A Song of the People
Song had always been an aspect of life and literature. Dating back to the first epics of Homer, music has been understood as an important achievement. Since then, song has not only become a plot point in some stories, for example the tale of Orpheus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but also the medium through which those stories were told. For centuries, music has been evolving through introductions of new instruments or new voices and in turn, song has impacted the people and cultures in a dramatic way. Over time, it has turned into a force that narrates and dictates social status and relationships. This power can be seen in the way the motif of song changes from one great literary work to another. Music in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man exposes the gaps in social classes, while in Toni Morrison’s Paradise it is used as a social catalyst. This motif exemplifies the change of the century in terms of ideology as it moved from modernism to post-modernism.
Song is a very important aspect of culture, especially in the twentieth century where it arguably saw the most change with the introduction of numerous new genres of music. However, the early 1900s were very limited in this regard. Not only were there a few genres, they were extremely exclusive. The prime example of this would be opera. This from of music was, and in some cases still is, reserved for the elite members of society (Gras and Vliet). Another musical variety, one that is very prominent in James Joyce’s novel, is religious music, which is exclusive by nature. Finally, folk music is reserved for the everyday folk (Ellis). This brief description of early twentieth century song serves as the foundation of the overall theme of music and how it is represented in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. To elaborate, the world in the novel is shaped by these forms of music. They draw the borders that separate the different social classes into their own spheres. They promote a type of isolation by exposing the gaps in the social pyramid. Stephen Dedalus is a perfect example of this theme in motion because throughout the text he embodies all of these genres and transcends the social pyramid, all the while drifting further and further away. The artist’s, or the modernist’s, perspective is to isolate one’s self from society and the motif of music is what allows Stephen to achieve this seclusion.
We are introduced to Stephen Dedalus in the beginning of the story, and music is also first introduced as a motif. In these early stages of the book, Stephen is a young child and therefore his immersion into the world of music is still basic. It can best be compared to the aforementioned folk genre because it is in his child-like vernacular and it lacks any form and structure commonly attributed to more refined and traditional forms of music (Ellis). In continuation, his first foray into this world consists of him repeating Dante’s words as if they were lyrics:
Pull out his eyes, Apologise, Apologise, Pull out his eyes. Apologise, Pull out his eyes, Pull out his eyes, Apologise. (Joyce, 6)
He turns to this type of music because he does not know any better. Stephen is a child so he cannot have any profound ideas or opinions about the world around him, except those he hears from his family. But it is not only Stephen; his family embodies the spirit of folk music because they fit the mold; they are a middle class family with strong opinions about the government (Ellis). That in and of itself isolates them from other members of society. They can still maintain relationships with others but it has to be with others like themselves. It would be nearly impossible to imagine people in the upper class elite engaging with this type of music. From the beginning, through song, we are made aware of a gap in the social structure.
As Stephen grows up he begins to acknowledge the paths he can take in his life. One of these roads is a religious one, which he contemplates during the retreat. This section of the book introduces another genre of music described above: Christian music. At several instances throughout the text, especially during the retreat, there is mention of the holy mother “whose beauty is not like earthly beauty, dangerous to look upon, but like the morning star which is its emblem, bright and musical” (Joyce, 102). There are several more instances where this phrase is repeated, both in mass and in prayer. Later, the religious undertones in music get more potent. At one point he is enchanted and enlightened by some heavenly power, which invoked within him a song of deeply divine influences (Joyce, 191-192). By definition, religious music only appeals to certain sects of people. The novel reduces it even further by focusing specifically on Christian music. By embracing this exclusive world, Stephen distances himself from other social spheres. At this point it is difficult to even tell whether or not he still harbors any feelings for the joyful, simple styling of folk music. Nevertheless, this section of the novel highlights a growing problem: mainly, it exposes yet another division between social sectors without providing—or even striving for—a remedy. By diving even deeper into this religious realm, Stephen begins to question whether anything he did was right. As a matter of fact, the previously referenced song starts “[are] you not weary of ardent ways,” (Joyce, 191), which, given the context, implies that Dedalus is regretting his past sexual relations. He becomes even more distant from his surroundings by attempting to devote his life to religion as the reader become consistently more aware of the gaps in the social pyramid.
