Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Mary O'Connor




This study considers the critique of American exceptionalism in Toni Morrison's Paradise and Beloved. While much African American fiction, particularly classic slave narratives, employ critiques of exceptionalism, most of these critiques appeal to the nation's failure to live up to its claims of greatness. These critiques focus on the hypocrisy of a nation that makes claims to American greatness despite the nation's racial exclusions and inequalities. Morrison's critical and creative work, on the other hand, suggests the interlocking racial, gender, and economic oppression of African Americans is absolutely crucial to the development and maintenance of America's exceptionalist ethos. Defining themselves against its black population, European America, Morrison argues, was able to develop a powerful exceptionalist self-image. From this perspective American racial, imperialist, and sexual domination is not a contradiction of but is instead inevitably implicated in American exceptionalism. Using Morrison's critical work as a starting point and methodological framework I investigate the various ways exceptionalism is registered in the two novels. Chapter 1 outlines the history of exceptionalism drawing out the key points of its development from the Puritans through the twentieth century, particularly as this mythology was employed in the field of literary studies. Outlining Morrison's critical work on the nation and the "Africanist presence" alongside her self-professed use of paradoxically pregnant silences, I lay the groundwork for an investigation into the two novels' unwillingness to use exceptionalist rhetoric to advance the cause of social justice. Chapter 2 discusses Beloved's historical context and the resurgence of the exceptionalist mythology in the Reagan years when the achievements of Civil Rights were being undermined by neo-conservatism. This context, along with a discussion of the generic codes of the slave narrative, frame a consideration of Beloved's lack of overt appeal to the mythology, a pregnant silence that strategically undermines the idea that America, because it abolished slavery and granted Civil Rights, is a model of freedom and democracy, an exceptional nation on the world stage. Chapter 3 reflects upon Paradise as a critique of exceptionalism as a misogynist mythology that both justifies and produces war and imperialism. The chapter draws out the links Paradise makes between domestic racism and imperialist wars abroad by way of Morrison's consideration of exceptionalism. Ultimately, Morrison's work offers an imaginative, critical contextualization for the contemporary American wars of aggression and the current resurgence of the exceptionalist mythology.

McMaster University Library

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