N Swami woman and flute

The Power of Generation in the Novels of Toni Morrison


The stories told in Toni Morrison’s novels are strongly rooted in the fictional communities and familial structures of her main protagonists and concern the African-American’s experience in America, from the tragic social by-products of slavery to a continually evolving sense of cultural identity drawn from a fusion of the violently fragmented segments of African-American history.  One of the main motifs in her novels is the idea of generation, with its accompanying associations of cycles, fertility, and power.  Some of the many resonances encompassed by this motif are how the economy of slavery was involved in the birth of America as a country; the idea of reproduction – human and social; the suspended ambiguous relationship between the old and the new; how nourishment and sustenance of this bond are necessary for regeneration; the retention of African culture across the generational break that happened as a result of forced migration; and the birth of ideas through language.  This study will explore how these ideas mingle and interact in the novels The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Paradise, with emphasis on Song of Solomon and Paradise.

Peter Kolchin describes how in colonial America the combination of a world “with few ideological constraints against the use of forced labor”; fertile land suitable for growing crops that were greatly valued abroad, such as tobacco and rice; and a margin of profitability dependent on “the number of laborers one could command” created conditions that gave rise to the practice of slavery.[1]  Therefore, the forced migration of African slaves was mainly for the purpose of putting them to work in the fields, and the enormous wealth that was generated off the back of their labour was fundamental to the economic success of America.  Howard Zinn argues that the leaders of America’s revolution “found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits and political power from favourites of the British Empire”.[2]  Thus, in the birth of America as a nation there is a crucial relationship between the two interlocking generative cycles of wealth and power, which in turn fuelled the birth of an ideology, and the African-Americans’ experience of these dynamics was at the “ground” level of production, where their physical power sparked with the cyclical power of fertility. The tension between the ideology on the surface of American life and the materialistic concerns below it was a natural breeding ground for revolt, however, and, as is often the case in history, black literature was and is an important mouthpiece recording the progress of black Americans’ search for a sense of identity which is rooted in their past and which looks forward to the future.

The novel Paradise is intricately concerned with the intertwined ideas of fertility and material wealth, and how unhealthy ideologies at the foundation level of societies can breed only ill effects.  The novel is centred around the community of Ruby, Oklahoma and its relationship to “the Convent”, a nearby mansion house, which “before it was a convent …was an embezzler’s folly”,[3] and which houses a collection of wayfarer women scattered from their original homes by various tragedies and united under the perfect maternal love and care of Connie, who is a mixed-race, light-skinned with green eyes, former nun who stayed in the house after the convent was closed.  Ruby is a community founded by nine “eight-rock” families, eight-rock being a “deep, deep level in the coal mines”: “Blue-black people, tall and graceful, whose clear, wide eyes gave no sign of what they really felt about those who weren’t eight-rock like them”.[4]  Ruby is the resettlement of the original community of Haven. In the chapter named “Patricia”,[5] Morrison describes how the newly freed eight-rock founders of Haven discovered that there was a an internal prejudice amongst African Americans between light-skinned and black, and as a result of being shunned by their African American peers, they grouped together and embraced an ethos of maintaining their racial purity, the manifestation of which was the founding of an enclosed, separate community.  The original community of Haven naturally begins to mix more and more with the outside world, and after World War II the new generation of men who hold the power in the town decide to relocate to an even more remote location, “which has ninety miles between it and any other”.[6]

A community diseased by this purist ethos, Ruby is an example of the reactionary transference of ideas from oppressor to oppressed, other examples of which are the men’s imperial insistence on land ownership and materialism.  Morrison’s use of language with ringing thematic resonances is demonstrated by the term “eight-rock”.  Its immediate associations are with coal mining, and therefore with materiality and earth. It is a simultaneous evocation of a colour spectrum, an accompanying spectrum of evaluation, and an accompanying sliding spectrum of fortune.  It also evokes the physical labour of coal mining, which demands a cowed, subservient posture; and the spondaic rhythm enacts the violence and hardness of the tools striking the rock.  It takes the imagination “deep, deep” into the ground, which is important to the novel’s overarching theme of a community “buried” by its own prejudicial ethos, which acts as a cover for base materialism.

