Hailed as one of the great American novels, Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize winner Beloved deals with the effects of slavery and grief on one family. Coming to this novel knowing how highly decorated it is, one does not begin it without a certain sense of unease or inferiority. What I always neglect to remember though, is that writing is a form of communication. Novels become award-winners no so much because they are often the opposite of abstract and inaccessible. Great novels tell a good story, but leave more meat to be digested later, as Beloved succeeded in doing. It took me some time to decide what I wanted to say about Beloved. Unequal to the task of writing about the book, I turned to Wikipedia which mentioned only themes of motherhood and the psychological effects of slavery. Wikipedia was not wrong, but it was lacking depth. If motherhood is a theme, for instance, why is there no significant mention of Beloved and her symbolism in the online entry? And there I had it. Let’s talk about the malevolent spirit that comes to haunt Sethe and her family.
Far from a chronological tale, Morrison uses jumps in time and perspective to increase the unsettling feeling that slaves experienced. With no real home of their own, or control of their lives it is hardly surprising that a slave would feel a sense of unease, and that is vastly understating the matter, I know. Often slaves were split up – husbands and wives sold to different plantations, children pulled from their mothers, never to be seen again. Treated as property, slaves could be done with as their masters wished – including killing or maiming, both of which are seen or alluded to in Morrison’s work. Such treatment could hardly be borne without affecting the victims. The death of Beloved at her mother’s hands is one such manifestation.
Sethe is the exception to the rule of slavery where families are split up, perhaps capriciously, by their owners. Unlike her own mother-in-law, among many others, Sethe wed, and all of her children were fathered by one man, her husband. She loved those children dearly, almost too much, as Paul D says. if Sethe had not had a sense of normality (or normality for slave owners anyway) this story would not have been written, but the very fact that she had more of a sense of stability than any others provides an understanding that she would not want her children to feel the horrors that so many of Sethe’s peers bore. She escapes, and gets all of her children to freedom. We never find out exactly what happens to her husband, but we do see that she has been pursued by Schoolteacher, the slave owner she escaped from. When he appears, a known torturer, she intends to kill all her children, but succeeds only in killing her second youngest daughter to prevent her from returning to slave life. Sethe is sent to jail. We cannot as a rule understand this, living in a society that has not had to experience the abhorrence of slavery, but to Sethe, her love was a liability.
Our ghost, Beloved, is an allegorical character, standing for the past and, I think, the guilt that Sethe felt over killing her daughter. Often with guilt, the more we dwell on a thing, the more it grows and takes over our lives. Beloved, the ghost haunting 124 Bluestone, grows on a diet of her mother’s guilt and takes over the house the more attention Sethe pays to her. Having severed ties with the rest of society, Sethe seems bent on self-destruction, until her last child, Denver, takes matters into her own hands.
Beloved is the most beautifully written account of PTSD to come from modern American literature. Here again, Sethe is the most obivious example, but she is not the only one. In Denver, we see a child who has been isolated from her community, and seeks the company of a ghost haunting her home. Paul D is forced to recount his own past as he joins the house. He tries to expel the ghost and for a time it seems to work, but then he is driven away by that very past that he tried to ignore.
If there is an overarching theme to Beloved it is that we cannot escape our past. By trying to ignore the past, we are doomed to live in it. Sethe cannot, Denver cannot, and Paul D cannot. It is not until each character is forced to confront and then move beyond their history that they have any hope for happiness and a future.