- Kristine YoheKristine YoheNorthern Kentucky University
Born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, as Chloe Ardelia Wofford, the woman who is now Toni Morrison has experienced a life of great depth, length, and breadth—ranging from working as a housekeeper at age 12 to winning the Nobel Prize in Literature when she was 62. Extraordinarily, now 87 years old, Morrison has continued to write. She was named Woman of the Year by Ladies Home Journal in 2002 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2012. But what stands out the most are her books. In writing challenging novels about abused children, ghosts, enslaved mothers, bankers, beauty-supply salesmen, hoteliers, veterans, nuns, fashion models, and child brides, Morrison dives deeply into black culture, black history, and black love. While fulfilling her primary goal of bearing witness for her target audience, African American readers, her novels also provide readers of other races rich and varied glimmers of understanding into African American life, history, and culture. Morrison’s works are brave, unvarnished, direct, gutsy, earthy, and true. Her oeuvre includes eleven novels; nine children’s books; several books of analysis, literary reaction, and cultural critique; one libretto; one book of poems, one short story; one published play; one unpublished play; dozens of essays; and numerous edited books. Her most acclaimed novel, Beloved, was published in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Ten year later, in 1998, it was adapted as a movie produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey. Her most obscure work may be the co-authored College Reading Skills, published in 1965. In addition to becoming an acclaimed author, Morrison has been an accomplished editor, a university professor at Princeton and Harvard, and she has been a guest curator at the Louvre in Paris. She has a brilliant mind, an irreverent sense of humor, and a youthful sense of self, having said on more than one occasion that even at her age she feels exactly 23 years old inside. With her former husband, Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect whom she married in 1958 and divorced in 1964, she birthed two sons, Harold Ford, an architect, and Slade Kevin, an artist who died of cancer in 2010. She has two granddaughters, Nidal and Safa, and a daughter-in-law, Cecilia Rouse, who worked in the Obama White House. Now in her 80s, she is long retired from teaching. Because of back trouble, she is mostly wheelchair bound, but she is thinking clearly, and she is writing, with at least two more books in the works—a book of essays as well as her twelfth novel, tentatively titled Justice. While some have called her the “conscience of America,” she manages to be simultaneously regal and down-to-earth, and she still calls herself “Chloe.” Toni Morrison is all of these things and more; she and her esteemed novels and nonfiction demonstrate the breadth of her varied interest as an artist and as one of America’s most important public intellectuals.
- North American Literatures
Updated in this version
Updated to include summary, keywords, discussion of the literature, and additional discussion of individual works.
If Toni Morrison were to draw a map of her personal and creative journeys, the result would show many overlapping trajectories. Although Morrison has lived most of her life in the Northeast and Midwest, her parents’ origins in the South, particularly Georgia and Alabama, deeply influenced her aesthetic preoccupations and her black cultural awareness. After growing up in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison attended college in Washington, DC; had an extended stay in the Caribbean (her former husband's home); did graduate work and editing in upstate New York; taught in a number of universities across the United States; and traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, to receive the Nobel Prize—yet she has lived in New York City or its vicinity for the majority of her adult life. Likewise, her literary works span the country and the hemisphere, the settings frequently aligned with her own experiences in the Midwest, the South, the Caribbean, and New York City.
Landscapes permeate Morrison’s fictional worlds, with characters exploring their geographic possibilities simultaneously with their personal and emotional sojourns. The characters often search for self through physical relocation when what they really need, Morrison demonstrates, is to develop self-awareness, to take the essential journey within. This literary emphasis on the metaphysical quest seems also to apply to Morrison herself. An intensely private person, she only occasionally reveals personal details about her life, such as when, in her published 1985 conversation with fellow African American novelist Gloria Naylor, she stated that she has rarely felt a need for travel: “My interior life is so strong that I never associate anything important to any other place.”1 Years later, in an interview originally appearing in Essence magazine, Morrison said something similar in the context of her intense focus on her work—which she found eminently satisfying—and her accompanying absence of need for an “elaborate social life.” She stated simply, “I don't go anywhere to be happy.”2 In other words, Morrison's internal journeying has been extensive enough that she feels little need to search for her place in the world externally. Apparently, because she is comfortable inside herself, she is at home wherever she is.
Nevertheless, homelessness is a major theme in her novels, ranging from the Breedlove family being put “outdoors” in The Bluest Eye (1970), to the land-grabbing in Song of Solomon (1977), Joe and Violet Trace’s migration north in Jazz (1992), and Frank Money’s migration south in Home (2012); to the denial of sanctuary suffered by the female runaways in Paradise (1998), to the quest journeys in most of the novels. Throughout Morrison's works, having a sense of place is profoundly fundamental to all of her characters’ sense of self, with search for home a frequent theme. This focus seems to spring simultaneously from her own deep roots in her Ohio hometown of Lorain, as well as her parents’ acute awareness that they needed to leave the South for safer possibilities in the North. A southern sensibility pervades her work and accounts for her characters’ sometimes bifurcated points of view about the South: it often is home, but it is also frequently the site of profound oppression and trauma.
Morrison's eleven novels and other writings include a deep awareness of history and culture, and their time frames range from colonial America in A Mercy (2008); to the bleakest days of slavery and its aftermath, the mid- to late 1800s, as in Beloved (1987); to the era of her own childhood, the 1930s and 1940s, as in The Bluest Eye; to the late 1970s in Tar Baby (1981); to the contemporary time of its publication in God Help the Child (2015). Although not engaged in a decade-by-decade treatment of African American history, as August Wilson was for drama, Morrison writes novels set in some of the most momentous eras of US history. In addition to covering enslavement, she writes of World War I in Sula (1974); of the 1950s and the Korean War in Home; of the influence of the civil rights movement and integration, in Paradise and Love (2003); and about Reconstruction and the Great Migration in Paradise and Jazz, respectively.
Early Life and Education
Surrounded by family, Chloe Ardelia Wofford grew up in Lorain, Ohio, a midwestern steel town on Lake Erie, west of Cleveland, where she was born at home on February 18, 1931. The second-oldest child, she shared her home with her parents, George Carl Wofford and Ella Ramah Willis Wofford; three siblings, Lois, the oldest, George and Raymond, her two younger brothers; and her maternal grandparents.
Her mother's parents, John Solomon Willis and Ardelia Willis, provided a vibrant southern link for Morrison, in part through their background as sharecroppers in Greenville, Alabama, where her mother, Ella Ramah Willis, was born in 1906, and where, around 1900, they lost their land. In approximately 1912, they joined other African Americans in the Great Migration, seeking better opportunities farther north. Initially stopping for a time in Kentucky, where John Solomon Willis worked in a coal mine and Ardelia Willis washed clothes, the family later continued on to Lorain, mainly seeking to find improved educational opportunities for their children.
As a young man, Morrison’s father, George Wofford, fled his home in Cartersville, Georgia, where he had been born in 1908, and where he and his family had been sharecroppers There he had suffered terrible racial oppression, including witnessing lynchings, which left him with permanent antipathy for whites. Well into adulthood, he retained a negative impression of his Georgia roots, although he returned regularly to visit family members. Ironically, as Morrison has described it in multiple interviews, his behavior was the opposite of her mother's, as Ramah Wofford spoke positively and nostalgically of her early years in Alabama but never returned, presumably out of fear.
In a 1976 article in New York Times Magazine, Morrison describes the racial attitudes of her parents and maternal grandparents. The article’s title captures their sometimes conflicting points of view regarding racial change: “A Slow Walk of Trees (as Grandmother Would Say), Hopeless (as Grandfather Would Say).” While societal progress was often as protracted as the rate at which trees populate new terrain, her maternal grandmother, Ardelia Willis, remained optimistic that things could get better. John Solomon Willis may have always felt “hopeless” about societal developments, but he had an outlet that also helped him to earn money: playing the violin. Morrison explains that, while her grandparents disagreed about the potential for blacks to “improve themselves,” her parents “took issue over the question of whether it was possible for white people to improve. They assumed that black people were the humans of the globe; but had serious doubts about the quality and existence of white humanity.”3
Within an apparently nurturing environment, Morrison's childhood was saturated with stories of and from the South, and she has said in several interviews that ghost stories, jokes, tales, music, and other elements of African American folk culture were staples in her household. Additional influences came from Morrison's religious upbringing, including her switch from her mother’s Protestant form of Christianity to Roman Catholicism at age 12, as well as from her grandmother’s keeping a dream book in which she recorded and interpreted the symbols of dreams for playing the numbers.
Also influential on Morrison's early development was the fact that the community where she grew up was multicultural. Lorain, Ohio, was not large enough for a segregated educational system; her neighborhood and schools were integrated and included immigrants of many origins, most of whom had their substantial poverty in common. At the beginning of her first-grade year, Morrison had the distinction of being not only the lone African American, but the sole reader in the classroom. She has said that she did not personally experience racism in a substantially disturbing way until she was older, especially when dating separated the races more clearly.
During this time, part of which covered the era of the Great Depression (from roughly 1929 to 1939), Morrison’s hardworking parents sometimes struggled to make ends meet. One poignant example is that, one month when they were unable to pay the rent on their house, the hostile landlord tried to burn it down with the family inside. All along, her father held a variety of jobs, often three at a time, including welding in a shipyard and a steel mill, working in building and road construction, and occasional odd jobs like washing cars. Her mother—who was active in her AME church and sang, apparently beautifully, in the choir—did domestic work for local white families, as well as working in the home with her children. Her mother did sing in public occasionally: “When I was a child, I remember, she’d had a taste of a public life and enjoyed it. Once, she performed in a production of the opera Carmen in Cleveland.”4 When Morrison was in college and graduate school, she has said, her mother often took additional domestic jobs to help support her daughter financially. Her father died in 1975, her mother in 1994.
From childhood, encouraged by her mother, who was an avid reader and subscriber of the Book-of-the-Month Club, Morrison was fascinated with books. Morrison worked during high school as a student helper at the Lorain Public Library. She also earned money by working after school, starting at the age of 12, cleaning the houses of some of the white families in town, which, she has said, was not always pleasant. Also at age 12, Chloe Ardelia Wofford changed her middle name to Anthony, after St. Anthony of Padua, when she was baptized as a Roman Catholic. For a time, she aspired to become a professional dancer. That did not happen, but she did manage to become the first person in her family to graduate from college.
After Morrison graduated with honors from Lorain High School in 1949, she moved to Washington, DC, to attend Howard University, one of the most prestigious historically black universities in the country. Intending to become a teacher, Morrison majored in English and minored in Classics. While at Howard she adopted the name Toni from her middle name, Anthony. She has explained on several occasions that she dropped her given name, Chloe, because her classmates found it difficult to pronounce. Her family continued to use her original first name, however, and she has said that she still thinks of herself as Chloe. While in college, Morrison also joined the Howard University Players and the Washington Repertory Players, both acting troupes, and traveled throughout the South, getting an influential firsthand look at the region her parents and grandparents had told her about. She graduated with a BA from Howard in 1953.
Morrison then continued her education by pursuing her master's degree in English at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she relocated shortly after graduating from Howard. She received her MA in 1955; her master’s thesis was entitled “Virginia Woolf’s and William Faulkner’s Treatment of the Alienated.”
