- Morrison cultivates ambiguity about Beloved's true nature. She could be the spirit of Sethe's murdered child, but she could also be a traumatized but otherwise ordinary woman.
- The first line of Beloved is "124 was spiteful," setting a bitter and dark tone for the novel. It also subtly hints as to why the house is spiteful: the missing "3" is often interpreted as representing Sethe's third child, the one she murdered.
- Morrison was inspired to write Beloved after reading an article about Margaret Garner, a former slave who killed her daughter to prevent her from returning to a slave plantation.
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Toni Morrison’s central intention in writing an individual history of a former slave is to reclaim the unrecognized past and to furnish these records to future generations, ensuring that the horrors of slavery will not be repeated. Beloved is based on an actual incident that occurred in 1856 when a fugitive slave woman killed her child when they were caught. Reconstructing this incident, Morrison tries to understand the intention of the mother’s action. The novel focuses on a protagonist who kills her child and alienates herself from her world, and it shows how the memory of the past can haunt the present.
The novel reveals that Sethe’s act of murder is rooted in a motherhood crippled by slavery, thus illuminating slavery’s inhumanity. In slavery, the basic value of a woman is her role in the reproduction of her master’s commodities, as well as in his sexual pleasure. In these circumstances, mothers are neither nurturers nor protectors of their children. Baby Suggs remembers little of her seven children who were sold away; Ella, another slave, refuses to nurse her baby born from forced sex with her master.
Like many of the others, Sethe does not enjoy motherhood, either as a child or as a mother herself. As a baby, she is nursed with milk not from her mother but from another slave with the little milk left after she nurses white babies. When Sethe is still small, her mother tries to run away, leaving her behind. Later when she is a mother, Sethe is violated and has her milk stolen by Schoolteacher’s nephews. Such symbolic acts break the nurturing tie of mothers and children. Beloved mirrors Sethe’s longing for her own mother. Through her, Sethe sees herself as the daughter she might have been if her mother had been with her. It is not only Beloved but also Sethe who wants both compensation and explanation for the absence of a nurturing mother.
Through the narratives told by the characters, it is shown that Sethe’s intention in killing her daughter was to provide her with the ultimate protection from slavery’s agony. In order to compensate for the absence of motherhood in slavery, Sethe becomes an overly powerful nurturer and protector. Whether her action is right or wrong, in putting her daughter’s life to an end she remains a protector of the dead child. Her action reclaims the rights of deprived mothers and of all humans in slavery. The ironic nature of her action emphasizes the tragedy of the slavery system.
In the novel, the recovery of an individual’s history parallels that of all slaves. Sethe and Beloved, both abandoned children who cry out for the missing ties with their mothers, represent all slave mothers and children. They also signify the longing of many African Americans for the missing ties with their cultural heritage in Africa. While Sethe’s experiences mirror the suffering of the “sixty million and more” slaves to whom Morrison dedicates this novel, Beloved represents those who are not even counted in the official numbers in slavery. Beloved’s life is not recognized; she does not even have a name. Her thirst for recognition and for her mother’s love suggest the necessity of recognizing forgotten people. By giving a body and a voice to the spirit of Sethe’s dead daughter, Morrison recognizes and recovers the forgotten people in the history of slavery.
Written in the African American storytelling tradition, Beloved is full of metaphors and symbols that suggest slavery, such as water. The initial separation of the African slaves from their homeland took place in the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean,...
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and the Ohio River often separated slaves from successful fugitives. In the novel, Denver’s birth is in a river, and Beloved first rises from a river and drinks much water upon appearing. The image of a ghost also suggests the situation of slaves, who possess nothing, not even their own bodies. Furthermore, it symbolizes the African American reality that has been treated as nonexistent from the perspective of the dominant society. In narrating her characters’ histories, Morrison frequently uses exact figures concerning length of time and number of people. This approach provides a contrast to the official written documents, which record the history of slavery in vague numbers.
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Narration/Point of View For the most part, Beloved uses a third-person narrator—one who tells the story by describing the action of other people ("he said," "they did"). Because the narration describes what various characters are thinking and doing, it can also be classified as omniscient ("all-knowing") narration. This third-person narration remains fairly constant throughout the novel, but the point of view (or perspective) from which the story is told changes from section to section. In the first chapter alone, for instance, the point of view switches from Baby Suggs ("Baby Suggs didn't even raise her head") to Sethe ("Counting on the stillness of her soul she had forgotten the other one") to Paul D. ("He looked at her closely, then") to Denver ("Again she wished for the baby ghost"). The changing point of view is important to the novel for several reasons. First, by including the thoughts and memories of several different characters, the narrator allows the reader to witness the various ways slavery can violate a person's humanity. Second, the changing point of view allows the reader to gain fuller portraits of each of the characters than if the focus was on a single person. These portraits are made even more intense when Morrison changes the narrative style. In the middle of Part Two, the narration switches from the third person to the first ("I") in four consecutive sections that are told directly by the characters. In these sections, Sethe, Denver, and Beloved contemplate how Beloved's arrival has changed their lives. By adding these first-person sections late in the novel, the author enhances her portrait of these characters, deepening the reader's understanding of them even further.
