Printer Friendly

Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison.

In "Unspeakable Things Unspoken," Toni Morrison's 1988 Tanner lecture on human values, Morrison complains of the paucity of critics capable of examining African American literature outside of a response-oriented critical framework.(1) She cites the "silencing" of the "indigenous qualities" of African American writing as a "pernicious" consequence of such Eurocentric criticism. Morrison's concerns in conversation with Trudier Harris's recent critical study of Morrison's fiction offer a fascinating opportunity to consider the silences or spaces left in the wake of response-oriented approaches to African American literature.

Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison presents a provocative if incomplete study of Morrison's mastery of folkloric forms, which Harris suggests blurs the "barrier" between literature and folklore. Harris calls for a reconsideration of accepted definitions of folklore, asking the question "Can a literary text 'create' materials that will subsequently enter the oral tradition and be passed down by word of mouth as original folk creation?" (8). She asserts that Morrison employs traditional European strategies in her fiction, "reconceptualizing" and "reconstructing" them to create new folkloric forms. Harris suggests that reversal is the essence of Morrison's newly created structures.

Harris's study briefly examines the history of folklore in literature and addresses, in chronological order of publication, each of Morrison's novels. She discusses the novels as a series of reversals, inversions, and subversions of European folk forms. According to Harris, The Bluest Eye inverts "The Ugly Duckling"; Sula subverts traditional fairy tale structure; Song of Solomon reverses the Odyssean journey; Tar Baby subverts "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty"; and Beloved" reverses/undermines" the traditional ghost story. While Harris effectively imposes reconstructed European folkloric frameworks on each of the novels, she fails to acknowledge that Morrison uses inversion, subversion, and reversal as devices to decenter Euro-American world views only to replace them with African and African American folkloric paradigms. What becomes primary is the subsequent immersion in African/African American communal roots, not the decentered Euro-American models. By focusing on Eurocentric frameworks and privileging the negative value of reversal as central, Harris neglects those elements endemic to African American folkloric tradition.

Pecola's story in The Bluest Eye is, for Harris, an inversion of the "classic" tales of "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," and "The Ugly Duckling" (18). She argues that Pecola's belief in magic projects her into the realm of the reversed fairy tale or fantasy where "outcomes consistently fall short of expectations" (11). Pecola does not turn into the beautiful swan, nor does she marry the prince. Harris accurately describes The Bluest Eye in terms of a thwarted traditional European fairy tale but fails to acknowledge that Pecola's belief in magic is as much African as European - perhaps more so since African peoples, such as the Yoruba, see the "magical" as more than the deus ex machina it becomes in European fairy tales.(2)

Should Harris have sought African folkloric frameworks within which to examine Pecola's desire for love and approval, she might have turned to the orphan tales of West Africa. Central in the orphan tales are themes of "alienation" and attempts at "integration" which one can recognize as forming the foundation of Pecola's desire for blue eyes (Hatch xx). As cautionary tales, West African orphan stories often end in death, disappearance, or madness. Replete with marvels, magic, and helpful conjurers who alternately reward or thwart protagonists' attempts at self-fulfillment and acceptance in society, orphan tales guarantee no happy endings, but rather serve as lessons in life to the wary reader. When viewed within the framework of an orphan tale, Pecola's isolation and madness, which Morrison describes as "unbeing," becomes, in West African folkloric tradition, an expected outcome, and Pecola then serves as a living symbol of failed reaggregation.

