Morrison's image of herself as a literary organism whose creative force is fed by all that has encompassed her is reflected in her fiction, a combination of prose and poetry so lyrical and evocative that it often transcends the narrative of African-Americans that she presents, exhorting all her readers to share in and accept responsibility for the creative act they are witnessing. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech Morrison told a story in which the roles of storyteller and listener eventually elide one another so that both are involved in fiction making. "How lovely it is," the storyteller concludes, "this thing we have done -- together."
In describing Morrison's work the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy stated: "She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race. And she addresses us with the luster of poetry." For Morrison it is the language that, as she said in her acceptance speech, "may be the measure of our lives," and as such it must not be a language that oppresses or manipulates, "the policing languages of mastery," but that can "limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speaker, readers, writers." It must be free of the arrogance of absolute definition. "Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable." In 1996 Morrison received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and in her acceptance speech, The Dancing Mind, she continues to emphasize the necessary interconnectedness--the dancing of minds--that occurs through reading and writing. The reader she speaks of must come to terms with solitude, and the writer she met risked her life in an attempt to put words beyond the control of a stifling government. Writing, Morrison says, is thus
a craft that appears solitary but needs another for its completion. A craft that signals independence but relies totally on an industry. It is more than an urge to make sense or to make sense artfully or to believe it matters. It is more than a desire to watch other writers manage to refigure the world. I know now, more than I ever did (and I always on some level knew it), that I need that intimate, sustained surrender to the company of my mind while it touches another's--which is reading . . . That I need to offer the fruits of my own imaginative intelligence to another without fear of anything more deadly than disdain--which is writing.
Morrison has become one of the literary elite even though, since she is an African-American and a female, her writings are often a challenge to the canon of predominantly white-male American writing. Morrison's remarkable accomplishment is summed up by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: "Just two centuries ago, the African-American literary tradition was born in slave narratives. Now our greatest writer has won the Nobel Prize." The fact that Morrison has received the most prestigious of writing awards serves not only to expand the literary criteria for greatness but has also initiated discussion about the evolving nature of American literature. Evidence of the high level of scholarly interest in Morrison's work includes the Toni Morrison Society Newsletter, a semiannual publication begun in 1995.
Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, the second of four children raised in a family that had endured economic and social adversity. Morrison's maternal grandparents, Ardelia and John Solomon Willis, were sharecroppers in Greenville, Alabama, having lost their land at the turn of the century. In 1912 her grandparents decided to head north to escape the hopeless debt of sharecropping and the fear of racism, which posed the threat of sexual violation to their pubescent daughters. They traveled to Kentucky, where Morrison's grandfather worked in a coal mine and her mother was a laundress. But they left abruptly when their daughters came home from school one day, having taught the white teacher how to do long division. In search of a better education for their children, Morrison's grandparents eventually settled in Lorain.
While growing up during the Depression, Morrison witnessed the struggles of her father, George Wofford, who had migrated from Georgia, and mother, Ramah Willis Wofford, to support their family. George Wofford often worked many jobs at a time -- a shipyard welder, car washer, steelmill welder, and construction worker -- while Ramah Wofford, Morrison revealed in a 1983 interview with Nellie McKay (reprinted in Conversations with Toni Morrison, 1984), "took 'humiliating jobs' in order to send Morrison money regularly while she was in college and graduate school." Her parents' willingness to take on hard and sometimes demeaning work was coupled with a distinct unwillingness to relinquish their own sense of value and humanity. Morrison's father was meticulous in his work, writing his name in the side of the ship whenever he welded a perfect seam. Her mother at one point wrote a letter of protest to President Franklin D. Roosevelt when her family received unfit government-sponsored flour.
While Morrison's parents grappled with economic hardship, they also struggled to retain their sense of worth in an oppressive white world. Their early experiences with racism shaped their respective views of white people. Morrison's father was, in her words, a racist; she told Jean Strouse that, as a child in Georgia, he received "shocking impressions of adult white people." Morrison's mother held out hope for the white race to improve, but her father was convinced that whites were never to be trusted or believed. He once threw a white man out of his home, believing the visitor planned to molest his daughters. Both parents had reservations about the potential for the white race and thus taught their children to rely on themselves and the black community rather than the vagaries of a larger society whose worth to them was highly suspect.
Morrison did not suffer the effects of racism early on because she was the only black in her first-grade class and the only one who could read. However, she told Bonnie Angelo that her innocence was soon shattered:
I remember in the fifth grade a smart little boy who had just arrived and didn't speak any English. He sat next to me. I read well, and I taught him to read just by doing it. I remember the moment he found out that I was black -- a nigger. It took him six months; he was told. And that's the moment when he belonged, that was his entrance. Every immigrant knew he would not come as the very bottom. He had to come above at least one group -- and that was us.
Morrison confronted other incidents of racism, but her parents' emphasis on the value of African-Americans as a people, of their family as an inviolable unit, and of themselves as individuals was no doubt the psychological foundation that sustained and nurtured her. Her father was convinced that blacks were superior to whites, a belief that deeply influenced Morrison. At age thirteen, when she complained about the mean white family whose house she cleaned, her father told her she did not live with them, but "here. So you go do your work, get your money and come on home." Morrison did not adopt her father's racism, but she always knew, she remarked in an interview with Charlie Rose (Public Broadcasting System, 7 May 1993), "I had the moral high ground all my life."
Though deprived of monetary resources in a hostile world, Morrison's family and community held a remarkable wealth of music, storytelling, the supernatural, and black language -- major influences on Morrison and her writings. Morrison woke up to the sound of her mother's voice, singing both at home and for the church choir. But music, Morrison said in the Rose interview, "was not entertainment for us" but more a means of detecting her mother's moods. It acted as a support system. Though her family could not read music, they could reproduce the music they heard. Other forms of support included storytelling that involved every member of the family. After adults told stories, they invited the children to do the same. Morrison considered this part as important, if not more important, than listening to the stories.
Though there were few books in her house, Morrison learned early the importance of reading. Her grandfather was a figure of awe and respect to her because, with the help of his sister, he had taught himself to read. Morrison was encouraged to read and did so voraciously, including a wide range of world literature. She told Strouse:
Those books were not written for a little black girl in Lorain, Ohio, but they were so magnificently done that I got them anyway -- they spoke directly to me out of their own specificity. I wasn't thinking of writing then -- I wanted to be a dancer like Maria Tallchief -- but when I wrote my first novel years later, I wanted to capture that same specificity about the nature and feeling of the culture I grew up in.
Though Morrison did not read literature by black women writers until adulthood, she told Gloria Naylor in a 1985 interview (reprinted in Conversations with Toni Morrison) that her affinity with them, which critics have identified, is evidence that "the world as perceived by black women at certain times does exist."
That world was often rife with the supernatural. In a 1977 interview reprinted in Conversations with Toni Morrison, when asked by Mel Watkins whether she believed in ghosts, Morrison replied, "Yes. Do you believe in germs? It's part of our heritage." Morrison stated that her family was "intimate with the supernatural," her parents often telling exciting and terrifying ghost stories that the children were encouraged to repeat. Dreams were a constituent of reality -- her grandmother even played the numbers with the use of a dream book -- and ghostly apparitions were not considered astonishing. Without the belief in the supernatural, Morrison remarked to Valerie Smith, "I would have been dependent on so-called scientific data to explain hopelessly unscientific things and also I would have relied on information that even subsequent objectivity has proved to be fraudulent." Her novels, too, would have been bereft of their unique blend of fantasy and reality, myth and history, folklore and legend. So intertwined are the supernatural and empirical reality in Morrison's novels that the seen and the unseen often elide one another.