Flashback A flashback is a literary device used to present action that occurred before the beginning of the story. In Beloved, the narrator structures the story in such a way that past events are related as a way of explaining the present. In the first paragraph, for instance, the narrator says that "by 1873, Sethe and her daughter were [the ghost's] only victims." This sets the main action in 1873, but the paragraphs that follow explain how Baby Suggs and the two boys escaped the ghost prior to that date. Flashbacks are also presented as the memories or stories of several of the characters. When Paul D. first sees Sethe, for instance, he begins to recall how the men of Sweet Home reacted to her arrival over twenty years ago. As Paul D. and Sethe spend time with each other, they remember moments of their previous time together and tell each other stories of what has happened to them since their time at Sweet Home. There are more direct flashbacks in the narrative as well, when past events are related directly, without present-day comment from the person telling or remembering the tale. Examples of this direct style of flashback occur when Beloved first hears the story of Denver's birth and when Paul D. recalls how the Plan went wrong. Deborah Horvitz notes in Studies in American Fiction that flashbacks play an important role in the novel, for they reflect one of its important themes. The flashbacks, the critic writes, "succeed in bridging the shattered generations by repeating meaningful and multi-layered images. That is, contained in the narrative strategy of the novel itself are both the wrenching, inter-generational separations and the healing process."
Idiom Idiom refers to a word construction or verbal expression that is closely associated with a given language or dialect. For example, the English expression "a piece of cake" is sometimes used to describe a task that is easily done. In Beloved, Morrison makes use of idiom to help re-create the sense of a specific community, that of African Americans in Reconstruction Ohio. When the characters use words like "ain't" and "reckon" and phrases like "sit down a spell," it helps place their characters within that community. One particularly interesting example of this idiom is the way in which it describes people of different races. In compound words such as "whitegirl," "blackman," and "coloredpeople," a person's race is actually part of the word that describes them. This seems to indicate that there is a fundamental difference between blacks and whites, for if the only difference between them were color one would say "black woman" and "white woman." Instead, the compound words seem to indicate that black and whites are entirely different creatures. These words thus reinforce one of the themes of the novel: that one of the foremost evils of slavery is the way in which it dehumanizes people, both black and white.
Motif A motif (sometimes called a motiv or leitmotiv) is a theme, character type, image, metaphor, or other verbal element that is repeated throughout a piece of work. Throughout Beloved, there is one such motif that is repeated with regularity: a description of the characters' eyes and how they see. "The eyes are windows to the soul," goes the common saying, and the eyes of the novel's characters are likewise revealing. Sethe, for instance, has had the "glittering iron" punched out of her eyes, "leaving two open wells that did not reflect firelight." When schoolteacher catches up to Sethe, her eyes are so black she "looks blind," and after too much conflict with Beloved her eyes turn "bright but dead, alert but vacant." Similarly, the disturbing thing about Beloved's eyes is not that the "whites of them were much too white" but that "deep down in those big black eyes there was no expression at all." When Paul D. recalls his time on the chain gang in Georgia, he remembers that "the eyes had to tell what there was to tell" about what the men were feeling. When the schoolteacher comes upon the scene in the shed, he decides to turn back for home without claiming any of the survivors because he has had "enough nigger eyes for now."
The way people use their eyes is also important. Denver thinks of her mother as one "who never looked away," not even from pain or death. Paul D thinks he is safe from Beloved's advances "as long as his eyes were locked on the silver of the lard can." Denver thinks it is "lovely" the way that she is "pulled into view by the interested, uncritical eyes" of Beloved. It is shortly after Beloved asks Sethe, "you finished with your eyes?" that Sethe realizes Beloved is the ghost of her baby daughter. "Now," she thinks, "I can look at things again because she's here to see them too." But as Beloved drains the energy from Sethe, "the brighter Beloved's eyes, the more those eyes that used never to look away became slits of sleeplessness." When Paul D. wants to return to Sethe, he considers how he looks through other people's eyes: "When he looks at himself through Garner's eyes, he sees one thing. Through Sixo's, another. One makes him feel righteous. One makes him feel ashamed." Finally, however, he considers how he looks through Sethe's eyes. After he does this, he returns to the only woman who "could have left him his manhood like that."
Imagery Imagery refers to the use of images in a literary work. Critics frequently describe Morrison's writing as "lyrical" or "poetic" because her use of vivid, powerful imagery. One such image is that of the "chokecherry tree" on Sethe's back. Instead of having the narrator give a simple description of the oozing wounds on Sethe's back, Amy Denver describes it as a chokecherry tree, complete with sap, branches, leaves, and blossoms. The picture this comparison draws in the reader's mind is much more disturbing than a straightforward description would be. This is just one example of how the author sets beautiful natural images in contrast to the horrors of slavery, the better to highlight its evil.
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*Ohio River. River separating the slave and free states that Sethe crosses while fleeing from Kentucky to Ohio. She gives birth to Beloved as she crosses the river. Years later, the child reappears to Sethe in mortal form along a riverbank. Toni Morrison’s choice of the Ohio River for these events is significant. One of America’s major maritime shipping routes, the Ohio extends from the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and flows for nearly one thousand miles before joining the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois.
In the nineteenth century, the Ohio river was filled with passenger-carrying flatboats and paddle-wheel ferries and served as a central conveyance for families moving west to capitalize on the frontier’s promise of prosperity. In slave narratives from the same period, however, the Ohio River symbolized freedom. For slaves, crossing the Ohio River and making one’s way into the “free” state of Ohio was tantamount to entering a land in which one’s citizenship was honored.
Sweet Home. North Kentucky plantation on which Sethe begins her life as a slave. Her flight from slavery in Sweet Home to Cincinnati is based on the historical story of a fugitive slave named Margaret Garner, who began killing her own children when it appeared she would be recaptured. When Garner was tried for her crime, she was charged not with murder but with theft—for violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1856 by destroying the legal property of her family’s slave master.
That the Ohio River represented a physical demarcation between one way of life and another for so many African Americans in the nineteenth century is treated ironically by Morrison, for in no meaningful sense can Sethe be regarded as “free” in Ohio. Although she may be legally free there under the law, she is very much a prisoner of her experiences as a slave in Sweet Home. This is why Morrison presents the story not as a linear narrative but rather as a quilt, a tapestry. The kind of time that one can read on a clock and the kind of space that one can calculate on a map are of less importance in the novel than the protagonist’s experiences within a space-time continuum in which the past constantly intrudes upon the present. For instance, the novel distinguishes between “memory,” that is, the human capacity consciously to recall events that transpire in one’s life, and what Sethe experiences as “re-memory”—things that “just stay.”
