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Toni Morrison and the Maternal

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

Series:

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 Four: Tar Baby and Its Multiple Non-mothers

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← 55 | 56 → CHAPTER FOUR

“In those eight homeless years he had joined that great underclass of undocumented men. And although there were more of his kind in the world than students or soldiers, unlike students or soldiers they were not counted. They were an international legion of day laborers and musclemen, gamblers, sidewalk merchants, migrants, unlicensed crewmen on ships with volatile cargo, part-time mercenaries, full-time gigolos, or curbside musicians. What distinguished them from other men (aside from their terror of Social Security cards and cedula de identidad) was their refusal to equate work with life and an inability to stay anywhere for long.” (Tar 166).

That Tar Baby, for all the various misreadings of it that exist in criticism, is a kind of continuation of the themes and characters Morrison explored and presented in Song of Solomon makes reading this very difficult novel somewhat easier. Because people identified the character Jadine Childs with the book’s title, rightly, they read Tar Baby as a novel “about” a woman. Unappealing as Son Green is on his first appearance as he swims ashore from the ship he has just abandoned, he represents an ever-increasing type of African American man. In Morrison’s words, as she considered the progression of her attention in her first four books, “from a book that focused on a pair of very young black girls, to move to a pair of adult black women, and then to a black man, and finally to a black man...

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