Book review: Beloved

Beloved by Toni Morrison. Highly recommended.

In 275 gripping and unsettling pages, Toni Morrison encapsulates the late 19th century black experience through the story of Sweet Home, a small Kentucky farm, and one of its former slaves, Sethe, who has found an uneasy freedom north of an arbitrary line that does not exist on any natural map.

To empathize the universality of experience, Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, notes wryly, “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.” Later, Beloved, living in freedom in Ohio, will experience vivid ancestral memories aboard a slave ship — the memories of generations before her. These are contrasted to Sethe’s “terrible memory,” where she recalls the beauty of the sycamores better than the dead men hanging from them. This may explain the persistence of the dead baby’s ghost haunting Sethe’s house at 124 Bluestone Road — the need to remind Sethe of everything she cannot forget.

From the forced bestiality of the Sweet Home men to Sethe’s anguish about how teacher’s nephews stole her milk as though she were a cow, the theme of animals prevails throughout Beloved. Later, it is revealed that Sethe experienced an epiphany when she discovers teacher and nephews dividing her on paper into human and animal traits.

Her companion, Paul D, has witnessed the difference between an animal and himself. Once imprisoned underground, once forced to wear a bit like a horse, Paul D walks past a rooster whose egg he had helped break open during hatching. “Mister, he looked so . . . free . . . Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed to be and stay what I was . . . wasn’t no way I’d ever be Paul D again, living or dead . . . I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.”

Ultimately, Beloved is revisionist history that makes the connection between racism and slavery — a connection that often seems missing from the whitewashed history we are taught. The Sweet Home farm represents this version of history. The male slaves are encouraged to think of themselves as men and are even allowed to carry guns, while Sethe is permitted her choice of partners and to keep her children. In this version of history, no one is beaten or restrained. Sweet Home’s slaves, while not free, represent what we like to think — that slaves were well treated, that families were allowed to stay intact, and that somehow, antithetical to our declared values, black slaves in the United States were better off than free blacks in “primitive” Africa.

While Alex Haley’s genealogical epic Roots dramatically depicted the reality of slavery — the brutal amputation of runaway Kunta Kinte’s foot, his beatings, the rape of slaves by white masters — Morrison takes a different approach. The reader learns the story of Sweet Home — both before and after teacher arrives — through the gradual unfurling of Sethe and Paul D’s “rememories,” both thought and spoken. In other words, in Beloved the former slaves aren’t just shown and depicted; they speak for themselves and they tell their own version of slavery directly. The advent of teacher (a symbol of education and civilisation) marks the transition from the relative idyll of Sweet Home to slavery as practiced, where Sethe is brutalised, her husband is reduced to shock, Sixo is hunted down like an animal and killed for asserting his manhood through song (which may explain Paul D’s singing by the time he and Sethe find each other again), and any sense of rights or autonomy is proved to be an illusion. It’s not necessary to witness Sethe being beaten for telling her mistress how her milk was stolen; the branching tree on her back will tell the story for the rest of her life.

Sweet Home under teacher is slavery as it was, where slave owners who behave like animals convince themselves that it is the slaves who are part human, part animal, and where slavery is motivated by racism. Throughout, there is Beloved, rightly perceived by Denver as “more,” who is sacrificed to be spared what everyone knows, “that anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself any more. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.” Through her action, Sethe deprives Beloved of her own choices, thus enslaving her. And so Beloved returns to deny Sethe her own will.

Morrison may be accused of racism, but there is no feasible way to deny her characters their feelings after what they have heard, witnessed, and experienced. They cannot feel otherwise. Characters like Amy, the uneducated (unlike teacher) “whitegirl” who helps Sethe deliver Denver, and the sheriff who is kind toward Sethe despite her action, prove that there can be humanity among even a people who may seem otherwise inhumane.

Beloved is beautifully written and structured, poetic in tone, and compelling to read. It is also timeless and will most likely stand as one of the great novels of the 20th century.

22 February 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf


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