A Spectrum of Ethical Witnessing in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Sula and Beloved



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This project interrogates the ways witnessing perpetuates racial violence, as well as its converse potential to engage with racial trauma in radically compassionate ways that constitute reconstructive healing. Identifying a spectrum of ethical witnessing in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved, I consider acts of witnessing that take place between the reader who witnesses the characters, between characters who witness each other, and within individual characters who witness themselves. I examine the voyeuristic qualities that exist in the process of bearing witness to racial trauma, and instances in these novels that reject voyeurism to instead invite critical compassion and an ethical mode of readerly participation. I argue that Morrison demonstrates in these novels how witnessing grounded in radical compassion and an intentional scrutiny of one’s own relationality to cultural positions of power is necessary to be in constructive conversation with historically silenced narratives of intergenerational racial trauma. I present my argument using multiple theoretical frameworks including reader response theory, trauma theory, and affect theory. Considering the importance of holding space for multiple subjectivities, I focus not just on the critical response of the reader, but also on the redemptive ways the characters in these novels participate in a spectrum of ethical witnessing, examining how this impacts their relation to each other as well as their own histories of trauma. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel, I argue that she makes uncomfortably visible a racial crisis in America propagated by the views of a ruling white patriarchy, and implores her readers to enact an alternative mode of witnessing that is conditional on critical compassion. In Sula, I explore moments of radically ethical forms of witnessing that encourage the reader to re-examine purportedly rigid moral binaries of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the context of multiple complex relationships between characters. My analysis of Beloved demonstrates how Morrison sets up a model of radically constructive witnessing wherein the characters create community amongst one another by witnessing one another with care and compassion in response to multiple deeply held traumas.



Toni Morrison, Witnessing