Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison

Title: Beloved
Author: Toni Morrison
Genre: Modern Classic
Year: 1987
Pages: 324

Beloved follows Sethe, an ex-slave who escaped the farm at which she worked, Sweet Home, eighteen years ago. During her life, she has lost many things, including her new born daughter who was yet to receive a name. The only word put on her gravestone was 'Beloved'. One day, a young woman who calls herself Beloved enters Sethe's life. Is she the daughter's reincarnation, or just a troubled girl? 

Above anything else, this novel is a slave-narrative. 
It is, however, also quite dependent on magical realism, or even the supernatural. As a novel about the effects of slavery, this is brilliant and thought-provoking. By the elements of magical realism, though, I was not impressed. The idea is that throughout the novel you are not sure who this character Beloved really is, although the majority of characters are convinced it is Sethe’s daughter. Now, I don’t believe in reincarnation, but generally for me, it doesn’t matter what I believe in in order to understand a novel. If, within the realms of the reality of the world created by the author, the amount of magic is plausible, I’ll be convinced easily. In Beloved, I wasn’t. I find it difficult to put into words why, but I’m going to try anyway. My most prominent confusion was that it is taken for granted that she is a reincarnation or a ghost. Characters aren’t surprised or scared upon finding out, even though it is set in a non-fantastical world. This is a result of the religion followed by these people, and perhaps it is disrespect from my side to pronounce that this felt unrealistic. I like to think that I am very open-minded, but I guess this may prove this is not the case.  What I’m trying to say here, is  that the religion may have gotten in the way of the plot. I don’t know whether this is really the reason why I didn’t like this part of the story in the first place, but I’ve had some time to think about it, and this is the only explanation I could come up with. Interestingly, Morrison does not exclusively advocate the reincarnation or ghost interpretation. Throughout the novel, we can find many hints that Beloved is a victim of some crime, a runaway who is completely deranged as a result of this. Maybe, for me, the novel would have been more interesting if there had been at least one character supporting this idea.

Before I’ll tell you why I did like the novel, I’ll talk about an element that confused me greatly. As a student of literature, I’m trained to find symbols or themes and discover their meaning. This novel is filled with these literary devices and many of them are clear and obvious. But some are not. The colour red, and other colours on the same spectrum, for example, occur many times. There is blood, a piece of cloth, gemstones in a grave, roses, somebody’s heart, and much more. The piece of cloth, red velvet, is something a side character is dreaming of finding, which would indicate hope for a better future. Paul D, Sethe’s old friend from back at Sweet Home, has a heart described as red, and he is filled with passion to pursue a better future. Also, the road towards a carnival Sethe and Paul D are attending is aligned with red roses, and this is the start of their life together. Obviously, thus, red means hope and prosperity. Wrong. Because the roses towards the carnival also smell of death as they are rotting. Sethe’s daughter’s blood overshadows Sethe’s thoughts, and the stones on the daughter’s gravestone are pink. What are we readers to make of this theme of red? The same is true for trees: they represent comfort and life at most occurrences in the novel, but they also serve as a veil: the scar on Sethe’s back looking like a tree, and the trees around Sweet Home both hide the horrors behind them. This duality had me confused but alert throughout the novel and in a sense, I loved this incoherence, but it also bothered me as I felt almost cheated.

Now, let’s talk about what I certainly enjoyed about this novel. Morrison emphasises the destructive power of slavery in terms of self-identification. Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that slaves were taught they were subhuman, worth even less than an animal as “a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin” (174-5). Years of suppression lead to the slaves believing this, and even behaving accordingly. Beloved shows us that they have changed for life, as when they have escaped slavery the lack of self-identity keeps following them, and even the next generations are influenced heavily. Sethe, her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, and Paul D are filled with self-hatred, and the latter two even become depressed. Sethe’s husband Halle went insane not knowing how to cope with all the horror, and Sethe herself, too, (arguably) has episodes of insanity, trying to kill her own children. English professor Barbara Schapiro uses psychology to explain these characters’ struggles. According to object relations theory, people “are innately responsive and relational” (Schapiro 195), and in order to establish a self-identity, love relations are necessary as they would serve as mirrors. In Beloved, Schapiro says, any chance of relationships as such is taken away for those subject to slavery. Sethe, for example, does not know who her mother is and someone has to point her out to her, and tragically, for Beloved herself, “the intense desire for recognition evolves into enraged narcissistic omnipotence and a terrifying, tyrannical domination” (Schapiro 197). What is interesting, is that Morrison takes this issue one step further, touching upon the character change within the whites when Stamp Paid, the man who helped Sethe escape Sweet Home, describes the allegorical jungle in which blacks are put but eventually the whites have to hide (Morrison 134-5).

While I was of course aware of the horrors of slavery, this novel had me look at  it in a different light, and had me evaluate it more. The ex-slaves’ struggle to find self-respect was no doubt touching. With the aid of the way in which she used the symbolism, as mentioned before, Morrison showed us the world should not be looked at so black and white. However, in terms of the main plot, it did not have me hooked. The story dragged at points, and while I generally do not step away from magical realism, in this novel it felt incredulous. I understand figuring out who Beloved really is, is considered part of the novel’s strength, but to me any explanation of this woman’s existence felt too far-fetched. 

(Schapiro, Barbara. “The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Contemporary Literature 32.2 (1991): 194-210)

© Suzan Voncken

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