As the novel progresses, Stephen becomes enveloped in his own world. He studies and evolves his ideology all the while growing more distant from the outside world. This brings into focus the last genre of music mentioned above: opera. Stephen gets his first taste of this play as a teen when he is actually performing in a theater in front of a large crowd. First, he mentions how the audience is being “ushered in…with ceremony” (Joyce, 64). Then he goes on describe the location of the theater as being secluded from the rest of the school. This goes to show how upscale the setting was. Unlike the previously discussed folk songs and religious gospels, this form of music is enclosed in its own space and it excludes unwanted guests, mainly those who cant afford it. Stephen’s interest with theater and opera grows as the story progresses, illustrated by the numerous instances of Latin lyrics and singing. As his incursion into this world continues the reader is made increasingly aware of the isolation these town-hall performances inspire. After all, when one thinks of this genre of music one can’t help but imagine old and aristocratic, white people shoveling into a beautifully decorated amphitheater as it separates them from the working classes (Gras and Vliet). To further understand why this exclusion exists one must familiarize himself with the hard and careful work necessary to create a successful show (Britannica). But what separates opera from the other forms of music described is that the former is extremely profound, which is where the similarities to Stephen arise. Both set themselves apart from their respective contemporaries because they embody great ideas and that is where the isolation originates. Only by examining opera music is the reader made aware that there is a division between upper and lower classes. And only by examining music is the reader made aware of Stephen’s true aspirations as it is ultimately the sweet singing of a young woman, in perfect Latin, that inspires him to seclude himself into his studies. At the end of the novel, Stephen sinks further into isolation, to the point where his relationships exist only in memory.
The theme of isolation was influenced greatly by Joyce’s interest in the modernist philosophy: an ideology, which tries to reinvent the world through art, by distancing itself from history (Malone). It is this premise that ultimately creates, or at least exposes, the dissonance in the social structure. Furthermore, through its mission, this attitude gave a new meaning to music. There were new conventions assigned to song in order to set it apart from its predecessors. In turn, it took on a new meaning and a greater power, which is represented in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and explored in this essay. These factors are what allow James Joyce to strive for a binarism between the artist and the rabble.
It is not until post-modernism enters the philosophical arena that we get another perspective on this matter. After all, it is the mission of this ideology to deconstruct signifiers, or words that hold significant power in society, and reduce them to their face value (Barrett). In continuation, Joyce’s assertion that there is a difference between the artist and the rabble is put under scrutiny. All in all, in post-modern literature ideas fostered in the early twentieth century are questioned and the issues faced by the modernists are put under in a new light. For example, music, which acts to illustrate social gaps in Joyce’s novel, takes on a whole new role in Toni Morrison’s Paradise where it is lost in the background as a simple social catalyst. To elaborate, the motif does not exist in the spotlight, it is reduced to a minor plot point but it retains its potency for the very reason that it is not highly regarded. It is commonplace and this subtlety allows it complete its function of unity, of a second, universal language.
By the time Paradise was published, at the end of the twentieth century, music had become a very different animal from what it was a hundred years prior. In such a small span what was a handful of genres turned into an entire anthology of sound. Various new genres penetrated the public sphere—way too many to describe in the same detail as those in the opening of this essay. Furthermore, the alteration in style ushered in an alteration in substance. The way people treated music had transformed since the time of Joyce and in turn, the way music affected people changed accordingly.
