Toni Morrison

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(Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford) American novelist, essayist, playwright, critic, author of children's books, and editor.

In 1993, Morrison became the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her fiction was noted for its "epic power" and "unerring ear for dialogue and richly expressive depictions of black America" by the Swedish Academy, while exploring the difficulties of maintaining a sense of black cultural identity in a white world. Especially through her female protagonists, her works consider the debilitating effects of racism and sexism and incorporate elements of supernatural lore and mythology. Many of Morrison's novels—particularly The Bluest Eye (1970) and Beloved (1987)—have become firmly established within the American literary canon, while simultaneously working to redefine and expand it.


Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, to Ramah Willis and George Wofford. She was the second of four children. Her father was originally from Georgia, and her mother's parents had moved to Lorain after losing their land in Alabama and working briefly in Kentucky. Morrison's father worked in a variety of trades, often holding more than one job at a time in order to support his family. To send money to Morrison during her school years, her mother also took a series of hard, often demeaning positions. Music and storytelling—including tales of the supernatural—were a valued part of family life, and children as well as adults were expected to participate. Morrison became an avid reader at a young age, consuming a wide range of literature, including Russian, French, and English novels. Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953. She went on to earn a master's degree in English from Cornell University in 1955, and spent two years teaching at Texas Southern University in Houston. From 1957 to 1964 she served as an instructor at Howard. In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, with whom she had two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. The marriage ended in divorce in 1964, and Morrison and her children returned briefly to her parents' home in Ohio. During this period she began to write, producing the story that would eventually become her first novel, The Bluest Eye. In 1966 she moved to Syracuse, New York, and took a job as an editor for a textbook subsidiary of Random House. She relocated again in 1968, this time to New York City, where she continued editing for Random House. She oversaw the publication of works by prominent black fiction writers such as Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, as well as the autobiographies of influen-tial African Americans, including Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali. In 1987, Morrison left Random House to return to teaching and to concentrate on her writing. She has taught at numerous colleges and universities, among them the State University of New York, Bard College, Yale University, Harvard University, and Trinity College, Cambridge. Morrison currently serves on the faculty at Princeton University.


Although critics have noted certain Gothic elements in her first novel, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon (1977) was Morrison's first novel to explicitly incorporate mythical and supernatural elements into the narrative as a way for characters to transcend their everyday lives. The novel juxtaposes the pressures experienced by black families that feel forced to assimilate into mainstream culture with their unwillingness to abandon a distinctive African American heritage. Tar Baby , published in 1981 and set in the Caribbean, again uses myth and ghostly presences to mitigate the harshness of lives in which all relationships are adversarial—particularly in cultures where blacks are...

(This entire section contains 887 words.)

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opposed to whites and women are opposed to men. In 1987 Morrison publishedBeloved, a novel based on the true story of a slave who murdered her child to spare the child from a life of slavery; the book won the Pulitzer Prize. In her exploration of slavery in Beloved, Morrison deals with her recurrent theme of family. The characters are deprived of all aspects of ancestry—mates, children, forebears and the sense of selfhood and dignity that they hold, and, most importantly, the ability to love. Also of central purpose to her theme is the importance of memory: the past is revealed in fragments, as if the characters' memories were too overwhelming to be presented at one time. The elements of the mythical and supernatural that have marked all of Morrison's works are prominent in Beloved, particularly in her characterization of the title character.


According to critics, architecture figures heavily into Morrison's portrayal of the Gothic. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, featured an American South version of the trademark Gothic castle in the form of the central character's home, a cavernous, run-down, one-room storefront. Song of Solomon, although set in urban Detroit, features a decaying mansion populated by a mournful old woman. The house in Beloved, known only by its address (in contrast to the plantation house "Sweet Home," which also appears in the novel), stands isolated and becomes haunted by a family's painful memories. Critics have also discussed at length Morrison's use of ghosts, often representing tragic histories or giving voice to the silenced. Katherine Piller Beutel likens these ghosts to the mythological figure Echo, a distinctly female voice. Critics have also underscored the psychological, and perhaps political, necessity of Morrison's ghosts, who speak of traumatic events that do not necessarily fit into a conventional historical narrative.

Principal Works

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The Bluest Eye (novel) 1970Sula (novel) 1973The Black Book [editor] (nonfiction) 1974Song of Solomon (novel) 1977Tar Baby (novel) 1981Dreaming Emmett (play) 1986Beloved (novel) 1987Jazz (novel) 1992Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (criticism) 1992Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality [editor and author of introduction] (essays) 1992Lecture and Speech of Acceptance upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature (speech) 1994The Dancing Mind: Speech Upon Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (speech) 1996Paradise (novel) 1998The Big Box [with Slade Morrison] (juvenilia) 1999I See You, I See Myself: The Young Life of Jacob Lawrence [with Deba Foxley Leach, Suzanne Wright, and Deborah J. Leach] (juvenilia) 2001The Book of Mean People [with Slade Morrison] (juvenilia) 2002Love (novel) 2003Who's Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper? [with Slade Morrison] (juvenilia) 2003

Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Morrison, Toni. “Foreword.” In Beloved. 1987. Reprint edition, pp. xv-xix. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

In the following essay, her foreword to Beloved, first published in 1987, Morrison recounts the personal experiences that inspired her to write Beloved, and provides insight into the essence of the “haunted house” in the novel and the characters that inhabit it.

In 1983 I lost my job—or left it. One, the other, or both. In any case, I had been part-time for a while, coming into the publishing house one day a week to do the correspondence-telephoning-meetings that were part of the job; editing manuscripts at home.

Leaving was a good idea for two reasons. One, I had written four novels and it seemed clear to everyone that writing was my central work. The question of priorities—how can you edit and write at the same time—seemed to me both queer and predictable; it sounded like “How can you both teach and create?” “How can a painter or a sculptor or an actor do her work and guide others?” But to many this edit-write combination was conflicting.

The second reason was less ambiguous. The books I had edited were not earning scads of money, even when “scads” didn’t mean what it means now. My list was to me spectacular: writers with outrageous talent (Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Gayle Jones, Lucille Clifton, Henry Dumas, Leon Forrest); scholars with original ideas and hands-on research (William Hinton’s Shen Fan, Ivan Van Sertima’s They Came Before Columbus, Karen DeCrow’s Sexist Justice, Chinweizu’s The West and the Rest of Us); public figures eager to set the record straight (Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Huey Newton). And when there was a book that I thought needed doing, I found an author to write it. My enthusiasm, shared by some, was muted by others, reflecting the indifferent sales figures. I may be wrong about this, but even in the late seventies, acquiring authors who were certain sellers outranked editing manuscripts or supporting emerging or aging authors through their careers. Suffice it to say, I convinced myself that it was time for me to live like a grown-up writer: off royalties and writing only. I don’t know what comic book that notion came from, but I grabbed it.

A few days after my last day at work, sitting in front of my house on the pier jutting out into the Hudson River, I began to feel an edginess instead of the calm I had expected. I ran through my index of problem areas and found nothing new or pressing. I couldn’t fathom what was so unexpectedly troubling on a day that perfect, watching a river that serene. I had no agenda and couldn’t hear the telephone if it rang. I heard my heart, though, stomping away in my chest like a colt. I went back to the house to examine this apprehension, even panic. I knew what fear felt like; this was different. Then it slapped me: I was happy, free in a way I had never been, ever. It was the oddest sensation. Not ecstasy, not satisfaction, not a surfeit of pleasure or accomplishment. It was a purer delight, a rogue anticipation with certainty. Enter Beloved.

I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what “free” could possibly mean to women. In the eighties, the debate was still roiling: equal pay, equal treatment, access to professions, schools… and choice without stigma. To marry or not. To have children or not. Inevitably these thoughts led me to the different history of black women in this country—a history in which marriage was discouraged, impossible, or illegal; in which birthing children was required, but “having” them, being responsible for them— being, in other words, their parent—was as out of the question as freedom. Assertions of parenthood under conditions peculiar to the logic of institutional enslavement were criminal.

The idea was riveting, but the canvas overwhelmed me. Summoning characters who could manifest the intellect and the ferocity such logic would provoke proved beyond my imagination until I remembered one of the books I had published back when I had a job. A newspaper clipping in The Black Book summarized the story of Margaret Garner, a young mother who, having escaped slavery, was arrested for killing one of her children (and trying to kill the others) rather than let them be returned to the owner’s plantation. She became a cause célèbre in the fight against the Fugitive Slave laws, which mandated the return of escapees to their owners. Her sanity and lack of repentance caught the attention of Abolitionists as well as newspapers. She was certainly single-minded and, judging by her comments, she had the intellect, the ferocity, and the willingness to risk everything for what was to her the necessity of freedom.

The historical Margaret Garner is fascinating, but, to a novelist, confining. Too little imaginative space there for my purposes. So I would invent her thoughts, plumb them for a subtext that was historically true in essence, but not strictly factual in order to relate her history to contemporary issues about freedom, responsibility, and women’s “place.” The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom. The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellant landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts.

I sat on the porch, rocking in a swing, looking at giant stones piled up to take the river’s occasional fist. Above the stones is a path through the lawn, but interrupted by an ironwood gazebo situated under a cluster of trees and in deep shade.

She walked out of the water, climbed the rocks, and leaned against the gazebo. Nice hat.

So she was there from the beginning, and except for me, everybody (the characters) knew it—a sentence that later became “The women in the house knew it.” The figure most central to the story would have to be her, the murdered, not the murderer, the one who lost everything and had no say in any of it. She could not linger outside; she would have to enter the house. A real house, not a cabin. One with an address, one where former slaves lived on their own. There would be no lobby into this house, and there would be no “introduction” into it or into the novel. I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.

It was important to name this house, but not the way “Sweet Home” or other plantations were named. There would be no adjectives suggesting coziness or grandeur or the laying claim to an instant, aristocratic past. Only numbers here to identify the house while simultaneously separating it from a street or city—marking its difference from the houses of other blacks in the neighborhood; allowing it a hint of the superiority, the pride, former slaves would take in having an address of their own. Yet a house that has, literally, a personality—which we call “haunted” when that personality is blatant.

In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things being both under control and out of control would be persuasive throughout; that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way.

I husband that moment on the pier, the deceptive river, the instant awareness of possibility, the loud heart kicking, the solitude, the danger. And the girl with the nice hat. Then the focus.

General Commentary

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SOURCE: Beutel, Katherine Piller. "Gothic Repetitions: Toni Morrison's Changing Use of Echo." West Virginia University Philological Papers 42-43 (1997–98): 82-7.

In the following essay, Beutel maintains that Morrison adapts the ancient myth of Echo to produce Gothic effects with ghostly characters in her works.

In responding to an interviewer's observation about her novels, Toni Morrison once claimed, "I am very happy to hear that my books haunt."1 If her works are in fact haunting for most readers, in their disturbing and unforgettable characters and events, they also include haunting of a more ghostly sort. Ghosts, such as the horsemen of Tar Baby or the title character of Beloved, not only exist in her fictional world; they are also often as real, memorable, and central to the stories as "living" characters. They continue to feel pain and desire, for instance, and allow Morrison a means of "giving the dead voice, in remembering the forgotten."2 The effect of these ghosts and of Morrison's ghostly themes is the effect of gothic literature—it is disquieting, unsettling, even subversive.

Morrison has never been afraid to allow the supernatural to slip into her fiction; even her 1977 novel Song of Solomon, while set in urban Detroit, includes many traditional gothic features, such as the decaying mansion occupied by the unnaturally aged Circe (described as a witch from the main character Milkman Dead's childhood), or the ghost of Milkman's grandfather, who appears regularly to mourn his wife to their daughter, Milkman's aunt Pilate, or even Milkman's search through the wilderness and dark of night for self, family, and home. Although the witchlike Circe and the ghost of Macon Dead bring the past into the lives of the characters, it is another haunting, which Milkman and reader encounter later in the story, that is one of the novel's most disturbing gothic elements. As Milkman joins the hunt in the woods near Shalimar, Virginia, he hears a sound like a woman crying. He learns the sound is an echo from Ryna's Gulch, according to local lore, the continuing sound of the mourning of his great-grandmother for the husband, Solomon, who left her to fly back to Africa. The central song we have been hearing throughout the novel, sung by Pilate and the children of Shalimar, the one that reveals Milkman's past to him, is thus Ryna's song: "Oh Solomon don't leave me here."3 Ryna, who lives still as an echo in the woods, is echoed even beyond that in the song.

