Toni Morrison Essay - Morrison, Toni (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Morrison, Toni (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Walter Clemons (review date 28 September 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 970 words.)

Gail Caldwell (essay date 6 October 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 2047 words.)

Clarence Major (review date January-February 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Deborah Horvitz (essay date Autumn 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 5126 words.)

Karen E. Fields (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 5740 words.)

Susan Bowers (essay date Spring 1990)

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,...

(The entire section is 7564 words.)

Elizabeth B. House (essay date Spring 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 4767 words.)

Karla F. C. Holloway (essay date Summer 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 3975 words.)

Marilyn Judith Atlas (essay date 1990)

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,...

(The entire section is 4254 words.)

Eusebio L. Rodrigues (essay date Spring 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 8832 words.)

Barbara Schapiro (essay date Summer 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 6982 words.)