“There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors. If you are put out, you go somewhere else; if you are outdoors, there is no place to go. The distinction was subtle but final. Outdoors was the end of something, a physical, irrevocable fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition. Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses and hang on, or to creep singly up into the major folds of the garment. Our peripheral existence, however, was something we had learned to deal with – probably because it was abstract. But the concreteness of being outdoors was another matter – like the difference between the concept of death and being” (Morrison 17-18).
In examining this passage from Morrison’s novel, it is important to note that this was the author’s first major work. While each novel must be assessed on its own merits, there is nonetheless a need in Morrison to observe the trajectory of her ambitions and achievements, and this perspective comes into play particularly in regard to the meaning of these words. More exactly, Morrison is just beginning here to explore the themes of gender, society, racism, and identity that would powerfully be reflected in her later work; consequently, even this single passage indicates an early impulse to “say a great deal.” This is not to imply that Morrison is careless or over-indulgent. Rather, the Morrison who wrote The Bluest Eye could not know the directions she would later take, so there is a sense here of urgency. Even as Morrison approaches her social metaphor of outsideness in a clear and investigative way, what comes across most forcefully is the gravity of what the metaphor symbolizes.
That gravity is revealed in ways beyond the overt impact of the description. The Bluest Eye takes place in years following the Great Depression, so it is inevitable that the distinctions between races would be all the more emphatic. In this passage, Morrison does not directly refer to race, but the implication is clear. She is discussing a certain class of people, and it may be argued that the most significant historical element in the fiction is the passive state of this class. This is by no means subtle, as the author stresses the nightmare state of being put out, which is a thing that is done to another. To be put out translates to being unacceptable “inside,” so there is intense social meaning here. In pragmatic terms, everyone in this realm of Morrison’s is in a sense put out. As she phrases it, this is the state of being common to all of her kind, and a reality with which they are very familiar. Nonetheless, and whether or not the putting out is done from within the class or a result of external forces, it implies victimization. No one needs to participate in the act of being set aside, or out; it is a decision or action made by others, and obviously others with the power to do so.
This view taken, then, Morrison is certainly making a statement about the existence of the marginalized class. It is something of an afterthought here, but it is necessary to give scope to the entire scenario, and she uses language that reinforces the isolation – and risk – of being put out in this way. It is interesting and effective that she uses the metaphor of a garment to make her point, if only in that several images emphasize the reality. Garments are fabric, and fluid; they move, and anything that moves may be a danger. Then, Morrison’s placing of the bulk of her class on the hem, along with the identifying of the potential individual managing to “creep singly up,” carry enormous meaning. In simple terms, the metaphor is striking because the people of her class are clearly small in comparison to the garment. If they cling to the hem or work their way up, they are little more than insects seeking to survive on a massive beast. This is shocking to the reader because it goes beyond ordinary ways of conveying racial bias or oppression; it sets it in terms of physical, tangible contrast between the powerful and the insignificant. New meaning is then attached to victimization, in that helplessness is built into the process. It is not that one class exerts dominance over another class; it is that one class towers above the other, so the dominance is a reality of life.
The more disturbing implication of the passage goes to the core of the passage itself More exactly, and almost chillingly, there are no real boundaries as to who may practice this same form of inescapable dominance. As the powerful class rules over the powerless, powerlessness itself remains a matter of degree, so the weak class is enabled to similarly victimize those within it. As long as there is an inside, and any kind of inside, there is an “out” in which to demean and abandon someone. It may be said that Morrison is here stating that the victimized class learns from its oppressors, which is a natural, if offensive, process. They understand all too well the immense power in dismissing someone and casting them out, and then may merely apply the practice within their own, lesser parameters. The impact remains the same, and this perspective reveals the expanse of Morrison’s sight. Even as she tells her tale of victims, she also knows that life is more complex than only struggles between the strong and the weak, because each side has opportunities to employ the strategies of the other. Put another way, the passage indicates that an idea of victimhood as being a passive and non-victimizing state is misguided. Victims create victims of their own, and cruelty is not the sole province of any race or class, even as it operates in cyclical ways, spiraling down.
Lastly, the tone of clinical detachment adds to the force of the passage itself. Morrison here strikes exactly the right balance between casual expression and removed analysis. It would be far less effective, for instance, had Morrison expressed this assessment of outsideness in a first person, angered or sad, voice. To convey the idea with emotion attached would be, in fact, to reduce the emotional impact. Understatement is more effective because it compels the reader to supply the emotional resonance; the passage calls for emotional response, the author does not attach emotion to it, so the reader creates it. This stark contrast between subject and tone is used by Morrison to add dimension, but the effect is not overpowering. Morrison is removed, but she is also not entirely clinical; the words, “peripheral,” “metaphysical,” and “consolidate” bring an erudite tone, even as her garment metaphor is more accessible. Through this structure and style, then, Toni Morrison in this passage conveys a world of meaning in regard to just how significant being “put out” is to human beings, and in any circumstances.
