Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved is a novel that was published in 1987 by the celebrated American author, Toni Morrison. It could be described as a work of historical fiction because the story takes place in the period following the Civil War known as Reconstruction. The story delves into the atrocities of the U.S. slave economy and how formerly enslaved persons have begun new lives after emancipation. However, the specter of slavery is still felt for many characters, and the story recounts how they react to this lingering nightmare. Predominantly, the Beloved plot is a profound exploration into how people rebuild spiritually following horrifying trauma.
A Beloved summary starts with its setting, near Cincinnati, Ohio, during the years following the conclusion of the Civil War (though there are several character flashbacks to previous years). The main story follows the lives of Sethe, a formally enslaved woman, and her teenage daughter, Denver. The two women have been living in near solitude for years despite being in close proximity to an active Black community. Their solitary life changes with the arrival of another formally enslaved person, Paul D, who knew Sethe before emancipation.
Paul D arrives at 124 Bluestone Road and learns that the house is haunted. The two women are reticent about the origins of this phantom (though it's suspected it has something to do with why they have lived apart from other people for so long). The hauntings cease when a strange and mysterious young woman arrives at the house. Sethe allows this girl to stay, thinking that Denver could use a new friend, and this girl takes on the name of Beloved.
The narrative shifts back in time and memories resurface of Sweethome, the plantation where Sethe and Paul D were enslaved. Sethe escaped Sweethome and went north to the free state of Ohio, giving birth to Denver along the way. Sethe reached Cincinnati where she reunited with her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, and her three other children. Baby Suggs had taken up a leadership role in the community "becoming an unchurched preacher," leading ceremonies of spiritual healing in a clearing in the woods nearby.
Their new happy life was interrupted when Sethe's former master, Schoolteacher, arrived to capture her. In desperation, she took her children to a shed with the intention to kill them all rather than be taken back into slavery. She managed to kill one child before being stopped. Upon seeing this, Schoolteacher decided that Sethe was too mentally deranged to take back to Sweethome. This event began an immediate decline in the spirits of people in the community and caused them to avoid Sethe and her family. Also soon after, the house began to be haunted, presumably by the spirit of the daughter murdered by her own mother's hand.
By the time Paul D arrives in the present tense of the story, only Sethe and Denver are left in the house. Baby Suggs has since died of old age and Sethe's two sons have run away from home. Their number increases to four with the arrival of a strange girl who takes on the name of Beloved. She is of the right age that Sethe's daughter would have been if she had lived, but still acts like a child. It's inferred that the spirit haunting the house has taken on a physical form.
Beloved slowly becomes a dominating force in the house. Sethe increasingly dotes on her while Denver feels her own connection with Sethe waning. Beloved desires everything Sethe has to offer, including her affection for Paul D, whom she seduces. Paul D eventually leaves the house to live in town. Beloved consumes increasingly great quantities of food and in a manner that seems increasingly unnatural. Sethe is entranced by Beloved, catering to her every desire and whim while Denver watches the house being emptied of food and growing all the more lonely in her own situation.
Though Denver is awkward and shy, having spent most of her life sequestered with her mother, she overcomes this and asks her community for help. The women of the nearby Black community convene; and though they had been leery of Sethe and Denver for years, decide that they deserve to be reintegrated. These women walk to the house en masse and arrive singing. This breaks the spell that has been cast on Sethe while simultaneously exorcising the spirit of Beloved from the world and she disappears. In the emotional upheaval of the moment, Sethe mistakes Mr. Bodwin, a family friend, for another slave catcher and tries to stab him with an ice pick.
The pivotal scene in the book is when Sethe makes the tragic choice to kill her children rather than allow them to be taken back into slavery. This is a direct reference to the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who killed her children rather than allow them to be recaptured. In garner's own words, "I will not let those children live how I lived." Morrison notes how this true story became the inspiration for her book. This is important information to know in order to conduct a Beloved analysis, to understand the novel and the motives of its various characters.
