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First edition cover
First edition cover
Beloved is a novel by the American writer Toni Morrison. Set after the American Civil War (1861–1865), it is inspired by the story of an African-American slave, Margaret Garner, who temporarily escaped slavery during 1856 in Kentucky by fleeing to Ohio, a free state. A posse arrived to retrieve her and her children under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which gave slave owners the right to pursue slaves across state borders. Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter rather than allow her to be recaptured.
Beloved's main character, Sethe, kills her daughter and tries to kill her other three children when a posse arrives in Ohio to return them to Sweet Home, the Kentucky plantation from which Sethe recently fled. A woman presumed to be her daughter, called Beloved, returns years later to haunt Sethe's home at 124 Bluestone Road, Cincinnati. The story opens with an introduction to the ghost: "124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom."
The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and was a finalist for the 1987 National Book Award. It was adapted during 1998 into a movie of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey. A New York Times survey of writers and literary critics ranked it the best work of American fiction from 1981 to 2006.
The book concerns the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver after their escape from slavery. Their home in Cincinnati is haunted by a revenant, whom they believe to be the ghost of Sethe's daughter. Because of the haunting—which often involves objects being thrown around the room—Sethe's youngest daughter Denver is shy, friendless, and housebound, and her sons, Howard and Buglar, have run away from home by age 13. Baby Suggs, the mother of Sethe's husband Halle, dies in her bed soon afterward.
Paul D, one of the slaves from Sweet Home—the plantation where Baby Suggs, Sethe, Halle, and several other slaves once worked—arrives at Sethe's home and tries to bring a sense of reality into the house. In attempting to make the family forget the past, he forces out the spirit. He seems successful at first; he even brings housebound Denver out of the house for the first time in years. But on the way back, they encounter a young woman sitting in front of the house, calling herself Beloved. Paul D is suspicious and warns Sethe, but she is charmed by the young woman and ignores him. Gradually, Paul D is forced out of Sethe's home by a supernatural presence.
When made to sleep outside in a shed, Paul D is cornered by Beloved. While they have sex, his mind is filled with horrific memories from his past. Overwhelmed with guilt, Paul D tries to tell Sethe about it but cannot, and instead says he wants her pregnant. Sethe is elated, and Paul D resists Beloved and her influence over him. But when he tells friends at work about his plans to start a new family, they react fearfully. Stamp Paid reveals the reason for the community's rejection of Sethe.
When Paul D asks Sethe about it, she tells him what happened: After escaping from Sweet Home and reaching her waiting children at her mother-in-law's home, Sethe was found by her master, who attempted to reclaim her and her children. Sethe grabbed her children, ran into the tool shed, and tried to kill them all. She succeeded only in killing her eldest daughter by running a saw along her neck. Sethe claims that she was "trying to put my babies where they would be safe." The revelation is too much for Paul D and he leaves. Without him, sense of reality and time moving forward disappears.
Sethe comes to believe that Beloved is the 2-year-old daughter she murdered, whose tombstone reads only "Beloved". Sethe begins to spend carelessly and spoil Beloved out of guilt. Beloved becomes angry and more demanding, throwing tantrums when she doesn't get her way. Beloved's presence consumes Sethe's life to the point where she becomes depleted and sacrifices her own need for eating, while Beloved grows bigger and bigger.
In the novel's climax, youngest daughter Denver reaches out and searches for help from the black community, and some of the village women arrive at the house to exorcise Beloved. At the same time, a white man comes into view, the same man that helped Halle's mother, Baby Suggs, by offering her the house as a place to stay after Halle bought her from their owner. He has come for Denver, who asked him for a job, but Denver has not shared this information with Sethe. Unaware of the situation, Sethe attacks the white man with an ice pick and is brought down by the village women. While Sethe is confused and has a "re-memory" of her master coming again, Beloved disappears. The novel resolves with Denver becoming a working member of the community and Paul D returning to Sethe and pledging his love.
The maternal bonds between Sethe and her children inhibit her own individuation and prevent the development of her self. Sethe develops a dangerous maternal passion that results in the murder of one daughter, her own “best self,” and the estrangement of the surviving daughter from the black community, both in an attempt to salvage her “fantasy of the future,” her children, from a life in slavery. However, Sethe fails to recognize her daughter Denver’s need for interaction with this community in order to enter into womanhood. Denver finally succeeds at the end of the novel in establishing her own self and embarking on her individuation with the help of Beloved. Contrary to Denver, Sethe only becomes individuated after Beloved’s exorcism, at which point Sethe can fully accept the first relationship that is completely “for her,” her relationship with Paul D. This relationship relieves Sethe from the ensuing destruction of herself that resulted from the maternal bonds controlling her life. Beloved and Sethe are both very much emotionally impaired as a result of Sethe’s previous enslavement. Slavery creates a situation where a mother is separated from her child, which has devastating consequences for both parties. Furthermore, the earliest need a child has is related to the mother: the baby needs milk from the mother. Sethe is traumatized by the experience of having her milk stolen because it means she cannot form the symbolic bond between herself and her daughter.
Because of the experiences of slavery, most slaves repressed these memories in an attempt to forget the past. This repression and dissociation from the past causes a fragmentation of the self and a loss of true identity. Sethe, Paul D. and Denver all experience this loss of self, which could only be remedied by the acceptance of the past and the memory of their original identities. Beloved serves to remind these characters of their repressed memories, eventually causing the reintegration of their selves.
