This sample Toni Morrison Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
Toni Morrison has established herself as a significant American novelist. She has produced nine extraordinary novels since 1970 and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Each of her novels has been critically acclaimed, and despite Morrison’s creation of idiosyncratic characters and bizarre circumstances in her novels, the messages she provides have universal appeal.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Surviving the Great Depression
Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, the second of four children raised in a family that had endured economic and social adversity. Morrison’s maternal grandparents, Ardelia and John Solomon Willis, were sharecroppers in Greenville, Alabama, having lost their land at the turn of the century. In 1912 her grandparents decided to head north to escape the hopeless debt of sharecropping and the fear of racism, and eventually settled in Lorain.
While growing up during the Great Depression, Morrison witnessed the struggles of her father, George Wofford, who had migrated from Georgia, and her mother, Ramah Willis Wofford, to support their family. George Wofford often worked many jobs at a time—a shipyard welder, car washer, steel-mill welder, and construction worker. Her parents’ willingness to take on hard and sometimes demeaning work was coupled with a distinct unwillingness to relinquish their own sense of value and humanity. Morrison’s father was meticulous in his work, writing his name in the side of the ship whenever he welded a perfect seam. Her mother at one point wrote a letter of protest to President Franklin D. Roosevelt when her family received unfit government-sponsored flour.
Though deprived of monetary resources in a hostile world, Morrison’s family and community held a remarkable wealth of music, storytelling, love of the supernatural, and black language, which all became major influences on Morrison and her writings. Morrison’s mother often sang at home and for the church choir. Though her family could not read music, they could reproduce the music they heard. Other forms of support included storytelling that involved every member of the family. After adults told stories, they invited the children to do the same. Morrison considered this part as important, if not more important, than listening to the stories. Though there were few books in her house, Morrison learned early the importance of reading. Her grandfather was a figure of awe and respect to her because, with the help of his sister, he had taught himself to read. In first grade, Morrison found that she was not just the only black student in her class, but she was also the only student who already knew how to read. Morrison was encouraged to read at home and did so voraciously, including a wide range of world literature.
After high school Morrison attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., majoring in English and minoring in the classics; her dream was to be a teacher. While at Howard she acquired the nickname Toni. She joined the Howard University Players, thus getting an opportunity to travel in the South, to experience its history and geography, and to relive her grandparents’ harrowing flight from poverty and racism. Morrison graduated from Howard in 1953 and then enrolled in graduate school at Cornell University.
Morrison received her master’s degree from Cornell in 1955. She wrote her thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. She then taught English at Texas Southern University in Houston for two years, beginning a teaching career that she proudly continues to this day. In 1957 Morrison, then an English instructor at Howard, began to meet and influence young men who became prominent in the 1960s, among them Amiri Baraka, Andrew Young, and Claude Brown. She even taught the activist Stokely Carmichael in one of her classes.
Marriage and Divorce
Two major events marked her period of teaching at Howard. She began to write, and she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect. During her marriage Morrison joined a writer’s group at Howard, where she composed a story that grew into her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), about a little black girl who longs for blue eyes. With her writing career only in its infancy, her marriage ended around 1964, leaving Morrison with two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. After her divorce Morrison lived with her parents in Lorain for a year and a half and then accepted an editorial position with a textbook subsidiary at Random House in Syracuse, New York. Her mother expressed dismay that Morrison was a single parent without other family there—a difficult, isolated condition for anyone. For Morrison, writing helped fill the void of family, husband, and, to a great extent, self.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Morrison’s career as a writer paralleled her increasing prominence in the publishing world and as one of the cultural elite of the black community. She left Syracuse to become a senior editor at Random House in New York City. There, she established herself as a mentor to such aspiring African American women writers as Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and Angela Davis. The idea for Morrison’s second novel, Sula (1973), came months after she finished The Bluest Eye.
Hitting Her Stride
Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), expands beyond the time and place of her first two books, moving from North to South and from present to past in an endeavor to uncover and rediscover the personal history of an African American family. In Song of Solomon, Morrison for the first time uses a male protagonist, Milkman, to undergo a rite of passage—not from innocence to experience but from one history to another, one culture to another, and one value system to another. He undergoes a ritual immersion into the South and his own history in an attempt to understand himself and his culture.
Perhaps Morrison’s most acclaimed novel is the much-lauded Beloved (1987). Morrison delayed the writing of this novel because she anticipated the pain of recovery and confrontation that writing the book would bring. While her novels since have been strong and praised, Beloved continues to haunt American literature. In his Nobel Prize speech, William Faulkner noted that a writer’s only true subject is ”the human heart in conflict with itself.” Morrison, who wrote a master’s thesis on Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, seems to agree, for at the core of all her novels is a penetrating view of the unyielding, heartbreaking dilemmas that torment people of all races.
Works in Literary Context
Morrison’s rich history of family and community filters directly into her novels, a progression of works that begins by addressing the black family and then broadens to the black community, regions of the United States, foreign lands and alien cultures, history, and reality. In her novels Morrison celebrates the rich heritage and language of the black community and the values it struggles to maintain in a predominantly white society whose own value system, she finds, has lost its collective way. Morrison’s thematic consistency is refigured in each novel; each novel is an original revoicing of her previous concerns with the black community and family. She experiments almost relentlessly with language, with narrative forms, and with fictive reality in an endeavor to redefine the African American experience not as marginal or peripheral, but as American.
