"Anaconda Love": Parental Enmeshment in Toni Morrison's 'Song of Solomon.'(Family Systems Psychotherapy and Literature/Literary Criticism)

By Storhoff, Gary | Style, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

"Anaconda Love": Parental Enmeshment in Toni Morrison's 'Song of Solomon.'(Family Systems Psychotherapy and Literature/Literary Criticism)


Storhoff, Gary, Style


I think that if people put so much emphasis on family and children, it is because they live in great isolation; they have no friends, no love, no affection, nobody. They are alone; therefore they have children in order to have somebody.

Simone de Beauvoir

Like Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison criticizes parents who enmesh themselves in their children. De Beauvoir condemns the contemporary family as an inadequate solution for "the problems generated by an evil society" (15), but Morrison's view of family relations depicted in her novels is considerably more textured, since she is interested in the etiology and the consequences of enmeshment. By emphasizing the contextual dimensions of her family dramas, the interpersonal family patterns that develop intergenerationally, Morrison extends her sympathies to all her characters, even the most seemingly undeserving ones. Yet the family as interpersonal system has been largely neglected in studies of Morrison, even in Song of Solomon, perhaps her most ambitious multigenerational text.(1)

From the perspective of psychological criticism, the dominant critical discourse has been resolutely Freudian. As Eleanor Branch writes, "There is no question... that Milkman's story is, in part, centered on the resolution of Oedipal issues" (70; see also Rushdy 311-16 and Hirsch 82-92). The psychoanalytic critic's attention is most often directed to Milkman's antagonism toward his father, or his obsessive relationship with his mother, or his apparent inability to love another woman. But too exclusive a focus on "Oedipal issues" leads invariably both to an oversimplification of the complex generational relationships within the family and to a diminution of the reader's sympathies that Morrison attempts to evoke for her characters. If a character's behavior is conceived of in solely intrapsychic terms - of unconscious properties and drives residing exclusively in the self - critical discussion leads to unequivocal moral judgments for or against characters. The clinical tension between the self and the family is intensified by an exclusive focus on either the individual (i.e., intrapsychic clinical theory) or the family (interpsychic theory). The Oedipal Complex as a theoretical orientation, as Knapp suggests, oversimplifies because it does not address the self-in-family (59-69). Without mapping systemic operations of the families depicted in the novel, it is therefore inevitable for the critic (such as Heinze 85), to choose sides in the novel's Family Feud, creating simplified dichotomies of villain and victim, good living and bad living, "Northern" and "Southern" personalities, and materialistic versus "aesthetic" families.

If the critical focus shifts emphasis from the intrapsychic to the interpersonal or social dynamic, we discover that Song of Solomon is a portrait of enmeshment - the suffocating bond parents occasionally create with their children that Morrison calls "anaconda love" (137).(2) Song dramatizes a variety of relational constructs that lead to parental enmeshment. The novel contrasts Macon Dead's and Ruth Foster's families of origin to reveal why they overinvolve themselves in Milkman's life, as they attempt to recapitulate childhood patterns in their own family. Morrison, however, does not privilege Pilate's unconventional, matriarchal, marginalized family unit over Macon and Ruth's conventional, patriarchal, bourgeois nuclear family, as critics often claim. Neither Pilate's nor Macon's family is functional; both sets of parents seek to fuse with their offspring to satisfy their own emotional cravings. Understanding the web of family dysfunctionality increases an appreciation of each character's complexity and of the novel's ambitious thematic design.

I

A "Nice" Place: Lincoln's Heaven as Macon's Lost Governor

The Dead family is organized by brutality and violence, most notably Macon Dead's wife-beating and his abuse of his children. …

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