Beloved by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s most famous novel is Beloved, which is about a woman named Sethe who escapes slavery, gives birth on the road, makes it to Ohio where her children and mother-in-law are already, and then everything gets worse. She’s haunted for eighteen years by the ghost of her toddler, a little girl who moves things and torments the residents. We’re told that Sethe’s two sons leave upon first appearance of the ghost, whom Sethe calls Beloved (because that’s all that’s on her daughter’s headstone), but her youngest child, Denver, stays. Then, Paul D., who was a slave on the same plantation as Sethe, appears out of nowhere after eighteen years and begins a relationship with Sethe.

It’s hard to describe the plot of Beloved. Now that I’ve finished it, I can explain it; however, that’s not how Morrison writes. Indirectly we get the full story of why Denver still lives with her mother, why Paul D. has returned, why the sons left, and we get to experience Beloved the ghost incarnate. I read this novel with Biscuit, and as I told her, there is a writing style I describe as “toilet flushing.” Basically, there is a heart to the story, but the author doesn’t write us in that direction. No, they circle around it — around, around, around — before we get there, typically in the last chapter. Toni Morrison includes flashbacks, hints, suggestions, vague allusions . . . and they’re all out of order. For no reason that makes the book better is Beloved disorganized. In fact, I told Biscuit that if we weren’t reading it together, I would have DNF’d.

In some cases, I had to read the same 2-3 sentences about five times (no exaggeration) to figure out what was even going on. Have you ever read a poem and got zero understanding out of it, but then the poet tells you their inspiration, or what they were going for, and then you can totally understand the allusions in the poem? That’s how a big chunk of Beloved is, and I saw no reason to have to fight so hard the whole way through. The writing wasn’t more poetic, it was more obtuse.

I will say that Morrison writes about slavery differently from many others, differently in that it was more brutal, and likely more realistic. I’m accustomed to whipping and raping, and as pained as I am to write this, it’s so expected in a novel about slavery in the U.S. that I feel anger that too-quickly dissipates. Morrison, on the other hand, either writes straight about or alludes to other horrifying acts perpetrated against the slaves in Beloved, and it’s all the more personal because the plantation has seven people captive there, not hundreds. While my brain can stupidly tra-la-la past atrocities I’ve read repeatedly, Morrison wasn’t going to let people like me get away with forgetting.

Ultimately, Beloved is a book about why people need to forget, though. I had this naive idea that if someone can heal their heart, they can heal themselves. But in Sethe’s and Paul D.’s worlds, an open heart is a death sentence. I thought Beloved returning would dissolve Sethe’s guilt and make things right for this mother. If only the titular character made more sense, though. Was her goal to harm Paul D. and Sethe? To come back in the flesh and live happily with her own mother? Morrison’s character was so inconsistent that Biscuit and I shrugged and realized we got one main thing out of reading Beloved: now we can be pretentious and say, “Of course we’ve read Beloved! Haven’t you??”

32 comments

  1. I was absolutely blown away when I read Beloved (and learned about Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison) for the first time, a couple of years ago. I loved her style. Yes I guess she does circle around the point, but she does so to build up tension, so when you do work out what’s going on, or what seems to be going on, and why it had to be that way, you feel it much more deeply than if it were just told baldly at the beginning.

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    • I don’t mind the circling, but the sentences that don’t even make sense do me in. I’m glad you liked this one. It’s possible that I felt differently about it because I used to teach Black Lit to college students, so I’ve read a number of portrayals of slavery and what heinous acts a person will do for love that were more clearly written. In the end, it’s like Beloved left me with a feeling (which is good!) but not clarity (which makes the content outside the emotions forgettable).

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  2. Like you, I had to read parts of this over and over to make sense of what was happening (but I preserved so that I could tick it off the ‘classics/ essential reading’ list.

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  3. I found my copy of this yesterday but now having read your reaction I feel confident in putting into my “donate” bag without having read it.
    Yes I know it’s a classic and deals with important issues but I just know from your description that it would drive me crazy trying to keep up with her looping style.

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  4. Ah, sorry to see this book was a struggle for you (and Biscuit). It’s a title that’s been on my TBR for a while and I only ever seem to see praise for it, so it’s interesting to get another take. I’ve only read one Morrison novel so far (Sula), which I found challenging but ultimately rewarding, so I’ve been wanting to try more of her work. Now I’m not sure whether this should be my next Morrison novel after all, but reframing the atrocities of slavery so that the reader can’t possibly look away or forget does sound worth visiting to me, so I think I’ll keep it on my list for now.

