Toni Morrison’s Beloved is another classic that has taken me a while to come to. Why? As with many revered books, that is a question with a very long answer!
Beloved is obviously in a league all it’s own. I have a lot to learn about READING from it. In all honesty, alot of the book- particularly in the first half- was difficult to fully understand on initial reading. I’m glad I persevered – there is so much about it to note that I’m curious to know what I’d find on re-read
I’m possibly the last person on these internets to read Beloved so I’m not going to re hash plot. If you want that, do have a look here or here. I’m going to write a bit about a few themes and points that struck me
Memory, “Rememory” and shared experience
Morrison’s use and communication of individual memory is what I found most powerful in this novel. There are a few pages where Beloved and Sethe’s combined memories are expressed in tandem. Here, what is being remembered seems to extend before either of their beings . The memories , “rememory” and repetition in this book built an omnipresence that went beyond Beloved, the character or the book. A spirit. This story very is haunting. It is not a book you can read, put down and (ironically) forget.
The role of memory and personal history in Beloved is so significant both in understanding the relationship between the characters and understanding day to day life in slavery away from a Euro- centric focus. A striking point is that the characters had been at some point been bound by slavery and suffered. The trauma of that history was extremely present in every character and yet the focus is more on how Black people behaved with each other- and loved each other, endured within the limited agency they did have. Good or bad, this is what they did do. These were the individuals in a history we think we know. It is not a story from a white perspective and it is not text book.
An important aspect of memory is that people sharing an experience will have different versions of it. An example being how Sethe, Paul D. and Baby Sugar remembered The Clearing vs how the outsiders like Janey remembered The Clearing and Baby Sugar herself. Even the naming of places/ events in personal memories (The Clearing, The Lowest Of The Low)- emphasised the role of summoning the past in this narrative
A fictional story based on an unforgettable real life character
I love books sending me off on a Google trail! Beloved is a fictional novel but so much research went into it. Sethe’s character is based on the real life story of Margaret Garner. She was an enslaved African American woman who, with her family, escaped Maplewood Farm (Kentucky) in 1856, pursuing freedom. Unfortunately, they were caught by the enslaver and law enforcement. Having suffered slavery herself, Garner killed her two year old daughter rather than have her suffer the same fate. Morrison was impressed with Garner’s intellect, ferocity and willingness to risk everything for freedom. She took the inspiration to imagine the characters and stories-Toni Morrison wrote this in her foreword to Beloved:
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. (Beloved xvii)
Here’s a link to find out more about Margaret Garner, including the newspaper clippings from the 1850s and differences from Sethe’s character
Another link about the case and Toni Morrison’s quotes for context
Toni Morrison wrote so we could read actively
The reader has to work in this story in order to figure out relationships and histories. A lot of it unravels as you read but if curiosity chases you too, you will probably try and figure it out as you go along. It made me think about how a lot of literature I come across now has the thinking done for you, there’s very little to figure out. That’s not a complaint, I like an easy read sometimes but it’s interesting that a lot of books are not asking us to unravel plot any more. Why is that? Or maybe they are and I haven’t been reading those books alot?
Beloved is a gothic/ horror story
I probably should have known the genre going in but I didn’t! This has made me wonder what else I’m missing in this genre.
There is a lot of beautiful writing within such a terrifying narrative. Some of the prose even sounds poetic. I always appreciate stories with a folklore/mythical element woven into it which I think Beloved did. In the characters’ memories and punishments inflicted on enslaved people, it is truly a horror to realise that the characters are remembering depravity that was a matter of routine.
One thing I did find strange though – why didn’t Sethe always know it was Beloved? It seemed obvious
There are some books that beg a second read to absorb properly and this was a difficult read. Both literally and psychologically. I think I will have to read it again to appreciate it properly. I do think this probably isn’t the best Morrison to start with, the style and craft is fairly complex. I am very interested explore more of Toni Morrison’s fiction and there is an extensive catalogue for me to get into. What would you recommend first?
My edition of Beloved is the Plume edition published in 1988 . Lucky to find it secondhand from Crofton Books