Walter Clemons (review date 28 September 1987)
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SOURCE: "A Gravestone of Memories," in Newsweek, Vol. CX, No. 13, September 28, 1987, pp. 74-5.
[Clemons is an American critic and short story writer. In the following review, he praises Beloved as a masterpiece of psychological and historical evocation which re-creates the "interior life" of black slaves "with a moving intensity no novelist has even approached before."]
In 1855 a runaway slave from Kentucky named Margaret Garner was tracked by her owner to Cincinnati, where she had taken refuge with her freed mother-in-law. Cornered, she tried to kill her four children. Afterward, she was quite serene about what she had done. A newspaper account of this stark event taken from a documentary sourcebook stayed in Toni Morrison's mind over the years. Now it has become the germ of a magnificent novel.
In a lecture last year , Morrison spoke about omissions in slave narratives written for abolitionist readers during the 19th century. Addressing sympathetic whites, blacks tactfully suppressed feelings of outrage that might offend their hearers. They mentioned "proceedings too terrible to relate" only in formulaic euphemism. They "forgot" many things. "Most importantly—at least for me," Morrison said, "—there was no mention of their interior life."
In Beloved, this interior life is re-created with a moving intensity no novelist has even approached before. Morrison has been able to imagine an existence of almost unimaginable precariousness, in which it was illegal for slaves to be taught to read or write, to love and marry with any expectation of permanence, to become parents with any hope of living with their children to maturity.
Through Morrison's bold imagination, the historical Margaret Garner has become Sethe, a stoic outcast; she lives with one daughter in the house outside Cincinnati given to her mother-in-law by a kindly abolitionist. Eighteen years have passed; it's 1873. Sethe's mother-in-law—an eloquent preacher known as Baby Suggs—has died and her two sons have run away, frightened by their mother and by the capricious ghost that shakes the house—the malicious spirit, apparently, of the baby daughter Sethe succeeded in killing before she was prevented from killing the others.
To this house comes Paul D, a former slave on the plantation in Kentucky from which Sethe escaped. Soon there's another arrival—a mysterious, blank-eyed young woman from nowhere, whom Sethe's daughter Denver at once accepts as her murdered sister, grown up and come back from the dead. This is Beloved, who takes her name from the word chiseled on the gravestone of Sethe's dead child.
To outline this story is to invite the very resistance I felt on first reading it. A specter returned to bedevil the living? A Gothic historical romance from Toni Morrison? But with magisterial confidence Morrison has employed a monstrous anecdote as entrance key to the monstrosity of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued exactly a decade before this novel begins. Though technically "freed," the book's black characters have stumbled into post-Civil War existence unable to free themselves from memories of a system in which they had no rightful ownership of a Self. Memory is so oppressive for the novel's characters that stifling it is a means of survival. The splintered, piecemeal revelation of the past is one of the technical wonders of Morrison's narrative. We gradually understand that this isn't tricky storytelling but the intricate exploration of trauma.
Under a system in which "men and women were moved around like checkers," Sethe's murderous act was a distorted exertion of her balked maternal instinct. "She ain't crazy. She love those children," says a black man who was at the scene. "She was trying to outhurt the hurter." "My children my best thing," Sethe says, her sense of her own value having been maimed. She wanted to rescue her children from the life she'd fled, and killing them to prevent their return to slavery was the expedient that occurred to her. She welcomes the arrival of the spectral Beloved as a chance to explain herself. Sethe's arrogance has made the black community of Cincinnati shun her, and Paul D, who has not heard of her bloody past during his own 18 years of wandering, deserts her when he learns of it. Her isolation binds her in an unholy relation with Beloved.
At the heart of this astounding book, prose narrative dissolves into a hypnotic, poetic conversation among Sethe, Denver and the otherworldly Beloved. The broken speech of Beloved reveals that she's something other than the ghost of Sethe's murdered baby. "You think she sure 'nough your sister?" Paul D asks Denver. Denver replies: "At times I think she was—more." In Beloved's monologue we can grasp that this something "more" is that she remembers passage on a slave ship, which Sethe's murdered baby couldn't have. Though Sethe and Denver have accepted Beloved as the reincarnation of the dead baby, grown up into a young woman with a baby's insatiable demands—and Sethe never learns otherwise—Beloved is also a ghost from the slave ships of Sethe's ancestry. Beloved rose from water in a nearby river to come to Sethe's doorstep. Sethe invited the invasion, wanting to justify herself, but the Beloved who materialized has an anterior life deeper than the ghostly role she fulfills in the Cincinnati household she visits.
Morrison casts a formidable spell. The incantatory, intimate narrative voice disarms our reluctance to enter Sethe's haunted house. We are reassured by feeling that the eerie story is reinforced by exact attention to verifiable detail about the lives of postwar Cincinnati blacks and the inferno from which they emerged. When Sethe's Cincinnati neighbors come to her rescue, and the incubus child who nearly consumed her life has vanished, the flood of daylight that ends the book is overpowering. I think we have a masterpiece on our hands here: difficult, sometimes lushly overwritten, but profoundly imagined and carried out with burning fervor.
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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.
Gail Caldwell (essay date 6 October 1987)
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SOURCE: "Author Toni Morrison Discusses Her Latest Novel Beloved," in Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie, University Press of Mississippi, 1994, pp. 239-45.
[The essay excerpted below was originally published in The Boston Globe in October 1987 and was based on an interview with Morrison in which Caldwell questioned her about the sources for Beloved, the difficulties Morrison faced in writing it, and its major themes.]
If The Bluest Eye and her next novel, Sula found eager audiences, Song of Solomon, published in 1977, found an exuberant one, going on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978. Tar Baby followed in 1981; by then, Morrison had been at the crest of a new wave of Afro-American literature for more than a decade. An editor at Random House since 1967, she resigned in 1983 to write full time; at 56, she lives in Rockland County, N.Y., with the younger of her two sons.
Morrison spent two years thinking about the story of Beloved and another three writing it; she says now that she was so frightened by the effort that she hit a writing impasse in 1985. She had conceived of the novel as a three-volume work; when she gave the manuscript to her editor, Bob Gottlieb (formerly of Knopf, now of the New Yorker), she was already convinced that she had failed.
"I had decided that I was never going to meet the deadline, and I would just have to live with it. But I gave Bob what I had, and said, 'I'm sorry, because I really and truly have only a third of a book.'
"And he read it and said, 'Whatever else you're doing, do it, but this is a book.' I said, 'Are you sure?'"
Morrison laughs. "I was happy that, after all these years, what I had done could be published. I was not sure for a long time. I mean, I trust Bob a lot, but I kept saying, 'What do you think?' Not meaning, 'is it any good?' but 'are you sure this is IT?'"
This was most certainly it, as Gottlieb realized immediately, for Morrison had given him Beloved in its entirety, save the page-and-a-half coda at the end. The novel is extraordinary, even by Morrison standards, with a lyricism equal to the sadnesses it plumbs. Set in Ohio in 1873, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an ex-slave who fled the South with her children 18 years earlier. She now lives alone with her youngest daughter, Denver, but their isolation is threatened by a presence in the house: the ghost of her other girl, Beloved, who was murdered as an infant. How that tragedy came about—and just who was responsible—is the mystery at the center of Beloved, which is as much about the mother-daughter bond as it is the crimes of slavery.
Morrison says she works from the ground up, conceiving of "the smaller details, the images," before the entire architecture of a novel appears. But unlike her four previous books, the idea for the plot of Beloved came from an actual event—gleaned from a 19th-century newspaper story she'd discovered while editing The Black Book (an overview of black American history) at Random House. The woman in the news story became Sethe, and Morrison began to write.
"What was on my mind," says Morrison, "was the way in which women are so vulnerable to displacing themselves, into something other than themselves. And how now, in the modern and contemporary world, women had a lot of choices and didn't have to do that anymore. But nevertheless, there's still an enormous amount of misery and self-sabotage, and we're still shooting ourselves in the foot.
"It occurred to me that I'd read these stories about black women … because we were at the forefront of making certain kinds of decisions, modern decisions that hadn't been made in 1873.
"The past, until you confront it, until you live through it, keeps coming back in other forms. The shapes redesign themselves in other constellations, until you get a chance to play it over again."
Morrison still views Beloved as the first of three works, and that, she says, has helped counteract the melancholy that usually accompanies a book's completion. The struggles she encountered along the way paid off: Beloved is driven by a voice so pure that it half-seems as though its narrators are gathered around the reader's kitchen table. Its shifting narration builds to a crescendo of voices at the end of the novel, particularly that of Beloved—who has come back as a young woman looking to reclaim her past.
"I couldn't get Beloved's voice," says Morrison, "I just couldn't get there. I wrote around it: She was there, but she couldn't say anything … I could get Denver's and Sethe's voices, but I just couldn't get that girl to say where she had been."
Paul D, the former slave from Sethe's past, has his own way of saying where he's been, a poetry of lament that seems written from the inside looking out. "I'll tell you," says Morrison about capturing his voice, "you know how actresses do? You just get in there, and see what the world looks like in there. I can even write dialogue when he's talking and I'm inside him, and then I have to come out and get in the other person. Rewriting was that constant shifting, and trying to do him justice. I don't want to shortchange anybody. It has something to do with honorably rendering another life.
"Paul D's like a lot of other black men I used to know, and listen to—my father, my uncles, and the way they used to talk."
It's not the only time Morrison's family had a hand in Beloved. As a child, she listened to the ghost stories her parents told; all her novels are rich with supernatural lore; from the dream imagery of Sula to the flying metaphors of Song of Solomon. When Beloved's flesh-and-blood manifestation shows up at Sethe's house one day—no lines on her palms and no history to speak of—her presence seems as ordinary as an afternoon visit from the local preacher.
"As a child, everybody knew there were ghosts," says Morrison. "You didn't put your hand under the bed when you slept at night. It's that place that you go to [in Beloved], right away … a shared human response to the world. And that's where I had to go to, with Beloved's voice, because I couldn't confuse it with my own." Morrison laughs. "It starts getting crazy, you know, trying to do that."
With its lush, Gauguin-like imagery and commonplace mysticism, Beloved draws from a wellspring not unlike that of the Latin American fabulists. Morrison nods at the comparison between black American folklore and magic realism, though she says she was well into Song of Solomon before she discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
"Their stuff was so readily available to them—that mixture of Indian and Spanish. Whereas I felt the preachers, the storytelling, the folklore, the music was very accessible to me, but I felt almost alone. It wasn't only mine, but I didn't have any literary precedent for what I was trying to do with the magic.
"So I thought, boy, those guys—they've got it. Everybody understood the sources of their magic right away. Whereas mine was discredited, because it was held by discredited people. 'Folklorists!' Now it's sort of a little subject in the academy, but it did not have any currency … it's perceived of as illiterate.
"People give a lot of credence to the intelligence, the concentration, the imagination necessary for listening to music, but never for listening to stories. That somehow seems like a dumb thing that people who can't read do. And I know how hard it is to listen, and what's engaged when you listen."
If Morrison's early work quickly became required reading in Afro-American literature courses around the country, it was [on] lists of standard English courses, Afro-American or otherwise. Still, the embrace of "ethnic" and "women's" literature in the last 15 years—read: non-white-male—is viewed by some as a ghettoization of literature, more stifling than liberating. And while Morrison herself has received superlative-laden praise for her work, the words "black" and "female" almost always preface such claims.
"Well, I get unnerved by all of it," says Morrison. "When they say I'm a great American novelist, I say, 'Ha! They're trying to say I'm not black.' When they say I'm a wonderful woman novelist, I think, 'Aha, they think I don't belong.' So I've just insisted—insisted!—upon being called a black woman novelist. And I decided what that meant—in terms of this big world that has become broader and deeper through the process of reclamation, because I have claimed it. I have claimed what I know. As a black and a woman, I have had access to a range of emotions and perceptions that were unavailable to people who were neither.
"So I say, 'Yes, I'm a black woman writer.' And if I write well enough, then maybe in about five years—or 10, or 15—it'll be like, 'Do you write for the Russians, or do you write for the French?' I mean, that kind of question, you can't put to anyone other than women and blacks."
Morrison laughs. "I've always had a secret desire to write reviews of white people's books from that point of view, and make all these observations. I think that would be a scream. I'd say, 'This is a better book because that's the way white people really are.' I mean, what does that mean?"
The color and gender demarcations of contemporary fiction have begun to blur in the last decade, in part due to writers such as Morrison, whose contributions stand tall against any literary standard. And while she underplays her own participation in that change, she says she's witnessed its effects, particularly in the schools and universities.
"The black kids [where I lectured], when they would ask questions, they used to say—vis a vis Song of Solomon or Sula—they'd say, 'I don't know anybody like that.' Or, 'wear shoes.'
"And I would say, 'I don't know anybody like that either.'
"They were always disassociating themselves from the class of blacks to which they did not belong. And they weren't talking to me anyway; they were talking to their fellow [white] students. All of the time, at least one person would make sure that I understood that a wine-maker like Pilate [in Song of Solomon] they loved, but that was not part of their experience.
"They were at great pains to let me know that they were literate. That doesn't happen anymore.
"Painful as it is, there was a void before, and now there's something in it. And you know, I'm not the first black writer. So that it means that the cumulative effect of all those writers who went before—the Zoras [Neale Hurston] and the [Ralph] Ellisons—in its real sense, it means it is there now."
The difficulties Morrison encountered with Beloved came from the heights and depths she tried to conquer: The girl Beloved's voice at the end of the novel is wrenching testimony, not just her private suffering but of all the ravages of slavery. For Morrison, it was more than a personal triumph.
"When I had problems, I thought: If they can live it, I can write about it. I refuse to believe that that period, or that thing [slavery] is beyond art. Because the consequences of practically everything we do, art alone can stand up to. It's not the historians' job to do that—you know what I'm saying? You will get some truth out of it that is not just the province of the natural or social sciences.
"I said, then the slaveholders have won if this experience is beyond my imagination and my powers. It's like humor: You have to take the authority back; you realign where the power is. So I wanted to take the power. They were very inventive and imaginative with cruelty, so I have to take it back—in a way that I can tell it. And that is the satisfaction."
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The Bluest Eye (novel) 1970
Sula (novel) 1973
The Black Book [editor] (nonfiction) 1974
Song of Solomon (novel) 1977
Tar Baby (novel) 1981
Dreaming Emmett (drama) 1986
Beloved (novel) 1987
Jazz (novel) 1992
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (essays) 1992
Rac-ing, Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality (nonfiction) 1992
Clarence Major (review date January-February 1988)
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SOURCE: "In the Name of Memory," in The American Book Review, Vol. 9, No. 6, January-February, 1988, p. 17.
[Major is an American poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, and educator. In the following review of Beloved, he identifies its dominant theme as the residual power of memory and extols Morrison's ability to "disappear" from her own writing.]
I am not an innocent reader approaching a book by a writer I have not known before. Only long ago was that innocence possible. Long ago was the excitement of that innocence. Now, only something close to that excitement happens. But I actually bought Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, with my own money and I bought it out of some vestige of that earlier excitement; I bought it in Washington, D.C., on a dry, windy afternoon in October. I was excited by the possibility of a great reading experience, like those I had as a boy discovering books such as The Catcher in the Rye and The Drunken Boat Party.
Another kind of magic—perhaps more critical and equally valuable—had taken possession of the experience. Maybe that earlier and apparently unrecoverable innocence was best unrecovered. I was not disappointed although I had not entirely left my body for the magical world of the text; had not entirely entered the world of Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver, Paul D, and Beloved. That world was certainly magical enough and full of the lyrical power necessary for the experience. Listen to this:
A fully dressed woman walked out of the water. She barely gained the bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree.
That is the arrival of Beloved. From this moment on she enters the lives of the people who live at 124 Bluestone Road, but she is there primarily because she belongs in an unbroken, passionate, blood-tied way to Sethe.
Let me explain who these characters are and what they are about and why they are where they are. Sethe, who is at the center of the action with Beloved, a ghost from the past, is the mother of Denver, a feisty young woman who is uneasy about the presence of Paul D, Sethe's live-in man. Then there is the profound, even mythic presence of old Baby Suggs herself, Sethe's mother-in-law. All of these folk are refugees from slavery or the legacy of it; escapees from the hardship of a slave plantation with an ironic name, Sweet Home. Although they are not exactly in limbo, they are like a group of survivors waiting on a rock in the middle of the ocean: not exactly without hope, but hard enough and realistic enough not to get too excited about what tomorrow might bring.
Yes, it is a ghost story, but not because things move around in 124, not because strange lights invade rooms; it is a ghost story because of the history of the human heart, because of the inability of the human spirit to shrug off that which might be best forgotten. Beloved, the ghost of Sethe's dead infant, brings to 124 a living presence that confirms all of this, a presence that is not meant to redeem anybody—certainly not Sethe in the murder of her own infant in no matter how noble a cause—not meant to punish anybody. Beloved comes in the name of memory—its right to exist in the present; in the name of its unbroken truce with the flesh and its earth-place.
This truce, as acted out between Sethe and Beloved, spins its way down through the novel like a cyclone, possessing every other human force in its wake. Yes, the reading experience was about as innocent and good as a reading experience can be for me these days.
And the writing itself helped to make that possible. But Morrison is the type of writer who would tell me that she works hard to make the presence of the writer disappear. Even so. Even so. When one goes to a book for a great reading experience, one does not wish to escape the page one is looking at. I found Morrison's disappearing act to be as skillful as Vermeer's when he is pretending he has nothing to do with the view of a street in Delft. No matter how successful he is in realistically submerging himself into the vortex of representation, it is precisely his disappearing act that most reveals his incredible presence. So it is with Toni Morrison.
Deborah Horvitz (essay date Autumn 1989)
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SOURCE: "Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, Autumn, 1989, pp. 157-67.
[Horvitz is a critic and psychiatric social worker. In the essay below, she provides a thematic analysis of Beloved, noting Morrison's focus on bonding, bondage, alienation, loss, memory, and mother-daughter relationships.]
Toni Morrison's fifth novel, Beloved (1987), explores the insidious degradation imposed upon all slaves, even when they were owned by, in Harriet Beecher Stowe's term, "a man of humanity." The novel is also about matrilineal ancestry and the relationships among enslaved, freed, alive, and dead mothers and daughters. Equally it is about the meaning of time and memory and how remembering either destroys or saves a future. Written in an anti-minimalist, lyrical style in which biblical myths, folklore, and literary realism overlap, the text is so grounded in historical reality that it could be used to teach American history classes. Indeed, as a simultaneously accessible and yet extremely difficult book, Beloved operates so complexly that as soon as one layer of understanding is reached, another, equally as richly textured, emerges to be unravelled. [In Judith Thurman's "A House Divided," The New Yorker, November 2, 1987] Morrison has referred to her novel as a "ghost story" and begins and ends with Beloved, whose name envelops the text.
The powerful corporeal ghost who creates matrilineal connection between Africa and America, Beloved stands for every African woman whose story will never be told. She is the haunting symbol of the many Beloveds—generations of mothers and daughters—hunted down and stolen from Africa; as such, she is, unlike mortals, invulnerable to barriers of time, space, and place. She moves with the freedom of an omnipresent and omnipotent spirit who weaves in and out of different generations within the matrilineal chain. Yet, Morrison is cautious not to use Beloved as a symbol in a way that either traps the reader in polemics or detaches one from the character who is at different times a caring mother and a lonely girl. Nor is Beloved so universalized that her many meanings lose specificity. She is rooted in a particular story and is the embodiment of specific members of Sethe's family. At the same time she represents the spirit of all the women dragged onto slave ships in Africa and also all Black women in America trying to trace their ancestry back to the mother on the ship attached to them. Beloved is the haunting presence who becomes the spirit of the women from "the other side." As Sethe's mother she comes from the geographic other side of the world, Africa; as Sethe's daughter, she comes from the physical other side of life, death. There is a relationship, too, between Beloved's arrival and the blossoming of Sethe's memory. Only after Beloved comes to Sethe's house as a young woman does Sethe's repression of countless painful memories begin to life. Beloved generates a metamorphosis in Sethe that allows her to speak what she had thought to be the unspeakable.
In Beloved the ghost-child who comes back to life is not only Sethe's two-year-old daughter, whom she murdered eighteen years ago; she is also Sethe's African mother. This inter-generational, inter-continental, female ghost-child teaches Sethe that memories and stories about her matrilineal ancestry are life-giving. Moreover, Beloved stimulates Sethe to remember her own mother because, in fact, the murdered daughter and the slave mother are a conflated or combined identity represented by the ghost-child Beloved.
Mother-daughter bonding and bondage suffuses Morrison's text. Sethe's nameless mother is among the African slaves who experienced the Middle Passage and, late in the text, she relates that ordeal through a coded message from the ship revealing that she too is a Beloved who, like Sethe, has been cruelly separated from her own mother. This cycle of mother-daughter loss, perceived abandonment, betrayal, and recovery is inherent in and characterizes each mother-daughter relationship in the novel. But in the present tense of the novel—Ohio in 1873—Sethe barely remembers, from so long ago,
her own mother, who was pointed out to her by the eight-year-old child who watched over the young ones—pointed out as the one among many backs turned away from her, stooping in a watery field. Patiently Sethe waited for this particular back to gain the row's end and stand. What she saw was a cloth hat as opposed to a straw one, singularity enough in that world of cooing women each of whom was called Ma'am.
This is mainly how she remembers her mother, simply as an image, a woman in a field with a stooped back in a cloth hat.
Sethe does, however, have one other quite specific memory of this obscure mother, of what may have been their only interaction following the two weeks the nameless Ma'am was allowed to nurse her. She remembers that Ma'am
picked me up and carried me behind the smokehouse. Back there she opened up her dress front and lifted her breast and pointed under it. Right on her rib was a circle and a cross burnt right in the skin. She said, "This is your ma'am. This," and she pointed. "I am the only one got this mark now. The rest dead. If something happens to me and you can't tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark." Scared me so. All I could think of was how important this was and how I needed to have something important to say back, but I couldn't think of anything so I just said what I thought. "Yes, Ma'am," I said. "But how will you know me? How will you know me? Mark me, too," I said. "Mark the mark on me too."
Because Sethe is not marked, she thinks she has no link with her mother. In fact, before Beloved helps Sethe's memory unfold, Sethe firmly believes that because Ma'am is physically dead, they are not emotionally tied. When her mother was hanged, Sethe did not know why. Probably Ma'am was caught trying to escape from the plantation, but the daughter born in bondage refuses to believe her mother could have run. It would mean that she left Sethe behind, emphasizing in this generation the continuous pattern of severed mother-daughter relationships. In other words, her memories of Ma'am are buried not only because their relationship was vague and their contact prohibited but also because those recollections are inextricably woven with feelings of painful abandonment. If Sethe remembers her mother, she must also remember that she believes her mother deserted her.
As Sethe tells this story to Denver and Beloved, she becomes frightened: "She was remembering something [Ma'am's language] she had forgotten she knew." Murky pictures and vague words begin to creep into her mind and she knows that they come from that place inside her—the place Paul D. refers to as the locked and rusted tobacco tin—that stores, but can never lose, forgotten memories. Ma'am's language erupts into her conscious mind signaling the beginning of Sethe's slow metamorphosis. "Something privately shameful … had seeped into a slit in her mind right behind the … circled cross," and she remembers that she does or did have a link with her mother that transcends the cross in the circle. She is afraid to remember but ashamed not to. Recollections of "the language her ma'am spoke … which would never come back" creep into her consciousness. She remembers one-armed Nan, the slave who was in charge of Sethe and the other children on the plantation where Sethe grew up. Nan "used different words," words that expressed her mother's native African, and these words link Sethe back both to her mother and to her mother's land, the place where women gathered flowers in freedom and played in the long grass before the white men came:
Words Sethe understood then but could neither recall nor repeat now. She believed that must be why she remembered so little before Sweet Home except singing and dancing and how crowded it was. What Nan told her she had forgotten, along with the language she told it in. But the message—that was and had been there all along. Holding the damp white sheets against her chest, she was picking meaning out of a code she no longer understood. Nighttime.
Although Sethe has forgotten the words of her mother's language, they continue to exist inside her as feelings and images that repeatedly emerge as a code that she relies on without realizing it. This code holds animated, vital memories, such as the one of her mother dancing juba, as well as the most painful fact of Sethe's life: her mother's absence.
Sethe is shocked as she continues to find meaning in a code she thought she no longer understood. She remembers that she felt the dancing feet of her dead mother as she was about to give birth to Denver. Pregnant and thinking she is going to die because her swollen feet cannot take another step, she wants to stop walking; every time she does so, the movement of her unborn child causes her such pain that she feels she is being rammed by an antelope. Although Sethe wonders why an antelope, since she cannot remember having ever seen one, it is because the image of the antelope is really an image of Ma'am dancing. Sethe's antelope kicking baby and her antelope dancing mother are one and the same:
Oh but when they sang. And oh but when they danced and sometimes they danced the antelope. The men as well as the ma'ams, one of whom was certainly her own. They shifted shapes and became something other. Some unchained demanding other whose feet knew her pulse better than she did. Just like this one in her stomach.
Stored in childhood but only now unlocked, the link between the unborn Denver's kicks and the dead ma'am's kicks as she danced the antelope erupts in Sethe's memory. As she bears the next generation in her matrilineal line, Sethe keeps her mother's African antelope dancing alive: she links the pulses of her unchained, vigorously moving mother and her energetic, womb-kicking daughter forever.
A second and perhaps the most crucial part of this story from her past is that Sethe, as Nan tells her, is the only child her mother did not kill:
She told Sethe that her mother and Nan were together from the sea. Both were taken up many times by the crew. "She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without name she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man. She put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around. Never. Never. Telling you. I am telling you, small girl Sethe."
Conceived with a Black man in love, rather than with a white master through rape, Sethe, named after her father, is the only child her mother allowed to survive.
Significantly, she is flooded with these memories in response to questions from her own daughter, Beloved, who wants to know everything in Sethe's memory and actually feeds and fattens on these stories. What Beloved demands is that Sethe reveal memory and story about her life before Sweet Home, memory about her African speaking, branded mother and her life right after Sweet Home when she cut Beloved's throat. In other words, because they share identities, the ghost-child's fascination lies in the "joined" union between Sethe's mother and herself. Sethe's memory is being pried wide open by Beloved's presence. She forces Sethe to listen to her own voice and to remember her own mother, her ma'am with the special mark on her body, along with her mother's native language, songs, and dances.
