Folklore in the Narrative of Toni Morrison's Novels

Wenqing Cheng

 Toni Morrison's lecture upon the acceptance of the Nobel Prize was given in a didactic way of telling tales with the opening phrase: "Once upon a time "(1) The tale is about an old black woman, a daughter of the slaves, who outwitted the young men trying to humiliate her. Apart from this wise old woman, the structure of Morrison's lecture transmited an indispensable element in African American literature, that is to say, the black literary tradition. Two leading critics in the field of African American literature have developed very significant theories. Houston A. Baker, Jr. expounds on black folklore and black literary tradition in his Long Black Song. He applies T. S. Eliot's definition on tradition and historical sense to his exposition, and states that "at the foundation of the black literary tradition stands black folklore."(2) He goes further to emphasize that one must first come to terms with this foundation towards a genuine recognition of black American literature. Animal tales, religious sermons, trickster tales and preacher tales are the most widely known genres of black folklore. Coercively brought to America, being isolated on the basis of race, black Americans were deprived of the rights of education, and their African ties were severed as thoroughly as possible. So the oral tradition became most necessary to carry the values the folk considered significant. And themes, such as the quest for freedom, the nature of the evil and the powerful versus the powerless recur in almost all the folk tales.

 As Baker has theorized, oral tradition influences almost all African American literature. Folk beliefs entered the early literature, such as Frederick Douglass's slave narrative. Charles Waddell Chestnutt's The Conjure Woman takes its structure from a tale telling tradition of the black community. Perhaps Langston Hughes could be considered to be at the peak of early folk influence upon literary creation. He intimated the structure and sentiments in his poetry. Zora Neale Hurston has always been identified with black folk traditions in her works such as Jonah's Gourd Vine and Mule and Man. Henry Louise Gates, Jr. also explores black American literary history. In his analysis of a number of authors, Gates employs Bakthin's dialogic and double-voiced theories. He demonstrates that the African American writing "remains deeply rooted in the tension between standard (English) writing and the non-standard oral tradition of black community."(3) And he defines this double-voicedness in Bakhtin's sense. Bakhtin's theory of dialogic refers to "the idea that all utterances respond to previous utterances and are always addressed to other potential speakers, rather than occurring independently or in isolation.”(4) On the social aspects of language, he also stresses that language always occurs in specific social situations between specific human agents. The employment of the notion of double-voice in the critique of African American literature is significant. Madelyn Jablon delineates as follows: "Bakhtin's emphasis on the social and the verbal helps to highlight two important elements in the African American cultural tradition: community and the spoken word" (Jablon, 11).

 The body of work that Toni Morrison has created is powerfully and closely connected with the oral traditions. In a 1984 interview, she commented as follows:

"It (literature) should try deliberately to make you stand up and make you feel something profoundly in the same way that a black preacher requires his congregation to speak, to join him in the sermon, to behave in a certain way, to stand up and to weep and to cry to expand on the sermon that is being delivered. In the same way that a musician's music is enhanced when there is a response from the audience. Because it is the affective and participatory relationship between the artist or the speaker and the audience that is of primary importance." (5)
 Her awareness of the inseparability of oral traditions from African American writing impels her to incorporate folkloristic materials into her fiction. However, Morrison does not simply transform black speech and story telling into a written form. She recreates it to suit her own purpose. And Trudier Harris in Fiction and Folklore states that Morrison allows no dichotomy between form and substance, theme and character in her employment of black folklore.(6) Concerning African American folk traditions, Madelyn Jablon has also pointed out that the dialogic and polyphonic narrative in Morrison's fiction Tar Baby and Beloved is an evident feature of black music.(7) Moreover Bakhtin's theory of dialogic and double voiced discourse is applicable here, because it can not only identify the sources that inspired the author to create, but also account for the influences of tradition on a specific work.