Although Morrison deals directly with an "Echo" only late in the story, it is central to the novel as a whole and acquires even wider significance when considered in light of the mythological figure of Echo.4 The echo in Song of Solomon is the voice of female pain and longing, issuing from a rocky place, insuppressible, and thus a continuing reminder of Ryna's unfulfilled desire for the absent male. Echo's story in myth is also one of a female voice not silenced even by the death of the body. In Ovid's famous version of the tale, Echo, already condemned only to repeat the ends of others' speech, is spurned by Narcissus and pines away, becoming only a voice from woodland caves, repeating the mourning of Narcissus for himself.5 In other versions of the myth, such as that related in a third-century romance by Longus, Echo survives as music, after being torn limb from limb by shepherds at Pan's instigation.6 Thus the echoing singing in this novel also has roots in Echo's story.

As a disembodied voice (from beyond the grave in a sense) Echo fits well in a gothic setting.7 Echoing, disembodied voices breaking out of forces (such as death) that ought to suppress them are reminders of an irrational "other side." They evoke creepy feelings of what Freud calls the "uncanny," that which "arouses dread and horror."8 The decentering effect of voices without visible presence echoes classic gothic's subversive tendencies, putting rational notions of presence and absence or life and death into question. Thus the myth of Echo considered in light of a work's gothic inclinations can provide insights about the implications for gender and narrative of these disturbing bodiless and persistant voices.

As a distinctly female voice, Echo is like Morrison's Ryna, speaking the pain of what Morrison calls a "graveyard love" (128), a self-destructive overly strong love, in this novel experienced by so many of the female characters for men who only leave them. In addition to Ryna, there is Hagar, Pilate's granddaughter, who is spurned by Milkman and dies after being left behind, in a parallel to Ryna and Solomon that even Milkman himself finally recognizes (332). The triumph of the novel is in fact this growth of a narcissistic male; Milkman is raised never to think beyond himself, and through a journey of discovery learns to lose the "cocoon" of self (277) and feel real love and concern for others. But this growth of Narcissus comes at the expense of Echo. As Ryna is sacrificed in Solomon's flight, Hagar is sacrificed for Milkman's growth and final "flight." Her voice may not live on in the same way Ryna's does, but even on her deathbed it is insuppressible; Pilate and Reba continually try to "Hush" her, yet she speaks of Milkman's rejection (315-16). At her funeral, Pilate and Reba sing an echoing refrain of "Mercy. Mercy. Mercy," and Pilate repeats the last line of a song, "My baby girl," again and again (317-19). The echoing of Milkman's voice then on the novel's final pages, as he yells across the valley to Guitar (described as the voice of the hills and rocks 337) emphasizes once again that Echo remains in song or repeated voice, while Solomon or Milkman leaps.

Morrison has maintained that the novel contains both strong and weak women, as does real life (McKay 145), but the role of Echo in this novel emphasizes a disturbing kind of feminine voice, a repetitive one that remains unfulfilled without the absent and longed-for male. If the Echo of myth is doomed to repeat, the recurring echoes of this text, the women doomed to love too much and their grieving voices, stress what seems to be inevitable repetition of a painful and victimized female role. Morrison does give us Pilate, a strong woman with a strong voice, who seems relatively in control of her destiny, but in general the haunting voices of this text emphasize pain and separation. Even Pilate echoes herself upon losing the object of her love, her granddaughter Hagar.

Echo's story (in its many variations), however, provides material for many different views of limitations upon and powers of feminine voice. In other novels, Morrison seems again drawn to Echo's story—to the pain but also the possibilities of this voice, deprived of body, repetitive, unfulfilled, but also strong and insuppressible and potentially productive and revisionary. Morrison shows haunting echoes in Beloved, for instance, as capable of bringing a healing, since they provide the opportunity for connection. Instead of the emphasis on separation we see in Song of Solomon, Morrison stresses the power of echo to connect past with present and individual with individual. And in her most recent novel, Jazz, Morrison confronts the notion of inevitable repetition by stressing the possibility of revision.

Beloved is Morrison's most explicitly Gothic novel, dominated by a haunted house, a haunted family and community even, and the flesh-and-blood ghost of Beloved herself. Some of this haunting is manifested again in echo—in the disembodied voices that float around the house at 124 Bluestone Road. This "conflagration"9 of voices that Stamp Paid can hear from the road in the novel's second part consists of echoes of voices once suppressed, voices without body, floating around the gothic, cavelike house. Stamp identifies them as the "mumbling of the black and angry dead" (198), the indecipherable words of "the people of the broken necks, of fire cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons" (181).

The voices from the house and even the voice that issues from the character Beloved—but seems at some points to encompass a collective memory of slave-ship experience—are echoes of the dead, illustrating the power of voice, especially feminine voice, to transcend body and time. The connection they provide between past and present allows the possibility for a beginning of healing, since the novel makes clear that the past cannot simply be shoved down and forgotten without disastrous results.

The healing connection provided by echo in this novel is not only between past and present but also among characters. The poetic sections of the novel's second part that give us the "unspeakable" (199) thoughts of Sethe and her daughters Denver and Beloved create a sort of merging among the three women since their voices become jumbled, echoing each other, losing much of their individuality. The chorus-like, poetic blending of the three voices that ends with the echoing refrain "You are mine, You are mine, You are mine" (215-17) sounds much like Pilate's refrain at Hagar's funeral in the earlier novel, but here in addition to the pain and love expressed there is also a merging of characters accomplished through echoes that cloud boundaries between them. The merging is both dangerous (Sethe nearly does not survive it) and necessary as a step in overcoming the pain of separation. Echo in the Narcissus myth is unable to accomplish the desired merging with her beloved, but the women locked in the house do seem to achieve a connection, expressed through their blending voices, although it proves dangerous in the end.

Echoes that lead to community, a less over-whelming kind of connection, are ultimately the source of survival and salvation in Beloved. Denver, for instance, lives an isolated life dominated by silence (she is even deaf for two years), but an echo of her dead grandmother's voice speaks clearly to her, urging her to "go on out the yard" (244). When Denver does leave the yard to enter the community, she finds acceptance, work, and a future.

Echoing women's voices also come to Sethe's rescue. As the community women gather to exorcise Beloved from their midst, they are described as "Building voice upon voice" to get to "the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words" (261). The echoing among these women, the "Yes, yes, yes, oh yes. Hear me. Hear me. Do it, Maker, do it" (258) does drive Beloved from the house, opening the possibility for Sethe's survival.

The narrator's final echoing refrain, that this is "not a story to pass on" (274-75) shows some discomfort with the role of repetitive telling, but ultimately the gothic vision of the novel shows that echoes present powerful and necessary challenges to rationalist notions that would separate past from present or parent from child or one person's "story" from another's. The echoes of the angry dead that float around the haunted house and the echoes of the sixty million housed in Beloved's voice show the past that encroaches even when we do our best to forget it. But the echoes among characters, those that show a blending and merging of voice, show the inter-relatedness of people, the fragility of independent identity, and the power of connection.

Set mainly in the vibrant city in the 1920s, Jazz seems on the surface much less gothic than Beloved or even Song of Solomon, but it too has hauntings, many of which are tied to Joe and Violet Trace's rural Southern past. Even the city is haunted, however, by "clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women."10 Joe has a "spooky love" (3) for Dorcas, like the dangerous loves of Song of Solomon's Ryna and Hagar, and Violet attacks a corpse, proving, as Morrison's narrator tells us, that "underneath the good times and the easy money something evil ran the streets and nothing was safe—not even the dead" (9). Echoes that haunt in this novel, however, are more like Longus's Echo than Ovid's, music rather than disembodied voice per se.11 "A colored man floats down out of the sky" in the song of his saxophone, for instance (8); Dorcas even hears a woman singing as she dies from Joe's gunshot (193). And in Joe's past in Virginia, he has listened to "the music the world makes, familiar to fishermen and shepherds, [and] woodsmen" (176). In this music, concentrated around a rock formation, Joe also hears a "word or two," a "scrap of a song" (177) mixed in and knows it comes from the cave where his presumed mother, a woman dubbed Wild, lives. Joe only has heard this woman from the rocks; to him she really is "powerless, invisible, wastefully daft. Everywhere and nowhere" (179), like a mythological Echo. Wild has apparently even lived with the character who most resembles Narcissus—Golden Gray, with his flowing golden hair and meticulously cared-for clothes. Joe's fruitless search for her, like Pan's "hot chase" of Echo's voice in Longus's story (127), can only be repeated, three times in Virginia and once again when the "object" of the search is actually Dorcas.

There is much repetition in the novel, but in Morrison's narrative technique we can see a clear development in her use of Echo. The self-conscious primary narrator is a personal, yet unnamed disembodied voice trying to copy the city and "speak its loud voice" (220). In its inability to do so, however, it opens up the possibility of revision—a possibility inherent in Echo's story but more fully realized in Jazz than in Morrison's previous novels. If Milkman and Hagar repeat the cycle of Solomon and Ryna in Song of Solomon, Jazz finally subverts the expected repetition, is subverted in the end when Joe, Violet, and Felice do not repeat the ending of the previous triangle.

While it might seem that Echo is stripped of the power to communicate, since she is "never around to speak first, never found not to reply" (Ovid 57), even in Ovid's tale, Echo's is a voice that can challenge authority by appearing to repeat while actually altering meaning. Echo does so by truncating sounds, turning Narcissus's "I'd die before I give myself to you," for instance, into the self-sacrificing "I give myself to you."12 The narrator in Jazz sets up expectations of repetition by telling the whole story on the novel's first few pages and then implying that when Joe and Violet meet up with Dorcas's friend Felice, the only change will be in "who shot whom" (6). We expect to hear Joe, Violet, and Dorcas's story in more detail in the course of the novel, as we do, and we also expect a repeat in the second love triangle. But as the narrator admits, she was mistaken in thinking "That the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack" (220). Unlike Violet's parrot, who can only repeat "I love you" even when pushed out of the apartment window—an image reminiscent of Echo's unrequited love—Joe and Violet can find a healthy love for each other again, surviving the threatened tragic ending to the second triangle. The narrator cannot fully echo the voice of the city; it has an independence impossible to repeat. But the narrator can create with what the city provides, taking an active role of revision and reshaping, rather than a passive one of simple repetition of pain. If the narrator is Echo, her relationship with this novel's Narcissus, Golden Gray, shows significant change, as she realizes that:

Not hating him is not enough; liking, loving him is not useful. I have to alter things. I have to be a shadow wishing him well, like the smiles of the dead left over from their lives.


As the narrator then pictures him gaining a "confident, enabling, serene power" from inside a well he stands next to, "a well dug quite clear from trees so twigs and leaves will not fall into the deep water" (161), it becomes obvious there is little mourning or painful desire on Echo's part, but rather a voice above and in control, making changes where necessary. Echo has grown stronger.

In a genre such as the gothic, that gives us "glimpses of the skeletons of dead desires,"13 Echo's hauntings are especially effective. In overcoming silencing and speaking her desire, Echo is a figure standing for the voice gothic has historically provided its women writers and readers. But if that voice is only pain and desire, endlessly repeated, it gives a disturbing comment on feminine voice. Morrison's use of Echo in Song of Solomon does highlight the limitations dominating female voice in the myth, but in returning to echoes in later novels, Morrison plays more with the possibilities and powers of this disembodied, repeating feminine voice. And for a woman storyteller, a repeater of tales, this suggests an ever-growing confidence in the role of breaking silence.


1. Nellie Mcay, "An Interview with Toni Morrison," Conversations with Toni Morrison, ed. Danielle Taylor-Guthrie (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994) 146.

2. Ashraf H.A. Rushdy, "Daughters Signifyin(g) History: The Example of Toni Morrison's Beloved," AL 64.3 (1992): 567-97. The function of Beloved as a ghost is central to most critical discussion of that novel. See, for instance, Deborah Horvitz, "Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved," SAF 17:157-67 and David Lawrence, "Fleshly Ghosts and Ghostly Flesh: The Word and the Body in Beloved," SAF 19:189-201. Critics have not, however, traced Morrison's recurring use of gothic elements in all of her fiction, focusing more on the grotesque than an overall gothic effect. This article looks at this gothic effect in three of Morrison's novels, especially through the device of disembodied and repetitive voice.

3. Song of Solomon (New York: Knopf, 1977) 301-03.

4. Studies of myth in Song of Solomon, for example, Cynthia Davis's "Self, Society and Myth in Toni Morrison's Fiction," ConL 23 (1982): 323-42, have made little mention of the Echo story, although most critics note the narcissism of the main character. No one has yet traced Morrison's developing uses of the Echo myth.

