Monday, January 4, 2010


by Toni Morrison, 1973.

My reading of Morrison has been sadly limited, nothing sustained since Beloved in high school. Picking this work up, I didn't find it nearly as intense or impressive as Beloved, but it's an impressive novel that reemphasizes Morrison as an Author to Be Known, and made me resolve to read her other books. The work covers the kind of inter-generational type change that can exist in a single lifetime, of moving on and growing up, then coming back to the people you knew before. There's a lot of effective stuff around Sula herself and the way she's received, and Morrison does some very deft work with showing how deep ostracism can work, while still keeping the outer line of civility. Often this type of story--woman comes back to town, is judged inappropriate and shunned--seems to go to one extreme or another. Either the prejudice against her is ultimately that of misunderstanding, not hatred, despite all the barbs, or it's so extreme people are literally spitting at her at every moment. Think of the Scarlet Latter for the latter trope. Here, Morrison paints a very convincing picture of how a community can be quite outerly polite, seemingly accepting, and even view the woman as a necessary part of the institution--while also quite fully hating her and making her miserable, because her behavior is too heterodox for them to tolerate. It's that kind of ambiguity that is so awkward to deal with, and at the same time makes the town understandably human even in their worst.

The characterization is very deep, very effective. Compared with the work in Stardust it's a lot more in depth, compared with Look at the Harlequins it has a bit more substance even in a smaller package. Morrison is also quite effective at the socio-economics of race in a section of the United States (here Ohio), presenting a sort of lived portrayal of how pervasive exploitation and discrimination operates. Even post-Emancipation and even--by inference--post Civil Rights, the novel is set earlier but the underlying forces that hedge in the town of Bottom aren't simply going to go away, and in many cases haven't. That Morrison renders this effectively is one of her accomplishments, the greater one is that she's able to bring such humanity and complex empathy to the situation, showing people as deserving even when they're rendered in unglamorous situations.

There's a lot more worth saying on this work, the basic story, the larger themes, but I feel this is an established and classic enough piece not to need it here. More precisely I feel this is the type of work it would be more beneficial to read litcrit on rather than offer my own musings. Or at least read all of Morrison's other stuff.

This book reminded me of but was better than: Wiesel's The Accident.

This book reminded me of but was worse than: Morrison's Beloved.

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