 This essay will examine the folkloristic influences upon Morrison's fiction in several aspects. In regard to oral traditions and storytelling, the improvisational quality and audience performance are the features which Morrison makes concerted effort to reach in her fiction. Repetition, call and response are among the techniques she employed in her narratives. The present essay will explore the story telling patterns in the fiction and then refer to the dialogic theory for its correlative point with the African American oral tradition. This paper will also discuss African American oral tradition's influences on the characterization in the fiction. From her first novel The Bluest Eye to the recent Beloved, Morrison has created a continuum of typical black American woman figures. Concerning these female figures, the narrative is double-voiced on account of their double identities of being an American and having the black tradition they were born with. The employment of the folklore and folk tales is also a very important aspect in examining the influences of oral traditions on Morrison's fiction as well. Folklore is of great importance so as to be the medium of conveying significant values and the slave history of the African American people. Morrison, however, refuses to simply add it to her fiction as it is. She incorporates it into her works through the revision of it. And the essay will finally illustrate the values in the folklore and Morrison's recreation to consider in a post-colonialist point of view on the acculturation of the minorities in America.

                      Call and Response

 Call and response is of great importance in the structure of Morrison's fiction. In regard to this feature of story telling, Maggie Sale makes a definition in her essay saying, "call and response patterns are related to audience participation in that the text suggests, or calls implicitly asking for a response" (178). One type of this call and response pattern is left unfinished and unclarified, and the reader is invited to respond, or to think it over. Concerning this pattern, Sale emphasizes its oral origin and its nature of repetition and recreation. She delineates as follows: "call and response patterns developed in spirituals and play and work songs, are related to the group or communal nature of art; these patterns both value improvisation and demand that new meanings be created for each particular moment."(8) Although this is the oral tradition between preacher and congregation, musician and audience, Morrison incorporates it into her fiction and restructures it as a written form. The ends of Song of Solomon and Tar Baby provide good examples here, for both of them are inconclusive and need the readers' imagination and interpretation. After his aunt Pilate's death, Milkman confronts Guitar in what may be a fatal end to both of them. The last scene of Milkman confronting Guitar is described this way: "As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it" (341). The ambiguity is that Milkman may continue his great grandfather's flying ability and take Guitar with him, or he may fly off by himself in seeking his own freedom. Interpretation depends on what the reader believes after the novel ends, and how much the reader believes the folklore of flying. Similarly the end of Tar Baby is also left to the judgement of the reader on whether Son will continue to search Jadine or he will join the horseman and merge with the myth of the chevaliers.

 In The Bluest Eye the competing authorial third person narrative and Caudia's narrative shape and tell the community stories, and what is important is that Claudia is ascribed to the role of folk tradition bearer. Moreover from this very first novel a multiple point of voice starts to occupy an important position in the narrative of fiction. The omniscient third person narrative provides knowledge and information that other characters can not supply. Claudia narrates stories of her family and Pecola, while Pauline relates recollections of the love with Cholly. On porches, in living rooms or kitchens gossiping is an inseparable part in the black women's daily life. And Morrison places a significant value in the role of gossip in her fiction. The gossips of the women in Bottom repeatedly add and shape Sula's evilness from different points of view. Through her use of multiple narrators, Morrison seems to be testing the relationship between characters. The text of Beloved employs the same narrative strategy in order to encourage multiple ways of seeing and interpreting, and so gives readers access to difficult material about Sethe's act of infanticide, presenting new ways of conceiving the past and history. Not only the plot moves forward along the narrator recording the perspective of different characters, Morrison sometimes interrupts the third person narrative introducing a second person point of view with questions directly addressed to the reader. For this variation of call and response, Madelyn Jablon presents some evident examples from Tar Baby.(9) At the beginning of chapter 2, Jadine has just awakened from a frightening dream of hats and the memory of the woman in yellow. She, who is the narrated, addresses the reader in the second person narrative to defend her actions. The shifting of narrative voice is as follows:
Two months ago, in Paris, the day she went grocery shopping. One of the happiest days of her life-full of such good weather and such good news.... If you had just been chosen for the cover of Elle, and there were three count three gorgeous and raucous men to telephone you or screech up to your door in Yugoslavian touring cars with Bordeaux Blanc and sandwiches and a little C .... (37)
The oral and folkloristic text in Morrison's fiction exemplifies Bkhtin's theories, since the narrative in the novels does not simply express one point of view as standard "white" writing but also contains evident characteristics of its own, that is, the presence of a tradition of black speech patterns and genres. The employment of oral tradition in the text proves that literary works are in respond to previous literary heritage, and that all literary works are in association with specific social situation between specific human agents. The texts in Morrison's fiction transform the oral form into a written one, and are also double voiced of the competing standard English writing and the black speech. Morrison's fiction, however, transcends these theories of influences in a sense, since Bakhtin's notions of dialogic and double-voicedness are dealing with the relationship of different voices in one text or intertextual relationship. But Morrison's texts require and emphasize readers' participation and establish a new version of author, character and reader relationship.