5. The Metamorphoses, trans. Charles Boer (Dallas: Spring, 1989) 58.

6. The Story of Daphnis and Chloe, ed. and trans. W. D. Lowe (Cambridge: Deighton Bell, 1908) 127.

7. For discussions of Echo related to writing and reading see, for instance, John Brenkman, "Narcissus in the Text," GaR 30 (1976): 293-327, John Hollander, The Figure of Echo (Berkeley: U of California P, 1981), and Susan C. Fishman, "Even as We Speak: Woman's Voice and the Myth of Echo," Sexuality, the Female Gaze, and the Arts (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 1992).

8. "The Uncanny," On Creativity and the Unconscious (New York: Harper, 1958) 122.

9. Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987) 172.

10. (New York: Knopf, 1992) 7.

11. The novel's title itself makes the emphasis on music. For discussions of Morrison's "jazzy" narrative style, see Eusebio Rodrigues, "Experiencing Jazz," MFS 39 (1993): 733-53 and Alan J. Rice, "Jazzing It Up a Storm: The Execution and Meaning of Toni Morrison's Jazzy Prose Style," J Am S 28 (1994): 423-32.

12. Hollander discusses the tradition of Echo poetry that plays upon this power of communication in significantly truncated repetition (see esp. ch.III).

13. David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day (New York: Longman, 1980) 409-10.

Title Commentary

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SOURCE: Weissberg, Liliane. "Gothic Spaces: The Political Aspects of Toni Morrison's Beloved." In Modern Gothic: A Reader, edited and with an introduction by Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, pp. 104-20. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

In the following essay, Weissberg traces Morrison's utilization of the Gothic house as a structure of confinement in Beloved.

There is a blue house that sits on this river between two bridges. One is the George Washington that my bus has just crossed from the Manhattan side, and the other is the Tappan Zee that it's heading toward. My destination is that blue house, my objective is to tape a dialogue between myself and another black American writer, and I stepped on this bus seven years ago when I opened a slim volume entitled The Bluest Eye. Where does the first line of any novel—like any journey—actually begin?

       Gloria Naylor, 'A Conversation [with Toni Morrison]'


'Gothic' has its origin as an architectural term, applied to medieval buildings marked by pointed arches and vaults. Its first use dates to the early eighteenth century, when John Evelyn censored medieval buildings in favour of classical structures, those that 'were demolished by the Goths or Vandals, who introduced their own licentious style now called modern or Gothic'.1 Modernity, thus invented with a backward glance, is defined as an architectural landscape built upon destruction, a vandalism against proper morals, taste, and the achievements of civilisation.

This invention of modernity as medieval destruction takes place at the time of the rise of the bourgeoisie. Housing structures changed. The term 'modern' was to accommodate concepts that excluded medieval vaults and arches, and which, indeed, relegated those features to a realm of exotic splendour. The word 'comfort', for example, was first applied to houses in the eighteenth century. The term shifted from the discourse of religious and legal studies to signify not simply satisfaction, but also to expand on the notion of convenience.2 According to Witold Rybszynski, Walter Scott, a historicist dreamer of medieval times, was one of the first novelists to use the word in its newly acquired sense: 'Let it freeze without,' he wrote, 'we are comfortable within' (20). 'There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort', Jane Austen would soon write in Emma, as Rybszynski points out (101).

While Gothic architecture seemed to strive for an assimilation of the grandeur and vastness of nature and spirit, the bourgeois home, as invented in the eighteenth century, drew a clear line between the inside and the outside. Inside, one was able to find not only shelter but also thermal content; the inside provided protection against outside spaces filled with potentially hostile forces. In contrast to the bourgeois house, a medieval one offered fewer rooms; rooms were not yet designated for specific functions. The limited space did not acknowledge individual needs, and furniture was largely temporar y. For the eighteenth-century bourgeois, the coldness and the emptiness of medieval spaces could signify discomfort only. With the separation of work and living quarters, rooms that allowed for privacy, the eighteenth-century bourgeois was, as an individual, able to construct an alternative life—the comfort of the 'inside'.

It was during the time of the redefinition of bourgeois private space that the medieval castle was rediscovered as a stage set for Gothic literature. Unlike the sheltering bourgeois home, but also unlike classical, symmetrical architecture, it does not represent the owner's control over its space. But the medieval castle clearly represents another class of owners as well. Compared to the bourgeois house, its aristocratic inhabitant was disowned of his authority over its structure even before a political movement would stress the difference in social positions, and the different avenues of the classes' development. In an aristocrat's house, the bourgeois owner would now suspect, anything could happen. Even ghosts could appear.

A Gothic building, as it survived in its representational form, and as it was represented in fiction, was simply unsuitable for the idea of home. Homes, however, were proper housing for the individuals of the eighteenth-century middle class. Not only comfort and privacy were promoted, but domesticity as well, which, in turn, became increasingly feminised. As work and living spaces separated, and work divided according to gender lines, the house became the woman's domain. 'Und drinnen waltet / Die züchtige Hausfrau', Friedrich Schiller was eager to explain what was already widely accepted as true.3 In the Gothic novels of the eighteenth century, however, this power over the inside space, the authority of walten, was not given to women. Women rather suffered as the victims and captives of their male and often foreign persecutors. Ironically, this may have been a more precise account of the female social position and struggle for rights at that time than Schiller's idealisation, as the house's comforts were also established by a devaluation of women's work. Compared to the money that buys comfort, comfort's maintenance is a secondary task. As Clara Reeves and Ann Radcliffe, but also as many male authors, knew, not just the novel, but precisely the Gothic novel became the fantasy space in which to explore women's roles and the feminine.4

The idea of modernity as related to bourgeois houses was not created by the backward glance, but by the idea of new acquisition and progress. Money, earned outside, bought comfort, and new objects contributed to the comfort and gave evidence of how a house could be put to the inhabitant's service. Privacy had to be protected, and the collection of objects, reified goods, provided such a protection as well. Instead of a person leaving the house, the world could symbolically enter. Because their presence itself would thus provide a usefulness of comfort, eighteenth-century collections encompassed objects of Gothic interiors as well, which, at the same time, seemed to have lost their meaning or sense of purpose in this context. The Gothic, once constructed, could be fragmented, imitated, fetishised. Indeed, Gothic elements were eclectically collected, and integrated into the new and more intimate space. The move to establish the uncanny was countered by the move to make it familiar in the bourgeois' own way: by economic appropriation.


The idea of the modern bourgeois home did not remain a European invention. It was imported to the American Colonies, and it has survived on either continent well into the twentieth century. A house as a home is, indeed, a recognisable commodity. It can be multiplied in the construction of neighborhood developments, or reduced to the outward simplicity of a child's drawing. In its deceptive simplicity, it can gain symbolic meaning and indicate the lifestyle of its dwellers. Introduced into a school primer, for example, a sketch of such a home would not only tell of the building's material and looks, but also of the individuals occupying it:

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane?5

This house, built for the nuclear family, tells of the regular income of its adult inhabitants, their sense of order, and their acceptance of an American way of life as a celebration of middle-class values. The description is also generic enough to be recognised by young readers as a reference to their own home. Housing is translated into a familiar concept that would help to overcome the strangeness of the letters, and promote the learning of a new skill. This primer's modern house is both a lesson in reading, and a confirmation of values.

For those whose house does not resemble this picture, it is a lesson in acculturation. The description of Dick and Jane's house serves as the beginning of Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye. Published in 1970, the novel turns to the 1940s to describe the life of Black families in the small town of Lorain, Ohio, struggling to come close to the bourgeois ideals that the primer promotes. These ideals, however, are defined by a society not only divided by class, but also by race. There is a jarring difference between the white-and-green house of the textbook, and the decaying storefront building on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in which the Breedlove family lives. There is a jarring difference, too, between the ideal of beauty promoted by Greta Garbo or Ginger Rogers, and the looks of the little black girls who are compared with them (10). Drinking milk from her Shirley Temple cup, young Pecola Breedlove dreams of having blue eyes. The movie screen, the Shirley Temple cup, and Dick and Jane's house turn in Morrison's novel into facades that cover the social inequity, and translate the notion of home into a bourgeois concept that is part of a racially determined aesthetics. If you cannot change your looks, why try to change your house? We are told that the Breedloves accept their house and social standing because they admit to their ugliness (28).

The inside of the Breedlove's storefront residence resonates with an almost medieval one-room lifestyle:

The plan of the living quarters was as unimaginative as a first-generation Greek landlord could contrive it to be. The large 'store' area was partitioned into two rooms by beaverboard planks that did not reach to the ceiling. There was a living room, which the family called the front room, and the bedroom, where all the living was done … In the center of the bedroom, for the even distribution of heat, stood a coal stove. Trunks, chairs, a small end table, and a cardboard 'wardrobe' closet were placed around the walls. The kitchen was in the back of this apartment, a separate room. There were no bath facilities. Only a toilet bowl, inaccessible to the eye, if not the ear, of the tenants.


Clearly, this house does not offer any possibility of privacy. The distinction between inside and outside is, however, important nevertheless: to rent, or even to own, a house designates stability and social standing. To own or care for property is, moreover, central to the bourgeois ideal. While the green-and-white house may never be within reach, burning down the house in which one lived, as Pecola's father, Cholly Breedlove, does, is not just arson, but a crime of larger proportions:

Outdoors, we knew, was the real terror of life. The threat of being outdoors surfaced frequently in those days. Every possibility of excess was curtailed with it. If somebody are too much, he could end up outdoors. If somebody used too much coal, he could end up outdoors. People could gamble themselves outdoors, drink themselves outdoors … To be put outdoors by a landlord was one thing—unfortunate, but an aspect of life over which you had no control, since you could not control your income. But to be slack enough to put oneself outdoors, or heartless enough to put one's own kin outdoors—that was criminal. There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors. If you are put out, you go somewhere else; if you are outdoors, there is no place to go. The distinction was subtle but final. Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition.


This transformation of a home by vandalism may have little to do with the modernity of the Gothic; the Breedlove's home is hardly a classical structure, nor is it replaced by a contemporary one. The ruin stands, confirming the difference between rich and poor, white and black, property owner and renter, and the act of drunken protest.

Only seemingly, race provides a dividing line that cuts through class distinctions. As the dominant model of beauty and the Breedlove's acceptance of their ugliness shows, the bourgeois ideals are defined for and by white people. Indeed, part of the Breedlove's tragedy is their acceptance of bourgeois values that leads to schizophrenia and self-annihilation. This is shown, quite poignantly, already in the comparison of houses.

Morrison's novel Beloved begins with the description of a house as well:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old—as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard).6

The house number, representing the building metonymically, acquires a life of its own. Each of the three sections of the novel begins, moreover, with a reference to 124 in which the house turns from being 'spiteful' to 'loud', and, finally, to 'quiet' (3, 169, 239). Morrison comments on the beginning of her novel as a conscious effort to start in medias res:

Snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another, without preparation and without defense. No lobby, no door, no entrance—a gangplank, perhaps (but a very short one). And the house into which this snatching—this kidnapping—propels one, changes from spiteful to loud to quiet, as the sounds in the body of the ship itself may have changed. A few words have to be read before it is clear that 124 refers to a house (in most of the early drafts 'The women in the house knew it' was simply 'The Women knew it'. House was not mentioned for seventeen lines, and a few more have to be read to discover why it is spiteful, or rather the source of the spite.7

The reader is made to arrive at the house much as the protagonists do for whom 124 is, however, a dwelling of choice. '124' as a number constitutes an address, and therefore a desired property. But it contrasts sharply with Dick and Jane's house in the primer, too, reducing the description of a home to a series of ciphers that cannot, from the outset, refer to any comfort and intimacy. Preoccupied with the house's actions, the reader is not directed towards its looks. The 'posture of coziness' is,8 indeed, suggested by another building's name in this novel, that of the Southern plantation 'Sweet Home'. The Garner family, owners of 'Sweet Home', insist that the members of their plantation live and work in a harmonious family setting, and that their slaves are treated as paid labourers. Indeed, the sweetness of their home seems to become their inhabitants' attributes: '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' (26).

