restricted access Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison (review)
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Reviewed by
Gurleen Grewal. Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1998. xiii + 154 pp.

Both comprehensive and concise, Gurleen Grewal’s elegant reading of Toni Morrison’s first six novels (all but Paradise) makes Grewal’s postcolonial feminist frame seem perfectly suited to Morrison’s work. Grewal sees the novels as acts of cultural decolonization and historical recovery. Morrison writes in the largely individualized, middle-class genre of the novel to recover an under-examined, under-valued, collective African American past. “Morrison makes room for recovery that is at once cognitive and emotional, therapeutic and political. Loss is both historicized and mourned so that it acquires a collective force and a political understanding.” Not only does Morrison’s work recover a dimension of inferiority missing in, for example, the slave narratives, she also insists on the collective nature of that recovered past and of any recovery from that past. Her novels explore the sorrows, struggles, and cultural resources largely forgotten, denied, but never completely left behind as many African Americans have moved from oral to written, from rural to urban, and from working-class to middle-class culture. Her objective [End Page 1042] becomes a recovery of that from which the present has still not recovered. She shows how the interests of African American women, for instance, have sometimes conflicted with those of African American cultural nationalism, which has no room for the title character of Sula but is also seriously misunderstood by the assimilated Jadine Childs of Tar Baby. And in Jazz, Morrison rewrites the history of the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro, and the Jazz Age from the perspective not of its most acclaimed writers or performers but of the more representative amateur rooftop players and the working men and women newly drawn to the cities by hopes both real and false, haunted still by the post-Reconstruction racial violence they fled in the countryside and the small towns.

Grewal’s book is organized by the novels it treats in the order of publication. The Bluest Eye includes “the closed story of complicity, victimization, and subjection” focused on the colonization of Pecola Breedlove’s mind by a white male cultural gaze, but the novel also manages to speak of “change and resistance” by relying “on characters at the margins of the normalizing forces plotted by the text: on Claudia as a yet-to-be-normalized child who is both inside and outside the narrative of subjection, and on the three whores who are outside the dominant and dominating narrative of middle-class norms.” The narrative “reveals the middle-class identity as a product of mobility achieved by its difference from, and indifference to, the working class.” Grewal’s discussion of the West Indian character Soaphead Church underscores the novel’s international postcolonial implications.

The focus on black girlhood in The Bluest Eye shifts to a focus on adolescence and adulthood in Sula, which “overturns the historic erasure of feminist concerns by the politics of nationalism.” The novel’s feminist focus is not uncomplicated, however, distinguishing between the working-class history of Eva, Hannah, and Sula Peace from 1895 to 1940 and the bourgeois ascent of the light-skinned Rochelle, Helene Wright, and Nel Wright Greene. Grewal also delicately explains the generational difference between Eva, who “had her power thrust on her by bitter circumstance” and “bore both a deep pride and a bitter grudge for bearing that burden,” and her granddaughter Sula, who “wants to find and exert the power of her own life, a choice the older generation of women did not have. It is also a choice the Bottom as a collective does [End Page 1043] not have.” Comparisons with Mrs. Dalloway and The Waste Land again add international dimensions.

Song of Solomon is a counter-bildungsroman, attempting “the development of a historical and ethical consciousness in the bourgeois character of Milkman Dead.” The whitened Milkman learns from his aunt Pilate about the blues tradition and the truncated women’s lives his father Macon has left behind. Milkman learns to reconceive the African American motifs of heroism and flight in terms of engagement...