Toni Morrison is kind of a big shot. Beloved is perhaps her most famous novel, earning her the Pulitzer prize and undoubtedly contributing to the Nobel Prize committee’s decision to make her 1993’s Literature laureate – just six years after it was published. The novel is considered to be one of the strongest depictions of the African-American struggle in the United States during the period of slavery, and is a creepy, gothic, dramatic fiction in its own right (not that you’d know it from the typically reductive ‘female writer’ book cover; a flower, dying? Really?) but beyond that, I knew virtually nothing about it. Be warned – this review contains spoilers.
The plot follows Sethe, a former slave and single mother who lives in a house known as 124, a place she inhabited after escaping her life in slavery. Originally she lived there with her mother-in-law and group of children, but since her mother-in-law died and her two sons ran away, Sethe is left only with her 18-year-old daughter, Denver – and the malicious spirit of the baby girl she murdered herself 20 years ago. The story begins when a man she knew in her time as a slave arrives at the house, Paul D, who drives away the spirit and begins to implement a family structure in the absence of Sethe’s vanished husband. However, just as he succeeds, a young woman appears who coincidentlly shares the name of Sethe’s murdered daughter – Beloved – and is generally believed to be a revenant of her. As Sethe and Denver welcome ‘Beloved’ into the family home, their small chance at familial bliss is threatened by the newcomer’s intentions.
Perhaps the most persistent question I had throughout the novel was: what drove Sethe to murder her baby girl? She is not presented as a dangerous, insane or unloving mother throughout the novel, and for a long while I was mystified. Yet Sethe not only killed Beloved but attempted to murder all of her children at the same time, including a very young Denver, and would have succeeded were it not for an intervention. It was only when I researched the novel did I unravel the reasoning; Morrison was inspired by the story of Margaret ‘Peggy’ Garner, an African-American slave who notoriously killed her two-year-old daughter instead of allowing her to grow up into a world of slavery. It’s probably no coincidence that the surname of the slave masters and thus the slaves in the novel is Garner. The dark reasoning behind this is dwelt on later in the book; Morrison details how slavery corrupts them and leaves them permanently ‘dirty’ – by killing her children before they have a chance to be sucked into this world, she prays her children can retain their purity and not be tarnished by the influence of white people. Yet there was a supernatural element to it, too: when Sethe is discovered with a dead child, trying to murder her other children, it is described as being almost ritualistic, and her eyes have gone completely black, with no whites visible.
As you’d expect, the lines between the living and dead are very much blurred, which is a typical trait of magic realism. Beyond the fantasy, there’s a very real, human story at play. I haven’t read another novel with comparable tension between mother and daughter; having had a close relationship with my own late mum I struggled to envision a distant relationship between Sethe and Denver (particularly as, as pathetic as it sounds, Sethe’s physical description is quite close to my mum’s), but given Sethe’s past actions it’s not exactly surprising that Denver would stay wary around her.
When Beloved ‘returns’ she is a fully fledged adult, much as she would have been had she lived. I’ve read some reviews that imply it’s ambiguous as to whether or not she is in fact Sethe’s daughter, back from the dead – I thought it clear that she was, particularly when she drops hints to Denver, but critics seem to find it an issue for debate. An interpretation I read is that Sethe and Beloved’s relationship is there to represent separated families – this adult Beloved lost her parents, whilst Sethe lost her daughter, so they turn to each other to try to rebuild something they both lost. This is speculated in the novel, too – a secondary character believes that Beloved is in fact a random woman who escaped from captivity.
Am I convinced? Not so much. Beloved’s disappearance at the end is pretty fantastical, as is her entire final scene (the women of the village gather to drive Beloved away and see their own younger selves looking back at them; Beloved is described as having exploded). Plus, the adult Beloved has the scar on her neck from when Sethe sawed it as a baby. To me, Beloved’s a revenant, all right.
Predictably important themes in the book are memory and past trauma. Sethe and her husband are both haunted by a scenario in which Sethe was attacked while pregnant and had her milk ‘stolen from her’ by white men, not long before she attempted to murder all her children; this incident contributes to the theme of the breakdown of the mother/child relationship, as that milk was not theirs to take. Given that a strong theme in the novel is the dehumanising effect of slavery, this was a particularly stark example of the entitlement the whites felt over the blacks, and was horrifying to read.
There’s a fairly famous film adaptation starring Oprah Winfrey, but with poor reviews I didn’t feel inclined to watch it, even though a young Thandie Newton plays Beloved, which would be interesting to see. Still, I think for the time being I’ll let the story stay in my memory as it is on the page, not the screen. So, four stars from me – a truly shocking, haunting, and altogether compelling read. Not one to be missed.
[Coming next: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie]