The Measure of a Life: Toni Morrison
"I'm not trying to cast blame," explained author Toni Morrison in a recent interview about her racially revisionist literature. "I'm just trying to look at something without blinking." That is certainly an apt description of her approach to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved: In it she has focused her steady gaze on a dreadful episode in American history -- slavery and its aftermath -- and the result is a spellbinding masterpiece of both exquisite beauty and pain. Set shortly after the Civil War in rural Ohio, the story revolves around Sethe, a runaway slave literally haunted by the legacy of her past -- a past that she tries desperately to repress, but one that the supernatural forces in her house won't let her forget. Her home is "spiteful...full of baby's venom," and reverberates with the angry rumblings of her dead baby daughter. Eerie red light, rattling furniture, and overturned dishes are commonplace. Sethe's love for this child was so deep that it proved deadly: She murdered the girl rather than see her returned to a life of slavery. Terrorized by the ghost, Sethe's sons have run off; her treasured mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, has died; and she lives in virtual isolation with her adolescent daughter, Denver. When Paul D. -- an ex-slave from the Sweet Home plantation where Sethe was held in bondage -- shows up on her doorstep, Sethe's life changes abruptly. Not only must she endure a surge of memories, but the previously incorporeal ghost suddenly manifests itself in the form of a strange but seductive young woman named Beloved.
Beloved is but one of many critically acclaimed works by the prolific Morrison. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Morrison read ravenously as a child and went on to earn an English degree from Howard and a master's from Cornell University. She has held teaching positions at countless colleges -- Yale University, Bard College, and Rutgers among them. Before devoting herself fully to her own fiction, she worked for 20 years as a senior editor at Random House. Since 1989, she has held a university chair in humanities at Princeton University, and has won numerous awards, most notably the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. As the eighth woman and the first African American to have received the award, she is now one of the most respected figures in American letters.
A vocal force in the once-silenced community of African-American women, Morrison is devoted to the potency and potential of language. "We die," she has said. "That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." If language is indeed the measure of our lives, then she has lived one of unparalleled eloquence. For her prose is unquestionably dazzling. Like an alchemist transforming dross to gold, Morrison turns words into living, breathing, shimmering entities, into pulsating colors, vibrant sounds, pungent smells. So vivid is Beloved's fictional world -- the white staircase in Sethe's house, Denver's boxwood hiding place -- that the reader becomes a part of it. And so acutely are the characters' emotions drawn -- Beloved's bottomless rage, Baby Suggs's bone-tired exhaustion -- that we identify with each of them. Whether writing in narrative form or indulging in occasional poetic riffs, Morrison taps into universal human dilemmas and reaches us at the deepest level.
This is not to say that her prose is easy. Her convoluted narrative style is often compared with that of fellow Nobel laureate William Faulkner. In Beloved, neither plot nor time is linear. The past overlaps the present; memory -- or "rememory," as she calls it -- bleeds into every scene. To maintain suspense, Morrison withholds information, but drops clues on every page -- tantalizing hints of Sethe's crime or Beloved's identity. The details accumulate until you find yourself suddenly gasping with comprehension, and then wildly rifling back through the pages to reread earlier scenes that only now make sense.
Readers intimidated by such complexity might be tempted to skip the book and head straight for the new movie adaptation, which producer Oprah Winfrey and director Jonathan Demme have handled with grace and dexterity. Their lushly photographed film stays faithful to the book's lyricism, dialogue, and memory-driven structure. The casting is ideal: Danny Glover makes an endearing Paul D., and Oprah Winfrey plays Sethe with just the right iron-eyed determination. Although Thandie Newton's portrayal of Beloved is at times over the top -- veering into Exorcist territory -- the uninhibited force she brings to the role is riveting.
And yet, no film adaptation -- not even one as artistic and insightful as Demme's -- can match the power of Morrison's novel. The movie shares the book's slowly unraveling mystery and its unflinching depictions of slavery, but it loses much, simply due to its medium. Three hours are not nearly enough to cover the array or depth of Morrison's characters. We only skim the surface of Denver, Baby Suggs, Paul D., and others. We never learn the intimate details of their pasts. Nor do we hear their internal dialogue -- so essential in a novel of ever-shifting perspectives. Plenty of vital characters don't appear at all. And the importance of the African-American community -- whose support, or lack thereof, plays such a huge role in all of Morrison's books -- is diminished in the film.
