Toni Morrison’s Beloved, 30 years later

Published originally by Alfred A Knopf in September 1987, Toni Morrison’s masterpiece Beloved is a deeply moving, multilayered epic in which her extraordinary excavation of the bones and ghosts of American history (slavery, lynching, Jim Crow segregation) is both a labour of love and an act of witnessing, a monument to the indomitability and imperishability of the human spirit.

The novel is an elegant, eloquent encapsulation of antebellum and postbellum America, in which Morrison problematises ideas about memory and forgetting, history and trauma.

The novel takes its subtext from “A Visit to the Slave Mother who Killed Her Child,” a newspaper article published in 1856 and subsequently reproduced in The Black Book, a miscellaneous compilation of black history and culture, which was edited by Morrison in 1974.

Sethe, the extraordinary heroine of Beloved, is inspired by Margaret Garner, the enslaved woman whose resistance to being recaptured by the slave catchers and United States marshals after she had escaped Kentucky with her family across a frozen Ohio River to the free state of Ohio in January 1856 led to her desperate act of infanticide. In her determined resistance to recapture, she killed her two-year-old daughter, slitting her throat with a butcher knife. She also injured her other children and might have killed them as well had she not been apprehended and arrested. That act of fierce and fearful resistance exposed the absurdity of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The contested space between slavery and freedom in Beloved is the Ohio River on whose bank Amy Denver, a chatty but charming white indentured servant, helps Sethe to deliver the baby girl named for her. This is the Amy Denver who identifies a chokecherry tree on Sethe’s back, the scar left there from being severely flogged during slavery.

Similarly, Sethe’s lover Paul D’s own scar, “his neck jewelry — its three wands, like attentive baby rattlers, curving two feet into the air”, is the result of being shackled and “collared like a beast” during slavery. These scars are a perpetual, permanent reminder of racist white oppression, of the evil of chattel slavery and its implications of property and ownership. For the slave was an object, a commercial commodity.

Thus, in an institutionalised suppression of agency and identity, Sethe is called Lu by Amy Denver, Baby Suggs is referred to as Jenny Whitlow by Mr Garner and the real names of all the Pauls are unknown.

In Beloved, Morrison merges historical detail with the effect of the supernatural on the private, domestic space inhabited by a typical black family. The novel opens in 1873, in the aftermath of American slavery, and 18 years since Sethe, in her fierce desperation to escape the bizarre logic of the Fugitive Slave Law, slit the throat of her daughter Beloved.

The response of Sethe’s sons to the ghostly haunting of 124 Bluestone Road, Cincinnati, Ohio, is swift: “… the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were 13 years old — as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard) …”

When Sethe suggests moving house, Baby Suggs replies: “What’d be the point? … Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.”

The same house undergoes a series of transformations captured in three succinct sentences, each containing three words, which introduce each of the three parts into which the novel is divided: “124 WAS SPITEFUL.”; “124 WAS LOUD.”; “124 WAS QUIET.” Yet the haunting, ghostly presence of Beloved, which expels Sethe’s sons Buglar and Howard from the house and renders even the dog Here Boy inert and insensate, is, in turn, banished from the house by Paul D.

Beloved resists easy summation. With its eerie evocation of mood, setting and atmosphere, it is as much a Gothic novel as a narrative of slavery. Absorbing in its exploration of the human predicament, the novel is, by turns, scenic, episodic, graphic, cinematic. Take this passage for instance: “Eighteen seventy-four and whitefolks were still on the loose. Whole towns wiped clean of Negroes; eighty-seven lynchings in one year alone in Kentucky; four colored schools burned to the ground; grown men whipped like children; children whipped like adults; black women raped by the crew; property taken, necks broken … The skin was one thing, but human blood cooked in a lynch fire was a whole other thing. The stench stank.”

Morrison’s keen sense of historical detail enables her to deepen the reader’s understanding of the sufferings of African-Americans during slavery, as in her equally haunting vision of black boys “hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world”.

The setting of 124 Bluestone Road in Beloved is significant in that it largely anticipates how Morrison experiments with narrative form and technique. When Paul D, “the last of the Sweet Home men”, turns up at the house in search of a space of refuge and respite, Sethe leads “him to the top of the stairs, where light came straight from the sky because the second-storey windows of that house had been placed in the pitched ceiling and not the walls … There was only one door to the house and to get to it from the back you had to walk all the way around to the front of 124, past the storeroom, past the cold house, the privy, the shed, on around to the porch.”

Morrison’s delineation of inner and outer space, in particular her portraiture of both floors of the two-storey house, reveals an architectural aberration that foreshadows the intricate dislocation of space-time, which defines the form and narrative structure of the novel. For the novel defies linearity and logic and its deftly interwoven narrative fragments, interior monologue and stream of consciousness are realised through reminiscence and reiteration as tense oscillates between simple past and historic present.

Self-contained spaces such as Sweet Home and The Clearing provide a contrast to 124. Sweet Home, the slave farm or plantation in Kentucky where Paul D Garner, Paul F Garner, Paul A Garner, Sixo, Halle Suggs and Sethe serve the liberal white slave master Mr Garner, represents the space of ambiguity and irony. The slave plantation is, of course, neither sweet nor home, albeit life there is relatively bearable before the factors of Mr Garner’s death and Mrs Garner’s illness combine to necessitate the arrival of the inhuman schoolteacher.

The Clearing, on the other hand, is “a wide-open space cut deep in the woods” to where Baby Suggs — Halle’s mother, Sethe’s mother-in-law and Denver’s paternal grandmother — summons the black community to laugh, cry, dance and to love their tortured, dehumanised selves.

The characterisation of Beloved herself is very intricately deployed; she is a composite of the strange and the familiar. She traverses multiple dimensions of space and time. In the enchanting universe of Beloved, she is a visible presence, yet otherworldly. The metaphysical space occupied by Beloved is an absorbing trajectory of dread where, in her words, “the men without skin bring us their morning water to drink”, where “dead men lay on top of her”, where “Ghosts without skin stuck their fingers in her and said beloved in the dark and bitch in the light”.

When, in a dream, Paul D’s private space is intruded into by Beloved, such that even his cherished “tobacco tin” (metaphor for his devastatingly anguished memory) seems vulnerable, her request to him is entrancing: “I want you to touch me on the inside part and call me my name.”

Life at 124 becomes so desperate, the hardship and hunger so intense, that Sethe resorts to “carrying out Beloved’s night bucket” and “pick-eating around the edges of the table and stove: the hominy that stuck on the bottom; the crusts and rinds and peelings of things,” and running “her longest finger deep in an empty jam jar before rinsing and putting it away”. Beloved’s art of retribution invites Sethe’s act of restitution.

The necessity of sustenance is so vital that Denver has to move “beyond the edge of the porch” of 124, to “step off the edge of the world” of the house, thereby nimbly negotiating the literal and symbolic spaces between solitude and solicitude, between suffering and survival. In the moving reconciliation scene at the end of Beloved, Paul D comes to terms with Sethe’s infanticide once Beloved, her multidimensional hyper-reality and all, has vanished without trace: “Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood … He wants to put his story next to hers.”

It is a measure of Morrison’s rare and remarkable gift as a writer that one can say of this innovative novel: all humanity is here.

Idowu Omoyele is a student of the Graduate School in Humanities at the University of Cape Town 

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