Morrison, Toni (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Beloved Toni Morrison
The following entry presents criticism on Morrison's novel Beloved (1987). For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 10, 22, 55, and 81.
Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, Beloved is the most celebrated and controversial of Morrison's novels. Inspired by the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who attempted to kill her children rather than have them returned to slavery, Morrison's novel explores the psychological and physical violence caused by slavery, its lingering effects on successive generations of black Americans, and the dynamics of mother-child relationships. Beloved became a source of controversy several months after its publication. When it failed to win a 1987 National Book Award or National Book Critics Circle Award, forty-eight prominent black writers and critics signed a tribute to Morrison's career and published it in the 24 January 1988 edition of The New York Times Book Review.
Plot and Major Characters
Set twelve years after the end of the Civil War, Beloved focuses on Sethe, a former slave who escaped with her four children from a Kentucky plantation known as Sweet Home in 1855. The traumatic events of her past—which include attempted suicide and her decision to murder her eldest daughter in an attempt to save her once and for all from bondage—are narrated in discontinuous flashbacks. Having been released from prison through the aid of abolitionists, Sethe lives with her youngest daughter, Denver, in an isolated farmhouse near Cincinnati, Ohio, and believes that the ghost of her deceased daughter, "Beloved," haunts the house. The novel opens with the unannounced arrival of Paul D., a former slave from the Sweet Home plantation. His attempts to form a sexual relationship with Sethe, however, are thwarted by a mysterious woman named Beloved, whom Sethe and Denver believe to be an incarnation of Sethe's dead child. Although rumored to be a ghost, Beloved becomes Paul D.'s lover as well as a close friend to Denver. Beloved's memories of her past, however, suggest that she is not a ghost, but someone who has suffered the rigors of a transatlantic crossing aboard a slave ship and the trauma of watching her mother throw herself overboard. While Beloved, who considers Sethe her long-lost mother, initially shows spite and anger towards Sethe, she is gradually appeased by Sethe and Denver's attempts at reconciliation. The novel closes with Beloved's apparent departure, after Sethe inadvertently reenacts her "defense" of her late daughter by attacking a Quaker abolitionist, whom she mistakes for a slave trader, in order to protect Denver.
The central concerns of Beloved are the ethical dilemmas posed by slavery, the complex imperatives of individual and collective memory, the dynamics of the mother-child relationship, and the importance of community. By focusing on a violent infanticide, which is publicly denounced despite its mitigating circumstances, Morrison illuminates slavery from the anguished perspective of its victims. Memories too painful and "evil" to bear can be submerged but inevitably return in the form of "ghosts": Sethe views Beloved as the ghost of her daughter, while the distraught Beloved transfers her feelings for her late mother to Sethe. In contrast to traditional abolitionist accounts of slavery, in which the evils of slavery and the virtues of the oppressed are rendered in stark opposition, Morrison focuses on difficult ethical problems regarding relations among slaves and former slaves. Prominent among the dilemmas Morrison addresses within the mother-child context are abandonment, infanticide, and suicide—the complexity and ambiguity of which are exacerbated by the realities of slavery. Through her dramatization of Sethe and Denver's isolation from the black community, Sethe's refusal to seek expiation, and their eventual reintegration into the community, Morrison demonstrates the importance of community ties for the individual's well-being.
Despite its popularity and status as one of Morrison's most accomplished novels, Beloved has never been universally hailed as a success. Some reviewers have excoriated the novel for what they consider its excessive sentimentality and sensationalistic depiction of the horrors of slavery, including its characterization of the slave trade as a Holocaust-like genocide. Others, while concurring that Beloved is at times overwritten, have lauded the novel as a profound and extraordinary act of imagination. Noting the work's mythic dimensions and political focus, these commentators have treated the novel as an exploration of family, trauma, and the repression of memory as well as an attempt to restore the historical record and give voice to the collective memory of African Americans. Indeed, critics and Morrison herself have indicated that the controversial epitaph to Beloved, "Sixty Million and More," is drawn from a number of studies on the African slave trade which estimate that approximately half of each ship's "cargo" perished in transit to America. Scholars have additionally debated the nature of the character Beloved, arguing whether she is actually a ghost or a real person. Numerous reviewers, assuming Beloved to be a supernatural incarnation of Sethe's daughter, have subsequently faulted Beloved as an unconvincing and confusing ghost story. Elizabeth E. House, however, has argued that Beloved is not a ghost, and the novel is actually "a story of two probable instances of mistaken identity. Beloved is haunted by the loss of her African parents and thus comes to believe that Sethe is her mother. Sethe longs for her dead daughter and is rather easily convinced that Beloved is the child she has lost." Such an interpretation, House contends, clears up many puzzling aspects of the novel and emphasizes Morrison's concern with familial ties.