Bluestone Road house
Bluestone Road house. Sethe’s Cincinnati home. The most important place in the novel, 124 Bluestone Road figures into every section of the book. Each of the novel’s three sections begins with a description of the mood of the house, as if the house itself were a living, breathing creature. The first part opens by describing the house as “spiteful”; the second part calls it “loud,” and the third part calls it “quiet.”
By the time the story begins, Sethe’s male children have been driven from her house by a paranormal presence that seems to haunt its timbers. The arrival of Paul D appears, at first, to signal a return to a more normal state of affairs. However, he soon also senses spirits hovering above the house’s stairwell that resent his presence and his command of Sethe’s attentions and do not wish him well. By the novel’s midpoint, the house drives Paul from Sethe’s bed. Later, he is driven from the house itself. Only after struggles in the novel’s last third is he able to return to the house.
With such a haunted house, Beloved might seem to be part of a long and honorable tradition of gothic tales, aligning it in particular with the nineteenth century psycho-gothic ghost stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James. However, this is only superficially true, as Beloved is about dramatizing the psychic pains of its protagonist. Beloved’s spiritual presence in the house is, effectively, Sethe’s own grief and guilt taking on something approaching perilous dimensions. The house has height, mass, and an architectural design to be sure. Sethe herself is no more delusional than her house is a fantasy. The house has all the things that one associates with what is “real.” However, the “reality” of 124 Bluestone Street in Cincinnati far exceeds what is normally meant by a “place,” for Morrison reminds readers that the most important places are those that one cannot leave behind.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1866
A child who has suffered a violent death haunts the house where her grandmother, mother, brothers, and sister live. The grandmother dies; the brothers disappear; the mother takes a lover; the sister grows up. The ghost grows up too, assumes a human form, and seduces and drives away the lover. Then she takes possession of the mother. So might run a plot summary of Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved. Yet Beloved is no ordinary ghost story. Brilliant, complex, haunted and haunting, it is a remarkable event in American fiction. With the stark, cathartic power of Greek tragedy, Beloved compels attention, on an intimate and personal scale, to the “Sixty Million and more” victims of slavery to whom the book is dedicated.
Morrison’s principal character is Sethe, a former slave. In 1873, when the novel opens, Sethe is living with her eighteen-year-old daughter Denver on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Sethe works as a cook in a restaurant, but Denver never leaves the house, which, the reader is matter-of-factly informed, is haunted by the ghost of Denver’s sister, a baby whose throat was cut when she was not quite two. The dead baby’s tombstone reads, simply, “Beloved,” one of the two words Sethe remembers from her daughter’s funeral sermon; she paid for the inscription by having sex at the grave with the stone-carver. Over the years, Sethe and Denver have uneasily adjusted to the disappearance of Howard and Buglar, Sethe’s sons, and to the death of Baby Suggs, her mother-in-law; they have also learned to live with the ghost’s spiteful visitations. Then Paul D appears. Also a former slave, Paul D lived at the Kentucky farm called Sweet Home from which he and Sethe both escaped before the beginning of the Civil War. The two have not seen each other since the night the Sweet Home slaves tried to run. Each knows details about the escape of which the other is ignorant, and this knowledge, along with their shared history at Sweet Home, pulls them together. “The kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry,” Paul D moves into Sethe’s life, confronts Denver’s jealousy, and, with great dispatch, exorcises the dead baby’s ghost.
Since their terrifying escape from Sweet Home and its brutal aftermath, both Sethe and Paul D have “worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe,” but in each other’s presence their stories are slowly and inexorably revealed. Sethe comes to feel that “her story was bearable because it was his as well—to tell, to refine and tell again. The things neither knew about the other—the things neither had word-shapes for—well, it would come in time.” By the end of the book, Sethe and Paul D know everything, and so does the reader. Faithful to the complex processes of what Sethe calls “rememory,” Morrison’s method of unfolding her story bit by bit and her use of multiple points of view produces a relentless tension—in the reader, as well as in Sethe and Paul D—between the hunger to know what has happened to the Sweet Home slaves and an equally urgent desire to avoid that terrible knowledge. Sethe’s and Paul D’s reluctant yet insistent storytelling makes Beloved both excruciating to read and impossible to put down.
If Paul D’s dominant trait is his ability to stir women’s deepest feelings, Sethe’s is a maternal love so tender and fierce that it defies rationality. The context for her maternity is the slaveowners’ practice of breeding slaves as though they were animals and separating families so that slave parents were deprived of knowledge of their own children. “Men and women were moved around like checkers,” Morrison reminds her readers; “anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized.” Paul D cannot recall his mother, has never seen his father. Baby Suggs has known only one of her eight children as an adult. Sethe remembers the wet nurse who took her mother’s place, remembers too the hanging of her mother, who disposed of all of her children but Sethe because they were fathered by white men. At Sweet Home, Sethe’s unusually enlightened owners, the Garners, allow her to marry and to remain with her husband and growing family. When Mr. Garner dies, however, Sweet Home is taken over by a new master, called “schoolteacher,” who treats the slaves with cold cruelty. They decide to try to escape. At the appointed time, Sethe loads her sons and unweaned daughter onto a wagon, promising to get to them as soon as she can. Barefoot, pregnant with her fourth child, suffering from a savage beating, separated from her husband and from the other escaping slaves, Sethe gives birth on her way to Ohio and manages to get to her mother-in-law’s house in time to resume nursing her older daughter as well as the newborn Denver. Miraculously, she has milk enough for both. For a month she enjoys friends, her mother-in-law, and her children and begins “claiming ownership of [her] freed self.” Then schoolteacher appears to take the fugitive Sethe and her children back to Sweet Home, and Sethe, certain that death is better than life in slavery, commits the only act she is sure will keep herself and her children free: “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe.”
