First edition cover
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
Beloved is a 1987 novel by the American writer Toni Morrison. Set after the American Civil War (1861–65), it is inspired by the story of an African-American slave, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky late January 1856 by fleeing to Ohio, a free state. Morrison had come across the story "A Visit to the Slave Mother who Killed Her Child" in an 1856 newspaper article published in the American Baptist and reproduced in The Black Book, a miscellaneous compilation of black history and culture that Morrison edited in 1974.
Beloved begins in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the protagonist Sethe, a former slave, has been living with her eighteen-year-old daughter Denver. Sethe's mother-in-law, Baby Suggs lived with them until her death eight years earlier. Just before Baby Suggs' death, Sethe's two sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away. Sethe believes they fled because of the malevolent presence of an abusive ghost that haunted their house at 124 Bluestone Road for years. The story opens with an introduction to the ghost: "124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom."
The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and was a finalist for the 1987 National Book Award. It was adapted during 1998 into a movie of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey. A New York Times survey of writers and literary critics ranked it the best work of American fiction from 1981 to 2006.
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Major themes
- 3 Major characters
- 4 Adaptations
- 5 Legacy
- 6 Awards
- 7 References
- 8 External links
The book is the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver after their escape from slavery. Their home in Cincinnati is haunted by a revenant, whom they believe to be the ghost of Sethe's daughter. Because of the haunting—which often involves objects being thrown around the room—Sethe's youngest daughter Denver is shy, friendless, and housebound, and her sons, Howard and Buglar, have run away from home by the age of 13. Baby Suggs, the mother of Sethe's husband Halle, dies in her bed soon afterwards.
Paul D, one of the slaves from Sweet Home—the plantation where Baby Suggs, Sethe, Halle, and several other slaves once worked—arrives at Sethe's home and tries to bring a sense of reality into the house. In attempting to make the family forget the past, he forces out the spirit. He seems successful at first; he even brings housebound Denver out of the house for the first time in years. But on the way back, they encounter a young woman sitting in front of the house, calling herself Beloved. Paul D is suspicious and warns Sethe, but she is charmed by the young woman and ignores him. Gradually, Paul D is forced out of Sethe's home by a supernatural presence.
When made to sleep outside in a shed, Paul D is cornered by Beloved. While they have sex, his mind is filled with horrific memories from his past. Overwhelmed with guilt, Paul D tries to tell Sethe about it but cannot, and instead says he wants her pregnant. Sethe is elated, and Paul D resists Beloved and her influence over him. But when he tells friends at work about his plans to start a new family, they react fearfully. Stamp Paid reveals the reason for the community's rejection of Sethe.
When Paul D asks Sethe about it, she tells him what happened: After escaping from Sweet Home and reaching her waiting children at her mother-in-law's home, Sethe was found by her master, who attempted to reclaim her and her children. Sethe grabbed her children, ran into the tool shed, and tried to kill them all. She succeeded only in killing her eldest daughter, then two years old, by running a saw along her neck. Sethe claims that she was "trying to put my babies where they would be safe." The revelation is too much for Paul D and he leaves. Without him, sense of reality and time moving forward disappears.
Sethe comes to believe that Beloved is the two-year-old daughter she murdered, whose tombstone reads only "Beloved". Sethe begins to spend carelessly and spoil Beloved out of guilt. Beloved becomes angry and more demanding, throwing tantrums when she doesn't get her way. Beloved's presence consumes Sethe's life to the point where she becomes depleted and sacrifices her own need for eating, while Beloved grows bigger and bigger.
In the novel's climax, youngest daughter Denver reaches out and searches for help from the black community, and some of the village women arrive at the house to exorcise Beloved. At the same time, a white man comes into view, the same man that helped Halle's mother, Baby Suggs, by offering her the house as a place to stay after Halle bought her from their owner. He has come for Denver, who asked him for a job, but Denver has not shared this information with Sethe. Unaware of the situation, Sethe attacks the white man with an ice pick and is brought down by the village women. While Sethe is confused and has a "re-memory" of her master coming again, Beloved disappears. The novel resolves with Denver becoming a working member of the community and Paul D returning to Sethe and pledging his love.
