Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Ohio River. River separating the slave and free states that Sethe crosses while fleeing from Kentucky to Ohio. She gives birth to Beloved as she crosses the river. Years later, the child reappears to Sethe in mortal form along a riverbank. Toni Morrison’s choice of the Ohio River for these events is significant. One of America’s major maritime shipping routes, the Ohio extends from the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and flows for nearly one thousand miles before joining the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois.
In the nineteenth century, the Ohio river was filled with passenger-carrying flatboats and paddle-wheel ferries and served as a central conveyance for families moving west to capitalize on the frontier’s promise of prosperity. In slave narratives from the same period, however, the Ohio River symbolized freedom. For slaves, crossing the Ohio River and making one’s way into the “free” state of Ohio was tantamount to entering a land in which one’s citizenship was honored.
Sweet Home. North Kentucky plantation on which Sethe begins her life as a slave. Her flight from slavery in Sweet Home to Cincinnati is based on the historical story of a fugitive slave named Margaret Garner, who began killing her own children when it appeared she would be recaptured. When Garner was tried for her crime, she was charged not with...
(The entire section is 756 words.)
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Beloved (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
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....
(The entire section is 1868 words.)
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Beloved portrays the life of a former slave after the Civil War who is haunted by the horrors of her past. The stories told by the characters in the novel describe the dehumanization that results from slavery and eventually reveal Sethe’s dark secret: her murder of her baby daughter eighteen years ago, when Sethe was caught following an escape attempt. Sethe killed her baby so that the child would not have to live as a slave, without dignity and in a world where her body would be used for a master’s pleasure and for the reproduction of his “property.” Beloved, the spirit of Sethe’s dead baby, returns as a woman of twenty to the house where Sethe and her daughter Denver live. Taking her name from the word on her tombstone, Beloved demands compensation from Sethe for her missing childhood.
The novel begins with visits from Paul D, one of the former slaves at Sweet Home in Kentucky, and from Beloved. Urged to tell stories, Sethe recalls memories of the past that she has long buried. She was owned by a humane master at Sweet Home, where she married Halle and gave birth to three children. After the master’s death, a new master, Schoolteacher, tried to dehumanize his slaves, which led to their escape attempt. While the other slaves failed in their attempt, Sethe sent her children ahead to the North.
Unable to find her husband, Sethe, pregnant and barefoot, succeeded in arriving in Cincinnati, where her mother-in-law Baby Suggs...
(The entire section is 540 words.)
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Beloved provides a feminist’s perspective on historical writing. As such, it challenges the accepted content and narrative mode of historical documents. Morrison shines a light on those who have been silenced and marginalized by history. She chooses to focus on a slave woman’s act of murder as a historical incident to be narrated, and she recounts it through a tradition of storytelling which is the principal literary form in African American culture. Morrison’s achievement in Beloved is having contributed to the recording of an important part of American history from the viewpoint of the oppressed.
Morrison is primarily concerned with the psychological trauma that social conditions create by showing how the protagonist’s alienation and despair result from her experience in slavery. One of the social conditions that Morrison reveals is that only white males such as Schoolteacher have the authority to record history and determine literary tradition. She also provides evidence of African American women’s double suppression because of their gender and race. These concerns are still the central problems of many women’s lives in the author’s contemporary society.
The reality of such problems is not foreign to Morrison, who has faced some obstacles as an African American woman writer. Despite its high literary quality, achieved through a unique narrative style and the use of symbolism and poetic imagery,...
(The entire section is 301 words.)
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850
One of the central events of the novel—Sethe' s attack on her children—is described as "her rough response to the Fugitive Bill." Prior to 1850, U.S. law permitted slave owners to attempt to recover escaped slaves, but state authorities were under no obligation to assist them. Many Northerners saw aiding and protecting fugitive slaves as one way to combat the evil of slavery. Escaped slaves who settled in free states were therefore relatively safe from capture, since their abolitionist communities rarely cooperated with slave owners. This sense of safety was jeopardized by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
As America expanded her borders, slavery was a continuing source of controversy. The addition of territory acquired in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 sparked heated debates over the status of slavery in these new lands. When Pennsylvania Representative David Wilmot proposed that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part" of the territory acquired from Mexico, Southern states strongly objected. The Wilmot Proviso was defeated, and Kentucky congressman Henry Clay brokered a new deal. The resulting Compromise of 1850 was a series of bills designed to satisfy both North and South. As well as admitting California as a free state and allowing Utah and New Mexico to decide the slavery issue for themselves, the Compromise of 1850 enacted a much stricter fugitive slave law. Under...
