Topics on this Page

Biographical Statement
Writing and Black Literature
Themes and Practices in Morrison's Novels
      Sense of Loss
      Roots, Community, and Identity
      Extreme Situations
      Freedom and "Bad Men"
      Good and Evil
      Loss of Innocence
The Black as Other
The Bluest Eye
Seeing or Perception
Websites on Toni Morrison
Morrison Syllabus

Biographical Statement

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), received mixed reviews, didn't sell well, and was out of print by 1974. Critical recognition and praise for Toni Morrison grew with each novel. She received the National Book Critics Circle Award for her third novel Song of Solomon (1977) and the Pulitzer prize for Beloved (1987). She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 for, in the words of the Swedish Academy, her "visionary force and poetic import" which give "life to an essential aspect of American reality."

Writing and Black Literature

For Morrison, "all good art has been political" and the black artist has a responsibility to the black community. She aims at capturing "the something that defines what makes a book 'black.' And that has nothing to do with whether the people in the books are black or not." She thinks that one characteristic of black writers is "a quality of hunger and disturbance that never ends." Her novels "bear witness" to the experience of the black community and blacks in that community. Her work "suggests who the outlaws were, who survived under what circumstances and why, what was legal in the community as opposed to what was legal outside it." In the past, music expressed these things and "kept us alive. Unfortunately music no longer serves this function and other forms of expressions, like the novel, are needed."

Morrison wants her prose to recreate black speech, "to restore the language that black people spoke to its original power"; for her, language

is the thing that black people love so much--the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It's a love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher's: to make you stand up out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself. The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language.
Her prose has the quality of speech; Morrison deliberately strives for this effect, which she calls "aural literature." She hears her prose as she writes, and during the revision process she cuts phrasing which sounds literary or written rather than spoken. She rejects critics' assertions that her prose is rich; to those who say her prose is poetic, she responds that metaphors are natural in black speech.

Morrison wants readers to participate in her novels, to be involved actively. Readers are encouraged to create the novel with her and to help construct meaning. She uses the model of the black preacher who "requires his congregation to speak, to join him in the sermon, to behave in a certain way, to stand up and to weep and to cry and to accede or to change and to modify." She wants readers to say amen. Thus, her writing is meant as a communal experience, a sharing of passion and ideas and responses, with her holding the reader's hand during the experience. One small example of her encouraging reader participation is her not using adverbs like "softly" or "angrily" to describe characters' speeches; the reader should recognize/feel the speaker's emotion from the writing.

She uses magic, folktales, and the supernatural in her novels because

that's the way the world was for me and for the black people I know. In addition to the very shrewd, down-to-earth efficient way in which they did things and survived things, there was this other knowledge or perception, always discredited but nevertheless there.
Her family talked about their dreams in the same way they talked about things that really happened, and they accepted visitations as real. Morrison's style combines these unrealistic elements with a realistic presentation of life and characters . This mixture has been called "magical realism." Initially she objected to the label "magical realism," feeling it diminished her work or even dismissed it. Now, however,she acknowledges that it does identify the supernatural and unrealistic elements in her writing. In The Bluest Eye the "magical" appears in the failure of marigolds to bloom and the belief by some members of the community in Soaphead Church's powers.

According to Morrison, another characteristic of black writing is a distinctive irony. She's not sure that it is different from irony in white literature, and she can't describe it. It's not humor, not a laughing away of troubles. What it is is this:

taking that which is peripheral, or violent or doomed or something that nobody else can see any value in and making value out of it or having a psychological attitude about duress is part of what made us stay alive and fairly coherent, and irony is part of that--being able to see the underside of something, as well.