One thing to note about song is that in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it had a certain structure; it followed a certain set of conventions to mirror those of the modernist ideal (Malone). It was more concerned with form rather than emotion. On the other hand, in Paradise, emotion is the only thing that exists. Toni Morrison makes that very clear through the character of Piedade, the woman “who sang but never said a word” (Morrison, 264). Her songs symbolize a certain freedom that we are accustomed to today. She could express what she felt through music rather than talking because music is a universal language. Truly, you don’t need to know the lyrics to a song most of the time to discern whether it’s happy or sad. Usually one can tell the difference through the tone or mood. But the character goes deeper than that. Piedade serves another important function, as Connie notes:
Her voice made proud women weep in the streets. Coins fell from the fingers of artists and policemen, and the country’s greatest chefs begged us to eat their food. Piedade had songs that could still a wave, make it pause in its curl listening to language it had not heard since the sea opened. Shepherds with colored birds on their shoulders came down from mountains to remember their lives in her songs. Travelers refused to board homebound ships while she sang. (Morrison, 284-285)
What this shows is that music incited unity amongst all kinds of people, something that we didn’t encounter in the previous novel. Piedade’s song does not distinguish between audiences and people do not discriminate against her. It is truly a universal language. Unlike Stephen, neither Connie’s mother nor anyone who listens to her songs wishes to escape society. On the contrary, they are embracing it. And Piedade is not an anomaly. Freedom is a very important thing to the people of Ruby, whose leaders have strived for liberty for years. Music gives them the power, not just to the people of the all-black Oklahoma town but also to the African-Americans all through the country. Just like in the case of Piedade, they are imbued with a universal language that gives them a place and an identity in the world (Floyd Jr.). Along those lines, the boundaries that seemed to separate people in the times of Joyce are vanishing in Ruby. A prime example of this would be in the context of religious music. Once a highly exclusive practice is now being penetrated by the outside, as the narrator notes “The Oven whose every brick had heard live chords praising His name was now subject to radio music, record music—music already dead when it filtered through a black wire trailing from Anna’s store to the Oven like a snake” (Morrison, 111). No longer is there a division among these lines. Song is constantly being deconstructed by the post-modern ideal, in order to bring it to a level accessible to anybody. There is no meditation or focus on any one genre of music within the text; they are all somehow represented. And they all act as this language that defines the struggle or the joy of the people.
How does this happen? What allows music at this time to have such a universal effect on society? It is a phenomenon, which was not readily available during Joyce’s time: the radio (Willis). We are introduced to this device as a staple of the Cadillac and something very important for its occupants. Mavis notes:
Now the radio was across a field, down one road, then another. Off. In the space where its sound ought to be was . . . nothing. Just an absence, which she did not think she could occupy properly without the framing bliss of the radio. (Morrison, 42)
This passage echoes ideals of post-modernism. Mavis feels a void because through this ideology all words become empty. Empty in order to create a feeling of acceptance and non-discrimination. In this case, the radio becomes a very powerful object. One of its most important prospects is its omnipresence. It doesn’t only exist within the Cadillac. And not only is it found in most other cars of the era, it’s a common feature of most homes. Furthermore, it was even portable, as Divine recalls “[He]… bought her a battery-powered radio she adored” (Morrison, 147). But it goes deeper than that. Radio wasn’t just available everywhere, it was available to everybody. Even at its most basic level, it was a topic of conversation, another character that would lend itself to the discussion if need be. It would report news, give advice, give sermons and most importantly play all kinds of music. With range capable of international travel it truly brought the world together with neither judgment nor prejudice.
Perhaps the greatest impact music had on society in the latter half of the twentieth century is absent from Paradise, although admittedly it would not make much sense given the context of the novel. To put it simply, song gave people the power to transcend the social structure, regardless of origin. Rags-to-riches stories are fairly common in the world of music, especially when you once again consider the plight of African-Americans (Hess). Overall, the innovative genres that arose during this period gave people of various talents, from all walks of life a chance to be, as Andy Warhol put it “world-famous for 15 minutes.” Through the Internet and widespread media, art is becoming more commonplace and universal, and that is the great thing about it. It cannot be overstated how important it is that art, song, becomes available to everyone, everywhere. It is one of the greatest unifying languages available to us. It acts to dismantle the social pyramid in the effort to remove the borders that separate people. Music plays the role, as noted in the introduction of the essay, as a social catalyst within Toni Morrison’s Paradise and the world it imitates.
