Memory in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, ‘Jazz’ and ‘Paradise’

Toni Morrison’s treatment of memory is a frequently disturbing revisiting of those aspects of history that have been covered over – for her, black history is not about Conrad’s unspeaking1 but rather a denial of the right to tell her ‘ghastly tale’. Intent as she is on remembering history, she explores old wounds that have since healed over – memories are as hard and livid as scars, and page after page of Morrison’s work aches at the inhumanities undergone by America’s blacks, with the intention of allowing these reopened to finally heal properly.

Memories in Toni Morrison are generally scarring, although they can be visible or invisible. In Beloved, Sethe will forever carry a tree on her back, “A chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves” (Beloved: 16) in memorandum of the nightmare life that she had at Sweet Home, a tree of scars commemorating the beating that made her run away and caused her husbands breakdown. Sethe has obvious scars which Paul D. and Amy Denver can see, and name, and use to make Sethe recount the tale behind them – and yet Sethe herself is closed to their significance. For Sethe, “the picture of the men coming to nurse her was as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard”(Beloved: 6) – the skin around Sethe’s tree of scars is completely numb, an “absence of physical sensation…[signaling]… the emotional dissociation Sethe experiences”2. Not facing up to the memory in the chokecherry tree is the real reason she feels nothing when Paul D. kisses it better; Sethe knows that “Somethings go. Pass on. Somethings just stay” and knows also that “Anything dead coming back to life hurts” (Beloved: 35), factors combining into her belief it is not worth the pain of acknowledging the significance of her tree. Perhaps Paul D. is in a worse position than Sethe: his scars are internal and he has to fight his own battles- he has never spoken of his time under the Schoolteacher in Sweet Home to anyone, and it is only in accidental defense of the actions of Sethe’s husband Halle, who was ‘broken’ by witnessing the assault on his wife, that Paul D. confesses how difficult stoicism can be, admitting “A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside”(Beloved: 69). Paul D. has none of the physical markings of trauma for someone like Sethe to kiss better- even his eyes do not have the usual wildness which Sethe believes follows on from having worn a bit; and so his fight with memory holds the potential for more pain than Sethe. It is not the repression of memory which haunts Sethe, she is plagued by memories3, but Paul D. has to conquer his repression and his tendency to keep his painful remembering “where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut.”(Beloved: 72).

Morrison’s Jazz has a different approach to the scarring of memory- the wound caused by the Violet/Joe/Dorcas love triangle is never allowed to close over by Joe and Violet, causing a different kind of pain for the couple. Instead of trying to forget the causes and consequences of Joe’s murderous and Violet’s mutilating responses to Dorcas, the Trace’s choose to set her picture in a prominent place in their home and ‘visit’ it at regular intervals on the night, using her, as Peterson points out, as a means to “reach back into the more distant past to re-collect the stories that will enable them to comprehend their present situation”4. By disallowing present healing and keeping the ‘Dorcas-wound’ open, Violet forces Joe to deal with the scarring his constant remaking of himself has caused, and to deal with all the debris carried by a man who has made himself new seven times, before reaching a pure resolution of the Dorcas wound also, through the figure of Felice and the reconciliation dance. The most complex and rewarding treatment of memory of all is in Paradise, where we are presented with a very different tree of scars- the family trees Patricia Best draw up point to a collective scarring more dangerous even than Beloved‘s. Where Beloved explored maternal love and Jazz sexual love, Paradise contemplates a devout community where divine love is a potent, if increasingly challenged concept, and where an explosive hatred runs down the genealogical tree of scars until it reaches explosion point. Continue reading “Memory in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, ‘Jazz’ and ‘Paradise’”

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