“To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay.
The 'better life' she believed she and Denver were living was simply not that other one.” Beloved is the magnum opus of the late, great Toni Morrison.
It has become a key piece of literature taught in schools.
Well … that’s another story never mind.
And considered one of the great pieces of American literature.
Also, it’s serving horror realness.
To understand Beloved, we must first look at the woman behind the pages: Nobel Prize Winner Toni Morrison.
Toni Morrison is one of those writers who has transcended her work to become an icon in and of herself.
Her hometown, Lorain, Ohio, even has a Toni Morrison Day on her birthday, February 18th.
Born in 1931 as Chloe Ardelia Wofford, the girl who would become Toni Morrison was an avid reader, soaking up her favorite authors like Leo Tolstoy and Jane Austen (me too) and other expressions of storytelling - everything from singing to ghost stories to African-American folktales.
While her parents encouraged this kind of expression and exposure to all manner of stories, it maybe should have been a tip-off that there was something uniquely special about this child.
I mean, Tolstoy, Jane Austen - she's a thinker.
After studying English at Howard University and then earning her MA in English at Cornell, Morrison taught English classes of her own at Texas Southern University and Howard.
Soon she pivoted to editing, becoming the first Black woman senior editor at Random House’s fiction department.
This would mark only one important “first” in a long, long line of “firsts” that Toni Morrison would become.
In 1970, Morrison finally published a novel of her own: THE BLUEST EYE, and continued building steam with honors like the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award for her third novel SONG OF SOLOMON and her induction into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1982.
But it was in 1987 she published her fifth novel BELOVED, which would cement Toni Morrison as a truly iconic American writer.
BELOVED was a game changer.
It not only garnered Morrison the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and paved the way for her to become the first Black American to win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1993, but it has become a novel that is at once popular, influential, and hotly controversial.
Which is why it can be on the BBC News list of “100 Most Influential Novels” while also regularly appearing on the American Library Association’s “Top Ten Most Challenged Books.” The reason for BELOVED being so controversial?
Well, it all brings us back to the horrors of the past, including unflinching depictions of violence, infanticide, and slavery.
In a postmodern move that would make even Virginia Woolf blush, one could argue that those wishing to ban the novel may be committing the same offense as BELOVED’s protagonist—refusing to confront the past in the hopes that doing so will make it go away.
Our story is set in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1873, shortly after the Civil War.
Technically the war is over.
Technically slaves are free.
But that doesn’t change the entrenched beliefs and behavior of a country overnight.
So Sethe finds herself in a sort of purgatorial existence - technically free, but not really, truly, psychologically, spiritually free.
Toni Morrison writes “.
.every day was a test and a trial.
Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem.” Even worse: What small semblance of freedom and autonomy she has a mother and caretaker for her family is slipping from her grasp.
Her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, has long since passed away.
Her husband went missing years ago.
Her two young sons, Howard and Buglar, ran off.
Her other baby daughter Beloved is dead, but not gone.
So by 1873, that leaves just Sethe and her 18-year-old daughter Denver to fend for themselves at 124 Bluestone Road, and the ghost of Sethe’s baby girl all the while haunting them for Sethe’s past sins.
Morrison writes of the house on Bluestone Road “124 was spiteful.
Full of a baby’s venom.
The women in the house knew it and so did the children.” When Paul D, one of the enslaved men from Sethe’s former plantation, Sweet Home, arrives, he forces out the ghost.
But the ghost then reforms into the body of a young woman who calls herself Beloved.
Beloved begins to torment Paul D, pushing him out of the house and forcing him to revisit horrible moments from his past using sexual violence.
Sethe eventually confesses to Paul D that she tried to kill her children in order to not have them return to slavery, but only managed to kill her baby daughter.
Beloved was the only name she could afford to put on the gravestone.
Thinking that Beloved’s return signals her family coming back together, Sethe begins to give all she is to Beloved-until Beloved grows bigger and Sethe begins to wither away.
Denver reaches out to the community of village women to be rid of Beloved, to exorcise her, bringing their family back into the community.
Denver is able to form a new path for herself now as Sethe finally mourns truly for the child she lost.
Toni Morrison explains how she saw Beloved’s functioning in the novel as follows: “She is a spirit on one hand, literally she is what Sethe thinks she is, her child returned to her from the dead.
She is also another kind of dead which is not spiritual but flesh, which is, a survivor from a true, factual slave ship.
She speaks the language, a traumatized language, of her own experience, which blends beautifully in her questions and answers, her preoccupations, with the desires of Denver and Sethe.
The gap between Africa and Afro-America and the gap between the living and the dead and the gap between the past and the present does not exist.
It’s bridged for us by our assuming responsibility for people no one’s ever assumed responsibility for.
They are those that died en route.
Nobody knows their names, and nobody thinks about them.
There is a necessity for remembering the horror, but of course there’s a necessity for remembering it in a manner in which it can be digested, in a manner in which the memory is not destructive.“ Beloved’s return in the novel is about bringing that past to the surface, because it must be faced.
It can not be stuffed in a box or forgotten.
For Morrison, horror and truth are synonymous.
That horror is also in the realization that Sethe killed her daughter in an attempt to save her from being recaptured into slavery—a moment inspired by the real-life case of Margaret Garner.
Garner was an enslaved woman who was attempting to escape slavery with her family, while pregnant mind you.
Garner was captured in Ohio, under the jurisdiction of the Fugitive Slave Act, where it was discovered that she had killed her two-year-old daughter - rather than have the girl be sent back into slavery.
She was preparing to kill her other children and herself, when they were stopped by a slave catcher posse.
When Margaret was brought to trial the question was if she would be tried as a person or as property.
Lucy Stone, a prominent activist at the time, took the stand during the case and said: "The faded faces of the Negro children tell too plainly to what degradation the female slaves submit.
Rather than give her daughter to that life, she killed it.
If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right not to do so?"
Margaret was sent back to slavery and would eventually die within the institution.
With Sethe, Morrison gives the historical figure space to mourn in the freedom she made sacrifices for.
Barbara T. Christian, professor of African-American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley said of the importance of the work: “[Beloved] interrogates our assumptions about literary narrative in the bourgeois Western tradition.
It raises questions about the intersections of our orthodox notions of freedom and limits, of individual agency and society, of ownership and excess, presence and absence, the past and the present, the living and the dead.” We can all relate to wanting to put the past behind us.
Something we did or something done to us, something that made us feel ashamed or guilty or angry or afraid.
And Beloved is a novel that confronts these feelings to an extreme that stands on the very foundation of American history.
If ghost stories force us to relive those dark times of our past, Beloved functions as not only the story of Sethe’s pain and tragedy coming to a head, but as commentary on how the past can not be escaped.
Like any good ghost story, Beloved asks us to reckon with this past.
To confront it.
And hopefully, to grow from it.
“We need some kind of tomorrow.”