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[801] Sula – Toni Morrison


“Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.” (118)

Sula is compelling story about a black girl, mentally ahead of her time and of the social convention, who strives to achieve freedom and individualism. She is another pariah. She grows up in a household pulsing with larger-than-life people and activity, presided over by her tyrannical and probably sorcerous grandmother, Miss Eva. Left with three children after her husband left her, Miss Eva threw under a train, with one leg cut off, and collected insurance money. Sula’s gentle mother, Hannah, is devoted almost entirely to the practice and pleasure of sensuality. As the story unfolds, it is obvious that Sula, determined to flee the Bottom, is a fusion of the two. She is haughty but has a mind of her own.

Like Sula, Nel Wright is the only daughter of a distant mother, Helene, who is in perpetual query of everyone’s propriety. Sula and Nel have the immediate intimacy of friends who seem to have known each other all their lives, because “each had discovered years before they were neither white nor male and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden them they set about something else to be.” (52) Vivacity and closeness of their friendship over the year withers and the women are split into opposites. Nel becomes the conformer, assimilating to the conventions and values of black community and in large a male-dominant society. Sula, returning from the city after ten years, is the dangerous outsider whose amorality (like art with a form) poses a threat to the community. She is a living mockery, a sinister force, a sex-hungry, man-stealing figure of darkness and betrayal. She is frowned upon on and coined the evil—who is to be survived and overcome. Having dread to smash the taboos that are her neighbors’ poor guarantees of simply surviving, she is scorned, despised, and abandoned by the people she grew out of—even after she was dead. In short, she is shunned by her people, punished for her rebellion against traditions.

Morrison does not only make you question the small town morality, but something deeper, about the meager choices available to black women outside their own society’s approval. Sula is the quintessential outsider who has gone on a real trip. She risks individualism in a determinedly individualistic, yet radically uniform and socially static community. She is strange but compelling. She doesn’t feel obliged to please anyone—not even her best friend. She is an outlaw not because of her outrageous behavior, partly out of vengeance and partly rebellion, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive. The end is heartbreaking and very moving, as Nel realizes she is no different from her friend, whom she misses.

173 pp. Vintage UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]


Reading Sula


Pamuk’s My Name is Red is too dense to read all in one sitting, so I set it aside for Sula. In Morrison’s Sula, women experience adversities generated from the idea that women should project a certain image in society and maintain a specific role in the home. Most commonly, masculinity is defined by aggression and dominance, whereas femininity is portrayed as emblematic of passivity and submission. The need for women to be submissive in a male-dominated society causes many women to suffer from a lack of individuality and self-expression. Sula and Eva suffer from the victimization of patriarchy, even though the victimization may sometimes be self-inflicted. Morrison portrays the strength perseverance, and determination that reside in women.

[424] Love – Toni Morrison

” He was dead. The dirty one who introduced her to nasty and blamed it on her. He was dead. The powerful one who abandoned his own kin and transferred rule to her playmate. He was dead. Well, good. She would go and view the wreck he left behind. ” (8,165)

Love is probably Toni Morrison’s most accessible novel, free of the unrealistic elements and magical realism that she is known for. In lyrical flashbacks, Morrison slowly reveals the glories and horrors of the past, as she tells the story of Bill Cosey and his famous hotel resort, a premium vacation destination for rich blacks. The hotel has long been closed when the novel begins, but those who have survived his death seem to live forever in the past. Cosey—a grandfather, boss, stranger, father, stranger, and lover—shapes the yearnings and nostalgia that dominates lives of several women long after his death. Their reflections make up the rich tapestry of an intricate family in Love.

