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Transforming America : Toni Morrison and classical tradition

By Tessa Kate Roynon


This thesis examines a significant but little-studied feature of Toni Morrison's\ud work: her ambivalent engagement with classical tradition. Analysing all eight\ud novels. it argues that her allusiveness to the cultural practices of Ancient Greece\ud and Rome is fundamental to her political project. Illuminating hegemonic\ud America's consistent recourse to the classical world in the construction of its\ud identity, I expand on prior scholarship by reading Morrison's own revisionary\ud classicism as a subversion of dominant US culture. My three-part study\ud examines the way her deployment of Graeco-Roman tradition destabilizes\ud mythologies of the American Dream, prevailing narratives of America's\ud history, and national ideologies of purity. Part I shows that Morrison enlists\ud tragic conventions to problematize the Dream's central tenets of upward\ud mobility, progress and freedom. It argues that while her engagement with Greek\ud choric models effects her refutation of individualism, it is her later novels'\ud rejection of a wholly catastrophic vision that enables her to avoid reinscribing\ud the Dream. Part II demonstrates that it is through her classical allusiveness that\ud Morrison rewrites American history. Her multiply-resonant echoes of the epic,\ud pastoral and tragic traditions that have consistently informed the dominant\ud culture's justifications for and representations of its actions enable her\ud reconfiguration of colonization, of the foundation of the new nation, of slavery\ud and its aftermath and of the Civil Rights Movement. Part III illuminates how\ud the author uses the discourse of pollution or miasma to challenge\ud Enlightenment-derived valorizations of racial purity and to expose the practices\ud of scapegoating and revenge as flawed means to moral purity. Her interest in\ud the hegemonic fabrication of classical tradition as itself a pure and purifying\ud force is matched by her insistence on that tradition's African elements, and thus\ud on its potent impurity. Her own radical classicism, therefore, is central to the\ud transformation of America that her novels envision

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