Song has left a magnificent impression on civilization during its lifetime. It has been a medium for us to let out our innermost feelings. It has been a tool to tell stories. It has been a way to spread a message. And in recent history it has been an instrument of unity. Music has broken free from the modernist ideals and conventions of isolation, illustrated in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, towards more accepting and temperate notions of harmony in Paradise. And as the world heads toward an uncertain future we can always rely on music to provide a commonality to all individuals from all nations as a universal language, a song of the people.
Barrett, S. (2011). Postmodernism’s Brief Moment in History. Anthropologica, 53(2), 323-327. https://login.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/login?qurl=http://search.proquest.com%2fdocview%2f921024315
Ellis, I. (2010). Resistance and relief: the wit and woes of early twentieth century folk and country music. International Journal of Humor Research, 23(2), 161-178. https://login.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/login?qurl=http://go.galegroup.com%2fps%2fi.do%3faction%3dinterpret%26id%3dGALE%257CA230483410%26v%3d2.1%26u%3dcuny_baruch%26it%3dr%26p%3dAONE%26sw%3dw%26authCount%3d1
Floyd, S. (2008). Black Music and Writing Black Music History: American Music and Narrative Strategies. Black Music Research Journal, 28(1), 111-121. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25433796
Gras, H., & Vliet, H. (2004). Paradise Lost nor Regained: Social Composition of Theatre Audiences in the Long Nineteenth Century. Journal of Social History, 38(2), 471-512. https://login.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/login?qurl=http://muse.jhu.edu%2fjournals%2fjournal_of_social_history%2fv038%2f38.2gras.html#top
Hess, M. (2005). Hip-hop Realness and the White Performer. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22(5), 372-389. https://login.remote.baruch.cuny.edu/login?qurl=http://ehis.ebscohost.com%2fehost%2fpdfviewer%2fpdfviewer%3fsid%3db6212968-b537-44a0-a6df-f39f3084a50e%2540sessionmgr14%26vid%3d2%26hid%3d8
Joyce, J. (2007). A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Norton Critical Edition ed.). New York: Norton.
Malone, D. (1978). Toward a History of Modernism. Comparative Literature Studies , 15(1), 83-96. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40468064
Morrison, T. (1998). Paradise. New York: A.A. Knopf. Weinstock, H. & Hanning, B. (2013) Opera. In Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com:443/art/opera-music
Willis, E. (1966). The History of Radio. Sage Jounrals, 50(1).
