Function or Frill: The Quilt as Storyteller in Toni Morrison's Beloved.


WITH THE RISE of various theories of feminist criticism and the accompanying interest in feminist narratives, many metaphors pertaining to the craft of sewing--a pastime traditionally associated with women--have gained attention as embodying common images of pen and needle. Theoretical writing of the feminist critic abounds with images of "text and textile, thread and theme, weaver and web" (Showalter, 224). One conspicuous trope that has become useful is the patchwork quilt. Because of its frequent appearance in fiction by women and about women, it falls naturally into the domain of the rhetoric of feminine gender. Elaine Showalter, in fact, identifies its as "one of the most central images in this new feminist lexicon" (225).

In the fiction of American women for several centuries, the quilt has indeed provided a convenient metaphor not only for feminist criticism but also for providing opportunities in understanding structure, character, theme, and other standard elements of fiction. A re-reading of twentieth-century novelist, Toni Morrison, however, reveals a role of the quilt that has not yet been explored--its use as a narrative device, as an important part of the storyteller's technique. As she utilizes the quilt in the process of telling her story, it becomes an integral part of the fiction, functioning as an intrinsic component of narrative and plot and not as a conventional metaphor.

First, it will be helpful to take a brief look at various roles the quilt has played in literary criticism. Certainly, its credibility as a vehicle for interpretation has been established by assorted critical approaches to women's fiction. Showalter's use of this trope, for example, is to draw analogies between the development of piecing and the writing of female experience, and her approach is to examine--through history, genre, and theme--the traditions, forms, and meanings of women's writing in America. On the other hand, Cheryl B. Torsney sees the traditional quilt as a modern image, a "critical quilt" (180-81) pieced together to include all the differing theories of present feminist criticism and, as such, offers a collective alternative to traditional analyses. James M. Mellard provides yet another useful application of the quilt as a image for all literary canon, forming a "ground" (478) of unity on which the squares represent a diversity of individual pieces. These interpretations, of course, place the craft of quiltmaking into the broad contexts of literature in general and of women's fiction in particular. Endeavoring to narrow our focus toward the ways that specific traditional roles of the quilt play out in the fiction of individual writers--both women and men--we do not have far to look. In Dorothy Canfield Fisher's story, "The Bedquilt," the tale of Aunt Mehetabel's quilt becomes a symbol, for example, as it represents a parable of the women writer's creativity (Showalter, 241). The quilt gains thematic status in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as it reinforces comfort in the solidarity of community juxtaposed against isolation of the individual (Caselli, 86). And, as a technique for character development, Alice Walker in The Color Purple demonstrates the power of quiltmaking as Celie validates herself, transforming her life from fragment into a self-constructed whole (Elsley, 80). These isolated examples serve to demonstrate the same idea that a more thorough list would lead us to conclude--the quilt provides metaphors that are useful when examining fiction after it has become a whole piece, after the story has been told.

Rather than limit the image of the quilt to these restrictive capacities, however, we can give it a more significant role--as a storytelling device--and we will see that Toni Morrison in Beloved has incorporated it into the process of relating her story to the reader. If we explore the possibility of the quilt as an integral part of the process of moving a story from teller to receiver, it is necessary to recognize its duality not only as a useful metaphor but also as a vehicle for narrative. The quilt becomes an entity that provides additional perspectives on plot development, marking important stages. Consequently, its image then becomes inherently essential to the advancement of story and not simply a readily available metaphor or a realistic surface detail.

The quilt is especially useful in this novel, for it provides a consistent line of movement, or grounding, for Morrison's shifting narrative perspectives of voice and time. Within the pages of Morrison's story, all the major characters become narrators, "storytellers" who recount the events of Beloved's death and resurrection from the various viewpoints of their individual perspectives and through shifting points in time. The quilt, therefore, provides a gounding, a narrative backing which arranges the story within the borders of an Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end. Regardless of Morrison's use of shifting narrative voices, her use of the patchwork quilt clearly designates these three stages of plot: the phase before Beloved's arrival, the time period of her visible presence within 124, and the stage after her expulsion.

