The Controlling Story: Oral and Written Culture in Toni Morrison's 'Paradise'

By:
Dr. Rebecca Hope Ferguson
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In many of her earlier novels, Morrison takes a critical view of the Western bias toward written definition and authority; instances of this critique in her fiction range from the ludic to the deeply serious, in 'Song of Solomon', 'The Bluest Eye', and 'Beloved'. In contrast to the claims to authenticity of the literate/logocentric culture, Morrison often presents more favourably the multiplicity and openness of oral culture, in the song, spoken narratives, 'call and response' and exhortation, and the enduring life of the mythic narratives informing African-American culture and history. In 'Paradise', however, this apparent dichotomy is significantly destabilised. There are bitter conflicts within the all-black town of Ruby over the content and potentially 'multiple meanings' of a written but incomplete inscription, and these are enmeshed with oral history and the testimony of the illiterate. The self-appointed community historian Patricia Best is confronted with the 'sturdy' but obfuscating power of the town's 'official story' about itself, a mythic and oral but also petrified narrative concerning the quasi-biblical exodus of the 'Old Fathers' who established the community; she also contends with the incompleteness or partial revisions of individual accounts, and the motivations and interests - including the concern for racial 'purity - that inform them.

The nature of her own records - at first a 'history project' based on charts and basic genealogical connections - shifts to become selfconsciously mobile, subjective, digressive and speculative, calling in large measure on anecdote, conjecture and memory as well as 'facts' and documents. 'Absences', 'shadows' and 'spaces' - including significant erasures and blots in the Blackhorse family Bible - call for the exploratory writer's persistence with her own 'footnotes, crevices and questions', demanding 'a keen imagination and a mind uncomfortable with oral histories'. Erasures retain their hidden meanings, while textual exegesis reveals or suggests a good deal about the chosen identity of the foremost patriarch, Zechariah. Although Patricia's text is fictionally destroyed when she burns it, it necessarily remains as part of the text of 'Paradise', and - as a quasi-biblical record of genealogy combined with a form of exegesis or interpretative commentary - it stands in an interrogative relationship to the town's oral 'story' and offers much insight to the reader of the novel as a whole.


Keywords: Written and oral cultures, Testimony and authority, Textual and biblical authority, Exegesis and interpretation, Subjectivity and Objectivity
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies, Knowledge, Ethnicity, Difference, Identity
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Controlling Story, The


Dr. Rebecca Hope Ferguson

Lecturer, Department of English, University of Wales, Lampeter
UK

BA University of Southampton, PhD University of London. Lecturer in English at the University of Wales, Lampeter, since 1979. Fulbright Exchange Professor at University of Massachusetts, Darmouth, USA 1988-89. Author of 'The Unbalanced Mind: Pope and the Rule of Passion' (HarvesterWheatsheaf, 1986), study guide on Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' and 'Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot'(Akadimias, 1986), other articles on Pope and on Toni Morrison, including 'History, Memory and Language in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"'(1991, reprinted by Longman 1998), and '"Pass It On. Can You Hear Me?": Call and Response in "Song of Solomon"'(1993). Currently completing a full-length study of Morrison's novels for Peter Lang.

Ref: H05P0481