Her Dark Materials: John Milton, Toni Morrison, and Concepts of "Domimon" in A Mercy

By Roynon, Tessa | African American Review, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Her Dark Materials: John Milton, Toni Morrison, and Concepts of "Domimon" in A Mercy


Roynon, Tessa, African American Review


Introduction

In Toni Morrison's 2008 novel, A Mercy, the mistress Rebekka Vaark gives the journeying Florens an authenticating letter that twice describes their domicile as "Milton" (110). Appearing two-thirds of the way through the novel, this detail strongly suggests what has been only hinted at until this point: that the writings of John Milton (1608-74) are an important presence herein. My aim in this article is to explore A Mercy's subtle and complex engagement with the work of the seventeenth-century poet, statesman and political activist. I argue that Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) significantly informs Morrison's representation of life in Virginia, Maryland and New England in the 1680s and '90s. The novelist's engagement both with that poem and with its status in that specific time and locale is key to A Mercy's central concerns: the nature of freedom and oppression, of power and powerlessness, and of good and evil.

In his keynote address at the Toni Morrison Society Conference of July 2008, Marc Conner declared that "the context of the seventeenth century, of Descartes and Milton ... opens all sorts of doors into Morrison's worlds, particularly her relation to Modernity" (5). In the same speech he suggested that Adam and Eve's banishment "at the end of Paradise Lost ... has been a meditation for Morrison," pointing out that "her novel Paradise ... is hardly her first investigation into the concept of Paradise and its loss" (4). Several scholars have analyzed the ways that Tar Baby and Jazz as well as Paradise--in their portrayals of flawed and/or lost utopias--engage with the Genesis stories of the Creation, and of Adam and Eve's temptation and fall. (1) Yet (with the exception of Conner's remarks) there has been a regrettable critical silence on the subject of Morrison's dialogue with Milton's version of these events. To some extent, this is not surprising: from one perspective, no two authors writing in the same language could have less in common, and the stern-faced, Puritan-leaning, white Englishman does not immediately come to mind when we think of Jadine and Son, Joe Trace and Dorcas, or even Consolata and Deek. The interactions with Milton in A Mercy, however, are sufficiently charged that it would be an act of wilful scholarly oversight to ignore this intertextual relationship any longer. (2)

It is in A Mercy that Morrison most obviously shares Milton's preoccupation with (if not his perspectives on) the conflicts between order and chaos, reason and sexual desire, and the divine and the human. His fascination with the nature of power and government, with the status of women, with the relationship between Puritanism and Roman Catholicism, with the limits of language and literature, and even with the viability (or otherwise) of binary oppositions, resonates significantly in the contemporary work. Morrison's allusions to Paradise Lost at once unpack Miltonic certainties and exploit Miltonic uncertainties and ambivalences, and in so doing, contribute to the scrutiny of the nascent Enlightenment world-view and of the transition into constructions of "America" that A Mercy enacts. Concepts of "Dominion"

In contrast to the scant critical attention paid to the subject of Milton and Morrison, scholars have written extensively on the subject of Milton and America. This scholarship contextualizes what might be at stake, politically, in Morrison's own engagement with Milton in the interventionist version of American history and identity that is A Mercy. In 1845, in his introduction to the first American edition of Milton's prose works, the editor and critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold claimed that "Milton is more emphatically American than any author who has lived in the United States" (Stevens 789). In recent decades scholars have both reiterated and challenged the conventional wisdom that the poet's republicanism, reforming brand of Protestantism, and stake in individual liberty have an exceptional resonance within dominant American ideologies, and they have explored the various and often conflicting uses to which his work has been put in American religious, political and literary discourses. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Her Dark Materials: John Milton, Toni Morrison, and Concepts of "Domimon" in A Mercy
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.