This cycle of mother-daughter fusion, loss, betrayal, and recovery between Sethe and her mother plays itself out again in the present relationship between Sethe and Beloved. Beloved transforms from a lonely, affectionate girl into a possessive, demanding tyrant, and her ruthlessness almost kills Sethe. There is even a connection between this ruling Beloved and the slave-driver. Because any attempt to possess another human being is reminiscent of the slave-master relationship, Denver links Sethe and the slave-drivers when she warns Beloved that Sethe, like "the men without skin" from the ship, "chews and swallows." Beloved is furious and ferocious. When she first comes to the farmhouse where Sethe and Denver live, she appears because the other side is lonely—devoid of love and memory. She yearns for Sethe and cannot take her eyes off her. "Sethe was licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved's eyes." But what starts out as a child's love and hunger for a mother from whom she has long been separated turns into a wish to own Sethe, to possess her, to merge with her and be her. Beloved gets rid of Paul D. and eventually excludes Denver from their play. Just as the disembodied baby ghost Beloved hauntingly possessed Sethe, so the flesh-and-blood adolescent Beloved tries to own and dominate her. Sethe is as haunted by the girl's presence as she was by her absence because possession of any kind involving human beings is destructive.
These "possessive" attachments raise the important moral dilemma underlying Sethe's act; either Sethe must be held accountable for Beloved's death or the institution of slavery alone killed the child. If Morrison wants to humanize and individualize the "great lump called slaves," then perhaps she is suggesting that Sethe, like any individual, is answerable and responsible for her own actions. The namesake for Beloved's Sethe is the biblical Seth, born to replace his brother, the murdered Abel. Perhaps Morrison's Sethe, too, is a "replacement" for her brothers and sisters murdered by the system of slavery and lost to her nameless ma'am. If so, then the inevitable confrontation between Sethe, the replacement child saved by her ma'am, and Beloved, the protected child murdered by hers, represents the impossible choice available to the enslaved mother.
Certainly one reason Beloved comes back is to pass judgment on Sethe. When Sethe first realizes that Beloved is the ghost of her third child, she wants desperately for the girl to understand that she tried to kill her babies so that they would be protected from captivity forever. Sethe assumes Beloved will forgive her. She does not. For Beloved, her mother's protection became the act of possession that led to her own death, which was murder. Beloved becomes mean-spirited and exploits her mother's pain. Sethe gives Beloved story after story of her love and devotion to her. She tells her how nothing was more important than getting her milk to her, how she waved flies away from her in the grape arbor, how it pained her to see her baby bitten by a mosquito, and how she would trade her own life for Beloved's. Sethe tries to impress upon her how slavery made it impossible for her to be the mother she wanted to be.
For Sethe her children are her "best thing," yet they have all been ruined. The murdered Beloved torments Sethe, Howard and Buglar have left home, and Denver is so afraid of the world that it is only starvation that forces her off the front porch. Sethe begs the ruling Beloved not only for forgiveness for the obvious but also for the return of her "self." But Beloved does not care:
She said when she cried there was no one. That dead men lay on top of her. That she had nothing to eat. Ghosts without skin stuck their fingers in her and said beloved in the dark and bitch in the light. Sethe never came to her, never said a word to her, never smiled and worst of all never waved goodbye or even looked her way before running away from her.
What is most striking here is that Beloved responds to Sethe's entreaties not only in the language of the murdered daughter but also in the tortured language of the "woman from the sea." Death and the Middle Passage evoke the same language. They are the same existence; both were experienced by the multiple-identified Beloved.
To appreciate fully Beloved's attack on her mother, it is important to look back to Morrison's previous pages, written without punctuation, composed of some lines written in complete sentences with spaces after them, while others are not. The writing is fluid, open, created in the first person with no names and no reference to time or place. This rhetoric communicates what may at first appear to be an unintelligible experience, a story of images which the reader must grope and finally fail to figure out. In fact, breaking the barriers of form, this key passage, much like Morrison's ghost moving beyond human barriers, communicates the death-like Middle Passage suffered by Sethe's mother. She, Sethe's mother, is the woman "from the sea."
In the remembered ghost story, a woman is crouching on a ship where there is not enough room; there is bread that she is too hungry to eat and so little water that she cannot even make tears. Prisoner on a rat infested ship where she is urinated on by the "men without skin," which is how the clothed white men look to her, she uses words almost identical to the ones Beloved shouts at Sethe: Beloved says "dead men lay on top of [me]"; the speaker "from the sea" says "the man on my face is dead." Beloved tells Sethe that "ghosts without skin stuck their fingers in [me]"; the woman from the ship says that "he puts his finger there." Beloved blames Sethe for not coming to her, not smiling and not waving goodbye before she left her; the woman on the ship says "she was going to smile at me she was going to a hot thing." The point is that "Beloved" exists in several places and has more than one voice. While in the pages of unpunctuated writing she is the voice of the woman on the ship, thirty pages later she uses almost the same words as Sethe's daughter, and each voice shouts to a Sethe. At the end of this section, the collective voice screams: "I am not dead Sethe's is the face that left me Sethe sees me see her now we can join a hot thing." The "hot thing," referred to repeatedly by both voices, expresses the passion that permeates the text, the fantasy that it is possible to join with and possess the lost Beloved. It expresses the desperately writhing and thwarted wish to be both "self" and "other" so as to regain the lost Beloved by becoming her. This is what each means when she says "her face is my own," or "the woman is there with the face I want the face that is mine." The "hot thing" expresses the wish to join, merge, and fuse with the lost mother.
Referring to the dead slaves being dumped overboard, the voice of the woman from the sea says "the men without skin push them through with poles," and then the speaker, Sethe's mother, enraged and mournful, protests: "The woman is there with the face I want they fall into the sea if I had the teeth of the man who died on my face I would bite the circle around her neck bite it away." Terrified and outraged by the iron collar placed on the slaves, she wants to "bite the circle around her neck bite it away" because she knows the woman hates its being there. The "woman with the face I want" is never definitively identified, but at the very end of the novel, Morrison, referring to the African women whose stories are lost, writes, "they never knew … whose was the underwater face she needed like that." Perhaps she, "the woman with the face I want," the lost underwater, drowned face, is someone on the ship with Sethe's mother. Most likely, given that she sees her own face reflected in the "underwater face," she is her own mother, Sethe's grandmother. If so, there is another generation in the line of tortured, invisible women, all of them Beloveds, who have been cruelly severed from their mothers and daughters. The loss of "the underwater face" represents not only the death of a woman, but the death of a mother and therefore the rupture of the mother-daughter bond, probably the strongest, most important relationship women can have. In this novel grief is not only for one deceased woman but for the empty space that she leaves inside all her daughters.
The two voices, Sethe's ma'am's and her daughter's, both of them Beloveds, merge. Yet within the fused voice, each describes her own, individual experience of horrific loss:
I am Beloved and she is mine. [Sethe] 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…. She was getting ready to smile at me…. 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.
From the "place where we crouched," the slave ship, Sethe's mother has lost someone who jumped in the water—the woman Morrison says will never be known, but surely it is Sethe's grandmother. The author creates a fluidity of identity among Sethe's mother, Sethe's grandmother, and the murdered two-year-old, so that Beloved is both an individual and a collective being. They are the primary losses to Sethe, more so, even, than her husband, Halle. Beloved is the crucial link that connects Africa and America for the enslaved women. She is Sethe's mother; she is Sethe herself; she is her daughter.
Although at different times Sethe, her mother, and her daughter all live with the agonizing feeling that they have been betrayed by their mothers, perhaps most heart-breaking is the image of mother-daughter separation evoked when Beloved insists that a "Sethe," voluntarily and without being pushed, went into the sea. The agony stems from the child's assumption that she is being deliberately abandoned by her ma'am. A little girl stands on an enormous ship not understanding why her mother jumps overboard. Beloved lost her mother when she "went into the sea instead of smiling at [her]." And Sethe's mother wants an unidentified, lost woman on the ship, probably her ma'am, to know how urgently she tries "to help her but the clouds are in the way." This Beloved, Sethe's mother, wants desperately either to save her own mother or die with her, but she loses her again "because of the noisy clouds of smoke." (Beloved also says she lost "Sethe" again "because of the noisy clouds of smoke.") There was a riot on the ship and the noisy clouds of smoke were caused by guards' gunfire, which prevented the daughter from reaching her mother. Perhaps the sick slaves were forced overboard; maybe it was a mass suicide or an attempt to escape through the water. Or the gunfire could have occurred in Africa, before the ships were boarded, when the white traders were hunting down and capturing native Blacks. What is clear is that a woman on the ship went into the sea leaving a girl-child alone, bereft; and each was to the other a Beloved. What is also clear is that the novel is structured by a series of flashbacks, which 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.
The American and African Beloveds join forever in the last two pages of the novel as symbols of the past—exploding, swallowing, and chewing—and fuse with these same images in the present. The sickening fear of her body exploding, dissolving, or being chewed up and spit out links each enslaved Beloved with her sister in captivity. Africa is "the place where long grass opens," the slave ship is the crouching place, and the ghost-child is the girl seen "that day on the porch." The Beloved from each place is another's matrilineal heritage and future; and each Beloved merges with her other "selves" in the shared and horrific fear of losing her body. The gap is bridged between America and Africa, the past and the present, the dead and the living, the flesh and the spirit. But they are joined in a specific shared, secret horror, perhaps the most devastating effect of the violence heaped upon them by "the men without skin." Each lives in terror that her body will disintegrate or, quite literally, explode. Earlier in the text the ghost-child loses a tooth and
Beloved looked at the tooth and thought, This is it. Next would be her arm, her hand, a toe. Pieces of her would drop maybe one at a time, maybe all at once. Or on one of those mornings before Denver woke and after Sethe left she would fly apart. It is difficult keeping her head on her neck, her legs attached to her hips when she is by herself. Among the things she could not remember was when she first knew that she could wake up any day and find herself in pieces. She had two dreams: exploding and being swallowed. When her tooth came out—an odd fragment, last in the row—she thought it was starting.
She cannot remember when she first knew "she could wake up any day and find herself in pieces," not simply because she was only two when her mother cut her throat, but because the fear predates her birth; it comes from the Beloveds in Africa and the ship: "In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away." The voice on the ship repeatedly hears "chewing and swallowing and laughter." The point is that enslaved women, not in possession of their own bodies, survived barbaric beatings, rapes, and being "swallowed" without total decompensation by emotionally dissociating themselves from their bodies. The price they paid was, of course, an enormous one; those that survived often did so with no shred of basic integrity or dignity regarding their bodies. The imagery emphasizes, too, those African women who did not survive the Middle Passage—those who were chewed up, spit out, and swallowed by the sea—those whose bodies and stories were never recovered. Morrison, speaking of the women whose stories are lost, says they are "disremembered," meaning not only that they are forgotten, but also that they are dismembered, cut up and off, and not remembered.
The very end of the novel paradoxically appears to belie the crucial theme of the book, that it is imperative to preserve continuity through story, language, and culture between generations of Black women. The authorial voice says repeatedly "this is not a story to pass on," although it seems in this text that not to repeat is to lose stories crucial to Black heritage and American history and to the personal lives of Black women.
The paradox is the one posed by memory and history themselves when past memories hurt so much they feel as though they must be forgotten. Sethe could not pass on her mother's story for the same reason that, before Beloved came, she could not talk about the murder: "Every mention of her past life hurt. The hurt was always there—like a tender place in the corner of her mouth that the bit left." Remembering horrors of such enormous magnitude can cause a despair so profound that the memories cancel out the possibility of resolution or pleasure in the present and future. For example, the happiness that seemed possible between Sethe and Paul D. at the carnival was obliterated by the past, in the form of Beloved's arrival that very day. However, Morrison implies, even though memory of the past can prevent living in the present, to pursue a future without remembering the past has its own and even deeper despair for it denies the reality and sacrifice of those who died. Assuming individual and collective responsibility is a crucial concern of Beloved, and it is a responsibility to remember.
Like Sethe, Beloved herself is trapped by painful memories of the past at the end of her narrative. When white Mr. Bodwin comes to pick up Denver, Sethe becomes terrified because she associates Bodwin's hat with Schoolteacher's. She temporarily forgets where she is and who he is, and she tries to kill him. Sethe runs from Beloved into the crowd of women outside her house. The ghost-child, left "Alone Again," watches Sethe run "away from her to the pile of people out there. They make a hill. A hill of black people, falling." What Beloved sees is the "little hill of dead people" from the slave ship; she sees "those able to die … in a pile." She sees "rising from his place with a whip in his hand, the man without skin, looking. He is looking at her." While Sethe sees Bodwin as Schoolteacher, Beloved sees him as a slave-driver from the slave ship looking at her, suggesting again that Beloved, the daughter, is also the woman "from the sea," Sethe's mother. She runs away, naked and pregnant with stories from the past, back to the water from which she emerged, where the narrator says she will be forgotten.
The paradox of how to live in the present without cancelling out an excruciatingly painful past remains unresolved at the end of the novel. At the same time, something healing has happened. Sethe's narrative ends with her considering the possibility that she could be her own "best thing." Denver has left the front porch feeling less afraid and more sure of herself. Now that Beloved is gone there is the feeling that perhaps Sethe can find some happiness with Paul D., who "wants to put his story next to hers." As the embodiment of Sethe's memories, the ghost Beloved enabled her to remember and tell the story of her past, and in so doing shows that between women words used to make and share a story have the power to heal. Although Toni Morrison states that "it was not a story to pass on," she herself has put words to Beloved's tale. Though the ghost-child-mother-sister returns, unnamed, to the water, her story is passed on.
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Bell, Bernard W. "Beloved: A Womanist Neo-Slave Narrative; or Multivocal Remembrances of Things Past." African American Review 26, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 7-15.
Discusses Beloved as an exploration of the "double consciousness" of Black Americans.
Bender, Eileen T. "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, pp. 129-42. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1991.
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."
Bjork, Patrick Bryce. "Beloved: The Paradox of a Past and Present Self and Place." In his The Novels of Toni Morrison: The Search for Self and Place within the Community, pp. 141-62. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1992.
Examines the contradictions of personal identity and memory in Morrison's novel.
Chandler, Marilyn R. "Housekeeping and Beloved: When Women Come Home." In her Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction, pp. 291-318. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
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."
Darling, Marsha Jean. "Ties That Bind." The Women's Review of Books V, No. 6 (March 1988): 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."
Davis, Christina. "Beloved: A Question of Identity." Présence Africaine 145 (1988): 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."
Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie A. "Maternal Bonds as Devourers of Women's Individuation in Toni Morrison's Beloved." African American Review 26, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 51-9.
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."
Duvall, John N. "Authentic Ghost Stories: Uncle Tom's Cabin, Absalom, Absalom!, and Beloved." The Faulkner Journal IV, Nos. 1 and 2 (Fall 1988–Spring 1989): 83-97.
Compares the ghost story elements in novels by Morrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Faulkner.
Goldman, Anne E. "'I Made the Ink': (Literary) Production and Reproduction in Dessa Rose and Beloved." Feminist Studies 16, No. 2 (Summer 1990): 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 postmodern fiction.
Malmgren, Carl D. "Mixed Genres and the Logic of Slavery in Toni Morrison's Beloved." Critique XXXVI, No. 2 (Winter 1995): 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 multifaceted text."
Harris, Trudier. "Of Mother Love and Demons." Callaloo 11, No. 2 (Spring 1988): 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."
Rigney, Barbara Hill. "'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, pp. 229-35. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
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."
Karen E. Fields (essay date 1989)
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SOURCE: "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.
[In the following essay, Fields explores Morrison's emphasis on "the nature of love," focusing primarily on the personal relationships between Sethe, Beloved, Paul D., and Denver.]
The most obvious feature of Toni Morrison's Beloved has been least noted that, whatever else, it profoundly is a meditation on the nature of love. The meditation begins as a love story about a man and a woman. In it Paul D and Sethe meet again after many years and redeem one another. Paul D redeems Sethe from her entrapment in a haunted present; and Sethe, Paul D from his fate of continual wandering. At the time of meeting both are afloat on the surface of the present, set adrift by pasts that have burned away most human connection. To both the future exists only after the fact, as time elapsed for Sethe, as distance traveled for Paul D.
Paul D's travels eventually bring him to Sethe's haunted house, which stands off to itself at the far end of a road, on the outskirts of Cincinnati. It is a house the townspeople avoid altogether or hurry past. But Paul D walks up to it and then into it, as if it has been his destination of many years; and he banishes Sethe's ghost. By so doing, he unlocks her desire and his own to envision the future and to plan. In a sense, they bring one another back to life. Like that of the man and woman in a fairy tale, whose coming together ends an enchantment, their love is activated, as it were, the instant they meet; yet it is wholly personal, existing only because it is he, because it is she. In the telling of who they both were, the story's meditation about love unfolds. By the end they seem poised to live happily together thereafter: "Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody," Paul D tells Sethe. "We need some kind of tomorrow."
Their reunion occurs eighteen years after a lovingly planned but hideously aborted escape from a plantation in Kentucky called Sweet Home, on which embarked Paul D and his half-brother, Paul A, Six-O, Sethe (pregnant), her husband, Halle, and their three children. Paul D, Sethe, and one daughter are, to their knowledge, the only survivors. The "yesterday" Paul D refers to unfolds as concrete events and spiritual passages. Sethe has resisted being retaken with her children a month after the escape, by trying to kill her children and herself. She succeeds in killing a baby girl, who returns to haunt the house, injecting her spite into the lives of her two brothers, who leave, her grandmother, who dies, her sister, Denver, and Sethe, who make their own separate peace with it. Paul D has escaped and been retaken five times since the day they all tried to leave Sweet Home together; he has traveled America far and wide, witnessing its physical beauty and its human monstrosity, and has concluded with both a hard-edged peace.
Their spiritual passages over those years are revealed through their separate struggles with another apparition, which entered Sethe's life at about the same time as Paul D. This new apparition is a strange-looking girl of about twenty, who says her name is Beloved. She may or may not be a ghost and may or may not be the ghost of Sethe's child. Who or whatever she is, she takes up residence in the lives of Sethe, Paul D, and Denver, Sethe's bottomlessly lonely daughter. She resides with them as Need itself—need for human connection, for warmth, for identity, for stories and on ad infinitum through all the things one human can willingly give to another, and more than that. But there is also reciprocity with this ghost-or-girl. In giving to this being of unbounded demand, the three also receive. Beloved gives by taking.
In the way of ghosts, Beloved manifests herself differently to the different people who experience her. In that, of course, she is not different from an ordinary human being. To Paul D she is a terrifying seductress who compromises his loyalty to Sethe, but from whom he at the same time gets back parts of his living self long shut away. To Denver she is a dominant sister who extorts devotion, but who gives her the secret-sharing, storytelling complicity of childhood and, therewith, instruction in loving and caring for another. To Sethe she is a destroyer, who tries by turns to kill Sethe and to absorb her; but she is also by turns a daughter to care for and the daughter she killed. She is a chance to make up for and a chance to explain; she is a compensation and a retribution.
The retribution is not for the murder, however, but for the separation. Beloved will not hear that Sethe intended to kill all her children and herself so that they could go together to the other side or that Sethe's killing her had been a mother's act of protection. Beloved is not interested in plans or intentions, only in the result: that where she went she had no mother. She hurls at Sethe again and again the accusation of abandonment. In repeating this accusation, she becomes confounded with Sethe crying out herself against abandonment by her own mother and crying out for reunion.
I am Beloved and she is mine. I am not separate from her there is no place where I stop her face is my own and I want to be there in the place where her face is and to be looking at it too a hot thing.
Morrison makes this cry reverberate up and down generations, placing in a single poetic vision a long stream of disembodied memory that encompasses Sethe's mother, perhaps also her mother's mother and Denver. It encompasses slaves, living and dead, and their captors, those who survived the raids, the middle passage, slavery itself, and those who did not. The conundrum of individuation and kinship alternates with that of individuation and reciprocity throughout Morrison's slow and ramifying meditation about love.
As a meditation about love, Beloved is sober yet optimistic, intent yet undidactic. Above all, it has mind and senses attuned to what can be learned in general from the world of a particular place and time. Morrison explores love in its interested and disinterested forms, in forms that uplift the human person and in forms that carry profound moral danger. She follows out its convolutions as pride and self-sacrifice, as possession and domination, as subjective emotion and objective experience. She considers how love could be manifest in ties between people as nearly equal as fellow slaves and as fully unequal as slave and master. Sometimes she detaches love from particular objects and relationships and lets it appear simply as itself, unshaped by rules of human feeling and connectedness. Love standing on its own is personified by the ghost-or-girl Beloved.
We habitually think of love as an inhabitant of the familiar human relations that at once construct and constrict it. It seems to lean and grow upon human relationships known to us, much as ivy leans and grows upon a familiar wall. But love can also be thought of as a part of nature that exists in and for itself, as a free-growing plant that enters the world of human beings on its own. With a wall the growing ivy reveals the wall. Without a wall, the ivy entwines upon itself, revealing a luxuriance of ramification and convolution that the wall conceals. Love considered standing for itself reveals complexity that is concealed by the simplifying elements of law, rules, conventional emotions, moral conduct, and behavior unequivocal or transparent in its import. Morrison meditates upon the nature of love by imagining its autonomous existence in the world. What appears in the personage of Beloved as disembodied demand appears in that of Paul D as embodied kindness.
Not even trying, he had become the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry. Because with him, in his presence they could. There was something blessed in his manner. Women saw him and wanted to weep…. Strong women and wise saw him and told him things they only told each other…. Young girls sidled up to him to confess.
Love expressed as disinterested kindness appears again in the encounter of Sethe and Amy Denver, two runaways:
"You ain't got no business walking around these hills, miss." "Looka here who's talking. I got more business here'n you got. They catch you they cut your head off. Ain't nobody after me but I know somebody after you." Amy pressed her fingers into the soles of the slavewoman's feet. "Whose baby that?"
That simply, Amy pauses in her own flight, to massage Sethe's feet and ask a question. She continues for a night and a day letting one task after the next signal its immediacy and detain her: helping the wounded and very pregnant Sethe to shelter ("Thank your maker I come along so's you wouldn't have to die out there in them weeds"); finding wild medicine with which to treat Sethe's wounds ("Amy returned with two palmfuls of web, which she … draped on Sethe's back saying it was like stringing a tree for Christmas"); talking a blue streak and singing a little while Sethe swung between survival and death; later, making it possible for Sethe to walk on her own ("She tore two pieces from Sethe's shawl, filled them with leaves and tied them over her feet, chattering all the while. 'How old are you, Lu?' I been bleeding for four years but I ain't having nobody's baby. 'Won't catch me sweating milk cause….' 'I know,' said Sethe. 'You going to Boston'"); she stayed on when Sethe suddenly went into labor, washed and wrapped the baby, tied it to Sethe's chest, then continued on her lone way to Boston: the Good Samaritan.
This story of Amy stands for a moment on its own, as a perfect portrayal of disinterested love—wholly contained in the actions that express it, needing no request and no reward, purely contingent, transient, and impersonal. The next moment we remember that it does not stand on its own, for it is told elsewhere quite differently. In the present idealized form, it is one of Denver's unfree gifts to Beloved: "She swallowed twice to prepare for the telling, to construct out of the strings she had heard all her life a net to hold Beloved." To hold Beloved, she must satisfy Beloved's appetite for knowledge about Sethe's past. She tells it as it relates to herself. Along this way she arrives at a secret of her own. It is a recurrent nightmare made the more frightening by the resemblance of Sethe's act of murder to the kindly caring of the Good Samaritan. In the dream Sethe slowly mounts the stairs to Denver's room to cut off her head, then take it back downstairs to comb and braid the hair: "Her pretty eyes looking at me like I was a stranger. Not mean or anything, but like I was somebody she found and felt sorry for."
Because Beloved is set among slave owners, slaves, and ex-slaves a decade before and after the Civil War, it can appear to be about a subject and human predicament of less than universal scope. But the details about slavery and Reconstruction serve as resources with which to create real human beings, alive in real circumstances. They are not the story itself. Without specifics of place and time, we cannot tell a love story, for we cannot say who loved. Beloved is no more about Afro-Americans in mid-nineteenth-century America than Romeo and Juliet is about Renaissance Veronese. And no less. We cannot grasp the movement of either story without knowing what facts in each case shape the human capacity to love. The facts that confront Romeo and Juliet are the inverse of those that confront Sethe and Paul D. Romeo and Juliet love outside the law, in a world where individual identity is inscribed within membership in a family. In their world love can climb and grow upon—or grow away from—walls that are authoritatively upheld in social life. It is a world in which the love that joins men and women, parents and children, siblings and friends is subject to well-established orderliness. Sethe and Paul D, by contrast, were reared in a world from which order in human relations is excluded for practical reasons and where individuation is stretched to its very limit.
The essence of slavery was the creation of free-standing individuals, not families or communities. As units of a commodity to be bought, sold, or put to use, individual slaves stood apart from any authoritative claim to human connection. Any such claim compromised the owner's property in the commodity. In consequence, even gender and generation, the primordial constraints upon individuality, were broken—and, with them, the building blocks of the wall upon which love ordinarily grows. What would elsewhere have been "man" and "woman" became simply "male" and "female"; and what could have been differences of generation amounted to no more than differences of physique. Paul D and Sethe were reared in such a world of individuals. The drama of their love is not a struggle against social constraint but, on the contrary, a struggle to create constraint out of the bits and pieces available to them. Their love thus has as its prehistory the creation of order out of lawlessness. In Beloved slavery as a state of nature offers a vantage point from which to contemplate love afresh.
Some of Morrison's characters live life, in this respect, as they find it. "Don't love nothing" is the beginning and end of what Ella has to say about children. Sethe's husband's mother, Baby Suggs, achieves the equivalent by forgetting: "My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that's all I remember." Sethe's own mother aborted all her children but Sethe, whom she nursed very briefly before being returned to work in the rice, forced to leave Sethe to struggle for her share from a wet nurse. Sethe remembered that her mother scarcely ever looked at her, and when she did always with a smile—not her own but a deformity, the result of being punished with an iron bit in her mouth. Sethe grieved that her mother had never even combed her hair and that she had never known a real smile. The one time she said in effect "I want to be like you," the mother slapped her but said nothing. Her mother left her by being hanged and Sethe, remembering, wished to think that her mother would not have been trying to escape without her. Throughout the story Sethe does not know and sometimes suspects the worst.
As a mother herself Sethe struggles against the logic that puts her to use without leaving any room for her to make the physical connection between female and offspring into a moral connection between mother and child. She scurries back and forth, between her work for Mrs. Garner and a grape arbor under which she has sheltered her daughter, rushing in to do her ironing, rushing out to shoo the flies from the baby's face. Later on, in freedom, she combs her daughter Denver's hair so memorably that it figures in the girl's recurrent nightmare. Again, during the escape when Sethe is dragging herself along, horribly violated and brutally whipped, she keeps herself going with the single idea of delivering her milk to the baby, who has been sent ahead.
