A Novel By Toni Morrison
By: Christina Whetzel and Kevin Heom
Beloved is a novel by Toni Morrison about the afterlife of an escaped slave. The novel as a whole explores not just the horrors of slavery, but also how the horrors lasted long after slavery was abolished. Taking place in the post-Civil War era, it tells the story of Sethe, who lives with her teenage daughter Denver in a house haunted by the ghost of her former, murdered child. After the death of her mother-in-law and her teenage boys’ abandonment from the family, Sethe is visited by one of her fellow slaves, Paul D, from Sweet Home, their old plantation. Faced with the opportunity to build a family and confide in someone who understands her pain, she begins living with and learning to love this man, only to find her desires confronted by her mistrusting daughter and her own self-doubt. Meanwhile, the hauntings stop in the house when Paul D moves in, yet a mysterious woman named Beloved arrives on their doorstep and begins living with them, digging into the past Sethe is trying so hard to forget. Beloved begins to unravel Sethe and, by the end, causes her to question her past and confront the part of her life she has repressed. Morrison wrote the novel in 1987, and the book received high praise, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year.
Historical and Cultural Context
After the American Civil War had just ended (and slavery was abolished), freedmen were left in a tricky position. The institution of slavery had for years dehumanized them and caused them to be seen as property as opposed to human beings. This of course meant that slave families were often separated, either by the selling of family members (as seen in Figure 1) or by the violent murder of slaves that occurred so often. Naturally, it was impossible for them to integrate into society seamlessly. Many slaves also had no real mother or father on plantations, and the transition from plantation life to family life was confusing and very
difficult emotionally for them. On top of this, the Fugitive Slave Act was still intact for years even after slaves were freed, meaning that a former enslaved mother’s children could be considered claimable property.
The plot of Beloved takes place during this period after the Civil War, immediately after slaves were freed. It explores the emotional struggles of this confusing period, and sets the stage for the beginning of Reconstruction (with all its social violence against ex-slaves and their families). The novel, being a work of fiction that retells history, also bases the character Sethe on a real slave woman named Margaret Garner. Margaret Garner was a slave who escaped from Kentucky with her four children and, like Sethe in the novel, killed one of her children when she was caught because she didn’t want them to live the terrible life she had lived. Morrison was amazed by this story and the emotional trauma and turmoil behind this decision, and she decided to write Beloved without doing any more research into Garner. The historically correct facts incorporated into the story were the sex of Garner’s children, how many of them there were, and the method in which she killed one child (and was about to kill the other). The rest of the novel Morrison wanted to write herself, and Morrison admits to keeping herself from doing any more research into Garner (Rothstein, “Toni Morrison…”). The novel incorporates a mindset like Garner’s into the discussion of the emotional trauma following the abolition of slavery and shows the drastic effects of this psychological mindset in the formation of families and self-identity. In terms of the author, Morrison herself is considered one of the great American authors of our time and is known for her deep, revolutionary novels exploring black America. Beloved is one of her most famous works to date and exemplifies one of Morrison’s most unique qualities–she does not shy away from slavery and its horrors, both physical and psychological.
Themes and Style
The style of this novel is unique in comparison to many other works of historical fiction, specifically because it is a ghost story, and turns the subtly mentioned ghost of the past into a living character that physically and emotionally affects the main characters. This physical representation heightens the sensation in the reader that Sethe and her children are truly plagued by the past. The discovery of Beloved in their house simulates their acknowledgement of the past and its emotional difficulties, and the following fights, events, and mixed emotions toward Beloved represent their dealing with this newly acknowledged past. At the end, however, Beloved completely disappears after Sethe turns her rage against the white man, the representation of the character who caused all her emotional trauma, instead of against herself and her family in fear. This suggests that only in Sethe’s identification of the real problem (and source of unhappiness that has plagued her for so long–the white man) was she able to overcome the sense of fear and helplessness enough to take charge and shed her guilt, causing her physical past (in the form of Beloved) to disappear. Paul D also supports this idea of healing and learning to live, saying “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (Morrison 322). As a whole, the use of the ghost/character figure makes the mental struggles of the characters physical and more evident to the reader, and the disappearance of Beloved at the end of the novel suggests the overcoming of the psychological past that has plagued the whole family for so long.
