Beyond the "Literary Habit": Oral Tradition and Jazz in 'Beloved.' (Special Issue: Varieties of Ethnic Criticism)

By Hall, Cheryl | MELUS, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Beyond the "Literary Habit": Oral Tradition and Jazz in 'Beloved.' (Special Issue: Varieties of Ethnic Criticism)


Hall, Cheryl, MELUS


The number and variety of responses to Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved are ample testimony to Morrison's ability to move her readers, to involve them and make them (as she claims) "part of the creative process" (Bonetti). In re visioning slave history through the story of Sethe, a woman who is haunted both by her past as a slave and by the violence she is driven to as a result of that past, Morrison has created her most complex and (with perhaps the exception of Tar Baby) most controversial work to date. The controversy stems in part from the power of the subject matter and the frankness with which Morrison addresses it, in part from the mystery surrounding the title character--an example of the deliberate ambiguity that has delighted and frustrated Morrison's readers throughout her career. Perhaps even more powerful than the story Morrison tells, however (and more potentially disturbing, for some readers), is the way she tells it, the innovative choices she makes that have driven many critics to find a new generic or structural model for their interpretations.

In a 1983 interview with Kay Bonetti, Morrison talks about her struggle to write a new kind of novel:

I wanted...the books...to have an effortlessness and an artlessness,

and a non-book quality, so that they would have a sound.... And the

closest I came, I think, to finding it was in some books written by

Africans, novels that were loose...the kind that people could call

unstructured because they were circular, and because they sounded

like somebody was telling you a story. Yet you knew it was nothing

simple, as simple as that--it was intricate.... I wanted the sound to be

something I felt was spoken and more oral and less print.

In responding to the charges of ambiguity levelled against her work, Morrison aligns her fictional craft with that of the musician:

I don't want them [the novels] to be unsatisfying, and some people do

find it wholly unsatisfying, but I think that's the habit, the literary

habit, of having certain kinds of endings. Although we don't expect a poem

to end that way, you know, or even music doesn't end that way, certain

kinds of music. There's always something tasty in your mouth when

you hear blues, there's always something left over with jazz, because it's

on edge, and you're never satisfied, you're always a little hungry.

(Bonetti)

Morrison's equation of her art with both music and storytelling suggests that, as critics, we must come to her work with a new set of assumptions, based not on what Morrison calls the traditional "pyramid" form (with rising action, climax, denouement, etc.) but on forms arising from the oral tradition, in which song and story intertwine and are often inseparable.

Anthony J. Berret, in a far-ranging discussion of the earlier novels The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby, asserts Morrison's dependence on "music as a model for her writing" (268), and suggests that jazz in particular is central to Morrison's work. Other critics and reviewers note the "lyrical" quality of Morrison's prose as well, and if we are to find a way to deal with those elements of Morrison's fiction viewed by some readers as critical problems (her ambiguity, her loose, even "fragmented" narrative structure, her endless repetition of themes, images, whole stories), it seems obvious that music is an appropriate, if not the most appropriate, critical tool. While Judith Thurman's "operatic" perspective is a useful one, jazz is an even more revealing lens through which to view Beloved, in combination with the precepts of the oral tradition of performance from which jazz derives (see Stearns, among others).

One element of Morrison's narrative style that may prove problematic for readers of Beloved is the way in which, while maintaining an omniscient point of view, Morrison shifts the narrative perspective from the consciousness of one character to that of another.

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