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THE CRIME OF INNOCENCE IN TONI MORRISON'S TAR BABY Terry Otten* In Toni Morrison's fictional world no greater crime exists than innocence, for she understands well what the romantics learned long ago, that in a culture run by an oppressive order not to sin perpetuates an immoral justice. In such a world innocence is itself a sign of guilt because it signals a degenerate acquiescence. Not to fall becomes more destructive than to fall. Morrison's novels are peopled with conventionally evil characters, outsiders in a decadent, white-dominated culture, Cains and Liliths in the guise of Cholly Breedlove (The Bluest Eye) or SuIa [SuIa) or Guitar {Song of Solomon) or Son (Tar Baby). Ambiguous figures—on one hand characters of extreme violence and cruelty and, on the other hand, rebels against a morally deficient system—each of these suggest that evil can be redemptive and that goodness can be enslaving. In the language5 of existential theology, those who sin against the flawed order become the agents of experience and so run the risk of freedom. Those who do not are often doomed to moral entropy. Morrison herself has remarked that "evil is as useful as good" and "sometimes good looks like evil; sometimes evil looks like good."1 Yet Morrison's fictions are not simplistic polemics on the viciousness generated by a white society, though to be sure she unreservedly indicts the materialistic white culture and severely judges those blacks who adopt its values. Morrison's work exceeds mere invective. At their most profound level, the novels penetrate the characters themselves, exposing their own capacity for cowardice. Rather than sympathetic victims, they become responsible for their own actions and inactions. In all her major novels the fall from innocence becomes a necessary gesture of freedom and a profound act of self-awareness. It assumes the nature of a potentially tragic action, a paradoxical victory and defeat. In one way or another each work describes a fall wrought with anguish and destructive power but morally superior to a prolonged state of self-ignorance and sterile accommodation. Of course, the theme of the Fall has been part of American literature from the Puritan age. As critics have long suggested, man's depraved spiritual condition has been an essential concern in writers from Na- *Terry Otten is Chairman of the Department of English at Wittenberg University. He is the author of The Deserted Stage: The Search for Dramatic Form in Nineteenth-Century England (1972), After Innocence: Visions of the Fall in Modern Literature (1982), and more than a score of articles in scholarly journals. He is currently working on a study of the relationship between tragedy and serious melodrama in post-Romantic literature. 154Terry Otten thaniel Hawthorne to Herman Melville to Edgar Allen Poe to Henry James, Eugene O'Neill, and James Dickey. Studies such as Robert Spiller 's The Cycle of American Literature (1955), R. W. B. Lewis' The American Adam (1955), Sacvan Bercovitch's The Puritan Origins ofthe American Self (1975) and The American Jeremiad (1978), and, most recently, William Shurr's Rappiccini's Daughters (1981) have explored the persistence and variation of the Fall and related themes in recent as well as early literature. In adapting and modifying the traditional Fall pattern to fit her conception of the black experience in contemporary society, Morrison does not restrict so much as enlarge the scope of her vision, accommodating the particular features of American black culture while maintaining a universal mythic perspective. In particular, her novels mirror the realization R. W. B. Lewis attributes to Henry James, the recognition that Adam "had to fall, had to pass beyond childhood in an encounter with 'Evil,' had to mature by virtue of the destruction of his own egoism."2 Morrison applies this "fortunate fall" idea through characters who must violate the prescribed conditions of a white society, must destroy the false identity ascribed them as blacks in a spurious "garden" to achieve wholeness and self-consciousness. Those co-opted by the system, such as Pauline Breedlove or Helene Wright or Ruth Dead, or those victimized by it, such as Pecóla Breedlove, endure unredeemable defeat. Only those courageous and strong enough...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 153-164
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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