Toni Morrison and the Maternal

From «The Bluest Eye» to «God Help the Child», Revised Edition

by Linda Wagner-Martin (Author)
©2019 Monographs XIV, 236 Pages
Series: Modern American Literature, Volume 67


In this revised edition, Linda Wagner-Martin offers a compelling study of African American writer Toni Morrison’s work, beginning with The Bluest Eye in 1970 and continuing through her 2015 novel God Help the Child. Wagner-Martin describes Morrison as an inherently original novelist who was shaped throughout her career by her role within families. Her study focuses on Morrison's use of family in her narratives, particularly on the roles of mother and child. Beginning with the paradigm of a good mother (Mrs. MacTeer) in The Bluest Eye, set against women who are found wanting in their mother roles, Morrison concentrates in various ways on emphasizing these mother characters. Sometimes those roles are peripheral; more often, they are central. In Sula, for example, the title character has no interest in mothering, but she shows herself to be the product of family disinterest; in Song of Solomon Morrison creates what she terms an ancestor figure to give guidance to the young; in Tar Baby Marie Therese continues that role. Beloved tackles many dimensions of a mothers role. As Morrison continues to write her varied and powerful novels, from Jazz and Paradise through Love, A Mercy, and Home, the attention to judging the efficacy of mothering grows. Finally, in God Help the Child, she attends to little else. In Morrison’s fictional world, drawing from the human and spiritual forces in both Africa and the United States provides some hope of a truly satisfying existence.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments and Reference Systems
  • Introduction: Morrison and the Maternal
  • Chapter One: Mothers at Random in The Bluest Eye
  • Chapter Two: Sula and the Individuality of Mothering
  • Chapter Three: Replacement Mothering in Song of Solomon
  • Chapter Four: Tar Baby and Its Multiple Non-mothers
  • Chapter Five: Beloved, Beloved, Beloved, Beloved ….
  • Chapter Six: Jazz and Its Mothers and Non-mothers
  • Chapter Seven: Playing in the Dark and the Nobel Acceptance Lecture
  • Chapter Eight: Paradise and Its Mothers
  • Chapter Nine: Love and Its Absence of Mothers
  • Chapter Ten: A Mercy and Abandoning Mothers
  • Chapter Eleven: Frank Money, Cee, and the Maternal in Home
  • Chapter Twelve: God Help the Child
  • Coda
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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In the world of the twenty-first century, it is difficult to understand why feminist reviewers and critics did not immediately claim Toni Morrison for their camp when her first novel, The Bluest Eye, appeared in 1970. The book, ornate in its fragmented juxtapositions and modernist narrative style, focused on childhood deprivation, and it culminated in the rape of the child, Pecola Breedlove, by her father: it included vivid and often intentionally humorous scenes of menstruation, girlhood envy, curiosity about sex, friendship, and bullying. It reeked of sexuality of all kinds, of families pushed to the edge to find and maintain living places, of a marginal Ohio society filled with so many outsider characters that readers had trouble focusing on the MacTeer family, whose two daughters—Frieda and Claudia—provided the narration, and the conscience, of the story.

The Bluest Eye might well have been linked to such novels as Joan Didion’s Run River (1963) and Play It as It Lays (1970), Sue Kaufman’s The Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967), Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (available in the US in 1970, after its initial British publication in 1963), Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an ex-Prom Queen to come in 1972, and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, the first feminist best seller in 1973. Instead, its reception illustrated the wide chasm between the white literary world and the newly emergent grouping of African American writers: most critics did not cross that color line. The chic and already accepted (even if sometimes shocking) writing about sociological and ← ix | x → sexual characters’ mainstream lives would quickly become known as “chick lit.” In contrast, an African American writer—even if female—would never be included in that marketing category. Race had, emphatically, trumped gender.

Even with the 1969 Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s study of dependent women characters, many of them locked away in asylums, the lyrically evoked scenes Toni Morrison drew of Pecola’s dialogic madness after the loss of her baby did not erase the obstacle of race. If ever a novel should have become an illustration of feminist theory, both French and American, it was Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Instead, reviewers gave Morrison’s book only a brief paragraph, describing it as a first novel by a previously unknown African American woman writer. On the basis of this first book, had Morrison not written widely for the New York Times (in both the Book Review and the Magazine), she would have remained as unknown as The Bluest Eye, which was out of print in several years and was never connected meaningfully with Morrison’s second novel, Sula, appearing in 1973.

Perhaps most importantly, race had so usurped readers’ attention from The Bluest Eye that reviewers did not connect it to the bevy of feminist books that quickly blanketed the marketing landscape—but neither did they connect it with either the works of Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison. It is ironic that Morrison’s novel, considered as African American writing and only African American writing, did not “fit” within the category formed by that admittedly small group of writers.1 In her fiction, Morrison was not given to bashing white culture. In fact, she did not use white characters in either The Bluest Eye or Sula (and barely in her third novel, Song of Solomon in 1977). It took until Tar Baby in 1981 for depictions of white culture to become an integral part of any Morrison narrative: by the time of Morrison’s fourth novel, critics then happily placed her work into closer proximity with Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison because Jadine, one of the main characters of Tar Baby, had become a kind of surrogate daughter to the wealthy white family who so admired her beauty. By the time of Tar Baby’s publication in 1981, Toni Morrison (largely on the basis of her own prolific writing, without much thanks to reviewers or even to book sales) had appeared on the cover of Newsweek Magazine; her third novel, Song of Solomon, had been a Book of the Month Club selection and had won several prestigious prizes.