Adulthood and Professional Career
After graduating from Cornell, Morrison returned to Washington, DC, where she briefly resumed acting with the Washington Repertory group. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Houston to take a position teaching English at Texas Southern University. She stayed there two years, learning more, she has said, about southern African American perspectives. In 1957, she moved back to Washington, DC, and Howard University, where she became an English instructor, a position she retained until 1964. During this time, she met such future famous African Americans as Andrew Young (later mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations) and Amiri Baraka (future poet). In addition, her students included the civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, who, with Carl V. Hammond, would later write Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (1967), and Claude Brown, who would later write Manchild in the Promised Land (1965). She also became involved with a writers' group while at Howard, which she has credited with starting her on the road to becoming a novelist.
It was at Howard, that then Toni Wofford met her future husband, Harold Morrison, whom she married in 1958. Originally from Jamaica, Harold Morrison had a career as an architect. The couple had two sons, Harold Ford, born in 1961, and Slade Kevin, born in 1964. During their marriage, they traveled to the Caribbean where, she has said, they had a long-term stay at one point. The couple separated, Toni Morrison took a trip to Europe, and the marriage ended in divorce in 1964, while she was still pregnant with her second son. Although Morrison generally declines to speak further of her marriage, she says in a 1992 interview that Harold “knew better about his life, but not about mine.”5 In another interview in 1998, she says that she likes the idea of marriage and “learned a lot in marriage, in divorce. I think women do.” In referring to her own lessons learned, Morrison says, “I learned an enormous amount of self-esteem. Even though the collapse of the relationship suggested the opposite. For me, I just had to stand up” and, she explains, fight for her rights, especially in the workplace. “This is serious business. I am the head of a household, and I must work to pay for my children.”6 After their divorce, Harold Morrison returned to Jamaica.
After her marriage ended, Morrison left Washington and returned to her parents’ home in Lorain, Ohio, where her younger son, Slade Kevin, was born. They stayed in Lorain for almost a year and a half. As an adult, Harold Ford, her older son, was inspired by his father—Harold “Moxy” Morrison, who died in 2016 and long worked as an architect in Jamaica—also to become an architect.7 Morrison’s younger son, Slade Kevin, became an artist and author; he died of pancreatic cancer in 2010.
In 1965, Morrison and her sons left Lorain and moved to Syracuse, New York, where she began her editing work, first with L. W. Singer, a subsidiary of Random House, initially as a textbook editor and then as a senior editor at the New York City offices. She was an editor with Random House for the next two decades, not leaving until 1983. While there, she worked with such notable African American writers as Henry Dumas, Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, Leon Forrest, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, and Muhammad Ali.
It was also during her early years in editing that Morrison became more serious about her own writing, which she has said came about in part because of her solitary existence as a single parent living away from her extended family. While she became more focused on her writing after joining a writers’ group at Howard in 1963, Morrison worked off and on for many years before she completed her first book-length manuscript. After many rejections, she managed to publish The Bluest Eye, her first novel, in 1970.
Morrison's position as a Random House editor included work on the influential text The Black Book, an archival collection of African American history and culture, akin to a scrapbook, which was published in 1974. Although Morrison does not get formal editing credit—her name is not on the book, which was officially edited by Middleton Harris, with Morris Levitt, Roger Furman, and Ernest Smith assisting—she was greatly involved with its compilation. In 2015, editor Chris Jackson said that he sees it demonstrating Morrison’s influence and point of view: “The Black Book is not exactly a celebration of black life. It is a gathering together of artifacts. It’s a sort of way of witnessing black life, but, again, it does feel like it’s coming from the perspective within the black community. . . . almost a family history in a way.”8 The experience of creating this volume exposed Morrison to important and, for her, influential, relics of black history, including the story of Margaret Garner, which would inspire the 1987 novel Beloved and the 2004 opera Margaret Garner many years later. Morrison is credited in a 2009 reissue of The Black Book, where her new foreword captures its power and sweep: “Now, thirty-five years later, the material can still enrage, can still excite a reader enough to want to share it with a friend and still break a heart with love and pity.”9
While employed full time by Random House, Morrison also had several part-time or visiting teaching positions in English and creative writing. These ranged from a post at the State University of New York at Purchase in the early 1970s, to Yale University in the mid-1970s, to Bard College and Rutgers University thereafter. After her resignation from editing in 1983, she took a full-time teaching position as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at the State University of New York at Albany, where she remained for the next five years. From 1989 to her retirement in 2006, Morrison was the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University, where she was affiliated with the programs in creative writing and African American studies. She also directed the Princeton Atelier, a collaborative, interdisciplinary program focused on artistic creation that emphasizes connecting visiting artists with Princeton faculty and students. During her tenure at Princeton, she served twice, in 1998 and 2000, as the A. D. White Professor-At-Large at Cornell University. She became the Robert F. Goheen Professor Emerita in 2006. In the Spring semester of 2016, Morrison served as the Charles E. Norton Professor at Harvard University.
In addition to writing, teaching, and editing for the past five decades, Morrison has delivered numerous invited lectures, ranging from commencement addresses at such places as Princeton, Wellesley, and Smith; to keynote speeches at such events as the Opera America Conference, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and Guadalajara International Book Fair, all in 2005. In spring 2016, while serving as the Charles E. Norton Professor at Harvard, she delivered a series of six lectures, all related to race and ideas of “othering.”
Two of Morrison’s more notable lectures took place overseas. The most significant was surely the one she delivered in Stockholm, Sweden, upon her acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in December 2003. Published in spring 1994 by Knopf, The Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1993 addresses the power of language and imagination, while reflecting on age, wisdom, respect, and ideas of freedom. The lecture ends with a parable about an old blind woman being challenged by young people. Although they at first appear deceptive, once they explain their yearning, she forgives them: “‘Finally,’ she says, ‘I trust you now. I trust you with the bird that is not in your hands because you have truly caught it. Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done—together.’”10
In November 2006, as a part of her role as guest curator at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, Morrison delivered two lectures. She designed a wide-ranging multi-media exhibit/experience/installation at the Louvre, where established paintings became sites of contemporary artistic creativity, including hip-hop dance and spoken-word poetry, as well as inviting performance art and presenting film and other works of art. All under the umbrella of “The Foreigner’s Home”—an intentionally ambiguous name, invoking possession in addition to a state of being at home, or not—the exhibition engaged issues of exile, race, identity, homelessness, and immigration.
Since 1970, Morrison has written and published eleven novels—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, Love, A Mercy, Home, and God Help the Child. And, in an interview published in June 2017, she reports currently being at work on her twelfth novel: “Oh, it’s so good! It’s called Justice, although it’s not about justice.” The title, she says, comes from the first name of a key character, a boy named Justice Goodmaster, who goes by Juice.11
Three other published works originated from significant lectures Morrison delivered. A book of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), was based on the Massey lectures she delivered at Harvard University in 1990. Upon her receipt in 1996 of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Morrison delivered a speech, The Dancing Mind, published in a slim volume by Knopf in 1996. And she adapted the 2016 Norton lectures at Harvard into a book, The Origin of Others, published in 2017.
In addition, Morrison edited a collection about Anita Hill—Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (1992)—and co-edited, with Claudia Brodsky Lacour, a work about O. J. Simpson, Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case (1997). In 1998, she edited and is credited for two volumes of James Baldwin's collected work for the Library of America. She was also listed as editor in 1996 and 1999 for a posthumous collection and a novel by Toni Cade Bambara.
Morrison also wrote a racially ambiguous short story, “Recitatif,” published in 1983.12 She then wrote a play about the life of Emmett Till, Dreaming Emmett, performed in 1986 but never published. Morrison has written the lyrics for five choral works, including one in 1992, for Kathleen Battle, Honey and Rue, composed by André Previn; and one in 1997, for Jessye Norman, Sweet Talk, composed by Richard Danielpour. In 2002, Morrison collaborated with artist Kara Walker on Five Poems.
With Richard Danielpour as the composer, Morrison created her most significant musical work with her libretto, Margaret Garner: Opera in Two Acts (2004). Margaret Garner was co-commissioned for Morrison and Danielpour by the Michigan Opera Theatre, Cincinnati Opera, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Danielpour and Morrison have repeatedly stated that the genesis of their collaboration included them each independently arriving at Margaret Garner’s story as the topic for an opera in the late 1990s. Having worked together on two other occasions, they decided to pursue this goal jointly, and their creative work took off in earnest in 2001 and 2002, with the opera published in 2004 and premiering in 2005.
Revisiting terrain she had previously mined for Beloved in 1987, Morrison said that she felt that opera was the ideal medium for Garner’s story. As Morrison explains in the 2005 program for the world premiere at the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit, she believed that Margaret Garner’s story was especially well-suited for opera: “Some ten years later, free of the exhaustion following the publication of Beloved, I realized that there were genres other than novels that could expand and deepen the story. The topic, the people, the narrative theme, passion, and universality made it more than worthy of opera; it begged for it.”13
Her other most important musical performance is Desdemona. Inspired by William Shakespeare’s Othello, Morrison wrote the dialogue for Desdemona, a multimedia production with lyrics by Rokia Traoré, which premiered in Vienna in 2011. Directed by Peter Sellars, it was published in 2012 with a foreword by him. Reviewers often comment on its experimental format. The review in the Los Angeles Times calls it a “theatrical séance.”14 And the New York Times review characterizes it as “Part play, part concert, it is an interactive narrative of words, music and song about Shakespeare’s doomed heroine, who speaks to the audience from the grave about the traumas of race, class, gender, war—and the transformative power of love.”15
Morrison also has written numerous book chapters, essays, and magazine and journal articles for periodicals ranging from The New York Times Magazine to the Michigan Quarterly Review. In another arena, she co-wrote, with her son Slade Morrison, nine children's books—beginning with The Big Box in 1999, and The Book of Mean People in 2002, and continuing with seven more works for children, many of which were inspired by Aesop’s fables. A prolific and flexible writer, Morrison is best known as a novelist. Her eleven full-length published works of fiction cover a wide range of topics, emotions, characters, and settings. However, they share a number of thematic approaches, most notably a stress on the essential qualities of community connections, including family relationships, as well as on the importance of history. Each novel is also geographically oriented, as Morrison creates characters constantly on the go, exploring their physical worlds while also learning how crucial it is to venture into the internal landscape, into what she has called their “interior lives.”
In 2015, Morrison collaborated on a documentary, The Foreigner’s Home, with filmmakers Jonathan Demme, Rian Brown, Geoff Pingree, and her son Ford Morrison. Using footage that her son Ford had shot in Paris in 2006, when she curated an exhibit of the same name at the Louvre in Paris, the documentary includes new extensive interviews with writer Edwidge Danticat. The Foreigner’s Home was released in 2018.16
Awards and Recognitions
After some difficulty in finding a publisher for The Bluest Eye, her first novel, Morrison found increasing success as a writer, including strong critical acclaim and significant attention from scholars. This first novel was well received, with overall positive reviews in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. Sula, her second novel, met with an even more encouraging response and greater sales when it was published in 1973. It was excerpted in Redbook, named as an alternate for the Book-of-the-Month Club, received the Ohioana Book Award in 1975, and was nominated for the National Book Award the same year.
In 1977, Morrison's stock rose further as Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. It also was named as a main selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club, making Morrison the first African American author to receive that honor since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940. The following year, a PBS documentary appeared, focused entirely on Morrison. In 1980, she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on the Arts.
After Tar Baby was published in 1981 and appeared on The New York Times best-seller list, it sold well but was not reviewed as positively as expected, apparently in part because of its more contemporary setting and its experimental and lush writing style, as well as the fact that its protagonist, Jadine, is sometimes considered to be unsympathetic. Nevertheless, it propelled Morrison to the cover of Newsweek magazine for March 30,1981, which made her the first African American woman to be so featured since Zora Neale Hurston in 1943. Also in 1981, Morrison was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1985, she received the New York State Governor's Arts Award.
