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[183] Beloved – Toni Morrison

beloved:The threads of malice creeping toward him from Beloved’s side of the table were harmless in the warmth of Sethe’s smile.” [154]

“Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going to seem to come from a far-off place.” [323]

The value of literature lies in the fact that, owing to the author’s living experience and cultural heritage, it affords a glimpse, a clarity to human condition that is truer than life. As befit to the complex nature of humanity—its existence, its endurance, and its suffering—that baffles even some of the greatest minds in history, literature that delves into such delicate subject matter must assort in literary forms in order to capture the human emotions. Beloved is such a novel, written in an ever-stitching point of view that uses both verses and stream of consciousness, juxtaposing the past with the present. The non-linear nature of the novel, which encompasses levels of the past through perspective of different characters, helps reinforce the central theme that the past is alive in the present.

“Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day.” [83]

Eighteen years after she has fled Sweet Home where she was a slave, Sethe is still not free. Before her escape, she sent her two teenage sons and a just-born unnamed baby to Baby Suggs, her mother-in-law, at her house at 124 Bluestone. Her husband, Halle, is presumably dead, having not been seen since Sethe left Sweet Home. She is plagued by the many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things have happened. Rumors have it that Sethe is the madwoman who has been locked up in the spiteful 124 for a staggering crime she has committed when the fugitive woman, then pregnant with Denver, is captured after an unsuccessful attempt to escape. After the sheriff has deemed her unfit to be a slave, she takes up residence with baby Suggs at 124. Her two sons, Buglar and Howard, have fled 124 shortly they turned thirteen. The house is spiteful because it is haunted by the spirit of Sethe’s one-year-old baby, who died 18 years ago. Her husband, Halle, is presumably dead, having not been seen since Sethe left Sweet Home.

The novel begins with the arrival of Paul D, the last of the men from Sweet Home, who tells the story before Sethe’s flight. The Garners, owner of Sweet Home, treated the blacks decently. Halle was allowed to buy his mother out of slavery. But slavery, even devoid of whips and hunger, still deprives what is essential to life. Not only does it deprive one of dignity and right, it takes away forever one’s perception of being free. When Mr. Garner died, an ignominious man referred to “schoolteacher” cornered her and took her milk. Sethe, in retrospection, couldn’t have nailed it better:

“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” [112]

Her past errors, which are yet to be revealed in the layers of narratives, take possession of the present. In fact, for most of the novel, Sethe battles the past. The kneading of the bread and folding of the cloth suggest that she is still reluctant to confront the past. For Baby Suggs, freedom means life, her beating heart:

“Next she felt a knocking in her chest and discovered something new: her own heartbeat. Had it been there all along? . . . She felt like a fool and began to laugh out loud.” [166]

Being free, however, does not mitigate suffering; for the sadness is at her center where the self is not self makes it home. Sad as it is that she does not know where her eight children are buried or what they look if alive. For they have been lost in transactions executed by white people who, consumed in their own righteousness, believes that slavery is the justified way of civilizing blacks.

“Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.” [28]

When a girl of unknown origin and affiliation arrives 124, both Denver and Paul D are certain that she is the true-to-life presence of the baby that has kept Sethe’s company most of her life. She’s the source of spite and venom. The incarnation of the baby ghost has returned to make Sethe pay for what she did. Retribution. Beloved is the representation of the past in the present, a darkness that is not truly here but ever-present. The ghost confronts Sethe of her beleaguered and secretive past: that she has killed her own daughter to save her from the fate of Sweet Home.

“I don’t have to tell you about Sweet Home—what it was—but maybe you don’t know what it was like for me to get away from there . . . I did it. I got us all out . . . Each and every one of my babies and me too. I birthed them and I got em out and it wasn’t no accident. I did that.” [190]

“She ain’t crazy. She loves those children. She was trying to out-hurt the hurter.” [276]

What has enslaved Sethe is beloved’s death, for which she is responsible. In a sense, life is bought at the expense of the baby. The cruelest thing about slavery is that love cannot co-exist with safety. Sethe faces a tough decision: to love with all her heart or to love just a little and be safe. When forced to choose between love and safety, by choosing love, death of a child is largely inevitable. Sethe values her child’s freedom more than life; and she chooses to love all the way and outstrip the whitefolks’ pride.

