Narrative Structure and the Search for Identity

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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 like that would split you wide open." Paul had suffered under similar abuse at Sweet Home and after he was sent to prison in Georgia for the attempted murder of his new owner. He tells Sethe his own repressed memory from his time at Sweet Home. The worst part for Paul after he was chained, waiting to be taken to a new plantation, was "walking past the roosters looking at them look at me." He focuses on one in particular named Mister, "who was allowed to be and stay what he was." Paul admits,

I wasn't allowed to be and stay what I was. Even if you cooked him you'd be cooking a rooster named Mister. But wasn't no way I'd ever be Paul D. again, living or dead. Schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.

During their conversations, Sethe and Paul allow only fragments of their past to emerge from what Paul calls his locked and rusted shut tobacco tin, buried deep in his chest. They keep these talks short, acknowledging that "saying more might push them both to a place they couldn't get back from" as they struggle to discover a strong sense of themselves. Sethe often turns to cooking after her conversations with Paul, claiming "nothing better than that to start the day's serious work of beating back the past." However, Sethe's attempts to repress her memories ultimately fail when she finds Beloved at Bluestone Road.

Beloved's presence forces Sethe to confront her past and thus to reconcile her vision of herself. Many critics consider Beloved to be the reincarnation of Sethe's daughter, citing her seemingly supernatural gifts and her strong links to Sethe. In this interpretation, Sethe's buried memory emerges in the form of a ghost. Others, however, argue that Beloved had survived a passage on a slave ship, where she watched her mother throw herself overboard. She then transfers to Sethe all the emotions she experienced toward her mother. Morrison's narrative structure, with its brief glimpses of Beloved's dreams and the lack of detail about where she came from, makes it difficult to arrive at a definitive conclusion about Beloved. Yet whether or not she really is the reincarnation of Sethe's murdered daughter has little bearing on the novel's focus: the difficulties Sethe faces as she tries to determine her identity. Morrison's refusal to provide a clear vision of Beloved reinforces her point that discovering one's true self, especially when that self is a black woman, is problematic.

Soon after Beloved's arrival, Paul shows Sethe the newspaper clipping about "the Misery," which compels her to confront the tragedy of her past and her identity as a mother. Sethe pieces together the fragments of her repressed memory and, for the first time, faces the full implications of her actions, taking the first painful step toward recovery of self. When the "four horsemen" approached Bluestone Road, the moment became apocalyptic for Sethe. The hope that she could be a mother to her children, which she had allowed herself during her twenty-eight days at Baby Suggs', was dashed. She tries to explain to Paul that her actions that day stemmed from her great love for her children, but Paul cannot envision her as a responsible mother. At one point, he views her as almost inhuman:

"I stopped him," she said. "I took and put my babies where they'd be safe."
"Your love is too thick," he said. "What you did was wrong, Sethe."
"I should have gone on back there? Taken my babies back there?"
"There could have been a way. Some other way. You got two feet, Sethe, not four," he said, and right then a forest sprang up between them; trackless and quiet.

The narrative shift to Paul's point of view and his inability to regard Sethe as a responsible mother illustrates how Sethe's loss of self results not only from the horrors of slavery, but also the problems of identity that arise within the black community. After his words create a gulf between them, Paul acknowledges that he has "moved from his shame to hers…." From his cold-house secret straight to her too-thick love. His own shame and lack of a strong sense of self prevents him from understanding Sethe. As a result he leaves Sethe alone, much like the black community had done. Her ostracism, however, results from what the community considers to be her overweening pride as well as her actions. Morrison's presentation of contrasting visions of Sethe highlight the difficulties Sethe faces in her search for herself.

Sethe's efforts to prove herself to be a good mother redouble when she confronts Beloved's anger and resentment toward her. The novel reveals the complicated dynamics of mother-daughter relationships when it shifts back and forth between Sethe's and Beloved's point of view. Beloved's feelings of betrayal and abandonment counter Sethe's pleas for understanding and acknowledgement of her as a protective and long-suffering mother. In an ultimate expression of her love for her children, Sethe attacks Mr. Bodwin, whom she confuses with the men who came to take her back to Sweet Home. Yet when Beloved disappears, Sethe seems to lose all sense of self and gives up on life. Ultimately, though, Morrison suggests that she may be saved when Paul returns to Bluestone Road and presents her with a new vision of herself, telling her, "You your best thing, Sethe. You are."