After high school Morrison attended Howard University, majoring in English and minoring in the classics; her dream was to be a teacher. While at Howard she acquired the nickname Toni. She soon became disenchanted with Howard and the importance students placed on marriage, fashion, socializing, and chic. She joined the Howard University Players, thus getting an opportunity to travel in the South, to experience its history and geography, and to relive her grandparents' harrowing flight from poverty and racism. Morrison graduated from Howard in 1953 and then enrolled in graduate school at Cornell University.
Morrison's rich history of family and community filters directly into her novels, a progression of works that begins by addressing the black family and then broadens to the black community, regions of the United States, foreign lands and alien cultures, history, and reality. In her novels Morrison celebrates the rich heritage and language of the black community and the values it struggles to maintain in a predominantly white society whose own value system, she finds, has lost its collective way. Morrison's thematic consistency is refigured in each novel so that her canon constitutes a progressive troping of her own works. Each novel is an original and refreshing revoicing of her previous concerns with the black community and family. She experiments almost relentlessly with language, with narrative forms, and with fictive reality in an endeavor to redefine the African-American experience not as marginal or peripheral, but as American.
Morrison received her master's degree from Cornell in 1955. She wrote her thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. She then taught English at Texas Southern University in Houston for two years, beginning a teaching career that she proudly continues to this day. According to Smith, Morrison has taught at "Yale, Bard, the State University of New York at Purchase, and the State University of New York at Albany. Since 1988 she has held the Robert F. Goheen Professorship of the Humanities at Princeton University."
In 1957 Morrison, then an English instructor at Howard, began to meet and influence young men who became prominent in the 1960s, among them Amiri Baraka, Andrew Young, and Claude Brown. She taught Stokely Carmichael in one of her classes; she told Strouse that he was "'the kind of student you always want in a class -- smart, perceptive, funny and a bit of a rogue.'" Morrison stayed at Howard from 1957 to 1964, leaving because she did not have the Ph.D. necessary for tenure.
Two major events marked her period of teaching at Howard. She began to write, and she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect. During her marriage Morrison joined a writer's group at Howard, composing a story that grew into her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), about a little girl who longs for blue eyes. With her writing career only in its infancy, her marriage ended around 1964, leaving Morrison with two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. Though reticent about her marriage and reluctant even to discuss its actual date, she does refer to cultural differences and a feeling of personal bankruptcy: "It was as though I had nothing left but my imagination. I had no will, no judgment, no perspective, no power, no authority, no self -- just this brutal sense of irony, melancholy and a trembling respect for words."
After her divorce Morrison lived with her parents in Lorain for a year and a half and then accepted an editorial position with a textbook subsidiary at Random House in Syracuse, New York. Her mother expressed dismay that Morrison was a single parent without other family there -- a difficult, isolated condition for anyone, but especially for African-Americans, who to a great extent rely on extended family and community for well-being in an indifferent, if not inhospitable, world. Morrison talked to Rose about raising children alone: "It was terrible. Very hard. Awful." She added, "You need everybody [to raise a child]." For Morrison writing helped fill the void of family, husband, and, to a great extent, self. She remarked to Naylor: "But I was really in a corner. And whatever was being threatened by the circumstances in which I found myself, alone with two children in a town where I didn't know anybody, I knew that I would not deliver to my children a parent that was of no use to them. So I was thrown back on, luckily, the only thing I could depend on, my own resources."
While in Syracuse, Morrison continued work on The Bluest Eye as a way to find her place in a world where she felt she no longer belonged. She told Naylor that writing the novel became a process of reclamation:
And I began to do it. I began to pick up scraps of things that I had seen or felt, or didn't see or didn't feel, but imagined. And speculated about and wondered about. And I fell in love with myself. I reclaimed myself and the world ... I named it. I described it. I listed it. I identified it. I recreated it. And having done that, at least, then the books belonged in the world.
An editor read the partly completed manuscript and suggested she finish it. It was rejected many times before Holt, Rinehart and Winston published The Bluest Eye in 1970.
The Bluest Eye is a wrenching account of how the Western notion of idealized beauty and its penchant for blue eyes and blond hair turn self-esteem in the black community into self-loathing. The novel reveals the destructive potential of a standard of beauty that places value on the way people look rather than on their intrinsic worth. This condition is manifested in the character of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl on the verge of womanhood, who longs for blue eyes as an avenue to prettiness and, hence, love. Her desire for the impossible would be less pathetic given the unconditional love and support of family and community. However, her mother, suffering from her own belief in the ugliness of her family, ignores her, while her drunken father's twisted attempt at loving his daughter turns into rape. The community watches but does nothing as Pecola gives birth to a baby that dies and as she then lapses into an insanity in which she is finally possessed of the bluest eyes.
Pecola's tragedy is the ultimate expression of an entire community infected with distorted notions of worth. Most of the characters in the novel suffer different degrees of victimization at the hands of a society that confuses whiteness with virtue. Morrison shows that blacks in a white society often have learned to identify against themselves, as Judith Fetterley would say, by adopting the racist attitudes that dehumanize them. The prime example of this tendency is Pecola's mother, Pauline Breedlove, who, convinced of her own ugliness, retreats to a movie theater and images of white beauty she vicariously experiences. She prefers the quiet order and tidiness of the white people's houses she cleans to the confusion of her own ragtag storefront home. Pecola's blackness is a constant reminder to Pauline of her own inability to approximate the ideal of white beauty. As a result, she simply ignores her daughter rather than sustain her.
Pecola's father, Cholly, has learned that his blackness is a sign of absence and exclusion. He is abandoned by his mother and father as an infant. In his first act of lovemaking he is surprised by white hunters, who force him to complete the act. Though he is initially capable of investing Pauline with a sense of her own beauty, he is divested of his authority by the overwhelming influence of white society. Powerless to empower, Cholly resorts to drunkenness, and eventually to rape, in a demented effort to convince Pecola that she is lovable.
The Bluest Eye is flooded with characters whose humanity has been diminished as a consequence of their blackness, a signifier of lack to white society, their own community, and even themselves. Most disturbing in the novel are the light-skinned blacks who distance themselves from their black heritage in an exercise of same-race hatred. As Maureen Peal's actions illustrate, black children are taught early to assume a superiority based on the lightness of their skin. Maureen, the "high-yellow dream" who has "lynch ropes for hair," deals Pecola the ultimate insult: "I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos."
Another light-skinned character, Geraldine, attempts literally to scrub the blackness from her life and that of her son, Junior. When she finds Pecola in her home, she unleashes a rage on her simply because she cannot tolerate the relative darkness of her skin. The ultimate manifestation of self-hatred and same-race hatred is Soaphead Church, who was taught "to separate [himself] in body, mind and spirit from all that suggested Africa." He is so twisted by an obsession with whiteness and cleanliness that he resorts to molesting little girls rather than engage in a mature sexual relationship.
