A child who has suffered a violent death haunts the house where her grandmother, mother, brothers, and sister live. The grandmother dies; the brothers disappear; the mother takes a lover; the sister grows up. The ghost grows up too, assumes a human form, and seduces and drives away the lover. Then she takes possession of the mother. So might run a plot summary of Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved. Yet Beloved is no ordinary ghost story. Brilliant, complex, haunted and haunting, it is a remarkable event in American fiction. With the stark, cathartic power of Greek tragedy, Beloved compels attention, on an intimate and personal scale, to the “Sixty Million and more” victims of slavery to whom the book is dedicated.
Morrison’s principal character is Sethe, a former slave. In 1873, when the novel opens, Sethe is living with her eighteen-year-old daughter Denver on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Sethe works as a cook in a restaurant, but Denver never leaves the house, which, the reader is matter-of-factly informed, is haunted by the ghost of Denver’s sister, a baby whose throat was cut when she was not quite two. The dead baby’s tombstone reads, simply, “Beloved,” one of the two words Sethe remembers from her daughter’s funeral sermon; she paid for the inscription by having sex at the grave with the stone-carver. Over the years, Sethe and Denver have uneasily adjusted to the disappearance of Howard and Buglar, Sethe’s sons, and to the death of Baby Suggs, her mother-in-law; they have also learned to live with the ghost’s spiteful visitations. Then Paul D appears. Also a former slave, Paul D lived at the Kentucky farm called Sweet Home from which he and Sethe both escaped before the beginning of the Civil War. The two have not seen each other since the night the Sweet Home slaves tried to run. Each knows details about the escape of which the other is ignorant, and this knowledge, along with their shared history at Sweet Home, pulls them together. “The kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry,” Paul D moves into Sethe’s life, confronts Denver’s jealousy, and, with great dispatch, exorcises the dead baby’s ghost.
Since their terrifying escape from Sweet Home and its brutal aftermath, both Sethe and Paul D have “worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe,” but in each other’s presence their stories are slowly and inexorably revealed. Sethe comes to feel that “her story was bearable because it was his as well—to tell, to refine and tell again. The things neither knew about the other—the things neither had word-shapes for—well, it would come in time.” By the end of the book, Sethe and Paul D know everything, and so does the reader. Faithful to the complex processes of what Sethe calls “rememory,” Morrison’s method of unfolding her story bit by bit and her use of multiple points of view produces a relentless tension—in the reader, as well as in Sethe and Paul D—between the hunger to know what has happened to the Sweet Home slaves and an equally urgent desire to avoid that terrible knowledge. Sethe’s and Paul D’s reluctant yet insistent storytelling makes Beloved both excruciating to read and impossible to put down.
If Paul D’s dominant trait is his ability to stir women’s deepest feelings, Sethe’s is a maternal love so tender and fierce that it defies rationality. The context for her maternity is the slaveowners’ practice of breeding slaves as though they were animals and separating families so that slave parents were deprived of knowledge of their own children. “Men and women were moved around like checkers,” Morrison reminds her readers; “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.” Paul D cannot recall his mother, has never seen his father. Baby Suggs has known only one of her eight children as an adult. Sethe remembers the wet nurse who took her mother’s place, remembers too the hanging of her mother, who disposed of all of her children but Sethe because they were fathered by white men. At Sweet Home, Sethe’s unusually enlightened owners, the Garners, allow her to marry and to remain with her husband and growing family. When Mr. Garner dies, however, Sweet Home is taken over by a new master, called “schoolteacher,” who treats the slaves with cold cruelty. They decide to try to escape. At the appointed time, Sethe loads her sons and unweaned daughter onto a wagon, promising to get to them as soon as she can. Barefoot, pregnant with her fourth child, suffering from a savage beating, separated from her husband and from the other escaping slaves, Sethe gives birth on her way to Ohio and manages to get to her mother-in-law’s house in time to resume nursing her older daughter as well as the newborn Denver. Miraculously, she has milk enough for both. For a month she enjoys friends, her mother-in-law, and her children and begins “claiming ownership of [her] freed self.” Then schoolteacher appears to take the fugitive Sethe and her children back to Sweet Home, and Sethe, certain that death is better than life in slavery, commits the only act she is sure will keep herself and her children free: “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe.”