The timing of the resettlement in Ruby as post-WWII is significant, because it was the inclusion of African-Americans in the military and their experiences abroad of societies less racist than the United States that helped give momentum to the Civil Rights Movement in the following decades.[7]  Just as many African-Americans were pursuing integration into American society, this smaller society of eight-rock descendents moved in the opposite direction, towards greater isolation.  The feeling of isolation is evoked by Morrison in the novel’s reluctance to include any details of the Civil Rights Movement, while it emphasises a closed cycle of gain and loss for African-Americans, first after Reconstruction collapsed in the south with the implementation of segregation laws and the revocation of voting rights, and the gain of personal freedoms for African-American soldiers abroad, which they lost upon return to America.   The effect achieved by this is the strengthening of the bond between Ruby’s present and its past.  It is a re-enactment and stagnation of the exact conditions of the previous generation’s experiences of wandering and settling in the wilderness, and it is the negation of the hope of progress:

‘The house he lives in is big, comfortable, and this town is resplendent compared to his birthplace, which had gone from feet to belly in fifty years.  From Haven, a dreamtown in OklahomaTerritory, to Haven, a ghosttown in OklahomaState.  Freedmen who stood tall in 1889 dropped to their knees in 1934 and were stomach-crawling by 1948.  That is why they are here in this Convent.  To make sure it never happens again.  That nothing inside or out rots the one all-black town worth the pain … He and the others, veterans all … carried that devotion, gentling and nursing it from Bataan to Guam, from Iwo Jima to Stuttgart, and they made up their minds to do it again.’ (5-6)

This passage illustrates the adoption and mirroring of the unhealthy values of America’s white, male infrastructure; the men of Ruby become intoxicated with materialism, power and a self-righteous belief in the sanctity of their racial purity, which supplants actual spirituality. The consequence is that they become inflated, feel they are above the law, and decide to “cleanse” the town of the women in the Convent by killing them, in an evil inversion of religious values. The group of women at the Convent represent the outside world in their mixed-race composition and in their true spirituality that seeks healing and apotheosis through the retention of their original culture of spirituality, and the men find this threatening to their sense of safety, which is based upon isolation and enclosure.

In contrast, the linearity of generation in Song of Solomon is broken and obscured by history, and the character Milkman goes in search of the story of his family line, and his progress is set much more firmly against the events of the Civil Rights Movement.  Song of Solomon takes place in a lakeside city in Michigan, where Milkman’s father, Macon Dead, is a wealthy landlord, owning black properties all over town.  The feeling of history is partly evoked by the dichotomy of the two geographical landscapes in the novel: one is an urban setting in the cold northern Midwest, which evokes the mass migration of blacks northward to work in factories during the early twentieth century; and the other setting is in the south, with all its traditional associations of plantation slavery, warmth and fertility.  Another way in which the backdrop of history is evoked in the novel is by the existence of the “Seven Days”: a secret society of black men in Milkman’s town who, crucially, forsake family – and the possibility of regeneration – for inclusion, and who, whenever “a Negro child, Negro woman, or Negro man is killed by whites and nothing is done about it by their law and their courts …selects a similar victim at random, and they execute him or her in a similar manner if they can”.[8]  Milkman’s best friend Guitar is a member of the “Days”, and the two characters represent two opposing directions possible for African-Americans to pursue in their continual search for a positive identity in the culture of America: one represents the hopeful creation of a new self through the discovery and integration the past in the preciously guarded retention of African culture, and the other represents the flat, stagnant, and poisoned mirroring of the hate and violence of white oppressors leading only to destruction.  The proof of this end to Guitar’s direction is provided by the example of Robert Smith, a member of the Days who goes mad as a result of his involvement in the society and commits suicide by “flying” off the roof of the town’s whites-only hospital.  He draws a crowd of “forty or fifty people”, one of whom is Milkman’s mother, who is pregnant with him at the time.  The event starts her labour, and she becomes the first black woman to give birth in the hospital.  It is the dramatic scene which opens the novel, providing an introduction to the important themes of birth, flight, and the synthesis of old and new which is inherent in the refreshing process of regeneration.

In reflecting upon Morrison’s use of black American history, it is useful to take a lesson in synthesis from the novels themselves: the racial context is a crucial part of the synthesis of artistic elements, but the created whole work of art has an autonomous life of its own.  In attempting to understand the nature of the work of art, one must be aware of how its various elements are functioning together.  Thus, if we discuss “The Days” in Song of Solomon, it is important to discuss both the secret society’s relationship to black American history, and to the internal world of the novel.  The critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose contribution to this stream of thinking is key, in 1984 pointed out an early over-emphasis on the sociological and anthropological function of black literature, which happened at the expense of close-reading of the text:

