Academic journal article African American Review

"What Would Be on the Other Side?": Spectrality and Spirit Work in Toni Morrison's Paradise

Academic journal article African American Review

"What Would Be on the Other Side?": Spectrality and Spirit Work in Toni Morrison's Paradise

Article excerpt

In a 1983 interview, Toni Morrison told Nellie McKay: "I am very happy to hear that my books haunt. That is what I work very hard for, and for me it is an achievement when they haunt readers, as you say" (146). In her seventh novel, Paradise, Morrison returns to this thematic thread of haunting as she depicts supernatural events occurring in and around an all-black town in Oklahoma and a neighboring former convent school for Native American girls. The rigid town of Ruby and the amorphous Convent are opposed until a group of men decide to empty the Convent of its five female inhabitants. After the massacre of the five women, their bodies disappear, and the town must make sense of the attack and the subsequent strange disappearances. All of the characters in the novel are haunted by past events, from the Disallowings that result in Ruby's stagnant existence to the violent episodes each of the Convent women endures before their separate arrivals. Jacques Derrida has commented on the importance of spirits and haunting experiences: "If it--learning to live--remains to be done, it can happen only between life and death. Neither in life nor in death alone. What happens between two, and between all the 'two's' one likes, such as between life and death, can only maintain itself with some ghost.... So it would be necessary to learn spirits" (xviii; original italics). In order for the characters of Morrison's novel to "learn to live," they must negotiate borders not only between life and death and past and present but between all binaries. Throughout the novel, Morrison privileges liminality, as the Convent women, erased and negatively "ghosted" by the larger society, find empowerment through their communal spiritual experiences in the Convent, carving out spaces of negotiation that ultimately begin to heal not only the women but also many citizens of Ruby.

Paradise (1997) is the final book in Morrison's trilogy including Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992). When Paradise appeared, there was some critical confusion: "Although Toni Morrison herself projected her fifth, sixth and seventh novels as a trilogy, the publication of the latest work ... left reviewers and critics in somewhat of a disarray, either ignoring its relationship with Beloved and Jazz altogether or openly acknowledging that such a relationship was not at all clear" (Tally, "Reality" 35). The connections between Beloved and Jazz seemed clear, and upon publication of Jazz some critics searched for the "Beloved" character within the novel. In particular, Peter Nicholls and Sarah Appleton Aguiar both posited that Wild was a manifestation of Beloved, showing readers where she migrated after the events of the novel, and Nicholls read Joe Trace as the child of Paul D and Beloved, physically continuing that saga in a new generation. Once Paradise was published, however, the desire to find "Beloved" as a character in all three novels seemed difficult and the connections became more thematic and historical. Critics focused generally on Morrison's concern with representing all of America's history (from slavery through the civil rights era) and in particular on the transformation of the traditional Founding Fathers into the Old Fathers of Ruby expanding westward and attempting to create an ideal community) As Tammy Clewell notes, "While Morrison uses her fiction to recover black histories ignored by dominant Western traditions, she also manages to emphasize what has been irretrievably lost--those personal memories, communal traditions, and unrealized possibilities that have disappeared without benefit of permanent documentation" (130). Morrison's endeavor to provide a space for the African American voice and experience within American history dovetails neatly with one of Kathleen Brogans tenets of twentieth-century ethnic women's ghost stories: "In contemporary haunted literature, ghost stories are offered as an alternative--or challenge--to 'official,' dominant history" (17). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.