If in such miniatures we witness the destruction and construction of generation, we witness the construction of gender in the contract Paul F, Paul D, Paul A, Halle, and Six-O make when Sethe is brought to Sweet Home. She is a beautiful girl of fourteen, the only girl on the farm, and they are men. But they are the Sweet Home men and proud of it. So although they lust as males after this solitary female, they agree to let her choose and wait the year it takes for her to choose Halle: "A year of yearning, when rape seemed the solitary gift of life. The restraint they exercised possible only because they were Sweet Home men—the ones Mr. Garner bragged about." By an act of collective will, which Morrison marks off with an act of pollution, they make a contract that lets them be men and lets Sethe be a woman who can be loved lawfully. Unlike other contracts, this one is durable only so long as the parties sustain their generosity to one another and to Sethe—and will it to be durable. That this act of generosity is powerfully connected with personal pride adds to the depth of Morrison's Paul D, "the last of the Sweet Home men."
While it provided a social residence for different kinds of love, the bond the Sweet Home men forged among themselves and then between themselves and Sethe was no more protected than the bond between the slaves and the Garners. Its fragility was exhibited when Paul F's sale away undid his status as a Sweet Home man. Sethe's status as Halle's wife could have easily been undone in many ways (although as things happened it was not). But the Sweet Home men's status as men collapsed as soon as Mr. Garner died. While he lived, however, a convolution of generosity and love of self, not unlike the men's, revealed itself in Garner's esteem for his slaves. It is not clear that, if he had had sons, he would have "raised" his slaves as he did. Perhaps by sad happenstance, he taught his slaves to read and count if they wanted, let them have hunting guns, listened to what they thought and felt, which mattered to him; and he worked with them. In the process, he was consciously making them men by his own proud creation; but by the same act he consciously made himself a man in a sense he could not be without them.
"Beg to differ, Garner. Ain't no nigger men." "Not if you scared, they ain't…. But if you a man yourself, you'll want your niggers to be men too." "I wouldn't have no nigger men around my wife." It was the reaction Garner loved and waited for. "Neither would I,"… and there was always a pause before the neighbor, or stranger, or peddler, or brother-in-law … got the meaning.
Out of the brawl or hot argument that invariably followed there came home to Lillian Garner a scratched-up but happy man's man and slave owner's slave owner, "a real Kentuckian, one strong enough and smart enough to make and call his own niggers men."
The same ramifying branches that join the Sweet Home men to each other, to Mr. Garner, and to Sethe, also join Sethe to Mrs. Garner. After choosing Halle, she wonders about a wedding:
There should be … dancing, a party, a something. She and Mrs. Garner were the only women there, so she decided to ask her…. "Is there a wedding?"
Mrs. Garner put down her cooking spoon. Laughing a little, she touched Sethe on the head, saying, "You are one sweet child." And then no more.
But she did respond. She overlooked (and Sethe knew she overlooked) the temporary theft of two pillowcases, a dresser skirt, an old sash, and some mosquito netting, the bits and pieces out of which Sethe made the dress she wore the day she and Halle became a couple. The day after, according to Sethe, "Mrs. Garner crooked her finger at me and took me upstairs to her bedroom. She opened a wooden box and took out a pair of crystal earrings. She said, 'I want you to have these, Sethe.'" The gesture was authentically maternal, in manner as much as in content, and no doubt both enjoyed it as such, until Mrs. Garner's next question revealed the loose end: "Are your ears pierced?" Still, she said and meant that Halle was nice, that she wanted them to be happy; and Sethe said and meant her thank you. But Sethe tied the earrings in her skirt and did not put them on until she had left her Kentucky home.
And so we begin to see an infinitely delicate imagining of love on its own, without the authority of the conventional ties that could make it coherent and durable. It is a makeshift. Here it is stitched to an outlying bit of the conventionally intimate mother-daughter relation; there it returns to the conventionally distant slave-mistress relation. The mother-daughter relation Sethe and Mrs. Garner stitch together is inherently unstable because it cannot be upheld beyond the voluntary complicity of the two, and because nothing sustains it but their separate desires. This lack of social authority means, among other things, that the relationship cannot demand of either party more than she wills voluntarily to give it. So while the tie between Sethe and Mrs. Garner exhibits the disinterested traits of the categorical mother-daughter relation—some things are given without expectation of reward, but simply "because it was she"—it also exhibits some of the traits of a mutually self-interested exchange—each woman for her own reasons needs part of the other. This portrayal of an undomesticated love relation, growing on itself, invites reflection on the parts of its domesticated relative that grow well away from the pruned surface.
It would be a simpler task than Morrison set herself not to explore the inner and outer limits of authentic love between slave owner and slaves. But as the creator of a man and woman capable of love despite their rearing as slaves, she reckons with the fact that no ties enjoy protection, neither those that join slaves to other slaves nor those that join slaves to owners. Therefore to disparage a priori the possible makeshifts between owners and slaves is not to leave those between slaves credible. The makeshift we see, of Sethe's becoming a daughter, and the daughterless Mrs. Garner's becoming a mother to her, is as important to Sethe as her unrealized relationship with her own mother. Indeed, the two fuse together in her mind. We learn how important Mrs. Garner was to Sethe at the moment when she embraced Beloved as her dead daughter. "Beloved, she my daughter, she mine…. She come back to me of her own free will and I don't have to explain a thing." But, farther on: "I'll explain to her even though I don't have to." And then the explanation moves from how Sethe braved everything to deliver milk to her baby, to how the Garners' grown nephews forcibly nursed her, to the act of murder to keep her daughter safe, to Mrs. Garner's sickness the night the sign came that it was time to run:
I tended her like I would have tended my own mother if she needed me. If they had let her out of the rice field, because I was the only one she didn't throw away. I couldn't have done more for that woman than I could my own ma'am … and I'd have stayed with her until she got well or died. And I would have stayed after that except Nan snatched me back.
She told Mrs. Garner how the grown-up nephews had taken her behind the stable and nursed her: "Last time I saw her she couldn't do anything but cry, and I couldn't do a thing for her but wipe her face when I told her what they done to me." The sick and feeble Mrs. Garner's protest to her nephews against this violation led to the brutal whipping Sethe got.
In Denver's story of Sethe's escape, Amy's selflessness during an awful night and day is matched by Sethe's own. She will endure any hardship to get milk to the baby who has been sent ahead. In Sethe's account to Paul D, this selfless striving promotes something more:
I did it. I got us all out…. I had help … but still it was me doing it…. Me using my own head. But it was more than that. It was a kind of selfishness I never knew anything about before…. I was big, Paul, deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide.
It was this exultant exultant Sethe, not the Sethe groping with the others toward the decision to escape, who had found it within herself to resist recapture, whatever the cost. The community picked up Sethe's pride and judged her for it. As Janey said, when she heard of Sethe's last tribulation: "This Sethe had lost her wits, finally, as Janey knew she would—trying to do it all alone with her nose in the air." "Like she was better," said another. "Guess she had it coming," someone else put in. When one of them whispered to Paul D about the day the patrollers arrived, and Paul questioned her, he concluded: "There could have been a way. Some other way." Having been seduced by Beloved (his "stepdaughter" to the extent she was Sethe's "daughter"), and guilty himself, he was primed for judging and so he judged. At the end of their conversation, he broke his promise to hold onto her ankles and not let her fall. He left Sethe's house, taking up nighttime residence in the basement of the Church of the Redeemer and daytime residence on its front steps, with a bottle in his hand.
On the day the patrollers arrived, Sethe had acted without hesitation and without regret, without need to explain anything to anyone or to seek forgiveness anywhere. In any case, it was not an act to be forgiven. Perhaps it was one to be gotten beyond by placing oneself into the hands of the community's capacity for mercy after its judgment. Sethe invited no one's participation either way. When she returned from jail with Denver, neighbors and former friends left her to herself, and she sought no one. She went back and forth to her drab work in a restaurant kitchen, did housework from day to day, and kept plodding as her sons left to follow the Union army, Denver retreated into deaf and dumb shock, and Baby Suggs decided to take to her bed, pine, and die. After a brief notion of moving, quickly abandoned, she accepted matter-of-factly the baby ghost's interfering presence in the house and made practical allowance for it. She accommodated Denver's solitude, loving in parallel with her when anything else was impossible. She managed her life, a full survivor of the terrible events that happened twenty-eight days after her declaration of freedom. She simply pinned her life into the present during the next eighteen years; and then everything came undone.
What really happened to Sethe and how is left to the reader's own meditation. The paradox of the story is that, with the arrival of the two apparitions that boded better things, Sethe collapsed. First was Paul D, who as the last of the Sweet Home men rejoined her with her past. He interrupted her sober practicality with laughter, a "bed life," the comfort of past acquaintance, a vision of the future, and the offer of safety in which to entertain an inward life: "Jump, if you want to, 'cause I'll catch you, girl. I'll catch you 'fore you fall. Go as far inside as you need to, I'll hold your ankles. Make sure you get back out." Beloved interrupted Sethe's sober practicality with the deadliest of temptations: "to take care of and make up for" and to explain, to seize the forbidden fruit of doing the past over again, better. The miraculous gift of having her murdered daughter back and doing the past over, therefore came at the cost of remorse, guilt, self-doubt, and unending self-justification. The attempt to do the past over, as an ordinary mother, brought her within reach of the community's judgment. She had not been before.
Beloved did not seem to her to be "the daughter," as distinct from "a daughter," until the moment when "the click" came, and Sethe began to see the scar around the young woman's neck and three fingernail marks on her head. As simply a daughter and one of a threesome with Sethe and Denver, Beloved added to their joy frolicking together on ice skates, planning the next summer's garden, sewing fancy clothes, eating fancy foods, telling stories and jokes, singing. Denver's "click" came long before Sethe's, and so her love evolved into holding onto Beloved and then into holding Beloved together before Sethe's did. When Sethe's came, she held on too, and Denver let go. Giving up her job so as never to leave Beloved alone again, giving up eating or caring for herself, Sethe gradually became weak and weary of life, as she tried, ever more ineffectually, to explain to Beloved the colossal act of a mother who had been "that wide." Watching, and remembering how Baby Suggs had let herself pass away, Denver set in motion the events that saved her mother but exorcized Beloved.
With Beloved gone, Paul D came back to the house. He found Sethe in a physical state that told her spiritual connection to the dead. She was lying in Baby Suggs's bed and decay was in the air. He thought he saw what she was planning and asked. "Oh, I don't have no plans," she told him, "No plans at all." He said:
"Look…. Denver be here in the day. I be here in the night. I'm a take care of you, you hear? Starting now. First off, you don't smell right. Stay there. Don't move. Let me heat up some water." He stops. "Is it all right, Sethe, if I heat up some water?"
And then, with Paul D's simple acts of bathing Sethe and rubbing her feet, Morrison turns the light brilliantly up around Baby Suggs's bed. Sethe "opens her eyes, knowing the danger of looking at him…. The peachstone skin, the crease between his ready, waiting eyes, and sees it—the thing in him, the blessedness, that has made him the kind of man who can walk in a house and make the women cry."
In keeping with the grandeur of her subject, Morrison moves us from the happy ending, in which Paul D and Sethe seem poised to begin a sunlit new story, to a twilight in which to contemplate the old one: the meaning of Beloved's appearance in the lives of three people; the permutations of happenstance and will that made Paul D and Sethe the people they were; the content of their tie to one another. And who was the girl, Beloved? The ending offers new material with which to return to the beginning. "There is loneliness that can be rocked…. Then there is loneliness that roams…. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet seem to come from a far-off place." Morrison's narrator continues by insisting, "It was not a story to pass on. So they forgot her."
It also is not a story to be retold in only one way. For Beloved has the property Walter Benjamin attributed [in "The Storyteller," in Illuminations, 1969] to all great stories. Its essence is not expended in one telling. The psychological connections are not made but are left to the readers, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. In that way, Beloved lays claim to a place in memory and in retelling. I have retold Beloved as a meditation upon the nature of love. To me, it is a story that trains this meditation by inviting us, from the very beginning, to embrace dead strangers. "Sixty million and more," Morrison tells us in her own voice—and then, in God's, "I will call them my people which were not my people; and her beloved which was not beloved." But Beloved is not a story to be retold in only one way. It is a story to pass on.
Susan Bowers (essay date Spring 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7564
SOURCE: "Beloved and the New Apocalypse," in The Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 59-77.
[In the following essay, Bowers analyzes Beloved in the context of the "long tradition of African-American apocalyptic writing."]
Toni Morrison's Beloved joins a long tradition of African-American apocalyptic writing. Early African-American writers believed that "America, after periods of overwhelming darkness, would lift the veil and eternal sunshine would prevail" [Addison Gayle, The Way of the World: The Black Novel in America, 1975]. By the Harlem Renaissance, African-American writers had begun to doubt a messianic age, but the middle and late 1960s saw a return to apocalypticism, emphasizing Armageddon. Many of these works by such writers as John Williams and John Oliver Killens conceived "the longed-for racial battle" as "the culmination of history and the revelatory moment of justice and retribution" [A. Robert Lee, ed., Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel Since 1945, 1980]. Morrison's novel maps a new direction for the African-American apocalyptic tradition which is both more instructive and potentially more powerful than the end-of-the-world versions of the sixties. She has relocated the arena of racial battle from the streets to the African-American psyche from where the racial memories of Black people have been taken hostage.
Morrison has remarked on the dearth of any "songs or dances or tales" about those who died in the Middle Passage and on what was left out of slave narratives.
People who did dwell on it, it probably killed them, and the people who did not dwell on it probably went forward. They tried to make a life. I think that Afro-Americans in rushing away from slavery, which was important to do—it meant rushing out of bondage into freedom—also rushed away from the slaves because it was painful to dwell there, and they may have abandoned some responsibility in so doing. ["In the Realm of Responsibility: A Conversation with Toni Morrison," Women's Review of Books, March 1988]
She believes that her "job as a writer in the last quarter of the 20th century, not much more than a hundred years after Emancipation, becomes how to rip that veil drawn over 'proceedings too terrible to relate.'"
The word "apocalypse" means unveiling, and this novel unveils the angry presence of the "disremembered and unaccounted for" (Morrison, Beloved) those who died from slavery and on the Middle Passage (at least 50% of all Africans on slave ships died between Africa and the American plantations during the 320 years of the slave trade).
Apocalypticism is a form of eschatology. The root meaning of eschaton is "furthermost boundary" or "ultimate edge" in time or space. Apocalypses can be read
as investigations into the edge, the boundary, the interface between radically different realms. If the apocalypse is an unveiling (apo [from or away], kalupsis [covering] from kalupto [to cover], and kalumma[veil]), then clearly the veil is the eschaton, that which stands between the familiar and whatever lies beyond. In this sense the apocalypse becomes largely a matter of seeing. [Douglas Robinson, American Apocalypses, 1985]
The veil or eschaton in Beloved is forgetting. The etymological sense of "forget" is to miss or lose one's hold. The characters of Beloved—and by implication, contemporary African-Americans—have lost touch with those who have died from slavery and even with their own pasts. As a result they have lost part of themselves, their own interior lives. Their struggle is to lift the veil of Lethe to reveal the truth of their personal and collective histories. Morrison fuses Christian notions of apocalypse with West African beliefs to create a revised apocalyptic which principally looks backward, not forward in time, and concentrates on the psychological devastation which began with the horrors of slavery and continued when African-Americans had to let the horrors of the Middle Passage and slavery disappear into the black hole of Lethe, that vortex of forgetting. Working from the foundation of West African philosophy, at the heart of which is communion with ancestors, Morrison presents an apocalyptic demolition of the boundaries between the earthly and spiritual realms, an invasion of the world of the living by the world beyond the veil. The narrative does not drive toward its apocalyptic moment, but recounts the struggle of living through and beyond the reign of the Anti-Christ and of surviving the "mumbling of the black and angry dead" (Beloved).
Beloved's focus on the past may seem contrary to the forward-looking spirit of apocalypse, especially in American literature, where the apocalyptic is considered fundamental. However, African-American apocalypse must be clearly differentiated from White American apocalypse. The fact is that "American apocalypse" is founded on a premise which necessarily excludes African-American writing: that America is the New World, land of rebirth and new life, as opposed to Europe, the Old World of decadence, decay and death. When Europeans discovered America in the sixteenth century, "America was conceived as mankind's last great hope, the Western site of the millenium," and "its future destiny was firmly and prophetically linked with God's plan for the world" [Robinson, American Apocalypses]. As a result, most White American apocalyptic literature has been based on the optimistic expectation of historical, material change. The reverse experience, of course, is true for African-Americans. They did not leave an Old World of death and decadence for a New World of hope and rebirth, but were torn from the world of their families, communities, their own spiritual traditions and languages, to be taken to a world of suffering, death, and alienation. The good life lay not before them, but behind them; yet, every attempt was made to crush their memories of the past. Slaves were isolated from other members of their tribes to keep them from communicating in their own languages and maintaining their own traditions. In Beloved, only when characters can recover the past do they begin to imagine a future.
One way Morrison avoids the end-of-the-world perspective of most apocalyptic fiction is by basing her novel, like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, on West African philosophy, including the notion of cyclical time. The West African sense of time is part of an organic philosophy that views the world as living—"subject to the law of becoming, of old age and death" [Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, 1963]. For such a culture, apocalypse is repeatable and survivable. On the other hand, there can be only one apocalypse if time is conceived of as linear and irreversible as it is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The constant circling of the narrative in Beloved from present to past and back again enacts the West African perspective and reinforces the importance of the past for both the individual and collective psyche.
Morrison shares with post-Holocaust Jewish artists the monumental difficulties attendant of depicting the victims of racial genocide. What Elie Weisel has stated about the Holocaust applies to the slaughter of ten times as many Africans and African-Americans as the six million Jews killed by Hitler (Morrison has said that 60 million is the smallest figure she had gotten from anyone for the number of slaves who died as a result of slavery).
The Holocaust is not a subject like all the others. It imposes certain limits…. In order not to betray the dead and humiliate the living, this particular subject demands a special sensibility, a different approach, a rigor strengthened by respect and reverence and, above all, faithfulness to memory. [Elie Weisel, "Art and the Holocaust: Trivializing Memory," New York Times, June 11, 1989]
Betrayal would include sentimentalizing and thus trivializing the victims of slavery, rendering them merely pathetic and pitiable. Morrison does not do that. She dedicated Beloved to the "Sixty Million and More," and her novel conjures slaves back to life in many-dimensional characters with a full range of human emotions. They love and hate, sin and forgive, are heroic and mean, self-sacrificing and demanding. They endure incredible hardships to sustain relationships, but the inconceivable brutality and degradation which they experience fractures their communities and inflicts both physical and perhaps irreparable psychological damage on individuals.
One of the questions which Beloved asks is whether it is possible to transform unspeakably horrific experiences into knowledge. Is the magnitude of their horror too great to assimilate? Perhaps because the novel asks its readers, especially African-Americans, to "dwell on the horror" which those rushing away from slavery could not, it addresses what happens when the magnitude of that horror is acknowledged, even suggesting how to survive the bringing into consciousness of what has lain hidden for so long. The struggle of Beloved's characters to confront the effects of the brutality and to recover their human dignity, their selves "dirtied" by White oppression—to transform their experiences into knowledge—is presented in the form of a slave narrative that can be read as a model for contemporary readers attempting to engage these brutal realities. Slave narratives emphasize personal quest as a means of "wrest[ing] the black subject out of anonymity, inferiority and brutal disdain" [Susan Willis, "Black Women Writers: Taking a Critical Perspective," Making a Difference, edited by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn, 1985]. Beloved combines the personal quest theme with the collective memory of racial brutality, for although apocalyptic literature features the destiny of the individual and personal salvation, its "overall perspective is still that of the community" [D. S. Russell, Apocalyptic: Ancient and Modern, 1968.]
It is important to note that Beloved is more explicit than most early slave narratives which could not reveal fully the horror of slave experience, either because their authors dared not offend their White abolitionist audiences or because they too could not bear to dwell on the horror. Beloved does not subordinate the stories of slave life to abstract ideas, unlike the slave narratives which were usually "sandwiched between white abolitionist documents, suggesting that the slave has precious little control over his or her life—even to its writing" [John Sekora, "Is the Slave Narrative a Species of Autobiography?" Studies in Autobiography, edited by James Olney, 1988]. Moreover, Morrison's modeling of her novel on the slave narrative is one way of giving African-Americans back their voices. The slave narrative was an extremely popular form of literature until the Civil War. But after the war, the narratives were "expelled from the center of our literary history."
While an editor at Random House, Morrison worked for 18 months in the early 1970s on a project to unveil the reality of African-American life, The Black Book, which she called "a genuine Black history book—one that simply recollected Black life as lived" [Morrison, "Behind the Making of The Black Book," Black World, February 1974]. The Black Book contains what became the germ of Beloved: the story of a slave woman in Cincinnati who killed one child and tried to kill the other three, to, in her words, "end their sufferings, [rather] than have them taken back to slavery, and murdered by piecemeal." But this "folk journey of Black America" had a far more profound impact upon Morrison than providing her with an initial spark, because it was a model of attempting to tell the truth about a part of African-American life that has been either whitewashed or forgotten, a truth so horrible that it could make a mother see death as desirable for her child.
What The Black Book models is an uncensored exposure of brutality through newspaper clippings and photographs of lynchings and burnings of Black people, for instance, juxtaposed with the celebration of African-American strengths and achievements and folkways. Essentially, The Black Book models the remembering of African-American experience.
"Rememorying" is what Morrison's characters call it, and it is the central activity in Beloved. Because of it the narrative moves constantly back and forth between past and present, mixing time inextricably, as memory escalates its battle against amnesia. The voice of the former slave "above all remembering his ordeal in bondage" can be "the single most impressive feature of a slave narrative" [Robert B. Stepto, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative, 1979]. The characters' rememorying in Beloved epitomizes the novel's purpose of conjuring up the spirits and experiences of the past and thus ultimately empowering both characters and readers. Beloved pairs the stories of a woman and a man, Sethe and Paul D. Sethe's name may be an allusion to Lethe, the spring of forgetfulness in Greek myth. The past that was too painful for either to remember alone can be recovered together: "Her story was bearable because it was his as well." Their stories reveal that the worst brutality they have suffered "is less a single act than the systematic denial of the reality of black lives" [Cynthia Davis, "Self, Society and Myth in Toni Morrison's Fiction," Contemporary Literature, 1982], the profound humiliation which both know can be worse than death:
That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. [Beloved]
Remembering is part of reversing the "dirtying" process that robbed slaves of self-esteem.
The concentration on the horrors of the past and present—the misuse of power, the cruelty and injustice—is characteristic of apocalyptic writing. However, the traditional apocalyptic anticipation of the messianic age—the time of freedom and redemption—is missing among these slaves and ex-slaves for whom hope has come to seem a cruel trick. The members of Paul D's chain gang try to destroy that part of themselves as they crush stone: "They killed the flirt whom folks called Life for leading them on."
The typical format of the slave narrative is to trace the story of the individual's life in slavery, escape, and the journey to freedom. What Morrison reveals is that the process must be repeated twice: first to leave physical enslavement by whites and the second time to escape the psychological trauma created by their brutality. The physical escapes of both Sethe and Paul D create the patterns for their psychological escapes: archetypal journeys of courage, descents into almost certain death, and rebirths into beauty and freedom. Sethe gives birth with the help of a young White girl when she reaches the Ohio River and thus freedom. Paul D is helped by Cherokees, who "describe the beginning of the world and its end and tell him to follow the tree flowers to the North and freedom."
But the novel opens with characters still traumatized many years after their escapes from slavery. They are numb, almost incapable of emotion because they have suffered so deeply and seen such terror. Sethe and her daughter are literally haunted by the ghost of her murdered baby. Sethe is unable to feel; every morning she sees the dawn, but never acknowledges its color. Paul D experiences his heart as a "tobacco tin lodged in his chest," which holds the painful memories of his own past, the memories of one friend being burned to death, of others hanging from trees, his brothers being sold and taken away, of being tortured. "By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open." Paul D's arrival at 124, Sethe's home, 18 years after the two had last seen each other, begins their long and excruciating process of thawing frozen feeling.
Contemporary research on treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome indicates that support and caring from others can help victims to heal, but that the most crucial part of healing is the unavoidable confrontation with the original trauma and feeling the pain again. Beloved enacts that theory. Sethe and Paul D are able to help each other to a point, but until they have intimate contact with the original pain and the feelings it created that had to be suppressed, they cannot be purged of its paralyzing effect.
What breaks open Paul D's tin heart and allows Sethe to see and love color again (color often appears in Morrison's fiction as a sign of the ability to feel) is Beloved's return from the dead, not as a ghost but a living being. She climbs fully dressed out of the water—perhaps representing the collective unconscious of African-Americans—while, appropriately, Sethe, Paul D., and Sethe's daughter Denver are at a carnival (etymologically, "festival of flesh"). Beloved has "new skin, lineless and smooth," no expression in her eyes, three thin scratches on her head where Sethe had held her head after severing her neck, and a small neck scar. Although Sethe does not consciously recognize her daughter for some time, her bladder fills the moment she sees her face and she voids "endless" water as if giving birth. For each of the three residents of 124—Sethe, Paul D and Denver—relating to Beloved addresses her or his most profound individual anguish, whatever lies at the core of each identity. For Sethe, it is mothering; for Paul D, his ability to feel, and for Denver, her loneliness. Their individual reactions to her reflect their respective voids, and reveal their deepest selves.
Angela Davis has pointed out that slave women were not recognized as mothers having bonds with their children, but considered only "breeders" and workers. Thus, slave-owners had no scruples about selling children away from their mothers: "Their infant children could be sold away from them like calves from cows" [Davis, Women, Race and Class, 1981]. Beloved is characterized by mothers losing their children: Sethe's mother-in-law barely glanced at the last of her eight children "because it wasn't worth the trouble." Sethe's own mother, hanged when Sethe was a small child, had not been allowed to nurse her. But Sethe defines herself as mother in defiance of the near-impossibility of that role. Even 18 years after her escape, Paul D recognizes that Sethe's mother-love is risky. "For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love." It was to avoid a future in slavery for her children that led Sethe to plan escape, and to get her milk to her baby—sent ahead with the other children—that made her attempt it alone. She experiences having her milk stolen from her by the nephews of her slavemaster as the ultimate brutality, even worse than the savage beating she received just before escaping. "They handled me like I was the cow, no, the goat, back behind the stable because it was too nasty to stay in with the horses." Beloved's return enables Sethe to mother her abundantly with "lullabies, new stitches, the bottom of the cake bowl, the top of the milk."