The words of Morrison's text, after all, begin and end inside 124, the gray and white house of Bluestone Road, where the reader is soon aware of a quilt in one of its rooms and where the quilt remains--an inert object which, in spite of its stasis, is capable of suggesting the forward movement of plot into various significant stages of the narrative. In the beginning, the quilt covers Baby Suggs as she lies dying on her sickbed:

 The walls of the room were slate-colored, the floor earth-brown, the wooden 
dresser the color of itself, curtains white, and the dominating feature,
the quilt over an iron cot, was made up of scraps of blue serge, black,
brown and gray wool--the full range of the dark and the muted that thrift
and modesty allowed. (38)
It is this covering that blankets her "until her big old heart quit" and she "pulled up the quilt" (104) over herself. By this time, her matriarchal position in the household has been supplanted by the presence of another energy, and Baby Suggs succumbs to it, but not without continuing with what is important to her at the time--"pondering color" (4). She requests that objects with color be shown to her, and Sethe readily obliges, realizing that the dying woman is starved for color that is lacking from her drab surroundings except for "two orange squares in a quilt that made the absence shout" (38). Beloved does not manifest herself visibly until after Baby Suggs's death; thus, the quilt provides the narrative perspective that relates to the reader the importance of this first stage in the story: Beloved is not yet tangibly present but, even in her "absence," she makes the environment "shout" with the turmoil of her antics. When Beloved makes her "appearance," Baby Suggs will not be there to ponder the colors of her surroundings, but the quilt is the vehicle which moves the narrative into this stage in which the surviving females must "ponder" their predicament as Beloved disrupts their lives. Again, the quilt becomes Morrison's narrative marker to designate the significant time period of Beloved's sojurn with them in House 124. When Sethe goes to Baby Suggs's keeping room to talk-think, she notices the drab old quilt with its splashes of color: "In that sober field, two patches of orange looked wild--like life in the raw" (38). Indeed, life in the household does become raw and harsh because of Beloved's troubling presence; her disruption is a "wild" disturbance juxtaposes against Seth and Denver's "sober" existence.

A crucial part of this phase of the narrative is Denver's movement from her ignorance of Beloved's past to her comprehension of her intentions for their future. Emphasizing this idea for the reader is, again, the presence of the quilt.

 It took three days for Beloved to notice the orange patches in the darkness 
of the quilt. Denver was pleased because it kept her patient awake longer.
She seemed totally taken with those faded scraps of orange, even made the
effort to lean on her elbow and stroke them. An effort that quickly
exhausted her, so Denver rearranged the quilt so its cheeriest part was in
the sick girl's sight line. (54)
The quilt with its small amount of color signals a large portion of Morrison's narrative by marking the genesis of Denver's potential to understand this strange new arrival. Her progress toward this understanding is identified with plot movement, for her constant interaction with Beloved throughout the story meshes her subsequent knowledge with actions and events of the story line. In the last pages of the story, the quilt again makes its appearance when Paul D. finds Sethe lying on Baby Suggs's bed "lying under a quilt of merry colors" (271). Remaining until the end, the old covering has been patched but still continues in its significance as a narrative device. Marking the departure of Beloved and the arrival of Paul D., it designates the phase of Sethe's healing. She knows the answer to her own unspoken question: "And if he bathes her in sections, will the parts hold?" (272). And as Paul D. "examines the quilt patched in carnival colors" (272), he remembers Sixo's words about the Thirty-Mile woman: "She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order" (272-73). Like the patched covering, both Sethe and Paul D. will become mended--fragmented remnants being pieced together, or held together, into whole selves. Ironically, the ending stage of Morrison's story is actually indicative of another beginning, a movement toward Paul D.'s suggestion for "some kind of tomorrow" (273). This cyclical movement actually gives coherence to the fragmented story provided by various narrators. Many critics see a flaw in endings such as this in Morrison's fiction--a lack of closure. Catherine Rainwater, for example, sees a need for "narrative mooring" and explains:

