Beloved needs no introduction, and is written in such poetic form that any words I contribute are reductive at best. However, as it left me reeling and slightly broken, I’ve attempted a longer than usual review to do it justice.
It is about the impact of slavery on one woman, Sethe, and is dedicated to
Sethe is free in the sense that she escaped from her owners at Sweet Home, but she is traumatised, both physically and mentally – she trying to hold onto herself but her idea of her ‘self’ is wrapped up in her dead baby girl; she does not think of herself as a person apart from that. The taking of this – the effect of slavery on her psyche – is particularly cruel.
She is left with memories that she cannot face, scars from hell, and a constant fear of returning.
Such was Sethe’s trauma that she killed her daughter when she saw white men coming to take her children away. Her daughter’s ghost, ‘Beloved’, haunts the house she shares with her surviving girl Denver.
How much pain can a person bear and still be themselves? Another survivor, Paul D, asks Stamp Paid something like this in a poignant scene late in the story, which I do not want to spoil. But I found this to be at the heart of the novel, that a person could endure slavery and survive it, in that their body is there, but what is left when their innocence, their faith in humanity, their songs and their children have been taken?
A rooster named Mister was the breaking point for Paul D:
“Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed to be and stay what I was. Even if you cooked him you’d be cooking a rooster named Mister. But wasn’t no way I’d ever be Paul D again, living or dead.”
Thus Morrison tackles the idea of freedom and the way that slaves were deprived not only of their physical freedom but the ability to be themselves.
Baby Suggs (Sethe’s mother-in-law), a great character and the soul of the novel, expresses this. Tired to the point of ‘marrow weariness’, she tells Stamp Paid of the day the white men came for Sethe, “They came into my yard.”
Much later, he understands:
“The heart that pumped out love, the mouth that spoke the Word, didn’t count. They came in her yard anyway and she could not approve or condemn Sethe’s rough choice.”
As the best novels do, Morrison has us empathizing with the characters without judgment. Sethe has killed her daughter, whom she heart-breakingly calls ‘crawling already? girl’ and is haunted by the ghost of baby Beloved, and then by a girl of the same name.
I don’t enjoy supernatural elements in books, but I read this part as a way of showing the trauma Sethe has suffered: a lifetime of atrocities, pushing her mind to breaking point.
Like the approach Kurt Vonnegut took in Slaughterhouse Five, some horrors are unspeakable, can only be alluded to, and manifest themselves in other ways or forms. He (and Paul Beatty in The Sellout) used humour, but a great darkness lies beneath it.
Stamp Paid can hear the murmur of the ghost(s) in the house. This is how Morrison describes him standing at the front door, listening to the voices:
“The people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons.
What a roaring.”
There are echoes of the voices in a later scene, which I won’t spoil.
The notion of evil runs through much of the story, and the hypocrisy of the people who perpetrated this evil while suggesting it was black people not they, who were less than human. Morrison manages to explore this with subtlety and nuance but it is relentless at the same time. She also touches on the effect on white people of their own evil.
“Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle.
But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it.”
There is also much kindness – from the white girl who helps Sethe, to Stamp Paid’s good deeds and the women who help Denver towards the end – and moments of tenderness.
The language is strong and exquisite throughout, the form inventive but always in a way that feels necessary, not neat or contrived. Morrison has a superb ear for voice and renders grief as a physical thing. It is visceral and heart-breaking.
I read this for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge: read a classic by an author of colour. I would love to know if you’ve read it and what you thought. Now I have to go and recover!