Every Novel Written by Toni Morrison and Its Significance
Toni Morrison’s work was so profound that she became one of the greatest and most-read novelists in history. Her knack for telling fictional stories meshed with real depictions related to race set her apart from other writers. Being unapologetic about the black experience and her refusal to conform to White America’s criticism of her work being too infused with issues that pertain to black life put her ahead of her time. She often traveled on a lane of her own and had no problem standing by herself. Morrison’s books became a staple in Oprah’s Book Club selections. Her legacy will be of truth, boldness, and intellect. After watching her documentary, The Pieces I Am, streaming on Hulu, many viewers who have never read a Morrison original are now woke to her greatness. If you haven’t had the chance to read any of Morrison’s work, here’s a list of everything she’s produced and the mark it left on history.
The Bluest Eye
The Bluest Eye was released in 1970 and kicked off Morrison’s writing career. While working as an editor, Morrison used her staff to type up documents as part of their assignments. What her employees did not know was that they were taking part in putting together what would become one of the greatest novels ever written. The inspiration behind the story came from a conversation she had with a childhood friend who confided in the novelist that she didn’t believe in God because she did not have blue eyes. The setting of the novel is Morrison’s hometown, Lorain, Ohio, and tells the story of a young African-American girl named Pecola who grows up during the years following the Great Depression. The story works in themes of colorism with Pecola having darker skin which regards her as “ugly” to her peers and herself. As a result, she develops an inferiority complex, which fuels her desire for the blue eyes she equates with “whiteness.” When asked about her motivations for writing The Bluest Eye, Morrison said that she wanted to remind readers of “how hurtful racism is” and that people are “apologetic about the fact that their skin [is] so dark.” The novel received minimal critical attention when first published but it was placed on many university reading lists in black-studies departments. Due to its controversial topics of racism, incest, and child molestation, there have been numerous attempts to ban the novel from schools and libraries, even in the present day.
The follow up to The Bluest Eye, Sula was published in 1973. Like her first novel, Sula deals with the life experiences of two black girls but also follows them as they grow into adulthood. The novel was created out of Morrison’s desire to “writ[e] a second novel…about people in a black community not just foregrounded but totally dominant.” Sula was controversial as it was one of the first of its kind to tell the story of a black woman who had an affair with her best friend’s husband. The book also explored lesbianism. Sula was integral to the formation of black feminist literary criticism. In his book Aberrations in Black, scholar Roderick Ferguson uses Sula as an example of Queer of Color Critique in action in that it depicts how Black women orient themselves toward an alternative social relationship. Ferguson argues that Sula is constructed within the imperatives of heteropatriarchal privilege, and represents a desire “to formulate identities and social practices that could withstand and provide alternatives” to current societal limitations.
Song of Solomon
Published in 1977, Song of Solomon follows the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead III, an African-American man living in Michigan, from birth to adulthood. Race and identity were major themes in the book. It explored the relationships between African Americans and between black and white individuals and communities. The main conflict of the novel is Milkman’s search for ways to become independent from his family, which many black readers could relate to. It was initially met with widespread acclaim, earning Morrison the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1978. Like The Bluest Eye, it faced several challenges and bans in schools, specifically high schools, throughout the U.S. since 1993. It was the first book by a black American female writer to be chosen as a main selection of the all-powerful Book of the Month Club, a first since Richard Wright’s 1940 book, Native Son. Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1998, the Radcliffe Publishing Course named Song of Solomon the 25th best English-language novel of the 20th century.
Morrison’s 1981 release was marveled by a 1981 New York Times review that praised the writer for “raising her novel above the social realism that too many black novels and women’s novels are trapped in.” Tar Baby portrays a love affair between Jadine and Son, two Black Americans from opposite sides of the spectrum. Jadine is ac college graduate and fashion model who has been sponsored into wealth and privilege by the Streets, a wealthy white family who employ Jadine’s aunt and uncle as domestic servants. Son is impoverished yet strong-minded. Jadine and Son make a plan to escape to the US in search of better lives.
Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved was published in 1987. Set after the American Civil War. the book is inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, an African American who escaped slavery in Kentucky in January 1856 by crossing the Ohio River to Ohio, a free state. Captured, she killed her child rather than have it taken back into slavery. Morrison discovered Garner’s story when she found a newspaper article published in the American Baptist. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and was a finalist for the 1987 National Book Award. Like other Morrison originals, the novel was banned from educational curriculums. Beloved was adapted into a film in a 1988 film of the same name, starring Oprah Winfrey. A New York Times survey of writers and literary critics ranked Beloved as the best work of American fiction from 1981 to 2006.
Released in 1992, the narrative takes place in Harlem during the 1920s but through the exploration of characters, the novel goes into the mid-19th-century, specifically in the American South. Edna O’Brien wrote in her New York Times review, “It is as if Ms. Morrison, bedazzled by her own virtuosity — a virtuosity that serves her and us and contemporary fiction very well.” It was the second book in a series that she promised to produce following Beloved. Overall, Jazz was well-liked by readers and critics.
Morrison’s 1997 release was her first since her 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. Paradise completed the trilogy of books that Morrison began when she wrote Beloved. The book begins in Oklahoma in 1976 with a fateful assault of someone in town. It tells the story of a community mindful of the relationships between one another and how race and history affects them. Paradise was different from Morrison’s previous novels in the way in which it was structured. The book was broken into nine sections. The first is named “Ruby” after the town the book is centered in. The rest are named for women important to the town. Consistent with her previous works, Paradise addresses the similar themes Morrison became famous for as noted in a review of the book by The New York Times: the loss of innocence, the paralyzing power of ancient memories and the difficulty of accepting loss and change and pain.
The eighth novel by Morrison released in 2003, Love tells of the lives of several women and their relationships to the late Bill Cosey, a charismatic hotel owner. All characters depicted are connected through their affiliation with him. The book was lauded for its unique storytelling and suggested a trend in her literature that divides the plot amongst different time periods as it spanned over 40 years. A Chicago Tribune review praised the author for her work, writing, “Love” is sister to Morrison’s 1973 masterpiece, “Sula,” which also took seriously the potency and centrality of girlhood friendships and their reverberations into and throughout womanhood. Both books also explore the incipient presence of sexuality that can creep, or be forced, into a girl’s consciousness before she is ready to process it.”
Published in 2008, A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery in early America. It tells the story of both a mother and daughter and parallels of life in America. Morrison examines the roots of racism which she traces back to the earliest days of slavery. She does so by providing glimpses of the myriad of religious practices of the time, and showing the relationship between men and women in early America that often ended in female victimization. It made the New York Times Book Review list of “10 Best Books of 2008” and in 2010, it was chosen for the One Book, One Chicago program.
Published in 2012, Home tells the story of Frank Money, a 24-year-old African-American veteran of the Korean War, and his journey home after being discharged from an integrated Army into back into a segregated America. The novel received mixed, but mostly positive, reviews. Publishers Weekly described the novel as “beautiful, brutal, as is Morrison’s perfect prose.” A review in The New York Times says Home proves Morrison’s ability to animate specific stories about the black experience and simultaneously speak to all experience.
God Help The Child
Morrison’s final novel was released in 2015. It was the novelist’s first novel to be set in current times and was a tale about the way the sufferings of childhood can shape, and misshape, the life of the adult. The book revolves around the life of Bride, formerly known by her birth name, Lula Ann Bridewell. Bride is a young black woman in her early twenties who overcame many obstacles in her life, particularly related to moving on from a difficult childhood, to become the successful businesswoman she is today. Upon release, God Help the Child received mixed reviews, with The New York Times praising the author for her “loving attention to the textures and sounds of words.”
The Piece I Am is available for viewing on Hulu.