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Spectrality in the Novels of Toni Morrison

Melanie R. Anderson

Publication Year: 2013

At first glance, Beloved would appear to be the only “ghost story” among Toni Morrison’s

nine novels, but as this provocative new study shows, spectral presences and places abound

in the celebrated author’s fiction. Melanie R. Anderson explores how Morrison uses specters

to bring the traumas of African American life to the forefront, highlighting histories and

experiences, both cultural and personal, that society at large too frequently ignores.

Working against the background of magical realism, while simultaneously expanding

notions of the supernatural within American and African American writing, Morrison

peoples her novels with what Anderson identifies as two distinctive types of ghosts: spectral

figures and social ghosts. Deconstructing Western binaries, Morrison uses the spectral to

indicate power through its transcendence of corporality, temporality, and explication, and she

employs the ghostly as a metaphor of erasure for living characters who are marginalized and

haunt the edges of their communities. The interaction of these social ghosts with the spectral

presences functions as a transformative healing process that draws the marginalized figure

out of the shadows and creates links across ruptures between generations and between past

and present, life and death. This book examines how these relationships become increasingly

more prominent in the novelist’s canon—from their beginnings in The Bluest Eye and Sula, to their flowering in the trilogy that comprises Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise, and onward into A Mercy.

An important contribution to the understanding of one of America’s premier fiction

writers, Spectrality in the Novels of Toni Morrison demonstrates how the Nobel laureate’s

powerful and challenging works give presence to the invisible, voice to the previously

silenced, and agency to the oppressed outsiders who are refused a space in which to narrate

their stories.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Cover

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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quotes

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pp. 2-7

Contents

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pp. vii-9

Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: “What Does it Mean to Follow a Ghost” in Toni Morrison’s Fiction?

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pp. 1-18

Among Toni Morrison’s nine novels, Beloved (1987) is the obvious ghost story since one of the integral characters of the novel is a revenant, but supernatural events and ghosts are present throughout her canon. Labeling Morrison’s other works “ghost stories” may initially seem to be an exaggeration, but in reading the trilogy (1987–97), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Love (2003), and A Mercy (2008) as “ghost stories,” I do not mean to suggest that they are preoccupied with conventional fireside stories of haunted houses or apparitions. Once Morrison’s novels are read as haunted texts, peopled by ghosts and “ghostly”...

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1. Spectral Beginnings in The Bluest Eye and Sula

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pp. 19-35

As a figure of transition, mediation, and connection, the specter enters into a relationship with the social ghosts of the text, and this relationship catalyzes a transformative healing and seals the ruptures that have resulted from oppression and silence. If Morrison’s canon is connected through this thread of haunting history uncovered, emphasized, and re-created by the interaction between social ghosts and spectral figures, then this process must start at the beginning. While the two types of ghostly figures that I have identified are manifested most powerfully from Song of Solomon onward, it is possible to discern the seeds of...

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2. “Why Not Ghosts As Well?” : The Presence of the Spectral in Song of Solomon and Tar Baby

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pp. 37-64

Before we see Beloved in her ultimate and fully developed spectrality bridging life and death and confusing the area betwixt and between, we are introduced to the spectral in Song of Solomon (1977) through the character of Pilate and her interactions with her nephew, Milkman, and in Tar Baby (1981), where the spectral interrupts the lives of the characters, hinting at the loss of heritage and disavowal of the past that cause them to be marginalized. Many critics have noted the similarities between these two novels, even suggesting that Tar Baby might be a sequel to or revision of the previous book.1 There are indeed many likenesses between the two works...

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3. “What Would Be on the Other Side?” : History as a Spectral Bridge in Beloved and Paradise

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pp. 65-100

In a 1983 interview, Toni Morrison told Nellie McKay: “I am very happy to hear that my books haunt. That is what I work very hard for, and for me it is an achievement when they haunt readers” (146). Like her previous novels Song of Solomon and Tar Baby, Morrison’s fifth and seventh books, Beloved (1987) and Paradise (1997), are set in the area between “all the ‘two’s’ one likes” (Derrida xviii). Unlike her previous works, these bookends to her trilogy together form the apogee of her project to conjure African American history through a spectral guide...

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4. “The Specter as Possibility”: Ghostly Narrators in Jazz and Love

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pp. 101-130

In Morrison’s fiction, the spectral defies compartmentalization and definition, and it can serve as a spot for the eruption of various stories and perspectives that were previously ignored. Her sixth and eighth novels, Jazz (1992) and Love (2003), are not exceptions to this supernatural rule as it operates in Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, and Paradise. The difference is that in these two books the specter is the narrator. This use of a spectral narrator moves beyond the “unreliable” tendencies of first-person narrative voices. In Morrison’s previous work, the importance of storytelling as a device for ordering the characters’ impressions and foregrounding their experiences against the backdrop of historical episodes is clear. This...

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5. “Slave. Free. I Last”: Spectral Returns in A Mercy

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pp. 131-144

In A Mercy, Morrison’s ninth novel (published in 2008, five years after Love), the author goes back before the events of Beloved to what she calls a “pre-racial” time during the colonial period of the seventeenth century when the slippery borders between slavery and indentured servitude led to a slave population of blacks and whites (Houpt R1). The plot involves a small “family” that has formed at the homestead of Jacob Vaark, an Anglo-Dutch trader. While Vaark dabbles in many kinds of trade, he strictly avoids buying and selling human life. The individuals he does purchase to work his farm are all rescued from much worse situations, and his antipathy for owning other people trickles down to his slaves, who feel like...

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Conclusion

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pp. 145-148

In her novels, Toni Morrison uses the metaphor of the ghost to assert the presence of African American history and to re-create the personal experiences of those who lived this history. This information is often ignored by hierarchical and binary ways of thinking. The spectral figure shows the power of the ghostly and the supernatural to subvert dualistic and oppressive relationships, and the figure finds ways for socially ghosted characters, who are silenced and lost in the interstices, to endure traumatic experiences resulting from slavery, dispossession, racial violence, class conflicts, and oppression. These specters form conduits of communication across generations, races, classes, genders, life and death, and past and present. In Song of Solomon and Tar Baby, the ghosted characters are torn by issues of class...

Notes

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pp. 149-158

Works Cited

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pp. 159-170

Index

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pp. 171-173


E-ISBN-13: 9781572339804
E-ISBN-10: 1572339802
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572338586
Print-ISBN-10: 157233858X

Page Count: 204
Publication Year: 2013

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Subject Headings

  • Morrison, Toni -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Ghosts in literature.
  • Future life in literature.
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