Themes and Practices in Morrison's Novels

  • Sense of Loss.
    Morrison feels deeply the losses which Afro-Americans experienced in their migration from the rural South to the urban North from 1930 to 1950. They lost their sense of community, their connection to their past, and their culture. The oral tradition of storytelling and folktales was no longer a source of strength. Another source of strength, their music, which healed them, was taken over by the white community; consequently, it no longer belongs to them exclusively.
  • Roots, Community, and Identity
    To have roots is to have a shared history. The individual who does not belong to a community is generally lost. The individual who leaves and has internalized the village or community is much more likely to survive. Also, a whole community--everyone--is needed to raise a child; one parent or two parents are inadequate to the task. The lack of roots and the disconnection from the community and the past cause individuals to become alienated; often her characters struggle unsuccessfully to identify, let alone fulfill an essential self.
  • Ancestors
    Ancestors are necessary: they provide cultural information, they are a connection with the past, they protect, and they educate. The ancestor is "an abiding, interested, benevolent, guiding presence that is yours and is concerned about you, not quite like saints but having the same sort of access, none of which is new information." The ancestors may be parents, grandparents, teachers, or elders in the community. In The Bluest Eye, M'Dear is the ancestor figure. Morrison believes that the presence of the ancestor is one of the characteristics of black writing.
  • Extreme Situations
    Morrison places her characters in extreme situations; she forces them to the edge of endurance and then pushes them beyond what we think human beings can bear. These conditions reveal their basic nature. We see that even good people act in remarkable and in terrible ways. Also, this "push toward the abyss" reveals
    what is heroic. That's the way I know why such people survive, who went under, who didn't, what the civilization was, because quiet as it's kept much of our business, our existence here, has been grotesque. It really has. The fact that we are a stable people making an enormous contribution in whatever way to the society is remarkable because all you have to do is scratch the surface, I don't mean us as individuals but as a race, and there is something quite astonishing there and that's what peaks my curiosity. I do not write books about everyday people. They really are extraordinary whether it's wicked, or stupid or wonderful or what have you.
  • Freedom and "Bad" Men
    To be free, the individual must take risks. Morrison sees men ordinarily regarded as "bad," men who leave their families and refuse responsibilities, as free men. (She is using bad to mean both bad and good.) These men, who have "a nice wildness" and who are fearless and "comfortable with that fearlessness," are misunderstood and therefore condemned. Morrison admires them as adventurers who refuse to be controlled and who are willing to take risks. Because they own themselves, they are able to choose their own way to live their lives. She explains:
    They felt that they had been dealt a bad hand, and they just made up other rules. They couldn't win with the house deck and that was part of their daring. . . . whereas other Black people--they were horrified by all that "bad" behavior. That's all a part of the range of what goes on among us, you know.
    Their behavior points out a valuable principle to the non-outlaw blacks. Blacks have been cut off from their own natures and needs by conforming to the rules of white society. The outlaw serves as a partial solution to the problem of being out of touch with the essential self. Until blacks
    understand in our own terms what our rites of passage are, what we need in order to nourish ourselves, what happens when we don't get that nourishment, then what looks like erratic behavior but isn't will frighten and confuse us. Life becomes comprehensible when we know what rules we are playing by.
    She knows that, in our society, these outlaws have unfortunate and even disastrous effects on others and often end up unemployed or in prison. Nevertheless, in her world view, "evil is as useful as good" and "sometimes good looks like evil; sometimes evil looks like good."
  • Responsibility
    Morrison is not advocating irresponsibility and destructive or chaotic behavior, however. She believes in the necessity of being responsible for one's choices: "freedom is choosing your responsibility. It's not having no responsibilities; it's choosing the ones you want." Jan Furman comments, "She respects the freedom even as she embraces the responsibility."

    Unfortunately, in our society, "many women have been given responsibilities they don't want" and which they could not refuse. Consequently, they are not free.

  • Good and Evil
    Morrison shows understanding of and, often, compassion, for characters who commit horrific deeds, like incest-rape or infanticide. This trait springs in large part from her attitude toward good and evil, which she distinguishes from the conventional or Western view of good and evil. She describes a distinctive view which, she claims, blacks have historically held toward good and evil:
    It was interesting that black people at one time seemed not to respond to evil in the ways other people did, but that they thought evil had a natural place in the universe; they did not wish to eradicate it. They just wished to protect themselves from it, maybe even to manipulate it, but they never wanted to kill it. They thought evil was just another aspect of life.. . . It's because they're not terrified by evil, by difference. Evil is not an alien force; it's just a different force.
    She shifts the boundaries between what we ordinarily regard as good and what as evil, so that judgments become difficult. This reflects the complexity of making moral judgments in life. Her villains are not all evil, nor are her good people saints.
  • Loss of Innocence
    Innocence has to be lost in order for the individual to grow. Harold Bloom suggests that "the fall from innocence becomes a necessary gesture of freedom and a profound act of self-awareness." Claudia, a narrator in The Bluest Eye, loses her innocence as she watches Pecola's destruction.

