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Toni Morrison - Beloved
Date of publication: First published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1987
I. Plot synopsis
Sethe, the protagonist of the novel, is a slave on a farm in Kentucky called "Sweet Home". The other slaves who belong to the farm are three half brothers-among them Paul D-and two other men, Sixo and Halle. The latter becomes Sethe's husband. While their owner Mr. Garner is alive, the slaves enjoy a relatively stable way of life. Garner prides himself on treating his slaves as men. He lets them choose their own partners and treats them respectfully.. Unfortunately, he dies unexpectedly and Sweet Home is taken over by his brother-in-law, schoolteacher. Schoolteacher regards slaves as animals and, aided by his nephews, submits them to various investigations and experiments.
. . . there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. (Morrison, 6)
As the of their lives deteriorates, the slaves decide to escape. Paul D and Sethe are the only two who succeed. His other brothers and Sixo get killed. Halle witnesses Sethe's rape and beating by schoolteacher's nephews, and is reduced to a wreck. We assume that he also dies. Paul D is sold and spend several months in prison camp in Georgia because he attempts to kill his new master. He manages to escape with the other members of his imprisonment.
Sethe, heavily pregnant with her fourth child, sends her other three children ahead to her mother-in-law's house and runs away. She survives the journey and is helped by a white girl to give birth to her second daughter, Denver, on the banks of Ohio. Helped by Ella and Stamp Paid, two black people who assist runaways, she arrives at Halle's mother's house in Cincinnati and is reunited with her other children. Halle's mother is known as Baby Suggs: she used to live at Sweet Home until Halle bought her freedom. In Cincinnati she has become an unofficial preacher and a significant figure in the local black community. After only twenty-eight days of stolen liberty, schoolteacher comes to retrieve Sethe. Rather than allow her four children to submit to the sexual abuse, exploitation and indignity that she has had to suffer, she takes them to the woodshed and tries to kill them. She intends to commit suicide herself. She cuts her eldest's girl throat. The two boys, survive and run away. Sethe is prevented from smashing Denver's head to the wall. She goes to prison with Denver and is saved from being hanged by the the abolitionists of slavery. These facts only appear as the narrative unfolds.
The story begins almost twenty years after these events are supposed to have happened. Sethe is still living in the house on 124 Bluestone road with Denver. The two women are avoided by the black community. Baby Suggs has died. The house is rocked by the ghost of the murdered baby girl's ghost. Their home is surrounded with an atmosphere of misery. In the first section Sethe wished that her first daughter would come back and allow her to explain her dramatic action. The novel charts this very event. A girl arrives whom Sethe and Denver gradually come to accept as the ghost made flesh. She calls herself Beloved- the name engraved on the toddler's gravestone. Beloved is obssed by Sethe and wants to her everything about her past:
It amazed Sethe (as much as it pleased Beloved) because every mention of her past life hurt. Everything was painful or lost. She and Baby Suggs had agreed without saying so that it was unspeakable; to Denver's inquiries Sethe gave short replies or rambling incomplete reveries. Even with Paul D, who had shared some of it and to whom she could talk with at least a measure of calm, the hurt was always there- like a tender place in the corner of her mouth that the bit left her.
But, as she began telling about the earrings, she found herself wanting to, liking it. Perhaps it was Beloved's distance from the events itself, or her thirst for hearing it- in any case it was an unexpected pleasure. (Morrison 58).
The other inhabitant of 124 is Paul D, who arrives to visit Sethe. He and Sethe have a relationship and he is antagonistic towards the living Beloved, as he was to the ghost, whom he banished from the house on the day of his arrival. Denver, who has been lonely for many years, is dependent on Beloved, and resentful of Paul D.
Stamp Paid decides to tell Paul D of Sethe's crime and the period that she spent in prison. Paul D is awed and repelled by Sethe's reaction to the realities of black existence, and leaves the house.
After his departure, Sethe is positve that Beloved is her daughter and slowly relinquishes everyday life. She loses her job in a restaurant and spends each day trying to compensate and justify herself to Beloved. The three women lock themselves into the house in a deadlock of love, blame and guilt:
Sethe pleaded for forgiveness, counting, listing again and again her reason: that Beloved was more important, meant more to her than her own life. That she would trade places any day. Give up her life, every minute and hour of it, to take back just one of Beloved's tears. Did she know it hurt her when mosquitoes bit her baby? That to leave her on the ground to run into the big house drove her crazy? That before leaving Sweet Home Beloved slept every night on her chest or curled up on her back? (Morrison 242).