In the course of the novel’s long opening section, Morrison makes Sethe’s violence against her children entirely comprehensible. At the end of that section, when Paul D learns what Sethe has done, he moves out of the house, leaving Sethe and Denver with the mysterious young woman who has come to live with them at about the time of Paul D’s arrival. The woman calls herself Beloved, and Denver is convinced that she is the grown-up embodiment of her dead sister. Sethe is slower to recognize Beloved, but once her lover is gone, she perceives the truth. Becoming absorbed in this daughter who has come back from the dead, this daughter with whom she need no longer remember anything because Beloved knows it all already, Sethe loses her job and, eventually, her senses. By the end of part 2, which includes a series of luminous interior meditations on possession, the three women have closed their door against the world, “locked in a love that wore everybody out.” In the third section, Beloved’s insatiable craving for her mother threatens to consume Sethe completely: “Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it. And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur.” Denver realizes that she must somehow rescue her mother from her ghost-sister, and her courage brings the novel to its moving and satisfying conclusion.
As characters, Paul D, Denver, Beloved, and especially “quiet, queenly” Sethe, her dark eyes so unwilling to see that they have the blank, stylized look of African or Greek sculpture, are completely convincing. Equally vivid are the many characters whom Sethe and Paul D remember, but who are now dead or missing. Each of these also has a story as startling as those of the foreground characters. Among the most memorable of these figures are Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs, the expert cobbler deemed “holy” because once freed, she is called to help other former slaves experience their freedom; Halle, Sethe’s husband, who works extra hours and days to buy his mother’s freedom from the Garners and who is driven mad by what happens to Sethe during the escape attempt; Sixo, the Sweet Home slave who walks thirty miles to see the woman he loves and whose flame-red tongue, indigo skin, and dying laugh Paul D cannot forget. Even the house where Sethe and Denver live, “peopled by the living activity of the dead,” takes on a vigorous human personality that varies with the mood of the ghost who haunts it.
The house belongs to the Bodwins, white abolitionists who allow Baby Suggs and then Sethe and her children to live there rent-free. Although the Bodwins’ generosity to freed and escaped slaves is legendary, they keep an open-mouthed pickaninny figurine, labeled “At Yo Service,” at their back door. Like the Garners, who “ran a special kind of slavery, treating [the slaves] like paid labor, listening to what they said, teaching what they wanted known,” the Bodwins, though relatively admirable, are portrayed with serious reservations. Amy Denver, a white woman with good hands, is less objectionable; she tends Sethe’s wounded back and ruined feet and helps her give birth to the daughter who bears her name. Then there is schoolteacher, who runs Sweet Home after Mr. Garner dies and who uses ink Sethe herself has made to record her animal characteristics, and there are schoolteacher’s nephews, boys with mossy teeth who hold Sethe down and steal her milk. For a time, Sethe thinks that she can discriminate among whites, but experience teaches her thatanybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself any more. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.
Despite the punishing difficulty of its subject matter, Beloved leaves an impression less of anger than of profound astonishment—at the stunning cruelty of slavery, at the death-defying endurance of love, at the sharp beauty of the natural world. Morrison’s style in this book, as in her other novels, combines the magic of Afro-American idiom, the density of poetry, and the speed of the plainest prose; she has never written better. Over and over, her words “say things that are pictures.” Here is her description of a turnip: “A prettier thing God never made. White and purple with a tender tail and a hard head. Feels good when you hold it in your hand and smells like the creek when it floods, bitter but happy.” Her figurative language is often extravagant and daring: There are “berries that tasted like church,” “winter stars, close enough to lick,” “a dress so loud it embarrassed the needlepoint chair seat.” Her use of color is sometimes precisely literal, as with Paul D’s “peachstone” skin, and sometimes symbolic, as with any occurrence of red, Beloved’s color. The tree-shaped scar on Sethe’s back, the scar which Paul D caresses and which Sethe has never seen, symbolizes her “sorrow, the roots of it; its wide trunk and intricate branches.”
Written with such generosity and intensity that the reader more than willingly suspends disbelief, Morrison’s ghost story about Sethe’s love and grief stands for the sixty million and more untold—perhaps untellable—stories that Americans black and white must hear. Beloved is a rich, intricate, and liberating book that leaves a permanent mark on the mind and heart. One can only be grateful to Toni Morrison for this magnificent gift.