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      • Ah, The Bluest Eye is another one on my TBR, perhaps I’ll pick that one up before Beloved.
        It’s been a little while since I read Sula so I don’t remember everything, but doesn’t it end with Sula’s death disrupting the peace she inspired in her community, and her friend realizing how much she loved Sula (as a friend) all along, though she’d been denying the friendship in order to fit into the community? If I remember right Sula was a sort of symbol for independence and nonconformity which went unappreciated in her lifetime, but then her friend realized with Sula’s death that it was her husband and her life of conformity that she didn’t like, rather than Sula. Sula is definitely a complex character who doesn’t always do good things, but she’s free in a way that most of her community isn’t and they envied her that, I think, in a way that made them hateful toward her.

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        • I remember Sula left for the city then came back, slept with the main character’s husband, and then told the main character what a wet mop she was. I guess I didn’t read deeply into what Sula was attempting to accomplish with that…. Yes, Sula was dying, I remember that.

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          • Yes, I think all that is correct, but if I remember right Sula’s friend was more upset with her husband in the end for the cheating than with Sula, since he was the one who’d made a commitment to her. She was upset that she’d followed the rules and still gotten burned, while Sula felt free to do what she wanted- and she’d abandoned Sula years earlier when there was some accident with a kid falling in the river, I think, so the friend (Nel, I had to finally look it up) wasn’t blameless either, but she’d tried to hide her failings to fit in while Sula got to just be herself. I think there’s a lot going on beneath the surface level in the story, but honestly I’m not sure how much of it I would’ve gotten on my own, I was lucky to be able to read it with a class!

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  5. I think reading in this kind of style is like reading poetry; it’s not any harder than other reading, but if you don’t do it very often it feels very disorienting and unfamiliar. Over the years, I’ve read more and more fiction like this and it now feels very comfortable to me; I’m still practicing with poetry and I do not have the kind of understanding that I feel like I need to have in order to discuss/describe what’s at work with a poem that I’m reading. Nothing about Morrison’s style is accidental or unfinished, but whether one’s inclined to sort it all out, that’s quite another thing. She’s one of my MRE (must read everything) authors and I am reading a number of books about slavery this year, but I don’t know if I’ll feel drawn to reread this one; there are so many books on the theme to explore. When I’m a little further in my project, I might ask you for some rec’s!

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    • If I’m reading a famous African American author, my must-read-everything person is Zora Neale Hurston, whose dialect is quite challenging, but whose vivid imagery and humor always comes through. I’m glad you get on so well with Morrison. Beyond the writing style, I still felt there were gaps in what I was supposed to make of several moments. Why is Beloved seducing Paul D., for example.

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      • You know how sometimes when you are listening to a certain song, there is a gap, a pause, a silence? And something about that makes you like the song even more, which is weird because it’s the absence of song? Even if I were to mention a song here, it’s probably not a shared favourite between us. But that’s how I think Morrison’s gaps work. They have a purpose, but not everyone is going to feel it, feel it in a good way I mean, and not everyone who doesn’t feel it is going to be curious enough to read one of the kajillions of books/articles about her/the book to decipher it. You’ve still got some Hurston earmarked to read, I’m sure. (As do I!) Along with tonnes of others.

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  6. Great review! It’s been a couple years but I felt a lot of the same things. I like the character/ghost of Beloved as a way of delving into the past and the pain (and as you point out, Morrison focuses on slavery in a different way) but I was left with a lot of questions too.

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  7. I haven’t read Beloved!!!! It’s definitely one of those books that you feel you should read, but I’m sorry that it didn’t turn out well for you. The toilet flushing reference is a good one, I tend to despise books like that too so I’m not sure how well I’ll do if I finally read this.

    Have you read Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black? I found her depiction of slavery particularly brutal and violent, so I wonder how that would compare to Morrison’s depictions of it. It just takes that one particular passage, that one character’s story to bring us back to how horrible a time it was in our history. It makes me shudder, but I feel strong enough to read it, even if it’s just so I can remind others who aren’t strong enough to read it, that we must never forget about it.

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  8. It’s such an important book but so hard to read, and not just for what it makes us face. I don’t think I could manage it again and I’m not entirely SURE I read the whole thing last time. I’m glad it exists, though.

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    • I think the experience might be different in a literature course because a) the students could discuss it, and b) there’s a lot of fodder for writing a paper and students not getting the same thing out of it. There’s room for interpretation because so much is left loose.

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