Set primarily in southern Ohio during the period immediately following the Civil War, BELOVED centers on the attempts of the protagonist, Sethe, to come to terms with the extremely painful events associated with her attempt to escape from slavery a decade earlier. After extricating herself and her four children from an increasingly intolerable situation on the ironically named “Sweet Home” plantation in Kentucky, Sethe is tracked down by her master, at which point she chooses to kill her children rather than allow them to be returned to slavery. Although three of the children live, the death of her two-year-old daughter provides the center of the intricate and fascinating plot of BELOVED.
Morrison casts BELOVED in the form of a ghost story, a Jamesian ghost story reminiscent of THE TURN OF THE SCREW or THE BEAST IN THE JUNGLE. The memory, spirit, and/or presence of the dead baby take a number of forms. Clearly, Morrison is less interested in the metaphysics of the spirit world than in the psychological responses of Sethe, her surviving daughter, Denver, and Paul D, a man Sethe knew in Kentucky who reappears in her life near the start of the novel. Each of the characters must grapple with the experiences of loss--many, but not all of them, directly attributable to slavery and racism--which make it difficult to accept any powerful emotions without erecting barriers.
Morrison uses this scaffolding to construct a novel of overwhelming beauty, a beauty derived (like that of the blues) precisely from its foundation in unbearably painful realities. Revoicing images and scenes from earlier masterpieces such as SULA and SONG OF SOLOMON, BELOVED is in part Morrison’s meditation on the shape of her own career, a restatement of her refusal to rest with earlier or easier perceptions. Confronting painful historical and psychological realities, she continues to articulate an uncompromising vision which establishes her as a writer of the magnitude of William Faulkner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Henry James.
Anderson, Linda, ed. Plotting Change: Contemporary Women’s Fiction. London: Edward Arnold, 1990. Offers feminist criticism on the novels of Morrison and other women authors whose writing questions traditional modes of thought. The first part of the essay on Beloved examines historical novels by women, and the latter part analyzes the work and provides strong commentary on Morrison’s reinterpretation of historical writing.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. Includes general essays on Morrison, plus Marilyn Sanders Mobley’s essay identifying the source of Sethe’s story and arguing that Beloved, rather than partaking of Western literary tradition, employs the “trope of memory to revise the genre of the slave narrative.”
Bowers, Susan. “Beloved and the New Apocalypse.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 18, no. 1 (Spring, 1990): 59–77. Discusses the novel in the tradition of African American apocalyptic writing. Concludes that the book maps a new direction for the African American apocalyptic tradition that is more instructive and powerful than the versions used by writers of the 1960’s.
Carmean, Karen. “Trilogy in Progress: Beloved and Jazz.” In Toni Morrison’s World of Fiction. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1993.
Evans, Mari, ed. “Toni Morrison.” In Black Women Writers, 1950–1980: A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Two critics, Dorothy Lee and Darwin Turner, plus the author, Toni Morrison, discuss and evaluate her novels. In “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” Morrison discusses the traditional role of the African American ancestor and the folk tradition of orality in her fiction. In “The Quest of Self: Triumph and Failure in the Works of Toni Morrison,” Lee reveals Morrison’s consistency of vision about the human condition. In “Theme, Characterization, and Style in the Works of Toni Morrison,” Turner comments on Morrison’s style, images, and lyricism.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, 1993. In a notable essay in this useful collection, Trudier Harris discusses physical ownership versus psychological possession. Most of the former slaves in the novel, Harris argues, were both owned and possessed, accepting the dominant white culture’s evaluation of them rather than developing their own sense of self-worth.
Harding, Wendy, and Jacky Martin. A World of Difference: An Inter-Cultural Study of Toni Morrison’s Novels. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Argues that Morrison’s fiction should be analyzed at the “cultural interface,” the territory where the dominant culture and the dominated collide and a new culture arises.
Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. Puts forth the argument that African American folklore is the basis for most African American literature and that Morrison transforms historical folk materials in her novels, creating what Harris terms “literary folklore,” allowing no dichotomy between form and substance. The study examines The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved based on this theory.
Holloway, Karla F. “Beloved: A Spiritual.” Callaloo 13, no. 3 (Summer, 1990): 516–525. An analysis of the literary and linguistic devices that facilitate the revision of the historical and cultural texts of black women’s experiences. Also treats the mythological basis of the novel.
Horvitz, Deborah. “Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved.” Studies in American Fiction 17, no. 2 (Fall, 1989): 157-167. This critical essay discusses the overall work, focusing on elements of memory and history, and presents a thorough analysis of the characterizations of Sethe and Beloved.
McDowell, Margaret. “The Black Woman as Artist and Critic: Four Versions.” The Kentucky Review 7 (Spring, 1987): 19–41. Discusses the significance of the work of Morrison and other African American women writers because of the broadness of their inquiry and the intensity of their commitment to issues related to art, race, and gender.
Pearlman, Mickey, ed. Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. Essays on the writings of Morrison and other women writers that examine the physical and psychological absence of mothers. The chapter on Beloved provides a critical interpretation of the theme of love in the novel.
Rainwater, Catherine, and William J. Scheick, eds. Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. A compilation of critical essays on Morrison and other contemporary women authors. The chapter that focuses on Morrison thoroughly analyzes her narrative technique in her first four novels. Although written before Beloved was published, this critical essay presents useful insights into Morrison’s major themes and into the different narrative techniques that she employs in each novel.
Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. “Daughters Signifyin(g) History: The Example of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” American Literature 64, no. 3 (September, 1992): 567-597.
Samuels, Wilfred D., and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Argues that Beloved is a historical novel that reshapes the slave narrative for a modern audience, omitting the conventional antislavery polemics, now unnecessary, and delving more deeply into the horrors of slavery than nineteenth century slave narrators dared.
Schmudde, Carol E. “Knowing When to Stop: A Reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” College Language Association Journal 37, no. 2 (December, 1993): 121-135.
Spillers, Hortense J., ed. Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text. New York: Routledge, 1991. A compilation of essays on the writing of Morrison and other contemporary authors. The essay on Beloved examines the novel in the context of contemporary historical theory and provides an insightful examination of the relationship between history and fiction.