This month we published Love and Narrative Form in Toni Morrison’s Later Novels by Jean Wyatt, professor of English at Occidental College and author of Risking Difference: Identification, Race, and Community in Contemporary Fiction and Feminism. Wyatt’s new book looks at the literary interplay between the depiction of love and its stylistic expression in Morrison’s later works. Curious and wanting to know more, we had a few questions for Wyatt. Below is our exchange.
What is it about the way Toni Morrison explores love that is so novel?
Each novel presents a different and distinct notion of love. What is consistent is that each novel’s form of love surprises conventional expectations—and perhaps causes a reader to look again at her own fixed beliefs about love and about who deserves the name of lover. In Jazz, for instance, love is a process of continual creation: a lover reinvents his love for another over and over, improvising an expression of love in the moment—as in jazz itself. In Home love is a disruptive force that creates profound changes in subjectivity.
Chronology in Morrison’s work is often choppy, distorted, and disorienting, which also tends to reflect what’s happening—or has happened—to her characters. Can you talk a little about why this is so important to the style and structure in her books?
Disruptions in chronological sequence accomplish several purposes in a Morrison narrative. Often, the discontinuity reflects the disrupted temporality of characters who have been subjected to trauma and hence live in the time of trauma: that is, a traumatizing event may have occurred in the past, but the character experiences the emotions appropriate to the event not when it occurred, but only now, in the present. Through being transported backwards and forwards in time, a reader experiences a simulacrum of the character’s disturbed temporality. Or the disorientation of a reader who does not know when or where she is in time and space may, as in Beloved, create a readerly disorientation that simulates the disorientation of the African captives who were thrown onto slave ships and deprived of all signposts of time and space. Or the unexplained interruption of the present-day narrative by an extended unrelated narrative that takes place several generations earlier, as in Beloved and Jazz, requires a reader to connect the troubled psychic processes of the present-day characters to the traumatic events of African-American history.
You write about how the ethical dialogue between reader and text is central to Morrison’s project of exposing, critiquing, and dismantling systems of oppression (including a reader’s own conscious and unconscious complicity with them). Can you point to a good example that demonstrates how she does this?
Whereas the earlier novels of Morrison often teach the reader about race and gender oppression through the actions or sufferings of the characters—or even by means of the narrator’s direct statements about systems of oppression—in the later novels Morrison teaches by more subtle means. Namely, she draws the reader into an ethical dialogue with the text that exposes the reader’s beliefs about race and gender and love and then provokes the reader to re-examine them. As Morrison often says in interview, she leaves gaps and spaces for the reader to fill in—with the reader’s own opinions, or, as she says in the essay “Home,” with the reader’s own “politics.” I think she is using the empty spaces, enigmas, and puzzles of her text to draw out a reader’s convictions about love, about race, about gender—and then prompt him or her to reexamine them. So many of her novels have a pedagogical purpose—to make you examine your own fixed beliefs about race, gender, and love.
Thus, instead of lecturing the reader directly or indirectly on the existence of race and gender hierarchies of power, Morrison’s later novels provide hooks for the reader’s preconceptions about gender, race, and love, and so expose the reader’s own allegiance to systems of oppression; some twist in narrative perspective then pushes the reader to confront these allegiances. For example, in the novel Love the title seems to refer through most of the novel to the wandering desires of Bill Cosey, the powerful man at the center of the story—so the reader becomes involved, as in a conventional love story, in following the desire of the man. In addition, the seemingly omniscient third-person narrator subtly tilts his account of Bill Cosey and his attendant women toward the man’s interests and perspective while diminishing the value and importance of the various women who circle around him. If the reader takes all this in as it is on the page, she may, once she comes to the surprise ending, become aware of some patriarchal assumptions of her own that have been blinding her to the real damage that Bill Cosey has done to women. The final chapter’s undermining of all the patriarchal norms and values of the first scene of reading pressures the reader to turn around on her own reading practice and to question the scrim of patriarchal preconceptions about men and women and love that have been guiding her reading of the Cosey story. For the surprise ending shows that the title Love does not refer to the man’s amorous desires, as in a conventional love story; rather, “love” is defined as the deep friendship between two eleven-year-old girls. In this way, the participation of the reader in co-creating the narrative leads—perhaps—to a recognition of her own complicity, conscious or unconscious, with reigning discursive and political systems of male dominance.
Can you talk about how you use psychoanalysis in analyzing Morrison’s work and why it’s a useful approach?
I use psychoanalytic concepts not to analyze a character, as psychoanalytic critics often do, but to understand how the narrative structure of a Morrison novel works on a reader. Sometimes Freud and his contemporary interpreters Jacques Lacan and Jean Laplanche present a crucial subjective process in the form of an anecdote or parable. Aligning such a psychoanalytic narrative with the narrative structure of a Morrison novel can illuminate the novel’s narrative strategy and how it affects a reader. In the introduction to Playing in the Dark Morrison writes, “The narrative into which life seems to cast itself surfaces most forcefully in certain kinds of psychoanalysis” (v). So she seems to admire the way that psychoanalysis compresses a meaningful subjective process into a brief anecdote—and perhaps she also recognizes an affinity between her own narrative strategies and the stories that psychoanalysis tells.
Jason Bennett is a publicist and the social media manager at UGA Press.