Beloved by Toni Morrison
This is the first time I’ve read Beloved or Toni Morrison. Beloved is the third-person narrative about former slave Sethe and her daughter Denver who was born during Sethe's flight of freedom. Most of the story takes place in 1870s Ohio, but there are flashbacks to earlier periods during days of slavery, the flight to freedom, or early days in Ohio. It must also be considered a ghost story, though I wouldn’t categorize it as horror.
My rating: 4 of 5 Stars
This novel satisfies square O5 of 2015 Classics Bingo: Prize Winning Female Author
I had no knowledge or expectations of this novel, but even without expectations, I was in for a big surprise. I’ve already hinted it is a bit difficult to categorize. Primarily, I’d say it is a story about the struggle for freedom from the misery and villainy of slavery. And though that story has been told before, Morrison certainly takes a singular approach with Beloved. I thought it was excellent.
The novel begins at 124 Bluestone Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 1873. The narrative says, 124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby’s venom. In other words, it was haunted. It was once the home of Baby Suggs, holy. That needs a bit of an explanation. Baby Suggs was no baby, but rather the aged mother-in-law of Sethe. The adjective holy, was nearly inseparable from her name, a title of respect as the lay preacher and spiritual guide to the former slaves in the community. By 1873 Baby Suggs had died, and Sethe’s two boys, Howard and Buglar had run off, leaving only Sethe and Denver. The reader eventually learns that Sethe had another daughter, a bit older than Denver, who was murdered before her first birthday.
You might be able to guess who was haunting 124.
Another former slave, Paul D, shows up at Sethe’s house. The two were both slaves in Kentucky and reminisce on the porch about days at the farm they refer to as Sweet Home. When Paul D enters the house he is aware of the presence and exclaims,
What kind of evil you got in here?
It’s not evil, just sad.
A bit later Paul D and the ghost have a violent confrontation. Paul D wins and the ghost seems to depart forever. Shortly thereafter however, another mysterious presence manifests itself clearly intent on staying.
The reader might, be tempted to get caught up in the ghost story, but I don’t believe it is the major theme of Beloved. As I’ve said, it is the tale of the horrors of slavery. For myself, it is easy to be indignant in the macro sense at the outrage of slavery, but it is less easy, for me, to feel it personally. However, Morrison recounts outrages against characters, people I am now invested in, and makes it personal. My heart broke when Sethe recalled not knowing her mother among the female slaves at Sweet Home. My soul wept at the indignity when Paul D with shackles and a bit in his mouth, was ashamed in the presence of a rooster, because he felt the rooster’s contempt. Paul D recounted,
I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.
But worst of all, was the dreadful measures Sethe was driven to. In her first month of freedom, fugitive hunters find her and intend to take her and the children back to Sweet Home, something Sethe will not allow at any cost.
Let me be clear: Toni Morrison only gave me a glimpse of the horror. I don’t pretend to know the half. Maybe this is a horror story after all. It is an important one, and I am glad to have read it.
Morrison dedicated the novel to Sixty Million and more: African casualties in the slave trade. The epigraph is Romans 9:25 –
I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved which was not beloved.
The title, Beloved, refers to the name of Sethe’s murdered child. Sethe could only pay the stonecutter enough for one word and chose a word the preacher began the funeral with. The child became known as Beloved.
Although Sethe is the main character, Denver was my favorite – but not immediately. In the beginning, Denver is angry, rude, and scared. Who can blame her, though she isn’t scared of the ghost. In fact, she seems to be on fairly good terms with it. She is scared of humanity, and barely able or willing to leave the house. By the end though, she rises above her fear and is the heroine.
Spoiler Alert: The following contains a spoiler.
When Morrison decided to write a story about the struggles of slaves, she wrote: The idea was riveting, but the canvas overwhelmed me. Then she recalled the true story of a runaway slave that killed one of her own children rather than let her return to slavery.
It’s very grim, and desperately sad – but told as beautifully as something so ugly can be told.
Winter in Ohio was especially rough if you had an appetite for color. Sky provided the only drama, and counting on a Cincinnati horizon for life’s principal joy was reckless indeed.
Almost by myself. Not all by myself. A whitegirl helped me. ~ Sethe
Then she helped herself too, God bless her. ~ Paul D.
One night and they were talking like a couple. They had skipped love and promise and went directly to “You saying it’s all right to scramble here?”
During, before and after the War he had seen Negroes so stunned, or hungry, or tired or bereft it was a wonder they recalled or said anything. Who, like him, had hidden in caves and fought owls for food; who, like him, stole from pigs; who, like him, slept in trees in the day and walked by night; who, like him, had buried themselves in slop and jumped in wells to avoid regulators, raiders, paterollers, veterans, hill men, posses and merrymakers. ~ Paul D.
She began to sweat from a fever she thanked God for since it would certainly keep her baby warm. ~ Sethe
Spring sauntered north, but he had to run like hell to keep it as his traveling companion.
So Baby Suggs, holy, having devoted her freed life to harmony, was buried amid a regular dance of pride, fear, condemnation and spite.
Death is a skipped meal compared to this. ~ Denver
Something sweet lives in the air that time of year, and if the breeze is right, it’s hard to stay indoors.
Denver: The job she started out with, protecting Beloved from Sethe, changed to protecting her mother from Beloved.
Denver looked up at her. She did not know it then, but it was the word “baby,” said softly and with such kindness, that inaugurated her life in the world as a woman.
…the women had arrived at a doomsday truce designed by the devil.
Denver thought she understood the connection between her mother and Beloved: Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it.
All he did was smile and say, “Take care of yourself, Denver.” But she heard it as though it were what language was made for.
Wanderer's Commentary: It IS what language was made for.
Film Rendition: 1998 starring Oprah Winfrey as Sethe and Danny Glover as Paul D. I thought this was a superb and faithful rendition. I’ve seen many screenwriters and/or directors ruin a film by trying to improve upon the author’s story, but this was perhaps the most faithful portrayal I’ve seen. I thought it was well cast and acted. Kimberly Elise as Denver was particularly good. She affected body language and expression that perfectly portrayed the change in Denver I mentioned in the book. In the beginning Elise, as Denver, always wears a scowl and suspicious eyes. At the end I thought she was quite beautiful. Read the book first.