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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 Eleven: Frank Money, Cee, and the Maternal in Home


← 150 | 151 → CHAPTER ELEVEN

“You have to be interrupted. There was never a place I worked, or a time I worked, that my children did not interrupt me, no matter how trivial—because it was never trivial to them. The writing could never take precedence over them. Which is why I had to write under duress, and in a state of siege and with a lot of compulsion. I couldn’t count on any sustained period of free time to write. I couldn’t write the way writers write, I had to write the way a woman with children writes. That means that you have to have immense powers of concentration. I would never tell a child, ‘Leave me alone, I’m writing.’ That doesn’t mean anything to a child. What they deserve and need, in-house, is a mother. They do not need and cannot use a writer.” (Con I, 238).

Throughout Morrison’s innumerable interviews, many of them collected in two hefty volumes as “Conversations,” the author comments about her identity as mother. That she raised her two sons as a single parent, and that she has been mindful throughout her life of their needs, contributes to this self-identification. In her writing of Home, her 2012 novel, those needs were even more pressing: Slade, the son to whom the book is dedicated, the son she called a “brilliant writer” and with whom she wrote many children’s books, had contracted pancreatic cancer. He died in mid-December, 2010.1


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