Beloved (1987) is the fifth of nine novels by Toni Morrison published to date. Regarded by many as her best work, the novel earned National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award nominations in 1987 and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. In May 2006, The New York Times named Beloved “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years”, based on a survey of “a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages” (Scott 2006).
Morrison traces the origins of the novel to a project she undertook in the early 1970s while a senior editor at Random House, the production of an encyclopedic scrapbook of African American history and culture titled The Black Book (1974). While editing the book, Morrison came across a newspaper clipping, from an 1856 issue of American Baptist, about a fugitive slave, Margaret Garner, who was living near Cincinnati, Ohio. According to the newspaper story, when slave-hunters tracked her down, Garner attempted to kill her four children – and succeeded in killing one – rather than let them be returned to slavery. She was arrested and jailed, and her plight became a rallying cry for Abolitionists who linked the atrocity of slavery to Garner’s extreme act, as cause and effect. For Morrison, who left Random House in 1983 to become a full-time writer and university professor, Garner remained “fascinating, but, to a novelist, confining” (Morrison, “Foreword”, xvii). She therefore set out in Beloved to imagine Garner’s interiority; in the process, Morrison peopled the novel with many African American characters scarred in individual ways by the collective experience of chattel slavery in the United State – all with the depth and complexity typical of the characters throughout her oeuvre.
In Beloved Morrison returns us to the Midwest U.S. setting and to the sorts of African American communities present in her prior works The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973). As she put it in an early 1980s interview with Claudia Tate, “I am from the Midwest so I have a special affection for it. My beginnings are always there. No matter what I write, I begin there. I may abandon this focus at some point, but now it’s the matrix for me. [ . . . ] Ohio also offers an escape from stereotyped black settings. It is neither plantation nor ghetto” (Tate 1983, 119). Beloved can also be understood, along with such works as Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Sherley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose (1986), and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990), as part of a broader literary and political project by contemporary African American writers to explore the history and experience of U.S. slavery. Beloved has also been placed among the company of the many great American novels since World War II that have returned us to an often violent and racialized U.S. past – from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990).
Beloved begins in the past, the year 1873, and at an address in the Midwest: 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati, Ohio. At this time and place, Sethe, Morrison’s invented version of Margaret Garner, lives with her only surviving daughter, eighteen-year old Denver. Sethe’s two sons, Howard and Buglar, had left home years earlier. Sethe had first arrived at 124, the home of her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, after a harrowing 1855 escape from a Kentucky plantation called Sweet Home, where Sethe was a slave, along with her husband Halle Suggs and four other men – Paul D, Paul F, Paul A, Paul G and Sixo. The six had planned to escape together, but only Sethe and Paul D survived the attempt, which had been prompted by the death of their comparatively humane master, Mr. Garner, and his replacement by the unspeakably cruel “Schoolteacher”. Among his many violations of the Sweet Home slaves, Schoolteacher had allowed his two nephews to nurse Sethe as he recorded her “animal characteristics” (228). Halle, a hidden, helpless onlooker to this atrocity, was driven mad by it. Sethe never sees her husband again after Sweet Home, finding out only eighteen years later, through Paul D, that Halle had been a witness to her assault; Halle’s fate remains unknown to all, though he is presumed dead and represents a sustained gap, a space of longing, in the novel.
The text of the novel repeatedly represents such horrific trauma and its lasting, cross-generational effects, as represented by the ghost of Sethe’s dead baby girl who haunts the house and, once embodied, emerges as the title character of the novel. The novel opens with a description of house being sometimes violently haunted by the baby’s spirit: “124 was spiteful, full of a baby’s venom” (3). This opening is followed by Paul D’s arrival at the house after many years filled with his own trauma and gruelling travels. He and Sethe experience a moving and somewhat ambivalent reunion at 124, yet overall, Paul D’s presence is both loving and healing. He is even able to banish the angry spirit from the house, but it soon returns in the form of a mysterious young woman who “walked out of the water” and “sat down on a stump not far from the steps of 124” (60). Although a plausible natural explanation is offered for Beloved’s identity – as an escaped slave survivor of imprisonment and sexual abuse – it soon becomes clear that she has returned from “the other side”.