Critical assessment had little to do with the fictional family situations that Morrison created. In her first three novels, she drew from African American families, contrasting the steady—and ultimately hopeful—MacTeers as one identity, and setting against them the shoddy, seemingly incapable and often violent Breedloves. The Bluest Eye was placed within a single area of a small Ohio town: the families of interest were all African American. So too were their histories, and so ← x | xi → too were their crimes. It remained for the literary establishments of American and European letters to put in place a new critical grid—one that might hope to deal with the immense variation in writing about the African American lives that Toni Morrison would so splendidly create between The Bluest Eye in 1970 and Home in 2012. Eventually the established literary world saw that something new was afoot in what was quickly becoming a large and inclusive—and terribly interesting—category, African American women’s writing.

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Acknowledgments and Reference Systems

With thanks to all the students at both Michigan State University and The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who read Morrison’s fiction with me, and to the Modern Language Association many decades ago for inviting me to speak on Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I also am grateful for the suggestions of Professors Heidi Burns of Peter Lang Publishing and of series editor Yoshinobu Hakutani of Kent State University for improving the book.

A note on the reference system used. All Morrison’s works are abbreviated with either a single word or a phrase. I have assumed that three in-print collections will be available to readers: (l) Danille Taylor-Guthrie’s collection of interviews with Morrison, published in 1994 as Conversations with Toni Morrison by the University Press of Mississippi; (2) Carolyn C. Denard’s collection of Morrison interviews, published by the same press in 2008 as Toni Morrison: Conversations; and (3) Professor Denard’s collection of Morrison’s essays, titled Toni Morrison: What Moves at the Margins, Selected Nonfiction, also published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2008. I have used the abbreviations Con I to cite the Taylor-Guthrie collection, and Con II to refer to the Denard collection of interviews. I refer to Denard’s collection of Morrison’s essays as Nonfiction.

I have included many of the excellent essays and books on Morrison’s oeuvre in the Secondary Bibliography. There are still other works that—space permitting—might have been included. For their omission, my apologies.

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Morrison and the Maternal

“My mother, when she would find out that they were not letting Black people sit in certain sections of the local theater, would go and sit in the white folks’ section, go see Superman just so she could come out and say, ‘I sat there, so everybody else can too.’ It’s a tradition …. It’s an old technique that Black people use—you know, the first one in the pool, the first one in the school ….” (Morrison in Con I, 134).

Toni Morrison’s interviews, of which there are many, show the way she reflectively comments on even the simplest—and most predictable—questions. Her interviews also show that she tends to answer her questioners with a narrative scene, as here, when she recalls her mother’s comparatively radical social behavior. What Morrison’s autobiography shows clearly is that she was the child of two strong and sensible parents. As Chloe Ardelia Wofford,1 “Toni Morrison” grew up aware of gender differences. But she also grew up relying on both her hard-working and carefully modulated father, George Wofford, and her equally hard-working but perhaps more flamboyant mother, Ramah Willis Wofford. It is the mother’s voice that Morrison creates in the early chapters of The Bluest Eye. Whether speaking or singing, Ramah Wofford gave her daughter, who was one of four children—two girls and two boys—an audible guide to expressing conscience.

Because Morrison’s fiction shows her even-handed presentations of both men and women (often, as in The Bluest Eye, in the guise of fathers and mothers), critics have seldom identified the writer with leaning more positively toward either one ← 1 | 2 → gender or the other. Many of her statements also support this even-handedness, as when in a 1974 interview she notes, “There’s a male consciousness and there’s a female consciousness. I think there are different things operating on each of the sexes. Black men … frequently are reacting to a lot more external pressures than Black women are. For one thing they have an enormous responsibility to be men …” That commentary continues, “All I’m saying is that the root of a man’s sensibilities are different from a woman’s. Not better, but different.” (Con I, 7). Later, in a 1992 interview, years after her father’s death, Morrison’s stance has not changed. She speaks about her parents’ “strong-willed characters,” saying

Some of the day-to-day bravery that such a history illustrates motivates the fictional MacTeer family as they face poverty, the cold of an Ohio winter, and their responsibility to accommodate the extra needs of Pecola Breedlove, a child truly “outdoors” for all the world to see. When Claudia and Frieda’s mother sings the blues—or, more to the point, when she signifies on all the milk the small Pecola drinks out of the treasured Shirley Temple cup—that audibility inscribes the family memories, as well as its conscience. The physical need that leads the MacTeers to rent a room to the would-be interloper Henry Washington (“Mr. Henry”) is not feigned: these are the poor but upright. Yet, despite their financial situation, Mr. MacTeer does not hesitate once their boarder has tried to feel Claudia’s breasts: he physically runs him out of the house. Money be damned.


XIV, 236
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (June)
fiction vision energy
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XIV, 236 pp.

Biographical notes

Linda Wagner-Martin (Author)

Linda Wagner-Martin is the author or editor of more than fifty books in American literature. She has been the recipient of Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships and a senior National Endowment for the Humanities grant, and she has held residencies at the Bunting Institute, Bellagio, and Bogliasco. Wagner-Martin has received many teaching awards at both Michigan State University and The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she is the Frank Borden Hanes Professor of English and Comparative Literature. She is a recent recipient of the Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American literature.


Title: Toni Morrison and the Maternal
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