Toni Morisson Essay, Research Paper
Toni Morrison: The bluest eye and Sula
Essay submitted by Eric Penrod
African- American folklore is arguably the basis for most African- American literature. In a country where as late as the 1860’s there were laws prohibiting the teaching of slaves, it was necessary for the oral tradition to carry the values the group considered significant. Transition by the word of mouth took the place of pamphlets, poems, and novels. Themes such as the quest for freedom, the nature of evil, and the powerful verses the powerless became the themes of African- American literature. In a book called Fiction and Folklore: the novels of Toni Morrision author Trudier Harris explains that “Early folk beliefs were so powerful a force in the lives of slaves that their masters sought to co-opt that power. Slave masters used such beliefs in an attempt to control the behavior of their slaves”(Harris 2). Masters would place little black coffins outside the cabins of the slaves in a effort to restrain their movements at night; they perpetuated ghost lore and created tales of horrible supernatural animals wondering the outsides of the plantation in order to frighten slaves from escape or trans-plantation visits. Tales of slaves running to the north became legendary. Oral tales of escapes and long journeys north through dangerous terrain were very common among every slave on every plantation. Many of these tales seem to be similar to the universal tales and myths like The Odyssey or Gilgemish. Slaves on every plantation were telling tales that would later be the groundwork for African-American literature.
African- American folklore has since been taken to new levels and forms. Writers have adopted these themes and have fit them into contemporary times. Most recently author Toni Morrison has taken the African- American folklore themes and adapted them to fictional literature in her novels. Morrison comments on her use of the African-American oral tradition in an interview with Jane Bakerman. “The ability to be both print and oral literature; to combine those aspects so that the stories can be read in silence, of course, but one should be able to hear them as well. To make a story appear oral, meandering, effortless, spoken. To have the reader work with the author
in construction of the book- is what’s important”(Bakerman 122).In all of Morrison’s novels it is easy to see her use of African- American folklore along with traditional fiction. In the novels The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison creates settings and characters that produce an aura of unreality, that which is directly borrowed from African- American folklore. With the aura of unreality in Morrison’s characters and settings, her plots scream with real life themes such as murder, war, poverty, sexual abuse, and racism. In The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison combines fiction and folklore to create two chilling stories about black communities struggling to define themselves.
The Bluest Eye is not just a story about young impressionable black girls in the Midwest; it is also the story of African- American folk culture in process. The character Claudia MacTeer is the narrator for this folk tale. Claudia gives a voice to Pecola Breedlove’s story and to the community. The story is shaped from the beginning with the expectation of reader involvement and with the presumption of an audience. The brief preface that begins “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941″, serves to establish Claudia as the communal rehearser of tragedy. Her first person narration establishes a close relationship between herself and the reader. Like many of Morrison’s novels, The Bluest Eye shows the heroic and failed efforts of a struggling black community. With the use of a first person narrator, Morrison is able to make the story seem oral and it also requires the reader to participate with her in the making of the story. Morrison has commented “My writing expects, demands participatory reading, and that I think is what literature is supposed to do. It’s not just about telling the story; it’s about involving the reader. The reader supplies the emotions. The reader supplies even some of the color, some of the sound. My language has to have holes and spaces so the reader can come into it”(Harris 17). This style of writing that Morrison embraces is directly influenced by the African- American folklore tradition.
The Bluest eye is a story that shows on going problems that effect the black race. The story is about cultural beliefs, which are the essence of folkloristic transmission. Early narratives and tales in African- American folklore were about discrepancies in wealth and social position between blacks and whites. This story transmits patterns and problems the have a negative impact on the black race. The story not only shows these patterns and problems but also shows how they go unresolved because the black race in the time of this book just accepted this way of life. The major issue in this book is the idea of ugliness. The belief that black was not valuable or beautiful was one of the cultural hindrances to black people throughout their history in America. Morrison emphasizes that the entire Beedlove family believes that they are ugly. Without any visible markers to show that belief, they nonetheless act and react as if it were so. Having inherited the myth of unworthiness, the Breedloves can only live the outlined saga to its expected conclusion. Because Pecola believed she was ugly, she never had any type of self- esteem or confidence. Then being raped by her father, Cholly Breedlove, Pecola was destined to go insane. In a conversation with Robert Stepto, Morrison comments on her creation of Pecola. “Well, In The Bluest Eye, I try to show a little girl as a total and complete victim of whatever was around her”(Stepto 17). With Claudia giving the background to Cholly’s hard life and showing the harsh reality of Pecola’s insanity, this oral tale has a certain darkness to it that shows these patterns that have plagued the black race in America.
Pecola’s basic wish for blue eyes ties her to all believers in fairy tales and other magical realms. Pecola is just like Cinderella in the sense that she wants to be something different than what she is naturally. Just like Sleeping beauty, the ugly duckling, and Cinderella The Bluest Eye has a notion of fantasy in it. Because Pecola’s life is doomed in a sense, she must resort to fantasy in her own mind. Unlike Cinderella and all the other fairy tales this fantasy that Morrison brings to the page is loaded with the harsh realities of African-American life. Claudia not only tells the story but tries to effect Pecola’s fate through her own belief in the power of magic to transform present conditions. Claudia and Frieda attempt to influence Pecola’s future by planting the marigolds correctly. They hope, as Pecola does with the offering to the dog, to bring a sort of sympathetic magic that will make Pecola’s future more healthy. Unlike most fairy tales, The Bluest Eye does not have a happy ending. The Breedlove family is broken up and Pecola has gone insane. Morrison made no attempt for a happy ending; in fact the book was primarily just to show the harsh realities of African- American life in the 1940’s.