The of Role of Myth in Morrison’s Paradise
The power of myth and tradition to shape and control the shared consciousness of communities is a recurring theme in Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise. Morrison uses the residents of the town of Ruby and the nearby Convent to illustrate the irrationality of dogmatic adherence to mythical beliefs and traditions without reason while also proving that belief in mystic powers can heal as well as harm. By comparing the canonized legends of the towns’ foundation in religious zealotry with the innocent spiritual awakenings of the women at the convent, Morrison forces us to inspect the values and traditions to which we adhere to before being blindly guided or passing judgment on others. The central conflict in the novel is between the allure of new mythic figures and ideals from outside of Ruby and the gravity of the old ways that Ruby’s elite wish to maintain. All of the other conflicts in the novel can be interpreted as offshoots of this main clash. The young versus the old, the 8 rocks versus the light skins, and the conflict between Reverends Misner and Pulliam are all ways of shaping the same question: Should the residents of Ruby stand by the old myths propagated by the Morgan family or reject them and their tenets in order to become a part of the larger mythos of the African American culture struggling to enter the mainstream? While the oldest among the Ruby citizenry have already made the decision to reject outside society in favor of their own, the young have begun to realize that they cannot remain isolated forever.Though Ruby’s citizens’ adherence to core myths is expected to be unwavering, the myths themselves often change in order to better suit the needs of the town’s bourgeoisie. In this way the townspeople’s beliefs are perverted and used as a means of control and oppression. After the confrontation at the Convent “the story was being retold; how people were changing it to make themselves look good…every one of the assaulting men had a different tale and their families and friends (who had been nowhere near the Convent) supported them, enhancing, recasting, inventing misinformation.” (297) As time passes and those involved become older the lies and the truth become impossible to tell apart. Soon no one will remember what truly happened at the Convent any more than anyone remembers Coffee Morgan’s twin brother, Tea. As soon as people can reasonably convince themselves that the lie is the truth then the mythos surrounding Ruby and the Morgan family will be secure again. It is clear that not all of the people of Ruby believe in the myths propagated by the most powerful families. Some, like Pat Best, resent the reverential level of praise for the founders of Ruby. Pat’s situation as a semi-outsider allows her to have a more level-headed perspective on Ruby. She sees the myths that surround the 8 rocks as a means of insuring those in power remain in power. Yet when approached by Reverend Misner, even more of an outsider in Ruby than she is, Pat finds that she ”defended people and things and ideas with a passion she did not feel…All that nonsense she had grown up with seemed to her like an excuse to be hateful.” (214) The Morgan twins don’t remember everything that has happened since the time Haven was founded, but no one in Ruby could challenge their knowledge. Whatever Deacon and Steward say happened becomes history – that is, until Reverand Misner and the youth of Ruby decide they want to alter the engraving that adorns the oven. The oven that the founding fathers carried from Haven to Ruby functions as a shrine to the legend of the generations that came before and the values that they represented. When the oven was built it served a practical purpose and tied the community together. When the move to Ruby was made the oven was transformed from a legitimate pillar of the community to a mere prop. By then appliances had taken over the need for a community cooking area and meeting place and the oven became something else. When the oven was brought to Ruby it was meant as a display of the founders’ power. This mutation of the oven from its original purpose also changed its effect on the community from that of unification to division. This shift in the nature of the oven is physically manifested in the confusion over the original inscription of the oven and the intended meaning of the message it conveyed. Though the argument over the words on the oven may seem inconsequential, when viewed in the light of how important myth and tradition are in upholding the old ways it becomes easier to see why the vested interests of the town, namely the elders, believe that there is so much at stake. By challenging the legitimacy of the oven as a cultural cornerstone of the community the youth of Ruby are openly questioning the validity of the old way and the men who reinforce it. The eventual success of this effort only comes after the complete breakdown of the old system that results in the confrontation at the Convent. The oven’s symbolic significance makes it an ideal place for the younger generation to have their voices heard. The appearance of a black power symbol on the oven upsets Deek and Steward not only because of what the symbol represents but because it mars the oven itself. The oven stands as a symbol of Haven’s, and later Ruby’s, self-reliance and isolation from the rest of the world. The graffiti on the oven serves as a call to join arms and identify with a group larger than just the town of Ruby. It suggests that there exists in the world a culture more justified in