The maternal bonds between Sethe and her children inhibit her own individuation and prevent the development of her self. Sethe develops a dangerous maternal passion that results in the murder of one daughter, her own "best self", and the estrangement of the surviving daughter from the black community, both in an attempt to salvage her "fantasy of the future", her children, from a life in slavery. However, Sethe fails to recognize her daughter Denver’s need for interaction with this community in order to enter into womanhood. Denver finally succeeds at the end of the novel in establishing her own self and embarking on her individuation with the help of Beloved. Contrary to Denver, Sethe only becomes individuated after Beloved’s exorcism, at which point Sethe can fully accept the first relationship that is completely "for her", her relationship with Paul D. This relationship relieves Sethe from the ensuing destruction of herself that resulted from the maternal bonds controlling her life.
Beloved and Sethe are both very much emotionally impaired as a result of Sethe’s previous enslavement. Slavery creates a situation where a mother is separated from her child, which has devastating consequences for both parties. Furthermore, the earliest need a child has is related to the mother: the baby needs milk from the mother. Sethe is traumatized by the experience of having her milk stolen because it means she cannot form the symbolic bond between herself and her daughter.
Psychological impact of slavery
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Because of the experiences of slavery, most slaves repressed these memories in an attempt to forget the past. This repression and dissociation from the past causes a fragmentation of the self and a loss of true identity. Sethe, Paul D. and Denver all experience this loss of self, which could only be remedied by the acceptance of the past and the memory of their original identities. Beloved serves to remind these characters of their repressed memories, eventually causing the reintegration of their selves.
Slavery splits a person into a fragmented figure. The identity, consisting of painful memories and unspeakable past, denied and kept at bay, becomes a "self that is no self." To heal and humanize, one must constitute it in a language, reorganize the painful events and retell the painful memories. As a result of suffering, the "self" becomes subject to a violent practice of making and unmaking, once acknowledged by an audience becomes real. Sethe, Paul D, and Baby Suggs who all fall short of such realization, are unable to remake their selves by trying to keep their pasts at bay. The 'self' is located in a word, defined by others. The power lies in the audience, or more precisely, in the word – once the word changes, so does the identity. All of the characters in Beloved face the challenge of an unmade self, composed of their "rememories" and defined by perceptions and language. The barrier that keeps them from remaking of the self is the desire for an "uncomplicated past" and the fear that remembering will lead them to "a place they couldn't get back from."
Definition of Manhood
The discussion of manhood and masculinity is foreshadowed by the dominant meaning of Sethe’s story. Beloved depicts slavery in two main emotions: Love and Self-Preservation, however, Morrison does more than depict emotions.
The Author dramatizes Paul D’s enslavement to speak of his morals of manhood. In fact, it also distorts him from himself. Morrison expanded on this idea indirectly by revealing different pathways to the meaning of manhood by her stylistic devices. She established new information for understanding the legacy of slavery best depicted through stylistic devices. To understand Paul D’s story on manhood, Morrison puts his half- formed words and thoughts to give the audience a “taste” of what is going on inside his mind. Throughout the novel, Paul D’s depiction of manhood was being challenged by the values of the white culture. The Author demonstrates the distinctions between “Western” and “African” values and how the dialogue between the two values is heard through juxtaposition and allusions. She had to maneuver her “message” though the social atmosphere of her words. She did this by character’s motives and actions acquire.
Paul D’s is a victim of racial inferiority in that his dreams and goals are so high that he will never be able to achieve them because of the color of his skin. However, Paul D does not see color; he sees himself as the same status as his white counterparts even though, during this time, that was never possible. He thought he earned his right to reach each of his goals because of his sacrifices and what he has been through previously in that society will pay him back and allow him to do what his heart desired.