In the course of the novel’s long opening section, Morrison makes Sethe’s violence against her children entirely comprehensible. At the end of that section, when Paul D learns what Sethe has done, he moves out of the house, leaving Sethe and Denver with the mysterious young woman who has come to live with them at about the time of Paul D’s arrival. The woman calls herself Beloved, and Denver is convinced that she is the grown-up embodiment of her dead sister. Sethe is slower to recognize Beloved, but once her lover is gone, she perceives the truth. Becoming absorbed in this daughter who has come back from the dead, this daughter with whom she need no longer remember anything because Beloved knows it all already, Sethe loses her job and, eventually, her senses. By the end of part 2, which includes a series of luminous interior meditations on possession, the three women have closed their door against the world, “locked in a love that wore everybody out.” In the third section, Beloved’s insatiable craving for her mother threatens to consume Sethe completely: “Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it. And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur.” Denver realizes that she must somehow rescue her mother from her ghost-sister, and her courage brings the novel to its moving and satisfying conclusion.
As characters, Paul D, Denver, Beloved, and especially “quiet, queenly” Sethe, her dark eyes so unwilling to see that they have the blank, stylized look of African or Greek sculpture, are completely convincing. Equally vivid are the many characters whom Sethe and Paul D remember, but who are now dead or missing. Each of these also has a story as startling as those of the foreground characters. Among the most memorable of these figures are Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs, the expert cobbler deemed “holy” because once freed, she is called to help other former slaves experience their freedom; Halle, Sethe’s husband, who works extra hours and days to buy his mother’s freedom from the Garners and who is driven mad by what happens to Sethe during the escape attempt; Sixo, the Sweet Home slave who walks thirty miles to see the woman he loves and whose flame-red tongue, indigo skin, and dying laugh Paul D cannot forget. Even the house where Sethe and Denver live, “peopled by the living activity of the dead,” takes on a vigorous human personality that varies with the mood of the ghost who haunts it.
The house belongs to the Bodwins, white abolitionists who allow Baby Suggs and then Sethe and her children to live there rent-free. Although the Bodwins’ generosity to freed and escaped slaves is legendary, they keep an open-mouthed pickaninny figurine, labeled “At Yo Service,” at their back door. Like the Garners, who “ran a special kind of slavery, treating [the slaves] like paid labor, listening to what they said, teaching what they wanted known,” the Bodwins, though relatively admirable, are portrayed with serious reservations. Amy Denver, a white woman with good hands, is less objectionable; she tends Sethe’s wounded back and ruined feet and helps her give birth to the daughter who bears her name. Then there is schoolteacher, who runs Sweet Home after Mr. Garner dies and who uses ink Sethe herself has made to record her animal characteristics, and there are schoolteacher’s nephews, boys with mossy teeth who hold Sethe down and steal her milk. For a time, Sethe thinks that she can discriminate among whites, but experience teaches her thatanybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself any more. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.
Despite the punishing difficulty of its subject matter, Beloved leaves an impression less of anger than of profound astonishment—at the stunning cruelty of slavery, at the death-defying endurance of love, at the sharp beauty of the natural world. Morrison’s style in this book, as in her other novels, combines the magic of Afro-American idiom, the density of poetry, and the speed of the plainest prose; she has never written better. Over and over, her words “say things that are pictures.” Here is her description of a turnip: “A prettier thing God never made. White and purple with a tender tail and a hard head. Feels good when you hold it in your hand and smells like the creek when it floods, bitter but happy.” Her figurative language is often extravagant and daring: There are “berries that tasted like church,” “winter stars, close enough to lick,” “a dress so loud it embarrassed the needlepoint chair seat.” Her use of color is sometimes precisely literal, as with Paul D’s “peachstone” skin, and sometimes symbolic, as with any occurrence of red, Beloved’s color. The tree-shaped scar on Sethe’s back, the scar which Paul D caresses and which Sethe has never seen, symbolizes her “sorrow, the roots of it; its wide trunk and intricate branches.”
Written with such generosity and intensity that the reader more than willingly suspends disbelief, Morrison’s ghost story about Sethe’s love and grief stands for the sixty million and more untold—perhaps untellable—stories that Americans black and white must hear. Beloved is a rich, intricate, and liberating book that leaves a permanent mark on the mind and heart. One can only be grateful to Toni Morrison for this magnificent gift.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540
Beloved portrays the life of a former slave after the Civil War who is haunted by the horrors of her past. The stories told by the characters in the novel describe the dehumanization that results from slavery and eventually reveal Sethe’s dark secret: her murder of her baby daughter eighteen years ago, when Sethe was caught following an escape attempt. Sethe killed her baby so that the child would not have to live as a slave, without dignity and in a world where her body would be used for a master’s pleasure and for the reproduction of his “property.” Beloved, the spirit of Sethe’s dead baby, returns as a woman of twenty to the house where Sethe and her daughter Denver live. Taking her name from the word on her tombstone, Beloved demands compensation from Sethe for her missing childhood.
The novel begins with visits from Paul D, one of the former slaves at Sweet Home in Kentucky, and from Beloved. Urged to tell stories, Sethe recalls memories of the past that she has long buried. She was owned by a humane master at Sweet Home, where she married Halle and gave birth to three children. After the master’s death, a new master, Schoolteacher, tried to dehumanize his slaves, which led to their escape attempt. While the other slaves failed in their attempt, Sethe sent her children ahead to the North.
