Beloved Critical Overview
by Toni Morrison

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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

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 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 entire section is 1,359 words.)