Thursday, May 7, 2009


An extra-curricular meeting of BookmenDC last week discussed Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison’s book Beloved that is now part of the new canon of American writing and assigned reading in many school core curricula – perhaps as the prime example of writing about the experience of slavery by a prominent African American author. The story is loosely based on a true story of the enslaved African American Margaret Garner who, in 1856 after having escaped from slavery, killed her children in order to save them from being returned to servitude under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act. It is complexly told in a style that is Morrison’s trade-mark and to my way of thinking brilliantly serves this particular book.

If I may briefly sketch the plot, Sethe (fem. of Seth, pronounced Seth-uh), the protagonist, escapes from slavery in Kentucky to join her mother-in-law (known as Baby Suggs) and three children in a free house in southern Ohio on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Under extreme circumstances, she gives birth to a daughter named Denver during the escape across the Ohio River, who survives, and for a month Sethe, surrounded by her family, enjoys the taste of freedom in the home of Baby Suggs, a place known as “124.” Then her master (Schoolteacher) comes to reclaim them, and in a spasm of fear, dread, and madness, Sethe tries to murder her children to prevent this happening. She succeeds in killing one – known only as Beloved – and the others are saved or manage to get away before they are killed. Sethe is temporarily jailed but released after sympathetic abolitionists embrace her cause.

These are the horrifying events that anchor Sethe’s story, though they take place 18 years before the book actually opens. Beloved begins with Sethe sunk into a sort of paralysis, isolated, alone, neither living nor dead, her mind rattled by suppressed memories of the events surrounding Beloved’s death and of her former life as a slave, when Paul D, one of the former slaves of the ironically named Sweet Home, the Kentucky slave house, finds her and attempts to make a life with her. (Sethe’s husband Halle from the same farm never appears in the intervening time, and we eventually learn his fate.)

The story then merges into a ghost story – a traditional African-American folklore genre – as Beloved makes a return in the flesh to Sethe’s home (or so it seems), and opens up afresh the painful memories of the past. The sickening details of slave life, of abuses, killings, dismemberments and disfigurations, but also the instability and self-disrespect and perversion of home life are described in stark and lyrical, sometimes poetical language, largely in fragmented form. By capturing Sethe’s undivided love, Beloved drives Paul D out of the house. Denver realizes what is happening, and attempts to help her by joining the world outside of “124.” The “denouement” occurs when the neighbors try to intervene to prevent Sethe from hurting herself and to reclaim her for the community, but instead they startle Sethe who objects to them appearing in her “yard,” and provokes her to a renewed outburst of fright and grief. She is not successful this time, and Beloved disappears into the woods. Did she exist in real flesh? Will Sethe be able to restart her life, perhaps with Paul D? are questions that readers faces at the end of the book.

What captured our reading of the book was Morrison’s style and language, her use of unusual turns of phrase and vocabulary, the jolting and fragmented narrative style that slips back and forth between past and present, and the portrait of slavery and what it meant for individuals. As an editor for many years, language is highly important to her –see her Nobel prize speech, for example (thanks to Ross for this reference) – and in this novel it takes on particular luster. Margaret Atwood in a terrific review of the book in the New York Times described it thus: “'Beloved'' is written in an antiminimalist prose that is by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point.” One is struck by her similes (I jotted down: old as sky, cold as charity, eating berries so good it like being in church), by her telling phrases for certain situations (sitting or smeared in butter, for madness; tobacco tin for Paul D’s heart), and the use of the word “rememory” (for remember), which suggests the conscious and deliberate use of memory to dredge up from the past those memories too painful to remember. But throughout this work we confront painful, hard and brutal depictions of slavery, where people are robbed of identity, respect, stability, love, where women don’t have the ability to form families (children come and go, and they are at the beck and call of service).

Her discussion of women and motherhood are key themes of the novel. Another is sense of identity, of which slaves were robbed. The reconstruction of self must begin anew upon emancipation, to individuals’ great confusion since they are unsure of who they were and what they felt during their enslavement. Names, which were allotted to them, are meaningless, and in Beloved slaves frequently change them to something else, more to their liking or sense of self.

Many of these themes appear in slavery elsewhere, and therefore are common to universal bondage. In Egypt, for instance, slaves in the nineteenth century sometimes objected to their names, which were often petty and even derogatory, and upon being sold to new owners or being emancipated, they would take new and more dignified names. The theft of identity, and how it impacts on individuals, has been discussed in a number of new works on slavery in the Middle East, perhaps with an eye to the impact of this book.

The newest work of Morrison is called A Mercy, and takes up again the themes of slavery, women, memory, and dignity. Reader Glen mentioned another book of interest, The Known World by Washington area author Edward Jones. He too explores the lives of slaves and ex-slaves and how they cope with an unsympathetic world.

Some readers (Tim, for one) founds elements of the plot “overdramatic,” and that they tend to cheapen the impact of the rest of the book. Among new historians of the slave period in our history, the ability of former slaves and ex-slaves to cultivate a sense of themselves and their worth in spite of the system is a theme being fruitfully explored.

I should also point out there were parts of Beloved that were written in a stream of consciousness style that remained mysterious to us (the chapters 20-23), and perhaps these sections were part of Morrison's "over the top" style that some readers have complained of.

Morrison is said to have wanted to establish a canon of black writing, but in this book she falls more in the traditions, on the one hand, of Faulkner and the southern school and, on the other hand, of slave narratives that project the lives of blacks without allowing much of an interior view. This interior view is what Morrison so fascinatingly explores. How does this work relate to the body of black fiction that precedes it? Perhaps not easily. Is it a great piece of fiction that happens to be written by an African American woman?


Tim said...

Thank you, Terry, for suggesting Beloved and hosting the discussion (and thereby perhaps inaugurating a tradition of fifth Wednesdays) and for your posted summary for those of us who had to miss that meeting. I found the denouement something of a "melodramatic" come down from the high tragedy—in deeds and language—that preceded it, but perhaps it's worth remembering that the Oedipus ends in domestic squabbling (though maybe not the original trilogy itself). I don't know how else Morrison might have "untied" her splendid knot and I don't know that I'll mind any when I read it a second time.

By the way, in addition to Faulkner and slave narratives, we should throw in Magic Realism (cf One Hundred Years of Solitude) into Beloved's literary context.

DCSteve1441 said...

Let me second Tim's expression of gratitude to Terry on both counts, and encourage members to suggest other books for discussion to keep this tradition going.

Unfortunately, when the next "fifth Wednesday" comes up in July, I'll be on vacation (I keep hearing people talk about that strange concept and have decided to experience it for myself, LOL). But if others are in town and would like to meet, please speak up.

Otherwise, we'll try for the fall (don't have my calendar handy, but I believe Sept. 30 would be the next fifth Wednesday). Cheers, Steve