Function or Frill: The Quilt as Storyteller in Toni Morrison's Beloved

By Daniel, Janice Barnes | The Midwest Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Function or Frill: The Quilt as Storyteller in Toni Morrison's Beloved


Daniel, Janice Barnes, The Midwest Quarterly


WITH THE RISE of various theories of feminist criticism and the accompanying interest in feminist narratives, many metaphors pertaining to the craft of sewing--a pastime traditionally associated with women--have gained attention as embodying common images of pen and needle. Theoretical writing of the feminist critic abounds with images of "text and textile, thread and theme, weaver and web" (Showalter, 224). One conspicuous trope that has become useful is the patchwork quilt. Because of its frequent appearance in fiction by women and about women, it falls naturally into the domain of the rhetoric of feminine gender. Elaine Showalter, in fact, identifies its as "one of the most central images in this new feminist lexicon" (225).

In the fiction of American women for several centuries, the quilt has indeed provided a convenient metaphor not only for feminist criticism but also for providing opportunities in understanding structure, character, theme, and other standard elements of fiction. A re-reading of twentieth-century novelist, Toni Morrison, however, reveals a role of the quilt that has not yet been explored--its use as a narrative device, as an important part of the storyteller's technique. As she utilizes the quilt in the process of telling her story, it becomes an integral part of the fiction, functioning as an intrinsic component of narrative and plot and not as a conventional metaphor.

First, it will be helpful to take a brief look at various roles the quilt has played in literary criticism. Certainly, its credibility as a vehicle for interpretation has been established by assorted critical approaches to women's fiction. Showalter's use of this trope, for example, is to draw analogies between the development of piecing and the writing of female experience, and her approach is to examine--through history, genre, and theme--the traditions, forms, and meanings of women's writing in America. On the other hand, Cheryl B. Torsney sees the traditional quilt as a modern image, a "critical quilt" (180-81) pieced together to include all the differing theories of present feminist criticism and, as such, offers a collective alternative to traditional analyses. James M. Mellard provides yet another useful application of the quilt as a image for all literary canon, forming a "ground" (478) of unity on which the squares represent a diversity of individual pieces. These interpretations, of course, place the craft of quiltmaking into the broad contexts of literature in general and of women's fiction in particular. Endeavoring to narrow our focus toward the ways that specific traditional roles of the quilt play out in the fiction of individual writers--both women and men--we do not have far to look. In Dorothy Canfield Fisher's story, "The Bedquilt," the tale of Aunt Mehetabel's quilt becomes a symbol, for example, as it represents a parable of the women writer's creativity (Showalter, 241). The quilt gains thematic status in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as it reinforces comfort in the solidarity of community juxtaposed against isolation of the individual (Caselli, 86). And, as a technique for character development, Alice Walker in The Color Purple demonstrates the power of quiltmaking as Celie validates herself, transforming her life from fragment into a self-constructed whole (Elsley, 80). These isolated examples serve to demonstrate the same idea that a more thorough list would lead us to conclude--the quilt provides metaphors that are useful when examining fiction after it has become a whole piece, after the story has been told.

Rather than limit the image of the quilt to these restrictive capacities, however, we can give it a more significant role--as a storytelling device--and we will see that Toni Morrison in Beloved has incorporated it into the process of relating her story to the reader. If we explore the possibility of the quilt as an integral part of the process of moving a story from teller to receiver, it is necessary to recognize its duality not only as a useful metaphor but also as a vehicle for narrative.

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