Sunday, June 14, 2009

100. Beloved – Toni Morrison

November 2007
History: Published in 1987 it is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The novel is loosely based on the life and legal case of the slave Margaret Garner, about whom Morrison later wrote in the opera Margaret Garner (2005). The book's epigraph reads: "Sixty Million and more," by which Morrison refers to the estimated number of slaves who died in the slave trade. The novel follows in the tradition of slave narratives, but also confronts the more painful and taboo aspects of slavery, such as sexual abuse and violence, which Morrison pushes to the edge of questioning the idea of being human and of being a mother. She explores the effects on the characters, Paul D and Sethe, of trying to repress—and then coming to terms with—the painful memories of their past.
Plot: The book follows the story of Sethe (pronounced "Seth-uh") and her daughter Denver as they try to rebuild their lives after having escaped from slavery.
124 Bluestone, the house they inhabit, is apparently haunted; poltergeist events occur there with an alarming regularity. Because of this, Sethe's youngest daughter, Denver, has no friends and is extremely shy. Howard and Buglar, Sethe's sons, run away from home by the time they are thirteen. Their primary reason was the fear of being killed by their own mother. They do not understand why Sethe murdered Beloved and believe that whatever triggered the infanticide may happen again. Shortly after, Baby Suggs, the mother of Sethe's husband Halle, dies in her bed.
Paul D, one of the slaves from the Sweet Home, the plantation where Baby Suggs, Sethe, Halle, he, and many other slaves had worked in and either been freed or run away from, arrives at 124. He tries to bring a sense of reality into the house. He also tries to make the family move forward in time and leave the past behind. In doing so, he forces the ghost of Beloved out. At first, he seems to be successful, because he leads the family to a carnival, out of the house in years. However, on their way back, they encounter a young woman sitting in front of the house. She has distinct features of a baby and calls herself Beloved. Denver recognizes that she must be a reincarnation of her sister Beloved right away. Paul D, suspicious of her, warns Sethe, but charmed by the young woman, Sethe ignores him. Paul D finds himself being gradually forced out of Sethe's home by a supernatural presence. When he is finally made to sleep in a shed outside, he is cornered by Beloved, who has put a spell on him for this purpose. She burrows into his mind and his heart, forcing him to have sex with her, while flooding his consciousness with horrific memories from his past. Paul, overwhelmed with guilt after the incident, attempts to tell Sethe, but cannot and instead tells her he wants her pregnant. Sethe is humored and elated by his wishes, and Paul D. finds the power to resist Beloved and her influence over him. However, when he tells his friends at work about his plans to start a new family, they react negatively and fearfully. Stamp Paid then reveals to Paul D. the reason for the community's rejection of Sethe. When Paul D asks Sethe about it, she tells him what happened all those years ago. After escaping from Sweet Home and making it to her mother-in-law's home where her children are waiting, Sethe is found by her master, Schoolteacher, who attempts to reclaim Sethe and her children. In a heightened panic, Sethe's grabs her children, runs into the tool shed and tries to kill them all, only succeeding with her oldest daughter. Sethe explains to Paul D her reasoning for doing it, stating she was "trying to put my babies where they would be safe." However, the revelation is too much for Paul D, who later leaves the house for good. Without Paul D, the sense of reality and moving time disappears.
Sethe comes to believe that the girl is the daughter whom Sethe murdered by slitting her throat with a handsaw when the child was only two years old, and whose tombstone reads only "Beloved". Upon this realization, Sethe's begins to spend carelessly and spoil Beloved out of guilt. Beloved recognizes her mother's guilt and becomes angry and more demanding, throwing hellish tantrums when she doesn't get her way. Beloved's presence consumes Sethe's life to the point where she becomes depleted and even sacrifices her own need for eating, while Beloved grows bigger and bigger. In the climax of the novel Denver, the youngest daughter, reaches out and searches for help from the black community. People arrive at 124 to exorcize Beloved. However Beloved disappears.
At the outset, the reader is led to assume Beloved is a supernatural, incarnate form of Sethe's murdered daughter. Later, Stamp Paid reveals the story of "a girl locked up by a white man over by Deer Creek. Found him dead last summer and the girl gone. Maybe that's her". Both are supportable by the text. The possibility that Beloved is the murdered child is supported by the fact that she sings a song known only to Sethe and her children; elsewhere, she speaks of Sethe's earrings without having seen them. However, the characters have a psychological need for Beloved to be that dead child returned: Sethe can assuage her guilt over the death of her child, and Denver has a sister/playmate.
Review: When slavery has torn apart one's heritage, when the past is more real than the present, when the rage of a dead baby can literally rock a house, then the traditional novel is no longer an adequate instrument. I listened to this book, read by Toni Morrison herself, and I could not follow the story. The books prose is like poetry, similar to stream of consciousness of Faulkner, but difficult to follow especially when listening. It is written in bits and images, smashed like a mirror on the floor and left for the reader to put together. The stories circle, swim dreamily to the surface, and are suddenly clear and horrifying.
Opening Line: “124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom.”
Closing Line: “Beloved.”
Quotes: "If a Negro got legs he ought to use them. Sit down too long, somebody will figure out a way to tie them up."
Rating: Difficult

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