The Bluest Eye (novel) 1970
Sula (novel) 1973
The Black Book [editor] (nonfiction) 1974
Song of Solomon (novel) 1977
Tar Baby (novel) 1981
Dreaming Emmett (drama) 1986
Beloved (novel) 1987
Jazz (novel) 1992
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (essays) 1992
Rac-ing, Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality (nonfiction) 1992
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SOURCE: "A Gravestone of Memories," in Newsweek, Vol. CX, No. 13, September 28, 1987, pp. 74-5.
[Clemons is an American critic and short story writer. In the following review, he praises Beloved as a masterpiece of psychological and historical evocation which re-creates the "interior life" of black slaves "with a moving intensity no novelist has even approached before."]
In 1855 a runaway slave from Kentucky named Margaret Garner was tracked by her owner to Cincinnati, where she had taken refuge with her freed mother-in-law. Cornered, she tried to kill her four children. Afterward, she was quite serene about what she had done. A newspaper account of this stark event taken from a documentary sourcebook stayed in Toni Morrison's mind over the years. Now it has become the germ of a magnificent novel.
In a lecture last year , Morrison spoke about omissions in slave narratives written for abolitionist readers during the 19th century. Addressing sympathetic whites, blacks tactfully suppressed feelings of outrage that might offend their hearers. They mentioned "proceedings too terrible to relate" only in formulaic euphemism. They "forgot" many things. "Most importantly—at least for me," Morrison said, "—there was no mention of their interior life."
In Beloved, this interior life is re-created with a moving intensity no novelist has even approached...
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SOURCE: "Author Toni Morrison Discusses Her Latest Novel Beloved," in Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie, University Press of Mississippi, 1994, pp. 239-45.
[The essay excerpted below was originally published in The Boston Globe in October 1987 and was based on an interview with Morrison in which Caldwell questioned her about the sources for Beloved, the difficulties Morrison faced in writing it, and its major themes.]
If The Bluest Eye and her next novel, Sula found eager audiences, Song of Solomon, published in 1977, found an exuberant one, going on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978. Tar Baby followed in 1981; by then, Morrison had been at the crest of a new wave of Afro-American literature for more than a decade. An editor at Random House since 1967, she resigned in 1983 to write full time; at 56, she lives in Rockland County, N.Y., with the younger of her two sons.
Morrison spent two years thinking about the story of Beloved and another three writing it; she says now that she was so frightened by the effort that she hit a writing impasse in 1985. She had conceived of the novel as a three-volume work; when she gave the manuscript to her editor, Bob Gottlieb (formerly of Knopf, now of the New Yorker), she was already convinced that she had failed.
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SOURCE: "In the Name of Memory," in The American Book Review, Vol. 9, No. 6, January-February, 1988, p. 17.
[Major is an American poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, and educator. In the following review of Beloved, he identifies its dominant theme as the residual power of memory and extols Morrison's ability to "disappear" from her own writing.]
I am not an innocent reader approaching a book by a writer I have not known before. Only long ago was that innocence possible. Long ago was the excitement of that innocence. Now, only something close to that excitement happens. But I actually bought Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, with my own money and I bought it out of some vestige of that earlier excitement; I bought it in Washington, D.C., on a dry, windy afternoon in October. I was excited by the possibility of a great reading experience, like those I had as a boy discovering books such as The Catcher in the Rye and The Drunken Boat Party.
Another kind of magic—perhaps more critical and equally valuable—had taken possession of the experience. Maybe that earlier and apparently unrecoverable innocence was best unrecovered. I was not disappointed although I had not entirely left my body for the magical world of the text; had not entirely entered the world of Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver, Paul D, and Beloved. That world was certainly magical enough and full...
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SOURCE: "Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, Autumn, 1989, pp. 157-67.
[Horvitz is a critic and psychiatric social worker. In the essay below, she provides a thematic analysis of Beloved, noting Morrison's focus on bonding, bondage, alienation, loss, memory, and mother-daughter relationships.]