‘The literary work of art has stood at the center of a triangle of relations (M.H. Abrams ‘universe’, ‘artist’ and ‘audience’), but as the very thing not to be explained, as if it were invisible, or literal, or a one-dimensional document.  The relation of the black text to its ‘universes’, its author, and its various readerships has until recently been the exception rather than the rule.’[9]

The shape of the resistance of black literary criticism to some types of Euro-centric criticism and a “curious valorization of the social and polemical functions of black literature”[10]  is parallel to the necessarily adaptive synthesis of different cultures which occurs in the novels themselves: the critical approach must be dual, diverse and inclusive of “the idiom of critical theory but also … the idiom which constitutes the ‘language of blackness’”.[11]  Gates highlights the importance of including the audience in the end accomplishment of creative endeavour:  “The viewer’s own history completes the forms, the canvas, the sculpture, the ahistorical testimony of a poetic licence”.[12]  This duality is presented by Frederick Karl, who explains that Milkman and Guitar “are like twins who break off so as to represent different elements of the black experience”.[13]  But Guitar’s element is the closed, reactionary, violent sphere of the black experience in its mirroring of hate and violence, whereas Milkman’s element represents the refreshing aspect of generation, which seeks understanding from the coherence of progression.

The language in the opening chapter of Paradise reveals how reproductive cycles, in terms of community as well as physiology, can be corrupted by materialism, resulting in obscured vision leading to base acts, which in turn perpetuate the corrupted cycle. The sense of obscured vision inherent in a stagnant and malign cycle is enacted by Morrison’s choice to begin the novel during the dramatic hunting scene: men from Ruby are hunting down the women in the Convent with murderous intent, and the story is told only from the perspective of the men.  The naturally-arising acute question of “why are they doing this?” must fight against the heavy dampening effect of being introduced to the novel’s story through the obscured vision of these murderous men.  The feelings of oppression and fear are enacted in the first lines of the novel:

‘They shoot the white girl first.  With the rest they can take their time.  No need to hurry out here…They are nine, over twice the number of the women they are obliged to stampede or kill and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement: rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, Mace and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns.’[14]

The natural fear, shock and speed of the first sentence is immediately dampened by “they can take their time”; and the insistence on the slowing of pace is enacted through the repetition of the idea: “No need to hurry out here”.  The idea of suffocation or how the power in any imbalance is held by the side with greater quantity is enacted through “They are nine, over twice the number of the women”, and the use of the word “obliged”, suggests a heavy compulsion, as well as a number of questions about the men’s motives – questions which undermine the surface meaning of the word, and which go unanswered, really, until all the pieces of the puzzle finally drop into place in the ninth chapter of the book.

The evocation of heaviness, slowness, obscurity and fear is the physical manifestation through language of Morrison’s theme.  The fear of the pain of being shunned by American society is the impetus behind the founding of Haven, and then Ruby.  This original impetus becomes obscured by the creation of an ideology of purism, which is a mirrored negative of the prejudice that caused the founders of Ruby pain in the first place.  The mirroring of the prejudice creates an infected, structurally-rotten platform for the justification of inflicting pain on others.

The passage above reveals the confused logic inherent in the separateness of Ruby, with the first dramatic image, “They shoot the white girl first” – which evokes the horror and tragedy of death – and which is followed closely by the image of “clean, handsome guns”.  The associations with guns are blood, death, horror, unfair advantages, phallic symbols and murder, not cleanliness and beauty.  This jarring of the reader’s unconscious associations are like tremors before the earthquake, and pitch the reader into a state of confusion, enacting the confusion of the logic behind the story of Ruby, and also inducing the reader into a necessary state of scepticism.  Later in the novel, the dichotomy existing between the men’s superficial justification of their actions and their real motives is presented when Lone, the midwife, is eavesdropping on their plans:

‘Sargeant, she knew, would be nodding at every shred of gossip, chewing on the rag end of truth and wondering aloud why this deliberately beautiful town governed by responsible men couldn’t remain so … But he would be thinking how much less his outlay would be if he owned the Convent land, and how, if the women are gone from there, he would be in a better position to own it.’[15]

In Song of Solomon the lust for wealth inherent in the American dream is symbolised by Milkman’s father’s accumulation of property in their lakeside city in Michigan and the “treasure” which he is obsessed with finding.  The “treasure”, which turns out to be the bones of his father, provides the initial impetus for sending Milkman on a journey to the south, which ends up leading him to the truth of his family’s story.  Linden Peach comments,

‘Despite its traditional emphasis upon initiation, renunciation, atonement and release through ritual divestment, the experiment with the quest narrative in Song of Solomon through Milkman’s search for his legacy is determined by its radical content.  For example … in many respects [Milkman] is an unlikely hero; for much of the novel he draws inaccurate or inappropriate conclusions.  But then this is a novel which …suggests that to elevate any individual to the status of a hero or any one point of view to the level of myth is reductive.’[16]

In the resolution of the novel the value of money is supplanted by the values of truth, family and love, through Milkman’s discovery of the story of the bones – they are his grandfather’s – which is the discovery of his past.  Peach says that “many of the mythical and folklore elements come from Africa”.[17]  The most potent of these myths is that of Africans who could fly.  Milkman’s subsequent burial of the bones represents how he successfully transforms the destructive value of materialism into the productive values of healthy family love through the reconstruction of generational ties through knowing his family’s story.

The idea of birth and its various related issues of sexuality, the negation of birth in the form of abortion, and spiritual birth are important in Paradise, so important, in fact, that the structure of the novel repeatedly chimes with pregnancy motifs.  There are nine founding eight-rock families of Haven; the number of men hunting the Convent women is nine; the main traffic between Ruby and the Convent consists of women who “dragged their sorrow up and down the road”,[18] coming for abortions and help after beatings.  The down-pouring of rain before chapter nine symbolises the Convent women’s final healing and is like “water breaking”, and most importantly, the first nine chapters correspond to a period of gestation and development culminating in the “deliverance” of the soul of Ruby by the woman of chapter nine, who is Ruby’s midwife, Lone, when she overhears the men’s murderous plans and rallies the families peripheral to Ruby’s power structure, who still uphold integrity and a sense of true spirituality, to go and defend the women.  They arrive only in time to be witnesses to the deaths of the women.  When the town’s undertaker arrives to collect the bodies, he is astonished to find that they have all vanished, which is represented in the book as their apotheosis. The language continually evokes the motif of pregnancy, even in the description of how the “veterans all … carried that devotion [to the founding of a racially pure town], gentling and nursing it from Bataan to Guam, from Iwo Jima to Stuttgart, and they made up their minds to do it again”.[19]  The evocation of gestation, labour and birth in the chapter structure of the novel also draws a parallel with the labour involved in the production of art.

The idea of abortion within the birth motif contains the suggestion of broken cycles, of things not coming to their proper fruition; and also, as Morrison’s novels portray the search for identity of a disenfranchised people, abortion comes to symbolise the self-hate which is a reaction to the attitude of an oppressive white society, and is another aspect of how these attitudes can be transferred from oppressor to oppressed.  A pattern emerges in which the women of Ruby seek help from the Convent, sometimes asking for abortions, which amongst the women of Ruby is always a damaged offshoot of their relationship with the men of the town, who would condemn a woman pregnant before marriage as sullying the purity of the town.  Again, this shows how the men of Ruby have adopted an excessively self-righteous form of white Christianity, one which elicits an extreme paranoid response to the suggestion of occultism which is a part of the spiritual practices of the women at the Convent.  The “occultism” actually represents the women’s healthy exertions toward healing themselves and represents the healing knowledge to be gained from remembering and deciphering the past in order to create the future.  The women use knowledge from the preciously guarded retention of African spirituality, which is their collective past, to confront and heal the wounds of their individual pasts. It is significant that the most horrific depiction of abortion at the Convent is a self-inflicted abortion performed by Arnette, who is a female representative of the twisted male values.

The Bluest Eye opens with the text of a popular American children’s primer about Dick, Jane and their parents and dog.  The ideas highlighted by this choice of opening material are family relationships; education; superficial appearances and the imagistic appeal to the eye of colour and its significance; and the idea of the ideal and how it is expected and sometimes demanded by society.  All these things are twisted into a vortex of language, turned on their heads and presented in their unhealthy and tragic inversions, leading to the conclusion of how a sick society punishes its inhabitants in a self-begetting and destructive cycle.

The opening lines are ‘Here is the house.  It is green and white.  It has a red door.”  This enacts how information obtained from visual observation – as the first information we know about anything – influences our perception of it.  Colour is the first thing about a person that you know about that person.  This passage also depicts that the world of the novel we are about to enter will be seen through the eyes of a child, which asks us to ponder the questions of child as narrator – will she be trustworthy?  The innocence and purity of children is reflected in their first observations of life, and the novel makes the point that the child starts out with the truth, but may be taught by society to unlearn that truth if she wants to fit into society.  Morrison removes the punctuation of this passage and repeats it, effectively speeding up the words, blurring the ideas together and removing their superficial sense along with the syntax.  Then she spirals further into linguistic chaos by the removal of the spaces between the words.  Jan Furman comments that “these latter passages take on a frenetic tone that signals perversion of communal perfection for Morrison’s characters, who do not blithely run and play and live happily ever after.  In removing standard grammatical codes, symbols of Western culture, Morrison expurgates the white text as she constructs the black”.[20]  The effect is also to strip language of sense, which is a linguistic enactment of regressing through the stages of educational development; it has the effect of pulling the reader back to a state of childlike apprehension of the world. Later in the book, the narrator Claudia describes an overheard adult conversation:  “Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires”.[21]  This is how a child understands – the musicality, the blurred-togetherness of sounds is more immediate to her than the complex interchange of ideas which she cannot yet understand.  She has more learning to do first.  However, her education exists on a plane of tension between instinct and the demands of a sick society.

The sickness of society is represented by the inversion of familial relationships in the form of the rape of Pecola by her father, Cholly Breedlove, and the resulting pregnancy.  Cholly is also a victim of the unhealthy society: “he was alone with his own perceptions and appetites…as it was, he reacted to them [his own children], and his reactions were based on what he felt at the moment”.[22]  He is wholly uneducated in the field of family relationships, and it is almost as if his rape of his 11-year-old daughter is equivalent to making an error at the blackboard in front of the class, an error which displays his total lack of understanding how families work.  In his drunken state he perceives his daughter washing dishes, and she lifts her foot and uses it to scratch her other leg, in the same gesture that seductively fascinated him when he met his wife.  The gesture leads him into a memory and stimulates him sexually for his daughter – producing an inversion, a chaos of the family relationship.  He gets an “F”.  Morrison leads us into this way of looking at the horror of the incest in the beginning of the book when she writes, “Quiet as it’s kept there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.  We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow”.[23]  Morrison herself comments on this in the “Afterword” of 1993:

‘The opening phrase is an effort to be grown-up about this shocking information.  The point-of-view of a child alters the priority an adult would assign the information. ‘We thought…it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow’ foregrounds the flowers, backgrounds illicit, traumatic, incomprehensible sex coming to its dreaded fruition.  This foregrounding of “trivial” information and backgrounding of shocking knowledge secures the point of view but gives the reader pause about whether the voice of children can be trusted at all or is more trustworthy than an adult’s.’[24]

The scene of the rape is followed by a chapter which opens with the sentence: “Once there was an old man who loved things, for the slightest contact with people produced in him a faint but persistent nausea”[25].  He goes on to say that “knowing his label [misanthrope] provided him with both comfort and courage, he believed that to name an evil was to neutralize it if not annihilate it”.[26]  Toni Morrison, in the “Afterword”, comments on the power of naming and knowing: “thus, the opening provides the stroke that announces something more than a secret shared, but a silence broken, a void filled, an unspeakable thing spoken at last”[27].  More than this, the novel itself functions in the same way – Toni Morrison speaks to us, the reader, for the function of naming and knowing the societal evils which infect African-American communities and are by-products of the system of slavery.  Slavery is silently presented as the thing which is generative of negative cycles, and the cure for healing this is presented as language, manifested at the surface level of Morrison’s production of language. Peach comments,

‘Black literary criticism has been resistant to the various trends, such as structuralism, in Euro-American critical practice which posit the separation of the literary text from its author, partly because reclaiming an identity and (narrative) voice to counter centuries of denial and misrepresentation is central to much post-colonial writing.  However, a major reason for this reluctance to divorce text completely from its social and political context is that literature would lose its social function.  For African and African-American writers the novel has been an important vehicle to represent the social context, to expose inequality, racism and social injustice.’[28]

The idea of the power to give birth to ideas through language works on various levels; this quote refers to the power of literature to give birth to consciousness of “inequality, racism and social injustice”.  Within the context of the generation motif, the power of “naming and knowing” refers to the retention of African culture, the integration of which into self-identity is presented in Morrison’s novels as a necessary synthesis for achieving a full and progressive sense of identity.

One of the important critical issues which has to do with the nature of synthesis between African and African American culture is signifying.  It is a complex idea, and is defined in various ways by various writers and critics.  It has to do with a creative, coded way of retaining original African cultures across the violence of forced migration, within the use of the forms of white oppressors. It is explained by Sundquist, quoting Roger Abrahams:

“…Abrahams argues that black signifying refers to the capacity of linguistic formations to elicit deep meaning while casting doubt on conventional meaning: ‘To the outside world, such signifying is sometimes regarded as a mark of irresponsible irreverence; it may make serious matters seem playful, the subject of banter.  But this is exactly what is intended in the world of nonsense, to use the West Indian term for signifying; it provides a context in which the community encourages its wits to test the limits of meaning by exploring the edges of believability, all of this in the service of expressive resilience and improvisational creativity.’”[29]

The “conventional meaning” represents the surface forms of Euro-American discourse, in music, dance and literature.  The novel form is one of these, and examples of signifying abound in Morrison’s novels.  The example of the prologue material of The Bluest Eye being gradually deconstructed in the removal of “standard grammatical codes, symbols of Western culture” within the overall structure of what is a novel, is an example of how Morrison manipulates “the capacity of linguistic formations to elicit deep meaning while casting doubt on conventional meaning” .[30]

The pervasive elements of magical realism in Morrison’s novels also work as signifying.  In Song of Solomon, at the heart of the protagonist Milkman’s search for his ancestral roots, is Morrison’s use of the myth of Africans who can fly.  Solomon is Milkman’s great-great grandfather, and the story that he discovers while on a search for “treasure” is that Solomon flew from the white oppression of America back to Africa.  Crucially, the flight was also from his family, which resulted in a breaking of the linear generational cycle. It works as an element of magical realism, testing the reader’s assumptions about the novel form in the navigation of the “edges of believability”, and it leaves the question of whether or not Milkman’s Virginian great-grandfather actually flew away from white oppression on the ground unanswered, suspended – in an artistic, linguistic resolution that enacts flight, which is an excellent example of how signifying works.[31]

The character of Lone, who is Ruby’s midwife, represents both a sense of true spirituality and symbolises the importance of the retention of African and West Indian culture.  The overtones of female spirituality obviously chime in the naming of “the Convent”.  The old Mother Superior warns Connie to “be careful … I think she practices”,[32] the implication being that she “practices” magic, which is of course an abomination to the religion of Christianity, to which Connie belongs as a nun, as well as a retention of African culture.  The revulsion of the men of Ruby towards the spiritual practices of the Convent women, represents the intense hate of this retention of African culture, which amounts to a hate of that part of themselves.  However, it is Connie’s eventual acceptance and integration of Lone’s message which leads her along a profound spiritual path to eventual apotheosis at the end of the novel.  In response to Connie’s statement of resistance, “In my faith, faith is all I need”, Lone says “You need what we all need: earth, air, water.  Don’t separate God from His elements.  He created it all.  You stuck on dividing Him from His works.  Don’t unbalance His world”.[33]  This passage emphasises the theme of synthesis running through black literary criticism, Morrison’s novels taken as a group, as well as the individual stories told in Paradise and Song of Solomon.  The passage condemns the separation of “His elements”, which could be read as separating race from race, and race from humanity.

In Paradise, the balance between elements of the earth, representing the materialism of the men of Ruby, and the air, represented by the true spirituality of the women, is described by the language in the opening chapter of the novel. The name of Haven is only one vowel sound and letter away from Heaven, and this is in part responsible for evoking the strong overtones of religion in the story.  There is multi-faceted, jewel-like irony in the play of the words “Haven”, “Ruby”, and “Convent”, and their relationships to the ideas of religion, spirituality, the ground, the air, materialism, etc.  The re-naming of Haven to Ruby can be seen to yank away the status of this town as a haven, with all its spiritual associations with the heavens and the air.  With the re-naming, it is transformed to “Ruby”, with the associations of materialism, riches, jewels dug out of the ground and preciously hoarded, as the men of town preciously hoard the idea/ethos behind its founding to an unhealthy, evil conclusion.  They have lost the true guidance and understanding of spirituality.  The imagery supports this: when the men are searching the Convent, they find “that each woman sleeps not in a bed, like normal people, but in a hammock”.[34]  The women of the Convent have found true community, true spirituality, true love between themselves – they are uplifted, as in a hammock, suspended in the air, being pulled upward, off the ground, and that is where they can find rest, sleep and peace.  Also, the hunters/men come upon the Convent, formerly a rich man’s mansion, and from their perspective they see it as “[floating], dark and malevolently disconnected from God’s earth”.[35]

