Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1359

While Morrison had earned a considerable critical reputation with her first four novels, many initial reviews of Beloved showed no hesitation in acclaiming it the masterpiece of a supremely gifted writer. Margaret Atwood, for instance, called the work "another triumph" and added in her New York Times Book Review article that "Morrison's versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds. If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, Beloved will put them to rest." New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani similarly termed the novel "a work of mature imagination—a magisterial and deeply moving meditation not only on the cruelties of a single institution, but on family, history, and love." In the Chicago Tribune, Charles Larson acclaimed Beloved as the author's "darkest and most probing novel" and concluded that "Toni Morrison has demonstrated once again the stunning powers that place her in the first ranks of our living novelists."

Despite such emphatically positive remarks and the 1988 Pulitzer Prize, not all critics embraced the novel. In Commentary, Carole Iannone faulted the work's "oft-repeated miseries" as both numbing and sensationalistic. "Morrison seems simply unsure how much she wants the past, which means both the immediate past and the historical past, to weigh in the lives and behavior of her characters," the critic added. While noting stretches of "first-class writing" in the novel, New Republic critic Stanley Crouch called the work melodramatic "protest pulp fiction" that "rarely gives the impression that her people exist for any purpose other than to deliver a message." Martha Bayles similarly offered the "heretical opinion" that Beloved "is a dreadful novel, final proof of Morrison's decline from high promise into fashionable mediocrity." The critic maintained that in relying increasingly on magical elements, the author has shifted from "bravely probing the consciences of even the most pitiable black characters … to predictably blaming white racist oppression for every crime committed by the inhabitants of an enchanted village called blackness." Other reviewers, however, observed that the novel was able to overcome its melodramatic tendencies. While noting that the novel has "a slightly uneven, stepping-stone quality," Nation contributor Rosellen Brown nevertheless found Beloved "an extraordinary novel. It has certain flaws that attach to its design and occasionally to its long reach for eloquence, and an ending that lacks the power of the tragedy it is meant to resolve. But its originality, the pleasure it takes in a language at the same time loose and tight, colloquial and elevated, is stunning." "Morrison is essentially an operatic writer and as a 'production' Beloved has some of the excesses" of opera, Judith Thurman similarly stated in the New Yorker. Nevertheless, the critic concluded that "there's something great in [the novel]: a play of human voices, consciously exalted, perversely stressed, yet holding true. It gets you."

Often a reviewer's opinion of the novel was tied to his or her interpretation of Beloved's character. Those who saw her merely as a ghost were more likely to find the novel less compelling. In the Times Literary Supplement, for instance, Carol Rumens found Beloved's portions of the novel unsatisfactory, for "the travails of a ghost cannot be made to resonate in quite the same way as those of a living woman or child." For other critics, however, the riddle of Beloved has proven a complex question with many answers. For Susan Bowers, Beloved is a creature returned from the dead—but as living flesh, not a ghost. "Her physical presence," the critic wrote in Journal of Ethnic Studies , "has...

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the effect of Judgment Day on all those whom she encounters," leading the residents of 124 to address "her or his most profound individual anguish, whatever lies at the core of each identity." To Elizabeth House, however, "evidence throughout the book suggests that the girl is not a supernatural being of any kind but simply a young woman who has herself suffered the horrors of slavery." House noted inStudies in American Fiction that Beloved's entry into the family is due to a double case of mistaken identity, caused by "the destruction of family ties brought by slavery, and Beloved, seen as a human being, emphasizes and illuminates these themes." Other reviewers see Beloved as a figure who represents "the spirit of all the women dragged onto slave ships in Africa and also all Black women in America trying to trace their ancestry back to the mother on the ship attached to them," as Deborah Horvitz notes in Studies in American Fiction. According to the critic, Beloved is a stand-in both for Sethe's mother, dragged from her home in Africa, and Sethe's baby girl, emerged from the spirit world. "Beloved's character is both the frame and center of the book, and it is her story—or her desperate struggle to know and experience her own story—that is the pumping heart of the novel," Barbara Schapiro concluded in Contemporary Literature. "Beloved's struggle is Sethe's struggle; it is also Denver's, Paul D.'s, and Baby Suggs's. It is the struggle of all black people in a racist society, Morrison suggests, to claim themselves as subjects in their own narrative."

Another aspect of the novel to come under critical scrutiny has been the circular structure of its narrative. Beloved is told through story and flashback, presenting the past in pieces which the reader has to fit together. This structure is important to the theme of the novel, according to several critics. As Susan Bowers remarked, "the characters' remem-orying in Beloved epitomizes the novel's purpose of conjuring up the spirits and experiences of the past and thus ultimately empowering both characters and readers." "The splintered, piecemeal revelation of the past is one of the technical wonders of Morrison's narrative," Walter Clemons similarly explained in Newsweek. "We gradually understand that this isn't tricky storytelling but the intricate exploration of trauma." By moving "the lurid material of melodrama into the minds of her people, where it gets sited and sorted, lived and relived," Morrison endows it with "the enlarging outlines of myth and trauma, dream and obsession," Ann Snitow noted in Voice Literary Supplement. Eusebio L. Rodrigues likened the narrative structure of Morrison's novel to an "an extended blues performance." As he explained in the Journal of Narrative Technique, "phrases and images will be used over and over again to generate rhythmic meanings; fragments of a story will recur, embedded in other fragments of other stories. A born bard, the narrator, a blueswoman, will cast a spell on her audience so that fragments, phrases, words accelerate and work together to create a mythic tale."

Morrison's work has also been hailed for its ability to re-create the inner lives of people subjected to oppression and brutality, something the author believed was missing from slave narratives of the nineteenth century. Walter Clemons applauded the author's success in achieving this authenticity: "In Beloved, this interior life [of slaves] is re-created with a moving intensity no novelist has even approached before." Barbara Schapiro similarly hailed the novel's psychological realism: "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." In portraying more than just the physical trauma of slavery, the novel has a "great bridging capacity ... in the way it opens up the imaginations of those who haven't lived it to the memory of slavery and the experience of carrying that memory in your past," according to Washington Post contributor Amy E. Schwartz. "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," Horvitz similarly stated. But the true measure of the novel's worth, the critic concluded, is that "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."


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