Beloved: A Biblical Excavation

Beloved
Toni Morrison

Toni_MorrisonWhat more is there to say about Beloved, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel written by Toni Morrison? It tackles the ghostly legacy of slavery. It uses both cultural and biblical mysticism in its narrative. Its prose is lyrical and literally shifts to poetry at some points, notably in part two when the three main protagonists, Sethe, Denver, and Beloved begin to testify.

In fact, there is too much to say about this novel, which is why I was overwhelmed and thinking my review couldn’t offer anything. I figured it’s all been said, so I put the task of reviewing it aside for the longest. Then I realized the detail Morrison put into Beloved necessitates discussion, which explains the unending list of reviews and analysis about it online. It’s not a big book compared to other novels, it’s only about 320 pages depending on the edition, but it’s a dense book—that is to say, Morrison is a master at delivering content that carries extreme weight and layers of meaning. It’s a novel with which you must take your time. I’ve read Beloved three times and still I am finding meaning in what I’d previously read past without noticing. So, I approach this review with the notion that it’s not so important to say something new or revelatory about Beloved, but to say something that continues a conversation about it.

A Brief Survey of the Novel’s Landscape

Set in 1873, approximately eight years into the reconstruction era, Morrison writes about a mother of four, Sethe, who escapes slavery. First, she ushers her three young children off to a woman (a member of the Underground Railroad) that will carry them to freedom, then she, very pregnant and soon to deliver, escapes shortly thereafter. However, Morrison makes the night of the escape extremely palpable for readers as it unfolds with unimaginable horror and the murder of fellow slaves that were to accompany Sethe. In the end, the violation feels personal for readers and we are alongside Sethe, haunted and sharing her incredulity over the fact that “they” took her milk.

Time passes and we see Sethe seemingly on her way to recovery, free at last and living with her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs in a house on 124 Bluestone Road. Slavers show up to claim their property—Sethe and her children. She tries to thwart them by attempting to kill all three of her children in a most desperate and terribly violent scene. She manages to kill her toddler, an unnamed girl. The girl is buried under a tombstone inscribed with Beloved. When Sethe returns from jail, she cloisters herself from her judgmental peers—she is practically agoraphobic save for her job as a cook. Her three surviving children are coming of age in a haunted house and in the shadow of their mother’s resignation to it. Her two boys, Howard and Buglar, soon leave, runaway without a word; Baby Suggs dies, and Sethe is left with one surviving daughter, Denver.

Paul D, an old friend and fellow slave who escaped from the same farm as did Sethe, comes to call. He brings with him memories of the farm they called Sweet Home and he is a reminder of the fact that one can never fully escape the past. There is some semblance of happiness growing between Paul D, Sethe, and Denver, when Beloved shows up. Sethe doesn’t realize who or what she is dealing with, not even when her sanity and each of her relationships is threatened. It takes her community’s intervention to pull her from the haunting debilitation of her past and Paul D’s presence to remind her of life’s promise of a brighter day…however, this only scrapes the surface and doesn’t begin to dig in to the story that Morrison tells.

Breaking Ground

So, is Beloved in her corporeal form, something that exists, or is she merely a way for Morrison to artfully illustrate “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”1 and its effect on us? It’s not that slavery’s legacy has not been parsed and analyzed by sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and every other “gist,” but that Morrison has used Beloved to unearth emotions her readers already understand through cultural paradigms. For example, the word “rape,” even on the printed page carries a potent assault. We read it and know that its perpetrator has stripped the character of power, but Morrison doesn’t immediately mention the word rape with regard to Sethe’s escape, she instead has Sethe recount the scene using the phrase, “took my milk.” This is repeated, in a way that injures us collectively. It is a violation to generations, as milk is the lifeline and sustenance for all newborns. This stark phrase tells us that Sethe was violated, the hungry toddler she sent ahead and the child she carried in her womb, all violated. Now, apply the notion of slavery’s legacy as evidence that the act against Sethe was an act against successive generations—that’s all of us.2 Sethe’s milk can be a biblical simile to manna; it then becomes an elegant way to show the inverse of God’s covenant with Moses. Therefore, the act of “taking away milk,” feels more like blasphemy, an abomination against God and man, and reaches generations beyond the rape of an individual.

This is how Morrison creates a slave narrative that stands out in literary history as autonomous and singularly noteworthy. Beloved exceeds storytelling, by using evocative similes that trigger our righteous indignation, and prose that blurs the boundary between literature and poetry.

Beloved’s dedication reads, “Sixty Million and more.” It is an estimate of Africans that died on slave ships. Google it and you can find pages of commentary on this alone. Read judiciously though, because much of what you’ll find is just a distraction created by book critics trying to make a mark for themselves by condemning Morrison’s dedication as bait for some non-existent competition over who can claim more dead, the descendants of Holocaust survivors or the descendants of those who survived a transatlantic slave ship. The latter is approximately 100 years before the other and they are similar only in proving that humans are still capable of horrible acts.

The novel’s epigraph should silence the critics who want to create body-count comparisons of “dead ancestors” or ethnic divisions among descendants of the dead. Morrison, however, leaves room for ample discussion which is in keeping with her style. The epigraph reads:

I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.
(Romans 9:25)

This is a New Testament excerpt from Saint Paul to the Romans, but biblical scholars compare it to Old Testament text, or the word of God. Simply put, Paul is debunking the notion of a chosen people blessed with God’s unconditional favor. He addresses the objection that the rejection of Jews and reception of gentiles is misaligned with God’s word.  Paul explains that God bestows mercy at His will. This therefore precludes specific individuals or groups from having carte blanche. In other words piety and claiming God as your sovereign are not enough to ensure His grace; God bestows grace on both sinner and saint. Grace, mercy, forgiveness, call it what you may, is through the agency of God and none other. So, how does Morrison apply this to her novel?