As in most of her novels, in the The Bluest Eye Morrison presents ways of surviving in a world suffused with psychic pain and suffering. The MacTeers represent a black family who, though struggling for its economic life, has not been divested of its humanity. Blessed with a hardworking father and a dutiful mother, the MacTeers nevertheless are profoundly affected by the difficult conditions of their lives. In Mrs. MacTeer is a "misery colored by the greens and blues in her voice." Her life, marked by poverty and a bitter climate, shapes her sometimes-harsh treatment of her children, Claudia and Frieda.
But love, not money, is the motivating force in the MacTeer household, and it is that which sustains them. Mrs. MacTeer is capable, as Claudia recalls, of music, warm laughter, and an abiding love: "Love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup, eased up into that cracked window. I could smell it -- taste it ... everywhere in the house." Even more remarkable than the love in the MacTeer household is their willingness to extend it into the community. They take in Pecola for a brief time, increasing the burden on an already strapped existence. Mrs. MacTeer becomes the moral authority in the novel in her condemnation of the Breedloves and their irresponsible treatment of Pecola. "'Folks,'" she says, "'just dump they children off on you and go on 'bout they business. ... What kind of something is that?'"
The domestic blues of the MacTeer family and the general gloominess of the novel are offset by the world of the prostitutes China, Poland, and Miss Marie. Though they exist outside society, despised and reviled, they create an atmosphere of jocularity and freshness that momentarily brightens the darkness of the novel. Pecola takes refuge in this world because the prostitutes remain unaffected by the standards of a culture that has already rejected them. They are, therefore, oblivious to Pecola's ugliness and dirt, and they treat her with genuine warmth and affection. Pecola is so content in an environment of laughter and unconditional love that she wonders, "Were they real?" Still, the whorehouse provides only a brief respite from the reality of Pecola's world. The prostitutes, like the other members of the community, cannot or do not take responsibility for Pecola's life.
Pecola's insanity, in which she convinces herself that she possesses blue eyes, is an ironic reversal of a society that considers itself sane in its valorization of physical features. If Pecola's raison d'être revolves around the color of her skin and her eyes, she must imagine herself into existence in order to survive. While her survival is perceived as craziness, it is the only alternative given her treatment as a black person. Pecola's insanity, then, is a manifestation of corrupt societal values and an indictment of the human beings who perpetuate them. The consequences of reducing human worth to the limited criteria of physical beauty are insanity, death, and sterility. Claudia realizes that, as a young black girl, she is an endangered species from which "no green was going to spring." The soil is "'bad,'" she says, "'for certain kinds of flowers.'"
Reviews of The Bluest Eye were generally encouraging, though at times reserved in their praise. Many reviewers recognized a brilliant novelist in the making, emphasizing the beauty of her prose, her authentic dialogue, and her insight into black life. But they also criticized what they saw as an excess and abuse of those same qualities. In the New York Times (13 November 1970) John Leonard provided the most enthusiastic appraisal of The Bluest Eye, characterizing Morrison's prose as "so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry." Several reviewers were less laudatory, criticizing her for what L. E. Sissman in the New Yorker called "an occasional error of fact or judgment" or what Haskel Frankel (New York Times Book Review, 1 November 1970) saw as "fuzziness born of flights of poetic imagery."
But even reviewers most critical of Morrison's first novel sensed her potential. The Choice reviewer stated that The Bluest Eye may not be the "best first novel ever published; it is, however, a sympathetic and moving portrayal of human beings ... and for this alone it deserves to be read." Sissman concluded that, in spite of Morrison's penchant for "an occasion false or bombastic line," none of it matters "beside her real and greatly promising achievement." Frankel conceded that, though Morrison "has gotten lost in her construction," she is a writer "to seek out and encourage."
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Morrison's career as a writer paralleled her increasing prominence in the publishing world and as one of the cultural elite of the black community. She left Syracuse to become a senior editor at Random House in New York City. There, she established herself as a mentor for such aspiring African-American women writers as Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and Angela Davis. Bambara told Strouse that Morrison is "a superb editor" whose judgment she trusts "absolutely." In the same article Young remarked that "Toni had done more to encourage and publish other black writers than anyone I know." Morrison also supported the publication of important works on black history, including The Black Book (1974), which she edited. Morrison was called on increasingly in the early 1970s to review books, especially for the New York Times Book Review, for which she critiqued twenty-eight books from 1971 to 1972. In 1971 she also wrote an article, "What the Black Woman Thinks About Women's Lib," for the New York Times Magazine.
The idea for Morrison's second novel, Sula (1973), came months after she finished The Bluest Eye. In her conversation with Naylor she stated:
And so after I finished that book I was in some despair because several months passed and I didn't have another idea. And then I got to thinking about this girl, this woman. If it wasn't unconventional, she didn't want it. She was willing to risk in her imagination a lot of things and pay the price and also go astray. It wasn't as though she was this fantastic power who didn't have a flaw in her character. I wanted to throw her relationship with another woman into relief. Those two women -- that too is us, those two desires, to have your adventure and safety. So I just cut it up.
In Sula Morrison focuses on the friendship of the two women she imagined. Nel represents the traditional roles of wife and mother in a patriarchal society, and Sula rejects those roles in favor of a life that is separate from family and community. They are inseparable as childhood friends, sharing a complicity in the death of a young boy Sula accidentally lets slip into a raging river. Eventually Sula leaves the community, only to return in search of her friend and any of Nel's life experiences she may have missed, including Nel's husband, Jude, with whom she has an affair.
As children, Nel and Sula are exposed to the unique, often bizarre configuration of their town and the people who inhabit it. Bottom is a black hilltop community that overlooks the white valley town of Medallion. In Bottom the residents are often as topsy-turvy as the topographically misleading name of the town indicates. Shadrack is a mad World War I veteran who celebrates National Suicide Day. Sula's mother, Eva, has sacrificed her leg for the economic security of disability payments, while Nel's mother, Helene Wright, has assimilated white, patriarchal ways even though her own mother is a Creole whore. Death through fire, drowning, disease, and madness becomes the fate of Bottom residents -- a fictional apocalypse both frightening and confusing in its implications.
In Sula, as in The Bluest Eye , Morrison continues her denunciation of white values and their negative impact on the black community. Sula is a novel of contrasts, ironic reversals, and mirror images reflected in the fates of her characters and their community. Bottom and Medallion exist in an uneasy social stasis because they represent two often-opposite ways of living. Medallion generates commerce and industry, while Bottom, excluded from the economic benefits of the valley town, concentrates its efforts on family and community. Bottom residents struggle with the shifting plates of their stability. The notion of nuclear family as ideal undergoes a strong challenge from the existence of Eva's household. Reality is balanced by the ever-present supernatural. Women's roles -- the novel's focus -- are scrutinized in the figures of Nel and Sula.
Bottom and Medallion, as top and bottom, generate an opposition that frames the story. The geography emphasizes the contending ideologies of the two communities. Medallion represents commerce, whereas Bottom is a community of people, not an aggregation of houses surrounding a business district. However, Bottom residents and valley people look to each other for the missing pieces of their respective lives. The valley people envy the simple pleasures of the hill people, who engage freely in creative and artistic expression, whether in the form of laughter, singing, playing the banjo, donning a flowered dress, or high stepping. The hill people release the joy of life absent in Medallion, where residents wistfully long for an existence less rigidly defined by dollars and cents.
