A novel like Toni Morrison’s Beloved makes the reviewer’s usual strategies of praise and grumbling seem shallow. I find it hard not to dwell on passages like this description of a fugitive slave trying to get out of the Old South, where what is seen and felt so delicately mirrors the condition of the observer:
And in all those escapes he could not help being astonished by the beauty of this land that was not his. He hid in its breast, fingered its earth for food, clung to its banks to lap water and tried not to love it. On nights when the sky was personal, weak with the weight of its own stars, he made himself not love it. Its grave-yards and low-lying rivers. Or just a house—solitary under a chinaberry tree; maybe a mule tethered and the light hitting its hide just so. Anything could stir him and he tried hard not to love it.
But the writing itself is beside the point, even though the book would have little point without it. One can only try to suggest something of what it is like to find one’s way through an extraordinary act of imagination while knowing that one has missed much, that later reading will find more, and that no reader will ever see all the way in.
Beloved is unlike anything Morrison has done before. Where her previous novels—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby—dealt with the experience of black people, especially black women, in modern America, this one goes back into history, and behind history into the materials of myth and fantasy that sober history usually thinks it is duty-bound to rationalize or debunk or ignore. Before the Civil War, on a Kentucky farm called Sweet Home, a group—a family, in a sense—of slaves lived more or less contentedly under the fairly enlightened rule of reasonably humane masters, the Garners. Mr. Garner conversed with his field hands, consulted their views about their work, treated them as men, not implements. Mrs. Garner managed the female house servants kindly and helped them with what they didn’t know. Still, institutional if not personal inhumanity remained—even Mrs. Garner was amused by her girl Sethe’s hope that her union with Halle Suggs might be dignified by a marriage ceremony, and while Garner readily agreed to free Halle’s crippled mother, Baby Suggs, he charged Halle far more in future Sunday labor than her market value justified. As Edens go, Sweet Home had its flaws—“it wasn’t sweet and it sure wasn’t home,” one of its inmates recalls. But Sethe’s response to this witticism—“But it’s where we were…. All together. Comes back whether we want it to or not”—states a need for connection with the past that the book will dwell upon.
Sweet Home fell apart in the 1850s when Garner died and the farm was taken over by a theorizing sadist, called Schoolteacher by the slaves—he was a great one for measuring heads and keeping notes—whose brutality to his human livestock drove them to attempt mass escape. Sethe managed to smuggle her three young children across the Ohio to Baby Suggs and, after an epic birthing in the fields, got there finally herself. But the men were killed, tortured, imprisoned, scattered by their bid for freedom.
This is the story’s background, told in flashbacks. Now it is 1873, the war is long over, slavery has been abolished. Sethe lives in Baby Suggs’s house outside Cincinnati, where she cooks in a restaurant; Baby herself is dead, as is Sethe’s older daughter; her sons ran away in early adolescence, not to be heard of again. She lives in seclusion with her daughter Denver, the child she bore during her escape, who is thought “simple” by others and fears to leave the house alone. Sethe and Denver are avoided by their black neighbors, evidently because their house is haunted by the troubled, violent spirit of the daughter who died, known only as Beloved from the pathetically brief inscription on her tombstone.
Beloved thus proposes to be a ghost story about slavery, and Morrison firmly excludes any tricky indeterminacies about the supernatural. This ghost of the elder daughter is no projection of a neurotic observer, no superstitious mass delusion. Various sensible characters witness its manifestations and accept their reality; and unlike most writers of reasonably serious supernatural fiction—Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. and Henry James—Morrison provides us no cozy corner from which to smile skeptically at the thrills we’re enjoying. If you believe in Beloved at all you must accept the ghost in the same way you accept the other, solidly realistic figures in the story.
The ghost is violently exorcised by one of the men from Sweet Home, Paul D, who finds his way to Cincinnati after years of imprisonment and wandering to offer Sethe love and release from her history of suffering. But then Morrison, with even more daring indifference to the rules of realistic fiction, brings to Sethe’s house a lovely, historyless young woman who calls herself Beloved and is unquestionably the dead daughter’s spirit in human form. Beloved moves right in, drives the male recalcitrance of Paul D out of the house, captivates Denver, and begins her conquest of Sethe’s own troubled heart.