During the Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow laws were put in place to limit the movement and involvement of African-Americans in the white-dominant society. Black men during this time had to establish their own identity, which may seem impossible due to all the limitations put upon them. Many black men, like Paul D, struggled to find their meaning in their society and achieving their goals because of the “disabilities” that constrained them to a certain part of the social hierarchy.
In Beloved, Sethe observes Paul D sitting on the base of the church steps “… liquor bottle in hand, stripped of the very maleness that enables him to caress and love the wounded Sethe…” (132). Throughout the novel, Paul D is sitting on a base of some sort or a foundation like a tree stub or the steps, for instance. This exemplifies his place in society. Black men are the foundation of society because without their hard labor, the white men would not profit. They were coerced into the society where they were deemed “lower-status” because of the color of their skin.
In the novel, Sethe’s child, Beloved, who was murdered by the hands of her mother haunts her. For example, Sethe, Denver, and Paul D go to the neighborhood carnival, which happens to be Sethe’s first social outing since killing her daughter. When they return home, that is when Beloved appears at the house. Throughout the novel, Sethe believes that the person claiming to be “Beloved” is her daughter that she killed 18 years prior.
Family relationships is an instrumental element of Beloved. These family relationships help visualize the stress and the dismantlement of African-American families in this era. The slavery system did not allow African-Americans to have rights to themselves, to their family, belongings, and even their children. So, Sethe killing Beloved was deemed a peaceful act because Sethe believed that killing her daughter was saving them. And by doing this, their family is divided and fragmented, much like the time they were living in. After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, ex-slave’s families were broken and bruised because of the hardships they faced as slaves.
Since slaves could not participate in societal events, they put their faith and trust in the supernatural. They did rituals and pray to their God and most of them believed in a God, or multiple.
The pain throughout this novel is universal because everyone involved in slavery was heavily scarred, whether that be physically, mentally, sociologically, or psychologically. Some of the characters tend to “romanticize” their pain, in a way that each experience is a turning point in one’s life. This concept is played throughout history in early Christian contemplative tradition and African American blues tradition.
Beloved is a book of the systematic torture that ex-slaves had to deal with after the Emancipation Proclamation. Therefore, in this novel, the narrative is like a complex labyrinth because all the characters have been “stripped away” from their voice, their narrative, their language in a way that their sense of self is diminished. Also, all the characters have had different experiences with slavery, which is why their stories and their narrative are distinct from each other.
In addition to the pain, many major characters try to beautify pain in a way that diminishes what was done. For example, Sethe keeps repeating what a white girl said about her scars on her back, calling them “a Choke-cherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves” (16). She repeats this to everyone, suggesting she is trying to find the beauty in her scar, even when they caused her extreme pain. Paul D and Baby Suggs both look away in disgust and deny that description of Sethe’s scars. Also, Sethe does the same thing with Beloved. The memory of her ghost-like daughter plays a role of memory, grief and spite that separates Sethe and her late daughter. For instance, Beloved stays in the house with Paul D and Sethe. A home is a place of vulnerability, where the heart lies. Paul D and Baby Suggs both suggest that Beloved is not invited into the home, but Sethe says otherwise because she sees Beloved, all grown and alive, instead of the pain of when Sethe murdered her.
Sethe is the protagonist of the novel. She is a freed slave from a plantation called Sweet Home. She lives in the house named 124 (a house on 124 Bluestone Rd. but referred to only as "124") which is believed to be haunted because she killed her infant child. Her two sons have fled because of the haunting and she resides in the house with her daughter Denver. She is motherly and will do anything to protect her children from suffering the same abuses she had as a slave. Sethe is greatly influenced by her repression of the trauma she endured, she lives with "a tree on her back", scars from being whipped. Her character is resilient, yet defined by her traumatic past.