Unable to find her husband, Sethe, pregnant and barefoot, succeeded in arriving in Cincinnati, where her mother-in-law Baby Suggs waited with the children. On the way, Sethe gave birth to Denver in a boat on a river with the help of a white woman. Before she left Sweet Home, she was whipped by her master. Upon her arrival in Cincinnati, Baby Suggs attended to the tree-shaped scar on Sethe’s back and nursed her back to health. A month later, when the master came to capture her and her children, Sethe instinctively tried to kill her children, cutting her baby’s throat with a handsaw and almost dashing out Denver’s brains before she was stopped.
After eighteen years of alienation from her community, Sethe now rejoices with Paul D’s visit. Soon after, she enjoys her reunion with Beloved. Yet the appearance of this young woman is an ominous one: Baby Suggs soon dies in distrust of God, Sethe’s two sons run away from home, and Paul D leaves upon learning of the murder and being made unwelcome by Beloved. In addition, Beloved’s demands eventually exhaust Sethe. Denver soon recognizes Beloved as the ghost that has been seen in the house and believes that she is her dead sister. Although Denver enjoys Beloved’s company, she ventures into the outside world when Sethe’s exhaustion becomes unbearable—a world from which she has been isolated by her mother’s actions. She asks neighbors for food and work, which they provide for her. Soon the women in the community gather to exorcise the ghost from Sethe’s house. Confronted by a chorus of thirty singing women, Beloved vanishes. Paul D comes back to see Sethe and tries to inspire in her a will to live and an ability to realize her own worth.
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Beloved provides a feminist’s perspective on historical writing. As such, it challenges the accepted content and narrative mode of historical documents. Morrison shines a light on those who have been silenced and marginalized by history. She chooses to focus on a slave woman’s act of murder as a historical incident to be narrated, and she recounts it through a tradition of storytelling which is the principal literary form in African American culture. Morrison’s achievement in Beloved is having contributed to the recording of an important part of American history from the viewpoint of the oppressed.
Morrison is primarily concerned with the psychological trauma that social conditions create by showing how the protagonist’s alienation and despair result from her experience in slavery. One of the social conditions that Morrison reveals is that only white males such as Schoolteacher have the authority to record history and determine literary tradition. She also provides evidence of African American women’s double suppression because of their gender and race. These concerns are still the central problems of many women’s lives in the author’s contemporary society.
The reality of such problems is not foreign to Morrison, who has faced some obstacles as an African American woman writer. Despite its high literary quality, achieved through a unique narrative style and the use of symbolism and poetic imagery, Beloved was overlooked by two major literary prizes, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. These oversights brought controversy, and many African American writers and critics demanded recognition of Morrison’s achievement in Beloved. Eventually, the novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Moreover, Morrison won international recognition when she received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature; she is the eighth woman and the first black woman to win the prize.
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The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 One of the central events of the novel—Sethe' s attack on her children—is described as "her rough response to the Fugitive Bill." Prior to 1850, U.S. law permitted slave owners to attempt to recover escaped slaves, but state authorities were under no obligation to assist them. Many Northerners saw aiding and protecting fugitive slaves as one way to combat the evil of slavery. Escaped slaves who settled in free states were therefore relatively safe from capture, since their abolitionist communities rarely cooperated with slave owners. This sense of safety was jeopardized by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
As America expanded her borders, slavery was a continuing source of controversy. The addition of territory acquired in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 sparked heated debates over the status of slavery in these new lands. When Pennsylvania Representative David Wilmot proposed that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part" of the territory acquired from Mexico, Southern states strongly objected. The Wilmot Proviso was defeated, and Kentucky congressman Henry Clay brokered a new deal. The resulting Compromise of 1850 was a series of bills designed to satisfy both North and South. As well as admitting California as a free state and allowing Utah and New Mexico to decide the slavery issue for themselves, the Compromise of 1850 enacted a much stricter fugitive slave law. Under this law, fugitive slaves were denied a jury trial, facing a court-appointed commissioner instead. This commissioner received ten dollars for certifying delivery of an alleged slave, but only five dollars when he refused it. And not only did federal officials take part in the capture and return of fugitives, but they could compel citizens to help enforce the law—and jail or fine them if they refused.
Anti-slavery forces were outraged by this new law, and often took matters into their own hands to combat it. In cities such as Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee, Syracuse, New York, and Christiana, Pennsylvania, mobs rescued alleged fugitives from their captors and in some cases even killed slave owners. Less confrontational forms of protest increased as well, as the new law inspired an increase in organized assistance to slaves such as the Underground Railroad. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired by the Fugitive Slave Law to write her classic anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Despite these very visible activities protesting the law, most Northerners complied with it. Of an estimated two hundred African Americans arrested during its enforcement, only twenty were released or rescued; the remainder returned to slavery.
The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan Even after the abolition of slavery ended the threat of being returned to servitude, African Americans still found their rights and even lives in danger. Many white Southerners found Reconstruction Act of 1867—the Republican government's plan for returning the South to the Union—difficult to swallow. This act replaced the mostly all-white state governments created after the war with five military districts. Each district had 20,000 troops, commanded by a Union general. Southern states were forced to grant new rights to African Americans, and more than a dozen black congressmen and two senators were elected. In response to what they perceived as Republican oppression, white Southerners formed a secret society whose aim was to intimidate these unwanted administrators. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) grew from a social club into a terrorist organization that used arson, beatings, and even murder to achieve their ends.