Though Beloved is Morrison's undisputed masterpiece, all her books are remarkable. Each bears her trademark touches: elegant prose, fantastical occurrences, striking characters, and racial tension. Her first and perhaps most accessible novel is the short and searing The Bluest Eye, in which a girl is driven mad by her hunger for an unattainable symbol of white beauty -- blue eyes. Her second novel, Sula, is an oft-overlooked gem, a portrait of female friendship between a conformist and a rebel. Song of Solomon, winner of the 1977 National Book Critics Award, distinguishes itself from her other works for its straightforward plot flow and its male protagonist, who must embrace his heritage in order to mature. Although Tar Baby, with its Caribbean setting and its privileged characters -- a pampered black model and a rich white couple among them -- is sometimes considered Morrison's most commercial book, it is as provocative and sumptuously rendered as the rest. Her most challenging books are her most recent ones: a trilogy of novels (each with a different cast of characters) intended as a retelling of the black experience in America from slavery to the present day. Jazz, the second in the trilogy after Beloved, evokes a jealous love triangle in early black Harlem, in a literary style as dizzy and ingenious as a Coltrane improvisation. And in Paradise, the third and most controversial of the series, a posse of men from an all-black town descends upon a convent of wayward women to murder the inhabitants. Published earlier this year, Paradise is a complex work that has received plenty of praise, but also substantial criticism. In addition to her seven novels, Morrison has written a play, "Dreaming Emmett," and a book of essays entitled Playing in the Dark.
"My job," she says, "is to make sure whatever journey I invite a reader to, I am there to accompany them, to offer a palm to hold." And it is our job, as readers, to take that hand and to dive fearlessly into the fictional worlds she has created. To decline Morrison's invitation would be to deprive ourselves of some of the most sublime, transformative literature of our time.
When Toni Morrison was an editor at Random House, she edited The Black Book, an anthology/scrapbook of African American history. While working on the book, she ran across a newspaper article about a woman named Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who killed her children, slitting the throat of one and bashing in the skull of the other, to prevent them from being recaptured by the slave hunters hot on their trail. This upside down story of motherly love expressed through child murder haunted Morrison for many years and finally manifest itself in fictional form in her Pulitzer Prize-winning fifth novel, Beloved. A poetic chronicle of slavery and its aftermath, it describes how that inhuman ordeal forced cruel choices and emotional pain on its victims and gave them memories that would possess them long after they were released from their physical bondage. Morrison uses the story to address a key question for black people then and now: How can we let go of the pain of the past and redeem the sacrifices made in the struggle for freedom?
The novel's main character, Sethe, escapes from a plantation where she was viciously abused and perversely cherished by her master for her "skills" as a childbearer. When the slave hunters come looking for her, she kills her infant child to prevent her from becoming a slave. After slavery, Sethe finds work and devotes herself to her surviving daughter, Denver, but is haunted by memories of cruel life on the plantation she escaped and by the vindictive spirit of her murdered infant, Beloved. Paul D., an almost supernaturally charming former slave from the same plantation as Sethe, arrives and temporarily banishes the ghost of the infant Beloved. But Beloved returns in an older and more dangerous form and sets out to destroy Sethe's household by seducing Paul D., driving Denver away from her mother, and feeding on Sethe's body and spirit.
Beloved is both beautiful and elusive: beautiful for its powerful and captivating language, and elusive not just because of its reliance on visions of haints and apparitions, but in its narrative interweaving of the past and present, the physical and the spiritual. For all of its supernatural elements, however, Beloved is most notable as a powerful tribute to the real-life struggles of a generation of black men and women to reconcile the horrors of the past and move on. The spirit of Beloved and the recurring memories of the tribulations Sethe endured on the plantations she
lived on and escaped from were both testaments to the tangibly powerful hold that slavery had on her. In the end, she is able to recover her life only by finding within herself and her community the spiritual tools strong enough to exorcise her of this haunting. In this, Sethe's struggle is the struggle of all African Americans:
the struggle to redeem ourselves, our families, and our communities from the wreckage of the past even as we honor the sacrifices made for survival.