But the longing of the valley people blinds them to the pain of the Bottom residents, who struggle simply to survive. Having no choice in their setting and divorced from the mainstream, the people of Bottom must create an identity and a purpose that must necessarily include an identification with a culture that shuns them and a heritage that threatens to escape them. In the midst of this confusion Bottom residents are influenced by the same value system that generated Medallion. They embrace a tunnel project as their way out of poverty but are symbolically and literally crushed by it. The deaths of the tunnel victims initiate the death of a community that eventually assimilates into Medallion. Bottom residents turn to the valley, and, "just like that, [whites] had changed their minds and ... now they wanted a hilltop house." In Sula Bottom and the valley, rather than melding and resolving the dialectic of their inhabitants' lives, simply switch places in a circular fashion.
The fate of Bottom is shared by many of its residents. The strong Eva, who creates a haven of her home by including all walks of life, goes mad after burning her drug-addicted son to death and watching as her daughter Hannah is also consumed by flames. Though her home is an alternative to the restrictive, stultifying atmosphere of Helene Wright's house, it cannot isolate itself from the externalities of racism and oppression that infect it. Sula becomes the town pariah whose evil presence is evidenced in several omens. In an effort to understand an unrelenting reality, Bottom residents invoke the supernatural to explain the phenomenon of a woman who does not and will not succumb to traditional gender roles. Nel finally appreciates the nature and function of her friend, but only after Sula dies. Finally, Bottom residents attempt to destroy a tunnel that once promised economic security, but they end up being destroyed by it. The community of Bottom, which possesses so much potential as an alternative to a white world struggling to find its spiritual center, ends up burying itself in physical and spiritual death. There is no synthesis for this fictional world, only "circles and circles of sorrow."
With the publication of Sula Morrison's importance as a writer was established. The novel received more critical and popular attention than The Bluest Eye and was excerpted in Redbook, selected as an alternate for the Book-of-the-Month Club, and nominated for the 1975 National Book Award in fiction. Reviewers of Sula both praised and condemned Morrison's prose poetry, narrative construction, and moral and ethical vision of black life. The positive reviews, such as Jerry Bryant's in the Nation (6 July 1974), cited the beauty of her language and her originality. Both Booklist (15 March 1974) and Choice (March 1974) commended Sula for its authenticity and craftsmanship.
Other reviewers, however, criticized Sula for what they perceived to be a lack of careful craftsmanship. The Times Literary Supplement (4 October 1974) called the plot "contrived," and Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times (7 January 1974) complained that Morrison's scenes seem "written from scratch" and that her prose poetry, in an attempt to avoid clichés, ends up "call[ing] them to mind." Lehmann-Haupt stated that the novel suffers from a lack of objectivity, and Sara Blackburn in The New York Times Book Review (30 December 1973) complained of a "narrowness" and "refusal to brim over into the world outside its provincial setting." In response to these observations the Black World (June 1974) reviewer commented that angry responses to Sula were a "ripping hostility" to Morrison's "excellence and skill."
Morrison's third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), expands beyond the time and place of her first two books, moving from North to South and from present to past in an endeavor to uncover and rediscover the personal history of an African-American family. Song of Solomon is, in some ways, a fictionalized venture of another project in which Morrison was involved, The Black Book, a scrapbook of African-American history published soon after Sula. In Song of Solomon Morrison for the first time uses a male protagonist, Milkman, to undergo a rite of passage -- not from innocence to experience but from one history to another, one culture to another, and one value system to another. He undergoes a ritual immersion into the South and his own history in an attempt to understand himself and his culture.
As in The Bluest Eye and Sula, the black community in Song of Solomon struggles with a double consciousness that can wreak havoc on their lives. Not willing to give up the distinctive quality of their African-American culture, they are nevertheless pressured or lured into a desire for assimilation that in this novel takes the shape of land ownership, a crucial aspect of African-American history because it constitutes physical and legal evidence of a history and tradition. Perhaps for this reason many of the characters in Song of Solomon adopt the appropriative, rather than the custodial, view of the land.
Milkman's father, Macon, is a money-grubbing landlord who exploits his own community for profit; Guitar Bains is obsessive in his desire for the money, land, and even blood of those who have oppressed him. While appropriation characterizes the motives of Macon Dead and Guitar Bains, it can be seen earlier in Macon's grandfather, a separatist who attempts to create a private paradise and, hence, a measure of autonomy. Yet his land, Lincoln's Heaven, is also stripped from him, and he is murdered. The exception to the destructive policies of appropriation is Pilate, for whom land is not an entity to be owned. It simply is. She envisions herself as a temporary custodian of the land, which itself is eternal and thus independent of the generations of people who will lay claim to it. Freed from the obsession of appropriation, Pilate can channel her energies into human relationships and eventually into the community.
Milkman must find his way through the turnstiles of this double vision, as Ralph Ellison calls it, to create a sense of self that does not yet exist. To reach this point he embarks on a traditionally male mythic journey that Morrison implies is an extremely clumsy approach to the obvious. Milkman travels to Pennsylvania in search of gold for his selfish purposes, but he acquires an education that takes him south through Danville and then Shalimar. In Danville he becomes reacquainted with his grandfather's history of proud landownership. Since his death, however, the community has limped along, clinging to tradition but lacking the vitality to generate any. This inertia motivates Milkman to the wrong action. His desire for gold becomes a form of revenge on the people who murdered his grandfather.
Once he arrives in Shalimar, Milkman's transformation begins. He is confronted by a town that boasts no commerce, transportation, or government. Invisible even on a map, Shalimar does not exist on the level of civilization. In this sequestered setting Milkman undergoes a series of initiations that strip him of his cultural indoctrinations. Eventually he is led to the myth of flight, which is a catalyst for his symbolic and literal leap out of ignorance into the knowledge of his past and himself. It is also a leap into confrontation with yet another distorted value system -- represented by Guitar's blood lust -- that could end up destroying the African-American community.
Though Milkman's fate is in question and Pilate, one of Morrison's most enduring characters, dies at the end of the novel, Song of Solomon represents a significant departure from Morrison's first two novels in that celebration and hope eclipse despondency and utter despair. The novel is often an expression of joy -- especially in Pilate's household, with the "three women singing in the candlelight," and, later, in Milkman's discovery of the myth of Shalimar. Song of Solomon suggests that, through history, African-Americans can begin to make sense of their lives in the context of being American. With knowledge comes connection and a sense of responsibility, a process that Pilate initiates with her arrival in Southside and that she is able to pass on to Milkman before her death. But Morrison, always a reserved optimist, leaves sufficient doubt about what Milkman will be able to accomplish as a way of reminding readers that the resolution to hundreds of years of oppression will be a long, painful journey.