its ways than those of the men who built the oven, and more recently, those who labored over its move from Haven to Ruby. The slant in the earth that threatens to overtake the oven by the end of the novel is indicative of the state of the community that built it. Another example of how the same mythos can be spun so as to construe a different meaning can be found in the feud between the Reverends Misner and Pulliam. Though the ministers preside over congregations of the same faith, in the same town, and of the same stock they somehow manage to find totally different messages in the Lord’s Book. As Billie Delia puts it, “Senior Pulliam had scripture and history on his side. Misner had scripture and the future on his.” (150) Each of the men are fighting for what they believe to be the best interpretation of the same mythic texts. Each of them find the message they want to find in the Book and then find ways to twist the words into a form that serves to prove what they want the people of Ruby to do. These messages are then passed on to the people of the town, who examine the content and ramifications of each interpretation of the same verses before deciding on the version that best serves their own interests and desires.The problem is that the true meaning of the scriptures they use to justify their own beliefs is lost as soon as it is put to words. The essence of the ideas behind the myths cannot be encapsulated into words without opening up their meaning to interpretation. Once individuals interpret the words the meaning is further diluted from its original message by the biases and motives of the individuals who read them. In this way the novel suggests that over-reliance on history, myths, traditions and rituals is misguided. What really matters is the pure and unmolested message crystallized in the ideas that sparked the creation of the artifacts that people turn to, such as scripture or the Christmas play. In order to root out the ideas behind these relics an atmosphere of peace, acceptance, individual thought, and spiritual openness must be embraced. This is where the residents of Ruby fail and how the women of the Convent save themselves from a similar fate.Though Ruby and the Convent are similar in that they are isolated and self-reliant communities of like-minded individuals, they are different in several important ways. The Convent is a place where strangers are accepted and allowed time and space to sort out their problems on their own or seek help if they so wish. No one forces the women who live at the Convent to stay, and no one who seeks help at the Convent is turned away. This is in sharp contrast to Ruby, where Steward turns away a family of whites he says are “Born lost. Take over the world and still lost.” (123) The women of the Convent have been mistreated by the world just as much as the blacks of Ruby, but instead of turning their backs to the world they open up themselves to it. Mysticism plays a large part in the lives of the women but not in the same way that it does for the people of Ruby. While the mysticism that surrounds Ruby is enforced and manufactured by the powerful of the town, the mysticism of the Convent is allowed to grow and spread through the women individually. The mystic realm created at the Convent is an open one. The symbol of the Convent’s mysticism is the hot peppers that grow in the Convent garden, which stand as a sharp contrast to Ruby’s oven. While the oven is artificial and propped up by Ruby’s social strata, the peppers are natural and grow on their own. The special peppers of the Convent were already growing when Connie arrived and continued to thrive in the same spot after the confrontation with the men of Ruby left the Convent empty. Though Mother, and Connie after her, was the clear leader of the Convent she imposed no social codes or restrictions on the other women who took shelter there. The women of the Convent did not seek to control others, as did the men of Ruby, but to master themselves. The ultimate enlightenment ceremony of the Convent, the ritual that took place in the basement outside of Connie’s room, was a journey of inward self-realization.The women of the Convent realized that there was something inside of them that was the source of their troubles in the outside world. As Seneca put it, “She knew that there was something inside her that made boys snatch her and men flash her.” (261) This “something inside her” was a frailty of spirit that lead the men around her to take advantage of what was clearly a shattered soul. Seneca’s habit of cutting herself is an early and unfortunately destructive attempt at bleeding away this thing inside of her. The women of the Convent realize that they cannot change the world but they can change themselves so as to better survive it. By exorcising their demons and embracing each other the Convent women were able to free themselves from the bonds that held them in the outside world.An important parallel that highlights how the men of Haven and Ruby failed when the women of the Convent survived can be seen in the story of Coffee and Tea. When the twin brothers were coerced into humiliating themselves by some white men Tea gave in and followed their orders. Coffee stood his ground and got a bullet in the foot for it, but he kept his pride. The lesson Coffee took from the incident and passed on to the other founding fathers was that the outside world is no place for a self respecting black man. The problem is that where Seneca looked inside herself and saw a victim Coffee looked outside himself and saw a world not worth living in. This led