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Narrative Structure and the Search for Identity

(Novels for Students)

Perkins is an Associate Professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland and has published several articles on British and American authors. In the following essay, she examines how the narrative structure of Beloved reinforces the novel's focus on the problematic search for identity.

Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved has achieved considerable recognition for its moving portrait of an African-American family's struggle against the debilitating effects of slavery. Merle Rubin in the Christian Science Monitor declares Beloved "a stunning book and lasting achievement," while John Leonard in the Los Angeles Times Book Review places it "on the highest shelf of American literature, even if half a dozen canonized white boys have to be elbowed off." In the Times Literary Supplement, Jennifer Uglow addresses one of the novel's prominent themes when she notes that Morrison's works often concentrate on "the developing sense of self." Beloved's unconventional narrative structure, with its disrupted chronology and fragmented glimpses of the main characters, foregrounds this theme as it delineates the support that can enable and the obstacles that can impede this development.

Sethe's struggles to come to terms with her past are complicated by her inability to establish a clear vision of herself. The novel's nonlinear structure in Part I, which affords readers only brief impressions of her, highlights this problem. She has repressed much of the truth about what she experienced as a slave at Sweet Home, the Kentucky plantation where she grew up. There she was not allowed an identity, especially after Mr. Garner died and his brother-in-law, whom she calls the schoolteacher, took over. Schoolteacher considered his black slaves animals, as evidenced by his careful measurements of their physiques and notations of their "human" and "animal" characteristics. Morrison reinforces this attitude when she shifts the narrative point of view to the schoolteacher when he arrives at Bluestone Road to take Sethe back to Sweet Home. When he witnesses Sethe's attempts to kill her children, he thinks of the abuse she suffered from his nephew and determines he "overbeat" her:

Suppose you beat the hounds past that point that-away. Never again could you trust them in the woods or anywhere else ... the animal would revert—bite your hand clean off ... you just can't mishandle creatures and expect success.

While at Sweet Home, Sethe was forced to deny herself as a wife and a mother. She was not permitted to marry Halle in a legal ceremony and she felt compelled to keep her love for her children in check. She later admits to Paul, "I couldn't love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn't mine to love." Paul understands that Sethe protected herself by loving "small." When chained like an animal and caged in the ground in Georgia, he notes that he "picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own. Anything bigger wouldn't do. A woman, a child, a brother—a big love...

(The entire section is 6,599 words.)