If the symbolic associations of Paradise’s concern earth, in its fertility, materiality and baseness, then Song of Solomon is a novel about the air, with its strong associative currents of song and air and knowledge.  Song of Solomon opens with a two-line poem: “The fathers may soar / And the children may know their names”.   The novel is about progression and regeneration in the healthiest way.  It is about the transformative power of knowledge.   In the opening scene of the novel, a member of the secret society “The Seven Days” is perched on top of the city’s white hospital and is threatening to fly off the roof.  A crowd has gathered to watch the mad man jump, and from amongst this crowd, which is mostly comprised of the town’s black community and the novel’s cast of characters, Pilate, who is Milkman’s aunt, begins to sing, “O Sugarman done fly / O Sugarman done gone…”.[36]  Her solo singing reveals her odd and slightly removed place from the society of the crowd, but the singing of the song, while also lyrically indicative of her adherence to beauty, feeling and truth despite what her society has to say to it, is one of the first clues of many leading us the readers and Milkman the character on a journey leading to the discovery of the truth of his family’s story, and the truth of their names and origins.  “Sugarman” is Solomon, and this is the literal “Song of Solomon”. We discover later that Pilate is able to see the ghost of her father, who shows up at different points in Pilate’s life, urging her to “sing”, the only word he ever speaks to her.  In the unravelling of the story of Pilate and Milkman’s family, we discover that Pilate’s father is repeating the name of his wife, which has been obscured by a break in the generational lineage of their branch of the family from the other descendents of Solomon, and her name is “Singing Bird”, a Native American name.  This journey of Milkman’s is a rite of passage for him and is a process of reconciliation.

The idea of American soil as it appears in Morrison’s novels reflects the complex historical relationship between it and African Americans – the relationship to bondage and violence is portrayed by Guitar’s statement that “the earth is soggy with black people’s blood”.[37]  And the economy of fertility is closely related to the economy of slavery – in America during slavery ownership of humans was in the same financial sphere as ownership of land.  When Milkman travels to Virginia in Song of Solomon, he is taken on a night-time hunting trip by the backwoods men who later turn out to be a community of Milkman’s relatives.  At the end of the hunt, which is a physical manifestation of the trial and strain of his desire to travel a meaningful distance along his path through life by pursuing an understanding of his past,

‘… he found himself exhilarated by simply walking the earth.  Walking it like he belonged on it; like his legs were stalks, tree trunks, a part of his body that extended down down down into the rock and soil, and were comfortable there – on the earth and on the place where he walked.  And he did not limp.’[38]

This passage is important because it shows the synthesis of Milkman, the black man whose ancestors were imported – a financial, material term which denies their humanityfrom Africa in a forced migration, feeling happiness and connection to, reconciliation and synthesis with American soil.  Also he is symbolised as a growing thing, gaining nourishment from a connection to his roots.  This can be contrasted with the images of dirt in The Bluest Eye: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.  We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow … We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt”.[39]  The handling of the motif of earth in Song of Solomon is positive – this is a joyful synthesis.  It can also be contrasted to the oppressive sense of the earth evoked by Paradise’s associations with “eight-rock” coal mining.

The evocation of a sense of refreshing regeneration from the discovery of the past is accomplished altogether in the first words of the above passage: “…he found himself exhilarated by simply walking the earth”.  The first part, “he found himself” depicts the meandering of Milkman’s thoughts toward his state of mind and how it relates to his physical movement, and the overtones ring with the novel’s theme of self-realisation through discovery of one’s lineage.  The word “exhilarated” enacts the physical movement of breath through the body, and how happiness is felt at a physical level.  It also evokes the element of air, and in the combination of human physicality with the element of air, flying.   And “walking the earth” is associated with physical and ideological progress forward, and at the same time shows the transformation of a black American’s traditional painful placement in relation to American soil to something joyous and positive.  Also inherent in the idea of “walking the earth” is the American idea of claiming the land that one walks over, integrating that claim into a new sense of identity.  Milkman is claiming this land in the Native American sense where all the land belonged to all the people, as opposed to the financial, imperial sense which is represented by Milkman’s father’s obsession with gaining property.

