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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio in 1931. She earned a bachelor's degree from Howard University and a master's in English from Cornell University. She was married in 1957 and had two sons before she was divorced. She has held professorships at several universities, worked as an editor, and written fiction and literary criticism.
Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), describes a poor and abused African-American girl who is raped by her father. Her greatest desire is to have blue eyes. Th novel describes the pain of internalized racism, where blacks internalize all the negative stereotypes of their race. Morrison's second novel, Sula (1974), is about a girl who lives in a small town in Ohio whose community is destroyed by World War I. The novel describes the racism that blacks experience in all aspects of life. Her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977) describes a young man who leaves his home in Michigan to explore his family's past in the South. Morrison received prestigious awards for this novel, which became a best seller upon its release. Tar Baby (1981) was also a best seller. Its heroine, a middle-class African American, encounters a man who is a mythical figure of African American folklore. Morrison has also written short stories and a play.
Morrison’s highest achievement was writing the novel Beloved, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. In 1992, Morrison published the novel Jazz and a book of essays, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. In 1993 she received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
At the present time (1999), she teaches at Princeton University and serves as chairperson of the Schomberg Library's Commission for the Preservation of Black Culture.
In Beloved, Toni Morrison uses several literary techniques that combine modernist and post-modernist innovations. The novel is filled with stream-of-consciousness narration, where the author goes into the mind of her characters and reveals their free association of thought. It attempts to capture the way people think as much as what they think. As a result, the narrative is no always logically ordered or chronological, for a present moment may trigger unrelated thoughts or past memories. A second major technique Morrison employs is shifting points of view. Instead of choosing one main character whose point of view is followed throughout the novel, Morrison shifts from character to character, thereby ensuring that the reader sees the stories of the past from several perspectives. A third technique employed in the novel is the use of magical realism, where fantastic events are presented as if they were real; this is particularly obvious in the way Morrison handles the ghosts in the novel.
Beloved is both historical and gothic fiction, where fact and fable are combined. Morrison bases the central event of the novel on a historical account of a slave woman named Margaret Garner. Like Morrison's character, Sethe, Margaret Garner escaped slavery with her four children and later, when her slaveholder attempted to take them back to slavery, she killed one of the children. Morrison also sets the entire novel in a historical frame, referencing many actual events. There are repeated references to the Middle Passage, a designation for the ocean voyage of slaves from Africa. During the passage, slavers crowded the Africans into the holds of ships and chained them together by twos, at their hands and feet. They had no room for movement and no chance for exercise. Smallpox epidemics were common. Approximately one half of the slaves died during their journey or became permanently debilitated. Many committed suicide by jumping into the sea. The African trade was officially closed in 1808 at which time the domestic trade became highly profitable for European Americans.
Another historical event of importance in the novel is the Fugitive Slave Law, passed in 1850. The law made it a crime to harbor a fugitive slave in a free state and gave slaveholders from Southern states jurisdiction to search for and take slaves back to slave states. It meant that slavery was the law of the land, not just of the slave states. Fugitive slaves who had made it north had to live their lives in fear of recapture. As a result, many of them expatriated to Canada and other countries. The Underground Railroad is another historical reality pictured in the book. The underground began in 1819, even though the term for it was not coined until after 1831. The railroad originated in Ohio, but quickly spread in an effort to help slaves gain freedom. At the beginning, most of the fugitives were men, but later, women and children were finding help through the various routes of the Underground Railroad. Travel usually took place at night, and the stations of refuge were close together, usually ten to fifteen miles apart. Through an organized network, word was quickly passed to the next station that fugitives were on the way. The Railroad was largely funded by Quakers and other abolitionist groups. At one point, 3,200 workers supposedly helped with the Underground Railroad, and approximately 100,000 slaves were helped to freedom.
The novel gives a very realistic picture of slavery. Marriage and the slave family were seldom recognized by the slaveholders. When slaves did marry, they were always threatened with separation according to the economic needs of the slaveholder. Although childbearing was encouraged, for it produced new slaves, it was extremely difficult for slave women. They did not receive medical care and their diet was usually inadequate for prenatal health. The death rate of infants among slaves was extremely high. A common practice in slavery was the use of slave women to nurse the infants of European-American slaveholders. Often one slave woman acted as the nursemaid for several infants on the plantation. If the master's infant was among them, she was forced to give preference to it. Child rearing was also next to impossible.
Slave women were frequently not allowed the opportunity to develop attachment to their children due to separation and excessively long work hours. The use of slave women by slave owners and slave foremen for sex was common practice. Children born of these unions were slaves.
Beloved is an attempt by Morrison to provide an alternate point of view to Eurocentric accounts of history, especially slavery. In her novel, Morrison uses the experience of Sethe and others as witnesses to the cruel and barbaric acts that resulted from the slave system.
NOTE FOR THE READER
Morrison divides her novel into three books. Each book is divided into sections, which she does not number. The chapter numbers found below are used only for convenience. Morrison's choice not to number her chapters should be considered for its own artistic importance.