The publication of her fifth novel, Beloved, in 1987, resulted in the greatest acclaim yet for Morrison. Although nominated for the National Book Award, it did not win, and 48 African American writers and critics signed a letter of protest, which was published in The New York Times. Beloved received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, the Melcher Book Award, the Lyndhurst Foundation Award, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Fiction, and others. In 2006, The New York Times Book Review named Beloved the best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years. In 1989, Morrison won the Commonwealth Award in Literature from the Modern Language Association of America. In 1990, she received the Chianti Ruffino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize Jazz's arrival in 1992 was warmly received, and it appeared on The New York Times best-seller list simultaneously with her nonfiction work, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.
In December 1993, Toni Morrison reached the pinnacle of her career, attaining the highest literary accolade possible: the Nobel Prize in Literature. This distinction was especially significant because Morrison was the first African American recipient and only the eighth woman in the world honored in this way. Morrison has said in interviews that she was especially pleased to have received this award while she was able to enjoy it with her mother, Ramah Wofford, who was still living—although she died a short time later, in February 1994. In a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Morrison said of receiving the Nobel that she “felt weak, representative, patriotic,” as well as seeing herself (in now familiar geographical-cultural terms) as powerfully emblematic of Ohio and African American culture.17
In 1996, Morrison received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Her seventh novel, Paradise, was published in January 1998. This work received positive reviews and earned high sales, made even stronger by its participation in Oprah's Book Club shortly after its publication. In 2000, Morrison received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton.
In the past two decades, Morrison has received numerous awards, many of them for lifetime achievement. Some of the more notable include the following: NAACP Image Award, 2004; Coretta Scott King Award, 2005; Du Bois Medal, 2005; PEN/Borders Literary Service Award, 2008; Carl Sandburg Literary Award, 2010; National Order of the Legion of Honour, France, 2010; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2012; National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award, 2015; PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, 2016; Marlon Brando Award, 2016; American Association of Arts and Sciences Emerson-Thoreau Medal, 2017. She was nominated for, but did not receive, two GRAMMY awards: in 1998, for Best Spoken Word Album, Beloved; and in 2007, for Best Spoken Word Album for Children, Who's Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper? The Lion or the Mouse? Poppy or the Snake? In 2017, Princeton University named a building, Morrison Hall, in her honor.
Morrison also has received many honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world, including Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Harvard, Howard, University of Pennsylvania, Oberlin, University of Michigan, and Yale in the United States; Oxford in England; and, in France, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Universite Paris 7-Denis Diderot, and Sorbonne.
Primary Works: The Novels
While she has been active in so many arenas in her long professional life, Morrison’s clear focus is on writing her novels. She has stated repeatedly that each of the novels begins with a question and that the writing of the work explores possible answers—as well as additional questions. In her first, The Bluest Eye, Morrison has said that she was moved to examine what the psychic costs are of internalizing white standards of beauty, especially for a vulnerable young black girl: “You know, what racism does is create self-loathing, and it hurts. It can ruin you.”18 In an interview in 2002, Morrison describes the overall motivating questions for each of her works, while specifically focusing on her second through seventh novels:
Each one of the novels has a pedagogical impulse. That is what the creative enterprise is about—helping people see the world.
The novels place readers in worlds that show them “this is what race feels like,” or “this is what friendship is like.”
Sula talks about friendship between women at a time—I was writing it in 1969—when women and women’s friendships weren’t considered worthy subjects for fiction.
In Song of Solomon the reader asks, “How did these men get educated?” “How do they learn about the heroic possibilities for men?” and “How does this relate to women?”
Tar Baby asks, “How do people from entirely different cultures know love?” and “How do they not come together because of cultural difference?”
Beloved, of course, takes the story of Margaret Garner, a story no one wanted to remember, the buried past, and resurrects it. But it is as much about the obsessive love of mothers and children in the context of slavery as it is about history.
Jazz was my attempt to reclaim the era from F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it also uses the techniques of jazz—improvisation, listening—to ask questions that I want to ask of myself.
Paradise is about going out into the wilderness and attempting to create utopia, then asking, “Why does it collapse?”19
In the four novels that were published after she gave this overview, Morrison took a similar approach, with questions about personal and cultural motivations informing the works’ perspectives. Morrison explained her focus in Love: “I was interested in the way in which sexual love and other kinds of love lend themselves to betrayal. How do ordinary people end up ruining the thing they most want to protect? And obviously the heart of that is really the effort to love.”20 While related to the pedagogical intentions in all of her works, Morrison’s goal in A Mercy was unique, given the novel’s timeframe in the late 17th century: “I wanted to see what it might have been like to remove race from slavery, because slavery was not this strange thing,” as it was global, but what became different in America was its basis on race.21 In a presentation at Oberlin College in 2012, Morrison explained that, in A Mercy, “the point is not how my ancestors lived, but what white people were running from, what they were scared of, what haunted them, what was risky, limiting, horrifying” before the official establishment of slavery.22
Her tenth novel, Home, investigated race and family with a particular connection, that of siblings: “I wanted the male and female relationship but not fraught with baggage, and I thought that using a brother and sister could be freer.”23 The central theme of Home focuses on black male identity within American racism: “Well, a lot of the book confronts the question of how to be a man, which is really how to be a human.”24 Morrison’s most recent novel, God Help the Child—published in 2015, and set approximately then—in some ways encompasses many of the themes in the novels that preceded it: questions of love, identity, race, and relationships. Here, she focuses on the lasting effects of emotional pain: “In this book, I was very interested in childhood trauma paralyzing us in the contemporary world.”25 Central to the novel is its emphasis on skin color and the dangers of self-absorption, as Morrison explains in a 2017 interview: “This girl is very, very black and very, very beautiful. Her lover is a smartass. Both of them are very self-involved, and then they come to a place where they have to take care of somebody else, not themselves. And that experience takes them out of their little shell of ‘me, me, me,’ so that they are able at the end to have some respect, and even affection, for each other.”26
The Bluest Eye
Morrison's first novel focuses on a forlorn young African American girl, Pecola Breedlove, who believes that her devastating world will improve substantially if only she can wish and pray hard enough to make her brown eyes turn blue. The novel (whose germ came from someone she knew in childhood) originated from a short story Morrison had written during the early 1960s, in a Howard writing group, where, she has said, she sought refuge from her troubled marriage. Told primarily from the points of view of two other young black girls, Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, The Bluest Eye is set in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison's hometown. Through the narration, which is primarily Claudia's, the novel creates startling contrasts between the sometimes bleak but always loving MacTeer household and that of the gravely dysfunctional Breedlove family, which is quickly unraveling. Framed by the Dick and Jane story of an elementary primer, this novel examines the tensions between the racial ideal and the real in American culture.
Although the MacTeers have financial hardships of their own, their relatively stable environment becomes a brief haven for Pecola Breedlove when her family loses its home. During Pecola's stay at the MacTeer home, she reveals her fixation with blue eyes, in part through her obsession with drinking milk from a cup with a picture of Shirley Temple. While there, eleven-year-old Pecola begins menstruating, a circumstance that makes a great impact on Claudia and Frieda. Thereafter, Pecola returns home to her parents, Cholly and Pauline Breedlove, along with her older brother, Sammy, who frequently runs away.
Pecola's family life is desolate and violent, and all members of the Breedlove family are utterly convinced of their own worthlessness and ugliness. Such despair causes Pecola to wish to disappear or die—or to have blue eyes, which, she believes, will prevent such terrible occurrences as her parents' brutal fighting from taking place in front of her. In addition to worshipping Shirley Temple, Pecola loves blue-eyed Mary Jane, as depicted on her eponymous candies, again indicative of her internalization of a warped white value system.
When the Breedlove family deteriorates even further, Cholly, in a moment of tragic, twisted, drunkenness—inexplicably demonstrating some displaced tenderness--rapes Pecola. This horrific act results in her pregnancy, although the baby dies after arriving prematurely. Astonishingly, the way that Morrison presents this unimaginable behavior provides deep insights into the remnants of Cholly's humanity. As Claudia says at the end of the novel: “He, at any rate, was the one who loved her enough to touch her, envelop her, give something of himself to her. But his touch was fatal, and the something he gave her filled the matrix of her agony with death.”27
In her eventually complete psychological withdrawal from the hell of her life, Pecola believes that, with the help of an odd man named Soaphead Church, she has achieved her goal of changing her eyes to the bluest ones of all. This utter disruption with reality leaves Pecola mentally broken and unreachable, and she is thereafter seen wandering lost around town. Claudia realizes that her and others' willingness to go along with the widespread mistreatment of Pecola, as well as their endorsement of white values, makes the whole community complicit in the downward spiral of this sad young black girl.
The Bluest Eye found a new, and perhaps wider, audience when Oprah Winfrey chose it, in April 2000, as one of the Oprah's Book Club selections on her television show. In an interview from that time, Morrison explains that she still sees the novel as relevant, because contemporary girls and women, particularly females of color, are inundated with frequently negative messages about their appearances, with profoundly damaging repercussions for their self-images.
Most often hailed as one of the earliest works of fiction to focus on the friendship between African American women, Sula the novel breaks rules much as Sula the character does. The friendship between Sula Peace and Nel Wright is the centerpiece of the work, with the two women representing varying perspectives on conventionality and values. At some points in their lives, the two balance each other perfectly; at other times, they clash. Likewise, the novel's narrative structure is sometimes linear and at other times more fragmented.
Also important in the novel are Sula’s mother and grandmother, Hannah and Eva Peace. In her unorthodox house of disarray, Sula learns of the casual pleasures of frequent, casual sex from her mother Hannah's example, and she learns how to be feisty, tough, and independent from Eva. Sula's father, Rekus, dies when she is three, yet Hannah still manages almost always to find “some touching every day.” After Eva's husband BoyBoy, Sula's grandfather, leaves her with three children—Hannah, Pearl, and Plum—Eva disappears from town briefly and returns with one leg and a more stable financial status, a mystery never explained further. When Plum returns from World War I, he brings with him what appears to be a heroin addiction. Eva eventually decides that enough is enough and—in an act of brutal love that echoes related events in Morrison's other novels (Cholly to Pecola in The Bluest Eye, Sethe to her daughter in Beloved, Joe to Dorcas in Jazz, her unnamed mother to Florens in A Mercy)—she kills him.
With a very different approach to life, Nel’s mother, Helene Wright, holds sway over her daughter and husband, Jude, a cook on a Great Lakes ship. As she was born to a prostitute mother and raised by a staunchly religious grandmother in New Orleans, Helene is obsessed with order and propriety. She subdues Nel’s imagination, just as she straightens her daughter's hair and puts a clothespin on her supposedly-too-wide nose. Helene keeps her home spotless and tidy, and she does not tolerate any deviation from these norms in Nel.
Coming from these vastly differing home environments and familial influences, Sula and Nel learn to appreciate each other's lives and to learn about other possibilities for how to behave in the world. As Morrison writes of their shared perspectives: “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be.”28 Their unique friendship brings a welcome sense of completion to each other, as together they explore the depths of their previously lonely identities, leading in particular to their growing interest in men.
As prominent as the characters in Sula is its setting, the Bottom, an African American neighborhood outside of Medallion, Ohio. The novel is set in this outlying neighborhood, high in the hills above the town of Medallion, back when that land was considered undesirable. Morrison opens the novel with the genealogy of this place, delineating its unique history within a racist society. As we know from the opening, this community no longer exists, having been replaced with a golf course once the whites grew to appreciate the terrain. But Sula flashes back to when the Bottom was a lively place, long before it is overrun with ostensible progress.