              Oral Traditions' Influences on Characterization

 Although in interviews and in her articles, Morrison has flatly rejected a black feminist criticism or evaluation, she just as decisively asserts that she writes for black women. She also demonstrates that she writes the kind of book she wants to read, since there was no fiction representing her experience: "this person, this female, this black did not exist center-self."(10) Thus, in the body of her fiction, the typical black character is an evolving presence.

 African American oral traditions also have evident influences on the characterizations in Morrison's fiction. Her novels are deeply concerned with narrative strategies and its implications. The dominant, omniscient third person narrative is replaced by multiple narrators, in other words the fiction employs a multitude of perspectives, and refuses to summarize the narrative into one possible conclusion. In Sula and Beloved, through the employment of multiple voices, the narrated and the knowledge delivered are considered and reconsidered, but repetition and improvisation blur the absolute information.

 The people in the Bottom make Sula into a witch whom they believe to have the power of the evil. Their perspectives, imaginations are capable of telling tales on Sula and of explaining her personality. They believe that she makes Teapot fall off her steps, and that she causes Mr. Finley's death when he chokes on a chicken bone. The most damning evidence comes from a woman named Dessie:
"Well, let me tell it then. Like I say, he was just cuttin' up as usual when Miss Sula Mae walks by on the other side of the road. And quick as that"--she snapped her fingers--"he stopped and cut on over 'cross the road, steppin' over to her like a tall turkey in a short corn. And guess what? He tips his hat" (116).
 If the essential evidence against Sula is her differences with other women, and her evilness of sleeping with her best friend's husband and her driving out her grandmother, then the perspectives and judgments of the people are the decisive force in making her into a demon. Trudier Harris asserts that Toni Morrison has applied the stereotypical conceptions of female body as "other" popular in oral literature in her fiction. Harris also argues that Morrison begins the transformation of woman from a human being into something other than human.(11) But very significant points may be neglected in this assertion. The argument is that Sula, with a college education and experiences in big cities, can not accept the values of the whites, and meanwhile she rejects the life style of the Bottom woman. The reason of her being a witch is not that she has the evil power of a demon, but that she is different and has some strangeness of which the people could not give a clear explanation. And the narrative is double-voiced in which African American traditions collide with the dominant American value. The multiple voiced narrative in Beloved plays a role of telling the story of Sethe's life and presents the slave history in varied versions. The third person narrative provides literate, unspoken memories of the novel's characters. This anonymous narrator shares with the characters in completing the telling of a sequence of events, making the novel into what Gates characterizes as "speakerly text."(12) Sethe's account of the killing of Beloved can provide an evident example of this multitude perspective narrative. First, it was Stamp Paid who had made up his mind to show Paul D the newspaper "with a picture drawing of a woman who favored Sethe"(155). But the strong conviction in Paul D's eyes stopped him from telling the story eighteen years ago, of "a pretty little slave split to the woodshed to kill her children"(158). Then when Sethe herself begins telling the story, the memory of the baby comes to her mind:
"She was crawling already when I got here. One week, less, and the baby who was sitting up and turning over when I put her on the wagon was crawling already”(159).
Sethe's story, however, is partial for it circles without getting to the point. The omniscient narrator here takes the role to complete the story and articulate the unspeakable past for Sethe. In this multitude narrative, Morrison challenges morality, and beliefs of good and evil. Killing a child is absolutely antithetical to the law and morals in our society; Sethe has unquestionably committed the crime. But considering the social circumstances at that time, and the desperate situation when "she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher's hat", our conviction becomes not so firm. Sethe believes that what she has done is right: "I stopped him. I took and put my babies where they'd be safe"(164). Thus readers are forced to participate in the story to consider the moral issues and to make judgment. The "too thick" mother's love must be very confusing, but the dynamite story telling also exposes the truth that being a slave or being in a place like Sweet House is worse than death. Multiple voiced narrative similarly challenges reader's beliefs of good and evil in Sula. Deborah Mcdowell discusses this pattern of narrative: "The novel invokes oppositions of good/evil, virgin/whore, self/other, but moves beyond them, avoiding the false choices they imply and dictate." Sula's life is so controversial that it is hard to judge those problems between self and community, love and friendship.