Coffee to leave the outside world behind and found Haven while Seneca dove into her own soul and removed what it was that enabled the outside world to hurt her. Both of them created a mystical place where they would be untouched, but Seneca made hers inside herself and not on a patch of land in the middle of nowhere. This is how Seneca and the other women from the Convent were able to make peace with the world instead of having to hide from it, as did the citizens of Ruby.By the end of the novel Deacon Steward is coming to the same crossroads that Coffee did decades before. Something about the way Steward acted during the confrontation at the Convent shook Deacon to his core. Deacon makes the connection between the two situations, saying “I’m thinking Coffee was right because he saw something in Tea that wasn’t just going along with some drunken white boys. He saw something that shamed him…Coffee couldn’t take it. Not because he was ashamed of his twin, but because the shame was in himself. It scared him.” (303) Now Deacon faces the same situation that Coffee did. Should he learn to embrace the thing inside him that shames him or should he retreat back into a fantasy world built on the myth that 8 rock men can be islands unto themselves? How Deacon decides to answer this question may shape the future for Ruby. The forces of change heralded by the younger generation have already won decisive victories in the battle to free themselves from the oppression of the elders propagated by the myths and values of the Morgan ancestors. The oven reads “We are the furrow of his brow.” (298) This shows a movement towards individual responsibility and decision and away from the threatening statement “Beware the furrow of his brow” that the elders chose to remind the citizens of Haven to stay in line. Ruby will change whether the Morgan family or anyone else wants it to, but it will be much easier if Deacon understands the error of his ways and helps guide the others.The sickly children of Sweetie and her husband, products of the old ways, have started to die off. Though the community mourns the loss of Save-Marie and their newfound sense of mortality the death of the child also brings with it a renewed sense of being part of the outside world. Ruby cannot remain a bastion of 8 rock people separated from the rest of the world. The people of Ruby will either manage to re-assimilate into the society that their ancestors forsake decades ago or they will fail and disappear like all of the other colored towns before them. Either way a new chapter will be written in the mythos of the residents of Ruby. If the town manages to survive long enough the new history will replace the old one and the recollection of the events that lead up to it will either change to fit the prevailing myths or disappear. No matter what happens the myth that was Ruby and the Convent will remain alive in the minds of those that were touched by its power and managed to break free.
Abort the Matriarchy?: Failed Mothers of the Patriarchal Systems within Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Morrison’s Paradise
Abortion is often a taboo subject that does not appear in American Literature. Yet, Toni Morrison and William Faulkner use abortion in their works to critique women’s agency in motherhood in a patriarchal system. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying takes away the power of the matriarchy by denying the impregnated Dewey Dell agency over her current state. While Toni Morrison does not completely disarm the matriarchy in Paradise as Faulkner does, she proves through characters, such as Arnette, that abortion becomes a bargaining tool in an assertive patriarchal system that no longer serves as the protector of women but the abuser. Through the use of their maternal characters and abortion, Faulkner and Morrison condemn the matriarchy, the power of motherhood, and women’s agency over their own bodies in patriarchal systems.
In William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Addie Bundren is a woman frustrated with her sexuality and forced into maternity by her patriarchal counterpart. Addie says that she did not even want the children but, “when [she] knew that [she] had Cash, [she] knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it” (Faulkner 171). The children become a “violation of her aloneness”, a curse put upon her by Anse. The only child in which she finds solace is Cash, but other than him, Anse denies her positive identity as a mother during her life. Addie might have escaped the patriarchal system in her death, but Dewey Dell, a child in which Addie claims is solely Anse’s, perishes within it. Unfortunately for the Bundren women, babies essentially represent sadness, an obligation, and even death to the sense of one’s self. Addie felt this way about her children, and Dewey Dell seems to realize this, too, as she searches for a cure for her condition. Dewey Dell seems to know the expectations the patriarchy has of her, but like Addie, she does not truly wish to enact on them. Like Addie, her sense of self has been stripped away, and she has been conditioned to thinking of herself as little more than a sexual object or house servant. Dewey Dell is always described in primal, even animalistic terms. “Squatting, Dewey Dell’s wet dress shapes for the dead eyes of three blind men those mammalian ludicrosities which are the horizons and the valleys of earth”(Faulkner 164). This description depicts the way the men in the Bundren patriarchy, Anse in particular, look at women as not beautiful or feminine but just birthing vessels.