Although her works are firmly grounded in the often-grim realities of the black experience, Morrison often includes elements of the supernatural to reflect and amplify the mythic qualities of her characters. In Song of Solomon, Morrison indulges in myth, fantasy, and the supernatural as a form of transcendence for her African American characters. While she dabbles in the supernatural in both The Bluest Eye and Sula, in Song of Solomon she further blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. Her character Pilate can talk to her dead father, Ruth’s watermark does grow each day, and Solomon and Milkman can fly. By casually mingling the real and the bizarre, Morrison negotiates the chasm between reality and fantasy so that the impossible becomes the inevitable.
In Tar Baby (1981) Morrison again relies on myth, ghosts, and evil, intensifying their mystical qualities by placing them in the isolated setting of a Caribbean island. Morrison invokes the supernatural as a way to fend off a reality in which whites are set against blacks, women against men, culture against primitivism, and civilization against nature. Morrison challenges these dualities by creating an atmosphere in which the island itself is sentient, competing myths on the island proliferate, and several characters experience psychic occurrences.
Despite the presence of a ghost, supernatural events are not the dominant theme in Beloved. Here, Morrison explores the importance of mother-child relationships, the power of memory, the importance of community, and the way in which slavery deprived black parents of child-rearing responsibilities and privileges. Through Beloved’s memories, Morrison suggests that the girl is not a supernatural being at all, but rather a young person who has suffered the pains of being brought from Africa to America on a slave ship. Slavery itself, though, has not been the most painful part of Beloved’s life. The girl is haunted by the image of her African mother jumping into the ocean, a suicidal act committed, no doubt, to escape the living hell of the slave ship.
When asked by an interviewer for Newsweek whether whites could adequately respond to Beloved, Morrison replied that she had been misunderstood if people think that she writes only for black readers. Continuing, she explained, ”When I write, I don’t try to translate for white readers . . . Dostoyevsky wrote for a Russian audience, but we’re able to read him. If I’m specific, and I don’t over-explain, then anybody can overhear me.”
Works in Critical Context
After Beloved was published, many African American writers participated in a tribute to Morrison in the New York Times Book Review that states in part: ”We find your life work ever building to a monument of vision and discovery and trust.” The writers argue that Morrison ”has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: she has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.” Morrison did indeed go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved.
Song of Solomon
Song of Solomon was both a popular and critical success, establishing Morrison as one of America’s most important novelists. The novel became a paperback best seller, with 570,000 copies in print in 1979. Morrison’s success and recognition led to her 1980 appointment by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on the Arts.
Reviews of Song of Solomon were generally enthusiastic. Linda Kuehl in the Saturday Review calls Morrison a ”romantic revolutionary” whose new novel is ”the vision of an original, eccentric, inventive imagination.” Several reviewers remarked on Morrison’s growth as a writer. In his front-page review for the New York Times Book Review, Reynolds Price states that in Song of Solomon ”the depths of the younger work are still evident, but now they thrust outward, into wider fields.” Angela Wigan in Time observes that Song of Solomon is ”an artistic vision that encompasses both a private and a national heritage.”
Reviewers, sensing that they were witnessing a literary phenomenon, lavished Beloved with praise. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly calls it a milestone in the chronicling of the black experience in America, while Merle Rubin in the Christian Science Monitor calls it ”a stunning book and lasting achievement [that] transforms the sorrows of history into the luminous truth of art.” Walter Clemons in Newsweek declares, ”I think we have a masterpiece on our hands here.” Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times writes, ”There is a contemporaneous quality to time past and time present as well as a sense that the lines between reality and fiction, truth and memory, have become inextricably blurred.”
- Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
- Furman, Jan. Toni Morrison’s Fiction. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1996.
- McKay, Nellie Y., ed. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.
- Taylor-Guthrie, Danille. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
- ”Black Writers in Praise of Toni Morrison.” New York Times Book Review (January 24, 1988).
- Blake, Susan L. ”Folklore and Community in Songof Solomon.” MELUS 7 (Fall 1980): 77-82.
- Clemons, Walter. Review of Beloved. Newsweek (September 28, 1987).
- Kakutani, Michiko. Review of Beloved. New York Times (September 2, 1987).
- Kuehl, Linda. Review of Song of Solomon. Saturday Review (September 17, 1977).
- Price, Reynolds. Review of Song of Solomon. New York Times Book Review (September 11, 1977).
- Reed, Harry. ”Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon and Black Cultural Nationalism.” Centennial Review 32 (Winter 1988): 50-64.
- Rubin, Merle. Review of Beloved. Christian Science Monitor (October 5, 1987).
- Strouse, Jean. ”Toni Morrison’s Black Magic.” Newsweek 97, March 30, 1981, pp. 52-57.
- Wigan, Angela. Review of Song of Solomon. Time, September 12, 1977.
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.