- Artists and the Art of Living:Order and Disorder in Toni Morrison's Fiction
Studies of Toni Morrison's Fiction often detail ways in which the author's characters, both black and white, cause problems for themselves and others.1 However, besides showing human frailties in her four novels, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981), Morrison also suggests positive ways to help people build happy, creative lives.
One of the author's central themes is that humans, to live meaningfully, must create a balance between the order and disorder in their lives. In practical terms, these opposite forces can take many forms. For [End Page 27] example, all people must decide how to integrate society's need for ordered uniformity with the freedom, the disorder, individuals need to be themselves. Each person must also face life's mutability; in Biblical language, there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to sow and a time to harvest. Throughout creation, plants and animals are formed, live out their lives, and then succumb to the disorder of their own death, and, in some way, humans must come to terms with this natural ebb and flow.
When confronted with decisions about how to deal with such opposites, a number of Morrison's characters choose correctly; they understand the wisdom of neither being swept away by chaos nor succumbing to mistaken beliefs that complete order or control will make them happy. Their decisions create equilibrium, a balance of form and chaos, and, thus, these people are able to fashion coherent, productive lives for themselves. They live comfortably with others while retaining their own individuality. They neither try to constrain nature's cycles nor harness themselves with artificial rules or façades dictated by society. These balanced characters share several additional traits—for example, they are usually altruistic and noncompetitive—but the one characteristic that most clearly separates them from Morrison's other personae is that each engages in some sort of artistic activity.
In fact, throughout her work, Morrison suggests that creative pursuits are a chief means for balancing life's order and disorder. Having such outlets provides Morrison's characters with important lessons, for, in order to create, an artist of any kind needs both form and chaos: works of art, whether sculptures, novels, or songs, can be formed only from nonorder, the mass of clay or the infinite unordered possibilities of word or sound combinations. If the world were completely ordered, creation would be impossible.2 Thus, at least partially because of their imaginative activities, Morrison's balanced characters learn how to create their own lives; they learn how to make living itself an art.
In contrast, Morrison's characters who have no artistic outlets are often unhappy, failures at living, because they cannot reach equilibrium. Having no creative way to contain chaos, they usually err in one of two [End Page 28] ways. Sometimes they maim themselves, other humans, even the earth itself, by trying to eradicate disorder and thus achieve complete control; in their search for absolute form, they try to fit themselves or nature into constricting patterns of behavior or appearance, particularly those endorsed by affluent white Americans. Conversely, other characters who have no creative activities lose all control of themselves. Unable to balance order and disorder, they give in to chaos and thus become unable to live peacefully with other people or, indeed, to function within any of society's forms.
Morrison begins her first novel, The Bluest Eye, with three paragraphs containing identically worded Dick and Jane primer stories. The first version is printed with standard punctuation and spacing. The second is in smaller print with spacing between words but with no punctuation. The third is compressed into tiny print with no punctuation or spaces. As the narrative is squeezed closer together, of course, the printed page loses coherence; the words' ability to convey meaning is damaged. In The Bluest Eye Morrison parallels this destructive constriction with the maiming of people as she describes a black child, Pecola Breedlove, who believes that exchanging her brown eyes for blue ones will...