Mounting the unlit stairs, glancing over her shoulder, Junior had to guess what the other rooms might hold. It seemed to her that each woman lived in a spotlight separated—or connected—by the darkness between them. (1,25)

Shelters in the family mansion are two feuding women, the Cosey’s widow Heed and her step-granddaughter Christine, who wormed herself back into the family’s fold by claiming filial responsibility for her frail, mentally unsound mother. The arrival of Junior, agirl with mismanaged past Heed hires as a secretary, sets the story in motion. Besides the subplot of Cosey’s suspicious death, the vicious fight over his coffin, the provenance of money, and his disputed will, Morrison unveils how Heed and Christine, a year apart, shared a pure conditional love that bonds the two in friendship until Bill Cosey takes Heed as his bride—when she was only eleven. Their relationship is almost gothic in its passion and ferocity, as their childhood roles are reversed over the years, with Heed the heiress and Christine the servant. Heed has outsmarted all the women in the family and matures to a “grown-up nasty.”

Her struggle with Heed was neither mindless or wasted. She would never forget how she had fought for her, defied her mother to protect her, to give her clothes: dresses, shorts, a bathing suit, sandals; to picnic alone on the beach. They shared stomachache laughter, a secret language, and knew as they slept together that one’s dreaming was the same as the other one’s. (6,132)

For years Christine tries to gather evidence to fight for primacy in the family, but Heed outwits her as well as the watchful hotel cook L (might very well be short for Love), who provides a choral commentary and weaves together the different narratives. L has interfered with the women’s brawl in order to give Cosey a dignified funeral. Although the physical fights withdraw to an acid silence, Heed and Christine invent other ways to underscore their bitterness. If Cosey has stolen their innocence, it’s Christine’s mother that has imbued hate in them such that it enslaves them forever.

In re-creating the family history, Morrison deftly delivers a profound character-study of the women. She forces them to to the edge of endurance, places them in extreme situations, and makes them struggle to identify themselves in order to fulfill an essential self. As in any of her novel, the sense of loss prevails in Love, where opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, and despair all converge to hatred. Arguments seethe and accusations run rife. Like L has reflected early on in the book, every woman has a sad story: mean mothers, false-hearted men or malicious friends. They learn how sudden, how profound loneliness could be and seek love at the expense of their innocence.

He took all my childhood away from me, girl.
He took all of you away from me. (9,194)

Love is an unforgettable novel about friendship, the purity of bond and love, untainted by any racial and sexual label, that is only found in innocent children. The story reminds us that any passion experienced in adulthood is secondary to a child’s first chosen love in terms of innocence and rawness.  Once again in this accomplished novel Morrison advocates that African-American characters can speak for all humanity, even though within the story’s frame they are bound by their culture.

202 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Reading “Love”, Morrison

Toni Morrison always intimidates me; but after Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury I feel invincible. Love is my fifth Morrison, and she gives her usual unrealistic element in telling a story.

Her prose has the quality of speech; Morrison deliberately strives for this effect, which she calls “aural literature.” She hears her prose as she writes, and during the revision process she cuts phrasing which sounds literary or written rather than spoken. She rejects critics’ assertions that her prose is rich; to those who say her prose is poetic, she responds that metaphors are natural in black speech.

Her writing often makes me let out “ah-huh…” or hum to it. Her prose is so viciously right-on and biting:

Do they still call it infatuation? That magic ax that chops away the world in one blow, leaving only the couple standing there trembling? Whatever they call it, it leaps over anything, takes the biggest chair, the largest slice, rules the ground wherever it walks, from a mansion to a swamp, and its selfishness is its beauty…. People with no imagination feed it with sex — the clown of love. They don’t know the real kinds, the better kinds, where losses are cut and everybody benefits. It takes a certain intelligence to love like that — softly, without props. (9)

Every page of this book evokes love and hate through intricate family history. It takes as much effort to hate as to love:

