… everyone probably already knows that to be true, but I just simultaneously finished book #11 of my year, and my first Toni Morrison novel. It was so beautiful, I read Beloved and I can already tell: the plot, the characters, everything about it is going to stay with me for a long time. Also, this post is probably going to contain spoilers, because I can’t think of how to talk about this book without including some.
Really, though, beyond the haunting, heavy, tense, incredible plot, Morrison’s writing is like poetry. I loved it. I also can’t believe that I’m first reading this now, on my own, and 22 years into my life. It makes me mad that we weren’t assigned Morrison in high school. This novel took me longer than I though it would; it’s only 300-some pages, but I think I read it slow because I was trying to savor every passage.
So the plot is also incredible, on top of her writing. I might have been slightly confused if I hadn’t read the foreward, where Morrison describes the non-fiction events that led to the conception of this novel. The story is based on the real-life Margaret Garner, a young slave mother who escaped to freedom, and subsequently murdered her own child under the threat of having to return to the plantation. So in the foreward, Morrison discusses how immediately she saw a fictional story being born out of this, and that the murdered child, rather than its mother, was the natural main character.
So begins the story of Sethe, the fictionalized version of Margaret, living with her daughter, Denver, who becomes one of my favorite characters. Denver is lonely and emotionally stunted, but when backed in a corner she would do anything to protect her family. She probably changes the most throughout the novel, in the most positive way. The mother and daughter live in a house that is haunted (loudly) by the baby Sethe killed years ago. It takes a while to get used to the way that the details don’t follow a natural timeline, and the narrative voice switches from character to character, even if a character is dead in the “present” of the novel.
This is effective though, because it makes the presence of the ghost in the house – and then later, that ghost personified – all the more believable. The ghost, the baby murdered out of desperate protection by her mother, goes by the name carved in her gravestone: Beloved. Sethe latches on to the phrase “Dearly Beloved” at the baby’s funeral, but only has time to etch the latter word on the headstone.
So this ghost comes back in human form and forces Sethe, a woman who avoids the past religiously, to confront (arguably) her one defining action from the past. It’s intense and terrifying to watch the relationship between mother and ghost-daughter become parasitic, and a kind of helpless, tragic role-reversal. The reader doesn’t get a firsthand account of the murder until maybe halfway through the novel. It’s jarring, obviously, in its violence, but also jarring because of the way Morrison writes the entire novel.
Every chapter, the reader has to re-orient themselves with the point of view. At the beginning of each chapter, I actively had to determine who I was hearing from (Sethe, Denver, Beloved, Baby Suggs? Paul D, Stamp Paid, schoolteacher?) before it made sense. So the chapter describing the murder was jarring for those two reasons, and hard to read but also compelling and incredibly thought-provoking.
I said the book is heavy before, but this book is heavy. Slavery, freedom, familial love (and lack thereof, as a defense mechanism), rape, murder, protection, motherhood… In 300-some pages it covers all of this and more, in a haunting, poetic way. It was so good. I could go on forever about how it was so good, but I have two real thoughts I want to say about it before I’m done.
1.) There is, perhaps in all of literature, the most beautiful line of love in this novel. Paul D is another pro at repressing his excruciating, debilitating past in slavery. He was a slave at Sweet Home, the same place that Sethe was, before they both escaped. Anyway, the line (I got goosebumps and probably will again typing it): “He wanted to put his story next to hers. ‘Sethe,’ he says. ‘me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.'” Ah. Maybe it needs some more context, but I think it speaks for itself. There isn’t much romantic love in this novel, more focus on the love and devotion of a mother for her children. But when Morrison does romantic love, she does it well.
2.) It is absolutely incredible, disgusting, and unbelievable that slavery existed in this country less than 150 years ago. Think about that: a lot of people living 150 years ago felt that it was within their rights to own another person; to control their every action, to use them, to count them among animals, to deny them literally every base human right by denying them freedom. This novel is an incredible look at slavery, because it portrays a young woman who is ready and willing to murder all four of her children, one after another, rather than let them go back to slavery. And that’s based on a real woman, so it’s not like the idea of Sethe is far-fetched. I don’t really know where I’m going with this, except to say that Morrison writes about slavery so incredibly well, and unflinchingly.
She forces you to see, from her main characters’ points of view, how crippling, de-humanizing every facet of it is. Then you get the rare narration from a white character, and you see how it all became a vicious, self-fulfilling prophecy: “All a testimony to the results of a little so-called freedom imposed on people who needed every care and guidance in the world to keep them from the cannibal life they preferred.” This from the sheriff who walks in on the scene where Sethe has murdered one child and is working on the next, all for the sake of keeping them from that ‘care and guidance’ the sheriff refers to.
It’s eye-opening and unlike anything I’ve ever read. Morrison is incredible, and I plan on reading everything she’s written. ◊
More than the rest, they killed the flirt whom folks called Life for leading them on. Making them think the next sunrise would be worth it; that another stroke of time would do it at last. Only when she was dead would they be safe.”
– Paul D recounting his time on a chain-gang, 128