As the novel unfolds, this young woman of “about nineteen or twenty” (the age Sethe’s baby would have been, had it lived), who calls herself Beloved (also the only word on the baby’s tombstone) gains ever-greater and seemingly increasingly malevolent power over the other characters, particularly Sethe (61). Beloved’s power and presence eventually manage to drive Paul D from the house he and Sethe had planned to share. His distancing himself from Sethe and 124 is cemented by Paul D’s chilling discovery of what the community already knew: that Sethe, like her real-life counterpart, had murdered her own child to prevent her capture and return to slavery. Nearly at novel’s end, the women of the town’s African American community, who had once rejected and shunned Sethe for that act, come together to exorcise the dead child’s spirit from 124, and Paul D returns to Sethe “to put his story next to hers” (322). The novel’s famous ending – with its refrain, “It was not a story to pass on”, and final word: “Beloved” – reinforce the overarching theme of trauma that is, by turns, repressed and recalled, denied and emergent (324).
Yet no plot summary can do justice to Beloved’s intricacies of content and its poetic prose. Beloved herself soon comes to signify far more than the returned spirit of Sethe’s daughter: she means distinct things to each character, just as each had his or her own particular experience and story of slavery. Morrison’s formal techniques match this layering and combination of the individual and the collective. For instance, while every character copes with “rememory” (43), Morrison’s neologism for the traumatic remembering that goes on throughout the novel, they do so uniquely, as signified by the recurrent tropes associated with each: Sethe’s “chokecherry tree”, her literal and figurative scars (18); Paul D’s “tobacco tin”, wherein he stores his rememories of living at Sweet Home and later being trapped in a horrifyingly abusive chain gang prison (86); Baby Suggs’s obsession with color (“Bring a little lavender in”) that represents her retreat from her too-traumatic life (4); Stamp Paid’s red ribbon, a reminder of his profound and damaging inability to protect loved ones, especially women, from the evils of slavery (208, 213, 272).
The narration is similarly layered, shared and distinct, by character and by temporality. The narrative voice shifts throughout from omniscient third-person, to free indirect discourse for nearly all the main characters (and sometimes for the community as a whole), to an especially challenging series of four chapters narrated in turn by Sethe, Denver, Beloved herself, and finally all three women together. This section of the novel renders Beloved in a clearly symbolic and nearly extra-linguistic register; in Morrison’s words, “to render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way” (“Foreword”, xix). For example, Beloved says, “All of it is now it is always now there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too I am always crouching the man on my face is dead . . . .” (248). This passage exemplifies the novel’s formal innovation, particularly its blending of temporalities, with many critics interpreting Beloved’s chapter as a representation of the experience of the Middle Passage. But because Beloved has come to stand for so much – the individual trauma of the survivors of slavery, the collective trauma of slavery for a race and a nation, the past and the present, the past living within the present, and even a particular survivor of slavery – ultimately this chapter, like the novel as a whole, resists definitive interpretation.
Naturally, such open-endedness of meaning and complexity of form have produced a significant body of robust and important literary scholarship. In the over two decades since the book’s publication, scholars have interpreted Beloved according to its: symbolics of maternity, black feminism, narrative ethics and ethics of reading, recovery of history and representation of the body, circularity of narration, combinations of modernism and postmodernism, postcoloniality, deconstructionism, and psychoanalytic qualities, to name just a few scholarly approaches. Genre has been an equally rich source of Beloved scholarship, with scholars reading the book variously as a gothic novel or ghost story, a neo-slave narrative, a magical realist novel, an apocalyptic narrative, a classical tragedy, a bildungsroman, an allegory for the 124 years between emancipation and its own publication date, an allegory for the pathologization of black motherhood and black families in the 1980s, and a spiritual, among other genres and aesthetic modes. The novel has been the subject of much comparative work, as well: critics have paired it with works by Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Mark Twain, Alice Walker, Virginia Woolf, and a number of other authors. And, of course, many scholars have compared Beloved to other Morrison works, and Morrison herself has identified the novel as the first in a trilogy – along with Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1998) – exploring the nature of love. Indeed, nearly all her fiction seems to offer a thematic of love pushed to disquieting limits. In the words of literary scholar Deborah E. McDowell, from The Bluest Eye (1970) to A Mercy (2008), Morrison’s body of work “represents not merely a chronological sweep but a philosophical journey into the heart of love” (McDowell, 8).