Through the presentation of the fragmented landscape of Sethe's past, Morrison effectively delineates the psychological effects of racial oppression. Beloved presents a powerful account of a black woman's struggle to overcome those devastating effects and discover a complete sense of self.

Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.

Toni Morrison's Ghost: The Beloved Who Is Not Beloved

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In this review, House refutes the commonly-held assumption among critics that Beloved is the reincarnated ghost of Sethe's murdered daughter. House supports her interpretation of Beloved as human, arguing that this explanation emphasizes the destructive ways in which slavery impacted people's perceptions of themselves and their relationships.

Most reviewers of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved have assumed that the mysterious title character is the ghostly reincarnation of Sethe's murdered baby, a flesh and blood version of the spirit Paul D. drives from the house.

Clearly, … writers evaluate Morrison's novel believing that Beloved is unquestionably a ghost. Such uniform acceptance of this notion is surprising, for 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.

In large part, Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning fifth novel is about the atrocities slavery wrought both upon a mother's need to love and care for her children as well as a child's deep need for a family: Sethe murders her baby girl rather than have her taken back into slavery; Baby Suggs grieves inconsolably when her children are sold; Sethe sees her own mother, a woman who was brought from Africa on a slave ship, only a few times before the woman is killed; Denver loves her mother, Sethe, but also fears the woman because she is a murderer. These and other incidents illustrate the destruction of family ties brought by slavery, and Beloved, seen as a human being, emphasizes and illuminates these themes.

Unraveling the mystery of the young woman's identity depends to a great extent upon first deciphering chapters four and five of Part II, a section that reveals the points of view of individual characters. Both of these chapters begin with the line "I AM Beloved and she is mine," and in these narratives Morrison enters Beloved's consciousness. From Beloved's disjointed thoughts, her stream-of-conscious rememberings set down in these chapters, a story can be pieced together that describes how white slave traders, "men without skin," captured the girl and her mother as the older woman picked flowers in Africa. In her narrative, Beloved explains that she and her mother, along with many other Africans, were then put aboard an abysmally crowded slave ship, given little food and water, and in these inhuman conditions, many blacks died. To escape this living hell, Beloved's mother leaped into the ocean, and, thus, in the girl's eyes, her mother willingly deserted her.

In order to grasp the details of this story, chapters four and five of Part II must be read as a poem: thus, examining the text line by line is often necessary. As Beloved begins her narrative, she is recalling a time when she was a young girl, for she says "I am not big" and later remarks again "I am small." However, the memory of these experiences is so vivid that, to her, "all of it is now." One of the first traumas Beloved describes is being in the lower hold of a slave ship. The captured Africans have been crouching, crammed in the overcrowded space for so long that the girl thinks "there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching" and then she notes that "someone is thrashing but there is no room to do it in." At first the men and women on the ship are separated, but then Beloved says that "storms rock us and mix the men into the women and the women into the men [...] that is when I begin to be on the back of the man." This person seems to be her father or at least a father figure, for he carries the young girl on his back. Beloved says "I love him because he has a song" and, until he dies on the ship, this man sings of his African home, of the "place where a woman takes flowers away from their leaves and puts them in a round basket [...] before the clouds."

These lyrics bring to mind the first scene in Part II, chapter four. Beloved's tale begins with the girl watching her mother as the woman takes "flowers away from leaves [...] she put them in a round basket.… She fills the basket [...] she opens the grass." This opening of the grass is probably caused by the mother's falling down, for Beloved next says, "I would help her but the clouds are in the way." In the following chapter, the girl clarifies this thought when she explains, "I wanted to help her when she was picking the flowers, but the clouds of gunsmoke blinded me and I lost her." Thus, what the girl is remembering is the capture of her mother by the men without skin, the armed white slave traders. Later, Beloved sums up her story by explaining that the three crucial points in her life have been times when her mother left her: "Three times I lost her: once with the flowers because of the noisy clouds of smoke; once when she went into the sea instead of smiling at me; once under the bridge when I went in to join her and she came toward me but did not smile." Thus, the slave traders' capture of her mother is the first of three incidents that frame the rest of Beloved's memories.

Once incarcerated on the ship, Beloved notices changes in her mother. She remembers seeing the diamond earrings, "the shining in her ears," as they were picking flowers. Now on the ship, her mother "has nothing in her ears," but she does have an iron collar around her neck. The child knows that she "does not like the circle around her neck" and says, "if I had the teeth of the man who died on my face I would bite the circle around her neck [….] bite it away [….] I know she does not like it." Sensing her mother's unhappiness, her longing for Africa, Beloved symbolizes the woman's emotions by ascribing to her a wish for physical items: "She wants her earrings [….] she wants her round basket."