Heed’s look, cold and long, had been anything but inviting, so Christine just slammed past her through the door. With very few words they came to an agreement of sorts because May was hopeless, the place filthy, Heed’s arthritis was disabling her hands, and because nobody in town could stand them. So the one who had attended private school kept house while the one who could barely read ruled it. The one who had been sold by a man battled the one who had been bought by one. The level of desperation it took to force her way in was high, for she was returning to a house whose owner was willing to burn it down just to keep her out. Had once, in fact, set fire to Christine’s bed for precisely that purpose. So this time, for safety she settled in the little apartment next to the kitchen. Some relief surfaced when she sawed Heed’s useless hands, but knowing what the woman was capable of still caused her heart to beat raggedly in Heed’s presence. No one was slyer or more vindictive. So the door between the kitchen and Christine’s rooms had a hidden key and a very strong lock. (86)

So riveting is this novel, Morrison’s eighth, published in 2003. Literally I’m glued to it unless I have to attend to my obligations at work. On top of the family drama, it’s the personal histories that make these women so attractive to read. Never mess with women, let alone women who have been hurt.

[366] A Mercy – Toni Morrison

” I don’t think God knows who we are. I think He would like us, if He knew us, but I don’t think He knows about us. He did. But He made the tails of peacocks too. That must have been harder . . . All well and good. But that’s our business. Not God’s. He’s doing something else in the world. We are not on his mind. ” [80]

Set at the close of 17th century, A Mercy details America’s untoward foundation, that is, rooted in exploitation of natives and slavery. In fact, the novel, bereft of any cynicism, reveals Morrison once more as a conscious inheritor of America’s pastoral tradition, even as she implicitly criticizes it. As the (yet-to-be-founded) country’s reliance on slavery as an economic engine barely started, A Mercy explores the repercussions of an enslaved mother’s desperate act: She offers her small daughter to a stranger in payment for her master’s debt.

There is no protection. To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below. [163]

The story unfolds through the eyes of four women. A traumatized Native American servant Lina, whose tribe had been completely wiped out by smallpox; Florens, the coltish enslaved girl at the novel’s center; an enigmatic wild child named Sorrow who spent life at sea; and Rebekka, their European mistress—Jacob the farmer’s wife, whom he sight unseen imported from London, still retaining raw memories of hangings and drawing-and-quarterings back home. Kind, politically and religiously contrarian, the Mistress quickly becomes friends with her servants, although she reels the loss of one infant after another in her isolated homestead.

Female and illegal, they would be interlopers, squatters, if they stayed on after Mistress died, subject to purchase, hire, assault, abduction, exile. [58]

Although Morrison doesn’t gloss over the injustices and brutalities of slavery, one still sees two original sins for the price of one: the near extermination of the native population and the importation of slaves from Africa. In this Eden that Jacob Vaark builds, who claims that “flesh is not his commodity,” he has to conform to the society’s psyche in order to survive. His money is no less tainted then if he’d wielded a whip himself. Slavery and its repercussions are realized through the stories of these women and of the men—Jacob himself, and a formidable free black man known as the blacksmith—who both stabilize and disrupt their worlds through love.

Cut loose from the earth’s soul, [the Europeans] insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples. Lina was not so sure. Based on the way Sir and Mistress tried to run their farm, she knew there were exceptions to the sachem’s revised prophecy. [54]

Transformative maternity defines A Mercy, which begins and ends with the devil’s bargain referred in the title and expounded by Florens’s mother in the devastating conclusion. The novel is moderately difficult to understand at the beginning but becomes steadily intelligible as nuances made clear. Morrison dislodges the notion that slavery can be defined by race or class alone and extends her narrative to include multiple forms of mental enslavement that are rife even in a fragmented, capitalistic society. The women portrayed either knowingly or ignorantly surrender dominion of themselves over to one of more superior social status as perceived by the prevailing standards. Desire for stability, acceptance, love, and makeup for what was lost leads them respectively to condone their own enslavement. Slavery truly holds power over slaves when they accept it as their only path in life, when they lose the ability to own their own lives and instead believe in the value society gives to them—and this is what a mother tries to avoid. Faced with no choice, she made the one best choice: to cast off the daughter in order to save her.