(The entire section is 1016 words.)
Pages 1–19: Questions and Answers
1. Why had Buglar and Howard run away from home?
2. How had Sethe bartered for the lettering on Beloved’s headstone?
3. How had Sethe’s children escaped from slavery?
4. Who had been the inhabitants of Sweet Home?
5. Why had Sethe chosen Halle from all the Sweet Home male slaves?
6. Why is Denver so shy?
7. Why do Sethe and Denver argue?
8. What does Sethe tell Paul D about the spirit in the house and the tree on her back?
9. How does Paul D fight the spirit?
10. Why does Denver resent Paul D for having rid the house of the spirit?
1. Buglar and Howard each had run away from home when he was in his teens, within two months of each other and just prior to Baby Suggs’ death when Denver was 10. They had been scared away by the spirit of their dead younger sister. Buglar left when just looking in a mirror caused it to shatter, and Howard left after watching two tiny handprints appear in a cake.
2. Sethe had bartered for the lettering on Beloved’s headstone by having sex with the engraver in the graveyard, leaning against the pink, glittery headstone she had chosen for her daughter while his young son watched. The engraver had offered the engraving for free if Sethe would have sex with him for ten minutes. She had then chosen the word/name “Beloved” for the headstone wondering, too...
(The entire section is 635 words.)
Pages 20–42: Questions and Answers
1. Who was Thirty-Mile Woman?
2. Why didn’t Baby Suggs have her children with her?
3. How had Amy helped Sethe?
4. How would you describe the dress Denver sees kneeling next to her mother with its sleeve around her mother’s waist?
5. What does Sethe remember of her childhood?
6. According to Sethe, what is “rememory”?
7. Why had Baby Suggs been so starved for color?
8. What is Denver’s secret place?
9. What is Paul D’s secret fear?
10. What originally caused him to tremble?
1. Thirty-Mile Woman was the woman Sixo loved. She had lived thirty miles away from Sweet Home, hence, the name. He had tried to walk to her and back in one night. When he realized the walking took all the time he had, he’d found a place halfway and coaxed her to meet him there. Because she had waited in the wrong place and it took time to locate her, he’d simulated a snake bite on her leg so she would not be beaten for being late.
2. Baby Suggs was a slave who bore eight children with six different fathers. The children were constantly being sold. She had no opportunity to say good-bye to her two daughters before hearing of their being sold. She had made an arrangement with the straw boss that she would sleep with him for four months and he would allow her to keep her third child, a son. When she...
(The entire section is 546 words.)
Pages 43–64: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Paul D object to Sethe’s apologizing for Denver’s behavior toward him?
2. Why does Sethe say she would choose Denver over Paul D if it came to that?
3. How does Beloved get to the stump near 124 Bluestone Road?
4. Why doesn’t Paul D press Beloved for more information after she gives her name?
5. What indications do we have that Beloved has become attached to Sethe?
6. How had Sethe obtained her crystal earrings?
7. Why had Sethe made her own “bedding” dress?
8. What materials did Sethe use to make the dress?
9. What does Sethe remember about her mother?
10. What had Nan told Sethe about her mother?
1. Paul D objects to Sethe apologizing to him for Denver’s behavior because he feels Denver is a grown woman and another can’t apologize for her. He wants Sethe to treat Denver as a grown woman.
2. Sethe says she would chose Denver over Paul D if it came to that because Denver is her child, no matter how old, and she feels a mother must always protect her child.
3. Beloved gets to the stump near 124 Bluestone Road by walking out of the stream behind the woods, resting that day and night, then spending the next day going through the woods to the field and eventually into the yard.
4. Paul D doesn’t press Beloved for more information after she...
(The entire section is 562 words.)
Pages 64–85: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Paul D question Beloved so relentlessly?