Sethe’s tragedy makes light of her remarks on Baby Suggs’ death at the beginning of the novel. Being a holy woman that she is, pumping love out of her heart and speaking the Word out of her mouth, she cannot approve or condemn Sethe’s rough choice. The whitefolks who bring it on have tired her out, and outwitted her finally.

“(She died) Soft as cream. Being alive was the hard part.” [8]

Beloved is a breath-taking novel that tells the story of family under the turmoil of slavery. The past is told in flashbacks, stories, and plain narratives. Many of the passages are written in fragments and pieces that leave the impression of a frayed mind. Probing unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, Beloved transforms history into a story so original and yet so close to the root of suffering. Sethe represents the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror for which even religion has no answer; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom. The sense of things being both under control and out of control percolates the book, rendering the whole slave experience very intimate. It’s not uncommon in the book that the order and quietude of daily life would be suddenly disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead. The herculean effort to forget the past is overcome by “rememory” that returns stronger and more haunting than ever. If every reader’s response to a work of fiction is determined by his or her presuppositional bias, beliefs, experience, and knowledge, this book will have no staying power, for nobody, at least not the modern readers, would have experienced or wanted to have experience what the characters have suffered. Yet Toni Morrison has achieved the opposit. The lush writing is written for re-readings. 324 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

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24 Responses

  1. You write so eloquently….wonderful post.

  2. Excellent review, Matt! So eloquent and detailed.

    I would like to talk a bit about Ella.

    In Beloved, Morrison uses the character of Ella, one of the leaders of her small Ohio community, to metaphorically explore this issue. “Whatever Sethe had done, Ella didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present…Daily life took as much as she had. The future was sunset; the past was something to leave behind. And if it didn’t stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out. Slave life; freed life; every day was a test and trial. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem. ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,’ and nobody needed more; nobody needed a grown up evil sitting at the table with a grudge. As long as the ghost showed out from its ghostly place, shaking stuff, crying, smashing and such–Ella respected it. But if it took flesh and came in her world, well, the shoe was on the other foot. She didn’t mind a little communication between the two worlds, but this was an invasion.”

    Beloved is first and foremost a brilliantly crafted and mesmerizing story, faultlessly told by one of the world’s most gifted storytellers. It is a story of ghosts–those that haunt Sethe and those that haunt all of us. Beloved is not magic realism, nor does it contain elements of magic realism. Magic realism, by its very nature, requires that the fantastic be accepted as mundane by those experiencing it. There is certainly nothing mundane about Morrison’s ghost and her acceptance by Sethe.

  3. I read this book so long ago for a college course on the supernatural in literature. I don’t remember much of it. I believe I still have this on my bookshelf. I may have to reread it soon.

  4. This might be one of my best review recently. I love this book and I’m as much in awe of the subject as Toni Morrison’s writing. I have always wondered there is symbolic meaning to “124”, any thoughts Matt?

    The sadism of some slave-owners, the devices used to torture, and the desperate measures some slaves took to protect themselves and their loved ones come fully alive here, the horrors growing as the reader gradually discovers the real source of Sethe’s torment. By forcing the reader to make the connections, instead of spelling out details in a traditional narrative, Morrison strengthens the impact of the novel and its brutal revelations. Symbols of water, rain, snow, and ice connect the disparate scenes, and the use of shadows and the ghostly character of Beloved keep the reader on tenterhooks until the action is eventually resolved. A powerful, atmospheric, and shocking novel, Beloved is also a searing indictment of slavery and the damage it has done to the fabric of life, damage that cannot be repaired until it is fully recognized through novels such as this.

  5. I’ve not yet read this book…it seems it was often a required reading for some in college, but as I often complain, I was deprived somehow! The reviews on this book are bi-polar, and I guess I can understand that in a way. It seems to be a very powerful book, but not for the faint of heart. That was an amazing post…you really should write a book…

  6. I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy this book when I was reading it. I didn’t understand what was happening for the first half, and I found the second half quitte disturbing.

    After a few months reflection I realise how powerful this book was. I read a study guide for it, and picked up loads of things I missed when I was reading it for the first time. There are so many layers to it, that it is well worth reading again, or it would be a great book to study.

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