167 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[188] Sula – Toni Morrison

sula1“…they felt the ease and comfort of old friends. Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be.” [52]

After emancipation, stands in the hills above the valley town of Medallion, Ohio, is a neighborhood called the Bottom populated by blacks. The rich whites hoodwink them into believing that being up on the hills they are closer to heaven. The blacks can only take small consolation in the fact that everyday they could literally look down on the white folks in the valley.

Growing up together in the Bottom of Medallion are Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who find a safe harbor in each other’s company. In 1922, they are both twelve years old. Nel’s mother obeys the imperative to conform by settling into an unremarkable middle class life. She tries to force that same repressive order to Nel, who resolves to build herself according to her own rules and to find strength within herself. Ironically, Helene, who is light-skinned, cannot escape racism. All the old vulnerabilities and fears that define her race still clutch her.

“While Helene looked about the tiny stationhouse for a door that said COLORED WOMEN, the other woman stalked off to a field of high grass on the far side of the track.” [24]

The order and boundary of Helene’s conservative, religious middle class respectability with which she raises Nel does not prepare her to cope with challenges in her marriage and friendship. Sula grows up in a household built on an unconventional family structure. Her widowed mother, Hannah, exasperates other women in town with her promiscuity. They treat Hannah like a hazard because she will sleep with anyone that takes her fancy.

“Hannah simply refused to live without the attentions of a man, and after Rukus’ death had a steady sequence of lovers, mostly the husbands of her friends and neighbors. Her flirting was sweet, low, and guileless. Without ever a pat of the hair, a rush to change clothes or a quick application of paint, with no gesture whatsoever, she rippled with sex.” [42]

It’s loneliness that finds them together. One calmed by a mother who drives all her imagination underground, the other wedged to a house of throbbing disorder, the girls find relief in the each other’s personality. Their close-knit friendship drastically changes when Sula rejects the life Nel has embraced, escaping to college, and returning to her roots as a rebel and a wanton seductress. Her capricious and impudent behavior (wearing no underwear to church, sleeping with white men), which defies all social and moral rules, frightens the already suspicious community. In order to contain and justify their fear, they label her evil. The plague of robins is a sign of evil’s arrival. She confronts her grandmother Eva of burning her own son to death. She commits the old woman into a nursing home. She has an affair with Nel’s husband, Jude.

“They insisted that all unions between white men and black women be rape; for a black woman to be willing was literally unthinkable. In that way, they regarded integration with precisely the same venom that white people did.” [112]

Considering Eva and Hannah’s unconventional life, it’s odd that Eva criticizes Sula for being unmarried and independent. Because her disregard for moral values nearly destroys Nel, it’s easy to accept the town’s need to define Sula as evil, as their decision to place all blame for the failure of Nel’s marriage on her is facile. That the community has always revered Nel Wright as a role model for a woman has justified its overlooking her weak sense of self and concentrating antagonism on Sula. That she has gone to bed with men as frequently as she could almost live up to the town’s expectation of her being a slut. But in framing its hatred as disgust for her careless ways, the town has overlooked that her mother has not liked her as a child. She has been stripped of all sense of ego and ambition, finding neither people nor self to count on.

“She had clung to Nel as the closest thing to both an other and a self, only to discover that she and Nel were not one and the same thing. She had no thought at all of causing Nel Pain when she bedded down with Jude.” [119]

Marriage has apparently changed the way they have shared the affection of other people. Having lived in a house with women who thought all men available, and selected from among them with a care only for their fantasies, Sula is ill prepared for the possessiveness of the one person she feels close to. Her loneliness as she says, belongs to her, for it’s in her skin.

“Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.” [143]

If Nel keeps her emotions at bay, Sula is driven by mood and whim. She has been looking all along for someone who is both a comrade and a lover. But her incessant affairs have only merged into one large personality defined by perfunctory romance, not love. If loneliness assumes the absence of other people, the solitude she has found in that desperate terrain has never admitted the possibility of other people. Sula’s demise allures to the community’s “outwit and triumph” over vileness. That Eva has outlived her granddaughter reinforces the underlying theme of love’s ambiguous power. Unable to watch her son plummet further into heroin addiction, Eva kills him. The ambivalance of a mother’s love is reminiscent of Sethe’s choosing death for her baby over slavery in Beloved. Eva likewise has chosen death over the slavery of an addiction out of love. Her love engenders frustration and pain that Sula tries so hard to avoid in her search for love.

The novel also explores notions of good and evil through the friendship of two childhood friends who have witness the accidental death of a little boy. Nel admits to herself that she had blamed his death entirely on Sula and set herself up as the “good” half of the relationship. In this regard, Sula is a novel about ambiguity. It questions and examines the terms “good” and “evil,” often demonstrating that the two often resemble one another. 174 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

[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]

Reading Beloved

beloved2Grading quizzes and private tutoring fill up my Sunday, although I did manage to read some Beloved this morning over coffee. With the unusually warm weather and Superbowl, the coffee shop was so slow this morning that I could count the number of heads coming in with all my fingers during the first hour and a half. The calm and serene atmosphere and the drony piano music were perfect for reading Toni Morrison, whose beautifully cumbersome writing that is worth many re-readings. In fact, that is the case–the going back and forth, re-reading passages. It’s one thing to appreciate the beautiful writing, it’s another to understand the underlying messages, which are perversely stressed and consciously exalted.

“For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.” [45]

“Sethe had the amazing luck of six whole years of marriage to that ‘somebody’ son who had fathered every one of her children. A blessing she was reckless enough to take for granted, lean on, as though Sweet Home really was one. As though a handful of myrtle stuck in the handle of a pressing iron propped against the door in a whitewomna’s kitchen could make it hers. As though mint sprig in the mouth changed the breath as well as its odor. A bigger fool never lived. Sethe started to turn over on her stomach but changed her mind. She did not want to call Paul D’s attention back to her, so she settled for crossing her ankles.” [28]

The structure of the work is compounded with an ever-switching point of view. Every character, even the dead ones and half-alive ones, tell parts of the tale. The narrative turns into flashbacks, folklores, memories, reflections, and juxtaposition of time. Sometimes both time and voice change within a paragraph that I have to go back to re-read the context in which she is speaking. The pieces and fragments are left to readers to put them in place. The second day of reading takes me to page 73. More to come along the way.

Sixty Million and More

In addition to Crime and Punishment, which I am reading to prepare for my course, and of which C.B. James has kindly hosted me in his review post, I’m reading Beloved in observance of the upcoming Black History and heritage Month.

The first page of the novel, which usually plays host to a dedication of sorts, is inscribed with the ominous “Sixty Million and more.” The words refer to the estimated number of Africans who died in the Middle Passage between Africa and North America. The slave trade was notorious for its dirty, crowded ships, into whose cellars Africans were forced to lie for periods of up to twelve weeks. The reference and the implication of a dedication are more than enough to set the theme of slavery firmly into the reader’s mind. Morrison scrutinizes the terrifying physical and emotional trauma that slavery unleashes, to make undoubtedly what one can call her best work to date Beloved. The novel was inspired by the true story of a black American slave woman, Margaret Garner, who was infamously known for killing her own daughter rather than seeing the child return to slavery.

The epigraph, a passage from the Bible (Romans 9:25) is a statement by Hosea quoted by Paul in a sermon on the ultimate sovereignty of God. We do not know, claims Paul, whom the Lord has chosen to save. Thus, until the final judgment, the Lord may call a person “beloved, which was not beloved,” (i.e. who was not made to be saved). The context, however, serves only as a background—perhaps to evoke the uncertainty of our lives. In the foreground is the juxtaposition of the past and present of the quote, the naming of someone beloved who was not beloved, as well as the religious overtones. Mixing religious notions and historical context, this book, although notoriously difficult, would breathe new meaning to me as I’m reading at my own pace.