“The one streetlight seemed miles away and the sun reluctant to rise, so she had trouble finding Peg’s house. When, finally, she did, she parked across the street to wait for stronger skylight before knocking on the door. Peg’s house was dark, the shade of the picture window still down. Complete quiet. The wooden girl in the petunias, her face hidden by a fresh blue bonnet, tilted a watering can, a family of carved ducks lined at her heels. The lawn, edged and close-cut, looked like a carpet sample of expensive wool. Nothing moved, neither the tiny windmill nor the ivy surrounding it. At the side of the house, however, a rose of Sharon, taller than Peg’s roof and older, was shaking” (Morrison 27).
In this passage, the most evident quality is a kid of cinematic descriptiveness. The language, in fact, might almost apply as a stage direction, or a setting as presented in a film script. It is not dramatic of itself; rather, it exists to create a landscape for drama. Paradise is a novel that centers on nearly mythic examinations of the issues between white and black, and men and women. These are massive subjects, and it is felt that Morrison does not entirely succeed. However, and as the cited passage demonstrates, accusations of a formulaic quality made to the novel are not just. This single excerpt reveals that Morrison is very adept at focusing on human beings and human dilemmas, just as her skill is virtually classic in employing scene to create fields of living suspense.
The classicism is plain to see here. The writing relies, as great descriptive writing invariably does, on a combination of the large and the seemingly insignificant, and the reader does not need to know a great deal about Mavis to fully feel this hour and place. At the same time, the import of the passage very much lies in how it obliquely conveys Mavis as a character, and her state of mind and feeling at the time. Morrison’s writing here achieves a sense of Mavis’s perceptions without ever overtly describing them as such; Morrison is reporting, but she is reporting through the senses and perceptions of Mavis. From the first words, there is a feeling of impossibility conveyed. Mavis clearly needs to see Peg, but even finding the home is difficult when the streetlamp “seemed miles away.” There is also an aspect of judgment in the sun’s unwillingness to rise. These two components alone emphasize the frantic quality in this woman, driving to her destination before dawn. This then adds to the reader the feeling of helplessness Mavis feels, as her history seems to have consumed her life and her being.
Suspense is the keynote struck afterward, and Morrison accomplishes this so skillfully, few readers are not able to see what Mavis sees, and take it in as daunting. To begin with, Mavis is compelled to park across the street and wait. In this, Morrison is accentuating that painful distinction known to so many, when personal urgency must conform to the standards of ordinary living. The reader can see exactly what Mavis sees, and in as fixed a way: the window with the shutter down, clearly not admitting anyone or anything. There is the quiet of life at rest, which also underscores the frantic need in Mavis. Then a kind of witness, or sentry, is introduced, in the form of the wooden girl on the lawn. The reader can feel Mavis taking this in, likely angered at the consistent normalcy it represents. There is even a suggestion subtly conveyed of how the line of ornamental ducks must strike Mavis, so notorious for having accidentally killed her own children. It is greatly to Morrison’s credit that she does not exploit the symbolism. Rather, she simply sets it out for the reader, and allows the drama to emerge from the connection possibly made. Anything more would, again, betray the classical and understated quality of the scene.
The symbols of the girl and ducks notwithstanding, another message is conveyed, or seemingly felt by Mavis: lifelessness. Nothing is moving whatsoever, and the lawn, obviously a living thing, is not alive; it is, or may as well be, a woolen carpet. Then Morrison reveals her greater impact in setting this scene, as the rose of Sharon is described. The words are few, but they are telling. The plant is taller than the house and it is also older. Then, the rose is the only thing moving, albeit by the exhaust fans of an air conditioning unit. The reader does not need to know the symbolic associations of the flower as healing, or expressive of love; what matters here is that it is a living, moving, natural presence, certainly more alive and natural than the grass. That it is older than the house is also significant, pointing to primal power beyond anything created by man. The rose is, moreover, shaking, as if aware of Mavis’s crisis, or even representing Mavis herself.
In examining any descriptive passage from a gifted writer, it must be acknowledged that interpretation is often limitless. At the same time, there can be no mistaking the dramatic intensity Morrison provides in this brief scene. Paradise, again, has much to say, particularly in regard to how women exist and survive in worlds ruled by men. The cited passage clearly does not refer to such issues. Nonetheless, it has an individual power of its own because it serves to carry the persona of Mavis through its own presentation. As the scene is only the scene she perceives, and conveyed as she feels it, the effect is all the more reflective of the character. The field of stillness and suspense that is Peg’s house and lawn is there, but it is there only because it is what Mavis identifies. It moves the narrative forward, then, because it is taking Mavis and the reader along with it, and this is a great testimonial to Morrison’s skill. The passage may be seen as an example of classic fiction construction, because it obeys the need to lay out the scene and simultaneously uses the elements in it to emphasize the more important realities of the story and the character.
Morrison, T. Paradise. New York: Plume Publishing, 1999. Print.