Toni Morrison Morrison, Toni (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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...

(The entire section is 52,704 words.)