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Toni Morrison and the Maternal

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


Linda Wagner-Martin

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.

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← VIII | IX → Preface


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....

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