Morrison Discusses Good and Evil in Literature

Toni Morrison on Goodness and Altruism
Nathalie R. Miraval

Toni Morrison, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, gives a talk as part of the Harvard Divinity School's Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality, Thursday afternoon. Morrison explored the role of goodness and altruism in literature.

Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison discussed the divide between good and evil in 19th and 20th-century literature and her own writing in Sanders Theater Thursday afternoon.

Morrison’s lecture was part of the Harvard Divinity School’s Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality, an annual tradition that is more than a century old and has included William James and Stephen Gould among its lecturers.

Morrison was introduced by Divinity School Professor Davíd Carrasco, one of her personal friends. The winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for her novel Beloved, the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, and the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom, Morrison now serves as a professor at Princeton University.

Morrison opened her lecture by describing a school shooting that took place in an Amish community in 2006. The shooting was unique because the community responded by forgiving the killer and embracing his family, rather than judging him for his actions or seeking retribution. This incident, she said, drew her attention to the concept of goodness: what constitutes it and what its origin may be.

Morrison suggested three manifestations of goodness: as an act of selflessness that can be taught and learned; as narcissism driven by a desire to think well of oneself; and as an inherent, embedded gene. No discussion of goodness is complete, she added, without a consideration of evil.


“Evil has a blockbuster audience; goodness lurks backstage,” Morrison said. She added that while many 19th-century writers ended their stories with the triumph of virtue, writers of the 20th century were masters at exposing the frailty and comedy of goodness in their work.

“Goodness must have a strong impact on a novel’s structure and meaning,” she said, adding that she tries to depict goodness this way in her own writing.

“What struck me the most was one line about how evil is given vivid voice where goodness bites its tongue,” said Katie L. LaRoche, a student at the Divinity School. “She made me contemplate decisions I’ve made in the past where I’ve bitten my tongue, not done what was right.”

“Very few times in life do you get the opportunity to sit and be present in front of greatness,” said Manikka L. Bowman, who attended the lecture with a friend. “I had that experience tonight, and it was very powerful.”

—Staff writer Ginny C. Fahs can be reached at