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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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Chapter Two: Sula and the Individuality of Mothering


← 22 | 23 → CHAPTER TWO

[Feminists] “were saying that we had to become friends, begin to call ourselves sisters. I remember thinking, what do they mean we have to begin. I reflected on those women in my family, my mother and her friends, who liked each other’s company and in their church called each other sister. I knew what the relationship among those women was, how they cared for one another, liked one another. I can hear them now, all that wonderful laughter about their husbands and sons. But it didn’t seem to me that the company of men, which they enjoyed tremendously, was especially important to them. They were just content with the company of women, sisters and friends and so on.” (Bigsby interview 273).

No other Morrison novel includes as many women characters (most of whom are mothers) as does her 1973 work, Sula. Yet the title character of this hegira is herself not a mother. She is everything else, however, including a witch, a killer, a soul mate of her best childhood friend, Nel, and an integral part of the female culture that dominates life in Medallion, Ohio. As Morrison wrote in her later “Foreword” to the 2003 issue of Sula, Sula must be placed with the novel’s mothers: “Hannah, Nel, Eva, Sula were points of a cross—each one a choice for character bound by gender and race. The nexus of that cross would be a merging of responsibility and liberty difficult to...

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