New Myths and Ancient Properties: The Fiction of Toni Morrison

Article excerpt

In a 1978 interview Toni Morrison commented on the purpose behind storytelling: "People love to hear a story.... That's the way they learn things. That's the way human beings organize their human knowledge--fairy tales, myths. And that's why the novel is so important." Toni Morrison's careful craft and her consistent interest in technique are only half her story. Morrison is a builder of myths. Like Alice Walker, Morrison believes in the "everyday use" of literature in its essential relationship to a kind of knowing.

As Joseph Campbell asserts, the "literally read symbolic forms" of a culture actually support the civilizations, their morals, "their cohesion, vitality, and creative powers." Loss of these "life-supporting illusions" can cause the disintegration of a culture. For the Black American culture whose symbols are always under assault, Morrison may be viewed as a shaper, a rediscoverer, a revitalizer of these symbols for use in living and belief. In Morrison at her best the ancient myths of Africa may be rediscovered, and where a myth to live by is lacking, she, like her characters Sula and Nel, "[sets] about creating something else to be."

Morrison's novels must be called mythic not because they contain "literally read symbolic forms" but because she is concerned with the question "whence?" rather than "why?"--a distinction Kerenyi made about myth in an early essay written with Jung. Many of the characters and their ritualistic actions participate in a sacred time, a primordial experience. Morrison reveals ancient, communal forms in a baby's rescue, in the return of a spirit, in a plague of robins, in a blind vision, even in the way a door is opened or the way food is left in a front yard. Her work does not explain the issues of the Afro-American culture so much as it reconnects the culture to its origins, recalling and recreating the deep presence of ancient ritual and wisdom in contemporary life.

Perhaps Morrison is most notably associated with the womanist or black feminist concerns of Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, Gayl Jones, or Gloria Naylor. Such a category is functional but misleading, for the novels of these women are diverse and rich with their individual interests. The five novels of Toni Morrison--The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), and Beloved (1987)--are as distinctive from one another as the names indicate. Each novel partakes of a new concern: Morrison herself has designated the themes of the first three novels as self-image and cruelty in The Bluest Eye, a community's response to good and evil in Sula, and male perceptions of love and dominance in Song of Solomon. The two novels of the 1980's examine the losses which can accompany a falsely valued beauty in Tar Baby and the killing nature of mother love in a world without choices in Beloved. Morrison is an astute explorer of psychology, literature, history, and folk tradition. She is distinguished in her range, her acuity in perceiving human nature, and her ability to offer mythic models and spiritual solutions to a group of characters separated from their sources. And with her art emerges a distinctive reworking of the personal relationships among men and women in the Afro-American culture. Within the multiple, contradictory traditions to which she is heir, Morrison emerges as a social critic, a griot, and a healer.

In the course of Morrison's five novels one sees a shifting, perhaps a progression, of concerns about constructive ways of living against an unchanging picture of the political terrain of the United States. Whether the novel is set in the 1870's or 1970's, the mental landscape upon which the African in the West must travel does not seem to change significantly. This constant feature of the novels sets the stage for the dramatic variations in the portrayal of male and female relationships. What begins in social criticism is countered by the absence of customary social prescription. …