Looking at LOVE: Toni Morrison’s Construction of Desire and Obstacle
By Emilee Prado •
Toni Morrison’s novel Love grapples with the vast, mutable, apparitional human experience that we compress into that four-letter word taken as the title. For those who have fallen in and out of romantic love, for those who have had simultaneous feelings of detestation and yearning for another person, for those who keep returning home: let’s talk about the dizzying cycles love can create. Our exploration will study the relationship Morrison constructs between what her characters want and what stands in their way. Morrison semi-merges desire and obstacle to both create compelling fiction and to mirror experiences of love found in our waking world.
Stand-in Desires as Obstacles and Deferral
At various points in Love, Morrison shapes her characters to create stand-in desires to placate themselves when deeper desires are unreachable. For example, after Bill Cosey dies, his granddaughter Christine hoards his rings and her fingers become figuratively “loaded with that collection of other women’s hopes…”—she clings to these valuables in place of the grandfather with whom she never bonded. This is also a figurative attempt to grasp, make sense of, and include herself in the relationships Cosey had with various women.
When Christine’s friend Heed was eleven years old, she was married to the much older Cosey. This union—in addition to creating numerous scars for the young girl—drives a wedge in childhood friendship. Heed begins to make Christine jealous to temporarily meet the need for a love that is no longer there. When Heed dances with a stranger to flaunt her sexuality in front of everyone at Christine’s birthday/graduation party, she might experience temporary pleasure in the display, but she ends up inviting spite from Christine and repelling her husband.
Later, the young and ruthless Junior Viviane—who enters the story when Christine and Heed are in their sixties—tries to profit from others as a stand-in for grasping at love; love cannot be taken but bodies can. Junior simultaneously fetishizes a portrait of Bill Cosey (painted forty-some years prior) and makes a fourteen-year-old boy named Romen her sexual partner, using the two males as objects of her desire. Due to Cosey’s legacy as patriarch, the way his image hangs above the bed also makes him a fill-in for fatherly love.
In “Looking at Obstacles,” psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips explores Freud’s idea that the fetish, simultaneously an obstacle and desire, “is a way of sustaining belief…and denying it at the same time.” So, Junior’s fetish stands in for what she really wants, but it also provides a cyclical deferral: she longs for love and tries to reach it through sexual lust, only to find a nagging emptiness again.
It is not until the end of Love that the temporary longings of Christine, Heed, and Junior can be seen as each deferring a deeper desire for asexual love. A sentiment running deeper than friendship, this type of love between parent and child, or between children, is logically and unavoidably shifted by puberty. However, because all three women have prepubescent sexual experiences, the yearning to retreat to asexual love—to be childlike again—is particularly strong with each of them. Morrison’s narrator, a mysterious voice identified only as L, even addresses this issue within the text: “People with no imagination feed [desire] with sex—the clown of love. They don’t know the real kinds, the better kinds…”
Obstacles as Complexity and Forward Movement
At points, Morrison constructs the protagonists to long for Bill Cosey to be something that he is not. The chapter headings communicate the various roles Cosey fills or is expected to fill: “Portrait,” “Friend,” “Stranger,” “Benefactor,” “Lover,” “Husband,” “Guardian,” and “Father.” Calling the final chapter “Phantom” might suggest that when a person wants another to fit in a particular niche, that desire can become its own obstacle; the longing pushes the beloved away from reality into a more fantastical realm. When this happens, the effects can be emotionally devastating because the object of desire becomes an unreachable target. However, an alternative reading of this chapter title may insinuate that the cruel and domineering man has finally found a suitable role as ghost. Either way, unsatisfied romantic desires can manifest as heartbreak in real life, while other types of unsatisfied desires can create plights such as emptiness, loneliness, or despondency. In fiction, the choice to delay mollifying a character’s longing can create the aforementioned consequences for the character, but can also cause a forward momentum.
Analyzing why we read suggests that a character’s feelings transfer to the reader via the brain’s empathetic responses. When a character’s want is rendered complete by obtaining a desire, the understanding, relief, realization, or momentary satisfaction transfers to the reader too. In this manner, reading will never be a satisfying experience if it is a static experience; there will be nothing emotional to transfer. A static story would be Christine and Heed as unchanging, bitter, old women in their present moment. Morrison creates dynamics in Love by slowly revealing the characters’ complexities through jumps in the timeline. She couples minute revelations with a delay in uncovering whether Christine, Heed, or Junior will ever get what they truly yearn for.
Love ends with many desires still burning; with this, Morrison avoids any true finale to the story. And yet, what remains is an invitation for the reader to linger in reflection on what might extend from fiction to reality, proliferating further thoughts about love and desire. The reader might begin to wonder, Can people only get close to love through cycles of deferral? Can a longing for love ever be satiated or is complete satisfaction the dangled prize that simply keeps us moving forward?
Obstacles and Desires as Fostering Reader Catharsis
When human wants are analyzed, the general term desire often becomes overwritten by the narrower term sexual desire. Instead of redrawing strict divisions here, the merging of these two terms can be useful if reader catharsis is viewed with a similar vocabulary.
Reader catharsis can be thought of as the gratifying release from a buildup of emotions created by vicariously experiencing a character’s feelings or a character’s situation. This emotional response is triggered by stories because a certain pleasurable frustration exists in almost any situation where one is striving to achieve. This includes a reader traversing the emotional landscape of a text and working to reach the end.
In Love, Christine laments, “I’m always last; all the time the one being told to go, get out.” Christine’s distance from Cosey and Heed and her desire to both be wanted by them and to get away from them creates movement and tension: she physically comes and goes from the town of Silk; she quarrels with Heed but shares a home with her; she scorns her grandfather but firmly proclaims that she is his last blood relative. If Christine simply moved away from Silk and became independent, there would be no tension, progress, or forward movement for the reader. Likewise, asexual love might be an unsatisfactory prize for all three protagonists without the struggle toward it and the constant denial of success.
A Final Look at Cycles
Morrison’s construction of each main character’s attempt to repeat—their pull to go back to childhood love, back to sexless desires, and/or back to happiness—is key in a number of ways: it draws attention to the circular nature of the obstacle/desire bond, it creates dynamics in Love, and it accrues the emotional surge needed for reader catharsis.
Moving through hindrances brings one closer to feeling fulfilled, but it also removes longing. Phillips writes: “[D]esire without obstacles is merging or incest and so the death of desire.” After noting similar ideas in the writings of Freud, Sartre, and Rousseau, Phillips concludes that satisfaction might be “the death of possibility.” In fiction, this merging brings an end to the story that exists in writing (although reader reflections might allow it to continue elsewhere). Due to Morrison’s careful construction, the cyclical deferrals she creates build and release tension incrementally and keep the reader constantly active in empathy and/or understanding. Thus, unraveling a novel like Love is a gratifying experience. But let’s not forget the nature of a cycle: any ending is only successful if it creates the need for something else, perhaps another novel, to begin.
EMILEE PRADO’s short fiction appears in Gone Lawn, Anak Sastra, Origami, and elsewhere. Freethought Today featured one of her essays. Emilee grew up in the Denver metro area. She received her MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. Since 2015, she has written from ever-shifting locations in the US and abroad.