Sethe came to 'Sweet Home' as a young girl and she is the only female slave on the plantation. At 'Sweet Home', Sethe 'marries' Halle Suggs, and bears him two sons and a daughter. When Mr Garner dies, his brother, 'schoolteacher', and two nephews take over the plantation. Similar to the movies' false images in The Bluest Eye, the Garners' home reveals now the cruel character that it always had. Sethe realises her own role as a breeder and as an object without rights that would be available for the nephews' sexual assault. Trying to save her children from a similar fate, she sends them ahead to their freed grandmother Baby Suggs and flees herself, giving birth to her fourth child, Denver, during the escape. But the schoolteacher follows her, and finds her hiding place. Unwilling to send her children into slavery, Sethe decides to kill them, and indeed kills her older daughter, the 'crawling already?' child. While she is punished for her deed, she can also survive with her other three children and Baby Suggs in freedom and later move to 124. Halle, a traumatised witness of the nephews' sexual advances on Sethe, will never join her.

As the novel opens, 124 is already a house of women. Both sons have left. But it is the visit of Paul D., a freed 'Sweet Home' man, who provokes Sethe's memories of the past. These reflections centre again and again on the dead child. Perhaps it is also this child that turns 124 into a haunted house, which personifies this house, breaking the family further apart. This is 124's prehistory:

Each one fled at once—the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn't have a number then, because Cincinnati didn't stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.


124 continues to resist the move of the city to integrate houses into neighbourhoods and 'stretch out'. It thrives on its isolation, just as it is about to be geographically integrated into a community by receiving a number. Sethe, although in freedom, is shunned by her neighbours because of the murder of her child.

Combining references to the family history with American History, Morrison is able to give the house a life of its own. 124 is no green-and-white house, but one of the greyish color that corresponds to the Breedlove's storefront building. By being haunted by a child, and by acting like a child, 124 is both familiar and defamiliarised—an uncanny actor that rules over its inhabitants. With Paul D.'s arrival, there comes the hope that a semblance of family life could be restored, and that the ghost could be banned. But the past is not only resurrected by Paul D.'s arrival and in narratives. A new person appears, with the name Beloved:

A fully dressed woman walked out of the water. She barely gained the dry bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree. All day and all night she sat there, her head resting on the trunk in a position abandoned enough to crack the brim in her straw hat … It took her the whole of the next morning to lift herself from the ground and make her way through the woods past a giant temple of box-wood to the field and then the yard of the slate-gray house. Exhausted again, she sat down on the first handy place—a stump not far from the steps of 124 …

Women who drink champagne when there is nothing to celebrate can look like that: their straw hats with broken brims are often askew; they nod in public places; their shoes are undone. But their skin is not like that of the woman breathing near the steps of 124. She had new skin, lineless and smooth, including the knuckles of her hands.


The newness of Beloved's skin is as puzzling as her curious mixture of wisdom and ignorance. There is the rumour that a black girl had been kept imprisoned in one of the nearby houses, and Beloved acts indeed like a prisoner freed. Her body, as well as her behaviour, give rise, however, to the suspicion that it is not only the name that connects this Beloved to Sethe's dead daughter. Indeed, 'Beloved' is the only word written on the 'crawling already?' baby's tomb stone, the only word Sethe was able to buy by selling her body to the engraver; the word became thus the baby's name.

After Beloved enters Sethe's house, the baby ghost and the building seem to commence separate existences. Gaining physical presence, however, Beloved can both recall and provide a link to a past that Sethe previously tried to suppress. Beloved, pushing Paul D. aside in Sethe's affection, but finally being sent away by him, turns the novel less into an investigation about her identity, but about Sethe's and her family's history. 'She was my best thing' (272) Sethe says after Beloved leaves, stressing the bond between her and the young woman. This bond is reflected again in her relationship to Baby Suggs, her stepmother Nan, and her mother of whom she only knows that she arrived from Africa.

In a conversation with Gloria Naylor, Morrison cites two sources for her novel.9 One was a newspaper clipping from 1851 that referred to Margaret Garner, a slave from Kentucky who escaped and killed one of her children; Garner stated when interviewed that she did not want her children to return to slavery. Morrison had come across her story while collecting material for The Black Book, a collection of writings on Black history and culture that she edited in 1974.10 Next to the story of this 'serene young woman',11 Morrison claims to have been struck by the photographs in James Van Der Zee's collection, The Harlem Book of the Dead, for which she wrote the foreword.12 Van Der Zee's pictures feature dead loved ones in peculiar poses: a dead baby in the arms of its parents, or a fully dressed person in a coffin. To give the dead a semblance of life has an artistic tradition that extends the use of photography in the Black community.13 Van der Zee, however, found a special variation for this genre. He worked not only with touch-ups, but also with double exposures. In addition to floating lines of scripture and poetry, many of his pictures also show angels and the Christ image. Photography, as the art of shadows, develops with Van der Zee in the art of religious ghosts, reminding the viewer of the comforting presence of the otherwise invisible divine. Van Der Zee's angels, as well as the Christ figure, are, moreover, white and 'conventional' images of Christian religion. Van Der Zee articulates implicitly already a confrontation of white and black reality and religion that Morrison will rewrite and rephrase in her own work.

One of the photographs shows an eighteen-year-old girl who was shot by her jealous lover, and who chose to help him escape rather than save her own life.14 Morrison explains:

I had about fifteen or twenty questions that occurred to me with those two stories in terms of what it is that really compels a good woman to displace the self, her self. So what I started doing and thinking about for a year was to project the self not into the way we say 'yourself', but to put a space between those words, as though the self were really a twin or a thirst or a friend or something that sits right next to you and watches you, which is what I was talking about when I said 'the dead girl' … So I just imagined the life of a dead girl which was the girl that Margaret Garner killed, the baby girl that she killed.15

This space is also one of geographical distance. But the distance between Kentucky and Harlem, New York, parallels a temporal one. It is a distance of historical significance for Black people, that separates the plantation South from the abolitionist North. South to North is Sethe's route of escape, leading her from Kentucky's 'Sweet Home' to Cincinnati. It is not Van Der Zee's photograph but rather Margaret Garner's interview that renders a voice to the muted past. Garner's story is, first of all, a slave's history, framed by the newspaper text as the Breedlove's story is framed by quotations from the school primer, the words of which run together and form fragmented sentences, introducing every section of The Bluest Eye. Beloved reworks Garner's slave history in a collage of poetry, dreams, past and current stories, to reconstruct a memory that would lead beyond an individual's tale as a recovery of the Afro-American past. It is in this sense, that Samuels and Hudson-Weems called Beloved 'a ghost story about history' (135). In picturing the dead, Morrison constructs a language to make the past visible.


How is it possible, however, for a slave narrative and a Gothic tale to come together? Slave narratives, recorded since the late eighteenth century, were often dictated to white writers, and always edited and published by them. White editors vouched for their authenticity. Often very brief, these narratives are statements presenting a victim's point of view, a route of suffering that would lead from inhuman conditions to a better, if not always fully emancipated, way of life. Unlike confessions, these autobiographies do not describe a conversion due to an inner revelation. The slave's life and Bildung is entirely dependent on the economic conditions of his or her white surrounding, and his or her possibilities of protest and escape.

The genre of the document is based on the written word. Slave narratives strive to be documents. Though the slave's story is often told to the editor/writer rather than written, the narrative retains formulaic conventions that are familiar to the readers of literature. Part of the success of slave stories lies in the fact that they were recorded by white men for readers who came from a white tradition.16 In her reworking of the slave narrative in Beloved, Morrison, in contrast, gives preference to the oral word. This is the tradition that she herself remembers as uniquely hers, but also as the tradition that the Black community can and should reclaim.17

According to Morrison, oral literature is open-ended, it asks for participation, and thrives on narratives of dreams, myths, and folkloric elements that can be traced back to African roots. This 'oral' literature may provide the voice of the slave that had been silenced in the slave narratives, turn Garner's story from a third-person into a first-person narrative. In changing perspectives, it may introduce an alternative tale that, as fiction, may bear more experiential truth.

For Morrison, this change focuses, above all, on the woman's voice. Although doubly silenced by the white Western tradition, black women emerge in Morrison's tale as persons of special strength. They are able to take action, and their government of the house finds its limitation not in black male power, but only in the white system. In a conversation with Rosemarie Lester, Morrison insists that black women, having always been mother and labourer at the same time, are better suited to feminist demands.18 The ghost in Beloved, who is female, too, relates particularly well to the female members of the household. The novel proves that the supernatural is not truly alien, but that it takes the black women's side against white power. It represents Sethe's family and the historical past. In the novel, it also introduces with Sethe's story a history that may have been repressed by blacks, but that the white slaveholders and masters attempted to sever and obliterate.

For Walter Scott, history had been represented by the visual backdrop of British castles and Highland costumes; they provided a distance between the fictional world and that of his readers that provided the freedom and licence of the historicising effort. For novelists like Clara Reeve or Horace Walpole, the historicising was disrupted by supernatural elements that, introduced as accidental, established order by a denial of a continuum of events that would be shaped by their protagonists. Radcliffe's psychologising makes it clear to what extent the supernatural countered the historical. In Morrison, the supernatural is able to strengthen the position of the person who encounters it—the woman who encounters the female ghost. Fingerprints tell of the presence of unknown beings. Furniture moved or any other action taken by invisible powers echo the Gothic tradition. These signs and actions disrupt the continuum of events and disturb the sense of comfort. Sethe's sons, Howard and Buglar, know of this and flee. For the women who stay on, however, the supernatural is, far from being ahistorical, a reintroduction of history, the sign of memory that takes physical shape with the appearance of Beloved. The women in 124 seem to realise that the figures add up to the magic number seven; they accept the ghost because the house is really theirs: 'It's a feminine concept—things happening in a room, a house. That's where we live, in houses. Men don't live in those houses, they really don't.'19 Living in a space that is feminised, women do not only become the bearers of children but also the bearer of history through their memory, or, as Morrison calls it, rememory. Sethe explains to her daughter Denver:

I was talking about time. It's so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean even if I don't think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.


Elsewhere, Morrison writes that rememory designates 'a journey to a site to see what remains have been left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply'.20 Memory itself is understood as geographical space.


One has only to compare recent novels by Stephen King with Toni Morrison's invocation of the supernatural to see a similarity of motifs; the dead come to life in both, and haunt the living. The ambiguity of the motif of a ghost's appearance cannot be denied. This may, on the one hand, prove the limitations of the study of motifs. On the other hand, however, it may also tell much about Morrison's craft and the attractiveness of her work for a wider audience of black as well as white readers. While Morrison insists on introducing Black voices, she has also been trained in British and American literature and wrote a master's thesis on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, the latter no stranger to the Gothic tradition. Introducing Beloved in Beloved, Morrison is, indeed, not only restoring Black history via Black folklore, but also reworking the white tradition of Gothic literature in writing the history of its ghosts. But Morrison's use of the Gothic does more than that. While treating slaves as invisible spirits, American plantation homes—like 'Sweet Home'—are described as Gothic settings that feature slaves as invisible Blacks. Ghosts, therefore, do not signify the limitations of a white man's power, but a social order that relies on their presence. Morrison's reframing is, therefore, a political one, and it has consequences not only for the contemporary Black novel, but also for a new evaluation of the British literature of the past.

In an essay on the place of the Afro-American experience within the literary canon, Morrison discusses white American literature and the Afro-American response. She argues for a rereading of texts by white authors to discover the 'unspeakable things unspoken', 'a search, in other words, for the ghost in the machine'.21 In this essay, shattered mirrors or finger prints are not only signs of a Beloved, but also the signs of a different voice within American literature. This voice is, indeed, scarcely recorded yet, because it was deprived of the traditional letter, a claim to visibility that ghosts as well as oral literature cannot fulfill. Afro-American literature, moreover, is not simply housed within American literature, as the Breed-love family lives in the Greek landlord's house. Nor does it occupy a very separate realm, as Pecola's mother would suggest when she bars her daughter's entry into the kitchen of her white employers. Afro-American literature responds to the white tradition in and by subversion; by a renaming and retelling of the story.

