Beloved is a masterful, discomfiting tale of slavery. I didn’t like it.
It’s literary. The writing and careful arrangement of plot elements makes the reader work hard (and keep turning pages) to piece together the sequence of events. The non-linear storytelling and ambiguously psychotic or supernatural elements may strike some as pretentious, but the novel has a powerful message effectively conveyed with consummate skill.
It’s tragic. You may think the book has a hopeful ending; interpretations vary. The ending didn’t seem hopeful to me. Regardless, the pain the characters suffered is—well—painful to contemplate. Thus, reading this story was for me more of a duty than a relaxing way to pass the time.
I didn’t like it, but I’m glad I read it. Institutionalized slavery of Africans in America is over, but it left a lasting legacy. I can trace my ancestry back to one of the founding fathers of the country, but some Americans can’t trace their ancestry at all. Their desire to connect with a past free of pain and punishment—even a fictional one—accounts for the success of the Roots the book and Roots the television series, and has contributed substantially to the success of Marvel’s Black Panther.
Toni Morrison explains the need for and the difficulty in writing such a book:
The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellant landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts.
The idea for the book came from a newspaper headline.
A newspaper clipping in The Black Book summarized the story of Margaret Garner, a young mother who, having escaped slavery, was arrested for killing one of her children (and trying to kill the others) rather than let them be returned to the owner’s plantation.
All the other details were Morrison’s own invention.
More on what I liked and didn’t like about Beloved below. Beware spoilers.
No, seriously, beware spoilers. I think the book is really better if you read it from start to finish without knowing where it’s going and where the characters have been.
Summary of Beloved
Below is a summary of the novel’s story in chronological order (rather than the order in which events are presented to the reader, which is vastly more complicated).
At a plantation called Sweet Home, the Garners try to treat their slaves like people. They own a woman named Baby Suggs, who is the mother of a young man named Halle, who buys his mother out of slavery and marries a girl named Sethe. When Mr. Garner dies, a white man referred to as ‘schoolteacher’ takes over and treats the slaves badly. Sethe is sexually assaulted. After she complains about it, schoolteacher has her whipped violently even though she is pregnant. The Sweet Home slaves attempt to escape to the North. Sethe sends three children (two boys and a baby girl) ahead of her, and gives birth to a daughter named Denver with the help of a poor white girl on the way, nearly dying in the process.
Sethe’s husband Halle never leaves Sweet Home because, having witnessed, powerlessly, the sexual abuse of his wife, he has gone crazy. Sixo, one of the other slaves, stubborn and rebellious, is shot during the escape attempt. Paul D., another of the slaves, is made to work on the railroad, but he escapes and gets tangled up on both sides of the Civil War.
After Sethe and her four children have moved in with Baby Suggs in the North, some white men come to try to recapture her in accordance with the runaway slave laws. When she sees them, she kills her baby girl and tries to kill her other children. She is allowed to go free after the court case, but people shun her and her two boys run away. Baby Suggs dies.
Three-Act Plot Summary
When the novel begins, Sethe and her daughter Denver are living alone in the house, number 124, which is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s nameless but beloved baby. When Paul D. arrives, he drives the ghost away. However, soon a lost girl arrives, calling herself Beloved. We conclude that she is Sethe’s dead daughter, on the basis that she recognizes a lullaby Sethe sings and has a scar where Sethe killed her.
At first Sethe is glad to have Beloved around, but Beloved disrupts the family, becoming ever more demanding. She drives Paul D. from Sethe’s bedroom to another room, then to the shed, then sleeps with him and gets pregnant. Paul D. leaves after he finds out about Sethe’s crime from a man called Stamp Paid and confronts Sethe. Beloved demands that Sethe serve her. Sethe complies, starving herself and Denver and losing her good restaurant job. Denver, fed up with her mother’s nonsensical behavior, finds a job of her own.
The townspeople, having deduced that something is wrong, arrive at Sethe’s house. In an irrational panic, Sethe tries to kill Denver’s white employer, but is prevented from doing so. In the aftermath, Beloved disappears, leaving Sethe and Paul D. alone to reflect on past events. Sethe says Beloved was her best thing; Paul D. says Sethe is her own best thing. It’s not clear whether Sethe has been at all healed by the whole ordeal or is still hopelessly broken.
What I didn’t like about Beloved
I didn’t like the subject matter.
Slavery, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, murder, and overpowering guilt are not fun to read about.
I didn’t like the ambiguity of the existence of the character Beloved.
I don’t know whether to call it unreliable narration, magical realism, or poetic license, but Sethe, Denver, Paul D. and possibly also others in the story seem to really interact with first a ghost of the dead, beloved daughter of Sethe and then a resurrected, mature embodiment of her. I felt I had no choice but to take the incidents involving Beloved at face value, though the book is not fantasy and has no other magic in it.
We are told the “ghost” picks up Sethe and Denver’s dog Here Boy and throws him, injuring him badly:
[T]he baby’s spirit picked up Here Boy and slammed him into the wall hard enough to break two of his legs and dislocate his eye.
At the end of the novel, the narrator seems to say Beloved was never real but had only seemed so:
They forgot her like a bad dream. After they made up their tales, shaped and decorated them, those that saw her that day on the porch quickly and deliberately forgot her. It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget, until they realized they couldn’t remember or repeat a single thing she said, and began to believe that, other than what they themselves were thinking, she hadn’t said anything at all.
In a way it was comforting to be allowed to believe that Beloved hadn’t really existed, but it was also disappointing and exhausting to have believed in her all along—which I suppose is the point, though “it was all a dream” endings are usually considered in poor taste.
I didn’t like that stream-of-consciousness passage.