As Beloved continues her tale, she explains that in the inhuman conditions of the ship, many blacks die. She says, "those able to die are in a pile," and the "men without skin push them through with poles," evidently "through" the ship's portholes, for the hills of dead people "fall into the sea which is the color of the bread." The man who has carried her on his back is one of those who succumbs, and as he takes his last breath, he turns his head and then Beloved can "see the teeth he sang through." She knows that "his song is gone," so now she loves "his pretty little teeth instead." Only after the man's head drops in death is the girl able to see her mother; Beloved remembers, "when he dies on my face I can see hers [...] she is going to smile at me." However, the girl never receives this gesture of affection, for her mother escapes her own pain by jumping into the ocean, thus committing suicide. The scene is etched in Beloved's memory: "They push my own man through [...] they do not push the woman with my face through […] she goes in [...] they do not push her [...] she goes in […] the little hill is gone […] she was going to smile at me." Beloved is haunted by this second loss of her mother for, unlike the separation caused by the slavetraders' attack, this time the mother chooses to leave her. The girl agonizes as she tries to understand her mother's action and later thinks that "all I want to know is why did she go in the water in the place where we crouched? Why did she do that when she was just about to smile at me? I wanted to join her in the sea but I could not move."

Time passes and Beloved notes that "the others are taken [...] I am not taken." These lines suggest that when the other slaves are removed from the ship, Beloved, whose beauty is noted by several characters, is perhaps kept by one of the ship's officers. At any rate, she is now controlled by a man who uses her sexually, for "he hurts where I sleep," thus in bed, and "he puts his finger there." In this situation, Beloved longs for her mother and explains, "I wait on the bridge because she is under it." Although at this point she may be on an inland bridge, Beloved is most likely waiting for her mother on the ship's bridge; if she is being kept by one of the vessel's officers, the girl would logically be there. But, wherever she is at this time, Beloved last saw her mother as the woman went into the sea; thus, the girl associates water with her parent and believes she can be found in this element.

Beloved's stream-of-consciousness narrative then jumps to the time, apparently several years later, when she arrives at the creek behind Sethe's house. Morrison does not specify exactly how Beloved comes to be there, but various characters give possible explanations. The most plausible theory is that offered by Stamp Paid who says, "Was a girl locked up in the house with a whiteman over by Deer Creek. Found him dead last summer and the girl gone. Maybe that's her. Folks say he had her in there since she was a pup." This possibility would explain Beloved's "new" skin, her unlined feet and hands, for if the girl were constantly kept indoors, her skin would not be weathered or worn. Also, the scar under Beloved's chin could be explained by such an owner's ill-treatment of her. Morrison gives credence to Stamp Paid's guess by having Sethe voice a similar hypothesis and then note that her neighbor, Ella, had suffered the same fate. When Beloved first comes to live with the family, Sethe tells Denver "that she believed Beloved had been locked up by some whiteman for his own purposes, and never let out the door. That she must have escaped to a bridge or someplace and rinsed the rest out of her mind. Something like that had happened to Ella.…" In addition, Beloved's own words suggest that she has been confined and used sexually. The girl explains to Denver that she "knew one whiteman," and she tells Sethe that a white man "was in the house I was in. He hurt me." In a statement that reveals the source of her name, Beloved says that men call her "Beloved in the dark and bitch in the light," and in response to another question about her name, she says, "in the dark my name is Beloved."

Whatever situation Beloved has come from, when she reaches the creek behind Sethe's house, she is still haunted by her mother's absence. The lonely girl sees the creek, remembers the water under the ship's bridge where she last glimpsed her mother, and concludes that her lost loved ones are beneath the creek's surface. In her soliloquy, Beloved links the scene to her mother and father figure[s] by evoking images of the African mother's diamond earrings and the father's teeth. She says that she knows the man who carried her on his back is not floating on this water, but his "teeth are down there where the blue is … so is the face I want the face that is going to smile at me." And, in describing the creek she says, "in the day diamonds are in the water where she is and turtles in the night I hear chewing and swallowing and laughter […] it belongs to me." The diamonds Beloved thinks she sees in the water are most likely reflected bits of sunlight that make the water sparkle. Similarly, the noises the girl interprets as "chewing and swallowing and laughing" are probably made by the turtles. Alone in the world, Beloved's intense need to be with those she loves undoubtedly affects her interpretation of what her senses perceive.

