Beloved by Toni Morrison
During a random strike of thrift stores last week, I stumbled across a copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I’m almost ashamed to say that I’ve never read anything by Toni Morrison, despite her works’ importance. I’ve heard about Beloved in bits and pieces over the years, and I’d sort of built it up in my head as a piece of epic literature. I even thought that the decisive action Sethe takes took place during her flight from slavery, possibly on an ice floe. (Why? I have no idea.) But now I’ve corrected this shameful oversight. I have to admit, it was a similar experience to reading Atonement–a book I may read only once. Not because it’s not good, but because it’s so good that it breaks your heart.
Beloved traces the effects of slavery on the freed (and escaped) through the story of Sethe, an escaped slave making a quiet life for herself with her children and her mother-in-law in Ohio. Sethe’s home is supposedly haunted and she is shunned by the townspeople, but Sethe tries to make the best of it and ignore her past. But her life is shaken up when Paul D, an escaped slave she knows from her own enslavement, comes along into her life, as well as a girl who reminds Sethe as nothing so much as her dead daughter. Can you really just forget a past as painful as Sethe’s?
Morrison’s writing is beautiful, and she has that powerful knack to pick out just the right detail. (It’s no wonder it won the Pulitzer.) While I won’t spoil it for you, Sethe’s decisive action that colors the entire book contains one single detail that drove home the horror and love at the heart of the novel. Her imagery is unique and often creates beauty out of horror. The recurring image of Sethe’s scars on her back being seen as a tree is beautifully done. There’s even some poetry in Beloved–at least two chapters are straight poems. But Morrison’s inventive writing can overreach a wee bit. She occasionally dips into present tense without warning, and while it usually works, occasionally it feels a little off. But it’s a very minor hiccup to me, I have to say.
I was surprised to discover that the real heart of the story lies not with Sethe, but with Denver, her living daughter. At first, I thought Denver was much younger than she actually was, due to the nonlinear story structure, but once that was all sorted out, I liked her. Born during Sethe’s flight from slavery and raised in almost isolation, Denver comes into her own during the novel. I was especially moved by the passage where Morrison describes the moment Denver became a woman, and I realized that the little girl that I almost dismissed at the beginning was making me tear up with something like pride. That is effective writing.
The story, to my surprise, is nonlinear, although it politely telegraphs most of its jumps so that it feels organic. To my even greater surprise, I enjoyed it. While I wouldn’t consider the novel an ensemble piece, there’s just so many stories to tell that I’m glad Morrison wrote it in a way that accommodated them. Obviously, we learn about Sethe’s and Paul D’s pasts, but there’s also the story of Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, the ultimate fate of Halle, Sethe’s husband, and even some of the histories of the minor characters. I was especially horrified and impressed with the brief but brutal way in which Morrison gives us the backstory for a woman named Ella. It really drives home what Beloved is about.
Beloved focuses primarily on the legacy of slavery, especially psychologically. The impulse to forget and repress hurts and can even overshadow a life. Paul D, especially, is wounded, but through the many stories Morrison tells us, we learn how everyone is hurt. Baby Suggs’ reaction is especially heartbreaking. Any kind of slavery, Morrison shows us, is harmful to everyone in the horrific cycle, even the supposedly benevolent slavery Sethe and Paul D “enjoyed” for a time. The kindest white people in the story, a brother and sister that help escaped slaves build lives for themselves, are still racist–the moment where Denver comes across a racist statue of a black boy in their home and doesn’t quite know how to respond is especially heartbreaking. Slavery is obviously wrong, but Morrison drives home just exactly how brutally damaging it is in a way that is both heartbreaking and almost beautiful.
Bottom line: One of those books you have to read–with just the right detail at the right moment to drive home the psychological legacy of slavery, Beloved will break your heart.