Similarly, the title character of Sula represents those tribal members whose displacement, liminality, and unsuccessful reaggregation provide the substance for Hausa morality tales. Harris subtitles her chapter on Sula "Within and Beyond the African-American Folk Tradition," yet she declines to examine closely the African and African American trickster and morality tales whose models inform Morrison's depiction of Sula. Instead, Harris simply identifies Sula as a reversed trickster figure, arguing that the African American world view precludes the possibility of many female tricksters (72). Further, Harris suggests that closely examining Sula as a female trickster is unnecessary, citing critics who have commented on the character's "masculine" behavior (201). She finds Sula "antithetical" to the feeble heroines of European fairy tales, describing her as a "despicable user who needs rescue from no one" (54). Given sufficient study, the Negro American "Aunt Dicy" and "Aunt Nancy," the West Indian "Sister Nancy," and the untrustworthy women of Hausa trickster and morality tales might encourage Harris and other critics to fully appreciate the view illustrated in African and African American folk tradition that independence, selfishness, and amorality are human, rather than masculine, characteristics.(3) The goal of trickster and morality tales, then, becomes not to identify the antisocial tendencies of either men or women but rather to eradicate those predilections in both genders. Sula, like the men and women in African trickster and morality tales, represents society's displaced individuals and illustrates the horrific consequences of humanity's loss of the ability to feel.

Harris comes closest to examining African American folkloric paradigms fully in her discussions of Song of Solomon and Tar Baby. Her subtitle, "Milkman Dead: An Anti-Classical Hero," suggests another Eurocentric reading; however, Harris only briefly describes Song of Solomon as a reversed Odyssean journey. Her primary concern in addressing Greek mythology is to suggest that classical characters such as Odysseus hold "fairly clearly delineated" moral values while New World African American characters such as Milkman Dead lack "clear-cut moral strictures (87, 88), a debatable premise at best. She goes on to dismiss similarities between Solomon and Icarus and finally forgoes discussions of Greek mythology. Harris instead focuses her discussions of Song of Solomon on the journey north as a traditional theme in African American literature and writes that Morrison "debunks" this myth and "creates another" the novel by reversing Milkman's journey, taking him "back into the territory of his ancestors" (96). Harris accurately assesses the novel's attempt to debunk the myth of Northern success and freedom; however, she erroneously attributes the "creation" of the mythical journey into ancestral territory to Morrison.

West African orphan tales have long illustrated the necessity of maintaining a spiritual relationship with one's ancestors. Tales such as "The Son of Nzambi Mpugu" traditionally tell of young men who encounter numerous difficulties because they do not know their mvila, or the name of their fathers' clans. In these tales, the young men embark on journeys into their ancestors' homeland s in search of their mvila and face a series of tests through which they evolve from positions of "vulnerability and impotence" to ones of "autonomy and strength" (MacGaffey 147).

The challenges faced by the Son of Nzambi are uncannily similar to those met by Milkman. both must physically defend themselves in their ancestral homelands; recognize their fathers, who are mistaken for others; and acknowledge their own potential for violence and destruction.(4)

The major strength of Harris's study is her recognition of and appreciation for Tar Baby's folk roots. Harris identifies Jadine Childs as an antithetical tar baby. She recognizes Jadine's rejection of Afrocentric values in pursuit of all things Eurocentric. Harris's posture, however, is not to reconnect Jadine to her "ancient properties," but rather to "let her go," as her inculcation in Western values is complete and irreversible (127). Harris rounds out her discussion of Tar Baby with an appreciation of Morrison's ability to accept nature's sentience on the Isle des Chevaliers - a world view pervasive in African American folklore.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Harris's work is her failure to acknowledge the world view from which Beloved (and all of the novels) is written, In her discussion of Beloved, Harris asserts that the novel's goal is to challenge Western beliefs about the "absoluteness of good and evil" (171). Harris beautifully explains Morrison's skill in demanding the reader's participation in the novel, forcing us to ask the question "Should Sethe have killed Beloved?" Harris could, however, have enhanced her discussion of Beloved's use of folklore had she recognized the novel's relationship to West African dilemma tales. Aside from their didactic purposes, the goal of dilemma tales is to provoke vigorous discussions, not only challenging participants' moral values but also sharpening their argumentation skills, preparing them for effective dispute management in tribal life.(5) Morrison writes in "Unspeakable Things Unspoken" that she wants the reader "snatched, yanked, thrown" into the novel to create a shared experience among readers and characters. Her goal moves beyond challenging Western moral values to encouraging participatory, reading; she attempts to "link arms with the reader[s]" to help them make the text their own (32).