If mothering is at the core of Sethe's identity, feeling is at the core of Paul D's. "Not even trying, he had become the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry. Because with him, in his presence, they could." What had led to his own inability to feel was the systematic destruction of his manhood. Like many men, women and children, he had had a bit in his mouth, but the worst part of the experience for Paul D was feeling the superiority of a rooster (called Mister):
Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was…. 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.
When Beloved seduces Paul D, making love with her breaks open the tobacco tin in his chest to release his red heart.
Sethe's anguish is about her mothering, and Paul D's, the ability to feel. Denver's is her loneliness. Its original cause is Beloved's murder, which alienated the community, made Denver afraid of her mother and of whatever was terrible enough to make her kill her own, and caused the haunting of 124 that made Denver's two brothers leave. She had gone deaf and withdrawn from others for a time after having been asked if she hadn't been in jail with her when her mother was charged with murder. Beloved's gift to Denver is attention. Under her gaze, "Denver's skin dissolved … and became soft and bright."
But Beloved is much more than Sethe's resurrected daughter. She is the embodiment of the collective pain and rage of the millions of slaves who died on the Middle Passage and suffered the tortures of slavery. Therefore, her unconscious knows the desperately crowded conditions of a ship of the Middle Passage:
… there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too I am always crouching the man on my face is dead his face is not mine his mouth smells sweet but his eyes are locked
West African religion believes that after physical death, the individual spirit lives, but because it is no longer contained by its "carnal envelope," it gains in power. Spirits "may cause havoc to people if they are spirits of people who were killed in battle or unjustly," and the spirits feel punished if their names are obliterated or forgotten [John S. Mbiti, The Prayers of African Religion, 1975]. (Beloved has no name but the epitaph on her gravestone, a word Sethe remembered from the funeral and which she could pay to have engraved only by enduring the sexual assault of the engraver). The invasion of the world of the living by Beloved's physical presence is evidence of the terrible destruction of the natural order caused by slavery. No one had thought anything about a ghost haunting the house, because ancestral spirits were known to linger in the world. But her physical presence has the effect of Judgment Day on all those whom she encounters: Sethe, Paul D, Denver, and the community. However, because the West African sense of time is non-linear, judgment can be endured and redemption still achieved.
… if the apocalypse stands as one constant pole of the black imagination, as a present possibility, the other pole is an unfashionable conviction that change is possible—that the ghosts of the past can be laid if only they are freely engaged and honestly confessed. [C.W.E. Bigsby, "Judgment Day is Coming! The Apocalyptic Dream in Recent Afro-American Fiction," Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel Since 1945, edited by A. Robert Lee, 1980]
Beloved proclaims that apocalypse and change are not necessarily at opposite poles: an apocalypse—that lifting of the veil on whatever lies beyond—can stimulate change. Its catharsis can be the beginning of transformation; apocalypse can thus become a bridge to the future, passage to freedom.
This novel makes very clear that physical escape into physical freedom was only the first step for the slaves. That fact is symbolized by Beloved's equivalent of Charon, the figure in Greek mythology who ferries the souls across the Acheron to the underworld. This character is an ex-slave who, after handing over his wife to his master's son, changed his name from Joshua to Stamp Paid because "whatever his obligations were, that act paid them off." By ferrying escaped slaves across the Ohio into freedom, he "gave them their own bill of sale," except that the freedom on the Ohio side of the river is illusory, and not only for political and economic reasons. The slaves who cross the river bring with them the memories of lynchings and torture, family members sold away, degradation, and cumulative loss, so that Stamp Paid, like Charon, actually carries them physically to an underworld, to "free" territory where, in Beloved, souls are dead even if bodies are alive. However, Stamp Paid also attempts to carry them out of this underworld into genuine freedom. He "extended the debtlessness [that he believed he had achieved by handing over his wife] to other people by helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery."
Stamp Paid interprets the angry mumbling of the spirits around Sethe's home as "the jungle whitefolks planted" in Black people, a jungle which grew and spread, "In, through and after life." Among other things, Beloved is the embodiment of the White folks' jungle, the psychological effects of slavery. The three residents of 124—Sethe, Paul D, and Denver—find out that although Beloved, once no longer a ghost, did address their deepest needs, she is also malevolent. Sethe realizes that Beloved will never accept her explanation for the murder and that Sethe can never make it up to her. Sethe becomes Beloved's slave, goes without food so that Beloved can eat, and begins to die. Paul D recognizes that making love with Beloved "was more like a brainless urge to stay alive." Denver is finally deserted by Beloved when her mother recognizes her dead daughter. When Denver accuses her of strangling Sethe from a distance of several feet, Beloved denies it. "The circle of iron choked it." Her reply reflects the complexity of her character, as both the ghost of Sethe's murdered baby who can't get enough love from her mother and as also the representative of all the angry spirits—the manifestation of the murderous rage created by Whites in enslaved African-Americans. Beloved as the spirit of slavery—the circle of iron around slave necks—did try to kill Sethe; murdered indirectly by Sethe's slavemaster, Beloved is an unquiet spirit. The enormity of the wrongs wreaked upon the "60 million and more" has produced her, obsessed with revenge, desperately needy for love, but incapable of giving it. Beloved is the tangible presence of the painful past. When Sethe finally recognizes her, Sethe is "excited to giddiness by all the things she no longer had to remember." Even though sex with her filled Paul D with repulsion and shame, "he was thankful too for having been escorted to some ocean-deep place he once belonged to."
Beloved's stream of consciousness reveals that she had waited "on the bridge." She herself becomes a bridge between the "other side" and the living, the apocalyptic manifestation of the world beyond the veil. Like a bridge, Beloved enables passage to knowledge of the other side that otherwise would be impossible. We know that medieval chapels were constructed in the middle of bridges so that passengers could contemplate passage from one state of being to another. Beloved's very being forces such contemplation.
In terms of Christian apocalypse, Beloved is not the Anti-Christ; that role belongs to Sethe's slavemaster, representative of the Whites who oppressed African-Americans through slavery. But as the product of slavery, she could be the Anti-Christ's beast. She is a constant sign that this novel is dealing with another level of reality, but also a reminder of the paradoxes about which the novel circles: the killing of a child to protect her and the combined pathos and wrathfulness of the ancestral spirits. Yet, although Sethe's murder of Beloved is the center of the paradox, which occurred 18 years before the action that begins the novel, it is not depicted until nearly the mid-point of Beloved. Instead, the murder is anticipated so often that a dark foreboding is created, just as Sethe's mother-in-law sensed something "dark and coming" as the slavemaster and his accomplices were arriving.
The slavemaster, Schoolteacher, is definitely an Anti-Christ figure, the kind of character who usually functions in apocalyptic writing as a sign of the end. The Anti-Christ signals a return to chaos, and Schoolteacher's arrival produces chaos which permeates Sethe's life and the lives of everyone in her family and in the entire community. Schoolteacher and the three other White men: his nephew, the slavecatcher, and the sheriff, are Morrison's four horsemen of the apocalypse. Their appearance crystallizes the terror and horror of slavery, emphasized by the fact that this episode is the only one in the novel told from the point of view of a white person. When they discover Sethe's sons bleeding at her feet, her baby's head nearly severed, and her trying to kill the other infant, Schoolteacher concedes his economic loss. He believes that Sethe would be useless as a slave to him because she has "gone wild" due to his nephew having "overbeaten" her; she resembles a hound beaten too hard and which, therefore, can never be trusted. He reflects slavery's treatment of African-Americans as animals. Sethe's reaction to seeing the four horsemen is to protect her children in the only way she has left: to remove them from the reach of evil, to try to carry them "through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them."
This prefiguring of the novel's climactic, redemptive moment is the most violent episode in the novel. Although violence is characteristic of apocalyptic literature, this violence is especially notable because it consists of the victim inflicting the violence on her own children out of utter hopelessness. Stamp Paid calls this event "the Misery" and "Sethe's response to the Fugitive Act." It demonstrates what the characters in Beloved recognize—that actual battle with Whites is impossible because the odds are so stacked against Blacks: "Lay down your sword. This ain't a battle; it's a rout."
Biblical scholars read the four horsemen of the apocalypse as agents of divine wrath; Morrison's four horsemen are only emblems of evil. Her revision of the classic apocalyptic image suggests that she does not share with many apocalyptic writers a belief in a moral force at work in history, the invisible presence of a god who will come again to judge sinners and rescue and reward the oppressed. Instead, Beloved insists that if change is possible, it will happen only when individuals are integrated with the natural world and each other. The only moral agency is human, represented in Beloved by Denver. Born in a boat filling with the "river of freedom," she represents the generation born outside slavery—the future.
Denver is the redemptive figure in this novel. She was only a few days old when her mother murdered Beloved, and Sethe's nipple was covered with her sister's blood when she nursed. "So Denver took her mother's milk right along with the blood of her sister." The image can be read as an allusion to Christ in Revelation "robed in the blood of martyrs" (Rev. 19:13). Like a Christ figure, Denver often functions as an intermediary between spirits and living. Even before Beloved materialized, she saw her in a white dress kneeling beside Sethe, and she was the first to recognize Beloved. Denver not only represents the future; she brings it into being. When neither Sethe nor Beloved seem to care what the next day might bring, "Denver knew it was on her. She would have to leave the yard; step off the edge of the world," and find help. Her efforts lead to everyone's salvation: the reunion of the community. It begins with gifts of food accompanied by the givers' names, but culminates in the women coming to the yard of 124 to exorcise Beloved.
Ella, the former slave woman who had led Sethe and the just-born Denver from the Ohio River, leads Sethe's rescue. She had guided them to the community of former slaves, then led the community's ostracizing of Sethe for 18 years when Sethe had seemed not to need anyone after Beloved's death. Now, it is the idea of Beloved's physical presence which enrages Ella, for she understands that Beloved represents the invasion of one world by the other, and specifically, "the idea of past errors taking possession of the present." As long as Beloved was only a ghost, even a violent ghost, Ella respected it.
But if it took on flesh and came in her world, well, the shoe was on the other foot. She didn't mind a little communication between the two worlds, but this was an invasion.
Ella and the others recognize that Beloved's being violates the boundary between the dead and the living. They know that she is the representative of "the people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood" whose anger and suffering could not be contained in the other world as long as the living neither heard nor remembered them: the apocalyptic presence come to demand attention. When the community is forced to acknowledge what she represents in their own interior lives, Beloved can be exorcised. Like Beloved's murder, the exorcism takes place in the yard of 124. It shares several other characteristics with that appearance of the Anti-Christ: the arrival of a White man with a horse, a violent reaction by Sethe, and the demise of Beloved. But it is the contrasts that are most important. This time, the White man's mission is innocent; Sethe does not succeed; Beloved's demise is necessary and beneficial, the community supports Sethe instead of deserting her, and, most important of all, the community achieves a shared revelation that ushers in a new age.
This second momentous gathering at 124 has a fated quality. For instance, at precisely the same moment that the Black women are marching toward 124, Edward Bodwin, the White abolitionist who owns 124, is coming to take Denver to his house to work as a night maid. The women are coming to purge the house of the demon beating up on Sethe, armed with whatever they believe will work: amulets, their Christian faith, anything. It has been 30 years since Bodwin saw 124, the house where he was born, a place about which "he felt something sweeter and deeper" than its commercial value. The thought of it takes him back to his childhood, a time when he had buried his precious treasures in the yard. It has been 18 years since the women were in the yard of 124, at the picnic Sethe's mother-in-law had given the day before Schoolteacher's arrival to celebrate Sethe's escape. If the house is symbolic for Bodwin, it has symbolic value also for the women approaching it. Seeing Beloved on the porch makes them see themselves as young girls picnicking in the yard 18 years earlier, the day before Beloved was killed. What they see is also a reminder of how the community shares responsibility for Beloved's death. The community of former slaves had been so jealous of the huge party which Sethe's mother-in-law had thrown that no one warned 124 of the approaching horsemen. Then the community had not gathered around Sethe when she climbed into the cart for the ride to jail because they felt that she held her head too high. However, Beloved's presence does enable the women to go back in time to being "young and happy." She also lets them recapture the paradisal time they had spent in the Clearing with Sethe's mother-in-law Baby Suggs as their spiritual leader. It is significant that by the end of the novel "rememorying" calls back positive moments instead of the painful, oppressive past. United in memories of joy and collective strength, the women can respond to the need to banish Beloved, the objectification of the angry and revengeful ancestral spirits, with the full power of their spiritual tradition. It is especially important that their leader Ella recognizes at last that she shares something very significant with Sethe. What Ella remembers is the "hairy white thing," fathered by her slavemaster, which she had let die. "The idea of that pup coming back to whip her too set her jaw working." And she hollers, to be joined at once by the others.
They stopped praying and took a step back to the beginning. In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning was the sound, and they all know what that sound sounded like.
The primal sound exorcises Beloved and thus the evil of the "White folks' jungle" in their own lives as well as Sethe's family's. The moment takes them all outside of linear time into a type of apocalypse in which all is reduced to its most fundamental terms, to a purity of emotion and a brilliant clarity. In this moment the cycle has rolled around to begin again. When the women take a step back to the beginning, they touch the eschaton, the boundary, and momentarily escape from the flux of time to the place where clear vision is possible. They remind us that apocalypse is not a synonym for disaster or cataclysm; it is linked to revelation. Seeing clearly into the past, the women can take hold again of what they had lost in forgetting.
A pocalyptic literature is very like Greek tragedy in arousing emotion and creating the conditions for catharsis. Morrison's novel raises all kinds of emotion—pain, grief, remorse, anger, fear—and purges it once "intensified and given objective expression." Beloved focuses the objective expression of emotion. When the women create the powerful, timeless sound which exorcises Beloved, they purge themselves and Sethe and Denver of the emotion which had imprisoned them. It returns them all to a new beginning where, cleansed, they can create a new life.
The apocalyptic imagination may finally be defined in terms of its philosophical preoccupation with that moment of juxtaposition and consequential transformation or transfiguration when an old world of mind discovers a believable new world of mind, which either nullifies and destroys the old system entirely or, less likely, makes it part of a larger design. [David Ketterer, New Worlds for Old; The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature, 1974]
The women's song or shout creates the moment of redemptive transfiguration in Beloved. Still caught in the mode of forgetting which had been their method of survival after physically escaping slavery, when the women focused on the image of Beloved standing on the front porch of 124, they were themselves dragged through the veil into a world rich with memory of their personal and collective lives and of the "unnamed, unmentioned people left behind."
For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words.
The Clearing was the open place in the woods where Sethe's mother-in-law, Baby Suggs had led the community in spiritual ceremonies. Baby Suggs had begun those ceremonies by asking the children to laugh, the men to dance, but the women to cry, "For the living and the dead." Then she would direct them all to love themselves deeply.
'Here,' she said, 'in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs, flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh.'
But Baby Suggs gave up after the "Misery" and went to bed to die. When Sethe is taken back to the Clearing by the women's song in her yard, it is a sign of both personal and community redemption; the community at this apocalyptic moment has returned finally to loving themselves, but also to feeling compassion for those who have died. In the yard of 124 when the women found "the sound that broke the backs of words,"
it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash.
The women's song was powerful enough to break "the back of words"—words used to define African-Americans, such as "animal" and "breeding stock" and "slaves." it baptizes Sethe into a new life, into a radical spiritual transformation.
Ironically, Bodwin arrives at the peak of the women's song/shout. His appearance recalls Sethe to that moment when four White horsemen rode into her yard: and so she acts again to protect her child, but this time she runs to kill the oppressor—whom she sees as Bodwin—instead of her own child. Denver stops her. We should not read Sethe's seeing Bodwin as her enemy as a crazed mistake, but rather as evidence of a kind of clear-sightedness, Sethe having just been baptized in primal, sacred sound. Apocalyptic catharsis requires confrontation with hidden horror; it also provides a two-fold purgation by making the wronged one feel better and castigating the sinner. Although the Bodwins did help ex-slaves and worked for abolition of slavery, Beloved makes it clear that they are part of the problem, not the solution. They gave help to run-aways "because they hated slavery worse than they hated slaves." On a shelf by their back door is the figurine of a Black child, his mouth full of money, kneeling on a pedestal with the words, "'At Yo' Service.'" When Bodwin returns to 124, his eyes are transfixed by the sight of Beloved. After she has disappeared Beloved is described as "a naked woman with fish for hair" which may be an allusion to Medusa, the gorgon who turned men to stone. Perhaps Beloved has that effect on Bodwin. Perhaps he recognizes in her what Stamp Paid called "the white folks' jungle." Perhaps his encounter with Beloved—he doesn't even see Sethe approaching to stab him with the ice pick—is his experience of Judgment, occurring appropriately at the house where he was born, where his "treasure" lay hidden.
Apocalypse is a more diffuse experience in Beloved than traditionally conceived, and it is presented as something which can be survived, not as an event at the end of linear time. In Beloved it is an attempt to free African-Americans from guilt and past suffering. What Beloved suggests is that while the suffering of the "black and angry dead" is the inescapable psychological legacy of all African-Americans, they can rescue themselves from the trauma of that legacy by directly confronting it and uniting to loosen its fearsome hold. Beloved's redemptive community of women epitomizes the object of salvation in biblical apocalyptic literature: "the creation of a new society."
Thus, like much African-American writing, Beloved does not conclude with a climactic moment. "For the black writer, incompletion is a fact of private and public life and the basis for social and cultural hope" (Bigsby). The experience of suffering and guilt can begin to be transformed into knowledge, once the trauma is purged, so that the novel leaves the powerful apocalyptic scene of the community's expurgation of Beloved to observe Sethe and Paul D rejoining their stories to each other's. Paul D, who had left upon learning of the murder, must return to Sethe's house to re-establish the intimate connection which will allow them each to find his or her own self and love it. Paul D, despite his inability to feel when he had first arrived at Sethe's, has a deep understanding of the meaning of slavery and freedom, that under slavery "you protected yourself and loved small," but finding freedom means "to get to a place where you could love anything you chose." Linked with Sethe's mother in several ways, including the wearing of the bit, he mothers Sethe as her own mother never could, and when he does, the voice of his lynched best friend enters his mind, speaking about the woman he loved, "She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order."
Beloved is a novel about collecting fragments and welding them into beautiful new wholes, about letting go of pain and guilt, but also recovering what is lost and loving it into life. One of its most poignant images is the ribbon that Stamp Paid finds on the river bottom—"a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp." Although he knows all the horrors of 1874—the lynchings, whippings, burnings of colored schools, rapes, and lynch fires—it is this discovery which finally weakens Stamp Paid's bone marrow and makes him "dwell on Baby Suggs' wish to consider what in the world was harmless."
What Morrison creates is far from harmless. She knows how painful it is to remember the horrors she presents. She has said in an interview that she expected Beloved to be the least read of all her books because "it is about something that the characters don't want to remember, I don't want to remember, black people don't want to remember, white people don't want to remember. I mean, it's national amnesia" [Bonnie Angelo, "The Pain of Being Black," Time, 22 May 1989]. However, because Beloved insists on remembering, the novel is able to recover and honor the symbolic spirit of the Black girl whose ribbon and piece of scalp Stamp Paid found. In so doing, it makes possible the contemplation and creation of a future in which African-Americans can respect and honor themselves and their ancestors—be beloved. As Paul D says to Sethe, "Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow." What Beloved suggests is that tomorrow is made possible by the knowledge of yesterday, a knowledge that for contemporary African-Americans can be gained from imagining what it was like to walk in the flesh of their slave ancestors.
Auschwitz lies on the other side of life and on the other side of death. There, one lives differently, one walks differently, one dreams differently…. Only those who lived it in their flesh and their minds can possibly transform their experience into knowledge. [Wiesel]
By giving its readers the inside view of slaves' lives—which bore uncanny resemblance to the holocaust—the novel enables its African-American readers to live the experience of slavery in their minds and to join in the healing primal sound of the women who come to Sethe's yard. By speaking the horror, Morrison assumes and helps to create the community that can hear it and transform it.
Elizabeth B. House (essay date Spring 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4767
SOURCE: "Toni Morrison's Ghost: The Beloved Who Is Not Beloved," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 17-26.
[In the following essay, House argues that the character Beloved in Morrison's novel is not literally a reincarnation of Sethe's slain infant, but an orphaned child upon whom it is convenient for Sethe to project her anguished feelings of remorse and guilt.]
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. Judith Thurman, for example, writes in The New Yorker [2 November 1987] that the young stranger "calls herself by the name of the dead baby—Beloved—so there isn't much suspense, either about her identity or about her reasons for coming back." In The New York Review of Books [5 November 1987], Thomas R. Edwards agrees that the "lovely, historyless young woman who calls herself Beloved … is unquestionably the dead daughter's spirit in human form," and, concurring with these ideas, the Ms. reviewer, Marcia Ann Gillespie, adds that "Beloved, blindly seeking retribution, is a succubus leeching Sethe's … spirit" [Ms., Vol. 16, No. 5, 1987]. Similarly, Stanley Crouch, in his New Republic review [19 October 1987], chides Morrison for creating unreal characters and then laments that "nothing is more contrived than the figure of Beloved herself, who is the reincarnated force of the malevolent ghost that was chased from the house." And, in the same vein, Carol Rumens says in the Times Literary Supplement [16-22 October 1987] that the baby ghost, after being driven from the house, "loses little time in effecting a more solid manifestation, as a young woman runaway." Then Rumens faults Morrison for using a spirit as a main character, for, as she says, "the travails of a ghost cannot be made to resonate in quite the same way as those of a living woman or child."
Clearly, these writers evaluate Morrison's novel believing that Beloved is unquestionably a ghost. [In a footnote, House adds: "A few other reviewers take the more moderate position of expressing puzzlement about Beloved rather than claiming that she is either ghost or human. For example, in her New York Times review of the novel, Margaret Atwood concludes, '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.' See 'Haunted by Their Nightmares,' The New York Times Book Review (September 13, 1987). Similarly, in a Newsweek piece, Walter Clemons writes that 'Beloved … has an anterior life deeper than the ghostly role she fulfills in the … household she visits.' See 'A Gravestone of Memories,' Newsweek (September 28, 1987). And, Paul Gray in a Time review says that 'the flesh-and-blood presence of Beloved roils the novel's intense, realistic surface. This young woman may not actually be Sethe's reincarnated daughter, but no other explanation of her identity is provided.' See 'Something Terrible Happened,' Time (September 21, 1987)."] 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. [In a footnote, House continues: "Sethe's own need for a parent is expressed in a pained suspicion that her mother had been hanged for attempting to run away, an action that would have separated the woman not only from the horrors of slavery but also from her own daughter. Speaking to Beloved in a stream-of-conscious remembering, Sethe explains, 'My plan was to take us all to the other side where my own ma'am is. They stopped me from getting us there, but they didn't stop you from getting here…. You came right on back like a good girl, like a daughter which is what I wanted to be and would have been if my ma'am had been able to get out of the rice long enough before they hanged her and let me be one…. I wonder what they was doing when they was caught. Running, you think? No. Not that. Because she was my ma'am and nobody's ma'am would run off and leave her daughter, would she? Would she, now?'"]
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." [In a footnote, House remarks: "In an interview with Walter Clemons, Morrison brought to his attention Beloved's dedication, 'Sixty Million and more,' and explained that 'the figure is the best educated guess at the number of black Africans who never even made it into slavery—those who died either as captives in Africa or on slave ships.' Morrison notes, too, that 'one account describes the Congo as so clogged with bodies that the boat couldn't pass…. They packed 800 into a ship if they'd promised to deliver 400. They assumed that half would die. And half did.' And, the author wryly adds, 'A few people in my novel remember it…. Baby Suggs came here out of one of those ships. But mostly it's not remembered at all.' See 'A Gravestone of Memories,' Newsweek (September 28, 1987). Of course, Beloved is the most important person in the novel who remembers the slave ships' horrors. However, Morrison does not reveal that fact here; she merely hints at it."]
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 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." [In a footnote, House explains: "In The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1940), James G. Frazier notes that several American Indian groups believed that the dead souls of their relatives returned to earth in the form of water turtles. This concept fits with Morrison's use of the turtles in the scene in which Beloved decides that her lost loved ones are beneath the creek's surface."] 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. [In a footnote, House continues: "The narrator says that all of Sethe's neighbors are eager to see the carnival, a show that advertises performances by people who have two heads, are twenty feet tall, or weigh a ton, and 'the fact that none of it was true did not extinguish their appetite a bit.' That Sethe and Denver attend this carnival immediately before meeting Beloved foreshadows their willingness, in fact their need, to believe that the mysterious girl is something other than an ordinary human. Neither the carnival world nor Beloved's status as a child returned from the dead is based on truth, but both provide much desired escapes from the pain of everyday reality."] 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 Beloved's thoughts and the rest of the novel is 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.
Morrison hints at this interpretation in her preface to the novel, a quotation from 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, 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 it.'" 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 white people … 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.
Karla F. C. Holloway (essay date Summer 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3975
SOURCE: "Beloved: A Spiritual," in Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 516-25.
[In the essay below, Holloway examines myth, historical revisionism, voice, and remembrance in Beloved on both thematic and structural levels.]
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, peversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
—Adrienne Rich, "Natural Resources"
The literary and linguistic devices which can facilitate the revision of the historical and cultural texts of black women's experiences have perhaps their most sustained illustration in Toni Morrison's Beloved. Here, narrative structures have been consciously manipulated through a complicated interplay between the implicit orature of recovered and (re)membered events and the explicit structures of literature. The reclamation and revision of history function as both a thematic emphasis and textual methodology. The persistence of this revision is the significant strategic device of the narrative structures of the novel.
Myth dominates the text. Not only has Morrison's reclamation of this story from the scores of people who interviewed Margaret Garner shortly after she killed her child in 1855 constituted an act of recovery, it has accomplished a mythic revisioning as well. Morrison refused to do any further research on Margaret Garner beyond her reviewing of the magazine article that recounted the astonishment of the preachers and journalists who found her to be "very calm … very serene" after murdering her child [as recounted in Mervyn Rothstein's "Morrison Discusses New Novel," The New York Times, 26 August 1987]. The imagination that restructures the initial article Morrison read into her novel Beloved is the imagination of a mythmaker. The mythological dimensions of her story, those that recall her earlier texts, that rediscover the altered universe of the black diaspora, that challenge the Western valuations of time and event (place and space) are those that, in various quantities in other black women writers and in sustained quantities in Morrison's works, allow a critical theory of text to emerge. [The critic adds in a footnote: "My position is that a critical theory of black women's writing emerges as the dimensions of a cultural expression within an African-American literary tradition and specifies, through an interpretation of literary style and substance and its formal modes and figurations, certain textual modes of discourse. Such a specification underscores my primary argument that black women's literature reflects its community—its cultural ways of knowing as well as its ways of framing that knowledge in language. The figures of language that testify to that cultural mooring place—the inversive, recursive, and sometimes even subversive structures that layer the black text—give it a dimension only accessed when the cultural and gendered points of its initiation are acknowledged."]
