Precision Attended to in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”

March 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

There is no surprise in reading the word “precision” in the language of the Common Core’s Mathematical Practice Standards. Mathematics requires precision:

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP6 Attend to precision.

Mathematically proficient students try to communicate precisely to others. They try to use clear definitions in discussion with others and in their own reasoning.

Writing requires precision as well. Proficient writers in every genre communicate precisely to others. Yet, one of the most difficult concepts to teach to students in recognizing the precision in an author’s craft. Word choice and punctuation are committed with intent by an author, yet, there are students who doubt these steps of precision made by an author. They believe that any text has stepped, as if full-formed or Athena-like, from the mind of an author. They think that novels pop into existence…unless, they are reading Toni Morrison.

Screenshot 2014-02-27 21.57.19

A “Wordsift” of precise language in Chapter 3 of “Beloved”; Denver and Sethe dominate as does the simile generator “like”.

My Advanced Placement English Literature students are currently reading Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved. This story confronts the horrors of slavery by fictionalizing the true story of Margaret Garner who, in a failed bid for freedom, killed her baby daughter rather than have her returned to slavery.

A look at the opening two lines to Toni Morrison novel Beloved demonstrate her power as a storyteller and highlight her precision with language:

“124 was spiteful. Full of baby venom.”

An quick analysis of the specificity of language in these two short statements reveals:

  • 124 is the address (setting) where Paul D arrives looking for the run-away slave, Sethe.
  • 124 is also a combination of 1and 2 and 4…the first-born, the second-born, and the fourth-born children of Sethe. The third-born child (3), the child named Beloved, is missing numerically. That child chooses to make her presence known in more ghostly ways.
  • Morrison is exacting in her selection of word choice from her opening personification of the house as spiteful (“having or showing a desire to harm, anger, or defeat someone; malicious”) to the incongruous pairing of the words “baby” and “venom”.

So, when I asked students to write about the precision in word choice Morrison uses to craft imagery in the novel in the first 100 pages, they had much to choose from:

“In describing the choke cherry tree of scars on Sethe’s back, Morrison writes, ‘See, here’s the trunk it’s red and split wide open, full of sap and here’s the parting for the branches'(79). A history textbooks do not give details of slave wounds like that.”

“Sethe and Denver even accept ‘the lively spite the house felt for them'(3) …. Morrison utilizes this personification to show how objects took on the role of companionship when Sethe and Denver were ignored by their community.

“Sethe describes seeing the sunrise as menacing with ‘red baby blood’ with ‘pink gravestone chips'(34)  instead of seeing the colors as warm and inviting.”

In making these and other observations, students called attention to Morrison’s specific use of dialect, alliteration, hyperbole, synecdoche, repetition, smilies, symbols as well as the differences in syntax to serve her purpose in making the reader confront the irreparable harm of slavery. The closer the students read, and they were “close reading”, the more appreciative they became of Morrison’s style. They became more appreciative of her power to select specific words in creating a particular image. They had no idea they could have just as easily be applying a mathematical practice standard (“attend to precision”) in their literary analysis.

Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993 in for her body of work that included the novel Beloved. In her acceptance speech, she addressed how precise language is used to describe; to depict [as if] by painting or drawing:

The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. … When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here,” his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war. Refusing to monumentalize, disdaining the “final word”, the precise “summing up”, acknowledging their “poor power to add or detract”, his words signal deference to the uncapturability of the life it mourns.

Morrison’s admiration for Lincoln’s precise language in the Gettysburg Address is a shared admiration. The speech is a suggested 9th/10th grade text for the Common Core Common Core State Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies. Moreover, educators should note the literary connection between the president who led the nation to abolish slavery with authors like Morrison who use their craft in pressing the reader to face the horrors of slavery.

Finally, the Mathematical Practice Standard #6 states that by high school, students will “have learned to examine claims and make explicit use of definitions.” There could be no better claim on the damage inflicted on humans in bondage than Morrison’s story of Sethe and her Beloved.  The last lines of the novel, “This is not a story to pass on” communicates “You [reader] may not pass [or avoid] this story.” She explicitly defines the experiences of those “60 million or more” and captures their love and their longing for familial bonds by writing precisely what they could not.

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