Seminar Paper: Toni Morrison

Pages: 15 (4985 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 15  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Literature  ·  Buy This Paper

SAMPLE EXCERPT:

[. . .] Basically Hall is saying that Morrison is using an unusual approach to beauty by presenting communication not so much through verbalizing but through descriptions of the black female body. In Beloved Morrison uses her narrative to denote "sound, smell, movement and touch" and hence Morrison is able to fully present the bodies of Sethe, of Baby Suggs and Nan as the "scarred" and "enslaved" and "displaced" bodies that they are (Hall, 74).

Beloved isn't the only book in which Morrison's meaning come through by juxtaposing beauty with unthinkable cruelty and pain, but in Beloved the author creates pictures in the minds of readers by showing the character Beloved as a person with "flawless beauty" (Hall, 74). Beloved has "…new skin, lineless and smooth, including the knuckles of her hands" (Morrison, 61). By turning the reader's attention to the soft beauty of Beloved's physical appearance, Morrison is contrasting that character's lovely appearance with the reality in her life, the "…monstrous, haunting and all-consuming interior vengeance" in the society outside (Hall, 75).

In fact Hall suggests that the stunning purity of Beloved could be a possible justification or motive for Sethe's terrible decision to kill the child; Sethe wants to preserve in her memory the "unsullied, idealized notion" of Beloved's beauty (75). Hall quotes Sethe from page 296 of Beloved to show how the narrator was leading the reader to believe Sethe killed her baby (ironically) to preserve the beauty and purity (a very strange way to preserve beauty indeed):

"The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing -- the part of her that was clean…" (Morrison, 296) (Hall, 75).

Does Morrison run the risk of presenting unnecessary drama by transitioning from "horror" to "pleasure" in Beloved? Does she transform violence into beauty for literary purposes alone or does Morrison present such lushness and style to somehow "mediate the horror that she depicts"? (Hall, 75). Reading Morrison one must realize that she has become the symbol and the standard-bearer of African-American female authors because she is able to link fiction in vivid historical context. She has earned the right to boldly present materials that clashes with imaged presented in the same paragraph or same sentence. To wit, the scars on Sethe's back of course reflect what slavery did to millions of black people; but those scars are also linked to Morrison's The Black Book because in The Black Book there is a portrait of an escaped slave whose back is "…furrowed and scarred with the traces of a whipping administered on Christmas-day last" (Morrison, 9) (Hall, 76).

Why did Morrison use the image of a murdered child who comes back to live with its mother 18 years after it (Beloved) had been killed? Author Therese Higgins believes that Morrison brought a ghost into this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel because there is an African belief that "ancestral spirits" do return to their living relatives' homes (Higgins, 2001, p. 29). Indeed many African societies do believe that the dead come back to the family they had lived with, and the dead return "…either in body or in spirit," Higgins writes (29). Why do African societies like the Kenya and the Abaluyia believe in the return of the dead? According to Higgins' research, the dead are believed to "…possess the power of affecting the health and general well-being of their living relatives" (29).

Moreover, that ancestral "spirit" is thought to have the same power and personality as it had when it was alive, and, "as such, might be feared or not, but in either case, must be propitiated," Higgins explains on page 29. The African society known as Mende believe that if the spirit that returns had been "wronged during its lifetime," it may be "vengeful" upon return (Higgins, 30). In fact the plot of Beloved displays the "glaring similarities" between what the Mende believe about ghosts / spirits returning and what Morrison has written (Higgins, 31). In Mende belief system the person who dies is "crossing the water" into the world of the dead. And in Beloved, the dead baby "…emerges from the water back into the country of the living"; indeed, water is among the most powerful and "sustaining" images in Beloved, Higgins reports to readers (31).

Meanwhile, in her book Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion, author Missy Dehn Kubitschek finds myriad examples of symbolism in Beloved. For example there is an African rite in which a certain mark is carved into a woman's skin just under the breast. This mark or scar is applied when the woman transcends childhood and moves into adulthood; it also may be a way of identifying the woman as a member of a particular tribe or sect, Kubitschek explains (Kubitschek, 1998, p. 126). Sethe remembers that her mother, Ma'am, had a mark under her breast. And when Ma'am is lynched and burned, her body "…is so badly damaged" that the mark doesn't show (Kubitschek, 126). The symbolism here, according to Kubitschek, is that slavery totally "obliterated African identity" even though the horror lingers on (126).

Author Philip Page asserts that Sethe and Paul D. have to tell and retell things about the past in order to attempt to "…free themselves from its paralyzing power," and yet by retelling and revisiting the past they risk "…losing their precarious sanity as well as hopes for a new life together" (Page, 1995, p. 144). The author calls this situation a "two-edged sword" and a "paradox" by Morrison, and this concept continues in the novel as all four of the main characters go through "birth/rebirth journeys across water," and those journeys become symbolic of birth and/or reincarnation (Page, 144).

Those births and rebirths contrast sharply with the background of Beloved, which is steeped in death and darkness. Morrison has a technical reason for these contrasts, and in the case of Beloved, her "agonizing journey epitomizes the theme and pain of bringing anything back to life" (page, 146). As any novelist knows, without conflict, contrasts, juxtapositions and the collision of opposites the storytelling can fall flat. But for Morrison in Beloved, even returning to life for African-Americans can hurt: "Anything dead coming back to life hurts," she writes (35). Reviving the souls of the dead in this novel turns out to be a "painful" and yet "magical resurrection" (Page, 146). Part of the pain of coming back to life, at least for Beloved, is that she cannot describe her passage back from the dead. "How can I say things in pictures?" she asks (Morrison, 2010).

There is pain everywhere a reader lands in this book, and everywhere there is also the search for relief from the pain, which is what slaves sought for so many years when that evil institution enslaved millions of black people from Africa. Sethe is hurting because she needs to tell her story to someone, anyone, especially a female; but the only female she can related to even in a vague way is Nan, who was not very literate. So Sethe relies on talking to God, using her "talk/think" style of communication -- kind of a prayer through conversation in search of a way to "piece it all back together" (Morrison, 22) (Page, 151).

Author Brooks Bouson argues that among the images and themes of Morrison's most noteworthy book, Beloved, the author wants readers to understand how slave women -- in a very real way -- were turned into reproduction machines. Black women were objectified as the "Other" due to the fact that they could produce children "…as easily as animals" (Bouson, 2000, p. 138). Because slave owners saw the possibility of breeding humans just like they breed animals, it justified the slave owners "interference in the reproductive rights of enslaved Africans" (Bouson, 138). It wasn't just cruelty to push a breeding program onto the slaves, it was economics. "…Every slave child born represented a valuable unit of property, another unit of labor, and, if female, the prospects of more slaves" (Morrison, 76) (Bouson, 138).

In fact the black family was not allowed to bond as in normal human relations, Morrison explains in Beloved; mothers were not (in many cases) allowed to nurture their newborns and hence the love that strengthens black family networks was absent, Bouson continues (138). Because white owners had the power to define Sethe as "less than human," and while the men in Sweet Home wait for her to pick one of them it is known these same men are known to have had sex with animals, Sethe is deeply shamed. Certainly the character of Sethe, in Morrison's mind, is subjected to the same dehumanizing dramas as many black slave women went through during that ugly period in American history. It is sickening for a reader to realize that while characters Sethe and Halle are having sex in the cornfield, the men in Sweet Home are… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Toni Morrison.  (2012, November 1).  Retrieved June 19, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/toni-morrison-meanings/1500982

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https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/toni-morrison-meanings/1500982.