 In Morrison's novels some type of circular narrative pattern attempts but 
conspicuously fails to enclose a "completed" story. The "idea" of closure
is kept "alive" as an ideal, but the origins and endings of the various
strands of the stories remain elusive.... The characters, together with
their stories, evade closure. (101)
However, with the use of the quilt as a narrative indicator, Morrison achieves a special kind of mooring or grounding that provides both clarity and narrative closure for the fragments of perspectives supplied by various "storytellers." The quilt becomes, then, a part of the process of storytelling. Certainly, the art of storytelling cannot be ignored as an important aspect in any analysis of this novel. First, Morrison as author has a story to relate to her reader. Within her story, her main character has a hunger for hearing Denver's account of the "story" of the past as the two of them rest on the cot: "And the more fine points she [Denver] made, the more detail she provided, the more Beloved liked it" (78). We inevitably determine a motif of storytelling within Morrison's story, and the quilt is again present as Denver spins her version of the story: "The dark quilt with two orange patches was there with them because Beloved wanted it near her when she slept" (78). At the end, as Paul D. contemplates the quilt which covers Sethe, he "wants to put his story next to hers" (275), not only reinforcing the story motif but also implying its continuity in the future.

Further enhancing the storytelling theme is the fact that, in order to relate her story, Morrison uses the voices of every major character in the text, signifying that this story needs many perspectives in its telling, many other "storytellers." Andew Levy makes this observation:

 But if no individual can tell the story, Morrison appears to suggest, then 
perhaps the story is meant to be told multivocally, as a fluid amalgamation
of many individual perspectives--the community of narrative voices, for
instance, that constitutes Beloved itself. (115)
The quilt, then, in its role a signifier of specific stages of plot, becomes part of this community of narrative voices in rendering an intelligible story. If Morrison's discontinuous sequences would threaten to confuse her reader, she helps prevent this possible dilemma by projecting the quilt into her narrative. "If one cannot tell a single diachronic story ... then one must tell many stories that, held together synchronically in the reader's mind, might consequently illuminate one another" (Rainwater, 106), and the quilt's role is to hold together in the reader's mind a continuous, fluid story that might otherwise be further disjointed or fragmented. Just as a quilt's backing holds its many squares in their places to form a discernible patter, Morrison's quilt provides coherence for her story's design. One may understandably question whether a story is in the quilt or whether a quilt is in the story; consequently, understanding each will shed light on the other. Many quilters would quickly affirm the idea that their efforts in piecing together remnants into a whole represent not only a finished product, but also a gathering together of memories of past events and people. Scraps of cloth from dresses, pants, work and play clothes, curtains, night clothes, uniforms, and other vestiges of daily existence represent their life experiences, and writers often become the voice to validate the story in the quilt. "My whole life is in the quilt. / All my joys, and all my sorrows / stitched into those little pieces./ ... / I tremble sometimes / when I remember / what that quilt knows" (Joyce, 13). Often, the pattern itself contains a story of a life and its meaning: "When Mama had collected enough patches of color for creation ... she tried her hand at quilting the metaphors they had touched: the Gate Latch, the Anvil, and the Chum Dasher. These handrubbed subjects would render a rough grace, like the buckshot artistry of wild mustard bloom or the splintered symmetry of a new rail fence" (Ball, 46-47). The stories in the quilts do not always romanticize the lives of their makers:

 They could tell a tale of days and months of mindless, thankless tedium, 
cooking food and a depressing sameness, washing and sewing and mending
clothes that were forever being worn out or outgrown, frustrating days and
sleepless nights with a whining child ill or dying of some disease that
could have been cured by one shot of penicillin. (Gutcheon, 13-14)
Quilts--factual or fictitious--clearly have the capacity to encapsulate stories within the fabrics and designs of their squares. More frequently, however, quilts appear in fiction as elements within the narratives--the quilt is in the story. Writers desiring to select realistic details reflecting colonial settlement, the pioneer movement, turn-of-the-century life, Depression years, or current country living have included the quilt as a staple. Within the contexts of various stories, quilts are carefully packed into covered wagons to make the long journey with every family, they are given to young brides as part of trousseaus, they are used for birth blankets and death shrouds, they are meticulously folded over the counterpanes of spinster aunts, and they are fought over as birthrights by siblings. In these capacities, the quilt is only one of many elements that give any story its authenticity involving time and place setting; therefore, its presence could be considered superficial, and its absence would not necessarily lessen the impact of the fiction.