Toni Morrison's fifth novel, Beloved (1987), explores the insidious degradation imposed upon all slaves, even when they were owned by, in Harriet Beecher Stowe's term, "a man of humanity." The novel is also about matrilineal ancestry and the relationships among enslaved, freed, alive, and dead mothers and daughters. Equally it is about the meaning of time and memory and how remembering either destroys or saves a future. Written in an anti-minimalist, lyrical style in which biblical myths, folklore, and literary realism overlap, the text is so grounded in historical reality that it could be used to teach American history classes. Indeed, as a simultaneously accessible and yet extremely difficult book, Beloved operates so complexly that as soon as one layer of understanding is reached, another, equally as richly textured, emerges to be unravelled. [In Judith Thurman's "A House Divided," The New Yorker, November 2, 1987] Morrison has referred to her novel as a "ghost story" and begins and ends with Beloved, whose...
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SOURCE: "To Embrace Dead Strangers: Toni Morrison's Beloved," in Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman, Greenwood Press, 1989, pp. 159-69.
[In the following essay, Fields explores Morrison's emphasis on "the nature of love," focusing primarily on the personal relationships between Sethe, Beloved, Paul D., and Denver.]
The most obvious feature of Toni Morrison's Beloved has been least noted that, whatever else, it profoundly is a meditation on the nature of love. The meditation begins as a love story about a man and a woman. In it Paul D and Sethe meet again after many years and redeem one another. Paul D redeems Sethe from her entrapment in a haunted present; and Sethe, Paul D from his fate of continual wandering. At the time of meeting both are afloat on the surface of the present, set adrift by pasts that have burned away most human connection. To both the future exists only after the fact, as time elapsed for Sethe, as distance traveled for Paul D.
Paul D's travels eventually bring him to Sethe's haunted house, which stands off to itself at the far end of a road, on the outskirts of Cincinnati. It is a house the townspeople avoid altogether or hurry past. But Paul D walks up to it and then into it, as if it has been his destination of many years; and he banishes Sethe's ghost. By so doing, he unlocks her...
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SOURCE: "Beloved and the New Apocalypse," in The Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 59-77.
[In the following essay, Bowers analyzes Beloved in the context of the "long tradition of African-American apocalyptic writing."]
Toni Morrison's Beloved joins a long tradition of African-American apocalyptic writing. Early African-American writers believed that "America, after periods of overwhelming darkness, would lift the veil and eternal sunshine would prevail" [Addison Gayle, The Way of the World: The Black Novel in America, 1975]. By the Harlem Renaissance, African-American writers had begun to doubt a messianic age, but the middle and late 1960s saw a return to apocalypticism, emphasizing Armageddon. Many of these works by such writers as John Williams and John Oliver Killens conceived "the longed-for racial battle" as "the culmination of history and the revelatory moment of justice and retribution" [A. Robert Lee, ed., Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel Since 1945, 1980]. Morrison's novel maps a new direction for the African-American apocalyptic tradition which is both more instructive and potentially more powerful than the end-of-the-world versions of the sixties. She has relocated the arena of racial battle from the streets to the African-American psyche from where the racial memories of Black people have been taken hostage....
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SOURCE: "Toni Morrison's Ghost: The Beloved Who Is Not Beloved," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 17-26.
[In the following essay, House argues that the character Beloved in Morrison's novel is not literally a reincarnation of Sethe's slain infant, but an orphaned child upon whom it is convenient for Sethe to project her anguished feelings of remorse and guilt.]
Most reviewers of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved have assumed that the mysterious title character is the ghostly reincarnation of Sethe's murdered baby, a flesh and blood version of the spirit Paul D. drives from the house. Judith Thurman, for example, writes in The New Yorker [2 November 1987] that the young stranger "calls herself by the name of the dead baby—Beloved—so there isn't much suspense, either about her identity or about her reasons for coming back." In The New York Review of Books [5 November 1987], Thomas R. Edwards agrees that the "lovely, historyless young woman who calls herself Beloved … is unquestionably the dead daughter's spirit in human form," and, concurring with these ideas, the Ms. reviewer, Marcia Ann Gillespie, adds that "Beloved, blindly seeking retribution, is a succubus leeching Sethe's … spirit" [Ms., Vol. 16, No. 5, 1987]. Similarly, Stanley Crouch, in his New Republic review [19 October 1987], chides Morrison for creating unreal...
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SOURCE: "Beloved: A Spiritual," in Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 516-25.
[In the essay below, Holloway examines myth, historical revisionism, voice, and remembrance in Beloved on both thematic and structural levels.]
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, peversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
—Adrienne Rich, "Natural Resources"
The literary and linguistic devices which can facilitate the revision of the historical and cultural texts of black women's experiences have perhaps their most sustained illustration in Toni Morrison's Beloved. Here, narrative structures have been consciously manipulated through a complicated interplay between the implicit orature of recovered and (re)membered events and the explicit structures of literature. The reclamation and revision of history function as both a thematic emphasis and textual methodology. The persistence of this revision is the significant strategic device of the narrative structures of the novel.
