In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first African American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. A great American novelist, Morrison has garnered numerous awards for her fiction, including a National Book Award nomination in 1975 for her second novel, Sula, the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 for her fourth novel, Song of Solomon, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved. Morrison is responsible for helping bring African American literature and culture into the consciousness of the mainstream reader, not only through her fiction but also through an influential, best-selling volume of literary theory.
A modernist writer who has been compared to William Faulkner and James Joyce, Morrison crafts novels that are complex and absorbing. They are also difficult to categorize. Multiple narrators in Beloved give the novel a veneer of realism. They reveal Sethe’s story in fragments, a technique that closely emulates reality in the way in which people ordinarily learn about each other. However, the novel includes two ghosts as main characters, the infant Beloved and the adult Beloved. Some readers consider it a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, because at its close Sethe, with the help of Paul D, finally begins to discover a sense of self-worth. Still others consider it a historical novel because it is based on a historical incident, detailed in Middleton Harris’s The Black Book, which Morrison edited in 1974, and because it examines the horrors of slavery and racism in excruciatingly frank detail.
Attempts to interpret Morrison strictly within the Western literary tradition, however, fail because Morrison is intent on building an African American canon of literature, perhaps influenced by the Western tradition but always in rebellion against it. Differentiation between physical ownership and psychological possession is a key theme; the characters in Beloved, particularly Sethe, must learn to judge themselves and each other according to their own values rather than those imposed on them by the dominant white culture. Few succeed. After Baby Suggs’s feast, the community punishes her for being pretentious or “uppity,” just as a white slave owner might have done, by refusing to warn her about the approaching slave-catchers. Stamp Paid, perhaps, is one who has been owned by the slavers but never possessed, who has performed their forced labor but has never internalized their forced values. However, even Stamp Paid gives in to the values of white society when he reveals Sethe’s crime to Paul D.
Those white values, in a sense, are represented by the poltergeist, the tantrum-throwing ghost of the murdered baby, Beloved, because neither white society nor its courts can understand Sethe’s crime, which springs from her deep conviction that her children are better off dead than enslaved. Her guilt haunts the house on Bluestone Road and demands that Sethe and her family appease it. Buglar leaves home when the ghost has achieved such power that he can no longer look into a mirror without shattering it. Metaphorically, the African American past, dominated by subjection, has forced the African American to internalize the white judgment of black inferiority. Howard departs when the baby’s handprints appear in a cake; the past taints even the spirit of celebration represented by the cake. Baby Suggs, who consecrates her emancipation by preaching self-love and pride to the other freed slaves, takes to her bed the day after Beloved’s death, dying some time later in the belief that all her preaching has been a lie, that black people deserve neither love nor pride. Sethe must remain, appeasing the guilt, vivified as a ghost, that haunts her life.
When Paul D arrives in 1873, Sethe begins to experience love and hope for the first time since Beloved’s death in 1855. Paul D drives away the ghost, but she returns several days later as a young woman of nineteen or twenty—the age Beloved would have been—and disrupts the bonding process that has nearly made a family of Sethe, Paul D, and Denver. Upon seeing her, Sethe runs to the outhouse but does not make it; she finds herself urinating on the ground in a scene reminiscent of her water breaking at Beloved’s birth. This symbolic rebirth of Beloved destroys Sethe’s chance at happiness. This new Beloved—threatening, demanding, controlling, destroying—eventually possesses Sethe, enslaving her again. Once again, she must be emancipated.
Perhaps the most striking example of Morrison’s genius in this novel is her treatment of the adult ghost. The reader naturally is suspicious of this new Beloved, who may be Sethe’s slain infant somehow brought to life, but the characters treat her as real. The reader experiences vicariously what Sethe experiences. Fear, guilt, shame, and self-loathing live in Sethe’s mind and heart, and Beloved lives for the reader. The reader can never be sure, even after Beloved vanishes, if she is flesh or spirit and so shares Sethe’s self-doubt. Paul D’s return reminds Sethe and the reader of that most Morrisonian of themes, self-affirmation as the key to life.