"The Modern Medea”: Ancient Myth and Tragedy in Toni Morrison’s Fiction

(Maymester) The novels of African American writer and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison are indelibly shaped by a rich hybrid of Greek tragedy and myth from Greece, Rome, Egypt, and West Africa. This course will explore how Morrison’s admiration for these classical traditions have influenced her creative vision of the strength, suffering, and triumph of black life in the United States. The primary focus of the course will be on two of Morrison’s novels, Song of Solomon and Beloved. We will research a range of allusions to Odysseus and other questing figures, Euripedes’s Medea, and intersectional variations of the ancient female trinities (such as the Furies, Fates, and Graces) and place these elements in conversation with Morrison’s larger meditations on race, gender, and memory. As a study abroad offering, this course will further supplement excursions in and around Mycenae by exposing students to foundational texts and resources in Greek art, myth, drama, and history. Our goal will not be to measure the quality of Morrison’s writing against these older classics, but to study how ancient traditions inform the formal and narrative strategies of her craft. “A large part of the satisfaction I have always received from reading Greek tragedy,” she once wrote, “is in its similarity to Afro-American communal structures (the function of song and chorus, the heroic struggle between the claims of community and individual hubris) and African religion and philosophy. In other words, that is part of the reason it has quality for me – I feel intellectually at home there.” 

Qiana Whitted
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