Presiding in a way over this town is another eccentric, Shadrack, a shell-shocked veteran of World War I who returns to Medallion mentally disturbed and behaving inappropriately. Yet Shadrack fills a role in that society so that he is not a complete outcast, although he is laughed at. While he sells the town folk the fish he catches, he also provides them with an other through which to feel better about their own lives, someone they are not, evidenced when he exposes his genitals and when he invites them to march with him on National Suicide Day. Shadrack feels a particular kinship with Sula, as they both defy societal norms, something he recognizes in part through the stemmed-rose or tadpole-shaped birthmark above her eye.
Shadrack and Sula first interact while she is still an adolescent when he witnesses a scene of playfulness that results in tragedy. One summer day when they are twelve, Sula and Nel are cavorting near the river with a young boy named Chicken Little, when he accidentally flies out of Sula's hands into the river and drowns. The girls are most concerned about whether or not they have been observed, implying that being caught matters more than trying to save Chicken Little or feeling regret over the loss of his life. In her concern that he has seen what happened, Sula visits Shadrack's cabin, where she says nothing but looks at him in wonder. His pleasant but inscrutable response, “Always,” confounds Sula but seals a link between them.
As Sula and Nel grow up, they remain close for a while, although their opposing views on conventionality place pressure on their friendship. Nel marries young, to a man named Jude, and Sula goes away to college and to travel. After Sula's return, her place as the community's pariah becomes more pronounced. The breaking point between Sula and Nel occurs when, in the spirit of sharing everything with her close friend, Sula has sexual relations with Jude. When Nel discovers them together, Jude leaves forever, the women's friendship is broken, as Sula does not understand what the problem is. Many years later, after a self-righteous Nel visits the dying Sula, Nel realizes that what she has missed all of these years is not her wayward husband but her bosom friend, their lost closeness explaining the void at the center of her life.
In April 2002, Sula was the last selection in Oprah's Book Club, which was thereafter discontinued. At the time, Morrison said that she had been inspired to write the book by the incipient feminist movement of the early 1970s.
Song of Solomon
A coming-of-age story about a young man named Macon “Milkman” Dead III, Song of Solomon was Morrison's longest and most fully developed novel when it was published. It covers multiple generations of the Dead family, whose name is an accident that came about when a drunk white man filling out freedom papers for those formerly enslaved wrote in the wrong blanks. The first Macon Dead, Milkman's grandfather, simply accepts this name and then passes it on to his son and grandson.
The novel centers on Milkman’s aimless and materialistic life in an unnamed Michigan city on Lake Superior, during which he gradually acquires stronger values. While initial guidance comes from his capitalistic and heartless father, Milkman eventually embraces the more loving and spiritual teaching of his Aunt Pilate, his father's estranged sister. Yet before he gets to that point, Milkman must learn about his family history—including that of his mother, Ruth Foster—much of which takes him on a quest southward, first to Pennsylvania, and then farther south to Virginia. This journey, like the travels in all of Morrison's books, is both literal and figurative, as Milkman needs to scrutinize his own heart before he can begin to understand his family's secrets. The symbolism of these travels is echoed in Pilate's prized childhood possession: a geography book.
The first Macon Dead has a prosperous farm in Pennsylvania, Lincoln’s Heaven, where he raises young Macon (Milkman's father) and Pilate after their mother dies in childbirth with Pilate, who is born, inexplicably, without a navel. Envious whites coveting his land kill him. Twelve-year-old Pilate and sixteen-year-old Macon flee, although they have sightings of their father’s ghost thereafter. Pilate and Macon then have an irrevocable falling-out over some gold that they find, and they separate. Much later in Michigan, they are reunited—albeit not amicably—just before Ruth conceives Milkman, which occurs with the help of herbal intervention by Pilate.
Many years thereafter, Macon convinces his now-adult son, Milkman, to try to steal the gold that he believes Pilate kept in a bag after their disagreement in Pennsylvania all of those years earlier. Although the bag’s contents turn out not to be gold at all, Milkman heads to Pennsylvania and eventually Virginia in search of it. Having along the way alienated his former—and now mentally disturbed—friend Guitar, Milkman's life is in danger. However, an even more important development is that as Milkman heads further south and loses more and more of his material belongings, he gains respect for his family, for himself, and for other people. As he embraces less materialistic and more spiritual values, Milkman redeems himself. Most momentous to him is learning that ancestors of his were from the flying African tradition, in that they literally flew out of the fields of Virginia all the way back to Africa. Later, when Milkman returns to Virginia with Pilate, Guitar follows and a violent showdown results in her death. At the very end of the novel, in agonistic battle, Milkman leaps into the air towards Guitar, perhaps dying or, as Morrison intimates, perhaps, like his mythical African ancestors, flying.
This novel also was an Oprah selection, back in the earliest days of her book club in October 1996. That resulted in its return to the best-seller lists almost twenty years after it was first published, much to Morrison's initial surprise.
Morrison's fourth novel is a departure from her earlier works, with its contemporary setting mostly on a mythical Caribbean island and its protagonists somewhat less sympathetic, which—although it sold well—may account for its relatively lower critical acclaim. This novel also places more emphasis on white characters than any of the earlier ones, with two of the six main characters a wealthy white heterosexual couple. Yet Tar Baby reflects Morrison's trademark focus on the essential qualities of community and interpersonal relationships, history, journeying, and geography. Additionally, while Song of Solomon includes a ghost and people seemingly able to fly, this novel is thoroughly steeped in magical realism. Nature is sentient: rivers and trees resist real-estate development; and the ocean, clearly posited as female, steers a swimmer to a boat.
Set primarily in the vicinity of the white couple’s vacation home on the mythical Isle des Chevaliers, the novel also takes place on a larger island nearby and in Eloe, Florida and New York City. The novel’s structure centers on three couples. Valerian and Margaret Street are the white owners of the Caribbean home, and Ondine and Sydney Childs are their African American butler and cook. The other couple is Jadine Childs, Ondine and Sydney’s Paris-based niece, and her short-term lover, Son Green, an African American man who appears on the island seemingly out of nowhere.
Although Tar Baby has varying points of view, Jadine is its central consciousness. A famous and accomplished Paris fashion model, Jadine is not a typical Morrison protagonist (although in some ways she interestingly anticipates Bride in Morrison’s eleventh novel, God Help the Child). Along with being successful, Jadine is also arrogant, spoiled, and materialistic, while remaining vulnerable and insecure. Although she is cared for by her aunt and uncle, Ondine and Sydney, Jadine's orphanhood rocks her moorings and results in a woman who has, as Morrison states, “forgotten her ancient properties.” Disinclined to forge close ties with anyone, Jadine lacks the fundamental Morrisonian foundation: the essential reverence for and connection to one's ancestors.
Jadine’s romantic partner, Son Green, however, knows—to a fault, she would say—where he is from, namely, Eloe, Florida. Son's profound sense of his roots elicits resentment and contempt in Jadine, perhaps out of jealousy (although she claims no envy for his lack of sophistication). Their fiery relationship seems to have positive potential at certain points, but their differences become too great, and by the end of the novel, she has flown back to Paris while he seems headed in the opposite geographical and philosophical direction, back to the Caribbean. In a creative development that only Morrison seems capable of carrying off, Tar Baby ends with Son merging into the realm of myth through his apparent joining with a legendary group of ancient blind horsemen —maroons —on the island.
The older couples, too, undergo changes. After a momentous secret is revealed about Margaret Street’s physical abuse of her and Valerian’s son, Michael, the tables turn, and the masters’ control of the servants weakens. Too entrenched to go elsewhere, Sydney and Ondine will stay with the Streets, but the balance of power will never return to what it was before the revelation that Margaret, a beauty queen known in her youth as the Principal Beauty of Maine, took pleasure in sticking pins into her infant son’s flesh. Now thirty years old, this son, Michael, in his fraught absence, is a powerful ghostly presence. Supposed to join the family for the Christmas holidays, he never appears. Instead, the truth comes out, a demoralized Valerian yields control to Margaret, Ondine speaks her mind, and the formerly Edenic paradise has irrevocably fallen.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning Beloved, Morrison’s fifth novel, has brought her the largest amount of praise. Ushering in a long string of even greater accolades for Morrison, this work’s setting goes back in time to the mid- and late 1800s, where Sethe and Paul D, now in Cincinnati, Ohio, seek to reckon with their unmanageable pasts from the hell of slavery in Kentucky. Told in flashbacks—and, as Morrison has said, in the fragmented way that people remember—Beloved divulges its secrets piecemeal, although the linear story is eventually revealed.
Morrison's most supernatural novel thus far, Beloved, invites its readers to accept as its title character a ghostly woman who is the flesh-and-blood reincarnation of Sethe's murdered toddler girl. In having Sethe kill this daughter, Morrison was inspired by the bold decision of a historical enslaved woman, Margaret Garner, who in 1856 chose death over reenslavement when she and her children were about to be captured in Cincinnati after escaping from Kentucky. As Morrison interprets this event fictionally, Sethe's brutal actions actually spring from the intensity of her motherly love. Morrison has described this circumstance several times, including in a 1987 interview with Alan Benson: “For me, it was the ultimate gesture of the loving mother. It was also the outrageous claim of a slave. The last thing a slave woman owns is her children.”29 Through this event, Morrison casts the novel Beloved as the first portion of what she has visualized as a trilogy of works on excessive love, with this initial entry embodying overwhelming maternal love.
Beloved also charts the entire life course of Denver, Sethe's surviving daughter. Within the province of the novel, she is born, grows up, remains isolated in the home, then breaks free and matures, finally finding a job and a community of her own. Baby Suggs, Denver's paternal grandmother, is a powerful, loving, spiritual leader-healer who later resigns herself to being physically and emotionally spent, her spirit broken. Rounding out the list of main characters is Stamp Paid, the Underground Railroad–style conductor who transports Sethe and her infant Denver across the Ohio River and on to Baby Suggs's home, where they are reunited with Sethe's other children.
Echoing Milkman’s travels southward in Song of Solomon, this novel features a remarkable journey in which, after sending her children north by wagon, Sethe—pregnant, recently whipped, and otherwise brutally assaulted—strikes out on foot. Because chaos now reigns at Sweet Home, the farm where she lives in Kentucky, Sethe cannot wait any longer, even though her husband, Halle, is missing. Yet she makes it to the Ohio River with the eventual serendipitous assistance of Amy Denver, a poor, young white woman fleeing indentured servitude. Once successfully on the bank of that mighty river, Sethe goes into labor, and the baby she names after her helper, Denver, is born.
Beloved’s own journey, however, may be even more momentous, as she traverses the borders between the living and the dead. Emerging from limbo, the realm between life and death, Beloved wills herself into physical form based on her insatiable need to capture and hold Sethe’s attention. When she dies, she is but a toddler; in the current time of the novel, she is about twenty years old. As Morrison describes her emergence, Beloved materializes from a stream, which consists of that most basic of elements, water: “A fully dressed woman walked out of the water.”30 When Sethe first sees this woman, immediately upon returning from a carnival with Denver and Paul D, she experiences a reenactment of her own water breaking in childbirth.
When Sethe eventually realizes that the woman named Beloved is her lost daughter returned, she shuts out the rest of her life, including Paul D and even Denver and seeks to repay an insurmountable debt to Beloved. Beloved is never satisfied, however, and she will stop at nothing until Sethe has given up her own life. This downward spiral seems destined to end in Sethe's death until Denver becomes courageous enough to leave her house—124 Bluestone Road, itself carrying the import of a character—and seek help from the surrounding community. The citizens respond initially with food assistance and then aid of an even greater sort: they gather to exorcise Beloved's spirit from 124, and from Sethe. This purging succeeds, and by novel's end, Paul D has returned, and Sethe and he begin healing in earnest.