Beloved grows fatter and fatter while Sethe shrinks away to nothing. Denver realises that she must do something, and braves the outside world to look for a job. She is waiting to be collected by her new employer, when the women of the area come to Sethe's rescue. They have heard the presence of the ghost and are determined to rid the house of Beloved. As they are gathered outside, Mr Bodwon appears. He is a white man who has helped three consecutive generations of Baby Sugg's family, and arrives to pick up Denver. Sethe lunges at him with an icepick, convinced that he is another danger to her children, but is struck by one of the other women. Beloved disappears.
Later Paul D comes to visit Sethe and finds her lying in Baby Suggs's bed. He washes her and tells her that their shared past must be overcome. She must stop grieving for the death of her child and has to begin to value herself.
'She left me.'
'Aw, girl. Don't cry.'
'She was my best thing.'
Paul D sits down in the rocking chair and examines the quilt patched in carnival colors. 'Sethe', he says, 'me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.'
He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touched her face. 'You your best thing, Sethe. You are.'
His holding fingers are holding hers.
'Me? Me?' (Morrison 272-273).
The novel ends with the possibility of a future life for Sethe, Denver and Paul D.There is an epilogue in which the novel`s protagonists forget their supernatural visit.
II. Main characters:
This forgiveness that Sethe needs from herself involves understanding the love she possesses for her children. Sethe's love for her children goes beyond death. Her strength of heart sacrifices the slavery of her past for her children's future, even if it meant killing them. Her choice to keep her children out of slavery by attempting to kill them is a conscious decision and an exertion of her will. Sethe's exercise of power is, in effect, a declaration of independence from an unsympathetic community.
Sethe once again is solely responsible for her family and at Baby Suggs's place must decide for her children between slavery and death. Her decision to kill her baby saves the family from dissolution, and at that moment she has performed the function of protector and provider. She saves her family not only from dissolution, but also from slavery. This causes Sethe to stand on her own two feet and learn to run from no one and nothing, not even a haunted house. She becomes a fighter at this point, and it is not until she attempts to kill Mr. Bodwin and is stopped by the women who gather at her front gate to exorcise Beloved once and for all.
Sethe's collapse is anticipated by the townswomen who must intervene to save the family from the diabolic and unrelenting Beloved. Their action is an expression of familial love and concern; the exorcism cleanses the family that was dissolving under the force of guilt and shame.
Sethe continues in the community and is reconnected with it when the women save her from the child ghost who threatens to replace Sethe's life with its own. Sethe knows that her fight is not with these people with whom she has so much suffering in common, "Her struggle is against Schoolteacher, his nephews, and the system which enslaves, degrades, and defines." The driving out of Paul D and Denver causes both of them to turn once loving feelings toward Beloved into hateful ones. And it is this hate that drives Denver to turning to the townswomen for help.
Denver's dealings with Beloved and relinquishing her past are of a different nature. Upon her arrival, Denver recognizes her and attempts to keep her for herself. Beloved is a friend for Denver, who does not travel out of the front gate of 124 Bluestone Road. Denver finally has a companion and this company is a substitution for the community that has ostracized her and progressed without her. "To Denver, Beloved is a comfort and staves off the family's self imposed loneliness, and Sethe she is a hair shirt that serves as a constant, though not intolerable, reminder of a violent act." This violent act that has shut them out of society is exactly what keeps Denver from reconciling with her past so that she may move on with her future. She is a prisoner in the house and it is not until Beloved returns that Denver can unlock the door that keeps her from her present and future.
When her mother becomes controlled by Beloved, Denver is forced to seek help from Lady Jones. The loss of Sethe's job in the restaurant causes Denver to realize that she is the one who must step off the front porch and find food to support her dying family. Beloved awakens in Denver the need to mature into adult hood and take responsibility for herself and for others. But it is not until Denver's meeting with Lady Jones that her adulthood is truly initiated. And it is through her adulthood that she can move on with her life. Her job, not only allows her to move into woman-hood, but also permits her to move on with her future. From the visit with Lady Jones, Denver starts a job and becomes self-sufficient. Sethe no longer must take care of her, Denver becomes her own woman.
