Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a heavy read. It is thick with the history of slavery in the United States and Morrison does not shy away from the physical, emotional, and psychological damage that it wreaks on those caught up in it. I suppose I expected something lighter like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but that’s probably because it’s been a while since I last read Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Beloved does not revel in violence, like McCarthy’s Blood Meridian seems to, but it does not shy away from it either. The novel centres on Sethe, a young slave woman who manages to escape slavery in the south by fleeing to her mother-in-law in Ohio along with her three children all while being nine months pregnant. Although Sethe has escaped slavery, it continues to make her life a living hell in the form of ghosts, her absent husband who may or may not have been hung for trying to escape, and, most of all, in the traumatic consequences of the reappearance of her former owners. When the narrative starts, 18 years on from Sethe’s escape, she lives in 124, her mother-in-law’s house, with her daughter Denver as Baby Suggs, the in-law, has died while her two sons have abandoned her to go fight in the Civil War.
One of the things that I begrudgingly liked about Beloved was how it refused a quick reading. I found it very difficult to plow through the text, not just because of the narrative voice which moves across time and space quite fluidly but more so because of the heaviness of the material. It is one thing to recognize slavery as a bad thing in an abstract sense, but it is quite another to realize the depths of depravity and evil that went along with it. On some level, I think the human brain tends to downplay potential evil even if it is confronted with the realization of that potential quite regularly (think Vietnam, Rwanda, and most recently the shootings in Nigeria). Perhaps we all have some ingrained form of optimism about the human race. What makes Beloved a great novel is that Morrison refuses to let us have this naivete yet she does not leave us here but suggests ways out of this painful knowledge.
I am always hesitant to say that novels capture a zeitgeist or help to explain historical events, partly because that can become an onerous burden on the author but also because it tends to refuse fiction its unique ability as fiction. However, Beloved really does shed light on the fractious and divisive racial politics that animate the US. The widespread celebration of Obama’s presidential election victory is, in some ways, an attempt to get beyond the history that Morrison so eloquently narrates. And yet, it is also impossible to escape this history. The novel’s final chapter repeats a refrain of “It was not a story to pass on,” self-reflexively labeling the whole novel as a kind of forbidden story. And yet, it is a necessary story because it lays out in no uncertain terms how destructive racism and slavery were. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize the year after it was published while Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993. These accolades are well-deserved and have helped to reassure me that prizes are not always political, that sometimes merit does win out.
I highly recommend Beloved for anyone who reads. It is difficult, heart-breaking, but it is also powerful and deeply insightful.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. Print.