The second installment in Morrison's trilogy on excessive love—here demonstrating the consequences of crushing romantic love—Jazz depicts a middle-aged married couple, Violet and Joe Trace, who have migrated from Virginia to “the City” (unnamed but clearly New York City). When Joe shockingly finds himself enthralled, in the first adulterous affair of his life, with a much younger woman named Dorcas, he panics after she ultimately rejects him for men closer to her own age, and he ends up shooting her. Mortally wounded, Dorcas refuses to name the shooter, Joe gets away, and she dies shortly thereafter.
This murder—echoing the infanticide in Beloved and anticipating the killing of the Convent women in Paradise—opens the novel and influences all of its plot developments. Joe is so emotionally devastated that Dorcas’s family does not seek prosecution. Violet reacts initially by trying to maim the corpse at the funeral, but she then sympathetically tries to learn everything possible about Dorcas.
With an improvisational narrative structure, much like the musical genre of its title, Jazz also flashes back to Joe’s and Violet’s Virginia childhoods. Here, readers learn of Violet’s bereft youth, during which her father disappears and her mother commits suicide, leaving Violet understandably scarred. Furthermore, Morrison explains that Joe’s orphaned background in part leads him to become an apprentice to a local man, Henry Lestory, or Hunters Hunter, who teaches him to shoot. This woodsman's skill comes back to Joe many years later when he feels compelled to hunt down Dorcas—a circumstance that recollects for him his futile hunting for the mysterious woman Wild, whom he fears is his mother.
A distinct parallel to the eponymous character Beloved, Wild is a naked woman who exists in another realm, outside in the fields and in caves, as well as in the imaginations of local Vesper County, Virginia, residents. To a certain extent Morrison has confirmed this character linkage, as in a 1995 interview with Angels Carabi. Wild’s initial appearance—naked and pregnant in a wooded setting—closely resembles the way Beloved is last seen in that novel. Here, Morrison states, “Wild is a kind of Beloved” and then notes many parallels between them, but her final word on the matter is “I don't want to make all of these connections.”31
Wild's appearance also intersects with the other main story line, the journey of Golden Gray, a smug, white-appearing, young man who learns of his biracial parentage at age eighteen. As a consequence, he leaves his mother, Vera Louise, in their Baltimore home and travels south to Virginia in search of his long-lost father. In an intricate plot development, Morrison reveals that this man is Hunters Hunter, the later father-figure of Joe Trace. Furthermore, Golden Gray and Vera Louise have been coddled for many years by none other than Violet's grandmother, True Belle. When Golden has almost arrived at Hunter's house, he comes across Wild, who is pregnant and has passed out. Golden brings Wild to Hunter’s house, and that is where she regains consciousness and subsequently gives birth—to Joe Trace. In these ways Jazz’s Golden Gray, Dorcas, and even Dorcas's friend, Felice, (in some ways like Beloved) serve as catalysts that greatly affect the dominant characters.
By the end of Jazz, Felice has provided the means by which Joe and Violet Trace can reunite. Violet's desolate childhood can finally be left behind, as can Joe's complicated family life with Violet, while for both of them, the traumas associated with motherlessness can now be put to rest. The novel ends optimistically, implying that within a loving relationship—like that of Violet and Joe, just as with Sethe and Paul D of Beloved—healing, and even transcendence, are always possible.
In 1998, the final work in Morrison’s trilogy emerged with the novel Paradise, which espouses an extreme love for God that becomes skewed into blind self-righteousness. Following a place-based propensity begun as early as Morrison’s second novel, Sula, this work features a town and a building functioning not just as characters, but as dominant as the main characters. Ruby, Oklahoma, a proud and self-satisfied town, sees itself as the ultimate definer of morality and propriety. Its antagonist, the Convent, a school with much looser standards of behavior, is seventeen miles away. As Morrison’s story unfolds, it is the tensions between these two places that form the heart of her seventh novel, Paradise.
The modern-day town of Ruby is ruled by the officious descendants of migrants who had fled the South. Again, emphasizing a significant journey, here, the townsfolk's grandparents and others had formed a group of itinerant African Americans who fled on foot from the violence of the racist South, especially Louisiana, in hopes that they would be able to create better lives out West. Heeding the call to “Come Prepared or Not at All!” these travelers hope to become homesteaders, new pioneers in a relatively free and open land. However, the 158 people discover that, primarily because of their particularly dark skin, they are turned away from the already-established all-black towns along the way. The travelers cope with this traumatic experience, which becomes known as the Disallowing in the mythos of the novel, by redefining the intended insult so that they see their darkness as a source of pride.
With a supernatural intervention by means of the apparition of a walking man, the settlers follow the signs they are given and build their first town, Haven, Oklahoma, complete with a central cooking space, the Oven. When soldiers returning from World War II find open racial hostility, most of Haven's residents, taking the now-disassembled Oven with them, move further west, where they establish the town of Ruby. Within the time of the novel, 1973, the leaders of Ruby, particularly Deacon and Steward Morgan, exert their extreme control over the other residents, including their wives, Soane and Dovey.
Yet the Convent—not actually a convent but rather a school for Native American girls run by Roman Catholic nuns—allows for, and even welcomes, creativity, unconventionality, and outsiders. The Convent women have all traveled circuitous and painful routes to get there, and they all retain devastating memories of their individual pasts. Through the evolving leadership of Consolata, by the novel's end, the other women—Mavis, Gigi, Pallas, and Seneca—are able to begin the process of healing from their traumas and, therefore, to transcend their limitations.
As in other of Morrison’s novels, supernatural occurrences come to bear in the wake of a defining murder. After the Ruby leaders decide that they need a scapegoat for the young people's embrace of the civil rights movement, they choose the Convent women as the offenders, believing them to be responsible for leading astray the young citizens. Therefore, nine of the men, including Deacon and Steward Morgan, travel the seventeen miles to the Convent before dawn one morning in July and shoot each of the women. “They shoot the white girl first” is how the novel opens, although which of the women this could be never becomes clear, as Morrison has intentionally stripped away racial markers from the Convent women.
The overtly supernatural elements occur later, when Roger Best takes his hearse out to claim the deceased and finds that there are no bodies to collect, as they have all disappeared. Morrison explains this circumstance in a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose just after the publication of Paradise. Although she says that she knew the first sentence when she began writing the novel, she did not know what would happen to the Convent women after the shooting. “Would they die or escape?” she wondered, then deciding, “Both—why can’t they do both?”32 And that is precisely what happens—the women are killed, but they also are somehow resurrected, each visiting and making peace with the most hurtful elements of her past.
When the Reverend Richard Misner and Anna Flood visit the Convent to investigate, another other-worldly experience occurs: they see an apparition of either a door or a window in the sky. Subsequently, some of the townspeople begin to repent as they start to recognize the errors of their ways and to realize that they have become as exclusionary as those who had rejected their ancestors in the Disallowing. As an outcast but spiritual character, Lone DuPres describes it: “God had given Ruby a second chance.”33 In this way, Morrison demonstrates the vastness of her vision, as the lines between the living and the dead are not distinct, and the potential for grace is limitless.
Following her trilogy on excessive love—Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise—Morrison ostensibly kept to this topic in her eighth novel, simply titled Love, published in 2003. Yet, rather than its titular inclination, much of this novel actually addresses conflict and hate. As Morrison explains in the foreword to the 2005 Vintage edition of the novel, “People tell me that I am always writing about love. Always, always love. I nod, yes, but it isn’t true—not exactly. In fact, I am always writing about betrayal. Love is the weather. Betrayal is the lightning that cleaves and betrays it.”34
Centered on the family of Bill Cosey, an entrepreneur, hotel owner, community leader—and pedophile—this novel primarily explores the sensibilities of the women in his life. The central consciousnesses of Heed and Christine, Cosey’s widow and granddaughter, dominate the novel, which follows their relationship devolving from best friends as children, into pronounced antipathy after Heed, only eleven at the time, is molested by Bill Cosey and he subsequently marries his child-bride.
Framed and filtered through the point of view of the omniscient narrator, L, who previously has been a cook for the family hotel, the novel flashes back to a time before racial integration, when Cosey’s Hotel and Resort in the community of Up Beach was in its heyday. A center for black celebrities and the elite of the surrounding community and beyond, the hotel and its beach are where Heed and Christine meet as children. It’s also the site of mysterious forces—called Police-heads—that prey upon supposedly wayward women and children, leading to drownings and deaths, including Heed’s brothers. Other losses in this environment include Bill Cosey’s first wife, Julia, who dies mysteriously when their son, Billy Boy, is 12. Billy Boy then dies young, of pneumonia at 22, following his marriage to May and the birth of their daughter, Christine. Many community members view Cosey’s Hotel as a place of opportunity and aspiration, including Vida Gibbons, who regards working there as a valuable source of education. Her husband, Sandler Gibbons, is befriended by Bill Cosey, and they frequently go fishing together. After integration takes hold, the hotel can no longer retain its exclusivity, leading to its eventual closure.
With the hotel and its storied history as a backdrop, the present-day action of the novel centers on the mansion on Monarch Street, which Bill Cosey has built in the predominantly white town of Silk. He is long-deceased, but his widow and granddaughter, Heed and Christine, both now in their 60s, continue to reside in the house while maintaining a state of perpetual warfare. Due to the poisoning of their friendship by Christine’s mother, May, after Bill Cosey marries Heed when she is but eleven, the two are locked in battle for many decades thereafter. The focus of their current venomous impasse is a debate over who is the true heir to Bill Cosey’s estate. When Bill Cosey dies in the early 1970s, no definitive will is found, just one written on an old hotel restaurant menu, which leaves everything to his “sweet Cosey child.”35 Heed and Christine each claim that title, but the lack of clarity leaves them at perpetual loggerheads.
Entering into this pressure-filled environment in Silk is an opportunistic young woman named Junior Viviane. Having survived a tough upbringing in the Settlement, an exceptionally poor community comprised of people referred to as “rurals,” and then a time in reform school, Junior responds to a job advertisement from Heed Cosey, who seeks an assistant. Because Heed is crippled with arthritis, she wants someone to help her, ostensibly to write a genealogy of the Cosey family, but she really wants help forging a new will that she hopes will definitively prove that she is the rightful heir. Junior is only too happy to oblige, and she soon embarks on a sexual affair with a young man also working for the Cosey women, Romen, who is a few years younger than she is and is the grandson of Sandler and Vida Gibbons. While living in the Monarch Street house, Junior is enthralled by a portrait of the late Bill Cosey, whose presence she feels physically. This supernatural circumstance fits with others in Morrison’s oeuvre, where communications regularly take place between the living and the dead.
A showdown occurs when Heed and Junior go to the boarded-up old hotel, seeking a blank menu on which to create a new will. After Christine follows them there, they have a confrontation, and then an accident occurs, with Heed mortally injured. After Junior flees the hotel and returns to an assignation with Romen in the Cosey home on Monarch Street, Heed and Christine are reunited. This healing of the 50-year rift between them results in their shared realization that their genuine love had been driven apart by the selfishness of Christine’s mother, May, and by Bill Cosey. They reach an understanding and commune lovingly as Heed dies—and even thereafter. Echoing the late-life realization that Sula and Nel have that what was really valuable was each other, Heed and Christine achieve a healing grace.