Klan activity stepped up after the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed all men the right to vote, was passed in 1870. Not only did this amendment ensure the voting rights of Southern blacks, it expanded the right to vote to African Americans in Northern states. Klan activity was similarly expanded, as its violence spread to northern states. In Beloved, Paul D. considers Cincinnati "infected by the Klan," which he calls "desperately thirsty for black blood." The KKK terrorized African Americans to keep them from voting, often with great success. Many African Americans were murdered, and their killers had little fear of prosecution. To combat this violence, Congress passed the Ku Klux Act in 1871, which strengthened the penalties for interfering with elections. This led to almost three thousand indictments that year, and the 1872 elections were relatively peaceful. Nevertheless, the Klan had demonstrated its strength, and after the last federal troops left the South in 1877, white supremacists were free to establish a deeply segregated society that openly oppressed African Americans until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Toni Morrison and the Post-Aesthetic Movement Mirroring their increased presence in politics, African Americans also became highly visible as writers during the 1960s. Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston had been prominent in the 1920s, while Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison achieved both literary and popular acclaim in the 1940s and 1950s. Many of these works were popular because of the way they were able to interpret the black experience for a white audience. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, writers within the "Black Aesthetic Movement" attempted to produce works of art that would be meaningful to the black masses. Writers such as Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez created works which highlighted the disparity between blacks and whites and affirmed the value of African-American culture, thus creating a sense of pride and identity in the black community.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, however, many African-American writers chose a slightly different approach. Instead of focusing on the differences between blacks and whites in America—and thus placing themselves within or against a white social context—these "Post-Aesthetic" writers used a wholly African-American context for their work. Instead of looking to the outside world for solutions or validation, the African Americans in these works found answers within their own families or communities. Toni Morrison is considered one of the most prominent writers within this Post-Aesthetic movement, which includes such authors as Alice Walker, Kristin Hunter, and John Edgar Wideman. By emphasizing the importance of family and community in dealing with life's challenges, Morrison's Beloved provides a notable example of this literary movement.
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Beloved is, with the later Jazz, (1992) Morrison's most experimental novel and in its firm control of time and memory it indicates a writer in clear control of her art form. Critics often develop extended linguistic analyses of the opening paragraphs, of Baby Suggs's sermons in the Clearing, of the monologues at the center of the book, or of the final chapter; these studies testify to the richness of Morrison's prose. The gradual layering of memory and the struggles to come to terms with it maintain narrative suspense while suggesting profound thematic implications. These innovations remind readers that Morrison wrote a graduate thesis on the writings of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.
In most of her novels Morrison has been preoccupied with the problems of knowledge, of representing each character as knowing part of the story, and of the need for synthesis. For example, the story of Sethe's being helped to birth Denver on the way to freedom by the white girl is actually reconstructed by Denver and Beloved after many tellings in which Denver has resisted Sethe's insistence on the perils of the journey. This technique of gradually revealing layers of information challenges the novice reader, but it rewards deliberate re-reading with insight.
The most extraordinary innovation, however, is the series of three dramatic monologues and a trilogue at the center of the book. Drawing on her own essay title, Morrison calls these chapters "unspeakable things unspoken" that Stamp Paid overheard but could not understand. In these she employs the strategy of a Shakespearian soliloquy, in which the random thoughts and ponderings of a character are expressed in organized form. In these the characters' desires, hopes, and repressed memories come to the surface. Sethe tells us, for example, how very bitterly she resented the abuse by Schoolteacher's nephews, and how she looked to her mother's rebellion as a role model; she also tells us that she stayed alive after killing Beloved only to address needs of her surviving children. Denver, who has seemed a shadowy character to this point, is given psychological depth preparing her for her role as the family's liberator as she comes to terms with her veneration of the absent Halle and her fear of Sethe.
Of course it is Beloved's soliloquy that will command many readers' attention. Composed in a stream-of-consciousness format with little punctuation, the monologue takes us beyond individual to collective experience. It synthesizes the needs of a child who has been abandoned by her mother, with the recollections of horrors of burial and the hold of a slave ship in passage. In the monologue readers come to understand and sympathize with Beloved's obsession with Sethe and the case that is to made for her resentment of being denied even a slave's life. But readers also see the possessiveness and the capacity of that obsession to evolve into a life-draining hunger to possess Sethe's very existence.
The final section is the height of Morrison's technical innovation. It begins as a supplementary monologue by Beloved, but evolves quickly into a symphony of the three female voices in 124. At times readers cannot tell for certain which individual voice is speaking; that reinforces the synthesis the novel creates, as the merging identities produce both beauty and terror, for the women are one, but in being one they lose portions of their individuality. In the four monologues, the line between prose and poetry evaporates; language becomes the true instrument and subject of the novel's central meditation.
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As is true of most truly original works of fiction, Beloved draws on many literary and folklore precedents. The method of interweaving sections of the narrative from many sources and arranging the narrative thematically rather than chronologically has affinities with many modernist novels, especially those of Faulkner and Woolf, whose work Morrison studied closely in graduate school. While Beloved shares narrative as well as epistemological qualities with William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927) it is an original application of those subtle storytelling strategies.
In terms of content the novel owes much to three distinct traditions, the combination of which sheds light on Morrison's original talent. Insofar as it is a slave narrative, the book contributes to an emerging canon of narratives by slaves and ex-slaves that has recently emerged to challenge and complete the widely-read Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), a polemical antislavery novel of the nineteenth century, and The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, a commentary by an ex-slave on the ignominy of the institution. Shortly before Morrison wrote the novel, poet Robert Hayden's magnificent but distressing "Middle Passage" created a similarly disturbing artistic representation of the degree to which the slave trade dehumanized the traders and wasted the lives and hopes of the captives.
Beloved also draws on classical literature in its treatment of the theme of infanticide. Sethe's act contrasts with Medea's vengeful slaying her children to punish Jason, the Greek hero who was an unfaithful husband, and Procne, who served her son as food to his father for raping her sister Philomela — this story also forms a morbid center to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Unlike her classical predecessors, however, Sethe's child-killing was neither premeditated nor an act of vengeance. It was an act of love, an effort to preserve her baby from the clutches of the slave owners.