The Black as Other

Morrison presents the white view of blacks as the Other and the blacks' experience of themselves as Other (in the following quote she refers to the Other as a pariah, which means an outcast or a despised person or animal):
        There are several levels of the pariah figure working in my writing. The black community is a pariah community. Black people are pariahs. The civilization of black people that lives apart from but in juxtaposition to other civilizations is a pariah relationship. In fact, the concept of the black in this country is almost always one of the pariah. But a community contains pariahs within it that are very useful for the conscience of that community.
She believes that blacks were used to control succeeding waves of immigrants in order to prevent class warfare. Immigrants were given the blacks to feel superior to; they were not at the bottom of the social ladder-- blacks were. Blacks also provided immigrants with an identity, i.e., they were not blacks. So, in an ironic way, the Otherness of blacks helped to unify the country and to give immigrants their American identities. She calls learning to perceive blacks as the Other a traumatic experience, like being told "that your left hand is not part of your body."

The Bluest Eye

Many characters in The Bluest Eye are involved in a quest--Pecola for love and an identity, Cholly for his father, Claudia for meaning, Soaphead Church for a place. Identity, the ability to find/express love, the parent-child relationship, friendship, a white standard of beauty, a belief in "romantic love," child abuse, and racism are other major themes. Image clusters in this novel include nature, the seasons, eyes, white dolls, and splitting.

Seeing or Perception

Perception is a key element in The Bluest Eye: how the individual is perceived or is seen by others, how the individual internalizes that perception, and how the individual perceives others. The interaction of these perceptions helps to create and reinforce the individual's sense of identity or lack of a sense of identity.

Some psychologists theorize that the process of identity-building begins when the infant sees itself reflected in the mother's eyes; this gives the child what is sometimes called a sense of presence. This experience enables the infant to see others and to give presence to them. This reciprocal exchange--seeing oneself and being given a presence through the eyes of others and in turn giving them presence-- continues through childhood and adulthood.

An existentialist view of the relationship between perception and identity differs slightly. Sartre identifies "the Look" (being seen) as crucial to developing identity. The Look confirms the individual's identity; however, it simultaneously threatens the individual's sense of freedom. The Look reduces the individual to an object in someone else's reality and takes away the individual's sense of self and potential to be. In other words, the Look controls and reduces the individual to the status of the Other. A power struggle ensues as the individual tries to regain control by reducing the "Looker" to an object; that is, the individual tries to reduce the person with the Look to the status of the Other. In Sartre's view, true identity results only when the following two conditions are met:

  • The individual gives up the effort both to take way someone else's autonomy and to make the person an object or the Other.
  • The individual accepts his/her autonomy and responsibility for his/her own life as well as his/her status as an object in someone else's view/reality. This process may occur between individuals, between groups in a society, and between societies.

In The Bluest Eye, characters in the black community accept their status as the Other, which has been imposed upon them by the white community. In turn, blacks assign the status of Other to individuals like Pecola within the black community.

Morrison uses seeing/not seeing and being seen/not being seen throughout the novel. Pecola is invisible in that her beauty is not perceived, and she desires to disappear or not be perceived. The eye is a natural symbol for perception or seeing.

Websites on Morrison and The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye
   Critical essays and articles. Links to other sites.

The Project on the History of Black Writing
   Bibliography of black writing from 1400-1980.

The Toni Morrison Society
   You may join this society through this page. 

Wired for Books: Community Reconsidered
   Radio discussion by three literature professors.


Morrison Syllabus

Morrison, The Bluest Eye, pp. 3-58
      Morrison, Online overview

The Bluest Eye, pp. 61-109

The Bluest Eye, pp. 110-131

The Bluest Eye, pp. 132-183

The Bluest Eye, pp. 184-206
"Afterward," pp. 209-216
      The Other in The Bluest Eye

Core Studies 6 Page || Syllabus