This new Beloved is no mere apparition. She is solidly physical, indeed she perfects her humiliation of Paul D by seducing him. At one extraordinary moment we see her struggling to keep body and soul together:
Beloved looked at the tooth and thought, This is it. Next would be her arm, her hand, a toe. Pieces of her would drop maybe one at a time, maybe all at once. Or on one of those mornings before Denver woke and after Sethe left she would fly apart. It is difficult keeping her head on her neck, her legs attached to her hips when she is by herself. Among the things she could not remember was when she first knew that she could wake up any day and find herself in pieces.
This is the grotesque comedy of certain moods of folklore, in which figures of extrahuman potency and menace are partly humanized by assuming some of our own vulnerability; though they try to conceal it, they do speak our language after all. But of course they mostly don’t—their sketchy familiarity is in fact what makes them so dangerous, and Beloved is not finally a beneficent intruder.
To speculate about why Morrison should have created such a character and what she means to her, it may be well to stand back a bit. Black experience in America of course originates in slavery, which is to say that it begins with the behavior of white people. The whites in the book—the people without skin, Beloved calls them—are good, bad, or indifferent, but this is almost irrelevant, as if the white world were for blacks something like the third-rate carnival that performs, listlessly, for the colored of Cincinnati: “Two pennies and an insult were well spent if it meant seeing the spectacle of whitefolks making a spectacle of themselves.” For many blacks, however sadly, the issue may not be so much what exactly they have suffered from racism as how they can survive it. And survival points to the heart of this book, the question of memory.
Sethe’s “serious work,” she reflects while kneading bread in the restaurant, is “beating back the past,” but of course the past is not simply an enemy but the source of our present selves. She vividly remembers the horrors she fled from at Sweet Home, but she does not often willingly remember a later horror, of which she was not just a victim but also an agent. After her escape, while living with Baby Suggs, she once beat back the past by trying and, except in one case, failing to kill her children when the sadistic Schoolteacher appeared with the sheriff to claim his lost property and take Sethe and her children back to Kentucky. (In the event, he judged her to be damaged goods and went home without her.) This tragedy, barely hinted at until the book is half over, puts a new light on things. It explains why Baby Suggs’s tough spirit failed late in her life, why Sethe’s boys always slept holding hands until they were old enough to flee, why Denver is afraid of going out and so mistrusts visitors like Paul D, why Sethe is avoided by her neighbors. Most important, it explains why the spirit of Beloved, the child Sethe did kill, so yearns for acceptance and love.
Beloved’s demand is to be remembered, to regain some form of life in the love of her tormented mother. Men are not very responsive to such an appeal; the boys run away, Paul D drives out the ghost and contends less successfully with the reincarnated Beloved in his hope of convincing Sethe to live in “the world.” That world includes his serious love for her, but it also includes Schoolteacher, the Klan, the prison Sethe served time in after the murder, and other white horrors. By remembering Beloved, cherishing her in her newfound flesh, Sethe avoids “life” in a way that her life’s own nature amply justifies, but hers is also, the book seems to say, a response to experience that may be most tempting, and dangerous, to women and especially to mothers.
Here Morrison’s understanding and sympathy come into admirably intricate play. She knows and respects what slavery does to men, how dreadfully it wounds what for better or worse defines the manhood that most men cherish—physical capacity, pride of dominance, freedom of will and action. But she knows that it can do something subtler and perhaps worse to women, something that here centers on the figure of Baby Suggs, dead now but an abiding presence in the minds of her daughter-in-law Sethe and her granddaughter Denver, though significantly not so in the mind of Beloved, who died too young to have known her grandmother’s power. Baby knew what life in the world is like, that “Being alive was the hard part,” as Sethe says later; she knew that some of the worst horrors of slavery are small and specific, like not seeing your children grow up—as seven of her children, by different fathers, died or were sold away before maturity—or having, like Sethe, to be told by white women how to nurse and care for your own babies. She tried to persuade Sethe that the past is better accepted than fought against: “Lay em down, Sethe. Sword and shield…. Both of em down. Down by the riverside…. Don’t study war no more. Lay all that mess down.” Or, more tersely, “Good is knowing when to stop.”