Mitigating the reality of Southside is a Morrison trademark, the use of the supernatural. In Song of Solomon she indulges in myth, fantasy, and the supernatural as a form of transcendence for her African-American characters. While she dabbles in the supernatural in both The Bluest Eye and Sula, in Song of Solomon she further blurs the lines between mimesis and fantasy. In this novel Morrison uses myth as a device that mitigates the dichotomy of being black in white society. Myth, as used in Song of Solomon, is not only a metaphor but also a course of action that, as it muddies the distinction between spiritual and physical flight, provides fuel for the collective imagination. Fantasy also figures heavily in Song of Solomon. Pilate can talk to her dead father, Ruth's watermark does grow each day, and Solomon and Milkman can fly. By casually mingling the real and the bizarre, Morrison negotiates the chasm between reality and fantasy so that the impossible becomes the inevitable.
Song of Solomon was both a popular and critical success, establishing Morrison as one of America's most important novelists. The novel became a paperback best-seller, with 570,000 copies in print in 1979. Song of Solomon was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection, the first novel by an African-American so chosen since Richard Wright's Native Son (1940). Morrison's success and recognition led to her 1980 appointment by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on the Arts. In 1981 she was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Reviews of Song of Solomon were generally enthusiastic and appreciative of the depth and richness of Morrison's art, with its mixture of reality and fantasy and its strikingly original use of language. Susan Lardner in the New Yorker (7 November 1977) considered Morrison "a genuine rhapsode," while Linda Kuehl in the Saturday Review (17 September 1977) called Morrison a "romantic revolutionary" whose new novel is "the vision of an original, eccentric, inventive imagination." Several reviewers remarked on Morrison's growth as a writer. On the front page of the New York Times Book Review (11 September 1977) Reynolds Price stated that in Song of Solomon "the depths of the younger work are still evident, but now they thrust outward, into wider fields." Angela Wigan in Time (12 September 1977) observed that Song of Solomon is in what Morrison herself described as the fifth stage of African-American writing, "an artistic vision that encompasses both a private and a national heritage."
Some reviewers praised Morrison for her moral sensibility. In the Nation (19 November 1977) Earl Frederick called Morrison "appealingly old fashioned" in her vision of "love as an abiding need, and dignity and desperation as inseparable aspects of individual existence." The World Literature Today (Summer 1978) reviewer compared Morrison to Karl Marx "because her novel turns upside down many of the established social, moral and cultural beliefs that the Western world has inherited from the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions." Some criticism was muted and centered on Morrison's choice of a man as her protagonist. Vivian Gornick in the Village Voice (29 August 1977) stated that the "source of artistic trouble in Song of Solomon resided in Morrison's choice of Milkman as protagonist -- instead of with one of the women in the book."
In Tar Baby (1981) Morrison no longer focuses exclusively on the black family and community, setting her novel in the Caribbean and thus incorporating several different cultures, including the island natives, Philadelphia Negroes, and Western imperialists, all of whom are mutually dependent on one another but who are alienated from any sense of community. With this hodgepodge of people comes a conflicting set of values that struggle for an impossible hegemony in a riot of interdependency. Therese, Gideon, and Alme Estee as well as Ondine, Sydney, and Jadine rely on the beneficence of the white Streets for their livelihood, as Valerian and Margaret Street rely on them for their service and devotion.
The occupants of the house engage in a subtle warfare in which subterfuge, subversion, and emotional blackmail are employed to gain some measure of control. In the Street household the dependents gain power and control within the system but do not free themselves from it. All are essentially codependents of the addictive system that has minimalized their lives. Yet they cannot live without it, for to do so would require total self-reliance, a concept too frightening for them to consider. Only Son continues to be a human being capable of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth. And, as a male, he signals a departure from Morrison's earlier conceptions of woman as spiritual healer and as separate from society at large.
The social fabric in Tar Baby is multifaceted and highly complex. Filled with inter- and intraracial conflict as well as class and gender conflict, the Isle de Chevaliers is a microcosm of modern society. As in Song of Solomon these conflicts involve the real and imagined ownership of the island, a tendency that includes both a physical and spiritual preoccupation with the land. Both cultures lay claim to a symbolic geography: the white imperialists justify occupation by their commercial interests and the belief that a hundred French cavaliers haunt the island; the natives claim custodianship of the island by virtue of their presence and the myth of the shipwrecked blind slaves.
This difference in the mythic beliefs and land ownership informs the relationship of all the characters -- to each other and to the communities in which they live. Valerian's sense of security is directly linked to ownership of his plantation. Even his last name, Street, suggests a manipulation of nature into municipality. As servants to Valerian, Sydney and Ondine are appendages to his system and thus have no affinity or connection to the land. Jadine sees the world as a global mall, a consumer's paradise that is hers for the taking.
Son retains a mythic notion of community in Eloe; but, in spite of Son's attempts to romanticize it, Eloe lacks direction and purpose. Finally, it is Therese, the island native, who sees land as something one must work with and not against, in cooperation and dependency. The natives are convinced that they will remain through a string of occupations; thus, their values represent the custodial rather than the appropriative view of the land. This sense of the relationship between the land and people becomes the metaphor for community in contradistinction to the Street occupation and is the essential value that Therese wishes to impart to Son.
In Tar Baby Morrison again relies on myth, ghosts, and evil, intensifying their mystical qualities by placing them in the isolated setting of a Caribbean island. Morrison invokes the supernatural as a way to fend off a reality in which whites are set against blacks, women against men, culture against primitivism, and civilization against nature. Morrison challenges these dualities by creating an atmosphere in which the island itself is sentient, competing myths on the island proliferate, and several characters experience psychic occurrences.
The Isle de Chevaliers is cluttered with spirits and myths that should inevitably minimize individual differences but instead tend to intensify them. Given a more complete perspective of alternative realities, individuals should be able to release themselves from their own limited vision and open up to creative solutions. If Jadine and Son, Valerian and Son, Ondine and Jadine, and Margaret and Michael cannot solve their problems it is because they do not possess total knowledge. Morrison provides her characters with that missing information by way of the supernatural, although they may not always be able to interpret it adequately. At the end of the novel Son appears to embark on a journey that is a rebirth of sorts, but, as is often the case in Morrison's novels, considerable doubt exists as to whether or not Son will be able to reacquaint himself with his "ancient properties."
Tar Baby met with considerable advance publicity, as publication coincided with a cover story on Morrison in Newsweek. However, reviewers expressed a measure of ambivalence about the novel, especially in terms of Morrison's thematic intent. Wilfrid Sheed in the Atlantic Monthly (April 1981) commented, "We have experienced Morrison, half at her very best and the other half presumably having fun, dabbling in something new -- white light comedy -- with only sporadic success. And there's no harm in any of that." Less conciliatory, David Dubal in the Hudson Review (Autumn 1981) characterized her "response to both the personal and cultural crisis of the book ... perplexing, if not confused." Brina Caplan in the Nation (2 May 1981) stated that Tar Baby suffers because it is "a novel of ideas set in the white world." Nicholas Shrimpton in the New Statesman (23 October 1981) called Tar Baby "a seriously overweight novel."
