Writing Resistance: an Understanding of the Narratives of Empowerment in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy

C.L. Shilaja

Sathyabama University

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF


Language is the medium by which one’s psychological experiences, emotions and imaginations can be recreated in the minds of the reader or listener. Through ages language has been the vehicle with which humans have communicated ideas to each other. Language has not only the power to heal and to comfort but also to retrieve the suppressed experiences of an individual from the past.This paper seeks to discuss Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy as a text that explores the common language uncommonly well in using it as a double edged sword. She subverts language in a rather complex play of words employing it as a powerful tool for the survival and continuance of existence for the voiceless. It becomes a means of identity construction as much as a tool of empowerment, for the marginalized to overcome their traumatic experiences.

Key words: Toni Morrison, Suppressed Self, trauma, identity, language

  1. Introduction

Language whether written or spoken does influence in the construction of our thoughts. It is a wide knowledge that the relationship between thoughts and language is interactive; both processes continuously influencing each other in many ways. Literature which has often reflected on society’s experiences and has also fostered ways of thinking. Toni Morrison’s uses novels as tools of retrieval that creates a communal experience for their readers. The language in her novel affects the readers according to their association. Her novels retrieve on individual and collective stories of racial subjugation and cultural disintegration that speak the experience of being on the margins. In much the same way, Rosenblatt (2014) in Impact of Racism on African American Families: Literature as Social Science maintains that “Toni Morrison talked about her emphasis on black culture (including black language)…as she conceptualized it seems to be partly in response to, in defense against and constrained by the racial system” (p.13). To some extent, such a process of reading becomes a means for an emancipative and exploratory experience. Language has not only the power to retrieve but also to heal and to comfort the victims from traumatized experiences. This paper attempts to focus on Morrison use of language as a powerful tool in A Mercy to retrieve the buried self suppressed into oblivion in both the characters and the readers.

Sharing stories and exchanging experience since time immemorial is noted as a prominent source of cultural enrichment. In addition to that the characters in Morrison who share stories with one another it also involve the reader participate in these stories to unravel them. The reader’s participation  along  with  her  protagonists  in  unraveling  the  story  is  greatly encouraged by Morrison. Little by little, the reader has to pick up the information and piece it together and, in doing so, participates in the communal effort of reading the stories.

  1. Language of Protest

One of the ways in which Toni Morrison exerts the power of language in her novels is through unearthing the historical past of Afro-American’s and in rediscovering one’s identity in the world. Morrison(1992) in her essay, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination reiterates that hitherto American narrative has recorded the stories of African Americans as “other,” thus far without integrating the African-American experience into the American master narrative.

Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison’s novels are well known for her theme in revisiting the Afro-American history. The primary thematic concern in most Morrison’s novels is the trauma of slavery and racial prejudices experienced by Afro- Americans. She uses language to retrieve the experience of Afro- American cultural traditions, and sense of identity. Language becomes a means by which the lives of African Americans history and culture are preserved. The Theory of Trauma argues that for its victims, denial of horrible events seems to be the easiest way out.  Judith Herman(1997) in her book on Trauma and Recovery reveals that “The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.” (p.1) It  is  also  due  to  traumatic  suffering  that  they  do  not  speak  of  the occurrences and the ‘self’, itself that is subject to trauma, is kept suppressed.

Therefore, Morrison undertakes narration as a communal act, manipulating the voices of her characters. She does not involve a first person narrator whereas multiple voices combine to weave the story. Like in Beloved, Morrison introduces oral narrative techniques like use of repetition, a shifting narrative voice and re-memory in a rather complex pattern in shaping the narrative structure of the novel.

Instead of the predominant narrative, Morrison makes use of the Call/Response pattern of writing which holds special significance in Afro-American oral tradition. This technique serves not only as a medium through which actual history is being revisited but also as means of accepting and healing traumatic experience. Morrison unlike the traditional writers involves her reader/listener in a collaborative exercise in filling the gaps in conversation to unveil the story.

Her novel A Mercy (Morrison, 2008) not only deals with the black’s history of slavery, depiction of individual’s identity but also contemplates on the reclamation of black self. The complicated narrative structure, masterfully combines with Afro-American oral tradition, pose a challenge alike to the readers and to the literary critics.  The focus of her novel revives on the often taken for granted issues as race and identity of the African Americans’ in America. The language spoken by Morrison’s characters depict on the influence of gender and social, cultural, geographical and historical backgrounds in the language forms they represent.  Readers might perceive that Morrison’s characters do not speak a “standard” form of English.  The characters articulate in a language that deviates from the “standard” form of English to assert their individuality. For example, Floren’s use of a double negative and the characters use of the word ‘ain’t reflects language choices that may not be considered “standard”. Morrison also makes use of orality in written language as an expression of protest to share the experiences of women who suffer varying forms of oppression. As Atkinson (2000) notes, “The language of Morrison’s texts mirrors the oral tradition of Black English. The story being told is defined by the systems of language that are evident in the oral tradition.” (Atkinson 13)

The oral tradition of Black English expects the reader to fill in those gaps with communal knowledge. As Morrison states in an interview to Claudia Tate(1983) , “My writing expects, demands participatory reading, and that I think is what literature is supposed to do. It’s not just about the story, it’s all about involving the reader. The reader supplies the emotions. The reader supplies even the color, some of the sound. My language has to have holes and spaces so the reader can come into it” (Tate 164).  The text plays a vital role in documenting and testifying the unspeakable horrors of slavery through participatory language. Morrison achieves an oral quality within her written work by including characters who tell stories to one another as well as to the reader, favoring the first person’s voice. Through articulation of these stories, the listeners can understand and empathize with them in their grief.  This process also helps to facilitate reconnection with one’s social environment thereby allowing the victim to reclaim the suppressed traumatized self.

Morrison employs writing techniques that register her protest similar to those of slave narratives. In A Mercy, the oral tradition she employs both thematically and structurally retells the history of African Americans through their memories, stories and tales passed to each other that resemble call and response pattern in the oral narrative. The call and response conversations that the characters engage are long, meaningful and intimate verbatim as depicted in the novels through Florens and Lina or Sorrow speaking to her imaginative Twin in A Mercy. In narrating past traumatic experiences these characters undergo a therapeutic effect through the articulation. The protagonists in the novels are portrayed as individuals unable to recover their ‘selves’ as they do not remember the past clearly. Nonetheless, the healing lies in the articulation or in the narration of events. As the suppressed self can be retrieved only when painful memories are retold.  The novel does demonstrate ways in which language not only merely reflects the world, but can also directly affect it…Full Text PDF

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