In Beloved, examples for this renaming are given by individual protagonists. Stamp Paid, who helps Sethe in her escape, has given himself his name after he had to offer his wife to their white master. Baby Suggs rejects the name Jenny, stated on her slave bill, and calls herself by the name her husband had given her. Naming the house by its number only, 124, resonates with the renaming of geographical places elsewhere in Morrison's novels. In Sula (1973), for example, the black community calls their neighbourhood on the hill 'Bottom', and knows about the 'No Mercy Hospital' and the 'Not Doctor Street'.22

In her interviews, Morrison describes her work as 'village literature',23 consciously turning back from the city to a community many Blacks experienced before moving 'North'.24 Her 'village' is dependent on a linguistic community, and this linguistic understanding relies on references to the ancestral past, common experiences, as well as verbal action. While the act of renaming and naming is achieved by the Black author, the white and the black reader may read differently. Morrison quotes an early paragraph from The Bluest Eye that follows the excerpt from the primer:

The Bluest Eye begins 'Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.' The sentence, like the one that open each succeeding book, is simple, uncomplicated. Of all the sentences that begin all the books, only two of them have dependent clauses; the other three are simple sentences and two are stripped down to virtually subject, verb, modifier. Nothing fancy here. No words need looking up; they are ordinary, everyday words. Yet I hoped the simplicity was not simply-minded, but devious, even loaded. And that the process of selecting each word, for itself and its relationship to the others in the sentence, along with the rejection of others for their echoes, for what is determined and what is not determined, what is almost there and what must be gleaned, would not theatricalise itself, would not erect a proscenium—at least not a noticeable one.25

Morrison continues, however, to describe this beginning not just as a devious simplicity, but also as the indication of 'illicit gossip', 'whisper', 'oral language', 'comprehension as in-joke for some' (218-19) that defines for her Black literature. In her interviews, Morrison does not deny white critics the ability to read and interpret Black literature, in the same way as she herself insists on a reading of Faulkner or Emily Dickinson and an understanding of these authors' positions:

If I could understand Emily Dickinson—you know, she wasn't writing for a Black audience or a white audience; she was writing whatever she wrote! I think if you do that, if you hone in on what you write, it will be universal … not the other way around!26

On the one hand, Morrison accepts the idea of universal literature. On the other hand, Morrison suggests, white readers may realise the deviousness of her novel's first sentence, but not the whisper, smoothing over the differences to adjust to an ideal of universal literature. What Morrison is struggling with, and at times with contradictory statements, is the notion of a universal literature to be gained in the face of difference. The relationship of the 'universal' to 'difference', the peculiarity of a different voice that tries to subvert what it responds to, remains unclear. Africans have many words for yam, Morrison repeats in her interviews, seemingly exposing the universal as a simplifying and unifying measure of a white invention.27 In an interview with Elsie Washington, Morrison insists that 'black' is no longer something one is born as, but a choice, a 'mindset'.28

White readers, in an act of bleaching purification, may indeed be tempted to read Morrison's reworking of a British tradition as a deafening act to prove that tradition's primacy. In the case of Beloved, Margaret Atwood may be such a reader in point. Her review of the book mentions neither the specificity of a Black novelistic tradition, nor does she refer to Morrison as a black woman author. Entitling her piece 'Haunted by their Nightmares', Atwood evaluates the novel with a simple account and counting that supersedes that of 124:

Beloved is Toni Morrison's fifth novel, and another triumph. Indeed, Ms Morrison's versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds. If there were any doubts about her stature as a preeminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, Beloved will put them to rest. In three words or less, it's a hair-raiser.29

And Atwood continues: 'The supernatural element is treated, not in an 'Amityville Horror', watch-me-make-your-flesh-creep mode, but with magnificent practicality, like the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights' (143), and she finally applauds: 'Students of the supernatural will admire the way this twist is handled' (146).30 Sometimes, it seems, the Gothic may offer the more familiar house.


I would like to thank Morgan & Morgan Press for permission to reproduce James Van Der Zee's photograph, published in The Harlem Book of the Dead.

1. J. Evelyn, 1702; quoted in 'Gothic', Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edn (1910).

2. Witold Rybczinski, Home: A Short History of an Idea (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986), p. 20.

3. 'And the virtuous house wife rules inside.' Friedrich Schiller, 'Das Lied von der Glocke', stanza 8, 29-30.

4. In this context, I would like to refer to Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse's forthcoming study on American captivity tales and the 'origin' of the British novel. I believe that the Gothic novel in particular explores the captivity theme as a gendered one.

5. T. Morrison, The Bluest Eye (London: Chatto & Windus, 1979), p. 1.

6. T. Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987), p. 3.

7. T. Morrison, 'Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,' in Harold Bloom (ed.), Toni Morrison (ser.) Modern Critical Views (New York: Chelsea House, 1990), pp. 228-9.

8. Morrison, 'Unspeakable,' p. 228.

9. G. Naylor and T. Morrison: 'A Conversation', The Southern Review 21 (1985), pp. 583-5.

10. Published by Random House, Marylin Sanders Mobley points out rightly that a copy of the news article, entitled 'A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child', appears on p. 10 of Morrison's anthology; see Mobley, 'A Different Remembering: Memory, History and Meaning in Toni Morrison's Beloved', in Harold Bloom (ed.), Toni Morrison (ser.) Modern Critical Views (New York: Chelsea House, 1990), p. 190. Ironically, Wilfrid D. Samuels and Clenora Hudson-Weems insist that Garner's story was not included, but that Morrison 'saved' it for her novel; see Wilfrid D. Samuels and Clenora Hudson-Weems, Toni Morrison (Boston: Twayne, 1990), p. 95.

11. Morrison in Naylor, 'Conversation', p. 583.

12. J. Van Der Zee, Owen Dodson, and Camille Bishop, The Harlem Book of the Dead (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Morgan & Morgan, 1978).

13. See Stanley Burns, Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America (Altadena, CA: Twelvetrees Press, 1991).

14. Van Der Zee, Harlem Book of the Dead, p. 53; see illustration.

15. Morrison in Naylor, 'Conversation', p. 585.

16. This is, of course, played out in Morrison's citation of the school primer in The Bluest Eye, as Michael Awkward rightly observes. See his 'Roadblocks and Relatives: Critical Revision in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye', in Nelly McKey (ed.), Critical Essays on Toni Morrison (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988), p. 59.

17. See Christina Davis, 'Interview with Toni Morrison', Presence Africaine. New Bilingual Series 145, 1 (1988), pp. 144-9.

18. R. K. Lester, 'An Interview with Toni Morrison, Hessian Radio Network, Frankfurt/M, West Germany', in Nellie Y. McKay (ed.), Critical Essays on Toni Morrison (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988), pp. 48-9.

19. M. Watkins, 'Talk with Toni Morrison', New York Times Book Review, 11 September 1977 (New York: Arno Press, 1978), p. 50. In an interview with Robert B. Stepto, Morrison insists on 'a woman's strong sense of being in a room, a place, or in a house'; '"Intimate Things in a Place": A Conversation with Toni Morrison', in Michael S. Harper, and Robert B. Stepto (eds.), Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979), p. 212. See also the interview with Rosemarie Lester in regard to girls' and boys' different relationship to architecture and space (p. 47), and Morrison's own rearranging of space to save her writing in the presence of her own sons: Jane Bakerman, '"The Seams Can't Show": An Interview with Toni Morrison', Black American Literature Forum 12, 2 (1978), p. 57.

20. Morrison, 'The Site of Memory,' in William Zinsser (ed.), Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 113. See also Ashraf H. A. Rushdy, '"Rememory": Primal Scenes and Constructions in Toni Morrison's Novels', Contemporary Literature 31, 3 (1990), pp. 300-23, and Susan Willis, 'Eruptions of Funk: Historicising Toni Morrison', Black American Literature Forum 16, 1 (1982), pp. 34-42. In an interview with Elizabeth Kastor, 'Toni Morrison's "Beloved" Country', The Washington Post, 5 October 1987, B 12, Morrison defines 'speculation' as the novelist's task; he/she does what the (professional) historian, concentrating on 'ages', 'issues', and 'great men' is unable to do. 'Rememory' is, quite obviously, such a speculation.

21. Morrison, 'Unspeakable', p. 210.

22. C. A. Davis discusses Morrison's use of names and naming in her essay 'Self, Society, and Myth in Toni Morrison's Fiction', in Harold Bloom (ed.), Toni Morrison, Modern Critical Views (New York: Chelsea House, 1990), pp. 7-8.

23. See, for example, Tom LeClair, 'An Interview with Toni Morrison', Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 253; and Ntozake Shange with Steve Connon, 'Interview with Toni Morrison', American Rag, November 1978, p. 52. See also Morrison's essay 'Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation', in Mari Evans (ed.), Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1984), pp. 339-45.

24. See the discussion in Houston Baker, Jr, Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing (University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 137, and Morrison's essay 'City Limits, Village Values', in Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts (eds.), Literature and the Urban Experience (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1981), pp. 35-43.

25. Morrison, 'Unspeakable', p. 218.

26. J. Bakerman, 'The Seams Can't Show', p. 59.

27. See Tom LeClair, 'An Interview with Toni Morrison', p. 259; and Claudia Tate, 'Toni Morrison', in Claudia Tate (ed.), Black Women Writers at Work (New York: Continuum, 1983), pp. 123-4.

28. E. Washington, interview with Morrison, Essence (October 1987), p. 136.

29. M. Atwood, 'Haunted by Their Nightmares', in Harold Bloom (ed.), Toni Morrison (ser.) Modern Critical Views (New York: Chelsea House, 1990), p. 143; the review appeared first in the New York Times Book Review, 13 September 1987, 1, pp. 49-50.

30. See also Judith Thurman's description of Beloved as a 'ghost story,' in 'A House Divided', The New Yorker, 2 November 1987, 175, or Thomas R. Edwards, 'Ghost Story', The New York Review of Books, 5 November 1987, p. 18.


SOURCE: Spargo, R. Clifton. "Trauma and the Specters of Enslavement in Morrison's Beloved." Mosaic 35, no. 1 (March 2002): 113-31.

In the following essay, Spargo considers how, in Beloved, Morrison "uses the Gothic apparatus to invoke the specter of trauma" to produce a narrative that offers the therapeutic benefits of a protagonist's journey back inside, through, and ultimately outside of her traumatic past.

In the literary world populated by ghosts that eventually became synonymous with the Gothic tradition, the plot of haunting figures its social concerns as metaphysical matters, even to the point where the dramatic spectacle of the ghost makes it hard to trace the social meaning of which it is a spectral emanation. The social relevance of the ghost seems especially obsolete when the haunting coincides with a narrative of fatalism, as if the one who experiences the ghost and the one who suffers history must alike submit to a symbolic social order overdetermined by the spirits of ancestry and cast too strongly in the die of the past. Toni Morrison's Beloved, through its turn to Gothic tradition, recovers an untold history of suffering, which seems both the product of such an overdetermined past and a criticism of our conventional historical narratives. As Valerie Smith has argued, Morrison's method of circling her story back upon itself marks a suspicion about the "limits of hegemonic, authoritarian systems of knowledge" (346). But it also marks, within the world of the story, the characters' inability to become adequate to a historical sense of themselves and thus to trace the social meanings behind their sufferings—a point made all too clearly when Paul D becomes frustrated with Sethe's inability to offer a linear, rational account of herself. Part of the problem, as Homi Bhabha has suggested, is that Sethe cannot construct herself by means of a teleological social narrative in which she would figure as an agent who chooses her own actions, and so, in Bhabha's view, we are forced to read the inwardness of the slave world from the outside—that is, through the ghostly returning memory of Sethe's infanticide (16-18). Like many readers of Beloved, Bhabha views this ghostly return as intimating a reclamation of Sethe's voice and a restoration of an interpersonal social reality eclipsed by the fatalism of slavery, so that history survives beyond the question of its overt visibility, if only in the "deepest resources of our amnesia, of our unconsciousness" (18).

Bhabha's use of psychoanalytic categories veers so close to the contemporary discourse of trauma as to make him complicitous—say, from the perspective of empiricist-minded critics who yield to the trauma all the status they would grant a ghost—with the trauma's most unreasonable tendencies. Lived as a resistance to an empirically conceived realism about persons, events, and, most significantly, time itself, trauma is a phenomenon that violently interrupts the present tense of consciousness, occurring for the first time only by being repeated. By virtue of this structure of repetition, trauma poses a challenge to historical knowledge, since it is always the symptomology of trauma that one confronts and never the event itself, much as it is always the lack of knowledge that perpetuates the traumatic effect. As an excess or afterlife of the event, trauma refers to an act not yet encountered—as it were, to a specter of the past. To the extent that it testifies, to borrow Cathy Caruth's phrase, to "a reality or truth that is otherwise not available" (4), the trauma depends by definition on the inadequacy of our knowledge in the present order. For this very reason, the trauma has come to function for many critics as a trope of access to more difficult histories, providing us with entry into a world inhabited by the victims of extraordinary social violences, those perspectives so often left out of rational, progressive narratives of history. Indeed, in this respect the trauma functions rather as a ghost of rationality, that which announces a history haunting the very possibility of history.

