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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 Six: Jazz and Its Mothers and Non-mothers


← 83 | 84 → CHAPTER SIX

“The sense of knowing when to stop is a learned thing, and I didn’t always have it. It was probably not until after I wrote Song of Solomon that I got to feeling secure enough to experience what it meant to be thrifty with images and language and so on. I was very conscious in writing Jazz of trying to blend that which is contrived and artificial with improvisation …. I was always conscious of the constructed aspect of the writing process, and that art appears natural and elegant only as a result of constant practice and awareness of its formal structures.” (Morrison, Con II, 81–2).

In 1971, as we have seen, Morrison wanted to displace discussions of “women’s lib” with an emphasis on concerted efforts that might improve the general human condition. She quotes Representative Shirley Chisholm in calling for “a woman’s political movement.” (Nonfiction 30). By 1985, however, Morrison had moved closer to developing a gendered self-consciousness. In “A Knowing So Deep,” she said,

“I think about us, black women, a lot. How many of us are battered and how many are champions. I note the strides that have replaced the tiptoe …. I think about the Black women who never landed who are still swimming open-eyed in the sea.” (Nonfiction 31).

Morrison establishes the black woman figure at the center of the world through describing the woman’s life force: “you carried inside you all there was...

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