[Access article in PDF]
Quiet As It's Kept:
Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison
J. Brooks Bouson. Quiet As It's Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Albany: State U of New York P, 2000. x + 277 pp.
J. Brooks Bouson's study of Toni Morrison's novels displays both the strengths and the limitations of thematic criticism grounded in a single theoretical approach. On the one hand, Bouson's application of psychoanalytic theories of shaming and trauma--particularly as they have been developed in the work of Léon Wurmser, Donald Nathanson, and Judith Lewis Herman--to racial issues in Morrison's work yields many fresh insights, especially for those novels that are primarily engaged in analyzing racial shame (TheBluest Eye and Tar Baby, for example). On the other hand, Bouson's belief that painful "race matters remain largely unspoken in the critical conversation that surrounds Morrison's works" seems to have led her to the over-compensatory claim that all of Morrison's fictional work, from The Bluest Eye to Paradise, is "driven" by racial shame and trauma, a claim that serves her poorly in those novels in which problems of shame are interleaved, and complicated, by additional concerns. [End Page 1033]
Bouson has chosen to organize her readings chronologically through Morrison's oeuvre, an approach that foregrounds her successes but also emphasizes the repetitive nature of her interpretative approach. Her chapter on The Bluest Eye is the finest in the book; here we have the sort of felicitous matching of text and theory that makes for strong analysis. Morrison's own narrative of the genesis of the novel makes clear that racial shame and self-loathing, both products of traumatic encounters with US racism, lie at the heart of the book; they are certainly the driving forces in the narratives of Pecola, Cholly, and Pauline Breedlove. Bouson's use of Wurmser's concept of shame as an "affect of contempt directed against the self" seems exactly the way to describe not only Pecola's desire for blue eyes but also, in a less direct but no less compelling fashion, Cholly's rape of his daughter.
It is also in this chapter that Bouson describes the set of narrative moves she claims are common to all of Morrison's novels, a description that organizes the approach to the novels in each subsequent chapter. First, according to Bouson, Morrison's novels set up a "shame-blame" drama, in which shamed characters blame themselves for their plight (and thus, Bouson argues, court racial stereotyping). Next, Morrison induces "shame conflicts" that impel many readers to "take sides" (and so readers may feel, for instance, that they have to choose between Son and Jadine, or between Sula and Nel). Finally, Morrison sets all of this at a critical distance through "aesthetic mastery"--that is, through descriptive language and narrative patterning that draw attention to their literariness and are meant to "aesthetically repair" "deep and abiding racial wounds." While this scheme is not without merit (anyone who has taught Tar Baby or Sula knows it is exactly this tendency to "take sides" that the novels interrogate), it loses credibility in proportion to the frequency of its appearance, and readers may feel that Bouson is cutting the novels to fit the theory.
Ultimately, Bouson's decision to represent inter- and intra- "racial shame" as the single most important feature of Morrison's work represents the kind of all-or-nothing critical gamble that risks losing as many adherents as it gains. To claim, for example, that the water stain on the Macon family dining room table in Song of Solomon represents only (or even primarily) "the family's hidden racial shame" of "blackness" is to offer the sort of reductive reading of tragic blackness that Morrison [End Page 1034] seems inclined to complicate, if not resist. Class and gender issues appear in Bouson's analysis, but largely as...