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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 Nine: Love and Its Absence of Mothers


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“I’m interested in how men are educated, how women relate to each other, how we are able to love, how we balance political and personal forces, who survives in certain situations and who doesn’t and, specifically, how these and other universal issues relate to African Americans …. It’s an exploration of the possibilities of self and being human in the world, and it allows me to stretch and grow deeper. I always wanted to have some teeth in my work.” (Con I, 278).

For Morrison’s eighth novel, Love, reviewers were once again bemused: built as the book was around the life, accomplishments, sexual partners, and death of Bill Cosey—the proprietor of Cosey’s Hotel and Resort on Sooker Bay, the Florida Atlantic coast—the absence of this protagonist within the book was puzzling. The Cosey story was narrated, in fact, by numerous women—especially L, who had been his cook at the hotel during its prosperous days, and who herself had died in 1976. But as Morrison often chose to do, she kept secret the identity of that chief narrative voice. She had earlier learned that nothing but the mystery of that voice—or in this case, what became a set of voices—piqued her readers’ attention quite so well.

Not titled so ironically as some reviewers thought, Love spoke less to the male-female romance than it did to the female tendency to revere any patriarchal kindness. As Morrison had said...

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