Beloved Toni Morrison
The following entry presents criticism on Morrison's novel Beloved (1987). For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 10, 22, 55, and 81.
Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, Beloved is the most celebrated and controversial of Morrison's novels. Inspired by the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who attempted to kill her children rather than have them returned to slavery, Morrison's novel explores the psychological and physical violence caused by slavery, its lingering effects on successive generations of black Americans, and the dynamics of mother-child relationships. Beloved became a source of controversy several months after its publication. When it failed to win a 1987 National Book Award or National Book Critics Circle Award, forty-eight prominent black writers and critics signed a tribute to Morrison's career and published it in the 24 January 1988 edition of The New York Times Book Review.
Plot and Major Characters
Set twelve years after the end of the Civil War, Beloved focuses on Sethe, a former slave who escaped with her four children from a Kentucky plantation known as Sweet Home in 1855. The traumatic events of her past—which include attempted suicide and her decision to murder her eldest daughter in an attempt to save her once and for all from bondage—are narrated in discontinuous flashbacks. Having been released from prison through the aid of abolitionists, Sethe lives with her youngest daughter, Denver, in an isolated farmhouse near Cincinnati, Ohio, and believes that the ghost of her deceased daughter, "Beloved," haunts the house. The novel opens with the unannounced arrival of Paul D., a former slave from the Sweet Home plantation. His attempts to form a sexual relationship with Sethe, however, are thwarted by a mysterious woman named Beloved, whom Sethe and Denver believe to be an incarnation of Sethe's dead child. Although rumored to be a ghost, Beloved becomes Paul D.'s lover as well as a close friend to Denver. Beloved's memories of her past, however, suggest that she is not a ghost, but someone who has suffered the rigors of a transatlantic crossing aboard a slave ship and the trauma of watching her mother throw herself overboard. While Beloved, who considers Sethe her long-lost mother, initially shows spite and anger towards Sethe, she is gradually appeased by Sethe and Denver's attempts at reconciliation. The novel closes with Beloved's apparent departure, after Sethe inadvertently reenacts her "defense" of her late daughter by attacking a Quaker abolitionist, whom she mistakes for a slave trader, in order to protect Denver.
The central concerns of Beloved are the ethical dilemmas posed by slavery, the complex imperatives of individual and collective memory, the dynamics of the mother-child relationship, and the importance of community. By focusing on a violent infanticide, which is publicly denounced despite its mitigating circumstances, Morrison illuminates slavery from the anguished perspective of its victims. Memories too painful and "evil" to bear can be submerged but inevitably return in the form of "ghosts": Sethe views Beloved as the ghost of her daughter, while the distraught Beloved transfers her feelings for her late mother to Sethe. In contrast to traditional abolitionist accounts of slavery, in which the evils of slavery and the virtues of the oppressed are rendered in stark opposition, Morrison focuses on difficult ethical problems regarding relations among slaves and former slaves. Prominent among the dilemmas Morrison addresses within the mother-child context are abandonment, infanticide, and suicide—the complexity and ambiguity of which are exacerbated by the realities of slavery. Through her dramatization of Sethe and Denver's isolation from the black community, Sethe's refusal to seek expiation, and their eventual reintegration into the community, Morrison demonstrates the importance of community ties for the individual's well-being.
Despite its popularity and status as one of Morrison's most accomplished novels, Beloved has never been universally hailed as a success. Some reviewers have excoriated the novel for what they consider its excessive sentimentality and sensationalistic depiction of the horrors of slavery, including its characterization of the slave trade as a Holocaust-like genocide. Others, while concurring that Beloved is at times overwritten, have lauded the novel as a profound and extraordinary act of imagination. Noting the work's mythic dimensions and political focus, these commentators have treated the novel as an exploration of family, trauma, and the repression of memory as well as an attempt to restore the historical record and give voice to the collective memory of African Americans. Indeed, critics and Morrison herself have indicated that the controversial epitaph to Beloved, "Sixty Million and More," is drawn from a number of studies on the African slave trade which estimate that approximately half of each ship's "cargo" perished in transit to America. Scholars have additionally debated the nature of the character Beloved, arguing whether she is actually a ghost or a real person. Numerous reviewers, assuming Beloved to be a supernatural incarnation of Sethe's daughter, have subsequently faulted Beloved as an unconvincing and confusing ghost story. Elizabeth E. House, however, has argued that Beloved is not a ghost, and the novel is actually "a story of two probable instances of mistaken identity. Beloved is haunted by the loss of her African parents and thus comes to believe that Sethe is her mother. Sethe longs for her dead daughter and is rather easily convinced that Beloved is the child she has lost." Such an interpretation, House contends, clears up many puzzling aspects of the novel and emphasizes Morrison's concern with familial ties.