I suppose I’m just not modern enough to accept that an important part of a fictional world can be successfully created by foisting on the reader a piece of text entirely lacking in punctuation.
Yes, I get that it’s supposed to suggest a terrible experience, possibly of an ancestor being transported from Africa in the hold of a ship. I would prefer to be told so straightforwardly.
Of course, I say that, but then I didn’t like Roots, which does exactly that. Is there a book that falls somewhere in the middle between these extremes?
What I liked about Beloved
I liked the use of dialect.
I don’t know whether it was authentic, but I found it convincing. You can see examples of deliberately nonstandard English in the quotations I’ve included in the post.
Favorite “word”: rememory
I liked the cleverness of the ambiguity of the existence of the character Beloved.
When I reached the end and realized that Beloved was (perhaps) meant to be some kind of mental projection, I went back to the beginning and started reading the book again, even though I never thought I would want to. The incidents appear very differently if, rather than assuming that Beloved really exists, you assume Beloved is imagined, created by Sethe.
There’s definitely support for this assumption. Sethe says:
[I]f she’d only come, I could make it clear to her.
Sethe wants to tell her daughter why she killed her. She’s not sorry she did it; she’s sorry she had to, and she wants a chance to explain. Then she gets one!
This conversation in which Denver complains of her isolation takes on a new meaning if you assume there is no ghost, only Sethe’s maddening pain:
“I can’t live here. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I can’t live here. Nobody speaks to us. Nobody comes by. Boys don’t like me. Girls don’t either.”
“What’s she talking ’bout nobody speaks to you?” asked Paul D.
“It’s the house. People don’t—”
“It’s not! It’s not the house. It’s us! And it’s you!”
“Leave off, Sethe. It’s hard for a young girl living in a haunted house. That can’t be easy.”
“It’s easier than some other things.”
Why does the dead baby stop being a ghost and start being a person? Paul D shows up and distracts Sethe, but Sethe’s pain is not so easily dismissed—it returns stronger than ever.
Paul D ran her off so she had no choice but to come back to me in the flesh.
At the finale, when Beloved (maybe) appears to the town’s women on the porch of the house, the book suggests that her existence is open to question. One of the women thinks:
Was it true the dead daughter come back? Or a pretend?
Oh, great. Now you tell me maybe the character is pretend. Thanks, narrator!
After the incident, eyewitnesses say they saw her. Then again, eyewitnesses are unreliable, and sometimes narrators are, too.
When the two people closest to Beloved apart from Sethe discuss Beloved’s time with them, there is room to see her as not a person but a phenomenon differently experienced by the three of them:
“Uh, that girl. You know. Beloved?”
“You think she sure ’nough your sister?”
Denver looked at her shoes. “At times. At times I think she was—more.” She fiddled with her shirtwaist, rubbing a spot of something. Suddenly she leveled her eyes at his.
“But who would know that better than you, Paul D? I mean, you sure ’nough knew her.”
He licked his lips. “Well, if you want my opinion—”
“I don’t,” she said. “I have my own.”
Everyone who reads the book will have a different opinion.
I liked the depth of insight in Beloved.
There are a lot of clever lines—well expressed deep thoughts:
[The Sweet Home plantation] never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves.
“Was it hard? I hope she didn’t die hard.”
Sethe shook her head. “Soft as cream. Being alive was the hard part.”
Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What’s that supposed to mean? In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”
Very few had died in bed, like Baby Suggs, and none that he knew of, including Baby, had lived a livable life. Even the educated colored: the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there.
Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem.
“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
I liked how fiction brought (a really terrible part of) history alive in Beloved.
People used to call black males of all ages “boys”. It’s hard to believe, unless you’ve been plunged into a context where some people aren’t people, they’re possessions. In the world Toni Morrison depicts, black men aren’t men; they’re not allowed to be, not treated as such. So what else would you call them, if not “boys”?
Once we’ve understood the idea that slaves really were treated like property, we of course assume that the slaves understood the idea too. The implications should have been painfully obvious to them. Surprisingly, no. In spite of all the evidence, people still, deep down, expected to be treated like people, to be allowed, for example, to keep their own children.
[I]n all of Baby’s life, as well as Sethe’s own, men and women were moved around like checkers. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.
And how did Baby Suggs get that strange name? She belonged to Mr. Whitlow, and her bill of sale said “Jenny”, a name she says she’s never heard anyone use to refer to her, so her name is supposed to be “Jenny Whitlow”. Her husband’s name was “Suggs”, though she doesn’t know where he got that name or where he is now. He called her “Baby”, and he might come looking for her some day, so if she wants him to be able to find her, she needs to keep calling herself “Baby Suggs”.
The core message of the book is that no society deserves to exist that could drive a mother to kill her children to save them from it.
[A]nybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing—the part of her that was clean.
The humor in Beloved
There is no book so grim that it doesn’t deserve moments of lightness.
“You got any objections to pike?”
“If he don’t object to me I don’t object to him.”
Sometimes humor is the only way to deal with drama.
“Every time a whiteman come to the door she got to kill somebody?”
“For all she know, the man could be coming for the rent.”
“Good thing they don’t deliver mail out that way.”
“Wouldn’t nobody get no letter.”
“Except the postman.”
“Be a mighty hard message.”
“And his last.”
When their laughter was spent, they took deep breaths and shook their heads.
Finish the book, take a deep breath, and shake your head.
When and Why I Read Beloved
This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for March 2018.
Genre: Fiction (historical)
Date started / date finished: 07-Mar-2018 / 12-Mar-2018
ISBN: ASIN B000TWUTYG
Originally published in: 1987/2007
Amazon link: Beloved