REALITY AND DISCOURSE IN TONI MORRISON’S TRILOGY: TESTING THE LIMITS
Although there are many reasons for considering Toni Morrison’s three latest novels—Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise—as a trilogy, one of the more interesting is to consider the enigmas respectively underlying each novel: Who is Beloved? Who is the narrator? And who is the white girl? Delv- ing into these questions, which the author purposely leaves unresolved, leads one into Morrison´s own exploration of some of the most important questions raised by postmodernism: What is real, and how do we know it is real? How are the texts of reality constructed by language? And, what is history except narrative? Moreover, the relationship of mem- ory/perception, language/ story-telling, and history/narrative underlies all three of the novels in such a way that each intellectual discussion of these postmodern questions enriches the reading of the other two.
Although Toni Morrison herself projected her fifth, sixth and seventh novels as a trilogy, the publication of the latest work, Paradise (1998), left re- viewers and critics in somewhat of a disarray, either ignoring its relationship with Beloved and Jazz altogether or openly acknowledging that such a rela- tionship was not at all clear. I have argued elsewhere (Tally 1999a) that the trilogy is undergirded by a concern for the relationship of History, Memory and Story, but that in each novel the focus of this concern is altered: Beloved foregrounds the problem of memory, Jazz of the process of storytelling, while Paradise deals with the ambiguities of history. In all, however, their relationship with “Truth,” the author’s overriding theme in all of her work, is tenuous: memory is fickle, story is unreliable, and history is subject to mani- pulation. There are other reasons, however, for considering these three novels as a whole. Perhaps the most obvious is the relationship of their geographical settings and time frames. Beloved is set in rural Ohio, just outside of Cincin- nati, or in flashback to Sweet Home, a plantation in rural Kentucky, or a chain-gang outside of Alfred, Georgia; Ruby in Paradise is a small-town 36 Justine Tally “western” venue in Oklahoma as was Haven, the first settlement of the mi- grating families; whereas “the City” of Jazz is obviously urban New York, even though lyrical regressions in the novel move the characters back to a rural setting in Virginia. Taken together the three represent a wide cross- section of American, or rather, African American social and cultural life. Moreover, while the three novels are historically “grounded” in the 1870s, the focus shifts from the Reconstruction Era of Beloved to the Harlem Re- naissance of Jazz to the Post-Civil Rights Era of the 1970s of Paradise, three crucial moments in a hundred years of African American history. Also no- teworthy is the fact that these three time-frames all take a major war as their backdrop: The Civil War, World War I, and the Viet Nam War. However, it also seems to me to be just as viable to look at these three works as Morri- son’s exploration of borders, and in particular of the impossibility of rigidly imposing the limits that human beings set out as norms: physical, geographi- cal, cultural, psychic and linguistic. Her examination of these boundaries reveals fluidity, transgression and instability–a challenge, in effect, to the established (Anglo) social order. Perhaps more interesting than geographical settings and time frames, however, are the other types of boundaries Morrison explores, highlighted precisely by the unresolved enigmas presented in each book: Who is Belo- ved? Who is the narrator? and Who is the white girl? That the answers are intriguing but unresolved, and ultimately unimportant or even irrelevant, points up the author’s impatience with artificially imposed limitations.
Most of the critical work written about Beloved—and it is immense!— deals with the importance of memory (both collective and personal) as antidote to a lost cultural history that was never recorded, and in particular with the psychic wounds inflicted on individuals by the institution of slavery. As a neo-slave narrative, Beloved is freed from the conventions of the nineteenth century, which dictated just how much of the (female) slave experience could be related; Sethe’ s horror comes alive in the book with chilling precision. Before the arrival of Paul D and then Beloved herself, Sethe spends most of her energy keeping the past at bay, trying intentionally not to remember former events. Yet Sethe’s memory of things past is fickle: she cannot forgive herself for remembering the beautiful sycamores at Sweet Home instead of the “strange fruit” hanging from them; and the most inno- cuous stimuli (chamomile sap on her leg, for example) provoke the memo- ries that she struggles so strenuously to avoid. 1
1 Even as early as The Bluest Eye (1970), her first novel, Morrison commented on the absolute unreliability of memory (cf. pp. 187-188). It is also interesting to note