We live in a society of violence. We see it on the news, where casualties are reduced to death counts. We see it in politics, where wars are launched against drugs, disease, and immigrants. We even see it in our conversations, where our phones are frequently dead and we could kill our friends.

To live is to be surrounded by violence, and to exist alongside it. Such a message runs through Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. Aggression inhabits the day-to-day lives of her characters, but there is no glee, no glory, no gore. The violence is quiet. It happens, and the world moves on, even if the characters don’t.

toni morrison author michael wheatley
Toni Morrison

The first example comes early in the novel. The main protagonist, Bride, approaches a recently released convict whom she helped to put behind bars. Hoping to reconcile some deep-held guilt, Bride offers her money and cosmetic products, explaining that she swayed the jury, but before she can continue:

“I search through the blood with my tongue. My teeth are still there, but I can’t seem to get up. I can feel my left eyelid shutting down and my right arm is dead … I try to scream ‘help,’ but my mouth belongs to somebody else. I crawl a few feet and try to stand.”

The violence is sudden: actions are not explained, the effects are enough. Morrison refuses to dwell in the deeds of destruction, refuses to choreograph the scene as an action sequence. The reader simply occupies Bride’s thoughts as this quiet violence is inflicted upon her. We are detached.

Further violence comes later. In the second act of the novel, which takes a strange (and not entirely earned) detour into a Grimm fairy tale, Bride, having met a child called Rain, takes a shotgun blast to the hand. Rain explains:

“My black lady saw him and threw her arm in front of my face. The birdshot messed up her hand and arm. We fell, both of us, her on top of me. I saw Regis duck down as the truck gunned the engine and shot off. What could I do but help her up and hold on to her bloody arm.”

Rain’s first instinct is one of helplessness, “what could I do”. The answer is they simply try and move on. She helps her up, and they walk back home. For the rest of the novel, little fuss is made of Bride’s shotgunned arm. It is just another act of violence inflicted upon her.

But it is not only physical violence which runs through the novel, but sexual violence as well. Remembering her childhood, Bride explains witnessing her landlord abuse a child:

“Down below in the walled area that led to the building’s basement I saw not a cat but a man. He was leaning over the short, fat legs of a child between his hairless white thighs. The boy’s little hands were fists, opening and closing. His crying was soft, squeaky, loaded with pain. The man’s trousers were down around his ankles. I leaned over the windowsill and stared.”

She tells her mother, but her mother urges Bride to stay quiet in case they lose their home. The world is nasty. Unpleasant. Filled with violent people committing violent acts. Her mother cannot fight this and live comfortably, so she decides to concede resistance. Her solution is to live within the violence.

Morrison refuses to glorify our violent society. It is central to our lives, but so often glossed over or reduced to background noise. In much the same way, Morrison’s characters gloss over the violence inflicted upon them, overcoming, or just ignoring. When part of a violent society, violence becomes a part of them.