2. How does the questioning end?
3. Why hadn’t Halle helped Sethe when he witnessed the brutality the nephews inflicted on her?
4. Why does Paul D keep remembering Mister in the face of his torture?
5. Why does Sethe wish she had gone insane?
6. How do we know Denver is assured Beloved is the spirit of her sister?
7. How had Amy treated “Lu’s” back?
8. How had Amy fashioned shoes for Sethe?
9. Why had Denver been born in a boat?
10. Why had Amy left Sethe after Denver’s birth?
1. Paul D questions Beloved so relentlessly because he wants her to leave. It’s been five weeks since her appearance and she is interested in him sexually. He cannot understand why both Sethe and Denver do not see this. Both Beloved’s interest in him and the fact that the other women do not see it is disturbing to him.
2. The questioning ends when Beloved chokes on a raisin. Afterward, she is tired and wants to go to bed.
3. Halle hadn’t helped Sethe when he witnessed the brutality the nephews inflicted upon her because he knew he, himself, could be subdued and possibly killed if he did. His failure to come to her aid was so distressing to Halle that he could not accept it and went insane.
4. Paul D keeps remembering Mister...
(The entire section is 478 words.)
Pages 86–113: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Sethe take Denver and Beloved to The Clearing where Baby Suggs formerly led her spiritual community?
2. What happens at The Clearing?
3. How does Denver know it is Beloved, not Baby Suggs, who did this to Sethe?
4. What had Stamp Paid told the boy when he saw Sethe for the first time?
5. What had Sethe done with her 28 days of freedom?
6. How had Baby Suggs greeted Sethe?
7. Why had Denver left the school and become deaf?
8. What had the prison been like for Paul D in Alfred, Georgia?
9. How had the Cherokee helped Paul D?
10. Who was the weaver lady?
1. Sethe takes Denver and Beloved to The Clearing where Baby Suggs had formerly led her spiritual community because she feels a need for ceremony to lay her burdens down and come to peace with Paul D’s living with her and the information he gave her about Halle and his own torture.
2. At The Clearing, Sethe sits on a rock to pray and conjure Baby Suggs’ fingers massaging her neck. She succeeds, but the massage turns into choking. Denver ends this by turning her gasping mother over on her back.
3. Denver knows it was Beloved, not Baby Suggs, who choked Sethe because she had been watching Beloved’s face.
4. Stamp Paid had told the boy to take off his coat to wrap the newborn baby in. When the boy...
(The entire section is 585 words.)
Pages 114–147: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Paul D make love to Sethe each morning before he is seduced by Beloved?
2. Why does Denver enjoy Beloved’s staring at her?
3. What happens between Denver and Beloved in the cold house?
4. How do Paul D and Sethe conduct themselves when he meets her after work?
5. How does he see her pregnancy as a solution to his problem?
6. Why does Beloved think her body is falling apart?
7. How would you describe the feast at Baby Suggs’ house?
8. Why had her congregation shunned Baby Suggs and her family after the feast?
9. Why hadn’t Baby Suggs been able to find her children?
10. Why had the Bodwins been so helpful to Baby Suggs?
1. Paul D makes love to Sethe each morning before he is seduced by Beloved because he knows Beloved seeks him sexually and he wants to have no appetite for her, since it is Sethe he loves more each day.
2. Denver enjoys Beloved’s staring at her because she feels Beloved is “interested” and “uncritical.” It makes her feel Beloved needs something from her.
3. When Denver and Beloved go to the coldhouse to get the cider, Denver cannot see in the dark and loses Beloved, who seems to magically disappear. She thinks Beloved has returned to wherever it was she came from and is bereft until Beloved shows herself again.
4. Paul D...
(The entire section is 521 words.)
Pages 148–165: Questions and Answers
1. Why hadn’t Baby Suggs been warned of the slave catchers’ approach by her community?
2. Why had Sethe taken her children to the shed as soon as she recognized schoolteacher’s hat?
3. How had Stamp Paid saved Denver’s life?
4. Why had the sheriff sent schoolteacher, his nephew, and the slave catcher away?
5. How had Baby Suggs been able to take Beloved’s body from Sethe after Stamp Paid had been unsuccessful at this?
6. Why had Denver been taken prisoner with her mother?
7. Why does Stamp Paid show Paul D the newspaper article?
8. Why does Paul D keep insisting the mouth of the woman in the picture with the newspaper article is not Sethe’s?
9. How does Sethe react when Paul D confronts her with the events reported in the newspaper article?
10. Why does she think Paul D is not coming back when he leaves?
1. Baby Suggs hadn’t been warned of the slave catcher’s approach by her community because they had been shunning her for “uppityness” since the day of the picnic–barbecue.
