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Close Reading the First Line of Home by Toni Morrison

Jeff O'Neal

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Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

This post is part of our Toni Morrison Reading Day: a celebration of  one of our favorite authors on the occasion of her new novel, Home. Check out the rest right here.


I’m going to take a crack at close-reading the first line of Home. I haven’t read past the first twelve words, so any or all of what I have to say about it might turn out to be wrong. The point, though, is not to be right; the point is to pay attention.

And lord, Morrison is great at first lines. 124 was spiteful. Or how about They shoot the white girl first. They tend to be tight, evocative, and menacing. The first line (three short sentences) of Home does feel like a Morrison opener:

They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood. 

As is often the case with Morrison, this trio of sentences seems simple but feels complicated. Let’s have a look.


The line reflects back on itself with the initial subject-predicate-verb construction inverted in the third line. The “mirror” through which these rising/standing men are reflected is the “we.” This suggests that the novel will be one of observation, presumably with the “we” watching the “they.”

The syntactical symmetry is almost poetic, which is really no surprise.

I’m not exactly sure why “rose up” and not “rose” or “stood” as the first verb. The switch from “rose up” in the first sentence to “stood” in the third interrupts the symmetry, which I think keeps it from seeming precious. “Rose up” also has a ghostly quality, or perhaps a messianic one (they are arisen?).

I keep looking at that repeated “like men.” Is it just me, or does the emphasis on “like” make it seem as if it is possible that they aren’t men? Or they are men whose masculinity is somehow compromised. Or does it just allow the structural inversion? If the “like men” is removed, then the third sentence doesn’t have anything to invert. More likely (this is Morrison we are talking about), the structure and content are both critical.

There is also an implied simultaneity to the standing here, and that suggests to me some sort of ceremony. Funeral perhaps? What other type of occasion calls for a group of men (or like-men beings) to stand together? Perhaps a military or governmental ceremony of some kind. The “seeing” also suggests that these men were at the center of the ceremony.

Alright, so what I am thinking now is that this line is about a performance of masculinity, one that has to have been seen for the the performance to matter.

The visual image “They rose up like men” coupled with the third-person plural “we saw them” puts the reader in the same situation as the “we.” We, the readers, visualize standing men: we see them. This brings up the question of our reading position: where we are in relation to the various characters in the novel. Already we are observing the “they,” and this observation indicates a certain distance. We will likely be most interested in the “they,” but narratively closer to the “we.”

Maybe it’s the ceremonial solemnity I am sensing, but it feels cold. Maybe not cold, that is stronger than I mean. Clinical maybe? Some sort of psychological or emotional distance. The short sentences are part of it, especially that flat, three-syllable one in the middle. That inert sentence breaks up the small, quiet poetry of the first and third sentences, as if it can’t quite connect with them.

Time to wind down a little. Here’s what I am going to be watching for in the rest of novel, based on what I am seeing here: masculinity, observation, distance, ceremony, and disconnection. After I finish the novel later today, I’ll pop back in and do a little post-mortem on my reading here. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be wildly off.

Anything I miss here?