The novel Sula is very similar to The Bluest Eye because it focuses on many of the same issues. Both novels are dark in a sense because neither book shies away from the realities of African-American life. Sula is a story that takes place in a fictional town called Medallion, Ohio. In an interview, Morrison explains her thoughts on the creation of Medallion, Ohio. “When I wrote Sula, I was interested in making a town, the community, the neighborhood, as strong as a character as I could”(Stepto 11). Medallion, Ohio is a black community struggling to define itself against the racism that was so prevalent following the abolition of slavery. The town was actually founded as a second chance, or some hope for former slaves. This type of town lends itself more easily to the folklore tradition because it stands for the power of dreams and a change from the harsh realities of slavery.
The characters in Sula also lend themselves easily to the folklore tradition because they seem very unreal and magical. The characters Sula and Shadrack are both looked at as monsters. Like characters in an oral tale their evilness is exaggerated to show what is good. The idea of defining by opposites is very popular in Morrison’s novels, especially in Sula. Morrison asks the question “How would we know what black is if there were no white? How would we know good if there were no evil?” Morrison uses Sula and Shadrack to help the Medallion community define itself. Sula and Shadrack’s differences must be labeled so that the rest of the community can go about their business. Since the people of Medallion have no words to explain Sula and Shadrack they just label them as crazy and evil. “Imagination gives the community diversity from its own stupored monotony; it comes to make a monster out of their differences. Sula’s don’t give a damn attitude makes her an easy target for tales, for she lacks the egotistical concern for reputation” (Harris 63). But, in a strange way the townspeople welcome Sula’s rebelliousness, her violations of the social codes of their community. “Their conviction of Sula’s evil,” Morrison’s narrator tells us, changes ” the towns people in accountable yet mysterious ways.” Defining their lives in contrast to Sula’s”(Century 48). The people of the bottom use Sula to define what is evil. After Sula returns from her ten year long absence from Medallion, Sula begins to sleep with just about every man in the city black, or white. Sula is regarded as a “slut” among the community. But after her return, the people of the town start behaving better than they had before. The women of Medallion begin to cherish their husbands more and treat their kids better. Everyone in the community joins together to band the evil that is in their midst. Shadrack, like Sula helps the community define what is sanity. “Shadrack provides diversion from their normalcy; though they do not wish to emulate him, his antics make them secure in their own identities”(Harris 61). This idea of defining by opposites is also in The Bluest eye. Pauline Breedlove needs her drunk, sinful Husband to make her sanctified. This idea of defining by opposites is the underground bases in racism. Morrison uses this in such a way to show the patterns and problems in human nature.
A major theme in Sula and also in The Bluest Eye is one that is directly rooted in African-American folklore. It is the idea of evil, and it dominates every aspect of Sula. In an interview with Toni Morrison, Morrison comments on her use of evil in Sula. “Now I was certainly very much interested in the question of evil in Sula- in fact, that’s what it was all about”(Childress 8). Morrison uses the folklore tradition to show how the black race accepts evil unlike the white race. “It never occurs to the people of Medallion to kill Sula. Black people never annihilate evil. They don not run it out of their neighborhoods, chop it up or burn it up. They don’t have witch hangings. They accept it, almost like a forth dimension in their lives. They try to protect themselves from evil, of course, but they do not have that puritanical thing which says if you see a witch, then burn it, or if you see something than kill it”(Childress 8). The evil that is seen in Sula is one that is borrowed from the Tradition of African-American folklore. Since the times of the slaves, blacks accepted
evil like a fourth addition to the trinity. Slave masters tried to convert the slaves to Christianity by stressing the power of the devil and the condemnation of hell.
The same acceptance of evil is also seen in The Bluest Eye. When Mr. Henry molested Frieda, she didn’t even hate him, she just accepted his actions as normal. Also, after Pecola was raped by Cholly, she did not dispise him she just let it add to her destruction of her self.
The influence of African- American folklore is all over the novels The Bluest Eye and Sula. With Morrison demanding participatory reading just like an oral tale to the evil and strangeness in some of her characters, Morrison tells stories rich with African- American folklore. Her settings, characters, and the issues she explores, tell of the history of the Black race in America. The oral tradition of African- American folklore is a way for Morrison to educate and analyze what the black race is all about.
Work Cited Page
Century, Douglas. Toni Morrison: Author New York: Chelsea Publishing, 1994
Childress, Alice. “Conversations with Toni Morrison” “Conversation with Alice Childress and Toni Morrison” Black Creation Annual. New York: Library of Congress, 1994. Pages 3-9
Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison Knoxville: The university of Tennessee press, 1991
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Plume, 1973
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume, 1970
Stepto, Robert. “Conversations with Toni Morrison” Intimate Things in Place: A conversation with Toni Morrison. Massachusetts Review. New York: Library of Congress, 1991. Pages 10- 29.
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