More importantly, Harris also writes that, in Beloved, Morrison attempts to challenge Western beliefs about ghosts, that "the demise of the body is the end of being in this realm." She suggests that Morrison treats ghosts as "a probable occurrence" and encourages us to "suspend disbelief long enough to see where she takes us with the possibility" (171). Such comments negate the world view out of which Morrison writes, one that accepts ghosts as one accepts breathing. Beloved is firmly rooted in the African world view that death is the threshold to a parallel existence and that spirits continue to exist and interact with living loved ones. Morrison treats ghosts not as "probable" occurrences but as actual occurrences, and in doing so honors the African and African American folkloric traditions to which she is heir.

Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison offers an accurate but incomplete study of Morrison's use of folklore. Harris correctly observes that Morrison inverts and subverts Euro-American literary forms and legitimately views her works against such models. However, Morrison delivers more than inversion and subversion in her writing and thus demands more from critics than the traditional response-oriented approach.

Harris clearly comprehends the stylistic and thematic considerations of European literary forms and, in focusing her study on these issues, opens interesting avenues for exploring Morrison's work. However, by failing to combine her grasp of European/Euro-American contexts with an abiding appreciation of endemic African/African American folkloric traditions, Harris ultimately fails to provide a ground-breaking work which successfully bridges the gap between African American folklore and its literary critics.


(1) The Tanner Lectures on Human Values are appointed lectureships administered by the University of Utah and established at eight universities. Morrison's lecture was presented at the University of Michigan and printed in the Michigan Quarterly Review. (2) Apter provides informative discussions of "ritual power" in Yoruba society, and Mbiti offers an extensive study of the role of magic in the everyday lives of numerous African peoples. (3) For "Aunt Dicy" tales, see Brewer. Courlander addresses "Sister Nancy" and "Aunt Nancy" tales. Moralizing and trickster tales with female protagonists are discussed in Skinner. (4) See MacGaffey 148 for details of Mpungu's adventures. For Milkman Dead's similar challenges, see Song of Solomon 266-68 for Milkman's fight in his homeland, 258 and 333 for his recognition of his forefather, and 337 for his acknowledgment of his violent potential. (5) Bascom explains the motives and goals of West African dilemma tales,

Works Cited

Apter, Andrew. Black Critics & Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. Bascom, William R. African Dilemma Tales. Paris: Mouton, 1975. Brewer, J. Mason. American Negro Folklore. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1968. Courlander, Harold. The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People. Berkeley: U of California P, 1960. Domorwitz, Susan. "The Orphan in Cameroon Folklore and Fiction," Research in African Literature 12 (1981):350-58. Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore. The Novels of Toni Morrison Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991. Hatch, Karen C. Preface. The Black Cloth. By Bernard Binlin Dadie. Trans. Hatch Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987. xiii-xxxvi. MacGaffey, Wyatt. "The Black Loincloth and the Son of Nzambi Mpungu." Forms of Folklore in Africa: Narrative, Poetic, Gnomic, Dramatic Austin: U of Texas P, 1977 144-51. Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. 1969. London: Heinemann, 1988. Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Knopf, 1977 _____ . "Unspeakable Things Unspoken." Michigan Quarterly Review 28.1 (1989) 1-35. Skinner, Neil, ed. Hausa Tales and Traditions. New York: Africana, 1969
COPYRIGHT 1992 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Wilcots, Barbara J.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
Previous Article:Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination.
Next Article:"'... Ah said Ah'd save de text for you'": recontextualizing the sermon to tell (her)story in Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God.'...

Related Articles
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.
Conversations with Toni Morrison.
Toni Morrison.
Toni Morrison: Contemporary Critical Essays.
Toni Morrison's Beloved: A Casebook.
Quiet as it's kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison.
The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison: Modernist Authenticity and Postmodern Blackness.
Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction from the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison. (Reviews).

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters