Academic journal article African American Review

Missing Peace in Toni Morrison's 'Sula' and 'Beloved.' (Female Afro-American Fiction Writer)

Academic journal article African American Review

Missing Peace in Toni Morrison's 'Sula' and 'Beloved.' (Female Afro-American Fiction Writer)

Article excerpt

From her earliest fictional work The Bluest Eye (1970) to her latest, Jazz (1992), Toni Morrison cultivates an aesthetic of ambiguity. Placing Morrison in a "postmodernist" context, Robert Grant, for instance, describes both the "labor" of interpreting Sula and the richness evoked by its narrative "gaps." Clearly, Morrison's emphasis on absences and indeterminate meanings casts an interpretational bone in the direction of readers and critics who, as urged by Grant, transform "absence into presence." However, I would argue that the more productive endeavor may be to read the ambiguities of Morrison's texts not as aporia to be "filled . . . by the reader" (Grant 94) but as signifiers of an unattainable desire for stable definitions and identities.

This essay, accordingly, explores the relationship between the slippage of words and the informing voids (desires) of Morrison's novels by examining two of her most critically recognized works, Sula (1973) and Beloved (1987). Though all of Morrison's novels play upon the variability of language, Sula especially throws into disequilibrium that exemplar dichotomy, good and evil, and by extension all Manichean systems which undergird traditional linguistic and ethical orders. By bringing to light the relativity of meaning, Sula broaches the subject not only of semantic integrity (how we can convey what we mean) but also of epistemological integrity (how can we know anything since there is no objective perspective and no objective essence or truth to know). While the aforementioned questions bristle under each of Morrison's texts, in Sula, Morrison offers to her readers a main character who telescopes that scandal of epistemology. How can we understand or know Sula, who is not only egoless or without a self (and hence undeterminable) but who also is unable to know anything herself?

By contrast, Beloved, set almost a century earlier (c. 1852-1873), deals less with the metaphysical premises of good and evil to focus instead upon the institution of slavery and its overwhelming perversion of meaning. Inspired by a newspaper clipping from the 1850s (Davis 151), Beloved reconstructs the nuances of a black woman's killing of her infant daughter in response to the Fugitive Slave Act. Symbolic and discursive substitutions become emblematic in this latter narrative, where a ghost stands in for the lost living, where memory only approximates event, and where gestures and words struggle to fill the gaps of unvoiced longings. In Beloved, Morrison again highlights the variability of meaning and identity, yet in this case she links approximations of meaning to the historical condition of being enslaved.

Taking the cue from Eva's suggestion that there are no such things as innocent words or gestures - "'How you gone not mean something by it'" (Sula 68) - I engage in close readings of Morrison's texts with an eye toward the overdeter-mined nature of each sign. In addition, by looking at two of her works in conjunction, I hope to shed light on the different levels of language manipulation occurring in each book as well as conjecture the possible implications of these differences. How do the words of 1987 supplement, qualify, or reinforce their 1973 predecessors?

Sula begins with two gestures: a dedication and an epigraph. In the dedication, Morrison reconfigures a traditional signifier of loss and elegiac retrieval, to one of desire: "It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you. This book is for Ford and Slade, whom I miss although they have not left me." Instead of invoking the dead, Morrison places "Ford and Slade" into a "missed" situation, rewriting their future absence into the present and applying associations of loss and profound appreciation (usually reserved for the dead) to persons not yet defined by this absence. In effect, Morrison conveys a heightened sense of the variability of Ford and Slade, their probable mortality, their easy slippage into alter identities. …

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