Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 27, 2009

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a wonderful book even though it is deeply disturbing to read.   It was published in 1987, it won the Pulitzer Prize and Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.  Why it has taken me more than 20 years to get round to reading it, and how I came to miss the movie, I can’t explain….

It’s the story of Sethe, in post Civil War Ohio, coming to terms with a freedom which has not really set her free.  The narrative leaks unwelcome intrusions from her past into the present and it presents multiple voices, but Sethe is the central character.  A former slave, she has lost so much and she is such a damaged person that I found it hard to reconcile this depiction of a former slave with Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My NameI had reservations about the resilience of the character Aminata at the time of reading Hill’s book, and Beloved reinforces my view that the impact of slavery on the psyche is, in Someone Knows My Name, somewhat sanitized.

Sethe’s house, No 124, is haunted by her dead toddler, and everyone avoids the place.  Her grandmother, Baby Suggs, has not long died and Sethe lives there alone with her surviving daughter, Denver, until Paul D turns up.  He is a former slave also from the ironically named plantation Sweet Home, and his arrival triggers the presence of Beloved, who seems to be an adult reincarnation of the dead child.

Memories too painful to remember surge back to life.  We learn about the thrashing Sethe received from Schoolmaster so that her back resembles a chokeberry tree, and how two boys stole her milk, suckling as if she were an animal.  She flees, going into premature labour from which she is rescued by Amy Denver, poor ‘white trash’.  Amy saves her life, she cleans and tends her feet as Christ would have done, and crucially, despite her own poverty, she does not turn Sethe in to claim reward money for the recapture of a runaway.

Schoolteacher finds her anyway and it is then that Sethe tries to kill her children to prevent them from being taken back to slavery, but she succeeds only with one, ‘trying to put my babies where they would be safe’.  It is a gruesome death, triggered by panic, but the local community cannot forgive her for it, and Paul D cannot come to terms with it either although he yearns to bring Sethe back to normality and into the healing life of the Black Community.

He, like Sethe, has learned not to love.  When husbands, wives and children are taken away and sold, it doesn’t pay to love anyone at all.  He witnessed the outrage perpetrated on Sethe but could not speak because he had an iron bit in his mouth.  Later he is forced to wear a metal collar and is shamed to be wearing it in Sethe’s presence.  The horrors described in this book are sometimes quite overwhelming but there are words also which shock and shock again, as when Schoolmaster refers to Sethe’s baby as a foal.   There is a painfully poignant moment when Paul D recognises that as a slave he has less value than a rooster, because roosters have freedom, and even when they’re killed they’re still roosters, but Negro slaves have no identity, no intrinsic worth and no value other than economic.

There is no coming to terms with slavery for any of these people, not even for Denver who was born in freedom.  When she walks down the street and hears footsteps behind her she is in a lather of fear until it is clear that they are Black, not White, and will not torment her.  There is no release ever from the sense of having being ‘owned’ even though there is a kind of surreal joy when Paul D first experiences being paid for his labour and spends money he has earned.

Nevertheless, there is a kind of bittersweet triumph when the women of the community ‘sing away’ Beloved when she threatens to engulf Sethe entirely, and Paul D reclaims her so that they can have a future of sorts.

Beloved is rich in symbolism, themes and moral dilemmas (and there are probably countless websites analysing it) – but for me the raw experience of reading it has changed the way I think about slavery forever.  I knew it was evil in all its manifestations, even in pseudo-benign forms like Sweet Home or Hill’s Carolina indigo plantations, but I had not thought through the psychological scarring that permeates the generations that follow.  It is like the Holocaust – an unimaginable horror made real and an unforgiveable crime – but more than that, it haunts the mind and perhaps may never be cleansed from memory.

I am not sure that the powerful emotions this book evoked would translate well into film.  Part of the power of this book is the fractured narrative and the incoherence of the characters’ thoughts.  Tidying that up into an accessible film might well have muted its message.

Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Beloved
Publisher: Vintage 2007
ISBN: 9780099511656
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

It’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.


Responses

  1. Me ex-colleague David who retired last year and returned to Melbourne to live finally read this book this year. (We have a running challenge about authors one has read and the other hasn’t. He loves Updike and DeLillo – I finally read a DeLillo but have yet to read an Updike). Anyhow, he loved beloved and put it in his Facebook Top 15. I’m glad you liked it too…I’ve read it twice and would be happy to read it again. I’ve only read one other Morrison – Jazz – good, but not Beloved! I haven’t seen the film (yet).

  2. It’s strange, isn’t it, the way some books that we know about – that are highly recommended by people whose opinion we respect – are somehow tardy about making their way to the top of the TBR? I am mystified about my delay in reading Morrison, and modern American writers in general. I can’t rationalise my choices; most of my reading is a matter of impulse!

  3. Moi aussi. I guess it’s partly because we put more emphasis on reading Australians. But, I would like to read more “modern” American “canon” writers. I’ve read one DeLillo, one Roth, one Irving (I think he’s canon level??), two Morrisons, but I haven’t read Updike, Barthes, Gaddis (though I started JR and liked it but it was a challenge to read at a time which I had other pressures). Ph well…there’s still time.

  4. […] Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison (USA) […]

  5. […] aspects of postmodernism get a workout in novels like Toni’s Morrison’s Beloved (see my wholly inadequate review) and JM Coetzee’s Foe (which I’ve read but not reviewed here).  Eaglestone notes […]


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