The problem, to recuperate Bhabha's conceit, may partly be conceived as a question of whether one stands inside or outside of traumatic history. In the case of Beloved, this is a question already pronounced by Morrison's revisionings of the Gothic and its rather fluid dualism, articulated, on the one hand, in the demand that we participate imaginatively in events beyond the scope or confidence of reason and, on the other, in a call for us to offer our resistances in the service of rationality and to demystify the story's supernatural logic. Much as therapists observe traumatic phenomena from the outside, we might argue that history arises not so much from traumatic consciousness as from those allegorical significances existing just beyond the characters' self-consciousness. In this view, the historically minded reader performs an act of intellectual intervention by restoring the sufferer of trauma to a more reasonable narrative. Yet such an intervention, modelled on the therapist's compassionate but critical listening, runs the risk of conceiving of history as finally in opposition to the private pathologies of history's victims. By contrast, Caruth espouses a reading of the trauma from within the structure of its symptomology, so that history speaks meaningfully through a content that we might not otherwise acknowledge, through the repetitions and pathology of the trauma. Strictly speaking, Caruth assigns trauma a meaning absent from Freud, who steadfastly insists upon an act of remembrance capable of dispelling the grip of the past on present consciousness. For Freud, as for the empirical historian, history must be built upon the possibility of an intervention, an intervention that develops as a reasonable and even compassionate opposition to the trauma.

It is upon the difficult premise of such an intervention in traumatic history that I focus in this essay. Although a number of critical readings of Beloved, such as Homi Bhabha's, cause us to focus our attention on the obliquity of a testimonial voice emerging in spite of violent repression, or (according to a reading through trauma) perhaps because of it, such readings speak impossibly from the inside of the trauma as a way of filling in history. This is to bypass the empiricist problem as also the therapist's concern, with its focus on the peculiar relation an indirect and incapable consciousness—which is to say, a traumatized one—bears to history. Among those who have brought the trauma to bear on questions of history, Dominick LaCapra has perhaps been most insistent on listening to trauma from the hitherside of the therapist's couch, privileging a rationality that remains outside the trauma. The therapist, as also the good student of history, should experience an "unsettlement" that is also "empathic," yet, as a lesson for history, the trauma will become meaningful, in LaCapra's account, only once it has been worked through (to use Freud's idiom); and so, in his own brief reading of Beloved, LaCapra gives heavy emphasis to the exorcism of Beloved's ghost as the moment in which community finds its place. If LaCapra's approach seems thoroughly reasonable, it may nevertheless be difficult to maintain such sensible interpretive strategies in relation to the history offered in Beloved. This is so because Morrison has so closely configured the history she recovers with the evidence of the trauma itself. As Beloved opens toward abandoned history, Morrison demands that her readers encounter characters who inhabit history through the symptomology of trauma, apart from and before the acts of imaginative or rational intervention through which we might return them to a myth of American progress that we have made the equivalent of reason itself. Beloved is a novel especially hard on a history so conceived precisely because the benevolence of our reason and the possibility of intervention suppose a separation from—and by definition, an opposition to—the very phenomena upon which we would focus our attention. Just as there is a cynicism that may occur from outside the trauma in the name of reason—say, as the indifference to those people or events that do not fulfill the general progress of society—there is also a cynicism that may occur from inside suffering. Throughout the novel, we are made to wonder whether the symptoms of haunting necessarily contest history conceived as a narrative of subjects with the capacity to intervene in their own and others' histories. By figuring the recovery of history as an involuntary or traumatic phenomenon, and by suggesting that characters inhabit such a history at the expense of their own freedom, Morrison enacts a fundamental tension between the history of injustice that needs to be recorded and remembered and an ethics of corrective action that hovers, if only spectrally, over the imaginative moment of our witness.

We live in a land where the past is always erased and America is the innocent future in which immigrants can come and start over, where the slate is clean. The past is absent or it's romanticized. This culture doesn't encourage dwelling on, let alone coming to terms with, the truth about the past." This is Morrison from a 1988 interview (10-11), describing the myth of America as a land that cancels all debts in the name of freedom and its imagined privileges, yielding to the past only what it will give back to an understanding that cooperates with the freedoms of the future. Despite its etymology, we often give to understanding the very character of an action, that is, a modality of knowledge that intervenes in the past and so resolves the claims it makes on present consciousness. Having provided the condition for moral decisions and actions in the present, once our understanding makes the past serve a present course of thought and action, it puts to rest and, for all intents and purposes, contains the past from which it speaks. Such a view of understanding is evident in LaCapra's reading of the trauma. Much as the survivor begins to exercise "some measure of conscious control, critical distance, and perspective" with regard to extreme experiences and to work through loss by realistically positioning herself between the compelling past and the present in which she must be capable of acting, the historian, or secondary witness, will try to help a victim re-establish boundaries between the past and the present (Writing 90). It is the establishment of these boundaries—quite literally an intervention—that enables the subject to become cognizant of historical injustices without being merely determined by them. In the absence of intervention, the trauma might continue unabated, involving its survivors in the patterns of the precipitating violence, while also—and perhaps more importantly for our historical sense—exercising a mystifying influence on our social narratives of agency.

With his interventionist understanding of the trauma, LaCapra is highly dubious of any hermeneutics that promotes the excesses of traumatic experience as significations of the real itself, worrying that such a system of thought veers toward a negative sublime that may have affinities with theories of sacrificial violence and even with the Nazi belief in regenerative violence (Representing 100-10; Writing 92-95). Though he is suspicious of redemptive narratives in which the suffering of others becomes uplifting or central to the identity formation of a person or group, LaCapra nevertheless embraces the narrative progress entailed in the psychoanalytic process of working through loss. Endorsing a therapeutic ethic that would make the past accessible to present consciousness, he seeks to put to rest, as much as possible, the specter of injustice, which disturbs and limits both dialogic exchange and "ethically responsible agency" (Writing 90). What LaCapra wants to impress upon us is the capacity of a subjectivity that, having experienced a trauma, comes to inhabit its history rather than be inhabited by it. Many critics have proposed reading the ending of Beloved as an achievement on this order, with the communal exorcism denoting both an act of working through or moving beyond a traumatic relation to loss and, at the same time, an ethical intervention consistent with the therapeutic ethic. When Ella leads the communal charge to defeat the incarnate ghost, which is quite literally destroying Sethe's talent for surviving, the community finally comes to terms with the specter of its own indifference and recuperates the pariah in its midst, as well as her daughter. If we are to read the novel's ending as truly recuperative or redemptive (and I have my doubts on this point), such an ethics would be anticipated earlier in the novel by the scene in which Baby Suggs preaches in the clearing:

And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they'd just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart.


Strictly speaking, this passage does not differ all that radically from a cynical remark that Baby Suggs makes at the start of the novel (though later in the chronological time of the story). Discouraging Sethe's plans to move out of a house haunted by a "baby's venom" (3), Baby Suggs declares, "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief" (5). To the extent that the present is always a product of the past, there seems little one can do to alter the past and perhaps even less that falls to one's own agency apart from the determinations of cultural and social history. In each case, Baby Suggs accepts the rule of a hostile world enacting its traumatic injustices on the body parts of a community barely separated from the reality, never mind the memories, of slavery. As Baby Suggs advocates a care for self that might redeem some of the violences of the world, her counsel amounts to an ethics of self-intervention. According to the syntactical flow of this speech, the more overtly poetic turns of language ("love your neck unnoosed and straight" or "the beat and beating heart") involve rhetorical reversals of traumatic phenomena, which is to say that they are constituted as figurative redemptions of the violences of history. These traumatic references do not require the intervening understanding of a reader more perspicacious than the novel's represented audience. Morrison supposes that the ex-slaves who hear mention of the noose will remember those they have lost to the violence of the slaveholding culture and experience some anxiety about a fate of persecution awaiting each of them at any moment. When she refers them to their necks "unnoosed and straight," she sounds the note of traumatic fatalism, as if what has occurred to others also awaits them and cannot realistically be avoided. Yet the time of the figure suspends the universalized threat of the noose, imagining a valuation of self bracketed within the vulnerability to history, an opportunity to cease dwelling within the traumas of the past and to embrace freely the ephemeral joys of their own bodies. Although she does not demand from her audience a mythic confidence in American innocence, progress, or opportunity, Baby Suggs hypothesizes a future temporarily redeemed by their holding close to a present care for self and imagining the past as pure exteriority. Corresponding to this inversion of traumatic history, then, is the introverted movement of valuation persuading each member of her audience to appreciate what she or he still possesses, even if it is only those "inside parts" that—according to a social logic barely distinguishing the lives of blacks from animal existence—might as well be food for hogs.

As Baby Suggs testifies, however obliquely, to the traumatic hold of the past on the black community's present consciousness, her turns of phrase imply that she is, to employ LaCapra's words, "working over" the past and "possibly working it through" (Writing 89). This is imperfect redemption at best, as the parody of Pauline language in Baby Suggs's sermon suggests. Though Baby Suggs most likely is not meant to be privy to the allusion, she here revises a famous conceit from First Corinthians: "For as the body is one, and hath many members and also members of that one body, being many are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body" (12:12-13). The Pauline allegory erases individual distinctions under the rubric of communal faith, denying the affliction and individualism (and an affliction that is tantamount to individualism) of any particular part: "If the foot shall say, 'Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body'; is it therefore not of the body?" (12:15). The spiritual progression from part to whole is parodied and secularized when Baby Suggs converts the transcendent touch of grace into a physical caress no longer divinely abstract and no longer dependent upon the hands of another ("So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it"). What is especially remarkable about the passage is the conversion of the excess of the spirit, which is like the excess of trauma, into an ethic of self-love. Working by way of a reduction from the claims of transcendence and communal universalism, Baby Suggs's sermon revises the corporate body, which stood for the community of faith in Paul, into a collection of unassembled corporeal parts, loved in their separateness and pain.

Though much of this language sustains the complexity that LaCapra attributes to the process of working through, Baby Suggs does not presume to imagine for any of the afflicted a final reincorporation into the communal whole. A note of traumatic ambiguity persists in any claim she makes for the present, with the act of self-valuation opening only vaguely toward the future, pushing only haltingly past the isolation of the trauma, and all the time preserving the idiom of the violent past. Thus, when she speaks of the "beat and beating heart," she refers to an existential condition founded on the interchangeability of the social violences done to the heart (the times the body has been beat, which are inscribed now on the heart) and the rhythm it lives from (a beating that cannot quite keep at bay the word's more violent connotation). Here is voiced, before the full advent of her cynicism, the fatalism of traumatic existence: knowing no other reality, the victim of violence accepts it as a given and seeks a redemption only from within violence. As she refers each of her listeners to his or her lungs "that have yet to draw free air," Baby Suggs imagines only a postponement of future injustice, an upholding of self against the imminence of violences still to come. She speaks as though lapsing from the idiom of working through into the language of trauma, offering at best a troubled testimony to her oppression. As Naomi Morgenstern observes, testimony in Morrison's novel always runs the risk of re-traumatizing the subject as it reproduces the past (see esp. 116-18). Since trauma remains the novel's language of historical witness, the fact that Baby Suggs never quite gets beyond trauma may intimate not only that therapeutic intervention is at its best an incomplete project but also that history might be lost if such an intervention were to be completed.

If I have begun to read Beloved as heir to a tradition of literary ghosts who come to seem figures for trauma, we should remind ourselves that the critical discourse on trauma often works in the other direction, reading from the trauma to the specter. Here, for instance, is LaCapra describing both the trauma and the superseding moment in which the ghosts of the psyche are laid to rest as if they were indeed quite real. In trauma, LaCapra says,

words may be uttered but seem to repeat what was said then and function as speech acts wherein speech itself is possessed or haunted by the past and acts as a reenactment or an acting out. When the past becomes accessible to recall in memory, and when language functions to provide some measure of conscious control, critical distance, and perspec-tive, one has begun the arduous process of working over and through the trauma in a fashion that may never bring the full transcendence of acting out (or being haunted by revenants and reliving the past in its shattered intensity) but which may enable processes of judgment and at least limited liability and ethically responsible agency. These processes are crucial for laying ghosts to rest, distancing oneself from haunting revenants, renewing an interest in life, and being able to engage memory in more critically tested senses.

