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Family and parenting in Toni Morrison's Love.

Toni Morrison's Love (NY: Alfred Knopf, 2003) like her earlier The Bluest Eye (1970) and Song of Solomon (1976) pays a glowing tribute to the African American family in celebrating it as a vital force that helps create socially sensitive and morally responsible citizenry. To these fictional ends, Morrison explores various human relationships and emotional terrains. The present essay seeks to examine the dense interrelationship between family and the individual in Love through a close reading of the life stories of young Romen and Junior (aka. June).

The evocative description, right at the beginning of the novel, of dinnertime at Gibbons' household, which consists of Sandler, Vida, and their fourteen-year-old grandson Romen, underscores the novel's concern with the nurturing and responsive family. If in divulging the differences between Sandler and Vida "over some old mess" (17) Morrison refuses to romanticize the Gibbons' family, the author also forcefully focuses on the relative rapport and affability between its members.

Such unmistakable filial bonding is further apparent in the care and concern with which Sandler and Vida raise their grandson Romen after their daughter and son-in-law enlist in the army. As ideal surrogate parents, Sandler and Vida not only feel "responsible for Romen" (146) but also see in such responsibility a means to perpetuate the love for their "own daughter" (146). Finding Romen employment in Bill Cosey's household is Sandler's way of ensuring that his grandson stays away from "bad cops, street slaughter, dope death, prison shivs, and friendly fire in white folks' wars" (148). But much to his and Vida's consternation and anguish, Romen comes under the sexual spell of June at the Coseys'.

However, as an exemplary parent figure, Sandler by balancing warmth and affection with directness "minus [...] threat" (151) effectively checks Romen's sexual proclivities and further convinces his grandson that his previous "sniveling one [self] [...] was hipper than one who couldn't help flinging a willing girl [Junior] around an attic" (195). Following his successful internalization of Sandler's parental wisdom, Romen, eventually, retreats from Junior to assist the Cosey women, and this movement clearly signifies his evolution into an emotionally mature and socially sturdy individual. In narrating the story of Gibbons, Morrison highlights both the difficulty of parenting contemporary youth and how family as a social unit continues to have a preponderant role in molding the destiny of individuals.

In a different register though, Morrison employs Junior's narrative to capture the debilitating and corrosive effects of a dysfunctional family. Junior's mother who "did not care a thing" (129) about her and her equally callous soldier father, Ethan Payne Jr. who preferred to "move[d] back to his father's house" (55) unmindful of what happened to others in the family, are both guilty of gross neglect and betrayal of the trust of children in parents (Millard, Kenneth. Contemporary American Fiction. [Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000]: 14). As if this were not enough, her idle teenage uncles whose lives "alternated between brutality and coma" (57) often threatened and abused her. Junior's parents like the Breedloves' in The Bluest Eye fail to foster lasting emotional ties. With no one to care for her, Junior abandons the Settlement and "wander[s] for weeks" (59) in the suburbs all by herself. It is after living through such claustrophobic monotony and nightmarish violence Junior manages to get hired as personal secretary to Heed. Between leaving the Settlement and her stay at the Coseys', Junior helplessly sees her youth waste away in a juvenile home ironically named Correctional.

Further, such traumatic childhood without the shield of parental solicitude drives Junior to surrender to Cosey, in whom she identifies her "Good Man" (157). Thus, even on the first day at Cosey's residence Junior experiences an overwhelming sense of "protect[ion]" (29) and "the kick of being, living, in [...] a real [first] house" (156). Junior's depiction as a victim of specific family pathologies provides a rationale for her repeated manipulative and maneuvering behavior in the novel's present.

Thus, Morrison's Love is a powerful defense of the centrality of family and parental affiliation which make a significant difference to the physical and psychic well-being of children. In analyzing the life stories of Romen and Junior, the novelist rediscovers with insight and clarity the supreme role of family and parents in shaping responsible individuals/ citizens. This conception of family, as Millard observes, is consistently "fundamental to Morrison's vision of a better future for Afro-Americans" (15). In the final analysis, this preoccupation with family and parental love as the source of all human values overridingly attests to Morrison's distinct humanist credentials.

V. Sathyaraj and G. Neelakantan, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur
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Author:Sathyaraj, V.; Neelakantan, G.
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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