Finally, the novel can be seen as part of the tradition of ghost literature and the stories of hauntings of guilty parties. All the ex-slaves believe in ghosts, as does Morrison herself. Ella, who leads the successful rescue of Sethe, sums up the community's view of ghosts by saying she respects those who keep their ghostly dimension, but draws the line when ghosts "took flesh and came in her world ... She didn't mind a little communication between the worlds, but this was an invasion." Beloved gives the typically frivolous ghost story a new seriousness in her study of guilt and the quest for forgiveness.
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After a decade of working to bring the novel to the screen, producer-star Oprah Winfrey finally brought out a film version of Beloved in 1998. Directed and co-produced by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme, the film starred Winfrey as Sethe, Danny Glover as Paul D., Kimberly Elise as Denver, and Thandie Newton as Beloved.
An unabridged audio recording of Beloved by the author is available from Random House Audio; an abridged version read by actress Lynn Whitfield is also available from Random House Audio.
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Sources Margaret Atwood, "Haunted by Their Nightmares," in New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1987, pp. 1, 49-50.
Martha Bayles, "Special Effects, Special Pleading," in New Criterion, Vol. VI, No. 5, January, 1988, pp. 34-40.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Toni Morrison. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.
Susan Bowers, "Beloved and the New Apocalypse," in Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 59-77.
Rosellen Brown, "The Pleasure of Enchantment," in Nation, Vol. 245, No. 12, October 17, 1987, pp. 418-21.
Walter Clemons, "A Gravestone of Memories," in Newsweek, Vol. CX, No. 13, September 28, 1987, pp. 74-75.
Stanley Crouch, "Aunt Medea," in New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 16, October 19, 1987, pp. 38-43.
Dubois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880. New York: Atheneum, 1992.
Mari Evans, editor, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday, 1984.
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. and Appiah, K.A., ed. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, Inc., 1993.
Deborah Horvitz, "Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol.17,No. 2, Autumn, 1989, pp. 157-67.
Elizabeth House, "Toni Morrison's Ghost: The Beloved Who Is Not Beloved," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol.18,No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 17-26.
Carol Iannone, "Toni Morrison's Career," in Commentary, Vol. 84, No. 6, December, 1987, pp. 59-63.
Michiko Kakutani, "Did 'Paco's Story' Deserve Its Award?," in New York Times, November 16, 1987, p. C15.
Charles Larson, review of Beloved, in Chicago Tribune, August 30, 1987.
John Leonard, review of Beloved, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 30, 1987.
Lingley, Charles Ramsdell and Foley, Allen Richard. Since the Civil War–Third Edition. New York: Century Co., Inc., 1935.
McKay, Nellie Y., ed. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co., 1988.
Eusebio L. Rodrigues, "The Telling of Beloved," in Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 153-69.
Carol Rumens, "Shades of the Prison-House," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4411, October 16-22, 1987, p. 1135.
Barbara Schapiro, "The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison's Beloved," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 194-210.
Amy E. Schwartz, "Beloved: It's Not a Question of Who Suffered More," in Washington Post, April 3, 1988, p. B7.
Ann Snitow, "Death Duties: Toni Morrison Looks Back in Sorrow," in Voice Literary Supplement, No. 58, September, 1987, pp. 25-6.
Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction 1865–1877. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1966.
Jean Strouse, "Toni Morrison's Black Magic," in Newsweek, March 30, 1981, pp. 52-57.
Judith Thurman, "A House Divided," in New Yorker, Vol. LXIII, No. 37, November 2, 1987, pp. 175-80.
Videos:Profile of a Writer: Toni Morrison, Alan Benson, R.M. Arts, 52 min., Public Media, Inc., 1987.
A Conversation with Toni Morrison, Matteo Bellinelli, 25 min., RTSI–Swiss Television, “In Black and White: Part 3.”
For Further Study Marilyn Judith Atlas, "Toni Morrison's Beloved and the Reviewers," in Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. XVII, 1990, pp. 45-57. A thorough survey of critical response to the novel prior to its winning the Pulitzer Prize. The critic suggests that the difficulties critics have had in interpreting the novel lie in its sensitive subject matter and complex design.
Bernard W. Bell, "Beloved: A Womanist Neo-Slave Narrative; or Multivocal Remembrances of Things Past," in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 7-15. Discusses Beloved as an exploration of the "double consciousness" of Black Americans.
Eileen T. Bender, "Repossessing Uncle Tom's Cabin: Toni Morrison's Beloved," in Cultural Power/Cultural Literacy: Selected Papers from the Fourteenth Annual Florida State University Conference on Literature and Film, edited by Bonnie Braendlin, Florida State University Press, 1991, pp. 129-42. Argues that Beloved is Morrison's meditated reaction against the sentimental stereotypes of Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel. According to Bender, Morrison's novel represents a "new act of emancipation for a culture still enslaved by false impressions and factitious accounts."
Patrick Bryce Bjork, "Beloved: The Paradox of a Past and Present Self and Place," in his Novels of Toni Morrison: The Search for Selfand Place within the Community, Peter Lang Publishing, 1992, pp. 141-62. Examines the contradictions of personal identity and memory in Morrison's novel.
Marilyn R. Chandler, "Housekeeping and Beloved: When Women Come Home," in her Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 291-318. Analyzes Beloved and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping "under the rubric of house and home as ideas in relation to which women in every generation and in every situation have had to 'work out their salvation' and define their identities."
Marsha Jean Darling, "Ties That Bind," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 6, March, 1988, pp. 4-5. Praises Beloved as a masterpiece of historical fiction which "challenges, seduces, cajoles and enjoins us to visualize, contemplate, to know, feel and comprehend the realities of the material world of nineteenth-century Black women and men."