Denver's past is a mystery for her. All she has ever known is her mother and her grandmother and the short stories they told her. Her brothers ran off when she was very young and her only sister was murdered. Denver is alone and it is only Beloved who can show her how to move on with her life. Even when discussing the past, Denver will only listen if it is about her. The accounts of her past is all she has of a life.
¬ Paul D:
As Beloved gains control of Sethe through eighteen years of guilt, and of Denver by isolating her from her mother, Beloved gains control of Paul D sexually. This encounter enables him to open his heart once again and experience the feelings of a grown man with the ability to love. The years of Sweet Home had convinced him that the only way to survive in the white-man's world was to be emotionally cut off from it. Beloved's visit to Paul D in the shed behind 124 Bluestone Road are a way of controlling him. Beloved empowers Paul D to relinquish his past by helping him recover his ability to love.
Paul D's ability to abdicate his past also occurs through Beloved. It is her manipulation of Sethe's household that drives him to sleeping in the shed behind the house. There she seduces him and causes him to realize that his heart yearns for Sethe. The years of torment at Sweet Home had caused him to guard his heart. Guard his heart to the point that Paul D considered it a rusted shut tobacco tin. Beloved's enticement into sexual intercourse awakens within Paul D the feelings and emotions that he had for so long stored away in his tobacco tin heart. Beloved gives to Paul D his ability to relinquish his past and find solace in his future with Sethe.
The name Beloved is that on the baby's grave, but not that of that Sethe's own daughter. It is a word used both used at funerals and weddings, thus signifying both past and future. Beloved lacks the ability to gorgive her mother for her crime, choing Sethe's own inability to forgive herself.
The sexual control over Paul D serves as Beloved's weapon to drive him out of 124 Bluestone Road and gain control emotionally of Denver and Sethe. The domination over Denver serves as a tool for Beloved to drive a wedge between Denver and Sethe and to manipulate Sethe to keep her all to Beloved's self.
Beloved, Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize winning novel, is a masterfully written book in which the characters must deal with a past that perpetually haunts them. This haunting, in the form of a twenty year old ghost named Beloved, not only stalks them in the spirit, but also in the flesh.
Beloved, both in story and in character hides the truth in simple ways and convinces those involved that the past never leaves, it only becomes part of who they are. This contortion of truth does not allow any character to escape. Each one hides and runs from the brutality of slavery, yet cannot escape it's heritage. Set in the post-Civil War era of the rural Ohio back roads, each protagonist faces the fact that through Beloved's return they must deal with the ties of the past and the prosperity of the future. And after dealing with those memories that don't let them go, they can move on with their lives. Beloved, the ghostly character, drives this story of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. to an exploding end of triumph and unity.
Even Morrison finds it hard to speak of the unspeakable and has come to realize that, ". . . this had got to be the least read of all the books I'd written because it is about something that the characters don't want to remember, I don't want to remember, black people don't want to remember, white people don't want to remember. I mean, it's national amnesia."
The same publication that leads Morrison to conjuring up the characters and the story of Beloved also surveys the horrors of slavery in the mid 1800's. Morrison dedicates the book to "Sixty Million and more"(Morrison, i) slaves and acknowledges the freedom that each slave yearned for.. Morrison's characters stand in for all those slaves and former slaves who were 'unceremoniously buried' without tribute or recognition. As she feels chosen by these slaves to attend to their burial 'properly, artistically', Beloved becomes her effort to accomplish that. It is a source of power that allows Sethe to accept the fact that her house is haunted and also allows her, later, to deal with the fact that her deceased daughter comes back to her eighteen years later. This power enables her to stand up to those who ostracize her and try to break her spirit. When the town gathers at Sethe's front gate to cast Beloved out of Sethe's house, and Mr. Bodwin comes to pick up Denver for her daily job, Sethe tries to attack Mr. Bodwin. She does this because, in her own mind Bodwin is Schoolteacher coming to take her children to a life of slavery.
"He is coming into her yard and he is coming for her best thing. She hears wings. Little hummingbirds stick needle beaks right through her head cloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thinks anything, it is no. No no. Nonono. She flies. The ice pick is not in her hand; it is in her hand." (Morrison, 262).