Baby Suggs is the matriarch, the goddess of home; after she was freed, her body broken, she made “a living with…her heart” as a lay preacher around Cincinnati, conducting Saturday services in the woods at which children laughed, men danced, and women wept, and then all laughed and danced and wept together until they were exhausted and ready for Baby’s offer of “her great big heart.” Her gospel was love, but not a kind that white religion has much to say about:
Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it…. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it. you!… No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved…. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.
None of Morrison’s people have entire access to truth, and Baby’s eloquent celebration of the flesh and its affections seems to her a lie when she is dying, shaken (we later understand) by Sethe’s violation of her own children’s flesh. Once she preached that the only grace her people could have was “the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.” But she ends by thinking, “There was no grace—imaginary or real—and no sunlit dance in a Clearing could change that.” But it’s to Baby’s remembered comfort that Sethe returns in her later tribulations, and Baby’s doctrine of the body as the seat of love and grace that identifies the wrenching ambiguity of Beloved herself. Beloved yearns to exist and be loved in the flesh by the mother who, driven frantic by memory, violated that flesh so grievously. But finally it seems clear to Beloved, so imperfectly lodged in her improvised new body, that “we are all trying to leave our bodies behind”; her desire, as with certain creatures of classical folk-lore, is not to exist as a separate, integral self but to fuse with her mother in a single “hot thing” that yet preserves her self as object as well as subject: “I want to be there in the place where her face is and to be looking at it too.”
This impossible desire leads the novel to its catastrophe and resolution, a kind of reprise of the original tragedy in which Beloved is dismissed, though not exactly defeated, and Sethe uncertainly begins to see that she herself, and not Beloved, may be her own “best thing.” And Beloved’s thwarted desire points back toward what I take to be the story’s center. “To be there…and to be looking at it too” is the terrible paradox of memory, of history itself, the hopeless yet necessary wish still to be a part of what we can understand only because it and we no longer are what we were, or think we may have been. At the simplest, most personal level, Sethe wants to preserve her memories—in effect, herself—against the distractions of living in the present, in the “world,” that Paul D’s love, and in a way Baby Suggs’s too, offer as compensation. In an important way Sethe is right to want this: her history matters; her own children can know nothing of slavery except through the stories she tells them, and her people (in Morrison’s own longer view) will be imaginatively cheated, their dignity cheapened, if stories like hers are lost.
Yet memory, isolated from immediate life, is terribly dangerous. It permits guilt and self-loathing and hatred of others (however well deserved) to batten on themselves. Beloved is all memory—hers seems to be a collective racial memory whose “personal” contents mingle with recollections of the Middle Passage from Africa. She loves both sweets and her mother’s stories too well, and as she grows obese and insatiable in her domination of the household, Sethe herself becomes increasingly demoralized, loses her job, begins to starve. Stories are important—they are in fact all we have of the past—yet at the end the voice that tells Beloved’s story insists that hers is “not a story to pass on,” even though that voice has been passing it on for 275 pages. It should not be told, it will be told—the paradox is unresolvable. The memory—personal, political, poetical—of a social horror of such magnitude may distort or cancel living possibilities; but living possibilities, pursued without regard for such memories, are pretty sure to be trivial, empty possibilities in the end.
Though it is hard for a white, male reader to be sure about this, I would suppose that in Beloved Morrison means to help thoughtful black people, especially women, to create or re-create an imagination of self that “white history” or “male history” has effectively denied them, even while showing them how easily such an imagination can become self-defeating. What I am sure about is that this book will convince any thoughtful reader, of any sex or color, that Toni Morrison is not just an important contemporary novelist but a major figure of our national literature. She has written a work that brings to the darkest corners of American experience the wisdom, and the courage, to know them as they are.