In the novel, the themes that prominently stand out are the search for identity and the
effects of that search on family ties and relationships. In terms of the search for identity, Morrison uses Beloved as a character to both highlight the psychological past that plagues Sethe, and to bring those issues and inability to deal with the past to light. Beloved constantly confronts Sethe about her past, and their conversations tend to reveal memories that Sethe has been forcing herself to forget (showing the magnitude of her anxiety about the past). For example, after Beloved’s arrival, Sethe unearths information about her past with Paul D, and just as she starts to remember it in detail, she stops and distracts herself by rubbing Paul D’s knee, saying that “nothing [is] better than that to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past” (Morrison 86). Beloved seems to trigger a movement into the past for Sethe, and each day she must focus more on ignoring her past, indicating her psychological distress.
The descriptions of Denver and her mistrust of her mother and Paul D also work to highlight the way Sethe’s lack of identity and distress affect Denver’s ability to form family ties. For example, because Sethe raised her children without a father figure and has an inability to form emotional attachment (because she has seen so much death), Denver experiences an adverse reaction to a man trying to enter her family, and it is mentioned that Paul D’s arrival “[left] Denver’s world flat” (Morrison 45). This idea indicates that some of Sethe’s lack of emotional attachment to others has been passed down to Denver, and may continue through generations. Sethe also seems aware that this is happening, although she cannot help it, and remarks that “unless carefree, motherlove was a killer” (Morrison 155). This quote suggests that because of Sethe’s past and her attachment to her children, she wants to shield them from everything harmful in the world, which can include other people, and in the case of the child she killed, the world itself. As we can see through descriptions of Denver’s psychological distress, this shielding is hurting her children and caused a sense of isolation to grow within them. Additionally, Paul D had the belief that to survive the life of slavery, you had to “love small”; in other words, having many deep familial relationships like “A woman, a child, a brother,” he remarked, “would split you wide open” (Morrison 191).
All of these ideas provide context for the novel as a whole and seem to imply that the
damage that slavery did to people didn’t just go away after slavery was outlawed. The psychological doubt, numbness, and repression lasted many years afterward, and it affected the families and their emotional ties to each other and other people as well. In the novel, Sethe says it best herself: “freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another” (Morrison 111-112). While the novel itself does not have any direct references to modern day America, there is evidence that the lack of family ties and emotional instability explored in the novel may have moved on through generations. Figure 3 shows some of this instability in the analysis of Black family structure in modern times–many black children today suffer from a lack of a father in the home, which may be a product of family instability directly following slavery. Additionally, a lot of the themes seen in the communities of the novel are similar to problems people experience today (such as poor housing conditions). Most of the critical conversation around Beloved today centers on how the ideas we’ve explored in the novel relate to modern day race relations and injustices.
Since its publication in 1987, Beloved has gained popularity among scholars and literary critics, so it’s no surprise that writers have published articles sharing their perspectives of the novel. A lot of the important conversations surrounding the novel focus on the psychological motivations of the characters, and the meanings that they convey. For example, Jennifer Holden-Kirwan, a lecturer at the University of California, Riverside, analyzes the psychological impact that slavery had on the characters in Beloved. In her paper, she points out that many critics believe that Beloved is “unquestionably the dead daughter’s spirit in human form” but that others believe the character to be a ghost from the slave ships of Sethe’s ancestry, which could be interpreted as a representation of the generations of slavery (Holden-Kirwan 418). Drawing from these two theories, Holden-Kirwan forms her own argument that Beloved is actually a combination of both Sethe’s mother and Sethe’s murdered daughter, referencing characters’ state of mind and thought processes. She cites Freudian ideas of repression like das Unheimliche, or uncanny experiences and feelings, to support her arguments that explain its lasting effects on Sethe’s behavior towards Beloved and Denver, as well as Denver’s lack of subjectivity. These psychological ideas are closely tied to identity.