2. Sethe had taken her children to the shed as soon as she recognized schoolteacher’s hat in order to kill them, rather than allow them to be returned to slavery.
3. Stamp Paid saved Denver’s life by snatching her from her mother’s grasp as Sethe swung her against the wall a...
(The entire section is 574 words.)
Pages 169–199: Questions and Answers
1. How had the community conducted itself when Baby Suggs died?
2. Why wasn’t Stamp Paid used to knocking on the doors of the community?
3. What are Sethe, Denver, and Beloved doing when Beloved begins to hum the song she couldn’t know?
4. Why does Stamp Paid suddenly understand Baby Suggs’ indifference to the world once she’d decided to die?
5. What does Sethe realize about the shadows she had seen at the carnival?
6. What does Sethe remember of the efforts to save her life?
7. Why is Stamp Paid outraged when Ella tells him that Paul D is sleeping in the basement of the church?
8. Why does Sethe pilfer from Sawyer?
9. Why had Sethe asked Mrs. Garner what “characteristics” meant?
10. How had Mr. Garner died?
1. When Baby Suggs died, the community set up the funeral meal in the yard because no one wanted to enter 124 Bluestone Road. Sethe retaliated by refusing their food and not joining the service, standing apart near the grave instead.
2. Stamp Paid wasn’t used to knocking on the doors of the community because they were always open to him, as if they were his own, in payment for all his services in the Underground Railroad—bringing messages back and forth, providing food, spreading news that needed spreading, and getting whatever was needed to the person who needed it as...
(The entire section is 572 words.)
Pages 200–217: Questions and Answers
1. Why had Sethe stuttered until she met Halle?
2. How had Denver drunk her sister’s blood?
3. Why had Denver kept pretending to love Sethe?
4. How had Halle tried to make his mother more comfortable?
5. How had Baby Suggs viewed Denver?
6. Why had the “men without skins” given the Negroes their urine?
7. How was Beloved able to find the house?
8. What does Beloved admit to Sethe?
9. What warning does Denver give Beloved?
10. What accusation does Beloved make of Sethe?
1. Sethe stuttered until she met Halle as a result of having seen her mother’s body when she was lynched. Sethe wanted to look for the brand underneath her mother’s breast, but Nan had pulled her away.
2. Denver drank her sister’s blood directly after Sethe murdered Beloved, whose blood covered Sethe. In order to get Beloved’s body from Sethe, Baby Suggs had told her it was time to nurse Denver and that they needed to trade children. Sethe had refused to clean herself first, so Denver ended up suckling Beloved’s blood, which was on Sethe’s nipple, along with Sethe’s milk.
3. Denver kept pretending to love Sethe because she was terrified Sethe would murder her, too. She had nightmares about it and her brothers had repeatedly given her ways to kill Sethe if she had to after they left....
(The entire section is 393 words.)
Pages 218–238: Questions and Answers
1. How had schoolteacher changed life at Sweet Home?
2. What had been their plan for escape from slavery?
3. Why hadn’t Thirty-Mile Woman been caught?
4. Why had Sixo been burned and then shot to death?
5. How had Paul D been tortured when he was captured?
6. What does the white stranger tell the two men sitting on the church steps?
7. Why does Stamp Paid apologize to Paul D?
8. Why had Stamp Paid changed his name from Joshua?
9. Why had Stamp Paid gone to see the young master’s wife?
10. What does the red ribbon signify for Stamp Paid?
1. Schoolteacher had changed life at Sweet Home by taking the guns away from the slaves, not allowing them to offer their thoughts, instituting torture (such as the bit, the iron necklace, and whipping), and killing errant slaves. He revoked whatever small amount of respect Mr. Garner may have given the slaves.