When Romen discovers what has transpired, he is shocked and repulsed by Junior’s selfishness. So, he leaves her and goes to the hotel to rescue Christine and to recover Heed’s corpse. Morrison has said that Romen is in some ways the conscience of the novel and the character to whom she most relates. Earlier in the text, he demonstrates his goodness when he refuses to participate in a gang rape of a trapped young woman named Pretty-Faye, whom he instead rescues.
As L reveals in the novel’s closing pages, the original will of Bill Cosey had left the vast majority of his estate to his mistress, Celestial, along with his fishing boat to Sandler. Because L has believed this to be unacceptable, she has poisoned Bill Cosey and created the ambiguous menu-will leaving everything to the “sweet Cosey child.” But L also reveals that she and Celestial, both of whom have long since died, regularly visit Bill Cosey’s grave. Again, Morrison shows us, communication after death can be ongoing. Indeed, L—whose real name, we learn indirectly, is Love—Celestial, Heed, and Christine (the only one of the four still alive at the novel’s end) all commune, in the end, with love.
While her ninth novel, A Mercy, has a vastly different timeframe than the others, as it is set in the 1680s, its central concerns cover some of the same terrain. That is, this novel also shows characters searching for identity, belonging, and place, while struggling with barriers of race, gender, class, and, here, religion. In addition, several of the central characters in A Mercy undergo significant journeys, most notably the young black woman Florens, as well as the white landowner Jacob Vaark. Furthermore, similar to Jadine in Tar Baby and Violet and Joe Trace in Jazz, among others, actual or virtual orphans abound in this text, while experiences of abandonment also leave deep wounds.
As Morrison explains in several interviews, in this novel, she chose to explore colonial America, prior to the formal existence of the United States, in order to examine slavery before it was based upon race. “When I did A Mercy, that book was supposed to be just before racism became the letter and the characteristic of the land. It’s just before the Salem witch trials, when they were running around killing people for religious reasons. Religious people got upset about all that, but not about color.”36 Divisions between people at this time, as she shows, often were more fixated on religious identity than racial distinctions. In so doing, Morrison populates A Mercy with whites as well as blacks, and she explores all of the characters’ motivations with insight and complexity.
Florens’s tale repeatedly circles back to the rejection she has experienced when her mother gives her up to be taken away by Jacob Vaark, a man who is reluctantly an enslaver, and who her mother determines is more humane than her depraved master, Senhor, with whom she is certain that Florens is terribly endangered. Because Florens’s mother perceives that Jacob Vaark sees Florens “as a human child, not pieces of eight,” she believes that there is a chance her daughter will be treated less brutally by him.37 Florens understands none of this, only believing that her mother has rejected her and chosen to keep her younger brother instead. Florens sees her mother’s apparition visiting her at various times throughout the book—again showing Morrison’s comfort with ghosts—but she seems unable to comprehend any message from “a minha m‹e,” Portuguese for “my mother.”
The novel is arranged in twelve separate unnamed and unnumbered chapters with multiple points of view, every other one narrated by Florens, with the alternates in third person limited, until the final one, which is first person and told by Florens’s mother. The other major characters each have one chapter, where we learn their back stories and how each member of the group has ended up at Jacob Vaark’s farm. The novel opens with Florens’s tale looking backwards, followed by one about Jacob Vaark, who was born in England but came to the new world as a poor young man, now a landowner. Thereafter, we hear about Lina, an American Indian who survives a plague of smallpox that kills almost everyone else in her village, including her family. Pressured to convert to Christianity to live and work among whites, Lina adapts to what she finds and strengthens herself with what she remembers, from her mother and others.
In the sixth chapter, we learn of Rebekka, the English bride Jacob sent away for. While each is cautious of this arrangement, it works out better than either one feared, as they find each other more than acceptable. Rebekka takes to the farm life, but she is unmoored when her early pregnancies result in three sons, stillborn or dying as infants, and then this misfortunate is followed by a horse kick, killing her 5-year-old daughter, Patrician.
Another resident at the farm, brought there by Jacob and about whom we read in the eighth chapter, is Sorrow, an odd young woman, apparently white, but possibly biracial, who mysteriously has survived a shipwreck. Seemingly somewhat mentally disturbed, Sorrow relies on her invisible companion, Twin, and twice finds herself pregnant, although the first is either stillborn or, perhaps, smothered by Lina. When Sorrow’s subsequent child, a daughter, is born, she feels fulfilled and adopts a new name, Complete.
After Sorrow is cured of smallpox by the blacksmith—a free black man who builds an iron gate and fence on the farm—then Jacob falls ill and quickly dies. When Rebekka also is stricken with smallpox, Florens is sent to summon the blacksmith to try to cure her. He does, and Rebekka lives. After the blacksmith saves her life, she becomes devoutly religious, judgmental, and unkind to her former friends, beating Sorrow, punishing Lina, and trying to sell Florens.
Now avoiding and avoided by Lina, Sorrow is helped in her second childbirth by Willard and Scully, two white men, indentured servants, who also work on the farm and who are also lovers. The tenth chapter is told from their perspectives, where we see that they all had felt themselves part of a family on the Vaark farm. But when Jacob dies, they realize the sense of cohesion is lost. As Willard observes, “Such were the ravages of Vaark’s death. And the consequences of the women in thrall to men or pointedly without them. Or so he concluded. He had no proof of what was in their minds but, based on his own experience, he was certain betrayal was the poison of the day.”38 Echoing Morrison’s comments in her 2005 foreword to Love, the focus here is less on love and more on betrayal.
While the novel opens with Florens’s references to an episode of violence in the past not immediately made clear, we eventually realize that she is referring to her attack on the blacksmith, her former lover, after his rejection of her—because he chooses allegiance to Malaik, his young ward, over her. This experience triggers Florens’s unhealed wound from what she perceives as her mother’s abandonment. Throughout her life, Florens dreams of her mother, at one point preferring a dream about trees: “That is a better dream than a minha mãe standing near with her little boy. In those dreams she is always wanting to tell me something. Is stretching her eyes. Is working her mouth. I look away from her.”39
It is not until the final chapter, narrated from the point of view of Florens’s mother, that it becomes clear that what Florens believes is rejection was actually an effort to save her. While her mother, always referred to as “a minha mãe,” does push her away, this is precisely because she believes that Jacob Vaark will be a kinder master. Because the older woman knows for certain that there was “no protection,” a phrase that she says four times in her short, five-page chapter, she hopes for “a difference,” whereby her daughter will have a chance. Here, we have the book’s title made clear: “It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human.”40 Florens’ mother also warns her daughter here of the danger in giving herself so absolutely to anyone else, as Florens earlier has done so willingly with the blacksmith. The message, it seems, is that “dominion” should be, if at all possible, over oneself.
With a mother’s loving sacrifice of her daughter misperceived as brutality and rejection, A Mercy echoes Beloved. With Jacob’s death causing everything to deteriorate irrevocably, we think not only of the aftermath of Bill Cosey’s death in Love, but of Sweet Home after Mr. Garner dies in Beloved. But the failed reunion between Florens and the blacksmith runs counter to the endings of Beloved, Jazz, and God Help the Child; instead, it echoes the difficult relationship in Tar Baby. Perhaps here all one can wish for is a small mercy.
Morrison’s tenth novel—like her ninth, A Mercy (167 pages), and her eleventh, God Help the Child (178 pages)—is fewer than 200 pages long. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Morrison explains that in these books she’s “trying to write less that means more and says more.”41 Although just 147 pages long, Home in some ways has the depth and heft of her longer books, with its narrative spread over seventeen numbered chapters. The story which is primarily about Frank Money and his younger sister Ycidra Money, or Cee centers—like Song of Solomon, Beloved, and Paradise—on the motif of a journey. In Home, published in 2012, Frank, a returning veteran of the Korean War, encounters racist discrimination when traveling across the country, from Seattle to Georgia, where he must go to try to save the life of his sister.
Because Frank regards his home state and his hometown of Lotus as horrible places, he undertakes this journey reluctantly, only prompted to go because he receives a mysterious missive that his sister, Cee, is in grave danger. After he rescues her from a brutal racist and eugenicist doctor, Beauregard Scott, in Atlanta, who has conducted horrific “experiments” on her reproductive organs, Frank takes Cee back to Lotus, where he trusts that the hometown women will work to heal her. But he shudders at the thought of returning there: “Lotus, Georgia, is the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield.” He remembers how trapped he felt there growing up, only surviving because of close friendships with two other boys, Mike and Stuff, both of whom die in Korea. As he explains,
Only my sister in trouble could force me to even think about going in that direction.Don’t paint me as some enthusiastic hero.I had to go but I dreaded it.42
Opening and closing with italicized chapters that Frank narrates directly, the novel has a total of eight chapters with this focus. The other nine are third-person with limited points of view from Frank; Cee; Lily, Frank’s short-term girlfriend in Seattle; and from Lenore, Frank and Cee’s wicked step-grandmother.
The chapters in italics are especially noteworthy because not only does Frank speak about himself to the reader, but he actually addresses the author on several occasions. When speaking about this novel at Oberlin, Morrison explained that the main characters in all of her books “talk all the time,” which sometimes she likes and sometimes finds intrusive. She said that Frank directly addresses her towards the end of the novel, where “he interferes and contradicts me, the author.”43 Through this approach of direct address, Morrison reveals Frank’s preoccupations, which include traumas from his past, both in Lotus and on Korean battlefields.
In the first chapter, Frank tells of how awestruck he and Cee are when, as children, they witness horses that rear up on their hind legs and stand “like men.” When he recounts this memory, he also tells that they witness a black man being buried, while his foot is still twitching. Horrified at the sight, Frank tries to comfort his trembling sister, as they hide silently until the men burying the body leave. He addresses the author in the final words of this chapter: “Since you’re set on telling my story, whatever you think and whatever you write down, know this: I really forgot about the burial. I only remembered the horses. They were so beautiful. So brutal. And they stood like men.”44With this opening passage, Morrison sets the scene for much of what follows. Not only will she delve further into a relationship not often depicted deeply in literature, that of a brother and sister, but she also will examine gender roles through this dynamic, as well as issues of family, loyalty, and manhood. And while the author scrutinizes these issues, she will be both informed by and challenged by the opinions of her protagonist.
Thereafter in Home, we see Frank escaping from a Seattle mental hospital, barefoot in the snow, helped by a kind AME Zion pastor and his wife, the Reverend John Locke and his wife, Jean, and then embarking on his journey, stopping first in Portland, where another pastor assists him, albeit reluctantly, and then on to Chicago. Traveling by bus and then train, Frank encounters some kindness, witnesses and even participates in occasional violence, remembers a lot of the stresses of warfare, and struggles to begin to heal and move forward. This journey, while of significant physical distance, instigates self-scrutiny in Frank, reminiscent of comparable circumstances in other Morrison novels, including Song of Solomon and Jazz.
While sitting on the train and during his overnight stay with Billy and Arlene Watson in Chicago, Frank sees an odd man wearing a zoot suit, an apparition that Frank describes as a “living dream,” in keeping with but not as disturbing as hallucinations he has experienced—not named as such, due to the era, but clearly the result of post-traumatic stress disorder. In considering why he sees this particular vision, Frank thinks about the zoot-suit fashion statement having been enough to instigate riots, as the wearers, he notes, were asserting their manhood.
