Aestheticizing the Difficult and the Gothic in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"

Term Paper, 2016
16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2... The politics of the slave narrative.

3... The neo-slave narrative.

4. Limits of realism.

5... Revising the genre.

6. The return of the repressed.

7. Remembering the past.

8.. The Gothic.

9.. Magical Realism.

10. Beloved, a ghostly mediator..

11. Conclusion

12. Bibliography..


Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a hybrid novel that combines several genres and depicts the brutality of African-American slavery, which is represented by Bible verses and elements of the gothic novel. In this paper, Morrison’s turn to the Gothic in order to convey the psychological damages slavery has caused is central. Her anti-mimetic approach to represent the non-fictional past is a way of exploring the trauma the (former) slaves are suffering from. Beginning with the slave narrative, which is a highly political genre, I attempt to position Beloved in the literary history of the abolitionist movement. The slave narrative’s function is important when it comes to understanding the purpose of Beloved since the novel draws on it as the slave narrative serves as a testimony to those who had to suffer from the atrocities of slavery. As a means to testify to the horrors of slavery and as a politically engaged document, the common mode of writing used to be realistic and mimetic. Here, my thesis is that realism is not sufficient in representing the horrible past in a way that explores the mental damage of the slaves and their descendants in contemporary literature. For this reason, Morrison turns to the Gothic and an anti-realistic mode of writing to examine the inexpressibility of the trauma. To investigate the limits of the slave narrative, I take a look at the neo-slave narrative, which revises the traditional genre. In order to get to the gothic novel, I talk about how repressed memories always find a way to come back to haunt one’s life, which is represented by the incarnation of Sethe’s dead baby, Beloved, herself. Furthermore, I analyze the difficulty of remembering in Beloved. The main aim is to show that Morri on’s purpose is to complicate the discourse of the text by exposing the readers to ambiguity and openness. Lastly, I shortly summarize Beloved’s importance. She is the key factor to Sethe’s and her daughter’s, Denver, freedom from isolation since she triggers them to confront their past and their fears.

2. The politics of the slave narrative

In the nineteenth century, American slaves wrote narratives to testify to their personal experience and their way to freedom, drawing on the captivity narrative. Those slave narratives proceeded like autobiographies.[1]They are first-hand accounts, written by a firstperson narrator, who talks to an audience which largely consists of white abolitionist-minded men, keeping in mind the urgency to prove that slaves are humans and not property.[2]As political documents, slave narratives served as a means to fight the institution of slavery in America.[3]During the abolitionist movement, they became essential as they testified to the horrors of slavery. Since slave narratives had a political purpose[4], they had to follow certain conventions in order to convey the main ideas of the abolitionist movement. Slavery defenders shared the belief that African Americans were naturally inferior to people of European descent.[5]Following this thought, they judged the worth of humans by their race, asserting that African Americans had no intellectual abilities and were therefore only useful for slavery.[6]Slave narratives challenge this common belief by showing that African Americans are capable of intellectual work, demonstrating their abilities. As a matter of credibility, most narratives were prefaced by an introduction written by white abolitionists to reinforce that the former slave wrote the narrative himself.[7]The institution of slavery was also meant to “civilize” African Americans, turning them into Christians. Former slaves reported though, that they already were Christians.[8]Slaveholders justified their cruel actions by citing the Bible, which is often describes as a “perversion of true Christianity”[9]. Philip Gould states that “[the] Bible itself provided a crucial source of the language of liberation - of salvation - that could be construed by black writers in highly creative ways”.[10]Morrison refers to this characteristic by using a passage from Romans 9:25 as epigraph. Citing the Bible was a means for black writers to show that they are civilized.[11]Additionally, the institution of family was crucial in pre-war America. Slavery destroyed families and separated its members from one another.[12]Slave narratives countered the idea of African Americans not being able of having emotional bonds to family members, stressing the suffering of the slaves who were separated from their families, which appealed to the reader’s emotion, as sentimental novels did.[13]In slave narratives, self-representation becomes a way to challenge ideologies by stressing the spiritual and adventure-like journeys of the protagonist.[14]The genre drew from Enlightenment thoughts and Locke’s arguments on natural rights, stressing that every human being has certain rights the moment he is bom.[15]Considering the political purpose of the slave narrative, namely fighting the institution of slavery and the dominant ideology that African Americans are naturally inferior, the writers followed certain conventions to be convincing.[16]The genre of the slave narrative adopts various characteristics from similar genres, such as the captivity narrative, the spiritual autobiography and adventure stories, to name a few.[17]