The story hints at the theoretical notions of intergenerational experiences, of memory passed through lineage. This was a general point of interest for Morrison and appears in a later portion of the book, (Chapter 22) that follows a first-person, stream of consciousness narrative. It's inferred that Beloved is the one speaking, but she expresses first-hand knowledge of events that wouldn't have happened during her timeline. Specifically, imagery of the Middle Passage: "men without skin came and took us up into the sunlight with the dead and shoved them into the sea." There are other examples to this end in this chapter and others that signal Morrison's own interest in the flexible understandings of time. It could be interpreted that Beloved was able to access this collective consciousness in her spectral form.
Themes in Beloved
In Beloved, Morrison explores several themes such as relationships among family and community as well as the conceptual play between right and wrong. Of course, all of these themes are backgrounded by the immediate impacts of slavery which inflicted horrific physical, emotional, and spiritual pain onto countless individuals. The chattel slave system was predicated on a dialectic of reducing human beings to functionary objects, a dismantling of personhood. The Beloved plot takes place about ten years after emancipation, but the effects of slavery are still very much present in the minds of its various characters.
An important theme in this novel is the healing power of community. There is lingering pain, anger, shame, and a barrage of traumatic experiences that linger with members of the community. Individually, people may live as fragments, the result of the breaking power of slavery. However, belonging to a strong community can be a source of salvation. Baby Suggs tried to do this in her woodland clearing, bringing the formerly enslaved together to learn to love themselves despite generations of degradation. This power is also demonstrated in force at the climatic end of the novel when the women come to banish the spirit of Beloved and "for Sethe it was as if the Clearing had come to her." Despite the deterioration of her own family, Sethe found redemption in the embrace of her community.
On that note, another central theme of this story is the power of forgiveness. Beloved, unjustly murdered, haunts the house both as a spirit and in physical form. However, it's not punitive justice that releases Beloved's spirit and delivers the family from torment, it's forgiveness. The nearby Black community, which had been aghast at Sethe's choice and had shunned the family, forgives Sethe. Their forgiveness allows Sethe to forgive herself, understanding that though she held the knife to her daughter's neck, it was circumstance that drew the blade. She made a terrible decision, but it was also the only decision she could make and the community has come to empathize with that.
The mother-daughter relationship is also something that is looked at in a critical light as part of a Beloved analysis. Sethe is tormented by her choice to kill her daughter rather than allow her to become enslaved and recalls how her own mother was taken from her as a child. This bond that Sethe formed with her daughter (with all her children) proved powerful enough to kill. When Beloved's physical form arrives at the house, Sethe sees an opportunity to live that mother-daughter relationship that was stolen from her. However, this is not an honest relationship, it is one born from guilt and denial, and Sethe almost commits another atrocity by losing her connection to her living daughter, Denver. In writing these characters, Morrison is demonstrating how the mother-daughter relationship can be both fraught and fragile, and its sundering is always a tragedy.
Symbols in Beloved
A straightforward interpretation casts the character Beloved as the manifestation of Sethe's guilt for the murder of her daughter. The reunion of the two at first seems like a happy one, but quickly devolves from nurturing to parasitic as "Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it."
The House at 124 Bluestone Road is notable for its emptiness. It once was full, housing Sethe, her four children, and her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. It would have also been the home for Sethe's husband had he never arrived. The opening of the story shows only two remaining, Sethe and Denver. Two lonely souls in a home meant for many more. Family, the crux of strength, had such potential here but was lost due to tragedy. However, in its conclusion, the story implies that this potential might be reclaimed.
Water is an interesting motif that appears throughout the novel, often associated with birth and renewal. When the character Beloved first appears she is drenched having just crawled from a stream (the spirit being born again in physical form). When Sethe sees her on the doorstep, she gets the urge to urinate and is reminded of her own water breaking which occurs before a woman gives birth. This incident reminds her of Denver's birth, eighteen years previous, that occurred in a flooded canoe on the banks of a river.
The color red appears in the novel in a few circumstances and carries different meanings. First is the tombstone of Sethe's murdered daughter, constructed of pink granite. This is a fairly direct connection to the child's violent death. Paul D experiences an intense, jarring, red light when he first enters the house at 124 Bluestone Road. This was likely the spirit of the haunting spirit, angry at the arrival of an intruder. A somewhat minor character, Stamp Paid, clutches a red ribbon in his pocket for courage when he goes to investigate the house toward the end of the book. There are multiple uses for the color red with distinct significances to different characters.
