Toni Morison Analysis | Feminist Postcolonial Approach

Modified: 19th May 2017
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Although Toni Morrison is known for her epic themes, vivid dialogue and richly detailed characters but this essay focuses on her approach towards feminist post colonialism. At first I will give a brief overview of the term “feminist post colonialism” and demonstrate how feminist discourses and post colonialism shared many similarities. Further this essay examines the construction of radicalized and gendered identities in Morrison’s fictional work. I will also explore how these identities are constructed and created in fiction by using a feminist postcolonial approach. Morrison’s text by addressing historical issues critically and in so doing attempting to heal historical wounds; it may also seek to change it. She focuses on the damage that the black women characters suffer through the construction of femininity in a radicalized society. I will extensively focus on Morrison’s novel “Jazz”, “Beloved”, and “The Bluest Eyes” and elaborate how by using different narrative techniques such as characters, plot, setting and imagery to mirror the atrocities done to the Afro American women.

Key words:

Post colonialism, feminism, slavery, African American women, Harlem renaissance, Beloved.

Nobel Prize laureate, Toni Morrison is considered to be one of the most popular and most important authors of the 20th Century. Much of her literary work has actively challenged the stereotypes that have been imposed on African American women throughout history. The characters in her novels are beautifully portrayed in order to allow the reader to explore their journeys and the way in which they are presented. The expression of the black female voice is characteristic of Toni Morrison’s novels. Morrison, through her black female characters portrays the collective experience of black women in America which are shaped by the past experience of slavery and by the patriarchal capitalist American society. Patriarchy in America dates back to the colonial period when male authority and female submission was essential to the subsistence economy and to the social set-up. This society marginalized woman and gave them meager and indirect access to power in the community. Before going into the deep analysis of Morison works from the feminist postcolonial perspective we must consider how both feminism and postcolonial interlinked.

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Feminist discourse and post-colonial theory shares many similarities. Firstly, both discourses are political and concern themselves with the struggle against oppression and injustice. Moreover, both reject the established patriarchal system, which is dominated by the hegemonic white male, and also deny the supposed supremacy of masculine power and authority. There are a significant number of literary texts that are written from both a feminist and post-colonial standpoint. Feminism, in its various forms, is a popular and powerful vantage point for postcolonial thought, and each of these texts presents a number of ways that colonization-and the consequences which last well into postcolonial eras. These texts often share views on the individuality and disparity of the subject, as well as agreeing on shared strategies of resistance against dictatorial external forces.

These texts deal with the ‘double colonization’ of women by both their male counterparts and the dominant colonial powers .Specially, it becomes clear that the female body becomes a thing of commodity, an item to be owned, controlled, or abused for sexual gratification by those in power. Ultimately, as one move both with and through feminist perspectives, it reveals that colonization works by creating a system of interlocking oppressions such as race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. The writings of Toni Morrison are identified with formerly colonized peoples and shaped this web of interlocking oppression in her own way. She wrote with postcolonial perspective and we find the traces such as magical realism, oppression of women, search for home and self-identity, homelessness, rootlessness, language, gender stereotype, classism, racial differences etc. throughout her writing.

“… Who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality” this statement by the Swedish academy is an appropriate description of Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison. Her novel Jazz which was first published in 1992 is set in Harlem of the 1920. It reestablishes an essential aspect of African American history_ the Harlem renaissance. Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual movement that was significant to the emancipation of African American at the beginning of 20th century. Setting her novel at the backdrop of this movement, she regenerates a black historical past and has given life to it. Morrison’s Jazz looks back upon the Harlem Renaissance from a late 20th century perspective and revolves around the stories of African American characters Violet, Joe and Dorcas.

In Jazz, Toni Morrison wants to create a novel that explores the essence of “jazz”. In her introduction to Jazz, Morrison writes, “I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy; its history, its range and its modernity”. Due to this Morrison’s novel not only reflects the evolution of Jazz music but also captures the soul of the jazz movement. Morrison molds the settings, plot lines, characters, and structure of her novel to recreate the rich history, revolutionary spirit, and progressive style of jazz.

