- A Demonic Parody: Toni Morrison’s A Mercy
One of Toni Morrison’s feminist critics describes her novel Paradise as a sermon, writing that the Nobel laureate “sermonizes on the dangers of a violent manhood that depends on the demonization of women and the exclusion of difference for validation” (Keller 47). But an appropriate rejoinder is that all of Morrison’s novels are literary sermons. Recall, for example, her interview with Charles Ruas, in which she confesses that “the Bible wasn’t part of my reading; it was part of my life” (81), providing a prism through which readers can observe her descriptions of the (im)moral consequences of unchecked power and human behavior. As novelist, Morrison treats the historical black experience in novels from The Bluest Eye to Beloved, Paradise, and Love as an often emotionally challenging and socially disfiguring bodily enterprise, largely based on the slavery of race and color, but also on class and gender politics. She mirrors and highlights, in her appropriation of parody, history’s attempt to shape the lives of black Americans, a shaping and devaluation that her powerful characters, particularly her maternal heroines, resist while nurturing others.
The first black American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Morrison is one of the most celebrated American and African American women writers in the world. In presenting the Nobel Prize in Literature [End Page 1] to Morrison in 1993, the Swedish Academy acknowledged the “visionary force” of her oeuvre and her remarkable fictional, but fact-based representation of the historical black experience (“Inscription”). Adopting the essential narrative device of parody, Morrison in A Mercy, a prequel to Beloved, sermonizes the early colonial experience in Virginia and Maryland. In her “visionary force” of excavating the past like an archaeologist, recreating and teaching the oft-neglected reality of the minority American experience, Morrison relies on the ancient genre of parody, a derivative of the Greek term parodia, which found its earliest expression in Aristotle’s Poetics.
In reconstructing and deconstructing American history as it pertains to the lives of the subjugated Other, Morrison lifts parody from the “dust-bins” of literary history, and the genre re-emerges, according to Robert Phiddian, as the “secret sharer of deconstruction” (679). In the aftermath of postmodernism, parody and deconstruction become weapons with which writers like Morrison can excavate and recreate history, and then question the legitimacy of established “truths” of the master discourse on race and class, as we shall see in A Mercy. Therefore, Morrison appropriates parody in her deconstruction and reconstruction of American history to query and restore truth to the narrative by “reducing the lie [of the master discourse] to an absurdity,” as Bakhtin remarks on the function of parody (309). In parody’s active engagement “in inter-textuality”—that is, in its play with and on an accepted master tale—it assumes a parasitic relationship with its host genre (Dentith 189). Critic Gerard Gennette refers to the two elements in this relationship as the “hypotext” or original model and the parodic “hypertext,” which imitates the primary source (qtd in Dentith 16). Thus, parody “feeds” on its own invited host, deconstructing and illuminating the host’s hypocrisies. For Morrison, these unfortunate inconsistencies, as revealed in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, provide the founding ideals, ironically, of American democracy, liberty, and equality.
Parody is often politically motivated, questioning accepted and conservative borders of authority, debunking artificial boundaries, and unmasking false constructions of race, class, and gender identity, as that which occurs in A Mercy. By presenting and then refuting established truths of the master discourse, parody keeps the memory of the experience alive, for it is constantly before us to recall, to remember, so that we will not repeat history and its trauma. Parody also becomes sharply polemical. Simon Dentith avers, “Parody is the favoured mode for performing these acts of debunking, carrying out just that polemical function [End Page 2] which . . . defines it; parody therefore enters into the very texture of the novel . . . establishing its claims for a more realistic apprehension of human life” (55–56). Since Morrison has stated in interviews that her novels must be political...