- Horrific Love in Toni Morrison's Fiction
In his essay on "Critical Indeterminacies" in Toni Morrison's novels, Anthony C. Hilfer aptly warns critics against "unified critical analysis" of Morrison's work. The tendency to reduce her dialectical patterns by "critical and ideological closure," he concludes, leads to "moralistic" interpretations that "miss the wild and dangerous aspects" of her writing or to an overinsistence on "the wild and radical" that equally diminishes the complexity and fullness of her art. Her novels are "both-and," he concludes, not "either-or" (91-95).1 In characterization as well as narrative structure, Morrison defies all attempts to resolve the duality and moral uncertainty of character or action. She has called her fictional characters "the combination of virtue and flaw, of good intentions gone awry, of wickedness cleansed and people made whole again. If you judge them all by the best that they have done, they are wonderful. If you judge them by the worst that they have done, they are terrible" ("An Interview," McKay 423).2
Morrison works the gray areas, avoiding the comfortable absolutism and resolution that can satisfy or reassure most readers. There is an underlying strain of cruelty and violence that can erupt in her most sympathetic and victimized characters and compel them to inflict frightful destruction on seemingly innocent people. They seem capable at once of enormous criminality and unmitigated love; [End Page 651] they demand "both" condemnation "and" admiration, both respect and fear. So it is that Cholly Breedlove rapes his daughter Pecola in a gesture of love and rage; Eva Peace burns to death her own son in an ironic act of compassion; Guitar Bains justifies killing innocent whites as an expression of his perverted love; Margaret Street brutally abuses the child she adores; Sethe murders her "beloved" daughter; and Joe Trace shoots his lover Dorcas. These various manifestations of horrific love—and of course there are other examples that might be added—illustrate Morrison's belief that even the most noble and innocent assertion of will can generate the most heinous criminality, that violence can surface in concert with kindness, that good and evil coexist and reflect each other, that even love itself can produce the most devastating destructive power. "Love is always passing us by, always passing us by," she commented in a May 1977 interview, ". . . and always the ego interferes: some pride, some sort of arrogance . . . and it just slips through our fingers." And she goes on to acknowledge that all her fiction, ultimately, is about love: "All about love . . . people do all sorts of things, under its guise. The violence is a distortion of what, perhaps, we want to do." "With the best intentions in the world we can do enormous harm, enormous harm," she remarks, "lovers and mothers and fathers and sisters . . ." ("The Seams Can't Show" 60). The theme of distorted love gives evidence of Hilfer's claim that critical interpretations of Morrison's work must take into account her "indeterminacy," her consciousness of the moral ambiguity and inherent irresoluteness of the human condition.
The horrific love in Morrison's novels is multifaceted—psychological, social and historical. It is for the most part the manifestation of a culture corrupted in its racial past and in its present. It is the creation of forces so brutal that they can transform conventional "signifiers" of cruelty and evil into gestures of extraordinary love—incestuous rape, infanticide, and murder articulate not the immorality condemned by the dominant culture, but the inverse. They become acts "signifyin(g)" a profound if often convoluted love.3
As Hilfer notes, Morrison's vision stems from the African-American tradition out of which she writes, but it also reflects her affinity with the moral vision of ancient tragedy. A classics minor in college, she contends that "something important" happens at the ends of her stories even if they lack the solution many readers seek. She observes that "some knowledge is there—the Greek knowledge—what is the epiphany in Greek tragedy. . . . It can't be undone. And in that sense it is Greek in the sense that the best you can hope [End Page 652] for is...