Slavery splits a person into a fragmented figure. The identity, consisting of painful memories and unspeakable past, denied and kept at bay, becomes a "self that is no self." To heal and humanize, one must constitute it in a language, reorganize the painful events and retell the painful memories. As a result of suffering, the "self" becomes subject to a violent practice of making and unmaking, once acknowledged by an audience becomes real. Sethe, Paul D, and Baby Suggs who all fall short of such realization, are unable to remake their selves by trying to keep their pasts at bay. The 'self' is located in a word, defined by others. The power lies in the audience, or more precisely, in the word – once the word changes, so does the identity. All of the characters in Beloved face the challenge of an unmade self, composed of their "rememories" and defined by perceptions and language. The barrier that keeps them from remaking of the self is the desire for an "uncomplicated past" and the fear that remembering will lead them to "a place they couldn't get back from."
Beloved received the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award, which is named for an editor of Publishers Weekly. In accepting the award on October 12, 1988, Morrison observed that “there is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby” honoring the memory of the human beings forced into slavery and brought to the United States. “There’s no small bench by the road,” she continued. “And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.” Inspired by her remarks, the Toni Morrison Society has now begun to install benches at significant sites in the history of slavery in America. The New York Times reported July 28, 2008, that the first “bench by the road” was dedicated July 26 on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, which served as the place of entry for approximately 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to the United States.
It received the seventh annual Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights Book Award in 1988, given to a novelist who "most faithfully and forcefully reflects Robert Kennedy's purposes - his concern for the poor and the powerless, his struggle for honest and even-handed justice, his conviction that a decent society must assure all young people a fair chance, and his faith that a free democracy can act to remedy disparities of power and opportunity."
According to thegreatestbooks.org, a site which uses algorithms to determine the most well-received books, Beloved is the 11th most critically acclaimed fiction novel of all time.
The publication of Beloved in 1987 resulted in the greatest acclaim yet for Morrison. Although nominated for the National Book Award, it did not win, and forty-eight African-American writers and critics signed a letter of protest, which was published in The New York Times. Yet Beloved did receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, the Melcher Book Award, the Lyndhurst Foundation Award, and the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award. Despite its popularity and status as one of Morrison’s most accomplished novels, Beloved has never been universally hailed as a success. Some reviewers have excoriated the novel for what they consider its excessive sentimentality and sensationalistic depiction of the horrors of slavery, including its characterization of the slave trade as a Holocaust-like genocide. Others, while concurring that Beloved is at times overwritten, have lauded the novel as a profound and extraordinary act of imagination. Noting the work’s mythic dimensions and political focus, these commentators have treated the novel as an exploration of family, trauma, and the repression of memory as well as an attempt to restore the historical record and give voice to the collective memory of African Americans. Indeed, critics and Morrison herself have indicated that the controversial epitaph to Beloved, “sixty million and more”, is drawn from a number of studies on the African slave trade which estimate that approximately half of each ship’s “cargo” perished in transit to America. Scholars have additionally debated the nature of the character Beloved, arguing whether she is actually a ghost or a real person. Numerous reviews, assuming Beloved to be a supernatural incarnation of Sethe’s daughter, have subsequently faulted Beloved as an unconvincing and confusing ghost story. Elizabeth E. House, however, has argued that Beloved is not a ghost, and the novel is actually a story of two probable instances of mistaken identity. Beloved is haunted by the loss of her African parents and thus comes to believe that Sethe is her mother. Sethe longs for her dead daughter and is rather easily convinced that Beloved is the child she has lost. Such an interpretation, House contends, clears up many puzzling aspects of the novel and emphasizes Morrison’s concern with familial ties.
Since the late 1970s, there has indeed been a strong focus on Morrison’s representation of African American experience and history. The idea that writing acts as a means of healing or recovery is a strain in many of these studies. Timothy Powell, for instance, argues that Morrison’s recovery of a black logos rewrites blackness as “affirmation, presence, and good”, while Theodore O. Mason, Jr., suggests that Morrison’s stories unite communities. Many critics explore memory, or what Beloved ’s Sethe calls “rememory,” in this light. Susan Bowers places Morrison in a “long tradition of African American apocalyptic writing” that looks back in time, “unveiling” the horrors of the past in order to “transform” them. Several critics have interpreted Morrison’s representations of trauma and memory through a psychoanalytic framework. Ashraf H. A. Rushdy explores how “primal scenes” in Morrison’s novels are “an opportunity and affective agency for self-discovery through memory” and “rememory”. As Jill Matus argues, however, Morrison’s representations of trauma are “never simply curative”: in raising the ghosts of the past in order to banish or memorialize them, the texts potentially “provoke readers to the vicarious experience of trauma and act as a means of transmission”. Ann Snitow’s reaction to Beloved neatly illustrates how Morrison criticism began to evolve and move toward new modes of interpretation. In her 1987 review of Beloved, Snitow argues that Beloved, the ghost at the center of the narrative, is “too light” and “hollow”, rendering the entire novel “airless”. Snitow changed her position after reading criticism that interpreted Beloved in a different way, seeing something more complicated and burdened than a literal ghost, something requiring different forms of creative expression and critical interpretation. The conflicts at work here are ideological as well as critical: they concern the definition and evaluation of American and African American literature, the relationship between art and politics, and the tension between recognition and appropriation.
In defining Morrison’s texts as African American literature, critics have become more attentive to historical and social context and to the way Morrison’s fiction engages with specific places and moments in time. As Jennings observes, many of Morrison’s novels are set in isolated black communities where African practices and belief systems are not marginalized by a dominant white culture but rather remain active, if perhaps subconscious, forces shaping the community. Matus comments that Morrison’s later novels “have been even more thoroughly focused on specific historical moments”; “through their engagement with the history of slavery and early twentieth-century Harlem, [they] have imagined and memorialized aspects of black history that have been forgotten or inadequately remembered”.