“Beloved” by Toni Morrison: the guilt of the innocent

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, former slave Sethe persists in living with her sullen daughter Denver in the Cincinnati house widely believed to be haunted by the angry ghost of her murdered baby, whom she named “Beloved”, having earned the cost of carving this on her headstone by having sex with the engraver, regretting too late not to have spent enough time to pay for “Dearly” to be added first. Her life seems to improve with the arrival of Paul D (so named by his former master to distinguish him from Paul A or Paul F) who breaks a table in his wrestling to cast out the spirit of the furious baby, which has already driven away Sethe’s two sons. Yet her life is at risk of being taken over and perhaps destroyed by a second newcomer with whom she becomes obsessed, the oddly vacant young woman who calls herself Beloved and inexplicably seems to know about aspects of Sethe’s past life without being told.

Toni Morrison was inspired to write this novel by the real-life situation of Margaret Garner, the escaped slave who killed her child rather than have her suffer enslavement in turn. This prize-winning modern classic succeeds in portraying the fundamental evil of slavery, namely in depriving a person of his or her sent of identity. Her characters are bought and sold like objects or livestock, even by relatively humane owners. Relationships are not respected, nor even recognised with small children often unable to identify their mothers, husbands and wives are separated, women violated.

Continually risking bold experimentation in her style, Toni Morrison gave free rein to her vivid imagination and powerful, often poetical prose. Descriptions of childbirth and acts of violence are not for the squeamish. By contrast, the writing is often unexpectedly leavened by observations of wrily humorous clarity.

In the face of strong endorsements by famous feminist writers at the end of my copy of this novel, I hesitate to criticise this book. As an African-American, Toni Morrison was clearly well-qualified and justified in writing impassioned condemnations of the enduring evil effects of slavery long after its abolition. So why did I find it such hard going? This was only partly due to the frequent grimness of the subject matter. Although this will put some readers off, it is clearly relevant to the tale.

Despite appreciating the frequently used device of gradually revealing key facts, one problem for me was the confusing, often repetitive drip-feed nature of explanations for a number of intriguing questions. Why, how, even by whom, was Sethe’s baby killed? What really happened at the inaptly named “Sweet Home” where Sethe and her husband Halle worked for years until the estate was taken over by the sadistic “Schoolteacher”?

The worst aspect for me was what I believe Toni Morrison disliked to hear called “magic realism”. I concede that, being illiterate through no fault of her own, unable to tell the time except for knowing that it was noon when both hands of the clock pointed upwards together, Sethe was likely to be susceptible to superstition. Also, in a deprived slave community, tales of the supernatural passed down from tribal ancestors were all Sethe had of a personal history. However, are readers really expected to believe that the murdered child continues to make her presence felt as a kind of malign poltergeist, and that after being driven away by Paul D she is reincarnated in the body of Beloved who duly appears? Some scenes so resemble corny ghost stories that they seem to me to detract seriously from the calibre of the novel and muddy the “genre”.

I prefer the interpretation that the atmosphere in the house was tainted by Sethe’s sense of guilt and the opprobrium of the local community for what she had done, and that she and the young woman calling herself Beloved by coincidence were both disturbed, confused and wanting certain things to be so, such as having respectively a mother-daughter or a compensating love-vengeful hate relationship.

On reflection, having laboured through this novel, it rose in my estimation, and I should reread some passages to appreciate their originality and worth, but the tendency to melodrama, excessive sentimentality and an overblown style deter me from this.

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