The synthesis achieved at the end of Song of Solomon is an intense blend of the elements of the world as listed by Lone in Paradise: earth, air and water.  The motif of flight – with its associations of mythic Africans, knowledge, and spiritual elevation – is wrapped up in the idea of multi-generational linearity, and the combination of all of these in the story of the flight of his great-grandfather produces a joyous ecstasy in Milkman: he explodes into the house of the woman he is staying with in Shalimar (a corruption of, but named for, Solomon), Virginia, and when she offers him a bath, he says,

“’Bath!  You think I’d put myself in that tight little porcelain box?  I need the sea?  The whole goddam sea!’  Laughing, hollering, he ran over to her and picked her up at the knees and ran around the room with her over his shoulder.  ‘The sea!  I have to swim in the sea.  Don’t give me no itty bitty teeny tiny tub, girl.  I need the whole entire complete deep blue sea!’”[40]

Morrison sustains the duality represented by Milkman and Guitar, and the struggle between their two ideologies, which is represented by a literal struggle, goes unresolved.  Guitar is hunting Milkman, intent on killing him, because he believes that Milkman found material treasure and hid it away for himself.  The reason Guitar wants the treasure so badly is that he wants to give it to the Seven Days, and the force of the seductive, violent ethos which mirrors the hate and violence of white racists, supersedes his humanity, which should render him unable to kill his best friend, in an inversion of values similar to that of the men of Ruby in Paradise.  When Milkman and Pilate are finally standing together on Solomon’s Leap, a high outcropping of rock which looks out over a valley near Shalimar, and have buried the bones of Milkman’s grandfather, Guitar shoots and hits Pilate.  The passage of culture from generation to generation is enacted when, as she dies, she says “I wish I’d a knowed more people.  I would of loved ‘em all.  If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more”.[41]  The lesson so recently learned by Milkman is the importance of knowing and loving, and there is an effective ambiguity in “If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more”: the ambiguity and embracing generality mean that it can be interpreted both as a wish to have known and loved more people, and also as emphasis of Morrison’s theme of the spiritual elevation and love which result from knowledge.  The transmission of culture is also enacted when Pilate speaks her last words to Milkman, asking him to “Sing … Sing a little somethin for me”.[42]  Milkman sings her a new variation of the “Song of Solomon”, in a powerful coherence of the dramatic emotion of the scene, which contains the importance of sustaining bonds of shared culture and knowledge, as well as of family, across generations; the birth of new culture from knowledge of the old; and the spiritual associations with flight and song – all of which are recalled and realised as Milkman sings “Sugargirl don’t leave me here / Cotton balls to choke me / Sugargirl don’t leave me here…”[43]


[1] Peter Kolchin. American Slavery: 1619-1877  (London: Penguin, 1993)  p. 6.

[2] Howard Zinn.  A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present  (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001) p. 59.

[3] Toni Morrison.  Paradise  (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997) p. 1.

[4] Paradise, p. 193.

[5] Paradise p. 185.

[6] Paradise p. 3.

[7] Zinn, p. 448.

[8] Toni Morrison.  Song of Solomon (New York: Plume (Penguin), 1987)  p. 154.

[9] Henry Louis Gates Jr.  Black Literature and Literary Theory  (New York and London: Methuen, 1984)  p. 6.

[10] Gates p. 5.

[11] Gates pp. 3, 8.

[12] Gates p. 54.

[13] Frederick R. Karl.  American Ficitions: 1940-1980  (New York: Harper and Row, 1983) p.435.

[14] Paradise p. 3.

[15] Paradise p. 277.

[16] Linden Peach. Toni Morrison (London: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1995) p. 58.

[17] Peach p. 58.

[18] Paradise p. 270.

[19] Paradise pp. 5-6.

[20] Jane Furman. Toni Morrison’s Fiction  (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 1996)  p. 20.

[21] Toni Morrison.  The Bluest Eye  (London: Chatto & Windus, 1979)  p. 9.

[22] The Bluest Eye p. 127.

[23] The Bluest Eye p. 4.

[24] The Bluest Eye, “Afterword”, p. 170.

[25] The Bluest Eye, p. 130.

[26] The Bluest Eye p. 130.

[27] The Bluest Eye, “Afterword”, p.171.

[28] Peach p. 2.

[29] Eric J. Sundquist. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature  (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993) pp. 279-280n.

[30] Furman p. 20.

[31] Linden Peach includes a discussion of how  “ the difficulty of achieving a properly balanced critical approach to African-American writing is exemplified in the application of the ‘magic realist’ model which has been suggested by Slemon (1989) as appropriate to post-colonial texts” (12), but this particular point is not central to my discussion.

[32] Paradise p. 244.

[33] Paradise p. 244.

[34] Paradise p. 7.

[35] Paradise p. 18.

[36] Song of Solomon p. 6.

[37] Song of Solomon p. 158.

[38] Song of Solomon p. 281.

[39] The Bluest Eye p. 4.

[40] Song of Solomon p. 326.

[41] Song of Solomon p. 336.

[42] Song of Solomon p. 336.

[43] Song of Solomon p. 336.

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