2. The plan for escape from slavery had been that a woman Thirty-Mile Woman knew would wait for the others in the corn when it was high for a day-and-a-half. She would rattle to signal that the time was right and then take them to the waiting caravan where the others would already be hiding, waiting themselves for this woman who knew the way to freedom.
3. Thirty-Mile Woman had not been caught because Sixo heard...
(The entire section is 603 words.)
239–262: Questions and Answers
1. When did Sethe and Beloved begin to exclude Denver?
2. What happened to the $38.00 that was Sethe’s life savings?
3. What is Lady Jones’ impression of Denver?
4. How do Sethe, Beloved, and Denver survive?
5. How does Denver become reacquainted with the community?
6. Why does Denver go to Cincinnati?
7. What does she tell Janey Wagon of her home life?
8. What is the job Janey obtains for Denver?
9. Why do the women come to 124 Bluestone Road?
10. Why does Sethe attempt to murder Mr. Bodwin?
1. Sethe and Beloved begin to exclude Denver once Sethe sees the scar on the underside of Beloved’s chin. The scar had been caused by the handsaw she used to murder Beloved.
2. The $38.00 which had been Sethe’s life savings was squandered on fancy food and garish dress goods they used to make gaudy dresses.
3. Lady Jones recognizes Denver immediately, but her first impression was that Denver was innocent and childlike, rather than a person who acted her chronological age. She was also pleased to see that Denver was not deaf (as Baby Suggs had told her Denver was), since she feels that Denver is quick-minded.
4. When Sethe loses her job and Denver cannot find employment, Sethe, Beloved, and Denver survive by the charity of the committee from Lady Jones’ church which...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
Pages 263–275: Questions and Answers
1. How did Sethe and Beloved look standing in the doorway?
2. How was Mr. Bodwin saved?
3. Why doesn’t he realize there was an attempt on his life?
4. How is Denver faring now?
5. Why does Paul D come back?
6. How does the house look when he enters?
7. Where is Sethe?
8. Why is she preparing to die?
9. What does Paul D tell her at the end of her tears?
10. Why is Beloved forgotten?
1. Sethe looked unaccountably smaller than Beloved as the two stood in the doorway. While Beloved is visibly pregnant, it is not just her belly, but her whole person, that looks much larger.
2. Mr. Bodwin was saved when Denver, standing on the porch listening to the women sing and waiting for him, wrestles her mother to the ground to take the ice pick from her. Several other women help Denver. Ella punches Sethe on the jaw.
3. Mr. Bodwin was so mesmerized by the sight of the beautiful, naked, pregnant black woman standing on the porch that he was unaware of the attempt on his life. He thought Sethe was going after some of the women who were involved in a fight, when the fight was actually between the women and Sethe to prevent her from killing him.
4. Denver is looking for a job at the shirt factory during the afternoons and still has the night job with the Bodwins. Miss Bodwin is...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
Narration/Point of View
For the most part, Beloved uses a third-person narrator—one who tells the story by describing the action of other people ("he said," "they did"). Because the narration describes what various characters are thinking and doing, it can also be classified as omniscient ("all-knowing") narration. This third-person narration remains fairly constant throughout the novel, but the point of view (or perspective) from which the story is told changes from section to section. In the first chapter alone, for instance, the point of view switches from Baby Suggs ("Baby Suggs didn't even raise her head") to Sethe ("Counting on the stillness of her soul she had forgotten the other one") to Paul D. ("He looked at her closely, then") to Denver ("Again she wished for the baby ghost"). The changing point of view is important to the novel for several reasons. First, by including the thoughts and memories of several different characters, the narrator allows the reader to witness the various ways slavery can violate a person's humanity. Second, the changing point of view allows the reader to gain fuller portraits of each of the characters than if the focus was on a single person. These portraits are made even more intense when Morrison changes the narrative style. In the middle of Part Two, the narration switches from the third person to the first ("I") in four consecutive sections that are told directly by the characters. In these sections,...
(The entire section is 1302 words.)