The opaque understanding of Beloved is central to the novel. She is a young woman who mysteriously appears from a body of water near Sethe's house and is discovered soaking wet on the doorstep by Sethe, Paul D, and Denver, on their return from visiting the fair; they take her in. It is widely believed that she is the murdered baby who haunted 124, as the haunting ends when she arrives, and in many ways she behaves like a child. The murdered baby was unnamed, her name is derived from the engraving on Sethe's murdered baby's tombstone, which simply read "Beloved" because Sethe could not afford to engrave the word "Dearly" or anything else. Beloved becomes a catalyst to bring repressed trauma of the family to the surface, but also creates madness in the house and slowly depletes Sethe.
Paul D retains his slave name. All the male slaves at Sweet Home were named Paul, yet he also retains many painful memories of his time as a slave and being forced to live in a chain gang. It is said that his heart is kept in a "tobacco tin", as he continuously represses his painful memories. Many years after their time together at Sweet Home, Paul D and Sethe reunite and begin a romantic relationship.
Denver is the only child of Sethe who is truly present in the novel. She is isolated by other young girls in the community because they fear the haunting of her house. Over the course of the novel Denver fights for her personal independence.
Baby Suggs is the elderly mother of Halle. Halle works to buy her freedom, after which she travels to Cincinnati and establishes herself as a respected leader in the community. She lived in 124 where the majority of the novel takes place in the present time. After Sethe's act of infanticide Baby Suggs retires to her death bed where she develops an obsession with colors and Sethe inherits the house after her death.
Halle is the son of Baby Suggs, the husband of Sethe and father of her children. He and Sethe were married in Sweet Home, yet they got separated during her escape. He is not in the present of the novel, but is mentioned in flashbacks. Paul D was the last to see Halle, churning butter at Sweet Home. It is presumed he went mad after seeing residents of Sweet Home violating Sethe and raping her of her breast milk.
schoolteacher is the primary discipliner of the slaves in Sweet Home. His name is intentionally not capitalized throughout the novel. He is the most violent and abusive to the slaves at Sweet Home and eventually comes after Sethe following her escape but is unsuccessful in his attempt to recapture her and her children.
Amy Denver is a compassionate, young white girl who finds Sethe desperately trying to make her way to safety after her escape from Sweet Home. Sethe is extremely pregnant at the time, and her feet are bleeding badly from the travel. Amy saves Sethe's life nurturing her back to health. Later, Amy delivers Sethe's daughter on a small boat, and Sethe names the child Denver after her.
Beloved received the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award, which is named for an editor of Publishers Weekly. In accepting the award on October 12, 1988, Morrison said, "that 'there is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby'" honoring the memory of the human beings forced into slavery and brought to the United States. 'There’s no small bench by the road,' she continued. 'And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.' Inspired by her remarks, the Toni Morrison Society began to install benches at significant sites in the history of slavery in America. The New York Times reported that the first 'bench by the road' was dedicated on July 26, 2008, on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, the place of entry for some 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to the United States. Morrison said she was extremely moved by the memorial. In 2017 the 21st bench was placed at the Library of Congress. It is dedicated to Daniel Alexander Payne Murray (1852–1925), the first African-American assistant librarian of Congress.
The novel received the seventh annual Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights Book Award in 1988, given to a novelist who "most faithfully and forcefully reflects Robert Kennedy's purposes - his concern for the poor and the powerless, his struggle for honest and even-handed justice, his conviction that a decent society must assure all young people a fair chance, and his faith that a free democracy can act to remedy disparities of power and opportunity."
The publication of Beloved in 1987 resulted in the greatest acclaim yet for Morrison. Although nominated for the National Book Award, it did not win, and 48 African-American writers and critics — including Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Angela Davis, Ernest J. Gaines, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Rosa Guy, June Jordan, Paule Marshall, Louise Meriwether, Eugene Redmond, Sonia Sanchez, Quincy Troupe, John Edgar Wideman, and John A. Williams — signed a letter of protest that was published in The New York Times Book Review on January 24, 1988. Yet later in 1988 Beloved did receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, the Melcher Book Award, the Lyndhurst Foundation Award, and the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award.