Christina Davis, "Beloved: A Question of Identity," in Présence Africaine, No. 145, 1988, pp. 151-56. Extols Morrison's gift for giving expression to the subjective consciousness of Sethe, a slave whose voice "is clear, its pain full of anguish, its beauty unbearable, its truth stunning."
Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos, "Maternal Bonds as Devourers of Women's Individuation in Toni Morrison's Beloved," in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 51-59. Argues that Beloved "develops the idea that maternal bonds can stunt or even obviate a woman's individuation or sense of self," and that "the conclusion of the book effects a resolution of the tension between history and nature which underlies the movement of the work as a whole."
John N. Duvall, "Authentic Ghost Stories: Uncle Tom's Cabin, Absalom, Absalom!, and Beloved," in Faulkner Journal, Vol. IV, Nos. 1 and 2, Fall, 1988-Spring, 1989, pp. 83-97. Compares the ghost story elements in novels by Morrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Faulkner.
Karen E. Fields, "To Embrace Dead Strangers: Toni Morrison's Beloved," in Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman, Greenwood Press, 1989, pp. 159-69. Calls the novel a profound "meditation on the nature of love," examining how the characters use relationships to attempt to create order out of chaos.
Anne E. Goldman, "'I Made the Ink': (Literary) Production and Reproduction in Dessa Rose and Beloved," in Feminist Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 313-30. Argues that Beloved and Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose "comment implicitly on the gap between mainstream critical theories and modern literary practice" by their construction of strong heroines who integrate themselves through writing, in contrast to the narrative fragmentation of post-modern fiction.
Trudier Harris, "Of Mother Love and Demons," in Callaloo, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 387-89. Analyzes Morrison's treatment of the "mother love" theme in Beloved. Harris argues that in "exorcising" Beloved "the women favor the living over the dead, mother love over childish punishment of parents, reality over the legend of which they have become a part."
Karla F. C. Holloway, "Beloved: A Spiritual," in Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 516-25. Critiques Beloved as a mythic revisioning within an African-American literary tradition.
Carl D. Malmgren, "Mixed Genres and the Logic of Slavery in Toni Morrison's Beloved," in Critique, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 96-106. Notes Beloved's incorporation of elements from various genres, including the ghost story and historical novel, and argues that "[it] is the institution of slavery that supplies the logic underwriting the novel, the thematic glue that unifies this multi-faceted text."
Barbara Hill Rigney, "'A Story to Pass On': Ghosts and the Significance of History in Toni Morrison's Beloved," in Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women, edited by Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar, University of Tennessee Press, 1991, pp. 229-35. Explains the meaning of history in Beloved as "the reality of slavery. The 'rememories' are a gross catalogue of atrocities, gross sexual indignities, a denial of human rights on every level."
Mervyn Rothstein, "Toni Morrison, in Her New Novel, Defends Women," in New York Times, August 26, 1987, p. C17. Interview with Morrison about the genesis of Beloved.
Danille Taylor-Guthrie, editor, Conversations with Toni Morrison, University Press of Mississippi, 1994. A collection of interviews with the author, including one with Gail Caldwell on the writing of Beloved.
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Anderson, Linda, ed. Plotting Change: Contemporary Women’s Fiction. London: Edward Arnold, 1990. Offers feminist criticism on the novels of Morrison and other women authors whose writing questions traditional modes of thought. The first part of the essay on Beloved examines historical novels by women, and the latter part analyzes the work and provides strong commentary on Morrison’s reinterpretation of historical writing.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Includes sections on the “story behind the story,” the novel’s characters, and the general critical reaction to its publication, as well as more focused scholarly essays analyzing themes and issues in Beloved.
Bowers, Susan. “Beloved and the New Apocalypse.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 18, no. 1 (Spring, 1990): 59-77. Discusses the novel in the tradition of African American apocalyptic writing. Concludes that the book maps a new direction for the African American apocalyptic tradition that is more instructive and powerful than the versions used by writers of the 1960’s.
Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. Puts forth the argument that African American folklore is the basis for most African American literature and that Morrison transforms historical folk materials in her novels, creating what Harris terms “literary folklore,” allowing no dichotomy between form and substance. The study examines The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved based on this theory.
Holloway, Karla F. “Beloved: A Spiritual.” Callaloo 13, no. 3 (Summer, 1990): 516-525. An analysis of the literary and linguistic devices that facilitate the revision of the historical and cultural texts of black women’s experiences. Also treats the mythological basis of the novel.
McDowell, Margaret. “The Black Woman as Artist and Critic: Four Versions.” The Kentucky Review 7 (Spring, 1987): 19-41. Discusses the significance of the work of Morrison and other African American women writers because of the broadness of their inquiry and the intensity of their commitment to issues related to art, race, and gender.
Samuels, Wilfred D., and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Focuses on the analysis of the entire body of Morrison’s work, giving a thorough character and thematic analysis of the author’s novels through Beloved.
Simpson, Ritashona. Black Looks and Black Acts: The Language of Toni Morrison in “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved.” New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Focuses on Morrison’s successful struggle to represent African American lanuage and linguistic traditions without relying on nonstandard grammar or syntax. The author, Simpson argues, chooses language that “acts black” over language that “looks black.”
Spaulding, A. Timothy. “Ghosts, Haunted Houses, and the Legacy of Slavery: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Gothic Impulse.” In Re-forming the Past: History, the Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005. Discusses Beloved in the context of a broader movement toward representing the history of slavery in the United States through the lens of the supernatural and the subversion of realist narrative conventions.
Weinstein, Philip M. What Else but Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Extended discussion of the representation of race’s effects on loving relationships—from parent-child to romantic—by two of the United States’ greatest authors. Includes a chapter juxtaposing Beloved with Light in August (1932).