Morrison revisions a history both spoken and written, felt and submerged. It is in the coalescence of the known and unknown elements of slavery—the events, miniscule in significance to the captors but major disruptions of black folks' experience in nurturing and loving and being—where Morrison's reconstruction of the historical text of slavery occurs. Morrison's reformulation propels a backlog of memories headlong into a postemancipation community that has been nearly spiritually incapacitated by the trauma of slavery. For Morrison's novel, what complicates the physical and psychic anguish is the reality that slavery itself defies traditional historiography. The victim's own chronicles of these events were systematically submerged, ignored, mistrusted, or superceded by "historians" of the era. This novel positions the consequences of black invisibility in both the records of slavery and the record-keeping as a situation of primary spiritual significance. Thus, the "ghostly"/"historical" presence that intrudes itself into this novel serves to belie the reportage that passes for historical records of this era as well as to reconstruct those lives into the spiritual ways that constituted the dimensions of their living.
Because slavery effectively placed black women outside of a historical universe governed by a traditional (Western) consideration of time, the aspect of their being—the quality and nature of their "state" of being—becomes a more appropriate measure of their reality. In historian Joan Kelly's essays the exclusion of women throughout "historical time" is discussed in terms that clarify how the activities of civilization were determined by and exclusive to males. In defining a "feminist historiography" (a deconstruction of male-centered formulations of historical periods), Kelly focuses [in her Women, History and Theory, 1984] on the ways in which history is "rewritten and periodized" according to issues that affect women. In black women's writing, this deperiodization is more fully articulated because of the propensity of this literature to strategically place a detemporalized universe into the centers of their texts. Not surprisingly, black women have experienced the universe that Kelly's essays on women's history theoretically discuss.
It is perhaps the insistence of this alternative perspective in regards to black women's experiences that explains some dimension of the strident element in the critical response to Beloved. Stanley Crouch, who wrote ["Aunt Medea: Beloved by Toni Morrison"] in The New Republic [19 October 1987] that "[i]t seems to have been written in order to enter American slavery into the big-time martyr ratings contest," missed the point entirely. Morrison wrote Beloved precisely because:
It was not a story to pass on.
They forgot her like a bad dream. After they made up their tales, shaped and decorated them … in the end, they forgot her too. Remembering seemed unwise….
It was not a story to pass on….
This is not a story to pass on.
Like the litany of repetition that is a consistent narrative device in black women's literature, these closing phrases of the novel echo between the seeming contradiction of the initial "it was/this is not …" and the final words "pass on." The phrase becomes a directive. Its message reveals that this was not a story to die. Morrison revisions "Pass on," inverting it to mean go on through … continue … tell. She privileges the consequences of the sustained echo and in this way forces the sounds of these words (orature) to contradict the appearance of the visual (literate) text. Morrison has "passed on" this story in defiance of those who would diminish the experience she voices back into presence.
The final pages of the novel, where these lines appear, illustrate what I see as the interplay between structures that are implicitly orate but explicitly literate in black women's writing. In Morrison, this contrapuntal structure dominates the novel and appears as a device that mediates speech and narrative, the visual and the cognitive, and time and space. These paired elements of text and philosophy are central to my discussion in this essay.
Mediation such as the contrapuntal interplay sustains the text and rescues it from formlessness. Even when the narrative structure, for example, dissolves into the eddying recollection of Beloved's memory, the text survives and the reader, almost drowning in the sheer weight of her overwhelmingly tactile recollection, survives this immersion into text because of Morrison's comforting mediation. In a discussion with a group of Virginia Polytechnic Institute students in 1988, Morrison explained to them that one of her goals for this work was to acknowledge the reader's presence and participation in what she admitted was a difficult and painful story. Her strategy was in part an assurance of her mediative narrative presence. She spoke of writing with the sense that she was inviting the reader to "Come on in," and that she would assure safe passage. As I listened to her, I was reminded of the pieladies in the basement churches Son remembers in Tar Baby, whose "Come on in, you honey you" echoed through his adult memories. A similar guide, ancestral and essentially beneficent, also mediates the story of Beloved.
The signals of "telling" as a survival strategy—dialect, narrative recursion, suspension of time and place—are all in this text, especially in the compact and powerful passages where Sethe's, Denver's and Beloved's voices are prosopopeic (re)memory. Morrison introduces this section with a particularly beautiful and haunting recollection of the elements of speech and the devices of narrative that black women writers have used so effectively. Morrison's blending of voice and text privileges neither. Instead they both collapse into the other and emerge as an introspective that enfolds the dimensions of both the mind and history in a visually rich and dazzling projection of a revisioned time and space. The narrative streams that (re)member and chronicle these events are prefigured in an episode when Denver, Sethe, and Beloved are ice-skating in a place where the "sky above them was another country. Winter stars, close enough to lick, had come out before sunset." It is at this moment that Beloved sings the song that fulfills her mother's intimation that this is indeed the spirit of her dead daughter. At that time, Morrison writes, "Outside, snow solidified itself into graceful forms. The peace of winter stars seemed permanent." In this way of removing hours from their reality (Sethe tells her daughters that it's "time to sleep") and placing them into a seasonal metaphor (they stumbled over the snow, but—and Morrison uses the following recursive, repeated structure—"nobody saw them falling" at least three times), the text prepares itself, the reader, and these three women for its temporal lapse. The chapter just prior to Sethe's discursive monologue ends in this way:
When Sethe locked the door, the women inside were free at last to be what they liked, see whatever they saw and say whatever was on their minds.
Almost. Mixed in with the voices surrounding the house … were the thoughts of the women of 124, unspeakable thoughts, unspoken.
But they are spoken, for the next voice is Sethe's. And her first statement is in dialect—a sign that the text is about to embrace recursion and signify upon itself: "Beloved, she my daughter. She mine."
Sethe's version of her awareness of Beloved, and each of the three passages that follows hers are indeed "versions" of the same story with a different narrator. This is not particularly structurally ambiguous even though it is instead crowded with information that makes any attention to time or place simply inappropriate. French theorist and philosopher Cathérine Clément, in a dialogue with Hélène Cixous about the nature of their discourse in La Jeune Née [translated as The Newly Born Woman, 1986], accepts that:
there can be two women in the same space who are differently engaged, speaking of almost exactly the same things, investing in two or three different kinds of discourse and going from one to the other and then on to the spoken exchange.
Cixous replies how she basically "distrust[s] the identification of a subject with a single discourse."
At this space in Beloved, Morrison cannot entrust this story to the single, individual discourse of any of the three women who are implicated in the myth. Instead, it is their collective telling that accomplishes the creative process of their task—to tell, (re)member and validate their own narratives and to place them, full-bodied and spoken, into the space they share. Each of their voices is distinct, examples of the "different kind of discourse" Clément refers to, even though the three women are in the same dissolved space of Beloved's ephemeral presence.
Sethe's discourse is dense—interwoven with dialect and poetry and complicated with the smells and touches and colors that are left to frame her reality.
Think what the spring will be for us! I'll plant carrots just so she can see them, and turnips … 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 … we'll smell them together.
Hers is a discourse vibrant and redolent—almost as if the vitality of her description would defy the dying and killing she acknowledges with her wintry declaration that, "Beloved, she my daughter."
Denver's discourse, in the same space as Sethe's, for she too uses her "unspeakable thoughts" to acknowledge Beloved, is the "different engagement" but "same thing" that Cixous and Clément discuss. Morrison highlights this "same difference" with the technique of repetition that functions as a recursion strategy—a means of accessing memory and enabling its domination of the text. Denver's first words "Beloved is my sister" take us back to Sethe's. Her discourse also recollects her first memories, and then propels her into her current dilemma. It (re)members her sister's death from a variety of perspectives—what she did (went to her secret house in the woods), what she tasted (her mother's milk along with her sister's blood), what she was told (by Grandma Baby). But it is the final repetition of her opening claim of Beloved as "my sister" that encircles her narrative discourse and encloses it within the safety of kinship acknowledged—"She's mine, Beloved. She's mine."
Beloved's discourse is the Derridean trace element—the one that dislocates the other two by challenging—disrupting what semblance of narrative structure of sense there had been in Sethe's or Denver's thinking. But her discourse also supports the narrative because her dialogue accomplishes the same kind of disruption that her presence actualized. It was she who denied them their space in a secure and memory-less present. So her discourse opens with an elliptical "I am Beloved and she is mine." That opening pronouncement is the last structure syntactically marked as a sentence. The rest evidences a fully divested text. Western time is obliterated, space is not even relevant because Beloved's presence is debatable, and the nature of her being is a nonissue because her belonging ("she is mine") has been established by her mother and sister.
I am not dead I am not there is a house
there is what she whispered to me I am where
she told me the sun closes my eyes when I
open them I see the face I lost.
Emptied of the values that mark and specify dimension in a Western tradition, Morrison's narrative now belongs to itself—the text claims its text. Voice ("I am where she told me") is the only certain locus that remains. Her next chapter verifies the creation of this oracular space. It collapses all their voices into a tightened poetic chant. Finally the identity of the speaker is absolutely unclear and singularly irrelevant. Sethe's, Denver's, and Beloved's voices blend and merge as text and lose the distinction of discourse as they narrate:
You are my face; I am you.
Why did you leave me who am you?
I will never leave you again
Don't ever leave me again
You went in the water
I drank your blood
I brought your milk …
I waited for you
You are mine
You are mine
You are mine.
When Zora Neale Hurston described dialect as the "urge to adorn"—an oral "hieroglyph"—she probably was not prefiguring the dimensions that Morrison has brought to the glyph of black language. However, Hurston certainly recognized the potential in black language to dissolve the artificial constructs of time that confine it to a tradition that belies its origin. What Morrison does with language is an act of liberation. The consequences of this freedom is that the text which seems to be literate, i.e., written, is revealed as an oracular, i.e., a spoken, event. This is a blend that Walter Ong explicitly acknowledges when he writes [in Orality and Literacy: The Technology of the World, 1983] that orality is "never completely eradicable; reading a text oralizes it." Morrison enriches Ong's observation. Her texts are a constant exchange between an implicit mythic voice, one that struggles against the wall of history to assert itself and an explicit narrator, one that is inextricably bound to its spoken counterpoint.
The structures within African and African-American novels consistently defy the collected eventualities of time "past, present, and future" and in consequence a consideration of aspect may be a more appropriate frame through which to consider the chronicle of events in this story. [In an endnote, the critic states: "Aspect describes action in terms of its duration without a consideration of its place in time. In Caribbean and African Languages Morgan Dalphini's discussion explores how aspect is a better descriptor of such basic cultural concepts than those traditionally measured by a '(past/present/future) time-based yardstick.' The implications of such a measure for literature that reflects its culture in the arrangement and use of language is clearly relevant to literatures of the African diaspora."] Temporal time represents a narrow specific moment of occurrence. The relatively limited idea of time as being either in the past, the present, or the future is inadequate for a text like Beloved, where the pattern of events criss-crosses through these dimensions and enlarges the spaces that they suggest. This novel immediately makes it clear that a traditional (Western) valuation of time is not definitive of the experience it (re)members, instead it is an intrusion on a universe that has existed seemingly without its mediation. Weeks, months, and years become irrelevant to the spite of 124—the house that Beloved's spirit inhabits. Baby Suggs, Morrison writes, was "suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead." This suspension was shared by more than Baby Suggs. Living itself is suspended in this story because of the simultaneous presence of the past.
In "Toward the Solstice" Adrienne Rich writes:
if I could know
in what language to address
the spirits that claim a place
beneath these low and simple ceilings,
tenants that neither speak nor stir
yet dwell in mute insistence
till I can feel utterly ghosted in this house.
When spirits "claim a place" there must be a simultaneous disruption of the spaces occupied not only by others, but by their aspect—their beings. The "tenants" in Rich's poem who "neither speak nor stir" still manage to pull her into their places until she feels "utterly ghosted." Morrison's spirit is a tug as well, and yet it is not only the dimensions of being that Beloved has claimed as her own, it is dimensionality itself—including the fourth dimension, time. Once time is implicated in Beloved's "insistence" a pattern familiar to Morrison's work asserts itself.
Sula's time "ends" on earth with her death, and yet, after she has died we hear her remark that it didn't even hurt—and her urge to tell her best friend Nel of that revelation. Her voice survived, suspended through the dimensions, or across them, as did her urge to share her knowledge, to continue to "tell." Circe, in Morrison's Song of Solomon, clearly defies time. How old is she? It's immaterial. What is critical is that she has lived past (and through) time to assure that the myth Milkman needed to reclaim his legacy would one day be his. She alone is able to retell the story he must hear if he is to solve the riddle that is his life. Milkman, who tells her "They think you're dead," is easily claimed by her mythic dimensions. The fruity, ginger odor of her house that smells like Pilate's and her dark embracing presence draw him into her fabric. Time is suspended long enough for him to lose his place in the dangerous present that threatens his spirituality and find his place in a nurturing past. Tar Baby, Morrison's sustained mythic text, begins with a water lady, a goddess reminiscent of the African water goddesses, nudging Son to an island where reclamation is the only surety. On Isles des Chevaliers, the mythology of ancestral blind horsemen dominates the present and everyone there is waiting for the past to renew itself through them. For Morrison, myth becomes a metaphorical abandonment of time because its function is to reconnect the poetry that the development in languages has shifted away from the word. The sense of a metaphor is represented as origin in myth—the two are not separable and therefore to be metaphorical is to abandon the dissonance of time. Within such a cosmology, the potential of Beloved is freed from the dominance of a history that would submerge this story. This liberation is perhaps the most critical issue of Morrison's novel.
If Beloved is not only Sethe's dead daughter returned, but the return of all the faces, all the drowned, but remembered, faces of mothers and their children who have lost their being because of the force of the EuroAmerican slave-history, then she has become a cultural mooring place, a moment for reclamation and for naming. Morrison's epigraph to her novel cites the Old Testament: "I will call her Beloved who was not Beloved." I will call. I will name her who was not named. "I need to find a place to be," Beloved's discourse insists. Her being depended on not losing her self again. "Say my name," Beloved insists to Paul D. She demands to be removed from her nothingness, to be specified, to be "called."
If history has disabled human potential, then assertion, the ghostly insistence that Rich writes of in "Toward the Solstice" must come outside of history. Beloved's existence is liminal. Between worlds, being neither "in," nor "of" a past or a present, she is a confrontation of a killing history and a disabling present. Since neither aspect allows the kind of life that a postemancipation black community would have imagined for itself because at the very least, "not a house in the county ain't packed to the rafters with some dead Negro's grief," Beloved becomes a text collected with the textures of living and dying rather than with a linear movements of events. Morrison has written novels marked by seasons (The Bluest Eye) and years (Sula) but this story is marked by the shifting presence of the house, number 124 on Bluestone Road, that was introduced in Book One as "spite[ful]," in Book Two as "loud," and in Book Three, as finally "quiet." This shift allows the focus of the novel to ignore the possible time frames. Neither distance nor years mattered to the white house where Beloved insisted herself back into reality. For Sethe, "the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay" and since this story (not a story to "pass on") demystifies time, allowing it to "be" where/whenever it must be, we know, even before the story assumes this "text," that there was neither future nor present in the woman who walked fully dressed out of the water.
The recursion of this text, its sublimation of time and its privileging of an alternative not only to history, but to reality, places it into the tradition of literature by black women because of its dependence on the alternative, the inversion that sustains the "place" that has re-placed reality. Certainly not all recursive texts sublimate time, but temporal displacement is clearly a possibility of such technique. This is why Hurston's note that black folk think in glyphs rather than writing is not only an acknowledgement of another cosmology, but an acknowledgement of the necessity of evolution in the basic design of the ways we think about thought. Thomas Kuhn's discussion in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions considers "evolution from the community's state of knowledge at any given time" as the appropriate visual dimension of progress. It is evolution, i.e. a changing and shifting conceptualization that identifies the aspective nature of recursion, rather than temporicity as the operative narrative space of Morrison's text. In her re-visioning of the history of slavery, Morrison proposes a paradigm of that history that privileges the vision of its victims and that denies the closure of death as a way of side-stepping any of that tragedy. The houses of the counties held grief; Sethe practiced, without success, holding back the past, and Beloved held not only her own history, but those of "sixty million and more." In these ways, the vision of this novel is innervision, the cognitive reclamation of our spiritual histories.
Marilyn Judith Atlas (essay date 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4254
SOURCE: "Toni Morrison's Beloved and the Reviewers," in Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. XVIII, 1990, pp. 45-57.
[In the following essay, Atlas discusses the differences between various reviews of Beloved and suggests that the novel's subject and design pose unusual difficulties for most critics.]
Even before the publication of Beloved, Toni Morrison was clearly a writer's writer. Toni Cade Bambara, author of Gorilla, My Love and The Salt-Eaters, herself an impressive crafter of fiction, wrote of Morrison's fourth novel, Tar Baby: "That voice of hers is so sure. She lures you in, locks the door and encloses you in a special, very particular universe—all in the first three pages." Outrage among black writers was so great after Beloved failed to win the National Book Award during the fall of 1987 that forty-eight black writers, among them, June Jordon, Toni Cade Bambara, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Paule Marshall, John Wideman and Alice Walker signed an open letter in January, published in the New York Times Book Review [28 January 1988], protesting that Morrison had never won that award or the Pulitzer.
Walter Goodman saw this letter as lobbying: "Literary lobbying goes on all the time: the form it takes, perhaps just a friendly telephone call or some cocktail party chitchat, is generally more discreet than a salvo in the Times Book Review, but the intent is the same" ["The Lobbying for Literary Prizes," New York Times, 28 January 1988]. Others, such as one of its signers, novelist John Wideman, whose "Sent for You Yesterday" won a PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, explained that the purpose of the letter was "not to mount a public relations campaign for Toni Morrison, but merely to point out that sometimes the pie doesn't get shared equally" [Kathy Hogan Trockeck, "Black Writers Protest Lack of Recognition for Morrison," Journal, 20 January 1988]. The letter, penned by June Jordan, whatever else it was, was also a letter of respect and admiration acknowledging the power of Morrison's writings:
Your gifts to us have changed and made more gentle our time together. And so we write, here, hoping not to delay, not to arrive, in any way, late with this, our simple tribute to the seismic character and beauty of your writing. And furthermore, in grateful wonder at the advent of Beloved your most recent gift to our community, our country, our conscience, our courage flourishing as it grows, we here record our pride, our respect and our appreciation for the treasury of your findings and invention.
Toni Morrison did win the Pulitzer for Beloved in March of 1988. Although this was a very important literary honor, it was not her first: her third novel, Song of Solomon, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977; her second novel, Sula, is excerpted in a major American literary anthology, Random House's The American Tradition in Literature; and her first novel, The Bluest Eye, is excerpted in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. She is a writer of international status: although there was no winner in 1988, she was one of three contenders for the Ritz Hemingway prize in Paris.
To review Morrison for an important publication is to take risks, the risk that you will be read by people who know her work, that you will be publicly perceived as wrong—wrong because your view is clearly political, or wrong because it is not; wrong because the importance of her issues make artistic assessment difficult, or wrong because her artistic brilliance may make her ideas, her psychological insights, seem more original, more true, than they are. One is afraid of being seduced by rhythmic prose, provocative images, and easy, warm, answers. And yet all types of reviewers take the plunge and respond to a work like Beloved.
In the London Review of Books [15 September 1988], Mary-Kay Wilmers wrote, and correctly so, "… while there have been many great books, there are few great book reviews." One can learn much from them, however, because they are important reflectors of politics and culture and, like books themselves, they help shape the ideas and art of a particular culture's values.
I collected approximately twenty reviews of Beloved, all published before the results of the Pulitzer Prize were announced in March of 1988. Winning such an important award under any conditions does not make the book reviewer's job any easier. There is even more pressure than before to see the novel as Morrison's best. But even before the Pulitzer committee honored the book, assessment was complicated by the novel's subject—the horror of slavery and its fallout—reminding both reviewer and reader not only of the existence of past atrocities, but that these atrocities can never be totally annihilated. Between Morrison's prestige, her race and her subject, Beloved was difficult to evaluate with even a semblance of objectivity.
Some reviewers, such as Charles Larson, writing for the [Chicago Tribune, 30 August 1987], and Helen Dudar for the Wall Street Journal [30 September 1987], seemed to have no difficulty declaring that Beloved was Morrison's masterpiece. Larson found the work as original as anything that had appeared in our literature in the last twenty years and an understandable culmination for Morrison: "Beloved is the context out of which all of Morrison's earlier novels were written. In her darkest and most probing novel, Toni Morrison has demonstrated once again the stunning powers that place her in the first ranks of our living novelists."
But the judgments of reviewers are certainly not written in stone. In an introduction to her own book review on Tar Baby, Barbara Christian in Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers discusses the nature of book reviews, particularly about books written by black authors:
Book reviews are an immediate, succinct response to a writer's work, quite different, it seems to me, from essays in which one has the time and space to analyze their craft and ideas. They are necessary to the creating of a wider, more knowledgable audience for the writer's work—an important responsibility of the critic. Often, however, book reviews of works by Afro-Americans are written as if the reviewer is not aware that an Afro-American intellectual tradition exists, that certain ideas may, at the time, be under critical discussion, or as if the writers had not written anything else.
This was not usually a problem in the reviews of Beloved. Morrison is too famous a novelist for that to occur. The majority of reviews responded to it in context to her previous work and to an Afro-American intellectual tradition. And they assumed that their job was not to convince others to read her. Rosellen Brown when reviewing Beloved for The Nation [17 October 1987] begins her essay making some assumptions in exact opposition to Christian's concerns: "Can we not assume that most people interested in new fiction will want to read Toni Morrison's latest book, drawn to it not by rave reviews but by an understanding that she is a gifted novelist who always has something to say?" Most reviewers did seem to begin with this assumption and to focus their attention not so much on whether the novel deserved to be read, but how it fits into the world of modern American literature, how it connects the past with the future and whether or not it was one of Morrison's best novels. Many reviews were actually review essays, trying to analyze as well as describe the nature of Morrison's writing and ideas. Most would agree with Thomas R. Edward who wrote in the New York Review of Books [5 November 1987], "A novel like Toni Morrison's Beloved makes the reviewer's usual stereotypes of praise and grumbling seem shallow."
In reviewing Beloved, a few critics noted that in this book Morrison is turning the tradition of autobiographies and slave narratives into a complex piece of work which is both historical and mythic. Morrison attempted in this novel to recreate the era of Reconstruction, using the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave who actually killed her child in order to prevent the child's capture, but who unlike Sethe, was herself returned to slavery. Unlike nineteenth century slave narratives which avoided horrifying details so as not to discourage middle class abolitionists by overwhelming them, Morrison mentions terrifying events in all their disgusting cruelty and horror. As a writer who understands the power of myth, Morrison skillfully created a novel in which archetypal quests and archetypal errors are presented. Without apology, Morrison weaves her characters' stories from both this world and one inhabited by the dead. Realistic and mythic techniques are intertwined and Morrison does not explain or apologize: the eponymous Beloved, the child slaughtered by her mother with a handsaw, is a restless ghost, self-reflective enough to tell part of her own story. Believing in that ghost, accepting a black folk-world where ghosts exist, is as necessary in Beloved as accepting human flight was in Song of Solomon, and believing in the plague of robins was in Sula.
Reviewers far from agree about Morrison's use of the supernatural in Beloved. Paul Gray, writing for Time [21 September 1987], found it problematic both in conception and language:
The flesh-and-blood presence of Beloved roils the novel's intense, realistic surface. This young woman may not actually be Sethe's reincarnated daughter, but no other explanation of her identity is provided. Her symbolic significance is confusing; she seems to represent both Sethe's guilt and redemption. And Morrison's attempt to make the strange figure come to life strains unsuccessfully toward the rhapsodic.
Rosellen Brown of The Nation, however, found Morrison's methods, her unwillingness to explain the walking dead, a successful ploy allowing an intimacy with her reader that explanations would shatter: "Saints and spirits routinely walk the roads of the black South; to explain would be to acknowledge that outsiders were listening." Anita Snitow of The Village Voice [September 1987] also found the character of Beloved a "drag" on the narrative, and Carol Rumens of Times Literary Supplement [22 October 1987] found the ghost a failure: "The travails of a ghost cannot be made to resonate in quite the same way as those of a living woman or child." But Margaret Atwood, in her New York Times [17 September 1987] book review, found the magical world of Beloved successful. Atwood had no problem with the ghost: "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 reviewers also disagreed about the quality of Morrison's realism. While some found her style perfect, others found it cloying. As Rosellen Brown of The Nation noted, Morrison rarely mentioned anything once. But for Brown, this repetition across an "increasingly familiar psychological field" ends in the coherence of the whole deadly scene. For her, the novel is a successful opera: "Beloved brings us into the mind of the haunt as well as the haunted. That is an invitation no other American writer has offered, let alone fulfilled with such bravery and grace."
Stanley Crouch of The New Republic [19 October 1987] refused to be moved by the novel. He found it nothing more than another "blessed are the victims" novel, a tradition in Afro-American literature begun, he asserts, by James Baldwin, but one that is shabby, unrealistic and which should not be emulated. He found her folk material "poorly digested," her feminism "rhetoric," and her use of magic realism "labored." While he acknowledged that she has "real talent," "an ability to organize her novel in a musical structure, deftly using images as motifs," he found that she "perpetually interrupts her narrative with maudlin ideological commercials." He felt distant from the horrors of slavery as presented in the novel: "In Beloved Morrison only asks that her readers tally up the sins committed against the darker people and feel sorry for them, not experience the horrors of slavery as they do." In summary, Crouch found her work "melodramatic," containing too many attempts at "biblical grandeur," showing no courage to face the ambiguities of the human soul, a sentimental text. He found Morrison "American" in a cheap sense, "as American as P. T. Barnum."
Crouch's review was angry and, it seemed to me, self-protective. While other reviewers found flaws, none found the ideas and sentiments as cheap as he did. Most found the book extremely valuable. Hope Hale Davis of The New Leader [2 November 1987] found the drama ringing inescapably true and Judith Thurman of The New Yorker [2 November 1987] found the novel not only realistic, but originally so in its depiction of the differences between male and female hardship, how women's pride is damaged by the world on an even more intimate level than men's. Thurman found the risks taken by the characters to honor their own autonomy realistic and impressive and the choice they made between the claims of past grief and potential happiness, universal. In essence, Thurman focused on what she learned from the text: that the illusion of autonomy may be more debilitating in the long run and more cruel than a full consciousness of servility. For her Beloved is psychologically realistic. She is hooked: "But if you read Beloved with a vigilant eye, you should also listen to it with a vigilant ear. There's something great in it: a play of human voices, consciously exalted, perversely stressed, yet holding true. It gets you."
