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Toni Morrison and the Maternal

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

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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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Chapter One: Mothers at Random in The Bluest Eye

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“My mother tells me that our landlord wanted to get us out of an apartment in which we lived—my mother, my father, myself and my sister—and he set the place on fire while we were in it. It was during the Depression… a lot of sharing of food, a lot of difficulty and desperation about work.” (Bigsby interview 250).

In attempting to write her first novel, Toni Morrison had developed opinions about what a Black woman writer’s task should be. Although she read widely, and had earned her English major and classics minor at Howard University (and had then earned her MA in English at Cornell University, writing a thesis on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!), she was prepared to set out only hesitantly on her own course. She knew she would not become a second Richard Wright. She thought, probably, she would not emulate Ralph Ellison. What she consistently said about those prominent African American men was that they sounded as if they were writing for white readers. As she said in the Bigsby interview, “The words of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin … were not talking to me. There was some editorial address going on as though they were clarifying something for other men, or maybe white people …. I know now that what I was longing for was a female presence, not a female character but a female voice. There was an attitude...

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