Legacy of Beloved
Beloved received wide critical acclaim at the time of its publication and is still considered a laudable contribution to the canon of American fiction and African-American fiction. The book solidified Toni Morrison's position and legacy as a great American author and is the topic of countless scholarly texts. The novel has received numerous awards including the Ansfield-Wolf Book Award, The Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, among others. Beloved was nominated for, but did not receive, the National Book Award; this decision sparked some controversy. A cinematic adaptation was released in 1998 starting Oprah Winfrey as the character Sethe.
While not outright banned from publication and circulation, Beloved has faced some opposition in being taught in the classroom. Scenes that depict graphic sex and violence are present at various points during the story, something that some parents and school officials deem inappropriate. Challenges to teaching Beloved in the classroom have sometimes even reached state legislatures. It did so in 2016 when the Virginia senate passed a bill allowing parents to prevent their children from reading novels they deemed reprehensible.
Beloved, the 1987 novel by Toni Morrison, is regarded as a vital contribution to American fiction. The story follows the story of the inhabitants of 124 Bluestone Road near Cincinnati, Ohio. Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman lives with just her daughter, Denver. They are joined by Paul D and a mysterious girl who adopts the name of Beloved. The story eventually reveals that Beloved is the physical manifestation of the spirit of Sethe's murdered daughter. It is also revealed that Sethe was the one who murdered her own daughter and would have killed her other children too rather than allow them all to be taken into slavery. Toni Morrison's inspiration for this part of the story was based on the true story of Margaret Garner. Beloved eventually becomes a dominating entity. Denver watches as Beloved consumes all the food in the house as well as her mother's spirit. In order to save herself and her mother, Denver appeals to the Black community that lives nearby.
The women of the community arrive and exorcise Beloved from the property, in the upheaval of that process, Sethe mistakes Mr. Bodwin, a family friend for another slave catcher and tries to stab him with an ice pick but luckily does not kill him.
Even after slavery was abolished, the physical, emotional, and spiritual traumas of the slave system still were powerful psychological obstacles for many people. This is important history to remember when asking what is Beloved about? Morrison explores these challenges and the different ways they could be remedied. Some of the other themes in this story include the power of family and community, the mother-daughter relationship, and the power of forgiveness.
Beloved remains a critically acclaimed novel and holds a significant place in the pantheon of American fiction and has been given multiple literary awards. Despite that, it still receives pushback from some parents and officials when the book is added to school curriculums due to certain scenes of sex and violence.
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What is Morrison's message in Beloved?
Sometimes tragedy is unavoidable. That was Sethe's experience when she chose to take the life of her daughter rather than allow that daughter to be taken into slavery. But despite our most horrific, tragic experiences, we can find salvation in the embrace of a loving community.
Why did Sethe kill Beloved?
Sethe killed her daughter because she thought that was a better fate than being allowed to be taken into slavery. This element of the story is a direct reference to the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who killed her children rather than allow them to be enslaved.
What is the main idea of Beloved?
There are many themes and messages intertwined which discuss many aspects of the human experience. But predominantly, this novel is an exploration into how people rebuild spiritually following horrifying trauma like slavery.
Why is Beloved by Toni Morrison important?
Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, is important for a plethora of reasons. One of the most important reasons is that it provides for a deep, profound discussion of the lingering spiritual pain that was caused by the U.S. slave economy.
What is the story behind Beloved?
Toni Morrison was influenced by the true story of Margaret Garner who killed her own children rather than allow them to be taken into slavery. The novel as a whole was Morrison's attempt to understand the causes and repercussions of such an action.
What does Beloved symbolize in Beloved?
Beloved as a spirit represents Sethe's guilt and remorse over the murder of her daughter. Beloved as the physical manifestation of that spirit is Sethe's attempt to live the mother-daughter relationship which she denied herself and her daughter. But this is an untenable choice.
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