More positive reviews zeroed in on Morrison's "vast curiosity," "her terrible honesty," and what Maureen Howard in the New Republic (21 March 1981) admitted is a "pleasure I associate with the best kind of reading." Some reviewers, including Selden Rodman in the National Review (26 June 1981) commented on the negative portrayal of white characters in the novel, continuing a pattern of critique that appears to hold Morrison accountable for her depiction of fictional characters and worlds in ways that other writers have not been. She has been chastised for her narrow vision of black life in The Bluest Eye and Sula, her lack of strong male characters, her selection of a male hero in Song of Solomon, her exclusion of white characters, and her characterization of white people. Evaluation of Morrison's powerful art often appears colored by the political agendas of her constituents.
In Beloved (1987) Morrison embraces the supernatural as perhaps the ideal vehicle for the investigation of slavery, an institution so incomprehensible that Morrison suggests that most Americans would like to bury it, since it is the historical reminder of a national disgrace. Morrison delayed the writing of this novel because she anticipated the pain of recovery and confrontation. She told Elizabeth Kastor, "I had forgotten that when I started the book, I was very frightened. ... It was an unwillingness and a terror of going into an area for which you have no preparation. It's a commitment of three or four years to living inside -- because you do try to enter that life." In spite of "this terrible reluctance about dwelling on that era," Morrison informed Angelo that she went ahead with the writing of the book because "I was trying to make it a personal experience."
Beloved is based on the true story of the slave Margaret Garner, who murdered her own child rather than return her to slavery. In the novel the slave woman, Sethe, escapes to freedom in the North, where she lives with her remaining children. Morrison altered the true story, she told Marsha Darling in a 1988 interview (reprinted in Conversations with Toni Morrison), as Garner was not tried for murder:
She was tried for a real crime, which was running away -- although the abolitionists were trying very hard to get her tried for murder because they wanted the Fugitive Slave Law to be unconstitutional. They did not want her tried on those grounds, so they tried to switch it to murder as a kind of success story. They thought that they could make it impossible for Ohio, as a free state, to acknowledge the right of a slave-owner to come get those people. In fact, the sanctuary movement now is exactly the same. But they all went back to Boone County and apparently the man who took them back -- the man she was going to kill herself and her children to get away from -- he sold her down river, which was as bad as being separated from each other. But apparently the boat hit a sandbar or something, and she fell or jumped with her daughter, her baby, into the water. It is not clear whether she fell or jumped, but they rescued her and I guess she went on down to New Orleans and I don't know.
Morrison informed Darling that she did not do much research on Garner because "I wanted to invent her life, which is a way of saying I wanted to be accessible to anything the characters had to say about it. Recording her life as lived would not interest me, and would not make me available to anything that might be pertinent." The metaphor for Morrison's reluctance for mimesis is the configuration of Beloved -- part ghost, zombie, devil, and memory. Morrison reveals Beloved in tantalizing degrees until she is manifested as a full-blooded person. Like a childhood trauma Beloved comes back in snatches until finally her history is retold, a discovery process shared by Morrison, her characters, and the readers as the primary step to collective spiritual recovery.
Beloved is a purging of the guilt of the American psyche, and it acts as a historical precedent to and psychological referent for the rage of the oppressed in Morrison's other books. Sethe's slave status involves total loss of freedom and humanity and serves as the origin of all subsequent forms of oppression endured by Morrison's other characters and the motivation for their violent reactions to them. In The Bluest Eye Cholly's response to racial oppression is the rape of his own daughter. In Sula oppression caused by war turns Eva's Plum into a drug addict, forcing her to euthanatize him. Sexual oppression in Tar Baby drives Margaret to burn little holes in her baby. All these acts testify profoundly to the legacy of an institution so evil that it affords a mother no alternative for her children but death.
Reviewers, sensing that they were witnessing a literary phenomenon, lavished Beloved with praise. Publishers Weekly (17 July 1987) called it a milestone in the chronicling of the black experience in America, while Merle Rubin in the Christian Science Monitor (5 October 1987) said it is "a stunning book and lasting achievement [that] transforms the sorrows of history into the luminous truth of art." Leonard (Los Angeles Times Book Review, 30 August 1987) stated that, without Beloved, "our imagination of the nation's self has a hole in it big enough to die from." He felt Beloved "belongs on the highest shelf of American literature, even if half a dozen canonized white boys have to be elbowed off." Walter Clemons in Newsweek (28 September 1987) declared, "I think we have a masterpiece on our hands here." Not all reviews were positive, however. Stanley Crouch in the New Republic (19 October 1987) saw Beloved as "the failure of feeling that is sentimentality." He accused Morrison of "almost always [losing] control" and of not resisting "the temptation of the trite or the sentimental." Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times (2 September 1987) wrote, "There is a contemporaneous quality to time past and time present as well as a sense that the lines between reality and fiction, truth and memory, have become inextricably blurred."
Beloved earned the Pulitzer Prize, an award that had been denied another great writer, James Baldwin. In an effort to prevent the glaring oversight that Baldwin suffered and to secure Morrison's place in literary history, many African-American writers had published a tribute to Morrison in the New York Times Book Review (24 January 1988), "Black Writers in Praise of Toni Morrison," that states in part: "We find your life work ever building to a monument of vision and discovery and trust." The writers argued that, "despite the international stature of Toni Morrison , she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: she has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. We, the undersigned black critics and black writers, here assert ourselves against such oversight and harmful whimsy."
Jazz (1992), Morrison's sixth novel, is based on a photograph in James Van DerZee's Harlem Book of the Dead (1978) that shows, according to Leonard in the Nation (25 May 1992), "the body of a young girl, shot at a party by a jealous boyfriend, who died refusing to identify her assailant." Morrison told Rose that she wished to investigate "the question" of male/female passion, hence the story of Joe, a middle-aged cosmetic salesman; his childless wife Violet; and the teenage Dorcas, with whom Joe has an affair and whom he shoots when he is jilted for a younger lover. While Jazz may have begun with the issue of male/female passion, it ends as a fictive re-creation of two parallel narratives set during major historical events in African-American history -- Reconstruction and the Jazz Age.
Morrison weaves together the story of Joe, Violet, and Dorcas with the history of their predecessors True Belle, Violet's grandmother; Vera Louise, a wealthy white woman; and Golden Gray, her mulatto son. True Belle serves as caretaker of Vera Louise and Golden Gray. The respective stories are so intricately linked that Golden Gray at one point rescues Wild, Joe's crazed mother, while she is pregnant with him. Though Joe's and Violet's histories intersect at this moment, they never attempt to integrate into their troubled lives the significance of their pasts.
The initiative that Joe and Violet lack in recovering their personal histories is more than compensated for by the narrator, who possesses a surfeit of curiosity, taking great pains to reimagine both stories. An enigmatic presence in the book, the narrator possesses a feminine, African-American voice. At first arrogant in her ability to present the truth, the narrator eventually undergoes a rite of passage perhaps more subtle, but no less profound, than that of Milkman. The narrator begins by trying to "figure out [her characters'] plans, their reasonings, long before they do." In spite of the narrator's efforts, the narration follows a path of its own, independent of the will of the narrator. The narrator has judged inaccurately that Joe will repeat the act of violence that took Dorcas's life. When Joe instead reconciles with Violet, the narrator chastises his/her inability to present the truth: "I have been careless and stupid and it infuriates me to discover (again) how unreliable I am." In a self-reflective moment the narrator questions the authority of authorship. Thus what is ultimately at stake in Jazz is the process of reclamation and arrival at truth.