Myth dominates the text. Not only has Morrison's reclamation of this story from the scores of people who interviewed Margaret Garner shortly after she killed her child in 1855...
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SOURCE: "Toni Morrison's Beloved and the Reviewers," in Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. XVIII, 1990, pp. 45-57.
[In the following essay, Atlas discusses the differences between various reviews of Beloved and suggests that the novel's subject and design pose unusual difficulties for most critics.]
Even before the publication of Beloved, Toni Morrison was clearly a writer's writer. Toni Cade Bambara, author of Gorilla, My Love and The Salt-Eaters, herself an impressive crafter of fiction, wrote of Morrison's fourth novel, Tar Baby: "That voice of hers is so sure. She lures you in, locks the door and encloses you in a special, very particular universe—all in the first three pages." Outrage among black writers was so great after Beloved failed to win the National Book Award during the fall of 1987 that forty-eight black writers, among them, June Jordon, Toni Cade Bambara, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Paule Marshall, John Wideman and Alice Walker signed an open letter in January, published in the New York Times Book Review [28 January 1988], protesting that Morrison had never won that award or the Pulitzer.
Walter Goodman saw this letter as lobbying: "Literary lobbying goes on all the time: the form it takes, perhaps just a friendly telephone call or some cocktail party chitchat, is generally more discreet than a salvo in the...
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SOURCE: "The Telling of Beloved," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 153-69.
[In the essay below, Rodrigues comments on the narrative techniques in Beloved, which he calls "a triumph of story-telling" and an example of "the blues mode in fiction."]
Beloved is a triumph of storytelling. Toni Morrison fuses arts that belong to black oral folk tradition with strategies that are sophisticatedly modern in order to create the blues mode in fiction, and tell a tale thick in texture and richly complex in meaning. The reader has to be a hearer too. For the printed words leap into sound to enter a consciousness that has to suspend disbelief willingly and become that of a child again, open to magic and wonder.
"124 was spiteful": thus the narrative shock tactics begin. Here is no fairy tale opening but an entrance (124 is not a number but a house as the last sentence of the first paragraph will confirm) into a real unreal world. Toni Morrison's narrator—it is a woman's voice, deep, daring, folk-wise—has full faith in her listeners (curious males have gathered around her) and in their ability to absorb multiple meanings. She plunges into medias res and begins her tale with the arrival of Paul D.
Paul's arrival sets the story in motion. Outraged by the spiteful persecution of a "haunt" that resents his sudden...
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SOURCE: "The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison's Beloved," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 194-210.
[In the following essay, Schapiro discusses the psychological and emotional dimensions of slavery in Beloved, which she praises for its historical depth and insight.]
Toni Morrison's Beloved penetrates, perhaps more deeply than any historical or psychological study could, the unconscious emotional and psychic consequences of slavery. The novel reveals how the condition of enslavement in the external world, particularly the denial of one's status as a human subject, has deep repercussions in the individual's internal world. These internal resonances are so profound that even if one is eventually freed from external bondage, the self will still be trapped in an inner world that prevents a genuine experience of freedom. As Sethe succinctly puts it, "Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another." The novel wrestles with this central problem of recognizing and claiming one's own subjectivity, and it shows how this cannot be achieved independently of the social environment.
A free, autonomous self, as Jessica Benjamin argues in The Bonds of Love, is still an essentially relational self and is dependent on the recognizing response of an other. Beloved powerfully...
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Bell, Bernard W. "Beloved: A Womanist Neo-Slave Narrative; or Multivocal Remembrances of Things Past." African American Review 26, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 7-15.
Discusses Beloved as an exploration of the "double consciousness" of Black Americans.
Bender, Eileen T. "Repossessing Uncle Tom's Cabin: Toni Morrison's Beloved." In Cultural Power/Cultural Literacy: Selected Papers from the Fourteenth Annual Florida State University Conference on Literature and Film, edited by Bonnie Braendlin, pp. 129-42. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1991.
Argues that Beloved is Morrison's meditated reaction against the sentimental stereotypes of Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel. According to Bender, Morrison's novel represents a "new act of emancipation for a culture still enslaved by false impressions and factitious accounts."
Bjork, Patrick Bryce. "Beloved: The Paradox of a Past and Present Self and Place." In his The Novels of Toni Morrison: The Search for Self and Place within the Community, pp. 141-62. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1992.
Examines the contradictions of personal identity and memory in Morrison's novel.
Chandler, Marilyn R....
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