Beloved also "gets" Marcia Ann Gillespie, former editor of Essence, and reviewer for Ms. Gillespie noted that Morrison succeeded in this novel to give voice to pain by exploring the parameters of maternal love and human understanding. For Gillespie, the characters of this novel "soar off the page into our blood." Gillespie believes Morrison is asking important questions concerning power, love, the cost of living, control, compromise, self-acceptance, individual and cultural progress. And she, like the majority of reviewers, found Morrison "an impressive explorer of the psyche and spirit of a people" [Ms., November 1988 and January 1988].
Charles Johnson, director of creative writing at the University of Washington, believes that this is her best book despite its flaws: "In novelistic terms, there isn't much of a plot, and Toni has a real problem with dramatic scenes … [also] the characters are not given the full, three dimensional development that we might see in other writing." He adds, however: "Nevertheless Beloved is the book that every black cultural nationalist writer has been trying to write for the last 20 years" [Seattle Times, 22 January 1988].
Why such contradictory responses? Why does Thomas R. Edwards of the New York Review of Books find "wisdom" and D. Keith Mano of the National Review [4 December 1987] find that Morrison successfully avoids melodrama by being mistress of what he calls the "theatrical retard" while Stanley Crouch thinks the novel is nothing more than New York glitz and cheap thrills Afro-American style? Perhaps the contradictions reflect the novel's emotional atmosphere—perhaps Beloved simply makes some reviewers extremely uncomfortable, forcing confrontations not usually required by literature. These critics do not want to reflect upon these particular human issues and they are unable to see how exploring these new details from new perspectives permanently expands the tradition of American literature, and allows valuable characters into the world, ones they can see no value in examining. Not every reviewer wants his or her consciousness transformed by these particular insights, and Morrison's prose in this novel is pushy: for me, as for Marsha Jean Darling of Women's Review of Books [March 1988], Beloved seeks to transform the consciousness of the reader through the telling of the tale. Morrison, in an interview with Darling, puts the responsibility back on the reader, an uncomfortable position for some:
They always say that my writing is rich. It's not—what's rich, if there is any richness, is what the reader gets and brings him or herself. That's part of the way in which the tale is told. The folktales are told in such a way that whoever is listening is in it and can shape it and figure it out. It's not over just because it stops. It lingers and it's passed on. It's passed on and somebody else can even alter it later. You can even end it if you want. It has a moment beyond which it doesn't go, but the end is never like in a Western folktale where they all drop dead or live happily ever after.
Perhaps the fact that the novel did not stop for me is what initiated this study. I wanted to, but could not, go further into what Morrison set up as a possible, positive life for Sethe with Paul D. and Denver. For the novel to have integrity, I needed to believe in Sethe's ability to begin a new life and get past her relationship to Beloved and Sweet Home, something it seemed Morrison wanted me to be able to accomplish. At first, because I could not believe in the novel's positive continuation, potentially positive ending, I looked for reasons to defend my disbelief. I was a milder version of Stanley Crouch: the scene in which Sethe was suckled by the nephews annoyed and offended me because the characters were destroyed by it, and at first I preferred to think inappropriately destroyed. Why couldn't Halle or Sethe get over it? Why was this, after so many humiliations, so pivotal? I argued with myself, then a nursing mother, that the nephews couldn't even get the milk—that a nursing woman's body would shut down, but came to realize that this was Morrison's point and that shutting down itself was a privilege, one that Sethe's body was unable to provide because she was too vulnerable. Overwhelming personal humiliation was the point, being treated like a cow and having no alternative but to accept one's treatment was the point, a point I was as unwilling to face because it deeply frightened me, as Crouch was somehow unwilling to face that the holocaust is more than a sentimental symbol of hell, that being a victim is not always a choice.
A fan of Toni Morrison ever since my first reading of Song of Solomon—I read The Bluest Eye and Sula shortly after—my anger, my inability to suspend my disbelief, to be stuck on such a detail, surprised me. I had not felt so personally, so intimately, threatened reading her other four novels.
I had found The Bluest Eye elegantly symbolic, extraordinarily beautiful, unusually musical, the characters very human and the ending appropriate for the novel: while The Bluest Eye ended with sorrow—the marigolds would not grow, Pecola Breedlove was mad, and Cholly was dead, I trusted that Claudia would survive because she was the subject, the actor, the lover, the judge, and even while she narrated that it was "much too late" on the edge of town for anything to grow, one never sensed that this included her. Reading The Bluest Eye, I never questioned the details, or the depth of my response. Where the narrator and characters led, I was able to follow.
Sula also ended with partial destruction, but with enough insight so that I trusted a certain community healing. Nel was the center of this healing because she realized that Sula, the destructive and brilliant artist without the proper art object, was part of her, immortal, and that their bond was indestructable, and beyond measurable value. Nel's final cry of intimacy was a fine cry—loud and long—without top or bottom—a connecting cry from which one could continue. Sula saddened but satisfied me. I believed in Sula, and in the town, and in the robins, and in the art of the novel and the world, and in the future.
Song of Solomon also worked for me. Even when I disliked the characters, I believed in their existence. I had no problems with the magic realism and none with the characters' veritability. The novel, examining magic, history, community and responsibility, may have ended with the possible death of Milkman and Guitar as well as Pilate, but I felt, as the narrator seemed to want me to feel, mostly the resurrection, the possibility of a more whole, spiritual, and worthy future.
Morrison's fourth and most controversial novel, Tar Baby, her tropical novel, too plush, too slick, too mechanical for some, also worked for me, probably because the characters as types have a vitality which separated them from the usual flat characters, much the way Charles Dickens' characters function. When Jadine broke free from Son, I felt relief, because Son belonged to the past and I wanted Jadine, as she herself wanted, to have the future. However flawed civilization was, Jadine needed the physical earth more than myth, and at this point of her life, if one believed the details of the plot, and I did, she really could not have both Son and reality. I was glad when Son joined the horseman, partially to have him safely out of Jadine's way, partially because he was finding his way home, fulfilling what seemed like the only destiny which was his to follow, making peace with his mythical, cultural depth. I was not sure how far Jadine would get in her Parisian world, but I was not without hope. Morrison had not created her as much of a compromiser, but then she also had not forced me to accept that Jadine necessarily would do fine, just that she had been successful in the past and had learned something about herself in her encounter with Son. I trusted Jadine to pull her own weight, more than I trusted the brutalized Sethe to get out of bed and find the energy to create from her experiences a healthy family and a viable future.
My ambivalence toward Beloved, my anger and confusion, surprised me, so I turned to the reviewers. Of course, I knew I would have to return to the text, but I was taking an emotional break. I was comforted when Ann Snitow preferred Sula, but oddly, not satisfied. The reviewers could not and did not solve my problems with Beloved: when others found the ending problematic, it was not for the same reason that I found it so. Perhaps Stanley Crouch, ironically, turned me around. After reading him, I felt compelled to defend Beloved. This novel was not cheap. Morrison, I came to realize, was simply touching new vulnerabilities with a precision so poignant that I was unable to come to terms with its profound impact on me.
As Judith Thurman notes, in Beloved Morrison is exploring the difference between male and female hardship. A woman's pride can be damaged even more than a man's because a woman can be humiliated as a mother: a woman while able to give birth is not necessarily able to see her child through to safety, to spiritual as well as physical viability. Few, not even the generally sensitive Paul D., could comprehend the depth of this damage and the permission it gave Sethe to do outrageous, seemingly inhuman, things such as taking a handsaw to her child to keep it from knowing such humiliation. What I needed to do was acknowledge this vulnerability because I could not imagine surviving it. The ending of Beloved was a beginning, a second chance, named, but not dramatically portrayed, handed to the reader to create, if he or she was able.
Accepting the vulnerability, I was able to accept the possibility of a positive future for Sethe, even for a happy enough family life. After all, Sethe's surviving daughter, Denver, was working, part of the community, independent enough to continue maturing, and Paul D. wanted a life with Sethe and Denver. Although imperfect, he could make the world weep, and open the first steps toward healing. The fact that he used the traditional male excuse for sleeping with Beloved—"I couldn't help it"—did not make him much worse than the average man and his excuse was certainly more impressive. Sethe was weakened, but not alone, and if nurtured might heal, might heal herself, and her support staff, Denver, Paul D. and the remainder of the community, if imperfect, clearly was in place.
As another gesture toward peacemaking with Sethe, I looked her name up in the New English Dictionary. The eighteenth century Indian meaning of Seth is a "leading Hindoo merchant or banker" and its fourteenth century Scottish meaning is "atonement." And of course, Seth is the name of Adam's and Eve's son, the ancestor of Noah and hence of the existing human race: without his survival there is no human history according to the Book of Genesis. A number of Gnostic sects of the second century, according to this same source, held Seth in great veneration, believing that Christ was Seth reborn.
I had at my disposal, after this encounter with the dictionary, some new reasons why it was difficult, but linguistically essential, for me to accept Sethe's future: Sethe is the banker, the subject, the owner, like Claudia, the namer and therefore cannot die if the world is to continue; and she is atonement, the mending and fixing which also accounts for her survival, her second chance; and she is the essential parent whose legacy is the human race itself; and she is Christ, crucified but resurrected. Sethe, Morrison implies, may continue journeying and in choosing her name Morrison shows us that she must. So I, after a good deal of squirming, after studying the reviewers and their complicated responses, made a certain peace with this Pulitzer prize winning novel. My recommendation as a reviewer, as a critic, as a fan of Morrison: read it and grow.
Eusebio L. Rodrigues (essay date Spring 1991)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8832
SOURCE: "The Telling of Beloved," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 153-69.
[In the essay below, Rodrigues comments on the narrative techniques in Beloved, which he calls "a triumph of story-telling" and an example of "the blues mode in fiction."]
Beloved is a triumph of storytelling. Toni Morrison fuses arts that belong to black oral folk tradition with strategies that are sophisticatedly modern in order to create the blues mode in fiction, and tell a tale thick in texture and richly complex in meaning. The reader has to be a hearer too. For the printed words leap into sound to enter a consciousness that has to suspend disbelief willingly and become that of a child again, open to magic and wonder.
"124 was spiteful": thus the narrative shock tactics begin. Here is no fairy tale opening but an entrance (124 is not a number but a house as the last sentence of the first paragraph will confirm) into a real unreal world. Toni Morrison's narrator—it is a woman's voice, deep, daring, folk-wise—has full faith in her listeners (curious males have gathered around her) and in their ability to absorb multiple meanings. She plunges into medias res and begins her tale with the arrival of Paul D.
Paul's arrival sets the story in motion. Outraged by the spiteful persecution of a "haunt" that resents his sudden irruption into a house it has taken possession of, Paul attacks it and drives it out. The incident has a tremendous impact—on Paul, on Sethe, who has resigned herself to a certain way of life, on Denver, who feels deprived of the only companion she ever had, and especially on the listener, who is bewildered, utterly disoriented. For he is flung into a dark fictional world without any bearings or explanations. He has to be patient and wait for light to filter in through cracks in the thick darkness. Exhalations from the dim past arise—a baby is furious at having its throat cut, a grandmother's name is Baby Suggs, a baby is born in 1855, Sethe's milk is taken—but they lack meaning and cannot, yet, be chronologically aligned or connected with the events of the present, the year 1873.
Toni Morrison begins the slow process of conjuring up a world that has receded into the past. Here is no extended Proustian act of remembering a lost world with the help of a madeleine dipped in tea. For the past, racial and personal, seared into the being of her characters, has to be exorcized by "rememory." Unspeakable, it emerges reluctantly. The major characters, Sethe and Paul, have to tear the terrible past, bit by painful bit, out of their being so that they, and Denver, can confront it and be healed. Toni Morrison's narrator will stage an extended blues performance, controlling the release of these memories, syncopating the accompanying stories of Sixo, Stamp Paid and Grandmother Suggs, making rhythms clash, turning beats into offbeats and crossbeats, introducing blue notes of loneliness and injustice and despair, generating, at the end, meanings that hit her listeners in the heart, that region below the intellect where knowledge deepens into understanding.
The structural ordering of this "aural" novel is not spatial but musical. [In an endnote, Rodrigues quotes Morrison on the "oral-aural" qualities of her fiction: "Ah well, that may mean that my efforts to make aural literature—A-U-R-A-L—work because I do hear it. It has to be read in silence and that's just one phase of the work but it also has to sound and if it doesn't sound right … Even though I don't speak it when I'm writing it, I have this interior piece, I guess, in my head that reads, so that the way I hear it is the way I write it and I guess that's the way I would read it aloud. The point is not to need the adverbs to say how it sounds but to have the sound of it in the sentence, and if it needs a lot of footnotes or editorial remarks or description in order to say how it sounded, then there's something wrong with it."] It consists of a title, a dedication to Sixty Million and more, an epigraph from an obscure Biblical passage, and three unequal parts. Part I, of eighteen sections, appears to be lopsidedly long, a stretch of 163 pages; Part II, with its seven sections, goes on for 70 pages; Part III, of 3 sections and only 38 pages, ends with a word that is an isolate, at once a re-dedication and a whispered prayer, Beloved.
Part I takes its time in order to establish the many modes Toni Morrison uses to create a world. Her narrator begins the tale, and immediately allows an interplay of voices to begin. Torn fragments of the past float out of Sethe and Paul, who have met again after eighteen long years. Their voices join those of Baby Suggs, dead for eight years, and of Denver, for whom only the present matters. The voices set a world spinning, the world of slaves and slavery whose horrors can no longer be visualized today but whose sounds of pain and suffering still linger on. They issue out of the shared stories of Sethe and Paul D set in two focal regions: in Sweet Home, a farm in Kentucky, where events take place that project and compress rural slave life before 1865; and in 124 Bluestone Road on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, an urban setting that highlights the painful consequences of post Civil War freedom. The narrator transforms the interlinked stories of Sethe and Paul into a paradigm of what it meant to be a slave, especially a woman slave in America.
History, however, is not treated as mere documentary. For that readers could turn to slave narratives. Toni Morrison makes history integral to her novel. In musical terms her narrative melodies are sung against the groundbeat of historical detail. The details are thrown in casually, understated, as in the true blues idiom, to intensify the horror. Baby Suggs' eight children had six fathers. Men were put out to stud, slave women were sold suddenly, children vanished into the unknown. After the war there was chaos, black human blood cooked in a lynch fire stank, there was madness, segregation, the South was "infected by the Klan." Before the war hangings were common (Sethe saw her mother's unrecognizable corpse cut down), slaves were branded (Sethe's mother's identification mark was a cross and circle burnt into the skin under her breast), and an iron bit was thrust into the mouth for days as punishment (Paul complained not about sucking iron but about his intense need to spit). What happened before the slaves got to America was, for them, only a dim memory. At times Sethe remembers her mother dancing the antelope (there is no such animal in America) and remembers, at times, faintly, the ghostly voice of Nan, her mother's friend, speaking about a sea voyage in a language Sethe knew but has now forgotten. The memories of the other characters do not extend to the African past. The narrator will devise a way to resurrect this past.
But before this past can spring to life for the community of listeners (women, their work done, have joined the semi-circle now), the present has to be made alive and exciting. The telling therefore does not begin from a point fixed in time. Nor will the narrator use symbolism (an overused mode), or channel her stories through points of view (too thin, too limited), or through a consciousness that flows like a stream. The words will not have a Hemingway translucence but a Faulknerian density, for the language, slow moving, will be thick with history. Tenses will shift when needed to quicken pace. The oral-aural mode will use repetition to intensify the experience. Words will be repeated; phrases and images will be used over and over again to generate rhythmic meanings; fragments of a story will recur, embedded in other fragments of other stories. A born bard, the narrator, a blueswoman, will cast a spell on her audience so that fragments, phrases, words accelerate and work together to create a mythic tale.
The words repeated are simple but vibrant. Plans, repeated to warn slaves not to make any, for they have no future, anything could happen any time. Interlinked words, pieces, parts, sections, warn a slave about the lack of a unitary self. The slave is a bundle of pieces, of names, food, shelter provided by changing masters; a collection of fractured parts, outer and inner, that have been defiled. Sethe knows she could easily break into pieces. That is why Baby Suggs bathed the rescued Sethe in sections; that is why Paul D will have to wash off Sethe's defilement part by piece by section at the end, before his love (like that of Sixo's woman) can make the pieces come together. Beloved, it becomes clear, is afraid of breaking up into pieces, an indication that she is a composite of slave pieces of the past.
Smile/smiling: these word-forms, tossed out casually at first, begin to resound when associated with Beloved, who emerges from the water smiling mysteriously, fascinating Denver. They gather more resonance when Sethe connects the smile with her mother's smile, and realizes that her mother "had smiled when she did not smile," realizes further that it was the iron bit clamped on the tongue that had produced that perpetual smile. It was the same smile worn by the Saturday prostitutes who worked the slaughterhouse yard on pay day. Sethe's own smile, as she makes these connections, is one of knowledge. Paul D, during the telling of his story to Sethe, can understand why, when he was led away, iron bit in the mouth, his hatred had focused on Mister, "the smiling boss of roosters." What Paul saw on the rooster was a white smile of supreme contempt and arrogance, a looking down on one less than a chicken. In Part III the full force of the word-forms rings loud and clear. Beloved smiles dazzlingly before she explodes out of existence. What remains at the end is the scar on her handsawed throat, the "smile under the chin," the memory for Sethe of "the little shadow of a smile." Smiling, the listener realizes, is a silent statement of endurance. To smile is to know the horror of what it means to be a slave.
The narrator makes words function as musical notes. She also makes use of musical phrases together with chordal accompaniments to produce assonance, consonance, dissonance. "Wear her out": associated at first with the young Denver, who is always tired, this phrase is applied to Sethe and then modulated and amplified when linked with Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid. Stamp Paid himself feels bone tired towards the end; only then does he understand the marrow weariness that made Baby Suggs give up the struggle, and get into bed to die. "Lay it all down," she advises Sethe and Denver, echoing a line out of a spiritual. Sword and shield, lay it all down; she urges resignation, it's useless to fight, one cannot ever defend oneself. The phrase becomes a refrain, a burden (in both senses), that insists on the unbearable weight of racial suffering and injustice.
Images and metaphors of food intensify this suffering. "The stone had eaten the sun's rays": a mere trick of style, did the verb not compel listener and reader to pause, for "eaten" springs out of the consciousness of the famished Sethe. Sethe is constantly chewing and swallowing; she keeps "gnawing" at the past. The narrator uses the language of hunger lest her listeners forget essential truths, that all food was decided and provided by the masters, and that hunger was yet another burden of slave life. Sugar was never provided; that's why Denver and Beloved crave sweet things. The only food the slave mother could provide her babies was her own milk. "All I ever had," Sethe tells Paul. That's why she felt outraged when the two white boys stole her nursing milk. That is why she was ready to bite out the eyes, to gnaw the cheek of anyone who would stop her from getting to her starving baby. That's what drove her on from Kentucky to Ohio.
Milk, more than just food, was the flow of love Sethe wanted to release into her babies. Denver, sucking on a bloody nipple, took in Sethe's milk with her sister's blood. The baby sister never did get enough of Sethe's milk. That is why, when she returns as Beloved, she has a "hungry" face. Sethe, says the narrator, "was licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved's eyes." Beloved was "greedy" to hear Sethe talk, and Sethe "feeds" her with stories of the past it always hurt her to tell others, even Denver. The narrator's language becomes thick with insistent references to and images and metaphors of food and hunger, so that listener and reader become aware of many slave hungers—for food, for things sweet, for an understanding of the past, for communion, for community, and, above all, for a form of sustenance slaves were deprived of, love. It was dangerous to love, for the beloved could be torn away at any time. Beloved, as name, title and emanation, now gathers significance but the meanings do not come together yet. Nor can the hearers grasp the connections between food and religion—"the berries that tasted like church," the Biblical references to "loaves and fishes," the setting-up of the food after Baby Suggs' funeral. All connections and meanings, all notes and musical phrases, will be made to converge and resonate in Parts II and III.
Before such a convergence can occur there has to be an awareness of the magical sounds of the language through which meanings flow. Toni Morrison undermines the heaviness of print by turning word-shapes into word-sounds in order to allow her narrator to chant, to sing, to exploit sound effects. "… No. No. Nono. Nonono": these staccato drumbeats—single, double, triple—translate Sethe's fears of the threatening white world into ominous sounds. Word-sounds enact the rhythmic steps of a dance: "A little two-step, two-step, make-a-new-step, slide, slide and strut on down." A page presents consecutive paragraphs that have a one-word beginning, "but" with a period. The reader can see the pattern the buts make; the listener hears the repeated thuds that drive in the utter futility of slaves making plans to escape. At one point the narrator refers to Sethe's "bedding" dress made up of pieces Sethe put together—two pillow cases, a dresser scarf with a hole in it, an old sash, mosquito netting. The strange adjective is used to trigger an ironic rhyme-echo, for a slave woman could never have a "wedding" with a ceremony and a preacher, but only a coupling. Sad, but full of admiration and affection for Sethe, the narrator herself turns celebrant, the music of her language transforming the mating into a unique fertility rite in a tiny cornfield, witnessed by their friends who partake of the young corn. Fourteen-year-old Sethe's virgin surrender to Halle, her moments of pain and joy, have as accompaniments the dance of the cornstalks, the husk, the cornsilk hair, the pulling down of the tight sheath, the ripping sound, the juice, the loose silk, the jailed-up flavor running free, the joy. Light monosyllabic sounds bring this epithalamium to a close: "How loose the silk. How fine and loose and free."
Beloved makes many aural demands for its musical patterns are many. Toni Morrison turns her narrator into a Bakhtinian ventriloquist who throws her voice into Baby Suggs. Oh my people, cries Baby Suggs, that preacher without a church, calling out to her congregation in the Clearing, repeating the words "here" and "yonder," and "flesh" and "heart" and "love," exhorting her people to love their unloved flesh, their beating hearts, so moving them that they make music for her dance. By using repetition for emphasis, participles for movement, internal rhyme and alliteration, the narrator heightens the voice and the word-patterns of Paul D (who cannot read) to translate into thudbeats the unspeakable fears and cravings of forty-six chain-linked chain-dancing men pounding away at rocks with their sledge hammers:
They sang it out and beat it up, garbling the words so they could not be understood; tricking the words so their syllables yielded up other meanings. They sang the women they knew; the children they had been; the animals they had tamed themselves or seen others tame. They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain, and rocking chairs.
Toni Morrison endows her narrator with a voice that has both range and energy, without being artificial or literary. It is a human voice, warm and friendly, not detached or distant, a voice that reaches out to touch the whole village community now gathered around her. She is, after all, their bard; she knows their language and can speak the vernacular. There is no need, therefore, for any comments, or for the language of explanations; only the need for a heightening of the black idiom in order to summon up a world buried in their racial memory.
Hence the language intensification. "Knees wide open as the grave": this startling simile erupts as Sethe remembers rutting among the headstones to get the seven letters of "Beloved" chiseled for free. A flirtation "so subtle you had to scratch for it": Sethe's verb springs out of her world; the implied image is that of hens in a farmyard. A memory of something shameful seeps "into a slit" in Sethe's mind; she is poised on the "the lip" of sleep; Beloved has "rinsed" certain memories out of her mind, explains Sethe to Denver. The language becomes intensely vibrant at times, as when Paul D suddenly realizes he was completely wrong about Sethe:
This here Sethe was new. The ghost in her house didn't bother her for the very same reason a room-and-board witch with new shoes was welcome. This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw. This here new Sethe didn't know where she stopped and the world began.
The verbal phrase, "cleave the bone," the repetition of "talked," of "like any other woman," the repetition of thematic words used earlier in the story, "love," "safety," "world," the insertion of "here" between "this" and "Sethe" to colloquialize the phrase, its repetition three times, and then the modulation into a four beat phrase "this here new Sethe"—all work together to produce the thick flow of Paul's realization.
Toni Morrison's ability to charge the vernacular with power and sound enables her to give a mythic form to the story of her people, the Afro-Americans. Oh my people, cries Toni Morrison, hear the voice of the bard. This bard is a Blakean griot in whom the ancestral experience is stored and who can see and sing the past, present, and future. She sings an ongoing story of the savage uprooting of sixty million and more, of a sea passage from Africa to America, of selves fractured and reduced to things lower than animals, of freedom imposed by others from the outside, and then the painful process of healing, of the achieving of inner freedom, and of slowly discovering themselves as human beings in a new world. It is a story of generations, of two hundred years and more compressed in time and channeled through a few individuals. The telling is a teaching, too, directed to the generations yet to come, lest they forget. History had to be transformed into myth.
Toni Morrison has her narrator employ the technique of circling round and round the subject that Sethe, her central character, uses for telling the essentials of her story to Paul D: "Circling, circling, now she was gnawing something else instead of getting to the point." All the stories—that of Sethe and Paul D, of Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid, of Beloved and Denver, and of Sixo—have their chronologies fractured and the "pieces" made to spin together to form one story, monstrous and heroic. The fragments keep sliding into and out of each other for they cannot be separated. Their love for each other makes Sethe's story Paul's too. The stories of Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid tell of an earlier generation. The stories of Sixo and the Cherokee Indians present yet another account of suffering and injustice. Denver's story leads into the future, while Beloved's reaches to the past. Sure her people will slowly understand the story of their own past, the narrator begins with Sethe.
Sethe, in 1873, has resigned herself to her situation. Isolated from the Bluestone community, terrified of the exhalations of the past she kept buried within her damaged being, Sethe needs healing. The re-entry of Paul D and of Beloved into her life begins the slow process that leads her to understanding, love and community. Sethe is compelled to re-live two ordeals, the birth of Denver and the killing of her third child.
The story of Sethe's harrowing escape and of Denver's miraculous birth takes eight sections of Part I to be told, but the narrator does not release all its meanings. Certain clues are offered; the listener gets accustomed to a mode of telling that involves delay, repetition, and a slow but controlled release of information. Sethe casually mentions "that girl looking for velvet" to Paul D. Only later is her name, Amy, revealed (the first clue, the name, from Old French, means beloved). The story is relayed through dialogue, recall and narration. Sethe begins the narrative; Denver remembers parts that Sethe told her, and, as if under a spell, she "steps into the told story" to recreate it for Beloved. The narrator takes over and finishes the telling which is exciting, full of horror and pathos and beauty. She smuggles in significant truths through the words of Amy—that anything dead coming back to life hurts, that nothing can heal without pain—that she hopes some of her listeners will ponder. The unexpected aria that bursts out of the narrator towards the end, just after the birth of Denver, is a musical celebration the audience can respond to but cannot understand, yet:
Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines hard to see unless you are in or near them, lying right at the river's edge when the sunshots are low and drained. Often they are mistook for insects—but they are seeds in which the whole generation sleeps confident of a future. And for a moment it is easy to believe each one has one—will become all of what is contained in the spore: will live out its days as planned. This moment of certainty lasts no longer than that; longer, perhaps, than the spore itself.