As such, the quilt's presence in fiction is appraised as ornamental, a "frill" that provides aesthetic contributions. In this capacity, it may well reflect one major historical type of quilts, the ones that were created for pleasure out of leisure time rather than those that were created out of necessity. During the many decades before technology made it economically possible to buy other types of coverings such as sheets, blankets, and comforters, quilts were a fact of life, not an option for personal pleasure or domestic decoration. They were fashioned out of need rather than desire, and their creation represented toil rather than leisure. Subsequently, when quilts were no longer indispensable items for household, they became decorative accessories, not integral features.

On the other hand, Morrison's quilt, used as a narrative device, represents the role of the quilt of usefulness. Just as the latter was functional in the lifestyles of families, the literary quilt is a useful device for Morrison. In Beloved, it becomes an integral feature of the author's storytelling. It contributes to her story, not as a surface "frill," but in an essential "function." Its presence is not that of a "nicety" created out of a desire for realistic detail; rather, it is one of a "necessity" generated out of a need for successful storytelling.

If we want to understand a storyteller's craft, we must look deep into the text for signs of what the writer wants us to recognize. When we endeavor to look within the pages of Beloved, we can identify Morrison's use of the patchwork quilt in its meaningful role as it works together with other stylistic components in moving the story from teller to receiver. Unlike Beloved, who remains "disremembered and unaccounted for" (275), the story of her arrival, her sojourn, and her departure is a clearer account because of the quilt's presence in the text. One of the voices at the end emphasizes that "This is not a story to pass on" (275), but the quilt is one significant voice that Morrison utilizes in the process of moving through her narrative, of passing on her story to her reader.


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Caselli, Jaclyn. "John Steinbeck and the American Patchwork Quilt." San Jose Studies, I:3 (1975), 83-87.

Elsley, Judy. "`Nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent': Fragmentation in the Quilt and The Color Purple." Weber Studies: An Interdisciplinary Humanities Journal, IX:2 (Spring-Summer 1992), 71-81.

Gutcheon, Beth. The Perfect Patchwork Primer. New York: David McKay Company, 1973.

Joyce, Jane Wilson. "Rose of Sharon." In Quilt Pieces: The Quilt Poems and Family Knots. Jane Wilson Joyce and Meredith Sue Willis, eds. Frankfort, Kentucky: Gnomon, 1991. 13.

Levy, Andrew. "Telling Beloved." Texas Studies in Literature and Language, XXXIII:1 (Spring 1991), 114-23.

Mellard, James M. "Lists, Stories, and Granny's Quilts: Writing--and Rewriting--Southern Cultural and Literary History." Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Culture, XLIV: 4 (Fall 1991), 463-80.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987 New York: New American Library (Pengiun), 1988.

Rainwater Catherine. "Worthy Messengers: Narrative Voices in Toni Morrison's Novels." Texas Studies in Literature and Language, XXXIII:1 (Spring 1991), 96-113.

Showalter, Elaine. "Piecing and Writing." The Poetics of Gender. Ed Nancy K. Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. 222-47.

Torsney, Cheryl B. "The Critical Quilt." Contemporary Literary Theory. Eds. C. Douglas Atkins and Laura Morrow. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. 180-99.

The quilt, we have recently learned, played a role in guiding slaves to freedom. Toni Morrison's quilt in Beloved, as JANICE BARNES DANIEL points out, provides a narrative backing for shifting perspectives of voice and time, giving clarity to the fragmented pieces of Beloved's story. Currently an Instructor in English at Ashland Community College in Kentucky, Daniel has taught there and at Morehead State University classes in American literature, language arts pedagogy, and composition, including computer-assisted writing and distance learning via interactive compressed video. Her publications include work on Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Harriet Jacobs, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She is presently working on a study of Sarah Orne Jewett's use of framing strategies.


Publication Information: Article Title: Function or Frill: The Quilt as Storyteller in Toni Morrison's Beloved. Contributors: Janice Barnes Daniel - author. Journal Title: The Midwest Quarterly. Volume: 41. Issue: 3. Publication Year: 2000. Page Number: 321. COPYRIGHT 2000 Pittsburg State University - Midwest Quarterly