By attempting to attack Mr. Bodwin, Sethe, a weak one, is able to let go of her fear of Schoolteacher. This act of attacking Mr. Bodwin illustrates how must progress Sethe has made in labeling her sin and correcting it; she attacks Bodwin, not her children. And this attack allows her to let go of her burden that has been weighing her down for eighteen years. It is only Beloved that can allow Sethe to move on with her past. Beloved causes Sethe to 're- memory' her origins and forgive herself of murdering her eldest daughter:
Sethe's love for Beloved, upon discovering Beloved has returned to her from the grave, becomes incredibly strong. So strong abides this mother's love that Sethe won't allow anything to stand in it's way: Sethe and Beloved become so exclusive with each other that they allow nothing to interfere with their relationship- not Paul D, not Denver, not the community, not even work. To prove herself to Beloved, Sethe gave up her job, outside communications, and her entire support system of Paul D and Denver. Beloved's manipulation of her mother allows her commencement of ingesting her mother mentally and spiritually. In doing this, Beloved starts to take her mother's place by mirroring and mimicking Sethe in every way. As Sethe wastes away under the gaze and demands of her daughter, Beloved becomes fat and greedy. Beloved views Sethe's devotion with indifference as Beloved becomes a monster of sorts, bent on sucking the life of Sethe. Beloved forces Sethe to wait on her and supply her every whim. She does this to make Sethe prove her love, but there is nothing that Sethe can do to earn Beloved's forgiveness.
Sethe's love for Beloved is fierce, so fierce that no human could hold it all; only Beloved could and still want more.
When the women of the town come to exorcise Beloved, Sethe loses what she considers her best thing and only reason for living. Denver, left caring for her dying mother, is forced to grow up and start working to provide for them both. At this point in time, Paul D comes back into 124 Bluestone Road, and into Sethe's life. Through Paul D Sethe comes to realize that she is her own best thing.
Sethe's disbelief stems from never having to take care of herself, but always of other people. Now that Denver has matured, she no longer needs her mother to provide for her, and Sethe is left with no one else to care for. Now that Paul D has returned, Sethe finally has someone to take care of her.
Beloved's function in Morrison's novel is irreplaceable. It is through this one restored and returned-to-the-flesh character that the protagonists, Sethe, Paul D, and Denver, to relinquish their past and reunite with their presents and futures. Sethe's ability to forgive herself of the murder of her eldest daughter stems from the effect that Beloved has on Sethe. Through Beloved's return Sethe can now recognize her true enemy. It was not her children she should have been fighting against when Schoolteacher arrived to take her back to her life of slavery at Sweet Home. She should have been fighting those who threatened her children and their freedom. Through this recognition, Sethe forgives herself for murdering Beloved and can therefore move on with her life without letting the past haunt her anymore. Denver is also able to renounce her past through Beloved's influence in her life. It is Beloved's control of Sethe that causes Denver to finally step off the front steps to ask for help. As Beloved manipulates Sethe and causes her to lose her only source of income, the inhabitants of 124 Bluestone Road begin to starve. This petition for help introduces the character of Lady Jones, who initiates Denver into woman-hood by simply calling her baby. This transformation generates within Denver the need to mature and begin taking care of herself and others. By taking on odd jobs and receiving food as payment Denver lets go of her oppressing past and moves on to her future.
Although, these transformations of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D take place at the end of the novel, it was part of Morrison's master plan for her novel.
IV. Personal Comment:
I adore this book for several reasons, first of all I love the mood that goes with it. There is a haunted house and a ghost who comes back to life after being murdered by its own mother. Everything is spooky and somehow scary. Furthermore I was very deeply interested in the historical background-slavery. But somehow I was sometimes disgusted by the brutality of this story e.g. when Sethe was getting raped and her newly married husband was watching helplessly.
I suppose Beloved has become so successful because it is a book that manages to create suspense and in addition to that is very intellectual and based on historical facts. The story of Sethe was actually inspired by the fate of a female slave who really murdered her own child and had to go to jail. She was supposed to be executed but the abolitionists achieved to save her life. This is the first book where I could imagine what it meant for black people to live in the age of slavery.
- York Notes advanced: "Beloved by Laura Gray" York Press
- Internet: http://www.luminarium.org/contemporary/tonimorrison/toni.htm
- Quote paper
- Aisan Fekri Afschar (Author), 2001, Morrison, Toni - Beloved, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/102389