Another piece that focuses on Sethe is by Mervyn Rothstein, a widely published New York Times author, who explores the topic of motherly love. Her article considers the key decision Sethe makes to kill her infant daughter. In addition to offering insight from Morrison herself, it too has relevance to the concept of identity, as the love that Sethe exhibited as a mother displaced her sense of self in this moment. Rothstein’s article poses the question of whether or not the murder was justified, and it offers a glimpse into Morrison’s response that Sethe had no right to do it, yet she herself “would have done the same” (Rothstein, “Toni Morrison…”). She remarks that mothers are good at nurturing and loving others but that their love can also work against them, suppressing their sense of self and placing it in someone else, whether it be a lover or a child.
The other significant area of conversation on the topic revolves around modern day applications of the themes in Beloved. Linda Krumholz, a Visiting Assistant Professor of American Literature at Oberlin College, details Beloved’s cultural recollection of slavery in her article and ties it to tensions and racial inequality in America today. She argues that Sethe’s acknowledgement and overcoming of her past through the course of the novel (that the reader sees through interactions with Beloved) is a model for the reader “who must confront Sethe’s past as a part of our own past, a collective past that lives right here where we live” (Krumholz 395). In her eyes, the journey that the readers take when reading the novel mirrors the journey we must take as a society to overcome our racism.
On the other hand, Alex Zamalin, a Ph.D. candidate at the City University of New York,
discusses modern day African American marginalization and public policy by making parallels between things like Jim Crow laws and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. He argues that the society set up for black Americans by whites after slavery is one where they are constantly in debt to American society. Prominently he uses Bodwin, the white man that gives out homes and jobs in Beloved, to exemplify the idea that “his assistance actually tethers aid to work, available to recipients only on the condition that individuals adhere to the moral standards of conduct that he defines” (Zamalin 206). He further argues that this type of aid exemplified in the novel reproduces African-American marginalization, and that this has continued over the years to affect the economy and housing for black people today, disadvantaging them. Figure 4 supports Zamalin’s claims by showing that a majority of households (with children) where at least 40% of the population is poor are owned by black people. These sources offer rich insight into racial injustice and how remnants of slavery that are illustrated in the novel have impacted today’s society.
Holden-Kirwan, Jennifer L. “Looking into the Self That Is No Self: An Examination of Subjectivity in Beloved.” African American Review, vol. 32, no. 3, 1998, pp. 415–426. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3042242.
Krumholz, Linda. “The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” African American Review, vol. 26, no. 3, 1992, pp. 395–408. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3041912.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.
Rothstein, Mervyn. “Toni Morrison, In Her New Novel, Defends Women.” The New York Times, 26 Aug. 1987, http://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/26/books/toni-morrison-in-her-new-novel-defends-women.html.
Zamalin, Alex. “Beloved Citizens: Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, Racial Inequality, and American Public Policy.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 1/2, 2014, pp. 205–211. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24364924.
Atwood, Margaret. “JAUNTED BY THEIR NIGHTMARES.” The New York Times, 12 Sept. 1987, www.nytimes.com/1987/09/13/books/jaunted-by-their-nightmares.html?pagewanted=all.
Carten, Alma. “How Slavery’s Legacy Affects the Mental Health of Black Americans.” New Republic, 27 July 2015, newrepublic.com/article/122378/how-slaverys-legacy-affects-mental-health-black-americans.
Doreen Fowler; “Nobody Could Make It Alone”: Fathers and Boundaries in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, MELUS, Volume 36, Issue 2, 1 June 2011, Pages 13–33, https://doi.org/10.1353/mel.2011.0025.
Metcalf, Stephen. “Why is Beloved Beloved?” Slate Magazine, 18 May 2006, www.slate.com/articles/arts/the_dilettante/2006/05/why_is_beloved_beloved.html.
Smiley, Jane. “Toni Morrison: Beloved.” The Guardian, 8 July 2006, www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jul/08/fiction.tonimorrison.
Keywords: Beloved, Toni Morrison, Family, Identity, Motherhood, Generations, Repression, Freedom, Memory, Race Relations, African American Literature, Slavery