The story of Sethe's other ordeal is told in "pieces" that are scattered through all 18 sections of Part I, and that have to be put together. The focus is on two consecutive days, four weeks after Sethe's arrival at 124. On the first day the whole community is invited to a feast, a communion, a ritual "celebration of blackberries that put Christmas to shame." The second day is one of foreboding for Baby Suggs, who smells two odors, one of disapproval, the other of a "dark and coming thing." What happens in the shed appears to be both a killing and a ritual sacrifice, the red blood spurting out of the cut throat of the baby held against the mother's chest.
The horror is not immediate, nor are the details graphic. The scene has a stabbing intensity, for it is a chill horror that takes time to penetrate and implode. The narrative tactics shift; the temperature of the language drops. The scene (section 16 of Part I) is relayed through four voices that slide one into the other to form a "white" composite. That of the slave catcher presents a hunter calculating his profit: "Unlike a snake or a bear, a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin." The nephew simply cannot understand why and how a mere beating could cause such a reaction. The schoolteacher presents a doleful view of "creatures God has given you the responsibility of." The sheriff sees before him a proof that freedom should not have been imposed so soon on these poor savages. The language of all four voices is cold, aloof, detached, clinical. After all these are creatures and cannibals, aren't they, what else can one expect. Drenched in savage irony the scene becomes almost unbearable. Mercifully the narrator takes over; the ironic mode loses its edge but still continues with the sudden entry (as in a Hitchcock movie) of two white children, one bearing shoes for Baby Suggs to repair. The unmentioned color emits a tiny scream as the narrator's voice drops into silence at the end: "The hot sun dried Sethe's dress, stiff as rigor mortis."
The story of Sethe and her ordeals forms the spinning center around which the other stories of collapse spin. The outer circle is made up of the stories of the Cherokee (yet another people decimated, and uprooted from the lands they owned) and of Sixo the Indian, Paul's "brother," who laughs when his feet are roasted and sings "Seven-O!, Seven-O!" before he is shot. Then the story of Baby Suggs, seventy years old, who had proclaimed the gospel of love after she got her freedom. She realizes that she had preached a lie, and that it was all useless. White folks came into my yard, she says, using the language of understatement. She "lays down" in bed to die there. Two sentences sum up the slave life of Paul, whose heart has become a rusty tobacco tin into which he has stuffed his experiences: "It was some time before he could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest. By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open." How much is a nigger supposed to take, he asks. All he can, Stamp Paid replies, and Paul can only repeat why why why why why. The Stamp Paid story is of one who had dedicated his entire life to the rescue and service of his people. He finds himself in a state of despair in 1874, nine years after his people were set free. He had found in his boat a tiny red ribbon that smelt of skin and embodied for him all the lynchings and the burnings that his people still had to endure. "What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?" he asks.
The narrator is confident that this question to Jesus will direct her audience (some white people have drifted into the group now) to the Christian dimensions of her tale. After all, they also have been sustained and comforted by their Christian faith and by the Bible. They would pick up the Biblical references to "loaves and fishes" during the celebratory feast, to Stamp Paid's real name, Joshua (the successor to Moses), and to the origins in Genesis of Sethe's name. They would realize that Baby Suggs had lost faith in the God she once believed in; that Stamp Paid, who had relied on the Word and who had believed that "these things too will pass," abandoned his efforts to rescue the inhabitants of 124 menacingly "ringed with voices like a noose." And they would sense that additional help was needed from other sources to deal with things "older, but not stronger, than He Himself was."
Listeners (aware of African religious beliefs) and readers (familiar with books by Janheinz Jahn and Geoffrey Parrinder, and with the Indic tradition) slowly begin to realize that Beloved has sprung out of pre-Christian sources. A complex creation, Beloved is made up of "pieces" that Toni Morrison has spun into being so skillfully that it is difficult to isolate their sources. Some elements derive from the Afro-American belief, shared by the Bluestone community, that the unfulfilled dead can return to the scene of their former existence. According to Baby Suggs almost every house is "packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief." Other elements spring from the belief, purely African, that "the departed are spiritual forces which can influence their living descendants. In this their only purpose is to increase the life force of their decendants" [Janheinz Jahn, Muntu, 1961]. Toni Morrison fuses these elements with others of her own invention in order to intensify her tale and raise it to the level of myth. She makes her narrator control the pace of the telling, releasing the story slowly so that listener and reader are persuaded to accept Beloved as a "presence," allowing a number of meanings to accumulate so that, at the end, it becomes a story of haunting significance.
In the beginning the baby ghost is merely a disturbance, mysterious not to Sethe and Denver but to the listeners, exciting their interest in a good story. Only after the Thursday carnival, after Beloved returns from the other side of the grave, does the tale become more than a ghost story. Toni Morrison set herself two fictional problems. She had to delay Sethe's recognition of Beloved as her baby daughter, while allowing Denver to be aware that Beloved is her sister almost from the beginning. The second problem was to provide Beloved with a voice and a language. Toni Morrison carefully controls the release of details about Beloved. That Beloved is a nineteen-year-old (the age she would have been had she lived) who acts like a baby in the beginning is clear (though not to Sethe who is distracted by her love of Paul D): Beloved has sleepy eyes, her hands and feet are soft, her skin is flawless, she cannot hold her head up, she is incontinent. She "grows" up in the course of a few days because Sethe "feeds" her with stories of her own past. This "feeding," a form of narrative strategy, allows the novelist to evoke Sethe's past for her readers, and it allows Sethe to exorcize what she had kept buried within herself. Sethe's rememory pours out of her in response to the many questions Beloved keeps asking, using a strange, raspy voice. It takes over four weeks for Beloved's "gravelly" voice, with its African cadence, to shift unobtrusively into the rhythms of Afro-American speech.
The talks with Sethe establish the reality of Beloved as a human being. The scenes with Denver and with Paul suggest that Beloved is also a catalytic life force. The shed behind 124 becomes the locale where the racial past is reenacted. Beloved "moves" Paul D (the way slaves were moved from place to place; there was nothing they or Paul could do about it), "like a rag doll," out of Sethe's bed and into the dark shed where she forces him, much against his will, to have sex with her, and to call her by her true name, Beloved, not the one the "ghosts without skin" called her in the daylight, bitch. Paul turns into a version of Seth, the black man on the slave ship whom Sethe's mother loved and after whom Sethe was named. The dark shed becomes the ship's hold as Beloved forces Denver to re-live the experience of panic, suffocation and thick darkness (with cracks of daylight) where the self is reduced to nothing. These painful experiences will be healing (as Amy had said). Denver, who belongs to the future, lives through a racial past without whose knowledge she would not be complete. Paul's rusty tobacco tin, which "nothing in this world could pry open" (my italics), opens up into a red, warm heart.
Before presenting Sethe's sorrows and sufferings the narrator halts the recitative and turns into a blueswoman, making a trio of voices sing "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken." The timing of this musical interlude sung by a mother and her two daughters is exactly right: Paul D has been made to leave 124; Sethe knows that her baby has come back from the other side; and the past has been disinterred. The interlude of four sections provides a time of rest and slowdown before the final narrative outburst.
The first two sections open with the voiced thoughts of Sethe and of Denver, recapitulating, in fragments, the significant moments of their past. The third section begins in the present with "I am Beloved and she is mine." Then the I swells into a collective choric I that comes as if from a distant time and place, as though sixty million and more voices had been compressed into one. Toni Morrison could use only a few typographical devices to activate print into tempo. All punctuation is banished (except for the period that ends the opening sentence). There is quadruple spacing between sentences and there are double gaps between paragraphs. These pauses slow down the voice and make it resonate, so that a lamentation fills the air as the African beginnings of the horror are reenacted. Visual details blur and dissolve: women crouch in the jungle picking flowers in baskets, there is gunsmoke during the hunt for slaves, the men are crammed into the ship's hold, children and women, naked, crouch on the deck and on the bridge, storms at sea force men and women to be packed together, there is the sweet rotten smell of death, corpses are stacked in piles on the deck and then pushed out into the sea with poles, suicide by jumping into the sea and rapes are common. [In a footnote, Rodrigues remarks: "In the Time interview (May 22, 1989) Toni Morrison refers to 'travel accounts of people who were in the Congo—that's a wide river—saying, "We could not get the boat through the river, it was choked with bodies." That's like a logjam. A lot of people died. Half of them died in those ships.' In his introduction to Adventures of an African Slaver by Captain Theodore Canot, Malcolm Cowley mentions a strange phenomenon: that 'in Bonny River … the bodies of slaves washed backwards and forwards with the tide, the women floating, it is said, face downwards; the men on their backs, staring into perpetual clouds which were almost the color of their eyes.' In the slaveship's hold 'the slaves were packed as tightly as cases of whisky…. The slaves were laid on their sides, spoon-fashion, the bent knees of one fitting into the hamstrings of his neighbour. On some vessels they could not even lie down; they spent the voyage sitting on each other's laps.' Beloved demonstrates this position to Denver in the shed when she 'bends over, curls up and rocks.'"]
Out of such visual horror arise cries of anguish as beloved is torn from beloved, women from their children, mothers from their daughters. The anguish is never ending, for "all of it is now it is all now." The past is still present, as those who have listened to the tale so far know. Beloved becomes the embodiment of all slave daughters; Sethe stands for generations of slave mothers. Denver experiences something worse than death, the utter lack of self in the shed; Paul trembles uncontrollably in Georgia like the man in the hold packed so tight he had no room even to tremble in order to die; Sethe experiences choking to make her know what it felt like to wear an iron circle around her neck; Beloved gazes in tears at the turtles in the stream behind 124, as if her earlier self were looking for her Seth who had leapt from the bridge of the slave ship. All experiences repeat or parallel each other. The fourth section returns the listeners to the present where the trio of voices chant a dirge in liturgical fashion as the interlude ends.
The narrator then takes up again the story of Sethe, who lavishes all her love on her baby daughter, excluding Denver and feeding the uncomprehending Beloved with explanations, telling her that she had to kill her in order to save her. Beloved grows monstrously fat devouring Sethe's love while Sethe wastes away. Denver, through whom most of Part III is channeled, does not understand what is happening but is afraid there could be another killing.
Both reader and listener have to understand why Beloved and Sethe behave in this unnatural manner. Sethe does not realize that Beloved's demands are not those of a human being, but of an impersonal life force that has got what it wanted, but cannot stop its blind, unreasonable demands for more. The narrator calls her "wild game." The Bluestone community refers to her as an "it" that will destroy Sethe, who has committed a crime. Sethe, on the other hand, believes that "what she had done was right because it came from true love."
Toni Morrison does not judge Sethe. Neither does her narrator allow her listeners to pass judgment on Sethe. The Bluestone community cannot forgive what they regard as an act of senseless murder. Even Baby Suggs was horrified on that day, and fell on her knees begging God's pardon for Sethe. Denver, who is afraid of her mother even though she loves her, has an inkling of what it was that drove Sethe on: it was a "something" in her mother that made it all right to "kill her own." The thing was "coiled" up in her, too, for Denver felt it leap within her at certain moments.
What the "thing" is is never made clear. But Sethe's story provides some clues. The process begins at edenic Sweet Home, that "cradle" of innocence, at the moment when Sethe's knowledge of evil begins, the knowledge that the white world, in the person of schoolteacher, considered her part animal. He had told his nephews to categorize Sethe by setting down her animal characteristics on the right, her human ones on the left. Overhearing these words, Sethe feels her head itch as if somebody were sticking fine needles in her scalp. During the escape, before the meeting with Amy, Sethe senses a "something" that came out of the earth into her and impelled her to attack: "like a snake. All jaws and hungry."
It was this "something," a blind animal force perhaps, that leapt within Sethe just before the killing. At the sight of schoolteacher's hat she heard wings: "Little humming-birds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings." Stamp Paid, who was present, saw a dramatic change in Sethe, whose face "beaked" and whose hands worked like claws before she snatched up her children "like a hawk on the wing," and dragged them into the shed.
Stamp Paid tries to tell Paul D that love drove Sethe to "outhurt the hurter." Paul cannot understand such love. Too thick, he tells Sethe, adding that Sethe had two legs not four, implying that she was not an animal but a human being. A "forest" sprang up between them, adds the narrator who, reluctant to explain anything to listener or reader, compels them to ponder the image of the forest.
Yet another clue had been provided earlier when, asked by Paul to have his baby, Sethe thought: "Unless carefree, motherlove was a killer." Paul D had observed that, for a slave, any form of love was fraught with danger, and that human love needed freedom. One can only speculate that mother love, when not allowed free expression and growth in human society, remains a primal instinct. Fiercely possessive and predatory, it kills to protect the young from the enemy. That explains perhaps why there are so many animal references. Slaves were regarded as property, as possessions, as animals.
In this light Sethe's act of murder transforms itself from a mere killing into a ritual sacrifice of the beloved, an expression of the helpless rage and outrage of many slave mothers who either wanted to or did kill their young to deliver them from slavery. But one sin cannot cancel out another. 124 with its shed is more than a gray and white house: it becomes the arena where the resurrected past demands vengeance and threatens to overwhelm the present. A ritual atonement is needed. Denver, the future, has to step out of this dark world to seek help. She goes to the community.
With a few deft touches all through Parts I & II, the narrator has established the reality of the Bluestone community, a loosely knit group of colored folks living at the city's edge. They are a good bunch, Stamp Paid tells Paul D, a little proud and mean at times, but ready to help anyone in need. They had two meeting centers: the Church of the Holy Redeemer with Reverend Pike as preacher, and the Clearing in the woods where that unchurched preacher, Baby Suggs, holy, restored their faith in themselves and in their bodies. 124, at that time, had been a "cheerful, buzzing house," a way station and a place of refuge for runaways, where Baby Suggs provided food, comfort and help. What led to the estrangement between 124 and the community is not quite clear, but the narrator is confident that her listeners (their circle has now expanded into a vast human congregation) will understand and forgive human failings.
A few listeners might be aware of the term hubris, but all would know that pride and arrogance were sins that could lead to misunderstanding. Baby Suggs knew that she had been guilty of pride on the day of the celebration, knew that she had "offended them by excess." That is why, on the next day, she could smell the disapproval of the community. The ninety friends and neighbors were guilty too, of enjoying the feast of "loaves and fishes" and then displaying anger, envy and resentment towards the provider. Sethe, too, is guilty, of arrogantly isolating herself and not going to the community for help, even after the death of Baby Suggs. The setting-up after the funeral did not lead to communion. Sethe did not eat of their food, and they would not eat what she provided. It is Stamp Paid, that Soldier of Christ, who tries to help. Driven by a sense of guilt and by the memory of his friend, Baby Suggs, he tries to pass through two barriers: the circle of nightmarish voices, and the door that remains locked despite his knocking. He abandons his efforts to reach the inhabitants of 124.
Having made her listeners fully aware of the many meanings of 124, the narrator now quickens the pace of the telling. The tempo increases, the sound effects grow intense. "124 was loud," the opening of Part II, echoes the opening of Part I, "124 was spiteful," and there is a re-echo in the opening of Part III, "124 was quiet." Quiet because its inhabitants, locked in a meaningless love, were starving and would die of hunger. Denver is afraid of stepping off the porch of this prison:
Out there where small things scratched and sometimes touched. Where words could be spoken that would close your ears shut. Where, if you were alone, feeling could overtake you and stick to you like a shadow. Out there where there were places in which things so bad had happened that when you were near them it would happen again. Like Sweet Home where time didn't pass and where, like her mother said, the bad was waiting for her as well. How would she know these places? What was more—much more—out there were whitepeople and how could you tell about them? (italics mine)
The listener can easily respond to the reference to Sweet Home as a place where time had stopped, to the rhyme-echoes and repetition (with variation) of "out there," "where," and "were" that enact Denver's fears and hesitations, and trigger Denver's rememory of the rats in prison and her sudden deafness.
Neither Sethe nor Denver can hear the loud voices that menace 124. Only Stamp Paid, that witness of his people's sufferings, listens and can recognize the two sets of voices: the roaring of all the slaves who were lynched and burned; and the terrified mutterings, near the porch, of whites (like the schoolteacher who had created a "jungle" in Sethe) in whom the jungle of hate and terror had entered. The pack of haunts is ready to pounce.
The listeners can tell the end is near. The narrator summons up techniques that tellers of tales use to create suspense—tantalizing pauses, breaks in the narrative, switches and cross-telling (like cross-cutting in film). It is an ominous Friday, three in the afternoon, a steaming tropical day reeking with foul odors. Three narrative movements converge: Bluestone women, thirty of them, led by Ella, make their way to 124 to rescue Sethe from the devil child; Mr. Bodwin, who had helped in the defense of Sethe, is on his way to 124 (where he had been born), to fetch Denver, who is waiting for him on the porch; Sethe, inside 124, uses an ice pick to break some ice for the sweating Beloved.
To amplify her story the narrator now summons her co-tellers, the blueswoman and the bard. The blueswoman vocalizes the rhythms of the approaching mumbling chorus of thirty women (significantly, no man, not even Stamp Paid, is present). Some of them kneel outside the yard, as though in church, and begin a series of responses to a prayer call: "Yes, yes, yes, oh yes. Hear me. Hear me. Do it, Maker, do it. Yes." Then Ella begins to holler, an elemental cry that sweeps all the women to the very beginning, of time perhaps, even before the Christian Word. "In the beginning was the sound," the blueswoman announces.
The narrative pauses, then the narrator switches to Edward Bodwin, driving a cart to 124, haunted by time and by the recent wars and the fight over abolition that made him lose faith in what his father had told him, that human life is holy. The narrative breaks again to Sethe and Beloved standing on the porch of 124. The three movements converge and combine.
The blueswoman becomes one with the community of women out of whose being sounds explode, and rise to a crescendo of pure sound. More than a speech act, it is a mantralike utterance that rises from the creative female depths of their self, an act of exorcism: "Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash." The reference to water, the word "sound" used as a verb and noun, the allusion to Baby Suggs and to her powers associated with nature, "tremble," the word linked with Paul D, the double implication of "wash," all insist that this unpremeditated rite combines a pre-Christian archetypal cleansing with Christian baptism. Beloved's dazzling smile suggests that she does "understand" what has happened. But the listeners are puzzled.
It is the bard who knows what has been exorcized and begins to chant, switching from the past to the present tense because "all is now." The events of the past are once again made present. The words used earlier for what happened in 1855 (the definite green of the leaves, the staccato drum-beats of Sethe's fears) are repeated and relayed through Sethe's rememory. But this time, ice pick in hand, Sethe (after she sees Edward Bodwin's hat) attacks not her beloved but the "schoolteacher" attacker, a normal human reaction for the "thing" has been exorcised out of her. Denver and the women move in to stop her. The words used in the interlude (pile, faces, people, the man without skin) are also repeated to summon back from the remote past Beloved's ordeals on the slave ship. Then Beloved, her belly swollen with the past, vanishes. But this monstrous African past cannot be completely exorcized. It will linger on, wanting to be at least remembered.
The listeners, held spellbound by these events, experience catharsis. The tale has reached into their hearts and touched basic human emotions. It moves them, but not to action. For Toni Morrison is an artist, not a sociologist or a politician. Like Conrad, who wanted, before all, to make his readers see, Toni Morrison wants to make her people listen and, like the spirit of Baby Suggs urging Denver, know the truth about themselves and their "roots." Like Conrad, too, Toni Morrison feels compelled to "render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe" [Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the Narcissus]. The institution of slavery is condemned, but all white people are not. The listeners remember Amy (a "slave" herself who, significantly, is on her pilgrim way to Boston), the Garners (Sethe looked upon Mrs. Garner as if she was her mother), the Bodwins, even the sheriff (who had looked away when Sethe nursed Denver). But Toni Morrison insists that true freedom is essential and that equality between peoples is of absolute necessity. That is why the goodness of the Garners and the Bodwins is somehow flawed: on a shelf in the Bodwin house Denver sees a black boy figurine kneeling on a pedestal that reads: "At Yo Service."
Toni Morrison's sense of justice and compassion leads her to introduce notes of hope. The many Christian references suggest such a possibility, especially the name of the community church, and the redemptive tree of suffering that Sethe carries on her back and will carry for a lifetime. Paul's love will heal Sethe, rescue her from the fate that befell Baby Suggs, and put her pieces together. In the tableau at the end Paul touches Sethe's face as he whispers his tribute to her: "You your best thing, Sethe. You are." The story of Sethe and Paul will gradually recede into the past. Denver is the future. She is the child of the race, "my heart," Stamp Paid tells Paul D. Lady Jones can see "everybody's child" in her face. Clever and intelligent, she will go to Oberlin. Denver is like Seven-O, which is not just a cry of warning to his woman, but a continuation of Sixo, the name of his "seed" which she bears away with her. Denver needs no tribute, for the narrator has already sung an aria to celebrate her birth; she is the seed "in which the whole generation sleeps confident of the future."
With the stories of Sethe, Paul, and Denver told, the narrator and the bard know that the telling has to come to a stop. Their listeners have been rapt into a mythic world. But humankind cannot live there for long. The account of what happened to Paul D, which balances the story of Sethe, allows the listeners to return to ordinary human reality. When Paul D and Stamp Paid talk about what happened at 124, a strange laughter, like Sixo's, erupts out of them. "To keep from cryin' I opens my mouth an' laughs," as Langston Hughes puts it. Narrator and bard have finished their tasks, but something remains to be done. The blueswoman takes over.
She begins to keen, as though at a wake, a ceremony held in order to remember, to celebrate, and then to forget. But the lament soon changes into the sound of a biblical voice from on high (sounded in the epigraph), that summons an alien people unto itself and calls them beloved. The community remembers what Sethe rememoried, the voice of the preacher at the baby's funeral telling them who they are, addressing them all as Dearly Beloved. The voice of the blueswoman now develops a powerful hum, for she expresses, as in basic blues, not her own feelings but those of all her people. It uses not the minor (though it sounds plaintive) but the major mode of the classical blues. The words are unimportant for they all have been heard before, except the twice repeated, two-word word, "disremembered," which associates memory with pieces. The blueswoman and the community know that the past can linger on but has to be laid to rest. As in a blues ending they announce, then repeat, then repeat again, mixing the past and present tenses, that it was/is "not a story to pass on." Till, finally, the blueswoman allows her voice to sink into silence after a whispered prayer, Beloved.
Barbara Schapiro (essay date Summer 1991)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6982
SOURCE: "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.
[In the following essay, Schapiro discusses the psychological and emotional dimensions of slavery in Beloved, which she praises for its historical depth and insight.]
Toni Morrison's Beloved penetrates, perhaps more deeply than any historical or psychological study could, the unconscious emotional and psychic consequences of slavery. The novel reveals how the condition of enslavement in the external world, particularly the denial of one's status as a human subject, has deep repercussions in the individual's internal world. These internal resonances are so profound that even if one is eventually freed from external bondage, the self will still be trapped in an inner world that prevents a genuine experience of freedom. As Sethe succinctly puts it, "Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another." The novel wrestles with this central problem of recognizing and claiming one's own subjectivity, and it shows how this cannot be achieved independently of the social environment.
A free, autonomous self, as Jessica Benjamin argues in The Bonds of Love, is still an essentially relational self and is dependent on the recognizing response of an other. Beloved powerfully dramatizes the fact that, in Benjamin's words, "In order to exist for oneself, one has to exist for an other"; in so doing, it enacts the complex interrelationship of social and intrapsychic reality. For Morrison's characters, African-Americans in a racist, slave society, there is no reliable other to recognize and affirm their existence. The mother, the child's first vital other, is made unreliable or unavailable by a slave system which either separates her from her child or so enervates and depletes her that she has no self with which to confer recognition. The consequences on the inner life of the child—the emotional hunger, the obsessive and terrifying narcissistic fantasies—constitute the underlying psychological drama of the novel.
"124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom." The opening lines of the novel establish its psychic source: infantile rage. A wounded, enraged baby is the central figure of the book, both literally, in the character of Beloved, and symbolically, as it struggles beneath the surface of the other major characters. Even the elderly grandmother is significantly named "Baby," and the ferocity of a baby's frustrated needs colors the novel's overt mother-child relationships as well as the love relationship between Sethe and Paul D and that between Beloved and her sister Denver. "A baby's frustrated needs" refers here not to physical needs but to psychic and emotional ones. The worst atrocity of slavery, the real horror the novel exposes, is not physical death but psychic death. The pivotal event, or crisis, of the novel is Sethe's murder of her baby daughter Beloved. The reader is allowed to feel, however, the paradoxical nature of the murder. Sethe, having run away from the sadistic slave-master Schoolteacher, is on the verge of being recaptured. Her humanity has been so violated by this man, and by her entire experience as a slave woman, that she kills her daughter to save her from a similar fate; she kills her to save her from psychic death: "if I hadn't killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her."
Psychic death, as the novel makes clear, involves the denial of one's being as a human subject. The infant self has an essential, primary need to be recognized and affirmed as a whole being, as an active agent of its own legitimate desires and impulses, and the fulfillment of this need is dependent on the human environment, on other selves. The premise of the object relations school of psychoanalysis, as Jessica Benjamin notes [in The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination, 1988], is that "we are fundamentally social beings." According to this theory, human beings are not innately sexual or aggressive; they are innately responsive and relational. As Harry Guntrip explains, the "need of a love-relationship is the fundamental thing" in life, and "the love-hunger and anger set up by frustration of this basic need must constitute the two primary problems of personality on the emotional level" [Schizoid Phenomena, Object Relations, and the Self, 1969]. The experience of one's cohesiveness and reality as a self is dependent on this primary relationship, on the loving response and recognition from an other. This issue is repeatedly illustrated and explored in Morrison's novels. Sula, for instance, speaks of the two most formative experiences of her life: the first concerns her overhearing her mother state matter-of-factly that she simply doesn't "like" her (Sula), and the second involves her having thrown a child, seemingly by accident, into the river to drown. "The first experience taught her there was no other that you could count on; the second that there was no self to count on either. She had no center, no speck around which to grow" (Sula). These experiences are intimately related: the lack of an affirming, reliable other leads to an unconscious, murderous rage and the lack of a coherent, reliable self.
