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Toni Morrison's Fiction

Revised and Expanded Edition

Jan Furman

Publication Year: 2014

In this revised introduction to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s novels, Jan Furman extends and updates her critical commentary. New chapters on four novels following the publication of Jazz in 1992 continue Furman’s explorations of Morrison’s themes and narrative strategies. In all Furman surveys ten works that include the trilogy novels, a short story, and a book of criticism to identify Morrison’s recurrent concern with the destructive tensions that define human experience: the clash of gender and authority, the individual and community, race and national identity, culture and authenticity, and the self and other. As Furman demonstrates, Morrison more often than not renders meaning for characters and readers through an unflinching inquiry, if not resolution, of these enduring conflicts. She is not interested in tidy solutions. Enlightened self-love, knowledge, and struggle, even without the promise of salvation, are the moral measure of Morrison’s characters, fiction, and literary imagination. Tracing Morrison’s developing art and her career as a public intellectual, Furman examines the novels in order of publication. She also decodes their collective narrative chronology, which begins in the late seventeenth century and ends in the late twentieth century, as Morrison delineates three hundred years of African American experience. In Furman’s view Morrison tells new and difficult stories of old, familiar histories such as the making of Colonial America and the racing of American society. In the final chapters Furman pays particular attention to form, noting Morrison’s continuing practice of the kind of “deep” novelistic structure that transcends plot and imparts much of a novel’s meaning. Furman demonstrates, through her helpful analyses, how engaging such innovations can be.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press

Series: Understanding Contemporary American Literature

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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Series Editor’s Preface

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pp. ix-x

The Understanding Contemporary American Literature series was founded by the estimable Matthew J. Bruccoli (1931–2008), who envisioned these volumes as guides or companions for students as well as good nonacademic readers, a legacy that will continue as new volumes are developed to fill in gaps among the nearly one hundred series volumes published to date ...

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pp. xi-xii

Since the publication of Toni Morrison’s Fiction in 1996, Morrison has written four novels. These novels, primarily, are the focus of this revised commentary. Discussion of earlier books is largely unchanged, and four new chapters offer readings of the texts and multiple contexts. That is not to suggest that there is not a correspondence between the older and newer books. ...

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Chapter 1 Understanding Toni Morrison

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pp. 1-11

In a writing life that spans more than four decades, Toni Morrison has produced ten novels, a significant book of literary criticism, two plays, two edited essay volumes on sociopolitical themes, a libretto, lyrics for two productions of song cycles performed by the American operatic soprano Jessye Norman and another song collection performed by the American soprano Kathleen Battle. ...

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Chapter 2 Black Girlhood and Black Womanhood: The Bluest Eye and Sula

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pp. 12-30

From the beginning of her writing career Morrison has exercised a keen scrutiny of women’s lives. The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison’s first and second novels, are to varying extents about black girlhood and black womanhood, about women’s connections to their families, to their communities, to the larger social networks outside the community, to men, and to each other. ...

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Chapter 3 Male Consciousness: Song of Solomon

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pp. 31-43

When asked during an interview whether she thinks her novels are evolutionary, Morrison responded that she believes they are: “from a book that focused on a pair of very young black girls . . . to a pair of adult black women, and then to a black man . . . is evolutionary.”1 The black man Morrison speaks about is the subject of her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977). ...

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Chapter 4 Community and Cultural Identity: Tar Baby

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pp. 44-59

Song of Solomon, in part because of its popular appeal, gave dramatic momentum to Morrison’s writing career. By 1981, the year of her fourth book, Tar Baby, that career was soaring. As one reviewer observed, “The promotion of Tar Baby was a stunning show,” choreographed by “the Madison Avenue machinery [which] spun into highest gear.”1 ...

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Chapter 5 Remembering the “Disremembered”: Beloved

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pp. 60-75

When Tar Baby was finished, Morrison expected to stop writing novels. After four successful performances, she was, for a time, without the urgent need to say something that had not been said before. She no longer had a messianic will to tell about people that only she knew, in a way that only she could. ...

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Chapter 6 City Blues: Jazz

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pp. 76-92

Five years after the publication of Beloved, Morrison returned to the image of the dead girl in Van der Zee’s photograph collection, The Harlem Book of the Dead. In Jazz (1992) eighteen-year-old Dorcas Manfred embodies Morrison’s curiosity about a young dying woman who sacrifices herself to save her lover by refusing to name him as her murderer. ...

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Chapter 7 Utopia and Moral Hazard: Paradise

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pp. 93-109

Morrison says that she “was lucky to be working on Paradise when she won the Nobel—to avoid the writer’s block a friend called ‘the Stockholm curse.’”1 She received the Nobel in 1993, and five years later her novel appeared. Paradise, like other Morrison novels, explores the intellectual questions she, as well as, perhaps, the rest of us, contemplates. ...

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Chapter 8 The Language of Love: Love

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pp. 110-125

Morrison’s eighth novel is a love story that does not read like a love story. Instead of idealism, there is a pointed emphasis on the underside of loving: betrayal, violence, deception, and unfulfilled longing. Tenderness and generosity surprise occasionally, but love is in short supply even though there is a pent-up demand. ...

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Chapter 9 The Race[ing] of Slavery: A Mercy

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pp. 126-140

Morrison does not object to A Mercy being called a prequel.1 For her ninth novel, rather than advance a storyline beyond Love’s 1996 setting, she turned the focus back to a historical beginning when seventeenth-century America was still a place of possibility and the social order—on the cusp of a systematic and systemic race code—was what Morrison calls “fluid” and “ad hoc”: ...

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Chapter 10 A Lesson of Manhood: Home

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pp. 141-156

Home, Morrison’s 2012 novel, is a 1950s story. “I wanted to rip the scab off that period,” Morrison says, indicating an era of unhealed wounds. “There’s all this Leave It to Beaver nostalgia,” Morrison continues. “That it was all comfortable and happy and everyone had jobs.”1 Morrison, however, recalls that decade as years of “violent racism. ...

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Chapter 11 Literary and Social Criticism: Playing in the Dark

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pp. 157-164

Since 1974 Morrison’s essays and interviews have comprised a reservoir of ideas about American culture. Over the years she has spoken and written about issues of race, class, and gender and how they shape perception and identity in American society. Of course, in the broadest sense these are also the subjects of her novels. ...

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pp. 165-166

Language as a symbol of culture is especially Morrison’s concern. She is keenly interested in the authentic and authenticating language of public narrative (in literature, politics, society), a point that she makes eloquently in her Nobel Prize lecture to the Swedish Academy. The lecture is an ode to language, the essential conduit of knowledge between individuals and generations. ...


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pp. 167-180

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 181-190


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pp. 191-194

E-ISBN-13: 9781611173673
E-ISBN-10: 1611173671
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611173666

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Understanding Contemporary American Literature

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Subject Headings

  • Morrison, Toni -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Women and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African American women in literature.
  • African Americans in literature.
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