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Beloved

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.

Bibliography

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...

(The entire section is 1,213 words.)