Beloved is, with the later Jazz, (1992) Morrison's most experimental novel and in its firm control of time and memory it indicates a writer in clear control of her art form. Critics often develop extended linguistic analyses of the opening paragraphs, of Baby Suggs's sermons in the Clearing, of the monologues at the center of the book, or of the final chapter; these studies testify to the richness of Morrison's prose. The gradual layering of memory and the struggles to come to terms with it maintain narrative suspense while suggesting profound thematic implications. These innovations remind readers that Morrison wrote a graduate thesis on the writings of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.
In most of her novels Morrison has been preoccupied with the problems of knowledge, of representing each character as knowing part of the story, and of the need for synthesis. For example, the story of Sethe's being helped to birth Denver on the way to freedom by the white girl is actually reconstructed by Denver and Beloved after many tellings in which Denver has resisted Sethe's insistence on the perils of the journey. This technique of gradually revealing layers of information challenges the novice reader, but it rewards deliberate re-reading with insight.
The most extraordinary innovation, however, is the series of three dramatic monologues and a trilogue at the center of the book. Drawing on her own essay title, Morrison calls these chapters...
(The entire section is 578 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
The range of possibilities for stimulating conversation about Beloved are nearly endless. Perhaps the most fruitful areas involve tone, or the attitudes toward the characters and circumstances implicit in the diction and arrangement of details. Is Beloved a ghost or a daughter come back to life? Is her obsession to possess Sethe's life treated as a dreadful, or as an inevitable, consequence of Sethe's taking her life? Can their interaction be viewed as positive or as negative for Sethe's healing? Is Sethe on the path to recovery at the novel's end?
In addition to these questions, groups might engage in these kinds of more focused investigation:
1. Why does Morrison represent the Garners, who owned Sweet Home, as well-intentioned individuals ("nice Nazis") who engage in an immoral enterprise, rather than as mendacious, cruel villains like Simon Legree in Uncle Tom's Cabin?
2. In the miraculous account of Denver's birth, what are we to make of Amy Denver's assistance? Is she a "good Samaritan," and is her desire to escape to Boston a parallel for the slaves' hope to get to Ohio?
3. Was Stamp Paid right in deciding he had an obligation to tell Paul D about Sethe's past?
4. What attitudes toward Beloved and her story are expressed in the final chapter? How do these sum up the meanings of her story? Why does the narrator say three times that the story we've just read is "not a story to pass on"?...
(The entire section is 271 words.)
Throughout her work, Morrison has probed the effects of physical dislocation and cultural alienation on African-American communities. Behind this quest lies her awareness that cultural conditions all Americans face have their origins in the most heinous institution this country has ever embraced, slavery. Although The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973) were concerned primarily with the effects of migrations that occurred early in this century, readers were often reminded that contemporary characters' ancestors fled from a Jim Crow culture in the South, itself a consequence of slavery and the Civil War. Characters as diverse as Geraldine or Cholly Breedlove in The Bluest Eye were scarred by humiliations they received in the South, and one family deliberately practiced inbreeding to preserve the white features that came about when the slave masters impregnated slave women. In Song of Solomon (1977), Milkman's quest takes him back into slave times, when heroes like his great-grandfather became the stuff of legend by flying back to Africa rather than submitting to slavery. In Beloved, Morrison takes up another slave's flight; she confronts the slave culture directly and tells a ghost story about the consequences of slavery for a community of ex-slaves.
Much of the novel's risk comes from the graphic, painful descriptions of the mistreatment of slaves. The humiliation of Sethe, in which the plantation manager's "nephews"...
(The entire section is 1130 words.)
Topics for Further Study
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 changed the way free states were required to deal with fugitive slaves, leading to Sethe's terrible response to her capture. Research the history of the legal status of fugitive and freed slaves in America. Create a timeline tracing these legal developments, and include both Supreme Court decisions and state and federal laws.
In preparing to write Beloved, Toni Morrison read several slave narratives—autobiographies by freed slaves. What was missing from these narratives, said the author, was a portrayal of the inner lives of their subjects. Read one or two such slave narratives, such as those by Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs. Does Morrison's point have validity? Argue for or against this opinion in an essay, comparing the narrative with Morrison's novel and using examples from the text to support your arguments.
In Beloved, Amy Denver has also escaped from a situation where she faced beatings and forced labor. Research the history of indentured servitude in America. Who was subject to such contracts? In what ways was it similar to slavery? In what ways was it different? Write a paper describing your findings.