Morrison uses the settings in Jazz to reflect the history of the jazz movement. It also addresses its influence on the Harlem Renaissance. In addition, Morrison uses flashbacks to addresses significance settings associated with the Great Migration. Moreover, she uses the settings in the novel to reflect the connection between jazz and African American culture and history. Morrison addresses the spirit of anarchy that was embodied in both the jazz movement and Harlem life. Morrison structures the plot lines, narratives, and characters of Jazz to reflect the elements of musical anarchy, as well as to reflect the violent and anarchical spirit of the jazz moment and life in Harlem during the Renaissance. The chaotic and violent aspect of the lives of African American woman living in Harlem during the Renaissance is reflected in the actions of Violet.

The lawlessness in Jazz is shown when we are confronted with the horrible action of Violet attacking the corpse of her husband’s lover. Further we find out that Joe Trace is the girl’s murderer and are drawn deeper into the chaotic, violent world of Harlem. The actions of both Joe and Violet Trace result from their inability to accept the changing views regarding gender. Likewise, Joe Trace illustrates the possessiveness of African American males and the refusal to accept the new views to gender power. Joe kills Dorcas because she attempts to leave him. Joe is actually tied to old views of sexuality. He links sex with possession. When Dorcas’ rejects him and seeks sexual fulfillment in another, Joe Trace speaks out against her use of gender power. The domestic violence that spread through Harlem during this period resulted from the violent rejection of changing sexual and gender norms. In addition, it reflected the chaotic and anarchical spirit of the jazz age – time when both violence and sensuality were at the forefront of the musical, intellectual, and cultural lives of African American life.

The importance of sexual expression cannot be denied when discussing the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age. Sexual expression became a landmark of jazz music, dance, and culture. Morrison points out the sensuality of jazz music through the sensual relationship between Joe Trace and Dorcas. The relationship between Joe and Dorcas is passionate kind of love. Their relationship revolves around secret sexual encounters and passionate emotions. When Morrison writes “playful fingers examine and caress,” we picture lovers caressing each other and jazz musicians playing their instruments. Morrison uses sensual characters, plot lines, and language to mirror the sensuality of jazz and the boldness of sexual expression associated with the Jazz Age.

In Jazz, Morrison reflects the structure of jazz through her modernist composition. Morrison mimics jazz composition in her creation of the novel. She uses numerous voices, structured plot lines, disconnected sections, bold and poetical language, and sensual plot lines and imagery to elaborate her ideas about that age and the situation prevailing in Harlem at that time. Through her use of various elements of modern fiction styles and structures, Morrison brings to life the boldness, sensuality, tension, and history of jazz. In Jazz, Morrison addresses the importance of African American culture and musical forms on the ideas of the Jazz Age through her characters, settings, plot lines, and modernist structure, in order to mirror the jazz history, spirit, and structure of African America art and thought.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved, offers significant insight into power relations through her female protagonists. The most critical type of colonial oppression experienced by the women of Beloved is physical that is concerned with controlling and taking benefit of the bodies it subjects. Sethe and her family have the direct experience of being owned by white slave holders. Women in this novel often suffer violent and controlling sexual abuse that is either not present or in much less drastic forms for the colonized men. In Beloved, a particularly disturbing form of this oppression happens when Schoolteacher and his boys restrain and violate Sethe.

Morrison’s novel, however, not only shows the female body oppressed, but also struggle for individuality and self-ownership. Denver, when thinking about her family considers the situation a slave’s body is in both materially and under colonial ideology: “Grandma Baby said people look down on her because she had eight children with different men. Colored people and white people both look down on her for that. Slaves not supposed to have pleasurable feelings of their own; their bodies not supposed to be like that, but they have to have as many children as they can to please whoever owned them” (Morrison 246-7). Even in the cruel reality of sexual slavery, women like Baby Suggs are able to reclaim their humanity by simply enjoying sex. One of the glaring ironies, or hypocrisies, of colonialism is that it condemns the colonized for the very things it forces them to do. It condemns the enslaved woman for being sexually assorted, yet at the same time forcers her to have as many children as possible. In Beloved, colonial power over the sexual life of the female body is a horrific reality, but freedom is as close as one’s own physical selfhood.

Slavery’s destruction of identity is another postcolonial theme from feministic point of view in the novel under discussion. Beloved explores the physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation done by slavery. The most dangerous effects of slavery are its negative impact on the former slaves’ senses of self, and the novel contains multiple examples of self-alienation. Paul D, for example, is so alienated from himself that at one point he cannot tell whether the screaming he hears is his own or someone else’s. Slaves were traded as subhuman or as commodities whose worth could be expressed in dollars. Sethe was also treated as a subhuman. She once walked in on schoolteacher giving his pupils a lesson on her “animal characteristics.” She seems to be isolated from herself and filled with self-loathing. Yet her children also have volatile and unstable identities. Denver conflates her identity with Beloved’s, and Beloved feels herself actually beginning to physically disintegrate.

