyes instead sees martyrdom as hopeless because the world is pointless and without reward. Thus, sacrifice has no reward in itself, because it merely prolongs life in a world that has no end goal.
Pecola eventually gets her wish to have blue eyes, but it is only in her troubled mind. She is raped by her adoptive father, and she has a stillborn child by him. This propels her even farther into the insanity she had already begun to develop because of her fractured identity. The theme of identity is explored again and again, and the end of the novel has Pescola becoming a homeless beggar although she identifies only with the visions she sees in her head. Deep down, she honestly believes that she has become a blue eyed beauty. (Morrison, 1969)
\ Pecola is an outsider to her community, she is frowned at by the whites who primarily see her skin color, but she is also rejected by many of the blacks because she is unable to exist within the white constructed reality that has been defined for her by the educational system. Her parents reject her, and her classmates can't see past her blackness, which leads to her eventual descent into insanity because of her inability to deal with the hostility of others and her own confusion over her identity. (Sundanda, 1994, p. 2440) The theme of education comes back in Tar Baby (Morrison, 1982) when the main characters go through higher education but then become increasingly separated from their roots because of it. Sula and Jadine obtain the education that they strive for, but that education is at the price of their rejection from their community after their sense of identity changes and they no longer feel a kinship with the blacks that have not gone on to higher learning.
Education causes Jadine to identify herself with the whites, which is problematic because her most prominent defining characteristic, and the one she can not change, is her skin color. She finds herself caught between two different ideas of herself, and it hurts her own self esteem because she gets her ideals of beauty from white culture but she remains stuck with the physical features of blacks. When she meets an African woman who represents a black vision of beauty and perfection, she is unnerved because that woman looks at Jadine with contempt and Jadine realizes just how far she has become separated from her cultural identity and heritage as a black woman, and how much she has adopted a Euro-centric version of what beauty means. This self confident black woman is also a personification of Morrison's own ideal of beauty. She represents the non physical traits that Morrison valued in black women, including their self confidence and their empowerment. Much of Tar Baby is dedicated to this idea of defining an ideal feminist black female character. (Sundanda, 1994, 2441)
Paradise was Morrison's first novel after being given the Nobel Prize for her literature. Paradise cements Morrison's feminist ideology as being the foremost concern of her books, with the protagonists only being able to succeed through the cooperation with other women. The men in the story are almost universally despicable, and the women are generally positive and self aware. Paradise was written in 1999, and it shows the level of experience that Morrison had accumulated through all her other writings. She had become much more politically active since the writing of Blue Eyes and she made several nationwide lecture circuits giving anti racism and anti sexism speeches. In addition, she had done a large amount of work with the Princeton department of literature, and she had begun to specialize in womens' literature, as her later writing of Jazz would confirm. Morrison had also edited essay collections on the appointment of Clarence Thomas and on the OJ Simpson trials. She had been steeped in the rhetoric of racial relations, and her ideas and beliefs had matured and become more cemented.
Paradise is an examination of the idea of perspective and of repetition. Is it possible for a story to be repeated over and over, from different view points, in order to get a fuller idea of history and commonality? In Paradise, the repetition doesn't serve this purpose. The repetition of the murder narrative is instead homogenized into one story that leaves out many of the details for the purpose of maintaining the image of peace and of paradise. Ironically, this leads to the disintegration of paradise and its ideals, because the repetition of a half truth reinforces itself and leads to exclusion and rigidity. (Krumholz, 2002, 1)
Morrison explores the way in which women are viewed by male societies. For example, when the men are first stalking the women with the intent to kill them, the women embody an Eve like idea of falling from grace. Women are the unclean component in humanity, and the men believe that they are instruments of God's will. In a way, this act of hubris is even worse than the one that originally caused the fall from grace in the garden of Eden. Eve was tempted into eating of the apple by a wish to be like God, but the men who hunt the women from the convent are driven by self satisfied beliefs that they know what God wants, and that they are his chosen instruments.
Another sign that the novel is driven by women, and the exploration of womanhood, is the naming of the chapters. The first chapter is simply named after the town of Paradise, but subsequent chapters each take up the name of a particular female character. This is symbolic of the way in which each of these women contributes a "chapter" to the overall story, and the story is incomplete without any one of them. The men of Paradise chose to ignore the contributions and the viewpoints of the women themselves, and Paradise failed because of it. In addition, the women serve as a foil to the patriarchy of the town. Much of the novel's action is driven by the men, but the story is told through the eyes of the women. This also shows how society is male dominated, but there are more than just men that feel the effects from the decisions made by the patriarchy. Lastly, Morrison highlights the connections that women between the town and the convent make, often in secret. She implies that the only way that the male patriarchy can be undermined, and equilibrium/sanity can be re-established, is by alliances between women even from different backgrounds and in different situations. (Morrison, 1997)
Jazz was written in 1992 and it also contains the themes of feminism and of music, music being a much more immediately apparent them than in Beloved. Even the title of the novel suggests a musical component to the book, and the composition of the book into several solo pieces that make a whole work is very orchestral. There are numerous strong female characters in Jazz, especially Violet Trace. Violet reacts to the news of her husband's betrayal by attacking the corpse of his lover. In addition, Alice is a strong female character who forges a friendship with Violet, echoing the insistence of Morrison in previous books on the power of alliances and relationships between women.
Song of Solomon was written in 1977, and was one the most critically acclaimed books from Morrison's career. In 1993, when Morrison was awarded her Nobel prize in literature, this novel was one of the ones the Swedish committee cited in determining her worthiness. The novel follows a male character, a rarity in Morrison's works, from his birth to his death in his home state of Michingan. The main character, Milkman, was breast fed for too long which gave him his rather unseemly nickname. This could symbolize an over dependence on his mother, another of Morrison's subtle jabs at motherhood. Milkman's siblings have almost comical names, coming from putting the pin in the bible and naming daughters after whatever the pin pointed to. His mother is a prominent town doctor, and much more esteemed and succesful than his father. This, in conjunction with the fact that Milkman was a Mama's boy, and breastfed for too long, gives his mother the image of being controlling and dominating in his family dynamics. Milkman is also caught in between conflicting verions of stories told between family members, convincing him that there is no such thing as one truth, and that the truth is basically whatever is remembered the best. Macon's sister, Pilate, is another martyr character type, who is very nurturing towards Macon to the point that she frequently sacrifices her own vitality and needs.
Milkman goes on a search for gold, a quest that fits the epic adventure model as in classical adventure narratives such as the Iliad. Milkman's quest leads him through a journey of self discovery where he learns more about his large family, including the fact that his great grandfather had flown back to Africa and had abandoned his family. Pilate is eventually killed by guitar, completing her martyrdom, and this helps Milkman also learn to fly. (Morrison, 1987)
Toni Morrison's books examine the themes of martyrdom, of feminism, and of the black experience in America. She draws on slavery and on African culture to create rich stories that have strong heroines and emotionally moving tragedies. Morrison is certainly not a writer who writes for all audiences, her books are very divisive and she spends equal time being compared to Shakespeare as she spends being criticized for being vulgar and depressing. All the same, her books are works of American literary genius, and they are powerful windows into the way in which African American women experienced a tough time period in their history.