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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 Eight: Paradise and Its Mothers


← 108 | 109 → CHAPTER EIGHT

“For Paradise, I had heard this story in Brazil. There was a school, a convent for black nuns—young girls—and they were found to be secretly practicing candomble [an African Brazilian religion based on the anima, or soul, of nature] in the basement. The story was that the police shot all of these girls, when they were found not doing the Catholic thing. I saw them in my mind running away from the convent, running through the fields, running away from the bullets, running from men … so I cast it as a question: Who would shoot a bunch of women and why?”

Morrison continued, after telling interviewer Pam Houston this story in a 2003 interview, “Usually there is a ‘what if’ that might resolve the narrative, but the narrative is less interesting to me than the architecture, the language, all the other things that I can bring into the so-called story.” (AARP 123).

Here Morrison intrigues the reader once more—since her novel Paradise has nothing to do with Brazilian nuns. Instead, she tempts a kind of oblique understanding: the emotions of loss and waste that her image of innocent girls running for their lives provokes transfers easily to the scarifying opening of Paradise. “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” (Paradise 3). It is a cascade of ironies—the title proclaiming that “paradise” could be thought of primarily as a murder...

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