In Jazz Morrison continues her investigation of the debilitating impact of history on black families. In this novel she does not focus on slavery, but on its legacy to a generation removed in time but not place from its grasp. The unrelenting, destructive influence of racism and oppression on the black family is manifested in Jazz by the almost-total absence of the black family. Even Morrison's mothers, previously incomparable in their strength and endurance, succumb to the social, economic, and political forces of history. Joe, Violet, and Dorcas lose their mothers to insanity, suicide, and murder. Their deaths are directly attributable to institutionalized racism.
Considered little more than chattel to the dominant culture, women probably endured unspeakable abuse. Rose Dear, abandoned by a husband who is denied the economic opportunity to support his family, jumped to her death in a well rather than face homelessness and starvation. Dorcas's parents were innocent victims of the East Saint Louis riots. With no father or mother to form their identities and to succor them, Joe, Violet, and Dorcas are left to be raised by kindly friends or relatives, all of whom themselves are disconnected in various ways from family and community.
For many of the characters in the novel, the absence of family is replaced by the ever-present city. Morrison attempts to reconstruct the complex set of factors that brought black people to the city in the first place as well as those factors that compelled them to stay. She told Rose that one of the goals she tried to accomplish in Jazz was "[to] recall ... what it was like when people went to the city, when the city was the place to go." Morrison cited economic opportunity and social equality as primary reasons for flight, but, while initially "running from want and violence," black people, Morrison shows, sought more than a safe job and a secure environment, amenities even the city could not guarantee.
Perhaps most important for black people, the city represented indifference. A community of steel and concrete more than of people, the city protects black people from constant scrutiny, from the ever-present, appropriating glare of a racist society that defines and shapes their identity. Separated by the enormity of the city from the "Look," black people can reclaim the freedom of self-definition that is tied to their anonymity: "There, in a city, they are not so much new as themselves: their stronger, riskier selves."
Jazz was published simultaneously with Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, a scholarly work based on three lectures she gave at Harvard University. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (22 April 1992), the publisher, Harvard University Press, decided to print twenty-five thousand first-run copies of this book instead of the traditional fifteen hundred. Harvard University Press's confidence in a scholarly work is clearly indicative of Morrison's stature as, David Gates wrote (Newsweek, 27 April 1992), "the last classic American writer, squarely in the tradition of Poe, Melville, Twain and Faulkner." Reviews of Jazz praised Morrison's language and intricate plot construction but tended to admonish her use of an unreliable narrator. Leonard in the Nation (25 May 1992) called Jazz a "brand-new star" in Morrison's "constellation of humming spheres." Jane Smiley in Vogue (May 1992) stated that Morrison's style "is commanding and seductive at the same time."
Less complimentary reviews included Edna O'Brien's in the New York Times (5 April 1992), which stated that Jazz lacks an "emotional nexus" so that "what remains are the bold arresting strokes of a poster and not the cold astonishment of a painting." Ann Hulbert in the New Republic (18 May 1992) complained that Morrison's narrative strategy undermines her authority as author: "Morrison has charged her narrator with the duty to avoid the weakness that she herself has acknowledged -- an inclination to romanticize black lives." Hulbert concluded that "her relentless vigilance, rather than issuing in creative sympathy, leads her toward the double dead end of indicting other writers for failures of vision and apologizing for her own." Focusing less on the narrator, Gates characterized Morrison's narration as "metafictional shenanigans" that nevertheless "hardly affect the experience of reading Jazz."
Morrison is one of the great living American writers; her goal has been, as Rose said, "to redefine how African-American experience fits into the American experience." In the Rose interview Morrison suggested that "if you study the culture and art of African-Americans you are not studying a regional or minor culture. What you are studying is American." In her six novels she has re-created for America the energy, passion, and dynamic of African-American culture with an originality and a depth that are unsurpassed. In the pages of her novels readers themselves emerge in the complexity of African-American families, their communities, the history and geography that they are rediscovering, the reality that they must often transcend in order to survive, and the inexhaustible capacity for love that motivates, sustains, and strengthens them. The encounter with Morrison's characters -- with the language and the sheer humanity that suffuse her works -- becomes an embrace of a long-unrecognized aspect of America and its citizens.
Morrison's concern in Jazz with the responsibility of the artist and the possibility or impossibility of presenting truth through language exhibits the range of her career-long experimentation in novel writing. Morrison has successfully invoked, among other literary movements, naturalism, magical realism, high modernism, historical revisionism, and postmodernism in an endeavor to get at the very essence of her subject matter. Morrison takes increasing risks with language, narrative construction, and most of the contrivances of literary convention in order to communicate the most profound secrets of the human heart. She told Rose that when a young black man at a Princeton lecture asked her who she wrote for, she replied: "I want to write for people like me, which is to say black people, curious people, demanding people ... people who can't be faked, people who don't need to be patronized, people who have very, very high criteria."
In her seventh novel, Paradise (1998), Morrison provides for her readers a narrative that both acknowledges and redesigns techniques she has used before, while she continues to demand from language that it reach rigorously beyond its own limits. She sets the novel in Ruby, Oklahoma, a town established by the descendants of "one hundred and fifty-eight freedmen" who left the Reconstruction South and migrated West. These "Old Fathers" settled a place called Haven; once there they placed a large iron oven in the center of town to act as a meeting place for communal cooking, celebration, and government. When the farm lands of Haven are no more than dust, the founders' children take the oven and move further west in 1948 to establish Ruby, which becomes the supposed "paradise" for the families because it offers them land, safety, and camaraderie with like-minded neighbors. The leaders of Ruby are World War II veterans who work the land, run the banks and stores, and aim to uphold traditions and goals for a town like the one their fathers had built free from outside influence or threat. For more than twenty years the town is autonomous and prosperous, and needs little from without. Seventeen miles away from Ruby is a large home, once owned by a embezzler, that had later been turned into a convent school for Arapaho girls, run by a small group of Sisters of the Sacred Cross. When the school closes, the Mother Superior, Mary Magna, and Consolata, or Connie, an orphan the Mother Superior had taken from Portugal in 1925, remain at the Convent and are allowed to live there in what amounts to a subsistence retirement.
The Convent becomes a refuge for women who wander to it singly from all over the United States. Each woman finds shelter and acceptance there after leaving unbearable lives elsewhere; the Convent also periodically shelters several Ruby residents, male and female. Once at the Convent the women find a place where they can live as they wish, and become a sort of order of lost souls: Connie, the reconfigured "mother," wastes herself drinking the wine left by the embezzler; Gigi sits around naked and fights; Mavis talks to the ghosts of her dead babies; Seneca mutilates herself. The constrains of "normal" society do not exist for the women of the Convent. Although the women sell home-grown produce and rent the land for farming, the citizens of Ruby -- particularly the men -- come to see the women as satanic and evil, the source of what is going wrong with Ruby. As time has passed from 1948 to 1976 the young people of Ruby have become disrespectful of the town and its traditions. They look to nearby towns for their medical care, their shopping, their work. The oven is a place to loiter and drink. The traditions of the fathers are dismissed. The men who control Ruby's land and money, Deacon and Steward Morgan, meet with others at the oven and decide to eliminate the supposed source of the trouble.
