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  • Paradise Lost: Reconciling the Semiotic and Symbolic in Toni Morrison’s Love
  • Stephanie Li (bio)

In the foreword to the 2005 edition of Love, Toni Morrison recalls a playmate from her childhood, a girl with “eyes full of distance” who she later learns was sexually abused by her father despite the full knowledge of her mother (ix). Morrison describes how her memory of the girl’s adult sadness evolved into an exploration of characters possessed by the “clear sense of having no one on whom one can safely rely” (xi). The three main female characters of Love, Heed, Christine, and Junior, are such women, women without “fathering and mothering” who consequently “give themselves over to … the man who looms even larger in their imagination than in their lives” (xii). Morrison concludes by identifying what saved her from such damaging adulation of patriarchal norms:

It was not just a feisty mother, a supportive father, and insatiable reading habits that kept me later on from giving myself over to a life of girlish submission—some form of smiling or frowning female resignation. It was the comfort of learning from those countering sources that there were weapons—other kinds of baseball bats: defiance, exit, knowledge; not solitude, but other people; not silence, but speech.


As speech rescues Morrison, arming her with powers of resistance and joy, silence is what destroys the childhood love between Heed the Night Johnson and Christine Cosey. They embrace “girlish submission” as the only way to gain the affection and money of Bill Cosey, Christine’s grandfather and Heed’s husband.

However, silence is not what first defines their deep, transgressive love for one another. Rather, silence reigns only after their friendship, a type of self-enclosed Eden, is destroyed by Cosey through his sexualization of both girls. By juxtaposing Heed and Christine’s private “idagay” language against the patriarchal law of the father, the novel demonstrates how Julia Kristeva’s notion of the semiotic—a state of undifferentiated plenitude based in the fusion of female bodies—is ruptured by violent entrance into [End Page 27] the symbolic’s oppressive hierarchy. Love undermines the Lacanian conflation between language and the law of the father by presenting idagay, a female-identified language developed by the two girls, as a discourse independent of the constraints of patriarchy. However, idagay must not be understood as a singular good or a simplistic escape from the alienating discourse of the symbolic. Though free of the divisive effects of patriarchy, idagay reflects the totalizing and ultimately isolating unity that characterizes the friendship between Heed and Christine. Their relationship fails to allow for individual subjectivity, that is, for the dynamic and generative possibilities of human difference. Morrison’s exploration of how semiotic impulses can be mapped onto language demonstrates the need for a mode of communication that moves beyond the engrained dichotomies and antagonisms of gender associated with the symbolic’s power to name and categorize. Such liberating language is described by what L, the novel’s ambiguous narrator, calls humming. Like L’s own unarticulated name, this discourse is one of indirection and possibility. Just as “L” contains multiple meanings—love, loss, lesbian, language, loneliness, to name a few—humming revels in the ambivalent experience of longing rather than in definitive acts of fulfillment and closure. Humming represents Morrison’s response to the constraints of the patriarchal signifier; it is a language that reorders semiotic drives into expressive form, embracing the plenitude of desire.

The Semiotic Paradise of Heed and Christine

Much of Toni Morrison’s fiction examines human attempts to capture and create paradise. In Jazz, Morrison portrays the beguiling magnetism of New York City in the 1920s as it welcomes migrants from the South with new jobs, new freedoms, and a future of limitless possibilities. Aboard a train bound for the city, Joe and Violet Trace literally dance into a world where “History is over, you all, and everything’s ahead at last” (Jazz 7). Full of promise and freedoms only waiting to be discovered, “the City makes people think they can do what they want and get away with it” (8). However, these fantasies ultimately erode...


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pp. 27-47
Launched on MUSE
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