                        (Writing 90, emph. mine)

I do not wish to accuse LaCapra of believing in ghosts; it is probably enough for some of his critics to say that he believes in trauma. Still, the reader cannot help noticing the logic whereby the one afflicted with trauma achieves distance from "haunting revenants," as if it were less likely that one could refute the unreality of trauma than make its reality remote enough to appear unreal. I put such weight on LaCapra's figurative language in this passage in order to draw attention to a strange literalism lurking there: one distances oneself from the trauma as from a ghost, which is to say, as from the reality of a ghost. Striking a largely pragmatic compromise with the disturbing reality of mind that threatens the real world of action, LaCapra's victim of trauma enacts a progression into reason that refutes the spectral reality that the trauma would otherwise re-enact endlessly in his life. There is a split here in the very meaning of the act. The necessary intervention of memory and language into the unconscious reign of the trauma assumes the capacity of the trauma not only to refer to a past act, but to act out the departed event all over again. Despite his figurative use of ghostly language, LaCapra hardly views the reign of the trauma as a fiction. Rather, the trauma's reality is so persuasive that it requires the work of memory, language, and rationality. The ghostly image connotes both a reluctantly superseded past and the progression beyond it, since, according to the Enlightenment social narrative upon which the Gothic is precariously founded, the ghost is necessarily a figure for a past quickly becoming obsolete.

If trauma can inspire LaCapra's turn to figurative excess, the trauma itself seems implicated in figurative logic. Since I am here focussed on the trauma's function in a work of fiction, we need to bear in mind that the progression from a testimonial text to the traumatic imaginings of the literary text resides in the latter's mediated, already interpreted, relation to the history from which it lives or of which it speaks. If one were trying to read the traumatic reality of African-American history as an unconscious force in Morrison's consciousness determining her patterns of figuration, this distinction between the unconscious and mediated mechanics of the trauma might seem less necessary. But, as soon as one locates the trauma as a figure on the side of an authorial (or at least a textual) intention, the psychological phenomenality of trauma becomes a figure for storytelling itself. In Morrison's case, this means that she uses the Gothic apparatus to invoke the specter of trauma—first, as a motivational force explaining the characters' historical actions, and, second, as a figure for the act of a difficult transmission. As haunting performs the work of a figure, it poses a newness within language that hypothetically or temporarily alienates ordinary meaning and so forces a revision or reconsideration of the very possibilities of representation. Encountering the resistances of the trauma and the failures in understanding that it promotes, the reader remains always aware of what Morrison is trying to say about the history she dares to retell. By exploring the hard edges of a traumatic recalcitrance that is as much the author's reluctance to insert this recovered history into the myths of progress that inform American storytelling as it is an attempt to describe her characters' minds realistically, Morrison brings us to the brink of an unspoken history, which should return, if it is to return at all, only as a rupture of rationality, voice, and ordinarily conceived intentions. The novel emerges as an act of difficult listening, embodied, for example, in the person of Ella as she "listen[s] for the holes—the things the fugitives did not say; the questions they did not ask. Listened too for the unnamed, unmentioned people left behind" (92). To the extent that these "holes" are holes in both consciousness and relationship, the ex-slaves' forgettings function not only as an unconscious coping mechanism but, more surprisingly, as the space of an intention any storyteller who is also a listener—whether she be Ella or Morrison herself—forms against an unmentioned, unmentionable, or traumatically irreferential past.

Throughout Beloved, Morrison develops characters who exist as too much or too little of themselves. And, if all of Morrison's characters in this novel never quite coincide in their own self-consciousness with the history they endure, it is also true that the lives they live inside history remain incommensurate with the novel's historical consciousness. By making her characters participate in structures of rhetorical excess that give their words and actions meaning beyond the immediate moment of their emplotted lives, Morrison develops a structure of reading in which our imaginative acts of identification are limited by the allegorical significances of excess and in which characters who stand for history stand at the same time for the limits of the realistic tradition of fiction with its rational account of history. Perhaps the most conspicuous example of this gap between the reality of a character's experience and a meaning existing outside self-consciousness occurs when Sethe takes account of the newspaper clipping describing her act of infanticide, knowing "that the words she did not understand hadn't any more power than she had to explain" (161). The failure here is not just in the white journalist's lack of empathy but also in the words themselves, which say both too little and too much about Sethe's act. When Paul D sees the photograph accompanying the article, he insists, "I been knowing her a long time. And I can tell you for sure: this ain't her mouth. May look like it, but it ain't" (158). Much like the holes through which Ella hears the unaccounted history of the fugitive slaves, the photograph offers a negative representation of the character Sethe, who becomes unreal in relation to the official history that would record her. Morrison exploits Paul D's obvious psychological defensiveness in order to make us reflect upon the gap between historical experience and history, between the reality of the trauma and the interpretations that make sense of it. Insofar as the novel develops its story through the phenomenality of the trauma, the psychological explanation, much like the historian's act of intervention, relies on a second interpretive sense of the trauma as explanatory trope.

Morrison's relation to the Gothic is to the point here, since viewed through the novelistic orthodoxy of empiricism, the persistent silliness of the Gothic plot arises in direct proportion to its rhetorical excess. It might well be said of the Gothic that it aims less to confront the psyche with the excesses of consciousness than to imagine the psyche as if it were already an excess in history. The most overt markings of psychological excess are of course ghosts, those figures through which the Gothic asks whether the spectral phenomenality of the past refers to an inability of the mind to become part of history or to the impossibility that history should become subject to the mind. In the first instance, the meaning of excess, even when it is not the actual source, would be subjective; in the latter, a sociality working against or to the detriment of subjectivity. In response to the dilemma of interpretation provoked by Gothic ghosts, the modern reader most often makes a choice to account for the excesses of plot through the distortions of subjectivity and thus to promote the stability of our cultural narratives of rationality. Though the irrationality of the character who sees ghosts may appeal to a reader's imaginative bent for irrationality, the reader's ability to identify the flaws in the character's thinking and the patterns developing from his irrationality keeps the empirical world intact and releases the reader from any anxiety that history might persist without answer. I must emphasize here that in making the choice to explain away the excesses of the Gothic as a symptom of the character's irrationality, the reader chooses an option presented within the Gothic plot—but an option that, if chosen too soon or too absolutely, would ruin much of a story that has come to depend narratively on its fantastic mechanism.

Even when one can explain the extravagances of the Gothic plot as phenomena on the horizon of a subjective irrationality, the story itself seems to insist upon a literal return of a past that constructs Gothic excess, so that we are forced to ask what we ought to make of a past that lives anachronistically beyond its proper moment. As Derrida argues through his reading of Hamlet at the beginning of Specters of Marx, spectral plots demand that we investigate the manner in which present-tense ideology seeks historical foreclosure. The specters of the past—as, say, those that emerge in Marx's pronouncement at the beginning of the Communist Manifesto that "the specter of communism" haunts Europe—may become relevant precisely at the moment in which they have been put to rest for ideological reasons. As he suggests that the rules of empiricism tend to cooperate with the hegemony of the present social moment, Derrida criticizes those claims of presence belonging to any social order of justice, claims that omit reference to the injustices that the present social order both perpetrates and perpetuates. What the Gothic plot so well expresses is a conflict between social narratives endorsing the progresses obtained through empirical reason and those contrary patterns of thought through which the past remains unbound despite our rational attempts to foreclose it. Yet, since the Gothic specter remains an expression of the departed act and its obsolete era, any action owing to its influences might evoke a reactionary nostalgia for an outdated idealism or a fatalistic obligation to ancient constructs of identity. To adhere to the hurt of the past would be to fail the requirement of an empiricism rooted in the present and a progressive rationality oriented toward the future, and, if one is not simply to ignore the past and to adopt a purely presentist and ahistorical mode of knowledge, one must translate the hurt of the past in terms of present possibilities. The specter has a value proportionate to its commentary on the realities of the present, but it cannot maintain itself as a resistance to the present except perhaps through the deliberate archaism of a subject still under the spell of the past. As a reflection of partially eclipsed social paradigms, then, the Gothic figure of haunting enacts a disjuncture between past and present that brings with it a new requirement: to intervene in the social narratives governing our existence in the status quo. For Derrida, it is precisely because the specter is a figure for the unresolved past and the missed encounter that it can signify the future of an act not fully encountered.

According to liberal social theory and the rules of empirical investigation, in order for the trauma to be the product of injustice, we would first require proof that it occurred as a violation of a prior and just ordering of human relations in society. Moreover, as a result of the trauma's private mode of reference, even if we were able to ascertain that a trauma followed from an injustice, the subjectivity of the trauma might make the social occasion to which it witnesses seem merely the background of the traumatic data. Pre-empting just such a suspicion, Caruth perceives in the seemingly private character of trauma an emergent form of sociality, an aspect of history that unfolds from trauma and implicates each of us in one another's traumas (24). However one construes the potentially positive connotations of the trauma's legacy to history, since the trauma necessarily occurs in a subject or a group of people failing to recognize either the symptoms or the events behind them, it demands an event of secondary witness. Providing the very structure of the trauma's sociality, it is the secondary witness's reception, her act of listening for the event of injustice behind the symptoms, that should move us beyond the esoteric testimony of the trauma. In its spectral connotations, the trauma would not simply mystify the obsolescence of an injustice and obscure its causes. Rather, it might be introduced as that which intervenes between history as a departed act and history as that which impinges upon present memory and the ethical acts that follow from it. It is surely a deliberate irony of Beloved that not only must history return against the grain of desire and through a figure of haunting, but, once it returns, it must be defeated. This is the very ambiguity of the specter of an injustice or what Morrison elsewhere refers to as the "specter of enslavement," for, as long as she lives within her trauma, Sethe is not only a witness to the past but also a pariah in the community. The ending of the novel poses what is at best a highly ambiguous resolution to a highly problematic historical truth, as the community's intervention in Sethe's and Denver's trauma requires an exorcism of a past that refutes the ironic witness of the trauma.

There is some evidence for reading the ending as a symbolic act of working through the past, and Ella's self-justified and self-promoting rationale for stirring the community's intervention offers the best expression of this ethic:

When Ella heard 124 was occupied by something-or-other beating up on Sethe, it infuriated her. […] Whatever Sethe had done, Ella didn't like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present. Sethe's crime was staggering and her pride outstripped even that; but she could not countenance the possibility of sin moving in on the house, unleashed and sassy. […] As long as the ghost showed out from its ghostly place—shaking stuff, crying, smashing and such—Ella respected it. But if it took 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.

                          (256-57, emph. mine)

What Ella objects to is an excess added to Gothic excess, as if Morrison were playing a meta-fictional joke on us: it is one thing to be haunted by ghosts, Ella says, representing the reader who makes allowances for the Gothic and believes in Morrison's ghosts, but to be beaten up by them, that is another. Ella interprets the ghost exactly as though it were a trauma needing to be worked through or (if we are truer to her tones) worked over, and like a highly empathetic therapist, she cannot stand the spectacle of the past "taking possession of the present." It is not clear to me what we are to make of the excessive clichés through which Ella gears herself up to fight Sethe's antagonist, unless they are supposed to demonstrate how far she is from seeing the ghost as the allegory for history that Morrison has made of it and how mistaken Ella may be in reducing the ghost to a traditionally conceived Gothic antagonist. As Ella conflates historical memory and Gothic oppression, Morrison shows us the fallacy of the therapeutic premise, whereby an injustice of the past can come to seem unjust mostly as a result of the havoc it creates in the lives of those who bother to recall it, perhaps with no choice but to remember. As was true of Baby Suggs's preaching in the clearing, the therapeutic ethic seems to collapse on itself—in that first instance by lapsing into the idiom of trauma, in the second by forging a distance from trauma that is achieved only through a clichéd language of melodramatic opposition. Falling into the clichéd phraseology of her characters, Morrison declares of Beloved, "They forgot her like a bad dream" (274). Against the grain of most critical readings of the communal intervention (see, for example: Harris 330-441; LaCapra, Writing 14; Rody 102-09), I hear in this ending the endurance of Morrison's suspicion of our cultural narratives of progress. As she presents this contrived resolution of the past, which is either a degenerative or melodramatic resolution of the plot of history, we seem to be in a world much like Shakespearean tragedy, where the ending declares only perfunctorily that history, even tragic history, shall be folded into the progress of society. To this very end, Morrison employs an anti-novelistic and meta-fictional refrain in the final pages, insisting that "this is not a story to pass on" (275) and superficially negating the act of transmission that occurs each time a reader receives this story. In negating her own story, it is as though Morrison has declared that her characters had to get on with their lives, that one can endure only so long in the full consciousness of traumatic history, but that, even so, the last thing we must do is read Sethe's survival as uplifting.