Earlier, after Frank has left Lotus to join the army, Cee flounders, aimless and uncertain without the guiding protection of her older brother. When she meets a young man from Atlanta, ironically named Prince, she runs off with him, taking a car owned by Lenore, her unloving step-grandmother. But Prince apparently only wants the car, so soon he takes it and leaves her behind to fend for herself in Atlanta. Struggling to find a job, she first works at a restaurant but then gets a position as a medical assistant to a rich white doctor, Beauregard Scott. Initially, she is impressed with his apparent willingness to “help” poor young women with their gynecological needs; eventually, however, she allows him to experiment on her, leaving her gravely ill. When she earlier scans his bookshelf, she decides that she needs to learn what eugenics is, not realizing that it is his racist inclinations that motivate Dr. Beau to render her sterile. It is when she is unconscious, feverish, and on the verge of death that Frank finally arrives—having been summoned by an urgent letter from Sarah, the cook at the Scott house.
Rescuing Cee from the doctor’s clutches, Frank then takes her to Lotus, where the no-nonsense local women join together to help heal her body, which takes a solid two months, as much as they can. Simultaneously, they teach her practical life lessons, including quilting, and how to begin to value herself and look out for trouble. When she tries to defend her earlier ignorant acquiescence to the doctor, they have no patience for such passivity: “Misery don’t call ahead. That’s why you have to stay awake—otherwise it just walks on in your door.”45
Frank’s manhood is also on his mind when he revisits a particularly disturbing incident from his time in Korea, the incident where a young Korean girl, scavenging for food, is shot and killed. When Frank initially recounts this horrible event, he asserts that she did not deserve such a fate, later stating that the girl is killed by his colleague, a “relief guard,” immediately after she says “Yum-yum” and “reaches for the soldier’s crotch.” Frank explains, “I think he felt tempted and that is what he had to kill.”46 This incident is mentioned again in the following chapter, Ten, where Frank recalls this horror during his train ride.
At the very end of Chapter Thirteen, Cee tells Frank that she is unable ever to have children because of the doctor’s evil, sterilizing experiments; she weeps but is resolute and strong, though she says she sometimes pictures a baby girl who was waiting to be born. Frank’s reaction—“[c]onfused and deeply troubled”—leads him to a realization: if she could accept the reality of pain and keep on going, then so could he.47 Chapter Fourteen, in italics and with Frank speaking directly to the author, is his confession, elicited not only by Cee’s resilience but by her reference to a baby girl. He admits he has lied, and that his grief over losing his friends has been a cover for the shame he really feels, then confessing that it was he who killed the Korean girl because he had felt both arousal and horror, killing her so he could live with himself. But, of course, by obliterating the source of his guilt, he just creates more guilt.
Frank atones by revisiting the scene where the novel opens. We learn in Chapter Fifteen that the body that Cee and Frank witness being buried in the field with the majestic horses had met a horrific end. A black father and his son Jerome were terrorized by whites who forced them into a fight to the death. Placing bets on who would win, the whites threaten the two men, and the father tells his son to kill him. Jerome does so, but he is, understandably, devastated. So, Frank persuades Cee to join him in an errand that he does not name, and he insists she bring one of her quilts. Returning now to the field where as children they had witnessed the horses, and the burial, Frank figures out where the body was buried and digs up the bones. They wrap them in the quilt and take them to what they regard as a more respectful and dignified site, where they bury the bones under a tree with a marker saying “Here Stands A Man.”48 While Frank is digging the grave, Cee notices a smiling man watching approvingly from nearby—and he is wearing a zoot suit. The atonement is complete.
God Help the Child
Morrison’s most recent novel, her eleventh, is, unlike most, set in the contemporary time of its publication in 2015. Treating the lasting remnants of childhood trauma, God Help the Child focuses on Lula Ann Bridewell, who later changes and simplifies her name to Bride. When she is born, her light-skinned mother, the ironically named Sweetness, rejects her because of the pronounced darkness of her daughter’s skin. This rejection is almost absolute, when Sweetness nearly suffocates her infant, stopping herself even though she “wished she hadn’t been born with that terrible color.”49 Lula Ann’s father, Louis, also with a light complexion, likewise is horrified by his daughter’s appearance, leading him to wrongly accuse Sweetness of infidelity, and then to the disintegration of their marriage. Lula Ann suffers profound emotional neglect for her entire childhood, as Sweetness is quite strict and harsh with her—all of which eventually leads the girl to desperation.
The novel is structured into four numbered parts, each of varying lengths, and each of which has between one and nine short chapters, most of which are in first person and named for their speakers. Four of the chapters are not titled, other than a small fleur-de-lis-like symbol, and, while these four focus mostly on the point of view of one of the main characters, they are third-person.
After Morrison introduces Lula Ann’s painful childhood, the narrative shifts to the present day, where the 23-year-old Bride has learned to embrace and emphasize her dark skin, taking to heart a stylist’s advice only to wear white.50 As an adult, Bride struggles with the after-effects of this cruel upbringing, leading her to seek validation in material belongings, her appearance, and empty romantic connections. Bride’s shallow value system provides her with armor to protect against rejection, or so she thinks. A successful regional manager for a cosmetics company, Bride has learned to play up and be proud of her most noticeable physical feature: her deeply dark skin.
When she embarks on a romantic relationship with a musician, she meets named Booker Starbern, something begins to shift and even deepen in Bride. For six months, they have a relatively positive sexual and emotional relationship, with moments of intimate sharing: “Once in a while she dropped the hip, thrillingly successful corporate woman faade of complete control and confessed some flaw or painful memory of childhood. And he, knowing all about how childhood cuts festered and never scabbed over, comforted her while hiding the rage he felt at the idea of anyone hurting her.”51 She confides to him that when she was eight, she had testified against a woman accused of child molestation. But all along she felt guilty because she was not really certain that the woman had actually molested any children. She tracks the woman down in order to make amends. Instead of comforting Bride, Booker believes her to be sympathetic to the “monster,” and so he abruptly leaves.
All along, Bride has followed the incarceration of the accused child molester, Sofia Huxley, and on the day of her release from prison follows her and tries to converse. When Bride seeks to give Sofia money and other gifts, Sofia reacts by attacking her viciously; Bride does not defend herself, resulting in her being seriously injured.
After Bride recovers, she decides to try to find Booker, only knowing that he has an alternate address in Whiskey, California, at the home of Q. Olive, his paternal aunt. So, she sets out to travel there in her prized Jaguar, but she overshoots a curve, runs off the road, and hits a tree. After she is discovered the next morning by a young white girl named Rain, still trapped in her car, she is rescued by this girl’s white foster parents, Evelyn and Steve. This unconventional bohemian family, living off the grid, willingly nurse her back to health and obtain medical care for her broken foot.
Throughout the novel, Morrison introduces a different version of the magical realism her readers have grown accustomed to elsewhere. After Booker rejects Bride, she regards herself to be emotionally reverting into a frightened little girl, but what also happens is that her body alters— the holes in her pierced ears inexplicably close up, she loses all of her pubic hair; and finally, her breasts disappear. While these alterations concern Bride, Morrison presents them as matter of fact. While readers might cringe that these signs of womanhood resume once Bride is back with Booker, Morrison implies that they really are emblematic of Bride’s growing sense of self and maturity.
When she has recovered from the car accident, after several weeks with the family, Bride continues on to Whiskey and finds the home of Q. Olive, who turns out to be Booker’s aunt, a colorful woman named Queen. Queen warmly receives Bride into her home and also tells the younger woman about Booker’s older brother, Adam, who was tortured and killed by a pedophile when they were children. Queen is interested in encouraging the relationship between Bride and Booker, and so she directs Bride to where Booker is staying nearby.
Importantly, child molestation as a theme in God Help the Child connects this work to many, if not all, of Morrison’s other novels: The Bluest Eye (where Cholly rapes his young daughter and Soaphead Church recalls having molested young girls); Song of Solomon (where Ruth breastfeeds Milkman well beyond the appropriate age); Paradise (where several of the Convent women have been scarred by molestation); Love (where Bill Cosey marries eleven-year-old Heed); A Mercy (where her mother gives Florens away to prevent her exploitation by Señhor ); and Home (where the young Korean girl, Morrison intimates, has been sexually used and abused during the war, leading to her fatal interaction with Frank). Again, echoing Morrison’s comment in the 2005 foreword to Love, quoted above, her novels frequently engage with betrayal, for which child molestation is one of the most horrific examples.
Because of his judgement based on what he has assumed to be her acceptance of Sofia Huxley as a child molester, Booker responds to Bride’s arrival with hostility, and things quickly turn violent when Bride hits him with a beer bottle. Yet their confrontation shifts when she demands to know why he has left her, and he responds:
‘First tell me why you bought presents for a child molester—in prison for it, for Christ’s sake. Tell me why you sucked up to a monster,’‘I lied! I lied! I lied! She was innocent. I helped convict her, but she didn’t do any of that. I wanted to make amends, but she beat the crap out of me, and I deserved it.’…‘You lied? What the hell for?’‘So my mother would hold my hand!’‘What?’‘And look at me with proud eyes, for once.’52
As Bride explains to Booker, when she was young Lula Ann, her desperate desire for her mother’s affection and approval had caused her to commit this unforgivable act, false accusation. He explains, echoing what Bride has just learned from Queen, that he had earlier reacted so strongly to learning only part of this tale because it had triggered memories of his brother, Adam, who “was murdered by a freak, a predator like the one I thought you were forgiving.”53
Shortly thereafter, Bride and Booker go to Queen’s house, only to discover that it has caught fire, with the older woman trapped inside. When they rescue her, and she is hospitalized, they work together to help her recover, all the while healing their own relationship. Each reconsiders the other and mostly likes what there is to see. Booker thinks “How acute his predicament had become by the sudden return of a woman he once enjoyed, who had changed from one dimension into three—demanding, perceptive, daring.”54 In showing Bride’s transformation from superficial brat to caring woman, Morrison exposes the book’s pedagogical lesson: “Her beauty is beyond makeup—and so she feels perfect. That’s not enough for me. You have to be a complete human being, and that has to do with your generosity. That’s what I wanted for her to encounter,”55
Then just when it looks like she’s really improving, Queen contracts a hospital infection and dies. Understandably shocked and upset by the turn of events, Bride and Booker soon scatter Queen’s ashes and then contemplate whether their relationship has a future—it seems precarious. But then Bride shares a revelation: she is pregnant. No longer questioning their union, they literally and figuratively join hands and idealistically look to offer their coming child all that they had lost in their own childhoods. There is love, there is a future, and there is hope.
But the final chapter in the novel undercuts this reverie. Here, Sweetness reacts to learning from a letter that Bride is pregnant. Justifying the harsh upbringing she’d subjected her daughter to, Sweetness smugly asserts that there were no other options. Her final proclamation is anything but a benediction, where she sarcastically mocks Bride for her idealism, intimating that there will be a lot to learn about becoming a parent, ending with the novel’s final words “Good luck and God help the child.”56
In each of her novels, Morrison creates a world where possibilities are wide open, and people often are able to heal and even transcend horrors. She builds a world where telepathy is commonplace, ghosts are real, and places exert energy. In each of her eleven novels, Morrison quite simply gives us everything under the sun: “When I have been accused of making characters that are larger than life, . . . I realized that what I had in fact done was simply describe characters who were as large as life. Life is that large.”57 All of Morrison’s creative works reflect her approach to life. As Carolyn Denard sums it up: “For what moves at the margin of Toni Morrison’s impressive body of fiction are the forces that shape her both as woman and as artist: truth, outrage, hope, and love.”58
Discussion of the Literature
Ever since her first novel appeared in 1970, scholarship about Toni Morrison’s literature has increased steadily. From reviews, to journal articles, to dissertations, to critical monographs, to edited collections, to magazine interviews, and more—interest in and writing on Morrison’s output has been enthusiastic, constant, and ever growing. There have been entire journals focused just on Morrison’s works; Modern Fiction Studies dedicated two special issues to Morrison’s literature, in 1993 and 2006, as did MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.) in 2011. When she publishes a new book, reviews appear everywhere from People Magazine, to The New York Times, to The Guardian, and elsewhere.
