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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 Ten: A Mercy and Abandoning Mothers


← 135 | 136 → CHAPTER TEN

“The plot, the lean plot, is information. This is what happened. But the meaning of a novel is in the structure …. We learn something today that clarifies something ten years ago. Or we think the most momentous thing that ever happened was something that happened yesterday or twenty years ago only to learn that it was part really of something else, or that it wasn’t momentous at all. So that the way in which the mind takes in the varieties of experiences of life and other people, has to be reassembled for its meaning and that’s where the structure, at least what I work very hard at, is the sort of deep structure, what is there underneath this activity. And then you see it from another person’s point of view; not just one character but another’s, and how and when that information becomes available to the reader seems to me to be the real adventure.” (Con II, 218–9).

By moving back to the seventeenth century for A Mercy, back to times when there was no automatic racial identity to slavery or indenture, Morrison tried to present a race-free canvas. Just as she had said emphatically (above) that “We don’t live lives in plots,” she had learned to avoid chronological schemes—so that once again the narrative of this novel draws on a number of seemingly different plotlines. There is, however, a central story—that of Florens, the Afric slave that Jacob...

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