Understanding Toni Morrison’s Literary Vision from a Critical Perspective

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By Dr Omila Thounaojam

 

Resisting any monolithic categorization of black identity, Toni Morrison’s writing is very attentive to historical specificity and it urges readers to see “how” identities are constructed socially, temporally and relationally. One of the most compelling and interesting aspects of her fictive narratives is the manner in which it offers ways of imagining the subject in history. The body of work that the author has produced most emphatically engaged with questions of history, memory and trauma. Toni Morrison, writing in the last quarter of the twentieth century “continues” the tradition that Du Bois’s “vision of haunted historical memory has bequeathed” and the author’s observations about the past and the “need to reclaim it” signal a concern with history in all her novels.

It could be ascertained that Morrison’s novels thoroughly focused on specific historical moments and through their engagement with the history of slavery, have distinctively
“imagined and memorialized aspects of black history that have been forgotten or inadequately remembered.” If at all the African American writer’s responsibility is to assume the task of recovering the “presence and heartbeat of the black people” in America, then her novels take that task of recovery seriously, involving “a reconstruction, revisioning and revisiting of the past.” (Matus) Morrison created traumatized and troubled characters at a time when the Black Aesthetic movement was calling for positive representations and role models. It could be said that the novel exposes the duplicity of American race relations and registers the pain that African Americans felt owing to the social injustice that black Americans had to face throughout in the American soil. One of the most visible and compelling features to be seen in all of Morrison’s work is the question of the community and its relationship with the individual. As even evident explicitly in her M.A. thesis, Morrison has long been interested in exploring multiple challenging dynamics prevalent in the subject matter of detachment and isolation versus connection and involvement. She concludes her thesis by upholding the notion that isolation is a helpful means for conducting acute self-analysis.

Current theories of traumatic testimony challenge the historicizing of the concept of trauma by placing central importance to both language and Western culture. Recently, many thinkers have felt the need to question the privileging of such common assumptions and suggested instead, to explore alternative ways of testimony that recognize a specifically African American cultural heritage. The question of survival for an African American in a racist nation that is caught up in wild fire structures of slavery and other noble forms of exploitation is also raised through accounting and confronting the history of African American ancestors and myths related to them as could be seen in most of her works.

Morrison’s novels are hugely loaded with precise historical texture that cannot be overlooked and characters in the text make casual references to a wider public history. Taking stock of the African American tradition and history, her novels also take into account the rising debates from the feminist manifesto that remains blind to economic and race relations and brings to our attention, a claim that arise from race relations and the perspective of economic that again is indifferent to feminism. The forcefully driving question like what black women need to remember and preserve in the traditions of their foremothers is raised in some of her texts. The notion of women defining themselves in relation to prevailing feminist critiques of patriarchal constructions of gender is also foregrounded along. Some of her works lay a solid ground that would allow her to raise the question of a female tradition through the predominant concerns in the novel.

By telling us a story through her fictional work that defies easy articulation and yet must not be ignored, the author undeniably bears witness to the forgotten past of African Americans and recalls the “horror” of slavery “in a manner in which it can be digested, in a manner in which the memory is not destructive” (Darling). Morrison’s novels could be seen as a literary extension of the author’s passionate reclamation of an unspeakable history.

The author believes that the genre of the slave narrative, to a large extent, could not bear witness to the shocking and painful incidents of the past that were too terrible to
relate. As such, the traditional slave narratives, Morrison admits in her interviews from 1987-89, drew a veil and were unable to express the interior lives of the slave-narrators.

One would observe that few of her novels contains many (personal) stories, each acting a testimony to different facets of slave experience without hesitating to disclose “the trauma” that slavery wreaked on those who survived into the post-Civil War period and also offers an imaginative testimony of “those who did not survive, those sixty million and more to whom the novel is dedicated.” (Matus) Her novels ambitiously foreground the loss suffered not only by those who survived the horrors of slavery, but also by those who did not make it. Each character in her novel lives with a sense of the present-ness of the traumatic past and the burdens of history defines their present location and subjectivity.

One could claim that in all of Morrison’s novels, the trauma of slavery has disrupted linearity and chronology so much so that, time itself is haunted thereby making the narrative denies history which is a systematic  ordering of time. It is only through a second reading that the reader could assimilate the details of the text in the light of the various incidents revealed only later. The reader finds an enhanced sense of continuity and coherence when the narrative is replayed and such a second reading offers the reader to share more fully the testimony to the trauma that the account offers. In a conversation with Gail Caldwell, Toni Morrison admits: “The past, until you confront it, until you live through it, keeps coming back in other forms. The shapes redesign themselves in other constellations, until you get a chance to play it over again.” Morrison’s novels also deal with the reenactment of unassimilated experiences. Highlighting the personal, intimate and gossipy voice’s musings, its false predictions and misreadings, the reader is exposed to the narrator’s enactment of the processes of remembering and creating, of improvising on the painful past, in an attempt to understand and assimilate the tortured individual histories of her characters, as well as, their larger historical context.

One can see migration and the reshaping of communities to their new environments as central to the African-American experience, an experience that calls for a process of cultural revisionism, of redefining history and historical memory, and of confronting the past in innovative and constructive ways that are intentionally self-reflexive. The sense of dispossession involved in a quest for self-identification and location in a multi-cultural context is translated into works of fiction that refracts a symbolical questioning of identity along with a rejection of the imposed stereotypes and a search for the authentic within the worlds of texts.

 

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