3. The neo-slave narrative

The genre of the neo-slave combines traditional conventions of the slave narrative and mimetic realism of historical events with popular поп-mimetic forms, which leads to new representations of slavery. This is the result of reshaping the politics of the slave narrative.[18]Smith argues that neo-slave narratives approach the institution of slavery from a myriad of perspectives and embrace a variety of styles of writing: from realist novels grounded in historical research to speculative fiction, postmodern experiments, satire, and works that combine these diverse modes.[19]

Slave narratives had a certain purpose that needed to be fulfilled. Therefore, they had to follow common conventions and address certain topics to appeal to the (white) audience and counter proslavery arguments. The neo-slave narrative does not mean to convince anyone of certain ideologies. As a politically rather independent genre, it enables a creative freedom for writers of the twentieth- and twenty-first century. Neo-slave narratives offer a space for dealing with issues, such as trauma, memory and the long-term effects of slavery on the subsequent generations and the scars it has left.[20]

4. Limits of realism

Since there is a gap between the political discourse of the traditional slave narrative and the slave’s individual and psychologically damaging experience of slavery, the realist mode is not sufficient in representing history from the slave’s point of view. Vint’s argument is that Beloved forces US to “[rethink] the relationship between African-American and fantastic literatures”[21], breaking with the limits of realist writing modes by employing various generic conventions.

5. Revising the genre

In nineteenth-century slave narratives, realism serves as an important means to establish credibility of the author’s experience. Morrison’s shift away from realism shows that there is an aspect of the experience as a slave that has not been told yet.[22]Matus argues that the genre of the slave narrative could not “bear the fullest possible witness to the interior lives of the slave-narrators”[23]since it was originally shaped to fight slavery. (104) The hybridity of Beloved serves as a narrative means to represent the traumatic legacy of slavery.Thus, Morrison’s novel does not only work within the frame of slavery, much more it aims to represent the post-slavery period.[24]Her purpose is “to address black readers by inviting US to return to the very part of our past that many have repressed, forgotten or ignored”.[25]By making use of the Gothic, she finds a way to express the inhuman atrocities committed against slaves within a postmodern narrative and transforms the politics of the traditional slave narrative.[26]


[1] and-source

[2]Cf. Bruce: 28.

[3]Cf Ibid: 28.

[4]Cf Gould: 12.

[5]Cf. Bruce: 29.

[6]Cf Ibid.: 29.

[7]Cf Ibid: 30.

[8]Cf Ibid: 30

[9]Ibid.: 30.

[10]Gould. Ibid.: 14.

[11]Cf. Ibid.: 16.

[12]Cf. Bruce: 31.

[13]Cf. Ibid.: 31.

[14]Cf. Gould: 12.

[15]Cf. Ibid.: 17.

[16]Cf. Gould: 17.

[17]Cf. Gould: 13.

[18]Spaulding: 61.

[19]Gould: 18.

[20] Cf. Smith: 168.

[21]Vint: 241.

[22]Cf. Vint: 244.

[23]Matus: 104.

[24]Cf. Varsam: 128-129.

[25]Mobley: 197.

[26]Cf. Spaulding: 61.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Aestheticizing the Difficult and the Gothic in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"
University of Bonn  (Anglistik)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
566 KB
Trauma, Toni Morrison, Slavery, Literary Genres, Genres, Beloved
Quote paper
Deborah Wißkirchen (Author), 2016, Aestheticizing the Difficult and the Gothic in Toni Morrison's "Beloved", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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