Despite its popularity and status as one of Morrison’s most accomplished novels, Beloved has never been universally hailed as a success. Some reviewers have excoriated the novel for what they consider its excessive sentimentality and sensationalistic depiction of the horrors of slavery, including its characterization of the slave trade as a Holocaust-like genocide. Others, while concurring that Beloved is at times overwritten, have lauded the novel as a profound and extraordinary act of imagination. Noting the work’s mythic dimensions and political focus, these commentators have treated the novel as an exploration of family, trauma, and the repression of memory as well as an attempt to restore the historical record and give voice to the collective memory of African Americans. Indeed, critics and Morrison herself have indicated that the controversial epigraph to Beloved, "sixty million and more", is drawn from a number of studies on the African slave trade which estimate that approximately half of each ship’s "cargo" perished in transit to America.
Scholars have additionally debated the nature of the character Beloved, arguing whether she is actually a ghost or a real person. Numerous reviews, assuming Beloved to be a supernatural incarnation of Sethe’s daughter, have subsequently faulted Beloved as an unconvincing and confusing ghost story. Elizabeth B. House, however, has argued that Beloved is not a ghost, and the novel is actually a story of two probable instances of mistaken identity. Beloved is haunted by the loss of her African parents and thus comes to believe that Sethe is her mother. Sethe longs for her dead daughter and is rather easily convinced that Beloved is the child she has lost. Such an interpretation, House contends, clears up many puzzling aspects of the novel and emphasizes Morrison’s concern with familial ties.
Since the late 1970s, there has been a strong focus on Morrison’s representation of African-American experience and history. The idea that writing acts as a means of healing or recovery is a strain in many of these studies. Timothy Powell, for instance, argues that Morrison's recovery of a black logos rewrites blackness as "affirmation, presence, and good", while Theodore O. Mason, Jr., suggests that Morrison’s stories unite communities.
Many critics explore memory, or what Beloved’s Sethe calls "rememory", in this light. Susan Bowers places Morrison in a "long tradition of African American apocalyptic writing" that looks back in time, "unveiling" the horrors of the past in order to "transform" them. Several critics have interpreted Morrison’s representations of trauma and memory through a psychoanalytic framework. Ashraf H. A. Rushdy explores how "primal scenes" in Morrison’s novels are "an opportunity and affective agency for self-discovery through memory" and "rememory". As Jill Matus argues, however, Morrison’s representations of trauma are “never simply curative”: in raising the ghosts of the past in order to banish or memorialize them, the texts potentially “provoke readers to the vicarious experience of trauma and act as a means of transmission". Ann Snitow’s reaction to Beloved neatly illustrates how Morrison criticism began to evolve and move toward new modes of interpretation. In her 1987 review of Beloved, Snitow argues that Beloved, the ghost at the center of the narrative, is "too light" and "hollow", rendering the entire novel "airless". Snitow changed her position after reading criticism that interpreted Beloved in a different way, seeing something more complicated and burdened than a literal ghost, something requiring different forms of creative expression and critical interpretation. The conflicts at work here are ideological as well as critical: they concern the definition and evaluation of American and African-American literature, the relationship between art and politics, and the tension between recognition and appropriation.
In defining Morrison’s texts as African-American literature, critics have become more attentive to historical and social context and to the way Morrison’s fiction engages with specific places and moments in time. As Jennings observes, many of Morrison’s novels are set in isolated black communities where African practices and belief systems are not marginalized by a dominant white culture but rather remain active, if perhaps subconscious, forces shaping the community. Matus comments that Morrison’s later novels "have been even more thoroughly focused on specific historical moments"; "through their engagement with the history of slavery and early twentieth-century Harlem, [they] have imagined and memorialized aspects of black history that have been forgotten or inadequately remembered".
- Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1988
- Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, 1988
- Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award
- Melcher Book Award
- Lyndhurst Foundation Award
- Elmer Holmes Bobst Award
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Q. Beloved is dedicated to the 60 million who died as a result of slavery. A staggering number – is this proved historically? A. Some historians told me 200 million died. The smallest number I got from anybody was 60 million ... A lot of people died.
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