 The story telling tradition also reflects women's role in the inheritance of African values and African culture. Pilate in Song of Solomon plays the role as a bearer of African traditional culture, as well as the one who passes the heritage to her nephew so that he can reject the materialistic values and recover his African roots. The song and the story telling of Pilate guides Milkman to realize that he is descended from the Flying African who refused to live under the humiliation of slavery. Moreover, Morrison intends to depict Pilate as an thoroughgoing African woman who is little influenced by the materialistic value of America. And once Macon mentions to his son: "if you ever have a doubt we from Africa, look at Pilate"(54).

                    The Revision of Folklore

 In Morrison's novels, there are many structural uses of folklore, such as the Dike and Jane tale that appears repeatedly in The Bluest Eye, the tar baby story, and the flying African story. In Sula, with her creation of the Bottom and her recreation of the "nigger joke," Morrison depicts a mythic and fantastic place; in spite of its verisimilitude, nobody can totally deny its existence. The "nigger joke" about the origin of the Bottom is a revision of African American folklore. In the traditional folklore, the Negro slave is always depicted as the trickster, who has the wit to clear himself up from his wrong doings and avoid a whipping. The employment of the trickster is very popular in African American folklore, for instance, the John tales and the animal tales. Brer Rabbit, well-known trickster in animal tales, symbolizes the Negro slave who rejoiced secretly when the rabbit proves himself smarter than another animal. In regard to the trickster rabbit, Arna Bontemps points out in the introduction of Book of Negro Folklore that his essential characteristic is his ability to get to the better of the bigger and stronger animal. To the slave in his condition the theme of weakness overcoming strength through cunning proved endlessly fascinating. The Negro in Morrison's fiction, however, is no longer the trickster, on the contrary the white man becomes the one who deceives. Trudier Harris refers to the "nigger joke" as "a twist of the tale", and he also mentions that the white man has the power to use the language skill to control or obscure the reality (Harris, 55). The deceived but powerless slave learns the truth only when it is too late. Toni Morrison's revision provides a result that is against the audience's expectation of a tale they are accustomed to. The revision of the folk tale highlights the fact that the black is always destined to become the victimized in the manipulation of the white. Although the blacks managed to survive up in Bottom, they are not going to be left in peace since the whites find the Bottom an ideal place for a golf course, so the blacks are moved away against their own will. Bakhtin asserts that all language responds to the previous utterance, pre-existed meaning and evaluation, but also promotes or seeks to promote further response. Morrison's revision of the folk tale provides an apparent example of the dialogic theory. She incorporates folklore in her fiction to reconnect with antecedents, and she revises or "cooks" to suit her purpose in depiction of the intercultural and intracultural conflicts in contemporary black life.

 The flying African tale incorporated in Song of Solomon is revised in a different sense. The original folklore told by Virginia Hamilton is about the African who escaped slavery by flying back to their home.
Old and young who were called slaves and could fly joined hands. Say like they could ring-sing. They rose on the air. They flew in a flock that was black against the heavenly blue. They went so high. Way above the plantation. Way over the slavery land. Say they flew away to freedom (Hamilton, 166).
But Morrison's revision alters the celebration of flying and the freedom resulted from it. As appeared in the song, Solomon did not fly away with other folks, instead he left twenty-one children and his wife who became almost insane.
   Twenty one children, the last one Jake! / O Solomon don't leave me here / Cotton balls to choke me / O Solomon don't leave me here / Bukra's arms to yoke me / Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone (307).
Happiness of flying thereby leads to sorrows of abandoned wife and the fatherless twenty-one sons. Thus, flying in Morrison's version becomes a "selfish celebration of the freedom of an individual." And when considering Morrison's novels in a continuum, matriarchal families occupy apparently the most important position, for instance, Eva with her daughter and granddaughter, Pilate's family and Sethe's family. Elaine Showarter's remarks can shed light on this problem: "A black American woman poet would be affected by both sexual and racial politics in a combination unique to her case" (254).

