Hunger "Beyond Appetite": Nurture Dialectics in Toni Morrison's Beloved

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper traces the various manifestations of the hunger/ingestion motif in Beloved and its implications at the psychological and diegetic levels, mapping out the connection between hunger and storytelling as a form of resistance. At a deeper level, however, the novel also evinces how the hunger/ingestion dialectics inform not only African Americans' emotional and spiritual deprivation but also the diegetic in(di)gestion, disadjustments, and dis(re)memberment of their history and identity. By mapping out the fusion between the intra-diegetic and extradiegetic, this essay ultimately argues that Morrison's transgressive re-reading/rewriting of the imperial archive of black history and identity essentially requires both "a visceral reliving of [its] trauma[s]" (Young 9) and a parodic o/aural and narratological reinscription of its predatory patterns.

Keywords: Toni Morrison; Beloved; African-American fiction; hunger; appropriation

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Nurture dialectics are a central motif in Toni Morrison's fiction and, more specifically, in her novel Beloved (1987). From a cursory reading, the novel reveals the extent to which the African American experience of repression and dispersal has been informed by the dialectics of hunger, cannibalism, and appropriation. Yet a close reading of the narrative reveals that the dynamics of hunger and ingestion are not only physical and anthropological but also psychological and narratological. A thorough investigation of these dynamics therefore invites an exploration of nurture imagery in the novel as well as its sociological, anthropological, historical, and narratological inscriptions. Images and scenes depicting food with its social and religious connotations abound in the narrative. Given food's association with communal gathering, nurture symbolises the entertainment and preservation of social relationships and the creation of new ties. Critics have mulled over the significance of food imagery and its social dimensions in the novel. Lynne Marie Houston argues that the tropes of food and hunger are deployed to "mark and define relationships," for "they often mediate or inform politics of race" (167). She also goes as far as to maintain that Morrisons characters sustain their relationship with and apprehension of the outside world "through food, through their reactions to hunger, and through the types of hunger they experience" (167). Houston finally interprets the characters' expressions of hunger as no more than outward manifestations of their sexual, emotional, and psychological deprivation, arguing that Morrison's metaphorical dramatisation of hunger "works so that the relationship of a character with food takes on some of the hidden fears and anxieties of the character's being or history" (166).

Yet approaching nurture dialectics in Morrison's novel from this perspective amounts to reducing the characters' coming to terms with their sexual and emotional impulses to a process of reverse sublimation, (1) whereby instead of transforming physical impulses into socially constructive achievements, the characters supplant one physical desire for another. In her essay, '"Apple Pie Ideology' and the Politics of Appetite in the Novels of Toni Morrison," parallel to Houston's reading, Emma Parker establishes a psychological link between hunger and African Americans' experience of oppression and deprivation (615). In Beloved, Parker argues, the returning ghost's ravenous desire for food "is only an extreme manifestation of the hunger, both literal and metaphorical, that all the characters in the book experience as part of the legacy of slavery" (616). More specifically, Parker dwells on the ways in which gender and race shape appetite, focusing on the significance of sugar as a "potent symbol" which, given its association with "stereotypes of femininity," often "acts as a signifier of race and gender power structures" in Morrison's text (614).

Other commentators offer historiographic elaborations on the themes of hunger and cannibalism in Morrison's fiction. …