On the question of endings, it is interesting to consider Morrison's reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in her literary critical study Playing in the Dark. Effectively endorsing the critical tradition's disappointment with the novel's ending, Morrison finds fault with Twain for abandoning the escape plot and failing to deliver Jim into freedom at Huck's hands. The novel's deferment of Jim's freedom is essential to its complicity with American ideology, Morrison decides, and this is so "because freedom has no meaning to Huck or to the text without the specter of enslavement." The focus here is on Huck's lack of intervention, his failure to become ultimately implicated in Jim's story. There is a pretty overt reason for this: although The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn testifies to the "yearning of whites for forgiveness and love," it also requires that the blacks whom they would forgive be viewed as supplicants to the whites and that Jim respond "to the torment and humiliation" that he undergoes with "boundless love" (Playing 56-57). Thus the specter of enslavement of which Jim's story remains an emanation expresses a fundamental ambivalence of white America toward a history for which it would confess only a limited responsibility. However we read the mock escape to which Huck and Tom subject Jim and the deus ex machina that releases Jim as a stipulation of the already deceased widow's will, it is evident that the novel's ending has lapsed into the traumatic idiom of slavery. Depicting Jim as altogether lacking the willfulness he showed in running away and Huck as failing to summon on Jim's behalf the resourcefulness with which he secured his own freedom, Twain refuses to give us the ending that Jim deserves and instead secures Jim's freedom as though it were consistent with the will of the slaveholding past. A specter of history casts itself over the agency of two characters who had seemed to denote the future of American idealism and freedom, indeed the emerging future of social mutuality. If there is a traumatic force at work here, Twain does not offer any subjective explanation of the trauma but rather employs it as a social allegory denoting the long reach of the past into the present, even past the point at which it had appeared to be defeated.

What is perhaps oddest about Morrison's assessment of Twain's novel is that the ending she would prefer would be perfectly consistent with American idealism. In delivering Jim to freedom, Huck would express the American belief in a freedom greater than all its contradictory evidences and become an exception to history with whom all readers could identify. As a true remnant of American idealism from a time in which our ugliest history was most conspicuous, Huck would embrace his responsibility and help us all to amend and work through the departed acts of the past. But, if Morrison seems to require a redemptive intervention from Twain and from his hero, her fictional rendering of a scenario that implicitly recalls Twain is much more complicated. In the scene from Beloved where Amy Denver intervenes to help Sethe make it through the night, Morrison revisits the specter of Huck's failed intervention, but she does so without providing the idealistic rendering she finds lacking in Twain. I close by focussing on the connotations of haunting in this central episode of Beloved, considering Amy's behaviour as a model of intervention that does not require the cancellation of traumatic history through a subjective return to the empirical rationalities of the status quo.

Any ethics that Morrison delineates through Amy's act of intervention exists in ironic tension with the possibilities of benevolent action, since Amy's story, narrated in two separate reminiscences, signifies a departure not only from the idealistic narrative of ethical action, but also from the very conception of justice arrived at through a person's (or character's) deliberated course of action. Moreover, since Amy's story is embedded in Denver's nostalgia for the story of her own birth, it is especially difficult to read the ethics of intervention that pertain to her actions apart from the question of idealism and the novel's larger questions about outsiders' interventions in the trauma of others. This story is part of the allegorical texture of the novel, and it is surely incumbent upon us to remember Amy in relation to the history that she symbolically stands against—not only thinking of Baby Suggs's having cynically contrasted the possibility of an escape from the traumatic past to all the available modes of memory, but also recalling that the haunting of Sethe has been the result of two catastrophic interventions. The first of these is the menacing intervention of the four white slaveholders who come apocalyptically to bring a fugitive slave to justice and thus incite the desperation that leads Sethe to murder her child. The concept of intervention in Beloved always carries this spectral history with it, and so, when Paul D strives generously to bring the reign of the ghost to an end, he brings the past to bear more fiercely on the present. For all his better intentions, Paul D reflects the biases of the predominant culture in his eagerness to participate in a forgetfulness conforming all experience to progress. What he occasions is the further degradation of Sethe before her history and a subjective response in her not unlike that of Twain's Jim, who not only permits his "persecutors to torment him," but responds to their torment with "boundless love" (Morrison, Playing 57). We may remind ourselves, when Sethe loves the source of her humiliation just as willingly as Jim does, that she is loving the spirit of her dead child, whereas Jim is only adoring the rights of authority; but, to the extent that each character's action is symptomatic of a traumatic history, it is also bound to the past in a manner that subordinates self-love to a spectral and obsolete mode of consciousness.

Having imagined Amy's story as a parable about intervening in an oppressive history, Morrison makes Amy stand not against but within the specters of indifference and neglect that characterize white society's perception of blacks. In the first telling of the story, Amy declares her intention to abandon Sethe ("I gotta go") and does so in unapologetically racist terms ("What you gonna do, just lay there and foal?" [33]). There is an odd humour at work here, as Morrison denotes Amy's emergent care but makes her character speak in an idiom of racism reminiscent of Huck's unreformed ideology, never letting us forget the point that Amy has a hard time perceiving her responsibility for Sethe and her history. Amy's callous reactions function a bit like the defensive reactions people have at horror movies, as they alternately whisper "Get out of there" and "Oh, she's so stupid." Indeed, when Amy says "You ain't got no business walking round these hills, miss" (78), she may refer to the fact that Sethe startled her, almost as if she were already one of the many ghosts populating black grief; or perhaps she only means to suggest that Sethe has put herself in harm's way. If her thought adopts the interpretive strategy of explaining Gothic phenomena as though they were purely subjective emanations, we see how easily such a course of explanation degenerates into an attitude of blaming the victim, since it must be either Sethe's irrationality or her moral guilt that functions as the principle of causation behind her suffering. When Amy observes the scars from Sethe's whipping, she concludes, "You must of did something" (80), unable quite to acknowledge her own implication in the fate of another.

Finally, however, it is through the idiom of haunting and the connotations of traumatic history that Morrison makes Amy an unwitting exception to the norms of indifference in Sethe's life and suggests the possibility of a non-benevolent ethical response to injustice in history. Having declared her departure and then remained, perhaps only out of curiosity, Amy expresses her ethical concern by way of a subtle defiance of the fatalistic narrative she has so far imposed on Sethe's life. Anticipating the future of Sethe's death suddenly, as if it were a trauma pertaining to herself, she continues to interrogate the dying pregnant woman at her side under the false name Sethe has given her:

"You ain't dead yet, Lu? Lu?"

"Not yet."

"Make you a bet. You make it through the night, you make it all the way."


Amy's ethical "bet" on Sethe's life rhymingly puns on the fatalism that Amy and Sethe have expressed in conceiving of her death as something "yet" to come, as though it were an inevitability demanding Hamletic resignation ("If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all" [5.2.158-60]). When we recall that in Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud defined anxiety as the psychological condition that prevents trauma by preparing the self for what is awful and to come, it is hard to hear Amy's continued expression that Sethe will die by her side as anything less than the imagined future of a trauma: "Don't up and die on me in the night, you hear? I don't want to see your ugly black face hankering over me" (82). By way of this conversion of the trauma into that which refers not only to another's past, but to a future in which the suffering of another will be remembered, Amy unwittingly discovers an ethics of intervention that need not cancel the spectacle and hold of suffering to promote an act of responsibility. It goes to the heart of Morrison's critique of benevolence (a critique implicit, for example, in Mr. Garner's fairer treatment of his slaves) that Amy enacts her ethical care for another and promotes again the possibility of self-love in Sethe only through the anti-idealistic expression of her bigotry. Beloved asks us whether it is possible for memory to intimate an act not yet encountered, as it were, to glimpse a future of the self given over to ethical meanings not subordinated to a history of intentions. Amy's intervening action is literally a coming between Sethe and her fate and thus an expression of the paradox of responsibility. She fails to conceive of her actions and Sethe's fate as matters of necessity, and at the same time she fails to choose her actions as consistent with the rationale of an empirical cultural narrative. Her somewhat unwitting responsiveness interprets ethics as the encounter with the excess meanings of history, with the specters of injustice haunting the lives of others and by implication ourselves. Too often our conventions of narrative and the accompanying mores of empiricism underestimate the devastating trauma of injustice in order to overcome it. In more Gothic terms, we may inherit the past fatalistically or achieve separation from it by accounting for its pathologies through the aberrations of subjective motive and perspective. But for Morrison it is clear that to stand in history is to stand within range of all its specters, to allow history to take measure of us in our inability and still to require our response where none is yet imagined. To the extent that history's practitioners forget this premise, much of what counts as history may be merely an avoidance of the injustices of the past.

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Intro. Bernard Magnus and Stephen Cullenberg. New York: Routledge 1994.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1920. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. Vol. 18. London: Hogarth, 1955.

Harris, Trudier. "Escaping Slavery but Not Its Images." Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. 1990. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K.A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. 330-41.

LaCapra, Dominick. Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1994.

――――――. Writing Trauma, Writing History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.

Morgenstern, Naomi. "Mother's Milk and Sister's Blood: Trauma and the Neoslave Narrative." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 8.2 (1996): 101-26.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

――――――. "Living Memory" [an interview with Toni Morrison]. City Limits (31 March to 7 April 1988): 10-11.

――――――. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Random House, 1992.

Rody, Caroline. "Toni Morrison's Beloved: History, 'Rememory,' and a 'Clamor for a Kiss.'" American Literary History 7.1 (1995): 92-119.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

Smith, Valerie. "'Circling the Subject': History and Narrative in Beloved." Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. 342-55.

Twain, Mark. Mississippi Writings: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Life on the Mississippi; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Pudd'nhead Wilson. Ed. Gary Cardwell. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Further Reading

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Middleton, David L. Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1987, 186 p.

Includes considerable criticism on Morrison's first four novels, as well as other writings, interviews, and anthologies.

Mix, Debbie. "Toni Morrison: A Selected Bibliography." Modern Fiction Studies 39, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1993): 795-818.

Bibliography covering selected criticism on Morrison's novels.


Britton, Wesley. "The Puritan Past and Black Gothic: The Haunting of Toni Morrison's Beloved in Light of Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables." Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 21, no. 2 (fall 1995): 7-23.

Compares themes and techniques in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables and Morrison's Beloved.

Corey, Susan. "Toward the Limits of Mystery: The Grotesque in Toni Morrison's Beloved." In The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable, edited by Marc C. Conner, pp. 31-48. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Examines Morrison's disruption of familiar reality in Beloved.

Coundouriotis, Eleni. "Materialism, the Uncanny, and History in Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie." Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 8, no. 2 (1997): 207-25.

Examines the significance of the uncanny to Morrison's alternate presentation of history in Beloved and Sula.

Harris, Trudier. "Beloved: Woman, Thy Name Is Demon." In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison's Beloved, edited by Barbara Solomon, pp. 127-37. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.

Explores Beloved's basis in folk traditions.

House, Elizabeth B. "Toni Morrison's Ghost: The Beloved Who Is Not Beloved." In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison's Beloved, edited by Barbara Solomon, pp. 117-26. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.

Contends that the title character in Beloved is not a supernatural being but a young woman who has experienced the horrors of slavery.

Neubauer, Paul. "The Demon of Loss and Longing: The Function of the Ghost in Toni Morrison's Beloved." In Demons: Mediators between This World and the Other: Essays on Demonic Beings from the Middle Ages to the Present, edited by Ruth Petzoldt and Paul Neubauer, pp. 165-74. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang, 1998.

Assesses the reliance on African-American traditions of demonology in Beloved.

Nudelman, Franny. "Toward a Reader's History: 'Ghosts Might Enter Here.'" In Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition, edited by John L. Idol and Melinda M. Ponder, pp. 278-85. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Compares the function of ghosts in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Beloved.

Redding, Arthur. "'Haints': American Ghosts, Ethnic Memory, and Contemporary Fiction." Mosaic 34, no. 4 (December 2001): 163-82.

Discusses Morrison's use of ghosts in light of American historical views of hauntings.

Stryz, Jan. "The Other Ghost in Beloved: The Specter of The Scarlet Letter (1991)." In The New Romanticism: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Eberhard Alsen, pp. 137-57. New York: Garland, 2000.

Positions Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter as a literary predecessor to Beloved.


Additional coverage of Morrison's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 22, 61; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Black Literature Criticism; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 99; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968–1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 42, 67, 113, 124; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 10, 22, 55, 81, 87, 173, 194; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 33, 143; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Multicultural, Novelists, and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century; Exploring Novels; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion; Feminist Writers; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 2, 4; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 6, 8, 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 5; Something About the Author, Vols. 57, 144; Twayne's United States Authors; and 20th Century Romance and Historical Writers.


Morrison, Toni (Feminism in Literature)


Morrison, Toni (Vol. 10)