If Stamp Paid is right and the girl has been locked up for years, then she has not had normal experiences with people or places. She lacks both formal learning and the practical education she would have gained from a family life. These deficiencies also undoubtedly affect her perceptions, and, thus, it is not especially surprising that she does not distinguish between the water under the ship's bridge and that in the creek behind Sethe's house. To the untutored girl, all bodies of water are connected as one.

Apparently, Beloved looks into the creek water, sees her own reflection, and concludes that the image is her mother's face. She then dives into the water, believing that in this element her mother will at last give her the smile that was cut short on the slave ship. Beloved says,

I see her face which is mine […] it is the face that was going to smile at me in the place where we crouched [...] now she is going to [...] her face comes through the water ... her face is mine [...] she is not smiling. I have to have my face […] I go in. I am in the water and she is coming […] there is no round basket […] no iron circle around her neck.

In the water, Beloved cannot "join" with the reflection, and thus she thinks her mother leaves her for a third time; distraught, she says, "my own face has left me I see me swim away ... I see the bottoms of my feet […] I am alone."

Beloved surfaces, sees Sethe's house, and by the next day she has made her way to the structure. Exhausted by her ordeal, the girl is sleeping near the house when Sethe returns from the carnival. Beloved says,

I come out of blue water ... I need to find a place to be. There is a house ... I sit [...] the sun closes my eyes [...] when I open them I see the face I lost [...] Sethe's is the face that left me. I see the smile. It is the face I lost [...] she is my face smiling at me […] doing it at last.

Thus, when Beloved awakens and sees Sethe smiling at her, the girl mistakenly thinks that the woman is her long lost mother. In the second half of her narrative, Beloved even more clearly states her erroneous conclusions when she asserts, "Sethe is the one that picked flowers … in the place before the crouching ... She was about to smile at me when the men without skin came and took us up into the sunlight with the dead and shoved them into the sea. Sethe went into the sea. They did not push her."

What finally emerges from combining

Morrison hints at this interpretation in her preface to the novel, a quotation from [The New Testament] Romans 9:25: "I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her Beloved, which was not Beloved."As Margaret Atwood notes [in an article in The New York Times Book Review], the biblical context of these lines emphasizes Paul's message that people once "despised and outcast, have now been redefined as acceptable." However, Morrison's language, especially in the preface, is rich in meaning on many levels. In view of the ambiguity about Beloved's identity found in the rest of the novel, it seems probable that in this initial line Morrison is suggesting an answer to the riddle of who Beloved really is or, to be more exact, who she is not. The words "I will call ... her Beloved, which was not Beloved" suggest that the mysterious girl is not really Sethe's murdered daughter returned from the grave; she is "called" Beloved, but she is not Sethe's child. Also, the line "I will call them my people, which were not my people" hints that Beloved mistakenly thinks Sethe and her family are her blood kin.

Seen in this light, Beloved's story illuminates several other puzzling parts of the novel. For example, after Sethe goes to the Clearing and feels that her neck is being choked, Denver accuses Beloved of causing the distress. Beloved replies, "I didn't choke it. The circle of iron choked it." Since she believes Sethe and her African mother are the same person, Beloved reasons that the iron collar her African mother was forced to wear is bothering Sethe.

Beloved's questions about Sethe's earrings are one reason the woman comes to believe that the mysterious girl is her murdered child. Before her death, Sethe's baby girl had loved to play with her mother's crystal earrings. Sethe had "jingled the earrings for the pleasure of the crawling-already? girl, who reached for them over and over again." Thus, when Beloved asks "where your diamonds? ... Tell me your earrings," the family wonders, "How did she know?" Of course, Beloved asks this question remembering the "shining" in her African mother's earrings, the diamonds that were probably confiscated by the slave traders. However, Sethe thinks Beloved is remembering the crystal earrings with which the dead baby played.

This instance of misunderstanding is typical, for throughout the novel Sethe, Denver, and Beloved often fail to communicate clearly with each other. In fact, the narrator describes Beloved's and Denver's verbal exchanges as "sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be." This evaluation is correct, for as the three women talk to each other, each person's understandings of what she hears is slanted by what she expects to hear. For example, Denver, believing Beloved to be a ghost, asks the girl what the "other world" was like: "What's it like over there, where you were before? ... Were you cold?" Beloved, of course, thinks Denver is asking her about Africa and the slave ship, and so she replies, "Hot. Nothing to breathe down there and no room to move in." Denver then inquires whether Beloved saw her dead grandmother, Baby Suggs, or Jesus on the other side: "You see Jesus? Baby Suggs?" and Beloved, remembering the death laden ship, replies that there were many people there, some dead, but she did not know their names. Sethe has a similar conversation with Beloved and begins "Tell me the truth. Didn't you come from the other side?" and Beloved replies "Yes. I was on the other side." Of course, like Denver, Sethe is referring to a life after death world, while Beloved again means the other side of the ocean, Africa.