Serious scholarship about Morrison is vast. A recent comprehensive bibliography of her work has more than 500 entries.59 In one year, 2011, there were 47 dissertations on Morrison’s works. Some of the most important works follow.
An early resource, although not a book, is a videotaped interview, Profile of a Writer: Toni Morrison, directed by Alan Benson. Here, Morrison talks a great deal about Beloved, during the summer right before it was published.
One of the earliest books entirely focused on Morrison, which has retained its usefulness decades later, is Trudier Harris’s Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. This very cogent and clear analysis of the influence of African American folk traditions on Morrison’s first five novels has especially powerful insights on Tar Baby and Beloved.
Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present is a comprehensive collection edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. With reviews, essays, and interviews, this work provides useful context for early Morrison scholarship.
Danille Taylor-Guthrie published Conversations with Toni Morrison. This collection of over twenty interviews is especially useful for learning what Morrison has said about her first six novels.
Nancy Peterson published Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches. One of the earliest collections to emphasize critical theory with Morrison’s works, Peterson’s book includes black feminist criticism, as well as postmodern and reader-response approaches.
Two valuable books about teaching Toni Morrison were published at the end of the 1990s. The first, Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y, McKay and Kathryn Earle, is a valuable pedagogical resource, covering Morrison’s fiction, as well as Playing in the Dark and her work editing The Black Book. Next, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”: A Casebook, edited by William L. Andrews and Nellie Y. McKay, is especially valuable for its archival materials about Margaret Garner, the historical inspiration for Beloved, including Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s 1856 poem, “The Slave Mother: A Tale of the Ohio.”
Lucille P. Fultz published Toni Morrison: Playing with Difference. Engaging with ideas of “the other” in Morrison’s literature, this monograph addresses rhetorics of healing in Morrison’s first seven novels.
Three important works came out in 2008. First, a reference work, Critical Companion to Toni Morrison: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work, by Carmen Gillespie. A vast work, it includes a biography and chronology of Morrison’s life, as well as alphabetical and chronological entries on characters, incidents, and content for the first eight novels, as well as her other published works.
Carolyn Denard, founder and board chair for the Toni Morrison Society, published two significant resources for Morrison research. In Toni Morrison: Conversations—a companion to Taylor-Guthrie’s 1994 collection of Morrison interviews—Denard provides numerous interviews and helpful insights into Morrison’s perspectives on life and literature. Denard also edited Toni Morrison: What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction, an enormously valuable work, drawing together Morrison’s writing over four decades, including early 1970s essays in The New York Times Magazine, book reviews, prefaces, forewords, essays on social and political concerns, and the 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature.
A significant theoretical work of Morrison scholarship, and winner of a Toni Morrison Society Book Prize, is Evelyn Jaffe Schreiber’s Race, Trauma, and Home in the Novels of Toni Morrison. With extensive treatment of trauma theory, especially the work of Jacques Lacan, Schreiber writes about the first nine of Morrison’s novels.
Another work on Morrison that deeply engages theoretical concerns is Yvette Christiansë’s Toni Morrison: An Ethical Poetics. Containing both theoretical and close readings, this book examines Morrison’s first ten novels through lenses provided by Foucault, Bakhtin, Derrida, Althusser, and others.
Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, edited by Adrienne Lanier Seward and Justine Tally, includes a range of scholarly essays, which were part of a larger grouping, a festschrift compiled for Morrison’s 80th birthday. With some of the most revered Morrison scholars gathered together, this work also includes poems by Rita Dove and Sonia Sanchez.
Maureen N. Eke’s Critical Insights: “Beloved,” gathers together fourteen insightful essays about the novel, the author, as well as critical contexts of history and theory. This work is particularly helpful for students and teachers of Morrison’s most important novel.
An unusual work of Morrison scholarship is “Margaret Garner”: The Premiere Performances of Toni Morrison’s Libretto, edited by La Vinia Delois Jennings. Jennings compiles a unique collection of essays related to the earliest performances of the Margaret Garner opera, including a foreword by the star of the opera, Denyce Graves; essays engaging community reactions to the work; as well as analysis of Morrison’s libretto.
Noteworthy biographies on Toni Morrison include Stephanie Li’s Toni Morrison: A Biography, which gives a useful account of Morrison’s life, as well as treatment of her first nine novels. Linda Wagner-Martin’s Toni Morrison: A Literary Life, explores similar geographical terrain, with valuable and well-documented analysis of the first ten novels and a particularly extensive bibliography. A hybrid of biography and criticism appeared in Pelagia Goulimari’s Toni Morrison, part of the Routledge Guides to Literature series. With especially beneficial overviews of various theoretical readings on Morrison’s novels, Goulimari’s work is invaluable for advanced students of Morrison’s literature.
Serious scholars of Morrison’s works will be interested in an archive of Toni Morrison’s papers and manuscripts, which are housed at Princeton University’s Firestone Library. These materials include papers that were recovered after Morrison’s house burned down in 1993. Most materials may only be accessed in person at the library. See Princeton University Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections online sight for more information
- The Bluest Eye (1970)
- Sula (1974)
- Song of Solomon (1977)
- Tar Baby (1981)
- Beloved (1987)
- Jazz (1992)
- Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)
- Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power (1992)
- The Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1993 (1994)
- The Dancing Mind (1996)
- Birth of a Nation’hood (1997)
- The Big Box (1999)
- Paradise (1998)
- Five Poems (2002)
- The Book of Mean People (2002)
- Who’s Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper? (2003)
- Who’s Got Game? The Lion or the Mouse? (2003)
- Love (2003)
- Who’s Got Game? Poppy or the Snake? (2004)
- Margaret Garner (2004)
- Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004)
- A Mercy (2008)
- Burn this Book (2009)
- Peeny Butter Fudge (2009)
- Little Cloud and Lady Wind (2010)
- The Tortoise or the Hare (2010)
- Desdemona (2012)
- Home (2012)
- Please, Louise (2013)
- God Help the Child (2015)
- The Origin of Others (2017)
- Andrews, William L., and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. Toni Morrison's “Beloved”: A Casebook. New York: Modern Language Association, 1999.
- Benson, Alan, dir. Profile of a Writer: Toni Morrison. 1987. RM Arts. Video, 52 min.
- Christiansë, Yvette. Toni Morrison: An Ethical Poetics. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.
- Denard, Carolyn, ed. Toni Morrison: Conversations. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.
- Denard, Carolyn, ed. Toni Morrison: What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.
- Eke, Maureen N., ed. Critical Insights: “Beloved.” Ipswich, MA: Salem Press/Grey House, 2015.
- Fultz, Lucille P. Toni Morrison: Playing with Difference. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, 1993.
- Gillespie, Carmen, Critical Companion to Toni Morrison: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File Library of American Literature, 2008.
- Goulimari, Pelagia. Toni Morrison. New York: Routledge Guides to Literature, 2011.
- Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
- Jennings, La Vinia Delois, ed. “Margaret Garner”: The Premiere Performances of Toni Morrison’s Libretto. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.
- Li, Stephanie. Toni Morrison: A Biography. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood Press, 2010.
- McKay, Nellie Y., and Kathryn Earle. Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison. New York: Modern Language Association, 1997.
- Peterson, Nancy J., ed. Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
- Schreiber, Evelyn Jaffe. Race, Trauma, and Home in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010.
- Seward, Adrienne Lanier, and Justine Tally. Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
- Taylor-Guthrie, Danille, ed. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
- Wagner-Martin, Linda. Toni Morrison: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
2. Elsie B. Washington, “Talk with Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, 237.
3. Toni Morrison, “A Slow Walk of Trees (as Grandmother Would Say), Hopeless (as Grandfather Would Say),” in What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction, ed. Carolyn Denard (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 6.
6. Zia Jaffrey, “Toni Morrison,” in Toni Morrison: Conversations, 149–150.
8. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, “What Toni Morrison Saw,” The New York Times Magazine, April 12, 2015, 55.
9. Toni Morrison, foreword to The Black Book, ed. Middleton A. Harris, et al. (New York: Random House, 2009), n.p.
10. Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1993 (New York: Knopf, 1994), 30.
12. Toni Morrison, “Recitatif,” Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women, ed. Amiri Baraka and Amina Baraka (New York: Morrow, 1983), 243–266.
13. Toni Morrison, “A Note on Margaret Garner from Toni Morrison,” “Margaret Garner” Opera Program (Detroit: Michigan Opera Theatre, 2005), 5.
14. Charles McNulty, “Toni Morrison's ghostly ‘Desdemona’ blends words and music in lyrical revision of Shakespeare,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2015.
19. Ann Hostetler, “Interview with Toni Morrison: ‘The Art of Teaching,’” in Toni Morrison: Conversations, 204.
20. Dianne McKinney-Whetstone, “The Nature of Love: An Interview with Toni Morrison,” in Toni Morrison: Conversations, 214.
22. Toni Morrison, “An Evening with Toni Morrison” (Conversation with Johnetta Cole, hosted by Toni Morrison Society and Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, March 14, 2012).
23. Morrison, “An Evening with Toni Morrison.”
24. Christopher Bollen, “Toni Morrison,” Interview, May 7, 2012.
25. Carol Off, “Toni Morison on her New Novel God Help the Child, Race and Racism,” As It Happens, CBC Radio, April 20, 2015.
27. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1970), 206.
28. Toni Morrison, Sula (Knopf, 1973), 52.
30. Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987), 50.
31. Angels Caribi, “Interview with Toni Morrison,” Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women 9, no. 3 (Spring 1994): 38.
33. Toni Morrison, Paradise (New York: Knopf, 1998), 297.
34. Toni Morrison, Foreword. Love (Vintage, 2005), x.
35. Toni Morrison, Love (New York: Knopf, 2003), 34.
37. Toni Morrison, A Mercy (New York: Knopf, 2008), 166.
38. Morrison, A Mercy, 155.
39. Morrison, A Mercy 101.
40. Morrison, A Mercy, 166–167.
42. Toni Morrison, Home (New York: Knopf, 2012), 83–84.
43. Toni Morrison, “An Evening with Toni Morrison,” (Conversation with Johnetta Cole, hosted by Toni Morrison Society and Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, March 14, 2012).
44. Morrison, Home, 5.
45. Morrison, Home, 122.
46. Morrison, Home, 22, 95–96.
47. Morrison, Home, 132.
48. Morrison, Home, 145.
49. Toni Morrison, God Help the Child (New York: Knopf, 2015), 5.
50. Interestingly, Toni Morrison has repeatedly said that, although she is now in her eighties, she feels like she is 23.
51. Toni Morrison, God Help the Child, 134.
52. Morrison, God Help the Child, 153.
53. Morrison, God Help the Child, 153–154.
54. Morrison, God Help the Child, 173.
55. Maddie Oatman, “Toni Morrison Knows All About the ‘Little Drop of Poison’ in Your Childhood,” Mother Jones, April 21, 2015.
56. Morrison, God Help the Child, 178.
57. Benson, Profile of a Writer: Toni Morrison.
58. Denard, introduction to Toni Morrison: What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction, xxvi
59. See Linda Wagner-Martin, Bibliography, Toni Morrison: A Literary Life (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 183–211. The Selected Secondary Works section of this bibliography is almost 25 pages long, and it has over 500 entries. See also the bibliography compiled by the Toni Morrison Society.