Stripped of agency, Dewey Dell is viewed only as an object, no longer even a person. She is abused by her father and brother’s lack of acceptance of her sexuality and thus condemned by it. Within her family of men, Dewey Dell feels shame and embarrassment not only in her impregnated state but in her sexuality, itself. The patriarchy of her own family seems to take advantage of her sex, but so does the father of her baby. After taking advantage of Dewey Dell, Lafe gives her ten dollars to get an abortion and abandons her. She is left feeling deceived, pregnant, and hesitant of the power of men. In the middle of the novel, Dewey Dell talks about a dream, which seems to represent her feelings about sex with Lafe. She reflects on her remembrance of this dream: “When I used to sleep with Vardaman I had a nightmare once I thought I was awake but I couldn’t see and couldn’t feel the bed under me and I couldn’t think what I was I couldn’t think of my name I couldn’t even think I am a girl… Vardaman asleep and all of them back under me again and going on like a piece of cool silk dragging across my naked legs” (Faulkner 121). These feelings of loss of control are a direct representation of how she felt in the field with Lafe. It is evident that Dewey Dell’s thoughts have become consumed by her sexuality and newfound fear of men. This fear is justifiable as she seeks abortion, and the “pharmacist” claims to have medication for her, but all he does is rape her. She attempts to abort three separate times but patriarchal figures thwart her each attempt. The final patriarchal stroke of violence against Dewey Dell occurs when Anse takes away the abortion money; thus, stripping her of all agency forcing her into indentured servitude in the Bundren patriarchy.
In Morrison’s Paradise, almost every family in Ruby is controlled by a powerful father figure possessing hegemonic authority, like Anse in As I Lay Dying. Rather than serving as the protector of women, men become their abusers. Morrison shows that men who feel insecure about their status of manhood in the patriarchal system will act violently to regain possession of masculine strength and power. Take, for example, K.D.’s abuse of Arnette who suffered his blows and became pregnant with his child. When representatives of the town meet to discuss the assault on Arnette, it is a group of men, including K.D., who try to determine the appropriate course of action. When the men come to a conclusion, Arnette’s father is asked if his daughter will agree to the terms. He says “I’m her father. I’ll arrange her mind” (Morrison 61). Because Arnette is left out of the meeting, this scene makes clear the patriarchal system of Ruby, in which women are denied a voice, remaining possessions of the men. Arnette attempts the miscarriage in order to try to escape the patriarchal hold that K.D. has on her, but the matriarchy of the Convent fails her.
When Connie denies her an abortion, Arnette responds by “bash[ing] the out of [her baby]” (Morrison 250). Like Dewey Dell, Arnette associates motherhood with grief, pain, and suffering at the hands of the patriarchy. She abandons her role as a maternal figure, “revolted by the work of her womb,” and instead tries to go to college to escape, but K.D.’s grasp is too tight on her (Morrison 249). Although submission provides her safety, the emptiness of life consumes Arnette and is met with little resistance. At her wedding, Arnette reflects that her fiancé, K. D., is “all she knew about her self- which is to say everything she knew of her body was connected to him (Morrison 148)”. Arnette’s identity has been stripped away and replaced by the ideals in which the patriarchy wished to instill in their women folk.
Through characters such as Dewey Dell and Arnette, Faulkner and Morrison condemn the matriarchy at the hands of a patriarchal system. Both women fail to obtain agency in maternity or even abortion, resulting in their submission to the patriarchal systems in which they are indentured to. Morrison constructs a patriarchal system that demonstrates its flaws, promoting womanist ideals as Faulkner seems to construct his system in an attempt to say that women will always be subject to the patriarchy. Within the patriarchal systems of As I Lay Dying and Paradise, abortion can either become an escape or a condemnation to the system in which strips them of their agency and identity.
Cited Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. Vintage International, 2005. Morrison, Toni. Paradise. Vintage International, 2014.