Read some African-American ghost stories, such as the folktales in Patricia McKissack's The Dark Thirty or Virginia Hamilton's The People Could Fly and Her Stories. What elements do they have in common with the "ghost story" of Beloved? Present...
(The entire section is 315 words.)
As is true of most truly original works of fiction, Beloved draws on many literary and folklore precedents. The method of interweaving sections of the narrative from many sources and arranging the narrative thematically rather than chronologically has affinities with many modernist novels, especially those of Faulkner and Woolf, whose work Morrison studied closely in graduate school. While Beloved shares narrative as well as epistemological qualities with William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927) it is an original application of those subtle storytelling strategies.
In terms of content the novel owes much to three distinct traditions, the combination of which sheds light on Morrison's original talent. Insofar as it is a slave narrative, the book contributes to an emerging canon of narratives by slaves and ex-slaves that has recently emerged to challenge and complete the widely-read Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), a polemical antislavery novel of the nineteenth century, and The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, a commentary by an ex-slave on the ignominy of the institution. Shortly before Morrison wrote the novel, poet Robert Hayden's magnificent but distressing "Middle Passage" created a similarly disturbing artistic representation of the degree to which the slave trade dehumanized the traders and wasted the lives and hopes of the captives....
(The entire section is 409 words.)
After a decade of working to bring the novel to the screen, producer-star Oprah Winfrey finally brought out a film version of Beloved in 1998. Directed and co-produced by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme, the film starred Winfrey as Sethe, Danny Glover as Paul D., Kimberly Elise as Denver, and Thandie Newton as Beloved.
An unabridged audio recording of Beloved by the author is available from Random House Audio; an abridged version read by actress Lynn Whitfield is also available from Random House Audio.
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What Do I Read Next?
Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye (1969), is a contemporary portrayal of the self-hatred and destruction that can occur when African Americans look to white society for validation. Pecola Breedlove is a young black girl who has adopted white child star Shirley Temple as her ideal. In comparison, Pecola feels ugly and longs for blue eyes. After her father rapes her, Pecola's obsession turns to insanity. She gives birth prematurely to a baby who later dies, and withdraws into a fantasy world where she has the bluest eyes of all.
Told from a male perspective, Morrison's award-winning Song of Solomon (1979) relates Milkman Dead's search for identity. Milkman wavers between the altruism of his aunt and the materialism of his father and sets out on a journey of discovery. He overcomes his confusion and dissatisfaction to discover the richness of his African-American heritage, the importance of community, and the nature of love and faith.
The first novel to appear after Morrison's Nobel Prize, Paradise (1998) tells the story of the fictional town of Ruby, Oklahoma, founded by African-American freedmen after Reconstruction. Morrison examines the nature of community, responsibility, and history as she relates the events that lead the townsmen to destroy a nearby convent.
Winner of the National Book Award, Charles Johnson's Middle Passage (1990) is a powerful tale of a newly freed slave who stows away on a New Orleans ship in order to...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Margaret Atwood, "Haunted by Their Nightmares," in New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1987, pp. 1, 49-50.
Martha Bayles, "Special Effects, Special Pleading," in New Criterion, Vol. VI, No. 5, January, 1988, pp. 34-40.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Toni Morrison. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.
Susan Bowers, "Beloved and the New Apocalypse," in Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 59-77.
Rosellen Brown, "The Pleasure of Enchantment," in Nation, Vol. 245, No. 12, October 17, 1987, pp. 418-21.
Walter Clemons, "A Gravestone of Memories," in Newsweek, Vol. CX, No. 13, September 28, 1987, pp. 74-75.
Stanley Crouch, "Aunt Medea," in New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 16, October 19, 1987, pp. 38-43.
Dubois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880. New York: Atheneum, 1992.
Mari Evans, editor, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday, 1984.
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. and Appiah, K.A., ed. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, Inc., 1993.
Deborah Horvitz, "Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol.17,No. 2, Autumn, 1989, pp. 157-67.
Elizabeth House, "Toni Morrison's...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
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’s “Beloved.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Includes sections on the “story behind the story,” the novel’s characters, and the general critical reaction to its publication, as well as more focused scholarly essays analyzing themes and issues in Beloved.
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.
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...
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