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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 Five: Beloved, Beloved, Beloved, Beloved ….


← 66 | 67 → CHAPTER FIVE

“Looking back at Morrison’s earlier books, impressive as they are, one feels that they are far more tentative and groping than Beloved. Sula, for example, biting though it is, seems a bit tendentious and schematic when compared to the dense, beautifully textured Beloved, and her mythic, large-souled Song of Solomon appears chunky and overlong against the sleek richness of this later book.” (Arnold Weinstein, Nobody’s Home 339).

Morrison’s fifth novel was clearly much more than the amalgamation of her years of studying craft. Beloved was not only the entire story of African and African American slavery, so that it included history, culture, ownership, power, gender, life and death, but it posed these huge thematic categories as secondary to the author’s real interest: how a slave mother survived when everything she loved most was about to be taken from her. As with her previous four novels, in Beloved, Morrison was intent on making the reader see the emotion that propelled the narrative—in this case, to recognize that slavery was immense love distilled into even more immense pain.

She makes two candid statements about the role of the slave mother in her Bigsby interview: in response to his historical question about the 1960s being “about” race and the 1970s and 1980s being “about gender,” Morrison replies that she feels “an equal commitment to both. Because making children out of black people, or making children out of women, in an effort to...

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