Most of the youth who ignore the history of the town have never met the women. The Morgans refuse to see that time has changed the young people: the outside world the Morgans do not acknowledge has seeped into the town in the form of disillusionment from Vietnam and drugs, and the younger generation sees on television and hears through the radio a world different from the quiet, isolated Ruby. The men also do not recognize that they are sources for segregation and strife in Ruby through the way they have monopolized resources and finances: they have driven to poverty some of "their own" and have contributed heavily to the building resentments. In the eyes of the Morgans and the others who storm the Convent, the women, as outsiders, are responsible for the troubles; so the men decide to drive them out of Ruby.
In Paradise Morrison continues the thematic explorations she began in the earlier works -- family, love, rejection, the supernatural, geography, and journeys -- and she reexamines the questions of history, place, and community that drive Beloved and Jazz. Once again she experiments with form, framing the narrative with the storming of the Convent, then filling in history and explanation with chapters designated by the names of females who figure prominently in the novel, even if they do not appear as major characters. For example, Ruby, Patricia, and Save-Marie are important as women against whom to frame the tale even though they only appear in it briefly. The others who lend their names to chapters are high-profile characters whose stories, personalities, names, and actions reinforce the men's convictions that the women are evil. The women join others from Morrison's canon who are seen as pariahs: like Pecola the women are scapegoats on whom the men of Ruby can wipe their own ugliness; like Poland, China, and Miss Marie they are whores; like Sula and Pilate they are sorceresses; like Sethe they are murderesses; like Violet they are crazy and dangerous.
In a later interview with Charlie Rose (Public Broadcasting System, 19 January 1998) Morrison said the novel began like Beloved, with a basis in factual events; she heard of a supposed incident at a cathedral in Brazil in which men shot black nuns who ran a school for girls. By using a similar situation in the novel she wanted to learn the answer to the questions, "How could they do it? How could they do that? How could they put their finger on the trigger and then pull it?" To find the answers, Morrison calls the novel "an interrogation of the whole idea of paradise." Morrison identifies paradise as something different for each individual: "[Paradise is] a thing we think about, imagine, either in this life or another. All humans do. But when we come up with the solution, it's always sort of limited in some way. It's real estate. It's jeweled streets and fruit. Nectar. But more important than anything, there are a whole lot of people who can't get in. And that's the definition of paradise."
Despite its many ties to Morrison's previous novels Paradise is distinguished by its exploration of a black community that exists for its own sake. The land is chosen by the men rather than given to them as "a joke," such as the Bottom was in Sula. When the Morgans and other men in the novel feel that their "paradise" is being encroached upon, they conspire to remove the threat in the name of defense of their families and their way of life. In an attempt for control that culminates in the shooting of the women, the Ruby men do not realize that their proprietary zeal and consuming desires for control have made them into what their fathers sought to escape and avoid: they have become men who kill out of fear of difference and change. Against the backdrop of a nation that has seen strong civil rights activism for more than twenty years by the end of the novel, the men of Ruby defy every one of their forefathers' wishes for peace and strength in a moment of weakness brought about by the wish for absolute, dictatorial isolation. One of the town ministers, Reverend Misner, reflects on the attack:
Whether they be the first or the last, representing the oldest black families or the newest, the best of the tradition or the most pathetic, they had ended up betraying it all. They think they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him. They think they are protecting their wives and children, when in fact they are maiming them. And when the maimed children ask for help, they look elsewhere for the cause. Born out of an old hatred, one that began when one kind of black man scorned another kind and that kind took the hatred to another level, their selfishness had trashed two hundred years of suffering and triumph in a moment of such pomposity and error and callousness it froze the mind. Unbridled by Scripture, deafened by the roar of its own history, Ruby, it seemed to him, was an unnecessary failure. How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it.
Ironically, the men travel seventeen miles beyond Ruby to drive away women they think are part of the internal problems of the town. They cannot see that the town has rotted from within its own town limits and from within the families that are its history.
Reviews for Paradise have been mixed, but most have recognized that Morrison's skill with language and her confrontations with human frailties and strengths continue to be the most powerful of the forces behind her novels. Paul Gray, in Time (19 January 1998), asserts that "to read the novel is to be pulled into a passionate, contentious and sometimes violent world and to confront questions as old as human civilization itself." In The New York Times Book Review (11 January 1998) Brooke Allen says that "Morrison has brought it all together: the poetry, the emotion, the broad symbolic plan." The novel is thus "dense, repetitive and obscure" and "requires close scrutiny and concentration" for a novel that is at the same time "ambitious, troubling and complicated" and "proof that Toni Morrison continues to change and mature in surprising new directions." Allen also comments that the novel does include some "awkward elements" for Morrison dwells too heavily on the "male-female dichotomy" that has become "a contemporary cliché."
Morrison's experimentation with the novel coincides with her ever-increasing thematic concerns. As if constricted by the necessary closure of a novel, Morrison expands the consciousness of each successive novel without leaving behind the burning issues that mark her previous ones. Thus family, community, and the love they provide or deny are a constant in her canon. History, geography, and eventually myth, fable, and the supernatural are gradually implemented to illuminate the nature of those families and communities. Morrison's first two novels, The Bluest Eye and Sula, are spatially and chronologically limited, though Sula introduces World War I as a historical backdrop. Song of Solomon moves in time and place from present to past and from North to South, while Tar Baby is set outside the continental United States on an island where past and present frequently intermingle. Beloved is a historical novel that concerns Reconstruction, yet it implies ahistoricity in the amazing figure of Beloved. Jazz integrates historical eras and moves to the city, all the while disavowing its own efficacy to reproduce either time or place. Paradise relies on history and tradition to give background to the collective ideology of the men but moves away from the South/North, white/black dichotomies of the former novels to examine a closed community that must come to terms with itself.
But time and place only partially reflect Morrison's desire for circumference -- Emily Dickinson's term for the endeavor to comprehend totality. Morrison always begins with a different question and then finds the characters to manifest it. The questions and the characters change dramatically in each novel. In The Bluest Eye sexual abuse and idealized beauty afflict a little black girl, while in Sula Morrison chooses two adult black women to illustrate the nature of sexual freedom and moral responsibility. In Song of Solomon a black male undergoes the recovery of personal history, and in Tar Baby another black male is a source of spiritual renewal. In Beloved a ghost symbolizes the horror of slavery, and in Jazz an even-less-visible presence admits failure in understanding the nature of male/female passion. Paradise examines the evolution of people who ultimately turn on others who are like themselves. But such a summary is reductive and does little to convey the myriad other themes and characters Morrison invokes. She uses children and adults, men and women, blacks and whites, haints, and a metaphysical metafiction to give voice to the shimmering essence of humanity.
Ultimately in Jazz Morrison questions her ability to answer the very issues she raises, extending the responsibility of her own novel writing to her readers. Morrison's narrator at the end of Jazz invokes his/her readership to "Make me. Remake me." Morrison thereby sends an invitation to her readers to become a part of that struggle to comprehend totality that will continue to spur her genius.
From: Heinze, Denise, and Catherine E. Lewis. "Toni Morrison." American Novelists Since World War II: Third Series, edited by James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles, Gale, 1994. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 143.