Beloved – Toni Morrison

A classic and one of the few books by women of colour included in the literary canon. I suspect I’m one of the last people to read this novel.

Beloved tells the story of Sethe and her children. It’s 1873 and Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live at 124 Bluestone Road. Her sons have left home to fight in the war and her daughter Beloved is dead. Her husband hasn’t been seen since her escape from slavery and her mother-in-law who was living with her died eight years previously. No one comes to the house because it’s haunted by a ghost they believe is Sethe’s dead baby daughter.

At the beginning of the novel, Paul D, a man Sethe knows from her time at Sweet Home where they were both slaves, arrives at the house. She hasn’t seen him for eighteen years. During Paul D’s first day at the house, he witnesses the power of the ghost:

It took him a while to realise that his legs were not shaking because of worry, but because the floorboards were and the grinding, shoving floor was only part of it. The house itself was pitching. Sethe slid to the floor and struggled to get back into her dress. While down on all fours, as though she were holding her house down on the ground, Denver burst from the keeping room, terror in her eyes, a vague smile on her lips.

“God damn it! Hush up!” Paul D was shouting, falling, reaching for anchor. “Leave the place alone! Get the hell out!” A table rushed toward him and he grabbed its leg. Somehow he managed to stand at an angle and, holding the table by two legs, he bashed it about, wrecking everything, screaming back at the screaming house. “You want to fight, come on! God damn it! She got enough without you. She got enough!”

His reaction displaces the ghost. Sethe and Paul D begin a relationship although Denver is clearly not enamoured with Paul D. She’s angry that he’s removed her only company from the house.

A few days after Paul D’s intervention, ‘a fully dressed woman walked out of the water’. When Sethe, Paul D and Denver arrive home following a trip to the circus, she’s waiting outside the house.

“What might your name be?” asked Paul D.

“Beloved,” she said, and her voice was so low and rough each one looked at the other two. They heard the voice first – later the name.

“Beloved. You use a last name, Beloved?” Paul D asked her.

“Last?” she seemed puzzled. Then “No”, and she spelled it for them, slowly as if the letters were being formed as she spoke them.

Sethe and Denver are convinced this is Sethe’s dead baby – she’s the same age as she would’ve been had she lived. Soon Beloved is exerting power over them and Paul D, wreaking revenge for her death.

The novel’s separated into three sections. The first, which spans more than half of the book, concentrates on Beloved’s arrival and the effect she has, particularly on Sethe and Paul D’s relationship. Interwoven with this are ‘rememories’ which make up the story of Sethe’s time as a slave, including meeting her husband Halle. There are also several sections given over to Paul D, including the point when he and a number of other men escaped. At the end of this section is the revelation of how Beloved died which is shocking and reveals the length a mother will go to in order to protect their child.

Section Two shifts focus. The first and longest part concentrates on Stamp Paid who has revealed to Paul D the nature of Beloved’s death. His part ends with him considering how few black people have a natural, peaceful death and ‘none that he knew of…had lived a liveable life’.

Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolk planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them blood, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.

It’s impossible to read this paragraph without thinking about how little attitudes have changed. It immediately brought to my mind the way black people are treated in their daily lives and also, very specifically, the nature of the deaths of black men and women at the hands of police officers and white terrorist gun men. It links back to the nature of Beloved’s death and the lengths a parent will go to in order to protect their child. It shows the oppression black people face by being expected to live up to white societal and cultural norms.

The novel ends with Morrison giving Sethe, Denver and Beloved their own voices, showing the power Beloved exerts. This feeds the final section of the book in which the power of community is shown.

Beloved is a haunting, powerful book which considers the aftermath of slavery and the psychological consequences for those who survived and were free in a basic physical sense. If you’re one of the last remaining people who hasn’t read it, I highly recommend you rectify this soon.

 

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19 thoughts on “Beloved – Toni Morrison

  1. As you know , I love this book . My friend saw her speaking about it in US just after it had been published . At that time anyway there was no monument to the survivors of slavery and she said she wanted this book to stand as one . Which it surely does ….powerful and horrifying

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      • I love it. If you’re interested, she also has a short “story” (it’s pretty autobiographical) that details her and her white husband living in the south and having a mixed child and then eventually divorcing after facing decades of horrible southern racism together.

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      • The particular story is called “To My Young Husband.” It’s in the collection called The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart from 2000. I just noticed that under the title of the story it says, “Memoir of a Marriage,” so maybe she does acknowledge it is factual, not fiction. I thought I had read “To My Young Husband” was autobiography masked as fiction. The piece starts with Alice Walker with her new lover, a woman. For years, Walker was married to a white Jewish man, and she comes out later as bi-sexual. Walker and her ex-husbands daughter is pretty mad at her parents in “To My Young Husband.” You can read more about Walker’s relationship with her daughter on the Wikipedia page for Alice Walker.

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  2. I first read this about 10yrs ago with a book club – I can still recall how intense that meeting was, how we unanimously found it powerful yet discomforting… I really want to reread it at some point – and more of Morrison’s too. Great review Naomi 🙂

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  3. This was the first Toni Morrison I read way, way, way back as a teenager and I remember finding it a tough read. I’ve recently finished reading her latest, God Help the Child, which is a lot easier read and wow, really up there in the 21st century, many haven’t warmed to it, preferring her stories of the past, but I think the contemporary tale is excellent and it is quite the little masterpiece, I highly recommend it, for something very different to her earlier works.

    I really like Sulu and Love, they’re great, so many of her books are gems.

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    • The only other one I’ve read is The Bluest Eye, which I absolutely loved. I’ve seen mixed reviews of God Help the Child but I’ll take your recommendation over those! I have quite a few of her others in the house too, including Love and possibly Sulu too. It’s interesting how everyone recommends a different one!

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