 Many scholars have discussed Morrison's use of the tar baby story in her novel, and their focus is on identifying who is the tar baby and who the trickster rabbit. Jablon provides a simple and reasonable explanation, in which he expounds that Jadine is the tar baby, and Son is unquestionably, the trickster rabbit. The open endedness of the novel causes Son either to return to the island and continue his search for Jadine, or to participate in the mythic chevaliers.

 Morrison's choice of the tar baby story and the relationship between Son and Jadine reveals some important changes in her writing. If Son represents the African American in this novel, Jadine must be his opposite who chooses the western culture and value instead of the black heritage. Son and Jadine's love and separation symbolize the collision between these two cultures. Comparatively, Morrison's use of the flying African tale in Song of Solomon suggests passing on African American cultural history to the next generation, for which Pilate even sacrificed her life. The differences in the using of folklore suggest that her purposes of transmitting the folk culture have been altered to her discussion on the interplay between two cultures.

 Rather than simply copy the black speech in her fiction, Morrison employs the technique of oral tradition and revises folklore to suit her purposes. Her novels exemplify Bakthin's theory of double voiced discourse by the coordination of both oral and written language. The conflicts between American mainstream culture and African American cultural heritage are evident in almost all black writings. Black American theorist W.E.B. Du Bois's famous concept of "double-consciousness" is the best example: "One ever feels his twoness-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings" (202). Gates and other scholars have used Bakhtin's theory of double-voiced narrative in the study of African American literature, for which admits dialogic rather than monological relationships of utterances. And the employment of Bakhtin in these postcolonial readings highlights the "double-consciousness," which provides new ways other than "acculturation" or "assimilation" for the blacks and other minorities to become American. These new ways do not lead to the renouncing of American or black traditions, instead they recognize the difference between cultures and accept them. In this regard, Doris Sommer points out that double-consciousness ensures democracy by embracing the particularities of citizens who must be tolerated in their difference from others (176). Morrison's novels remain ambiguous on this problem, but changes in her novels from de-westernization to cultural interplay may suggests the trend towards a new understanding of African American cultural heritage and being an American.


1. Toni Morrison, "Lecture and Speech of Acceptance, Upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature," The Nobel Lecture in Literature (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).
2. Baker notes that in Eliot's sense all works in a body of literature combine to form the tradition of that body and the introduction of anew work modifies the tradition as a whole. And he continues to point out that Eliot's definition can also be applied in the study of black literature in Long Black Song (18-19).
3. Gates argues that African American writing is double-voiced and self-consciously intertextual in its relation to both standard English and a black vernacular discourse. To enter into Western literary culture does not mean one has to sacrifice black tradition (The Signifying Monkey, 131).
4. For the definition of dialogism see Mikhail Bakhtin, "Discourse in the Novel," in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1998). For the discussion of dialogism see Graham Allen's Intertextuality (15-30).
5. Toni Morrison, "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation," in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, ed. Mari Evans (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984), 341.
6. Trudier Harris, Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1991), 7, 8.
7. Madelyn Jablon, Black Metafiction: Self-consciousness in African American Literature (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press), 10, 11.
8. For a discussion on call and response pattern of narrative see Maggie Sale's "Call and Response as Critical Methods: African-American Oral Traditions and Beloved," in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison's Beloved, ed. Barbara H. Solomon (New York: G. K. Hall, 1998).
9. Jablon argues that the abrupt shifts to second person narrative establish a community includes narrator, characters and reader. He discusses this in examples of Magaret's and Jadine's narratives.
10. Sandi Russell, "It's OK to say OK," in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, ed. Nellie Y. Mckay (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988).
11. Harris, 151-164.
12. Gates defines the "speakerly text" as: "The speakerly text is that text in which all other structural elements seem to be devalued, as important as they remain to the telling of the tale " (The Signifying Monkey, 181).

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