Chapter 36: “Beloved” by Toni Morrison (1988)

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

Toni Morrison—one of America’s most beloved (no pun intended) and celebrated female authors; winner of the Novel Peace Prize; winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for her incredible novel, Beloved. Being that March is National Women’s History Month, I decided that Toni Morrison’s instant classic was the book for me.

And, now, a new novel has entered my all-time top ten.

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Going into this one, I was expecting another slavery novel along the lines of March, another Pulitzer-winner by Geraldine Brooks. Instead, I got what I referred to as a “ghost-baby story.” Beloved, by far, is one of the strangest, weirdest, most gruesome, most graphic, and, yet, most eloquently and beautifully told stories I have ever read in my life. Everything in it caught me totally by surprise.

Explaining this novel is a little difficult without making it sound completely crazy. On the other hand, I have to admit, this novel is completely crazy. Here’s the basic premise: a former slave woman named Sethe and her family are haunted by the ghost of her baby who she brutally killed in the days before the Civil War, and are then visited by the flesh-incarnate manifestation of that baby—a girl named Beloved.

Murder, beatings, hauntings, exorcisms, rapes—it’s all here.

Of course, this is just what’s visible to the naked eye. A writer as prolific as Toni Morrison wouldn’t tell a mere ghost story without making a grand metaphor of it. What the family in this novel is dealing with (and what African-Americans were and are still dealing with) is their reconciliation with slavery.

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The ghost baby that haunts Sethe and her daughted, Denver, in the beginning of the novel is representative of Sethe’s refusal to move forward with life; when Paul D. comes back into Sethe’s life, he performs a makeshift exorcism in her room and gets rid of the ghost, which is symbolic of the family attempting to move forward; the ghost baby puts on flesh and returns to 124 (Sethe’s home) to make a residence for herself and the family takes her in, nurtures her, embraces her—this is symbolic of the family coming to terms with their past; in the end, Beloved leaves 124 and Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. begin to embrace the evolving American societal landscape—symbolizing their eventual reconciliation with their pasts.

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What surprised me more than the storyline was Toni Morrison’s exquisite prose. I confess, I’ve never read anything by her before and after having read Beloved, I’m only disappointed with myself. She is such a wonderful and gifted author—the writing in this novel was on the same level as Virginia Woolf, or Oscar Wilde as she weaved an incredibly complex stream of consciousness narrative akin to To the Lighthouse, and a story even more demented than The Portrait of Dorian Grey (respectively).

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With this novel, Morrison not only tells the story of a generation, but the story of an entire people. With this novel, it seems as though Toni Morrison (a social activist) was attempting to speak to the African-American community she is a part of words of reconciliation with their pasts.

It is no secret that American slavery was an atrocity, and the black community has certainly (and rightfully so) had a very rough time letting go of that burden, that grudge against whites. Morrison, on the other hand—a pacifist—, with this novel, urges her brothers and sisters to move on! Not to forget the past, not to ignore the past; but to embrace it, nurture it, learn to forgive, and move on with their lives. Beloved is not meant to be a novel written by a black woman to make white people feel bad about themselves—it’s a novel for everyone who has a secret, or a burden, or a hurt, and wants to move on.

This novel is not meant to divide, but to unite. To to speak anger, but to speak love. Not to wound, but to heal.

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