In The Bonds of Love, a feminist psychoanalytic study of the problem of domination in Western culture, Benjamin modifies object relations theory to form what she calls "intersubjective theory." She maintains the primacy of relationship in self-development but argues that the self grows through relationship with another subject rather than through relations with its object. The child has a need to see the mother, or his or her most significant other, "as an independent subject, not simply as the 'external world' or an adjunct of his ego." The intersubjective view, which Benjamin sees as complementary to intrapsychic theory, conceives of self and other "as distinct but interrelated beings" who are involved in an intricate dance of assertion and recognition. The essential need is for mutual recognition—"the necessity of recognizing as well as being recognized by the other." Benjamin also emphasizes the concept of attunement, a "combination of resonance and difference" in which self and other are empathically in tune while maintaining their distinct boundaries and separateness. When the boundaries break down and the necessary tension between self and other dissolves, domination takes root. The search for recognition then becomes a struggle for power and control, and assertion turns into aggression.
Beloved does not delve into the roots of white domination, but there is a suggestion of fear and inadequate selfhood underlying the problem. The white farmer Mr. Garner, while still sharing in the cultural objectification of blacks, nevertheless boasts that his "niggers is men every one of 'em." When another farmer argues that there "Ain't no nigger men," Garner replies, "Not if you scared, they ain't…. But if you a man yourself, you'll want your niggers to be man too." A self wants the recognition of another self; this form of mutuality is more desirable, Garner implies, than mastery of an object. Garner, however, dies—his perspective cannot prevail in a world in which domination and the denial of recognition are built into the social system.
Beloved explores the interpersonal and intrapsychic effects of growing up as a black person in such a system, one in which intersubjectivity is impossible. How can a child see self or mother as subjects when the society denies them that status? The mother is made incapable of recognizing the child, and the child cannot recognize the mother. As a young girl, Sethe had to have her mother "pointed out" to her by another child. When she becomes a mother herself, she is so deprived and depleted that she cannot satisfy the hunger for recognition, the longed for "look," that both her daughters crave. The major characters in the novel are all working out of a deep loss to the self, a profound narcissistic wound that results from a breakdown and distortion of the earliest relations between self and other. In the case of Beloved, the intense desire for recognition evolves into enraged narcissistic omnipotence and a terrifying, tyrannical domination.
The infantile rage in the novel is a form of frustrated, murderous love. The baby ghost of Beloved wreaks havoc in Sethe's home, prompting Denver to comment, "For a baby she throws a powerful spell," to which Sethe replies, "No more powerful than the way I loved her." The power of Beloved's rage is directly linked to the power of Sethe's love. The intimacy of destructive rage and love is asserted in various ways throughout the book—Sethe's love for Beloved is indeed a murderous love. The violation or murder of children by their parents is a theme that runs throughout much of Morrison's work, from Cholly raping his daughter in The Bluest Eye to Eva setting fire to her son in Sula, and in these cases too the acts are incited by feelings of love. If the infant is traumatically frustrated in its first love relationship, if it fails to receive the affirmation and recognition it craves, the intense neediness of the infant's own love becomes dangerous and threatening. The fear, as Guntrip and others have discussed, is that one's love will destroy. The baby's enraged, destructive love is also projected outward onto the parent, which suggests one perspective on the strain of destructive parental love in Morrison's novels.
Because the first physical mode of relationship to the mother is oral, the earliest emotional needs in relation to the mother are also figured in oral terms in the child's inner world. Frustration in this first oral stage of relationship leads to what object relations theorists call "love made hungry," a terrifying greediness in which the baby fears it will devour and thus destroy mother and, conversely, that mother (due to projection) will devour and destroy the self. A preponderance of oral imagery characterizes Morrison's novel. Beloved, in her fantasies, repeatedly states that Sethe "chews and swallows me," while the metaphor of Beloved chewing and swallowing Sethe is almost literal: "Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it." Denver's problems of identity and self-cohesion, too, are often imaged in oral terms: leaving the house means being prepared to "be swallowed up in the world beyond the edge of the porch." When Denver temporarily loses sight of Beloved in the shed, she experiences a dissolution of self—"she does not know where her body stops, which part of her is an arm, a foot or a knee"—and feels she is being "eaten alive by the dark." Beloved, in the second part of the novel, is said to have two dreams: "exploding, and being swallowed." Everywhere in the novel, the fantasy of annihilation is figured orally; the love hunger, the boundless greed, that so determines the life of the characters also threatens to destroy them.
Sethe repeatedly asserts that the worst aspect of her rape was that the white boys "took my milk!" She feels robbed of her essence, of her most precious substance, which is her maternal milk. We learn that as a child, Sethe was deprived of her own mother's milk: "The little whitebabies got it first and I got what was left. Or none. There was no nursing milk to call my own." Sethe was not physically starved as a baby—she did receive milk from another nursing slave woman—but she was emotionally starved of a significant nurturing relationship, of which the nursing milk is symbolic. That relationship is associated with one's core being or essence; if she has no nursing milk to call her own, she feels without a self to call her own. Thus even before she was raped by the white farm boys, Sethe was ravaged as an infant, robbed of her milk/essence by the white social structure.
Beloved's first appearance in her incarnated form is marked by her excessive drinking, by her downing "cup after cup of water," while Sethe, suddenly feeling her "bladder filled to capacity," lifts her skirts and "the water she voided was endless." The dynamic suggests a mother being drained by the child's greedy, excessive need. Sethe's voiding is also associated with her own child-self in relation to her mother: "Not since she was a baby girl, being cared for by the eight-year-old girl who pointed out her mother to her, had she had an emergency that unmanageable." One might rather expect Sethe to experience thirst upon seeing her mother, but perhaps that thirst is so extreme, so potentially violent and destructive, that the more urgent need is to void, to empty oneself completely of this unmanageable hunger and rage. Sethe must drain herself in order to avoid draining, and therefore destroying, her mother. This is the fearful fantasy so central to the book; it is precisely what Beloved almost succeeds in doing to Sethe. The nursing dynamic also characterizes Denver and Beloved's relationship: "so intent was her (Denver's) nursing" of Beloved, "she forgot to eat," and she hides Beloved's incontinence. Paul D, as I will discuss more fully later, also plays a maternal, nurturing role in relation to Sethe. When he arrives, Sethe feels "that the responsibility for her breasts, at last, was in somebody else's hands."
The primal nursing relationship is so fraught with ambivalence that frequently in the novel satiation leads to disaster. The most obvious example is the grand feast Baby Suggs prepares for ninety people—"Ninety people who ate so well, and laughed so much, it made them angry." The feast is the prelude to the abandonment of the community, the return of Schoolteacher, and Sethe's consequent murder of her baby. Melanie Klein has discussed the baby's extreme "envy" of the withholding breast, and this projected envy may underlie the anger of the neighbors at the maternal bounty of Baby Suggs—she has "given too much, offended them by excess." Similarly, the prelude to Beloved's appearance in the flesh and the ensuing disruption of Sethe's relationship with Paul D is the festive plentitude of the carnival at which Paul D plies both Sethe and Denver with candy and sweets. Paul D's abandonment of Sethe, too, is preceded by a special dinner that Sethe, feeling confident that "she had milk enough for all," prepares for him.
The rage and ambivalence surrounding the love hunger in the novel is illustrated again in the scene in which Sethe, while sitting in the Clearing associated with Baby Suggs and her sermons on love, experiences fingers touching her throat. The fingers are first soothing and comforting but then begin to choke and strangle her, and the hands are associated with those of both Baby Suggs and Beloved, of both mother and child. When Denver accuses Beloved of choking Sethe, Beloved insists that she "fixed" Sethe's neck—"I kissed her neck. I didn't choke it." The incident, of course, parallels Sethe's murder of Beloved by sawing through her neck, the oral associations once more enforced by mention of the "teeth" of the saw having chewed through the skin. After denying that she choked Sethe's neck, Beloved adds, "The circle of iron choked it," and the image recalls the collars locked around the necks of the black slaves. Her statement is thus true in that the slave system has choked off the vital circulation between mother and child so crucial to the development of the self. Some of the most vivid, disturbing passages in the novel describe the experience of having a horse's bit forced into one's mouth; the sense of deep, searing injury to one's humanity that these descriptions evoke is perhaps compounded by unconscious resonances of violation at the earliest oral roots of our human identity.
The oral imagery in the novel is also closely associated with ocular imagery, with images of eyes and seeing. Sethe is described as being "licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved's eyes"; when Sethe lies hidden in the field, anticipating the approach of one of the white boys, she "was eager for his eyes, to bite into them;… 'I was hungry,' she told Denver, 'just as hungry as I could be for his eyes'." For Denver, "looking" at Beloved "was food enough to last. But to be looked at in turn was beyond appetite; it was breaking through her own skin to a place where hunger hadn't been discovered." In the logic of the unconscious world, the desire to get and "drink in" with the eyes is akin to the oral wish to consume. Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut has written about the oral-visual relationship [in The Analysis of the Self, 1971]. If the mother is physically and emotionally distant from the child, if she withholds her body, he says, the visual will become "hypercathectic" for the child. One can also understand the connection from Benjamin's perspective in that the real hunger in this first relationship between self and other is the hunger for recognition—the desire to be, in Denver's words, "pulled into view by the interested, uncritical eyes of the other." The gaze of the beloved other recognizes and affirms the wholeness and intrinsic value of one's being. Denver describes the quality of being looked at by Beloved: "Having her hair examined as a part of her self, not as material or a style. Having her lips, nose, chin caressed as they might be if she were a moss rose a gardener paused to admire." The look takes Denver to a "place beyond appetite," to where she is "Needing nothing. Being what there was." To be recognized by the beloved is all the nourishment one needs; it brings one into coherence, into meaningful existence. Before Beloved's arrival, Denver craved this look from Sethe: none of the losses in her life mattered, she felt, "as long as her mother did not look away."
Sethe's eyes, however, are described as "empty"; Paul D thinks of Sethe's face as "a mask with mercifully punched-out eyes…. Even punched out they needed to be covered, lidded, marked with some sign to warn folks of what that emptiness held." Her eyes reflect the psychic loss and denial of self she has experienced on all levels in her life. The face of Sethe's mother was also masklike, distorted into a permanent false smile from too many times with the bit. Sethe comments that she never saw her mother's own smile. Sethe's mother, deprived of her authentic selfhood, her status as a human subject, cannot provide the recognition and affirmation that her child craves. The cycle is vicious, and thus Sethe's children, Beloved and Denver, will suffer the same loss. Beloved's eyes too are remarkable for their emptiness: "deep down in those big black eyes there was no expression at all."
The craving for mutual recognition—for simultaneously "seeing" the beloved other and being "seen" by her—propels the central characters in the novel. Beloved says she has returned in order to "see" Sethe's face, and she wants "to be there in the place where her face is and to be looking at it too." When, as a child, Sethe is shown the brand burned into her mother's skin and is told that she will be able to "know" her by this mark, Sethe anxiously responds, "But how will you know me? How will you know me? Mark me, too,… Mark the mark on me too." Love is a form of knowing and being known. Beloved repeatedly commands Paul D, "I want you to touch me on the inside part and call me my name." The hunger is to be touched, recognized, known in one's inner being or essential self. This yearning is poignantly captured in the image of two turtles mating. Denver and Beloved observe the turtles on the bank of the river: "The embracing necks—hers stretching up toward his bending down, the pat pat pat of their touching heads. No height was beyond her yearning neck, stretched like a finger toward his, risking everything outside the bowl just to touch his face. The gravity of their shields, clashing, countered and mocked the floating heads touching."
The yearning of Beloved, Sethe, and Denver to touch faces with the beloved other, to know and be known, is, like that of the turtles, obstructed and mocked by the shields or shells each has constructed. The shell, however, is a necessary defense; it attempts to preserve the self from a culture that seeks to deny it. As Joseph Wessling argues in ["Narcissism in Toni Morrison's Sula," College Language Language Journal, 1988] an article on narcissism in Sula, narcissistic defenses, such as "self-division" and an inability to empathize or experience human sympathy, may be "the price of survival" in an oppressive, unjust society. The shell also serves to protect the self and its boundaries from the intensity of its own frustrated desire. The hunger for recognition, as discussed, may be so overwhelming that it threatens to swallow up the other and the self, destroying all boundaries in one total annihilation.
The novel as a whole is characterized by a fluidity of boundaries, by a continuously altering narrative perspective that slides in and out of characters' minds, by a mutable, nonsequential time structure, and by an absence of the conventional lines between fantasy and reality. Such fluidity, as Nancy Chodorow [in The Reproduction of Mothering, 1978] and Carol Gilligan [in In a Different Voice, 1982] have argued, is characteristic of female, as opposed to male, modes of perception and expression. It derives from the preservation of an original identity and preoedipal bondedness between self and mother. The series of monologues by Beloved, Sethe, and Denver in Part 2 of Morrison's novel, however, suggest something more extreme and dangerous than mere fluidity of boundaries: the monologues reveal an utter breakdown of the borders between self and other, a collapse that is bound up with incorporative fantasies. Sethe's section begins, "Beloved, she my daughter. She mine." Denver's opens, "Beloved is my sister. I swallowed her blood right along with my mother's milk," and Beloved's with the line, "I am Beloved and she is mine." After that sentence, Beloved's monologue is marked by a total absence of punctuation, highlighting the fantasy of merging and oneness at the essence of her plaintive ramblings: "I am not separate from her there is no place where I stop her face is my own." Her words reveal the psychic loss—the denial of recognition—at the core of the fantasy:
there is no one to want me to say me my name … she chews and swallows me I am gone now I am her face my own face has left me … Sethe sees me see her and I see the smile her smiling face is the place for me it is the face I lost she is my face smiling at me doing it at last a hot thing now we can join a hot thing.
A similar merging fantasy also figures prominently in Sula, in the relationship between Sula and Nel. The two characters are described as so close that "they themselves had difficulty distinguishing one's thoughts from the other's"; for Nel, "talking to Sula had always been a conversation with herself"; and Sula eventually realizes that neither Nel nor anyone else "would ever be that version of herself which she sought to reach out to and touch with an ungloved hand." Each is compelled continually to seek the self through an other, and such blurring of boundaries can lead to one of the forms of domination and submission Benjamin describes: the self can surrender totally to the will and agency of the other, or the self can consume and appropriate the other as part of itself, as an object of its possession.
The repetition of the word "mine" in the monologues of Sethe, Denver, and Beloved suggests exactly this sort of possession and incorporation of the other as an object. "Mine" is the haunting word that Stamp Paid hears surrounding Sethe's house in ghostly whispers and is stressed again in a lyrical section following Beloved's unpunctuated monologue. In this section the voices of Beloved, Sethe, and Denver are joined (the identity of the speaker in each line is sometimes unclear) while at the same time each voice remains essentially isolated (the voices speak to but not with each other):
You are my sister
You are my daughter
You are my face; you are me
I have found you again; you have come back to me
You are my Beloved
You are mine
You are mine
You are mine
This form of possessing and objectifying the other, however, cannot satisfy—it imprisons the self within its own devouring omnipotence, its own narcissism. True satisfaction or joy, as Benjamin explains, can only be achieved through "mutual recognition" between self and other, between two subjects or selves.
Both sides of the power dynamic, both surrender to and incorporation of the other, are apparent in the relationship between Sethe and Beloved. Toward the end of the novel, Sethe relinquishes herself completely to the will and desire of Beloved. She neglects to feed or care for herself and becomes physically drained and emotionally depleted. Sethe literally shrinks while Beloved literally expands and swells; both are caught up in a mutually destructive, frighteningly boundless narcissism. The prelude to Sethe's decline is an incident that again stresses lack of recognition at the source of this narcissistic condition. Sethe has been abandoned once again, this time by Paul D (her previous abandonments include those by her mother, her husband Halle, Baby Suggs, and her two sons), and to cheer herself, she takes Denver and Beloved ice-skating on the frozen creek. The three are unable to keep their balance, and as they fall on the ice, they shriek with both pain and laughter. The scene is redolent of childhood and of childlike helplessness. "Making a circle or a line, the three of them could not stay upright for one whole minute, but nobody saw them falling." The phrase "nobody saw them falling" becomes the dominant motif of the scene; the line is repeated four times in the two-page description. Sethe's laughter turns into uncontrollable tears, and her weeping in the context of the scene's refrain suggests a child's aching sense of loss or absence, specifically the absence of the confirming, legitimizing gaze of the other.
Once it is asserted that "nobody saw" her falling, that there is no "other" to confer the reality of her own existence on her, Sethe falls prey to a consuming narcissism. Suddenly she consciously recognizes Beloved as the incarnation of her dead child and surrenders herself totally to her. Sethe now feels that "there is no world outside" her door and that since her daughter has come back, "she can sleep like the drowned." In psychological terms, she retreats from external reality and succumbs to her destructive, narcissistic fantasies, to her murderously enraged child-self as well as her insatiable need to make reparation for her murderous love. Paul D recognizes, and fears, the narcissistic nature of Sethe's love: "This here new Sethe didn't know where the world stopped and she began … more important than what Sethe had done was what she claimed. It scared him."
Paul D is the one character in the novel who has the power to resist and disrupt the destructive, narcissistic mother-child dyad. Sethe recalls, "There was no room for any other thing or body until Paul D arrived and broke up the place, making room, shifting it, moving it over to someplace else, then standing in the place he had made." Sethe also tells Beloved that she would have recognized her "right off, except for Paul D." Paul D is the external "other" who triangulates the dyad, as the image of the "three shadows" of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D "holding hands" as they walk to the carnival emphasizes. The excursion to the carnival is Sethe's first venture into the community since the murder; Paul D has the capacity to lead Sethe out of her narcissistic isolation and into relationship with the external world. The claims of the angry baby Beloved, however, are still too powerful to allow for these other attachments: she makes her first appearance in the flesh immediately following the excursion.
While Paul D plays the role of the saving other in contradistinction to Beloved and the narcissistic dyad, he does not represent the typical world of the father. He is not, for instance, a token of male rationality countering the irrationality of the female world. He too is deeply affected by Beloved's irrational power—she literally "moves" him, making him physically restless and forcing him to sleep with her in the shed outside the house. His power lies precisely in his maternal, nurturing quality; he is that "other" with the power to recognize and affirm the inner or essential self. He is described as "the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry. Because with him, in his presence, they could." The women see him and not only want to weep; they also want to confess their deepest secrets, to expose all the pain and rage bound up with their true selves. Sethe thinks of how he "cradled her before the cooking stove" and is deeply comforted by "the mind of him that knew her own."
Paul D has the power to satisfy the craving that fuels the novel, the craving to be "known," to have one's existence sanctioned by the empathic recognition of the other. That Morrison bestows this quality on an African-American male character is an interesting, and unusual, point. A common criticism of black women novelists is that their portrayals of black males are often flat, stereotypic, or unempathic. For Morrison, the maternal nurturing quality is a form of love that is not restricted by gender; this view expands the possibilities, and is a liberating factor, for her characters. Yet Paul D, too, is not a totally reliable other: he temporarily retreats after learning of Sethe's murder of her child. Like all of the other black characters in the novel, he must work out of a condition of psychic fragmentation—his selfhood has been severely impaired, his status as a human subject denied by the slave culture. He feels that even the old rooster Mister was allowed an essential integrity of being denied him: "Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But 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."
Only Denver does not see Paul D as the other women do; for her he does not play the same nurturing role. She sees him only as a threat, as an intruder into her intense, and deeply ambivalent, relationship with her mother. Denver is terrified of Sethe's murderous love: she has "monstrous and unmanageable dreams about Sethe" and is afraid to fall asleep while Sethe braids her hair at night. In her fantasies, "She cut my head off every night." For Denver, the idealized, saving other is her father Halle, whom she calls "Angel Man." Yet the father is significantly incapable of playing the savior role. The "other"—whether represented by mother or father—is always untrustworthy in Morrison's world, rendered thus by the social environment. As a result, the self remains trapped within its own destructive narcissism.
Sethe regards Halle as the ultimate betrayer: he witnessed her rape, she learns, but did not protest or try to protect her. His absent presence is worse than mere absence, for it confirms an essential hollowness and undependability of the other and of love. Yet Halle is not simply a "bad guy"; again, Morrison extends her compassion equally to her male characters. The reader is allowed to see Halle too as a deeply wounded child. Traumatized by the rape of Sethe and the maternal violation that it also represents, Halle literally loses his mind—his selfhood shatters. Paul D observes him later squatting by a churn, with "butter all over his face." He smeared that butter on his face, Sethe thinks, "because the milk they took is on his mind." The image of Halle here recalls Beloved and the image at the psychological base of the book: it is the picture of a lost, greedy child whose ravenous hunger/love is out of control.
Ultimately Denver is able to escape the narcissistic vacuum, and she is helped not, as she had fantasized, by Halle, but by another maternal figure in the novel, Mrs. Jones. Denver is first propelled out of the house by literal hunger, for Sethe, locked in her obsession with Beloved, has become oblivious to food and to all external or physical considerations. Denver realizes that "it was she who had to step off the edge of the world and die because if she didn't, they all would." Excluded from the Beloved-Sethe dyad, Denver is forced into the role of the outside other, and assuming that role is her salvation. She goes first to her former teacher Lady Jones, an old woman of mixed race who has long struggled with the contempt of the black community and, equally, with self-contempt. Lady Jones thus has a special "affection for the unpicked children," an empathy with those, like Denver, who have never been recognized or "picked," who have never had their existence validated or confirmed. After Denver asks her for food, Mrs. Jones compassionately croons, "Oh, baby," and that empathic recognition of the hungry baby within finally frees Denver from the trap of her infantile needs: "Denver looked up at her. She did not know it then, but it was the word 'baby,' said softly and with such kindness, that inaugurated her life in the world as a woman."
With this recognition, Denver for the first time begins to experience the contours of her own separate self. When Nelson Lord, an old school acquaintance, affectionately says, "Take care of yourself, Denver," Denver "heard it as though it were what language was made for," and she realizes that "It was a new thought, having a self to look out for and preserve." Self-recognition is inextricably tied up with self-love, and this is precisely the message of the sermons that Baby Suggs preaches to her people in the Clearing. In a white society that does not recognize or love you, she tells them, you must fight to recognize and love yourself:
"Here," she said, "in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes; they'd just as soon pick em out…. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face 'cause they don't love that either. You got to love it, you!"
Baby Suggs continues to enjoin her people to love every appendage, every organ in their bodies, and especially to "love your heart." This is the crucial lesson, but it cannot be learned in isolation; self-love needs a relational foundation and a social context. Thus even Baby Suggs is unable to sustain her convictions and heed her own teachings. After Sethe's murder, Baby Suggs retreats and ceases to care about herself or others, showing interest in nothing except "colors."
Morrison's novel, however, is not hopelessly bleak or despairing. Her characters are wounded, but not all of them are ruined. Denver and Paul D, by courageously facing their inner terrors—Denver leaves the house even though she expects to be "swallowed up," and Paul D returns to Sethe and her fearful, murderous love—are able to salvage out of the wreckage a bolstering faith in both self and other. Paul D tries to pass this faith on to Sethe at the end. He assumes again a maternal, nurturing role. He holds Sethe, calls her "baby," and gently tells her not to cry. Beloved is gone and Sethe feels bereft and lost: "She was my best thing," she tells Paul D. He "leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. 'You your best thing, Sethe. You are.' His holding fingers are holding hers." While the word "thing" still suggests a sense of self as object (an objectification of self that perhaps no black person in the slave culture could ever totally escape), the scene between Sethe and Paul D at the end comes closest to that state of mutual recognition and attunement that Benjamin describes. Paul D's gently touching Sethe's face recalls the touching faces of the mating turtles; the relationship here is not one of merging or of domination but of resonating "likeness" and empathic understanding. Paul D recalls Sixo's description of his mistress, the "Thirty-Mile Woman": "She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind." The beloved other has the power to give to the self its own essential wholeness. The role of the other here is neither as an object to possess nor even as a mirror for the self; as a "friend of [the] mind," the other is a subject in its own right, with an inner life that corresponds with that of the self. In such correspondence, in that mutuality of inner experience and suffering, lies the self-confirming and consoling power of the relationship.
Paul D tells Sethe in this final scene that "He wants to put his story next to hers." Throughout the novel, stories and storytelling are associated with the self and with the primary oral relationship at its root. Beloved is tireless in her demand, in "her thirst for hearing" Sethe's stories: "It became a way to feed her … Sethe learned the profound satisfaction Beloved got from storytelling." Denver too feeds Beloved's craving for stories about Sethe, "nursing Beloved's interest like a lover whose pleasure was to overfeed the loved." Denver's storytelling, because of the empathic identification it involves, also allows her to feel a closer bond and oneness with her mother. As she narrates the tale of Sethe's escape to Beloved, "Denver was seeing it now and feeling it—through Beloved. Feeling how it must have felt to her mother." Paul D does not want to merge or incorporate Sethe's story into his own at the end; rather, he wants to "put his story next to hers." This suggests again an essential maintenance of boundaries, a balance of two like but separate selves, an attunement.
The novel does not end, however, with the scene between Sethe and Paul D, but with one last lyrical section on Beloved. The refrain of the last two pages is the line, repeated three times: "It was not a story to pass on." The final section arouses a deep sense of pathos for that unrecognized, ravenously needy infant-self that is Beloved:
Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don't know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.
It was not a story to pass on.
The poignancy of Beloved's story/self is that it is not a story/self. She has been denied the narrative of her being, the subjectivity and continuity of inner experience that should be everyone's birthright. Beloved's desolation, her sorrow, is a more extreme version of the same sorrow that all of the black characters in the novel experience. Thus Baby Suggs, finally freed from slavery, expresses not the elation of freedom but the deep sadness of not knowing her self, of not being able to read her own story: "The sadness was at her center, the desolated center where the self that was no self made its home. Sad as it was that she did not know where her children were buried or what they looked like if alive, fact was she knew more about them than she knew about herself, having never had the map to discover what she was like." In the end, the novel is more about Beloved than Sethe. Beloved's character is both the frame and center of the book, and it is her story—or her desperate struggle to know and experience her own story—that is the pumping heart of the novel. Beloved's struggle is Sethe's struggle; it is also Denver's, Paul D's, and Baby Suggs's. It is the struggle of all black people in a racist society, Morrison suggests, to claim themselves as subjects in their own narrative.
Beloved demonstrates, finally, the interconnection of social and intrapsychic reality. The novel plays out the deep psychic reverberations of living in a culture in which domination and objectification of the self have been institutionalized. If from the earliest years on, one's fundamental need to be recognized and affirmed as a human subject is denied, that need can take on fantastic and destructive proportions in the inner world: the intense hunger, the fantasized fear of either being swallowed or exploding, can tyrannize one's life even when one is freed from the external bonds of oppression. The self cannot experience freedom without first experiencing its own agency or, in Sethe's words, "claiming ownership" of itself. The free, autonomous self, Beloved teaches, is an inherently social self, rooted in relationship and dependent at its core on the vital bond of mutual recognition.