Encased in a deep and destructive need for what each thinks the other to be, Sethe and Beloved seclude themselves in Sethe's house, Number 124, and the home becomes like a prison cell for the two disturbed women. They separate themselves completely from the rest of humanity, even Denver, and they begin to consume each other's lives: Beloved continually berates Sethe for having deserted her. Sethe devotes every breath to justifying her past actions to Beloved. Their home life deteriorates to the point that the narrator says "if the whitepeople ... had allowed Negroes into their lunatic asylum they could have found candidates in 124."

Sethe's and Beloved's obsession with the past clearly affects their perception of what happens when the singing women and Edward Bodwin approach Sethe's house. Ella and the other women are there, singing and praying, hoping to rid Sethe of the ghost they think is plaguing her. Edward Bodwin is the white man who helped Sethe when she was jailed for murdering her baby; now he has come to give Denver a ride to her new job. However, when Sethe comes out of her house and views the scene, her mind reverts to the time when another white man, her slave owner, had come into the yard.

On that fateful day Sethe had killed her child, and she had first sensed danger when she glimpsed her slave master's head gear. When she saw the hated "hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew." Years later, as Sethe stands holding Beloved's hand, she sees Bodwin approach, and her unsettled mind replays her thoughts from long ago. She recognizes "his … hat wide-brimmed enough to hide his face but not his purpose ... She hears wings. Little hummingbirds stick needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thinks anything, it is no. No no. Nonono. She flies." Apparently deciding that this time she will attack the white intruder and not her own child, Sethe rushes toward Bodwin with an ice pick. Ella strikes Sethe, and then the other women apparently fall on the distraught mother, pinning her to the ground.

As this commotion occurs, Beloved also has a sense of déjà vu. First, the girl stands on the porch holding Sethe's hand. Then Sethe drops the hand, runs toward the white man and group of black women, and Beloved thinks her mother has deserted her again. Remembering that her African mother's suicide came after the hill of dead black people were pushed from the slave ship, Beloved sees the horrible scene being recreated:

But now her hand is empty. Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind. Alone. Again ... [she is running away]. Away from her to the pile of people out there. They make a hill. A hill of black people, falling. And above them all, ... the man without skin, looking.

Beloved connects this "hill" of falling people with the pile of dead blacks who were pushed from the ship, and, terrified, the girl apparently runs away.

In his introduction to The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne notes that romances, one of the literary traditions to which Beloved is heir, are obliged to reveal the "truth of the human heart." And, in Beloved, Morrison does just that. An important facet of this truth is that emotional ghosts of hurt, love, guilt, and remembrance haunt those whose links to family members have been shattered; throughout the novel, Morrison shows that family ties can be severed only at the cost of distorting people's lives. In Beloved, Morrison also shows that past griefs, hurts ranging from the atrocities of slavery to less hideous pains, must be remembered, but they should not control life. At the end of the novel, Paul D. tells Sethe, "Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow." And, throughout Beloved, Morrison's theme is that remembering yesterdays, while not being consumed by them, gives people the tomorrows with which to make real lives.

Source: Elizabeth B. House, "Toni Morrison's Ghost: The Beloved Who Is Not Beloved," in Studies in American Fiction, edited by James Nagel, Northeastern University, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 17-24.

Haunted by Their Nightmares

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In her glowing review of Morrison's award-winning novel, Atwood lauds the author's use of the supernatural in Beloved.

Beloved is Toni Morrison's fifth novel, and another triumph. Indeed, Ms. 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. In three words or less, it's a hair-raiser.

The supernatural element is treated, not in an Amityville Horror, watch-me-make-your-flesh-creep mode, but with magnificent practicality, like the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights. All the main characters in the book believe in ghosts, so it's merely natural for this one to be there. As Baby Suggs says, "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby. My husband's spirit was to come back in here? or yours? Don't talk to me. You lucky." In fact, Sethe would rather have the ghost there than not there. It is, after all, her adored child, and any sign of it is better, for her, than nothing.

