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Self-Identity in Toni Morrison’s Novels

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author’s vivid and lyrical portrayals of the black experience have sparked a national dialogue about race and social justice.

Toni Morrison’s reputation as one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century cannot be overstated. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author’s vivid and lyrical portrayals of the black experience in Jazz and Beloved have sparked a national dialogue about race and social justice. Her work played a vital role in getting black literature into the hands of a mainstream audience, and in 1993, she earned the distinction of becoming the first black female author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Growing up in a small Ohio town, Morrison was deeply influenced by the oral storytelling traditions of her family. She said that writing was all about “finding words that turn locks,” and indeed, her novels continue to unlock readers’ minds today.

Beloved (1987)

Imagine being so desperate to save your child from a life of enslavement that you take their life. This is the tragic premise behind Morrison’s acclaimed novel, in which the story’s protagonist, Sethe, ends her infant daughter’s life to “protect” her. What’s more tragic is that this story is not entirely fiction.

Beloved is based on the real-life story of escaped slave Margaret Garner, who killed her own child for that very reason. Morrison’s novel, however, incorporates spiritual elements as the ghost of the dead infant comes back to haunt Sethe. As she unravels from the guilt, Sethe struggles to reconcile her past and obtain her own sense of self, which was ripped away from her as a slave.

Learn more about the hidden meanings behind the symbols and themes of one of Morrison’s most cherished novels in our Beloved infographic.

Jazz (1992)

Set mostly in 1920s Harlem, Morrison uses the lyrical style of jazz music as the underlying structure for the novel’s narrative and dialogue. It bounces from upbeat and soulful to fervent and dizzying, paralleling the spontaneous and often improvisational methods jazz artists use in their music.

Much like the young protagonist Sethe in Beloved, those in Jazz also wrestle with self-identity. Morrison weaves in 19th-century slave narratives as characters explore their past and learn to embrace their black heritage. To learn more, check out our Jazz infographic to see how the main characters struggle with the themes of identity, race, and violence in their own personal way.

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