The Politics of Abuse: The Traumatized Child in Toni Morrison and Marguerite Duras

By Vickroy, Laurie | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1996 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Abuse: The Traumatized Child in Toni Morrison and Marguerite Duras


Vickroy, Laurie, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


With the political liberation of various colonies in the 1950s there also came the recognition of the need for a more profound investigation of the dynamics of oppression and subjugation. In particular, cultural theorists began to focus on the psychological effects of colonization and the emotional strategies employed in response to such pressures. Thus, Ashis Nandy drew attention to the way that the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized was constructed as one of "civilizing" parent/"primitive" child (34); Frantz Fanon demonstrated the way that racist attitudes could be internalized and could transcend any obvious issue of skin color (162); and Albert Memmi examined the self-loathing emerging from conditions of oppression, i.e., "injustice, insults, humiliation and insecurity" (16, 19-20). Similarly, literary critics began to show how psychological theory can help to elucidate not merely the artistic depiction of colonized subjects but also the narrative techniques used in politically-conscious fiction. Patrick Colm Hogan, for example, has used Lacan's notions of the socially imposed ego to explore the relations between cultural domination and madness in Bessie Head's A Question of Power, and Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub have explored the way that traumatic responses are significant factors in the recovery and narration of Holocaust memories.

My purpose in the following essay is to further this line of research by providing a more detailed analysis of the relationship of trauma to social oppression and by showing how this connection is dramatized in the critiques of colonialism evident in Toni Morrison's and Marguerite Duras's fiction. Although Morrison addresses white American racial dominance in the 1930s and Duras addresses British/French governmental dominance in East Asia during these years, both writers are concerned with the relation between social power and individual psychology and both try to give voice to those who are traumatized by oppressive social and familial forces. In particular I want to focus on Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970) and Duras's The Vice-Consul 1966), because both novels introduce a new element into colonialist discourse: they feature as protagonists young subaltern girls not previously represented in the Western literary tradition. For both writers, traumatized children provide not merely poignant metaphors but also concrete examples of the neglect, exploitation, disempowerment and disavowal of certain communities and even entire cultures (e.g., African American or Third World citizens). In this way, these novels encourage us to see "colonialism" as an on-going problem and in doing so they serve to challenge the abstractness which frequently tends to characterize "postcolonial" theorizing. I will demonstrate particularly how these writers challenge the subordination of women and children by testifying to their experience and by engaging their readers in that experience.

Trauma is an event in an individual's life which is "defined by its intensity, by the subject's incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization" (LaPlanche & Pontalis 465). Kai Erikson emphasizes that trauma can result "from a constellation of life's experiences as well as from a discrete event - from a prolonged exposure to danger as well as from a sudden flash of terror, from a continuing pattern of abuse as well as from a single assault, from a period of attenuation and wearing away as well as from a moment of shock" (457). Prolonged exposure to threats of violence and ongoing abuse are particularly characteristic of oppressed groups and constitute a pernicious form of trauma, because the constant stress and humiliation are associated with being a person of low socioeconomic status (see Brown 124-25).

In The Bluest Eye several of Morrison's characters experience the gradual psychic erosion of which Kai Erikson speaks (457), representing the weakening of whole communities living under an oppressive white cultural dominance. …

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