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
grew with each novel. She received the National Book Critics Circle
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
force and poetic import" which give "life to an essential aspect of
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
to what was legal outside it." In the past, music expressed these
and "kept us alive. Unfortunately music no longer serves this function
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,
is the thing that black people love so much--the
saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them,
with them. It's a love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher's:
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
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
a communal experience, a sharing of passion and ideas and responses,
her holding the reader's hand during the experience. One small example
her encouraging reader participation is her not using adverbs like
or "angrily" to describe characters' speeches; the reader should
the speaker's emotion from the writing.
She uses magic, folktales, and the supernatural in her novels
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
which they did things and survived things, there was this other
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
Eye the "magical" appears in the failure of marigolds to bloom and
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
white literature, and she can't describe it. It's not humor, not a
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
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
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
folktales was no longer a source of strength. Another source of
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
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"
what is heroic. That's the way I know why such
people survive, who went under, who didn't, what the civilization was,
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
contribution in whatever way to the society is remarkable because all
have to do is scratch the surface, I don't mean us as individuals but
a race, and there is something quite astonishing there and that's what
my curiosity. I do not write books about everyday people. They really
extraordinary whether it's wicked, or stupid or wonderful or what have
- Freedom and "Bad" Men
To be free, the individual must take risks.
Morrison sees men ordinarily regarded as "bad," men who leave their
refuse responsibilities, as free men. (She is using bad to mean
bad and good.) These men, who have "a nice wildness" and who are
and "comfortable with that fearlessness," are misunderstood and
condemned. Morrison admires them as adventurers who refuse to be
and who are willing to take risks. Because they own themselves, they
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
to the rules of white society. The outlaw serves as a partial solution
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."
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
seemed not to respond to evil in the ways other people did, but that
thought evil had a natural place in the universe; they did not wish to
it. They just wished to protect themselves from it, maybe even to
it, but they never wanted to kill it. They thought evil was just
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
necessary gesture of freedom and a profound act of self-awareness."
a narrator in The Bluest Eye, loses her innocence as she
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
always one of the pariah. But a community contains pariahs within it
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
feel superior to; they were not at the bottom of the social ladder--
were. Blacks also provided immigrants with an identity, i.e., they
were not blacks. So, in an ironic way, the Otherness of blacks helped
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
perception, and how the individual perceives others. The interaction of
these perceptions helps to create and reinforce the individual's sense
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
struggle ensues as the individual tries to regain control by reducing
"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
she desires to disappear or not be perceived. The eye is a natural
for perception or seeing.
Websites on Morrison and The Bluest Eye
Critical essays and articles. Links to other sites.
The Project on the
of Black Writing
Bibliography of black writing from 1400-1980.
The Toni Morrison
You may join this society through this page.
Books: Community Reconsidered
Radio discussion by three literature professors.
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