Despite its unquestionable canonicity now, the novel has been neither universally revered, nor was it without controversy. Shortly after its publication, one prominent critic objected to what he viewed as the book’ anti-male bias, in what seems a wilful misreading of a novel whose central male character, Paul D, has “something blessed in his manner” (20). Others worried that the novel’s representation of slavery was too sentimental or, alternatively, so relentlessly miserable as to be lurid. Still others focused on the novel’s dedication to “Sixty Million and more” (i), a number Morrison cites as an approximation of the cumulative death toll of New World slavery, as dangerously likening slavery to the Holocaust and its six million. Proponents of the novel, too, raised objections to the novel’s reception shortly after its publication: on January 24, 1988, The New York Times published an open letter from forty-eight African American writers and scholars – among them, Houston A. Baker, Jr., Amiri Baraka, Barbara Christian, Angela Davis, Ernest J. Gaines, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., June Jordan, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, and John Edgar Wideman – that effusively praised Beloved, along with all of Morrison’s works, and decried her having being passed over, up to that point, for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. A Pulitzer for Beloved followed later that same year, and Morrison became the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, a year after the publication of Jazz (though Beloved is generally considered the novel that placed the Nobel clearly within her reach).
Beloved, as a novel, and Margaret Garner, as an historical figure, continue to be “passed on”. In 1998, a film version of Beloved was released. The screenplay was co-written by Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooksand; the film was directed by Jonathan Demme and starred Oprah Winfrey (who owned the film rights) as Sethe, Danny Glover as Paul D, Thandie Newton as Beloved, and Kimberly Elise as Denver. Although the film received mixed reviews and was not a box office success, it certainly tried to remain true to the complexity and richness of the novel – and in many ways it succeeded. Margaret Garner, too, continues to be “fascinating”. Morrison returned to her as a title subject in an opera, Margaret Garner, for which Morrison wrote the libretto and Richard Danielpour composed the music. The opera premiered in 2005 at Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theater and has since had runs in 2007 with the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center and in 2008 in Detroit and in Chicago. Jessye Norman, Denyce Graves, and Gregg Baker are among the prominent singers who have performed in Margaret Garner. In a National Public Radio interview, Morrison explained the need for an operatic version in this way: “The story of Margaret Garner seemed to need that kind of breadth and depth. It needed to be accompanied by music and gesture, and it needed the opera” (NPR).
Yet it is difficult to imagine a more powerful or deeper imagining of Garner’s story than that provided by the novel Beloved: as Morrison declared in the opening words of her Nobel Lecture in December 1993, “Narrative has never been entertainment for me. It is, I believe, one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge” (Morrison 1996, 7). Beloved has now been absorbed into the American, indeed the world’s, literary canon in ways that have richly expanded our knowledge and our sympathies, although Morrison has called into question such terms: “They always say my writing is rich. It’s not – what’s rich, if there is any richness, is what the reader gets and brings him or herself.” To adapt Morrison’s words, also from the Nobel Lecture, “How lovely it is, this thing we have done – together” (30).
McDowell, Deborah E. “Philosophy of the Heart.” The Women’s
Review of Books. December 2003: 8+. Literature Resource Center.
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Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. New York: Random House. 2004.
Morrison, Toni. “Foreword” to Beloved. New York: Random House. 2004.
Morrison, Toni. Lecture and Speech of Acceptance, Upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Delivered in Stockholm on the Seventh of December, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Three. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1996.
National Public Radio. “Opera Tells Saga of ‘Margaret Garner.” Weekend Edition. 7 May 2005. http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=4633538. Web. 24 May 2011.
Scott, A. O. “In Search of the Best.” The New York Times. 21 May 2006.
Tate, Claudia. “Toni Morrison.” Interview. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum. 1983.
Citation: English, Daylanne. "Beloved". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 26 May 2011 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=6382, accessed 30 September 2023.]