There is a sense of complete loss of self and existence among most of the characters in the novel. Due to the inability to believe in their own existences, both Baby Suggs and Paul D become depressed and tired. Baby Suggs’s fatigue is spiritual, while Paul D’s is emotional. Other slaves-Jackson Till, Aunt Phyllis, and Halle went insane and thus suffered a complete loss of self. Yet Sethe’s act of infanticide illuminates the perverse forces of the institution of slavery. Under slavery, a mother best expresses her love for her children by murdering them and thus protecting them from the more gradual destruction wrought by slavery.

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Where slavery exists, everyone suffers a loss of humanity and compassion. For this reason, Morrison suggests that our nation’s identity, like the novel’s characters, must be healed. Crucially, in Beloved, we learn about the history and legacy of slavery not from schoolteacher’s point of view but rather from Sethe’s, Paul D’s, Stamp Paid’s, and Baby Suggs’s. Morrison writes history with the voices of a people historically denied the power of language, and Beloved recaptures a history that had been lost-either due to willed forgetfulness or to forced silence.

Magical realism as a dominant literary mode in Toni Morrison’s Beloved can be considered as a decolonizing agent in a postcolonial context. Morrison’s narrative in Beloved, takes the advantage of both realism and magic to challenge the authoritative colonialist attitude and so can be alleged as a powerful and efficient method to project the postcolonial experience of African-American ex-slaves in the Unites States. It also provides an alternate point of view to Eurocentric accounts of reality and history to attack the solidity of Eurocentric definitions. It is also a consequence to mirror the hidden and silenced voices of numerous enslaved generations of African-Americans in the history of United States.

Beloved is written from the marginal point of view of African-Americans who do not have social and political power. It is the story of Sethe, an ex-slave, who grieves the fact that she murdered her baby girl in order to save her from a life of slavery. She mourns so much that her grief becomes manifest into a body of a young woman named Beloved, a ghost in the beginning, the same age that Sethe’s dead baby would have been had she lived. The presence of two opposing discursive systems of magic and real in Beloved can reflect the tensions between the colonized and colonizer discourses in a postcolonial context. Applying postcolonial terminology, realism represents the hegemonic discourse of the colonizer while magic refers to the strategy of opposition and resistance used by the colonized. Magical realism can also provide a way to fill in the gaps of cultural representation in a postcolonial context by recovering the fragments and voices of forgotten histories from the colonized point of view. In other words, magical realism may serve as the transformative decolonizing project of imaging alternative histories. The magical realism of Morrison’s text by addressing historical issues critically and in so doing attempting to heal historical wounds, not only can reflect history, it may also seek to change it. Thus, Beloved can be read as a postcolonial historiographic intervention, a strategic re-centering of American history in the lives of the African- Americans who are historically dispossessed.

Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye examines the construction of radicalized and gendered identities in fictional texts, specifically in Afro-American writings. In the novel, Morrison challenges Western standards of beauty and elaborate that the concept of beauty is socially constructed. Morrison also recognizes that if whiteness is used as a standard of beauty or anything else, then the value of blackness is diminished and this novel works to subvert that tendency. In demonstrating pride in being black, this writer does not simply portray positive images of blackness. Instead, she focuses on the damage that the black women characters suffer through the construction of femininity in a racialised society. As Paul C. Taylor argues, “a white dominated culture has racialised beauty, [in] that it has defined beauty per se in terms of white beauty, in terms of the physical features that the people we consider white [people] are more likely to have” (Taylor, 1999, 17, emphasis in original). Therefore, in the process of trying to achieve beauty, as Taylor further argues, “the experience of a black woman … differs from the experiences of … Jewish and Irish women” (Taylor, 1999, 20). This can clearly be seen in the ways that the black women characters in Morrison’s novel suffer in trying to conform to Western standards of beauty.

The Bluest Eye tells the story of an eleven year old black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who wants to have blue eyes, because she sees herself, and is regarded by most of the characters in the novel, as ugly. The standard of beauty that her peers subscribe to is represented by the white child actress, Shirley Temple, who has the desired blue eyes. The novel starts with the description of an ideal white family but in the near-parodic style of a school reading primer, where we meet Dick and Jane and their lovely parents living in a nice and comfortable house with a lovely dog and a cat. The Dick and Jane text functions as “the hegemonizing force of an ideology ([focused by] the supremacy of ‘the bluest eye’) by which a dominant culture

reproduces its hierarchical power structure” (Grewal, 1998, 24). As Donald B. Gibson also demonstrates, the Dick and Jane text implies one of the primary and most insidious ways that the dominant culture exercises its hegemony, through the educational system. It reveals the role of education in both oppressing the victim – and more to the point teaching the victim how to oppress her own black self by internalising the values that dictate standards of beauty (Gibson, 1989, 20).

In contrast to this hegemonic identity, the main black characters are depicted as various and very different characters located in three hierarchical families: first Geraldine’s, then the MacTeers and at the bottom, the Breedloves. The novel shows how these black characters respond to the dominant culture differently and this refutes easy binary social distinctions. Pauline Breedlove, Geraldine, Maureen Peal, and Pecola are black characters who try to conform to an imposed ideal of femininity. They are absorbed and marginalized by the “cultural icons portraying physical beauty: movies, billboards, magazines, books, newspapers, window signs, dolls, and drinking cups” (Gibson, 1989, 20). Pauline Breedlove, for example, learns about physical beauty from the movies. In Morrison’s words,

“along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another – physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion” (Morrison, 1970, 1999, 95).

Consequently, in trying to conform to the ideal of white femininity, the black women characters despise their blackness which in turn leads to self-hatred. They see themselves through the eyes of white people and their worship of white beauty also has disastrous effects on their own community. Geraldine, for example, represses her black characteristics which are not ‘fitted’ to white femininity as she strives “to get rid of the funkiness” (Morrison, 1970, 1999, 64). Being well educated and having adopted Western ways of life, Geraldine draws the line between coloured and black. She deliberately teaches her son the differences between coloured and black: “Coloured people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud” (Morrison, 1970, 1999, 67).

However, not all the black characters admire or are in awe of Western standards of beauty. The novel also shows black people who are aware of the danger of adopting Western standards of beauty. Claudia, the young girl narrator, at the very beginning of the novel, describes herself as indifferent to both white dolls and Shirley Temple. She also realizes that she does not really hate light-skinned Maureen but hates the thing that makes Maureen beautiful. As children, Claudia and her sister Frieda are happy with their difference, their blackness:

“We felt comfortable in our skins, enjoyed the news that our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness” (Morrison, 1970, 1999, 57). This may suggest that Claudia resists the pressure to conform to a white vision of beauty. Therefore, Claudia’s consciousness can also be read as decolonising her mind from colonial oppression as she frees herself from white standards imposed on black people. As Grewal argues, “individuals collude in their own oppression by internalizing [the] dominant culture’s values in the face of great material contradictions” (Grewal, 1998, 21). Quoting Terry Eagleton she also argues that the most difficult thing in emancipation is to free “ourselves from ourselves” (Grewal, 1998, 21). Through Claudia, however, the novel suggests that some are capable of challenging this, but for the victims of such oppression this awareness may come too late.


There are many literary texts and writers who have written from feminist postcolonial view but Toni Morison stand head and shoulder above due to her fictional writing about Afro American community in general and for “black women” in specific. There are many works of Morrison which make her distinguish among others. We find several post-colonial themes in her novels like slavery, homeliness, rootlessness, cultural clash, mimcry, question of identity, language, magic realism, marginlizatin etc. but these all themes has been presented through a female point of view that how these things add suffering in the woman life. The postcolonial vision of black identity and specifically black woman identity is that Morrison attempted to shape in her novels. These novels have primarily focused on how black people have been spiritually and physically victimized throughout the oppressive black history in the United States. She presented the question of identity of black community, that how they were neglected even as a human being. In her novels we see complexity of colonial relations between blacks and whites. When we analyse these fictions it reminds us the work of postcolonial theorists like Frantz Fanon and Homi Bhabha, which particularly integrates the concepts of mimicry, ambivalence, and hybridity. Morrison’s fiction in the frame of postcolonial theory very aptly presents postcolonial black identity.


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