Through the different voices and memories of the book, including that of Sethe's mother, a survivor of the infamous slave-ship crossing, we experience American slavery as it was lived by those who were its objects of exchange, both at its best—which wasn't very good—and at its worst, which was as bad as can be imagined. Above all, it is seen as one of the most viciously anti-family institutions human beings have ever devised. The slaves are motherless, fatherless, deprived of their mates, their children, their kin. It is a world in which people suddenly vanish and are never seen again, not through accident or covert operation or terrorism, but as a matter of everyday legal policy.

Slavery is also presented to us as a paradigm of how most people behave when they are given absolute power over other people. The first effect, of course, is that they start believing in their own superiority and justifying their actions by it. The second effect is that they make a cult of the inferiority of those they subjugate. It's no coincidence that the first of the deadly sins, from which all the others were supposed to stem, is Pride, a sin of which Sethe is, incidentally, also accused.

In a novel that abounds in black bodies—headless, hanging from trees, frying to a crisp, locked in woodsheds for purposes of rape, or floating downstream drowned—it isn't surprising that the "whitepeople," especially the men, don't come off too well. Horrified black children see whites as men "without skin." Sethe thinks of them as having "mossy teeth" and is ready, if necessary, to bite off their faces, and worse, to avoid further mossy-toothed outrages. There are a few whites who behave with something approaching decency. There's Amy, the young runaway indentured servant who helps Sethe in child-birth during her flight to freedom, and incidentally reminds the reader that the 19th century, with its child labor, wage slavery and widespread and accepted domestic violence, wasn't tough only for blacks, but for all but the most privileged whites as well. There are also the abolitionists who help Baby Suggs find a house and a job after she is freed. But even the decency of these "good" whitepeople has a grudging side to it, and even they have trouble seeing the people they are helping as full-fledged people, though to show them as totally free of their xenophobia and sense of superiority might well have been anachronistic.

Toni Morrison is careful not to make all the whites awful and all the blacks wonderful. Sethe's black neighbors, for instance, have their own envy and scapegoating tendencies to answer for, and Paul D., though much kinder than, for instance, the woman-bashers of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, has his own limitations and flaws. But then, considering what he's been through, it's a wonder he isn't a mass murderer. If anything, he's a little too huggable, under the circumstances.

Back in the present tense, in chapter one, Paul D. and Sethe make an attempt to establish a "real" family, whereupon the baby ghost, feeling excluded, goes berserk, but is driven out by Paul D.'s stronger will. So it appears. But then, along comes a strange, beautiful, real flesh-and-blood young woman, about 20 years old, who can't seem to remember where she comes from, who talks like a young child, who has an odd, raspy voice and no lines on her hands, who takes an intense, devouring interest in Sethe, and who says her name is Beloved.

Students of the supernatural will admire the way this twist is handled. Ms. Morrison blends a knowledge of folklore—for instance, in many traditions, the dead cannot return from the grave unless called, and it's the passions of the living that keep them alive—with a highly original treatment. The reader is kept guessing; there's a lot more to Beloved than any one character can see, and she manages to be many things to several people. She is a catalyst for revelations as well as self-revelations; through her we come to know not only how, but why, the original child Beloved was killed. And through her also Sethe achieves, finally, her own form of self-exorcism, her own self-accepting peace.

Beloved is written in an antiminimalist prose that is by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point. Here, for instance, is Sethe remembering Sweet Home:

... suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not want to make her scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her—remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that.

In this book, the other world exists and magic works, and the prose is up to it. If you can believe page one—and Ms. Morrison's verbal authority compels belief—you're hooked on the rest of the book.

The epigraph to Beloved is from the Bible, Romans 9:25: "I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her Beloved, which was not Beloved." Taken by itself, this might seem to favor doubt about, for instance, the extent to which Beloved was really loved, or the extent to which Sethe herself was rejected by her own community. But there is more to it than that. The passage is from a chapter in which the Apostle Paul ponders, Job-like, the ways of God toward humanity, in particular the evils and inequities visible everywhere on the earth. Paul goes on to talk about the fact that the Gentiles, hitherto despised and outcast, have now been redefined as acceptable. The passage proclaims, not rejection, but reconciliation and hope. It continues: "And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God."

Toni Morrison is too smart, and too much of a writer, not to have intended this context. Here, if anywhere, is her own comment on the goings-on in her novel, her final response to the measuring and dividing and excluding "schoolteachers" of this world. An epigraph to a book is like a key signature in music and Beloved is written in major.

Source: Margaret Atwood, "Haunted by Their Nightmares," New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1987, pp. 1, 49-50.

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