I believe her point is that God’s grace can be meted out in ways that are hardly understood, in circumstances that are unimaginable, and to those you’d least expect—there is redemption. Beloved embodies the child Sethe killed and the legacy of slavery; she is a strange intersection of the “beloved and that which was not beloved,” as in Romans 9:25. The same can be said about Sethe whose love is “too thick,” thick to the point she can justify cutting the throat of her beloved baby.3 The epigraph teases that she like anyone can have hope of receiving grace or absolution, as the words, “I will call them my people,” prophesize the scene in which Sethe’s community, her people, unify and intercede to free her from Beloved. All-in-all, I suggest revisiting the epigraph after you’ve devoured the entire novel; because it took a little retrospect for it to come clear for me. I’ve never been a student of the bible; therefore, it was necessary for me to research commentaries on Romans chapter nine before coming up with my interpretation of its relevance to Beloved…even with that I’m sure there’s more to it.

The Beloved Trinity: A Novel in Three Parts

Beloved_Part_1Beloved is written in three parts. The first and largest part of the novel captures Sethe’s backstory, the escape the farm called Sweet Home where she, her family and friends were slaves. Morrison is adept at capturing this deceptively sublime setting.

“…there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her—remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys.”4

Morrison also captures the casuistry in Mr. Garner, the Sweet Home owner, the master, posturing his slaves as a litmus for his own masculinity by claiming, “…my niggers is men every one of em.” The passage ends with Garner, “…bruised and pleased, having demonstrated one more time what a real Kentuckian was: one tough enough and smart enough to make and call his own niggers men.”

When Garner dies his wife invites her brother-in-law, Schoolteacher, and his two nephews. The “men” Garner boasted about evidently aren’t man enough in the eyes of their mistress and ostensibly Schoolteacher arrives to turn Sweet Home into a more blatant oxymoron.

Paul D, his backstory and relationships with Paul A and Paul F, his half-brothers, Halle, and Sixo come to light in part one. Sixo’s indigo color, practices, and the fact that he abandons English suggest he alone is of undiluted African descent. He risks his life to be with his “thirty-mile woman” and eventually gives his life to save her and the child of his she is carrying.

Part one climaxes upon the arrival of the four horsemen. It is another biblical simile used to illustrate the schoolteacher, one nephew, a slave catcher, and the sheriff who have come compliments of the Fugitive Slave Act to reclaim Sethe and her children; and associating this with the apocalypse is not by mistake.

The scene, narrated by the characteristic third-person limited omniscient voice, enables Morrison to expertly lend it to different character personas—whichever is most expedient in the telling of the story. She also uses a circular versus linear narrative approach, so climactic scenes such as the murder scene with Sethe and the slave catchers can be easily embedded in larger scenes showing the genesis of Sethe’s relationship with Paul D. Sethe and Paul D unite, they help unravel each other’s stories, they’re affected in disparate ways by Beloved who is described as corporeal but whose affective presence borders on the ephemeral—is she, Beloved, “literal” or figurative? Then conflict rises in the form of Paul D’s judgement. “’You got two feet, Sethe, not four,’ he said, and right then a forest sprang up between them; trackless and quiet.”

While part one of the novel gives readers an in-depth 411 on all the major characters, it also serves to isolate Sethe and Denver with Beloved, which of course undergirds the pretext that Sethe must deal with Beloved and the haunting memories she represents.

Beloved_Part_2Part two digs into a lot more detail. It is where Sethe let’s Beloved get the best of her. You might think of this section of the novel as the reckoning. The character, Beloved, is more obviously the catalyst for this reckoning as Sethe let’s go of her housekeeping and job, her health, and even Denver, to be totally consumed with “rememory.”5 Sethe must reckon with her memories and her present that is held captive by them. She is in full confessional once she realizes Beloved’s identity. Sethe holds nothing back that proves her devotion to Beloved in or out of the grave is limitless. She confesses her dalliance with prostitution in return for an engraved headstone, “Ten minutes for seven letters. With another ten could she have gotten ‘Dearly’ too?” Sethe continues, recalling herself, “…rutting among the headstones with the engraver, his young son looking on, the anger in his face so old; the appetite in it quite new.” And in reference to her employment after prison, Sethe says, “I got close. I got close. To being a Saturday girl. I had already worked a stone mason’s shop. A step to [prostitution at] the slaughterhouse would have been a short one.”

Part two is also where Stamp Paid explains the heady debt he is associated with, what ties his name to it, and his relationship to Baby Suggs, Sethe, and her children. Stamp was instrumental in bringing them together, and is now guilty of separating them. Morrison turns him into another literary treat, beginning with his given name, Joshua. Like his biblical namesake, Stamp helps usher runaways from the bonds of slavery, substituting the crossing of the river Jordan as seen in Exodus, for the Ohio River. His so to speak “ministry,” doesn’t end there, because he also adopts a mission of looking in on folks which affords him a warm welcome at every home in the community. This relationship bears resemblance to the story of the spys, one of them Joshua, who finds shelter with Rahab (Joshua 2:1-7).

Stamp is also shown on a mission as he gathers blackberries for Sethe’s baby. If he seems anointed in doing this, it is intentional, because again Morrison draws a biblical parallel (Joshua 1:5).

Baby Suggs bakes the remaining berries into pies. It becomes a feast for ninety people. The imagery and prose in this scene are reminiscent of the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai turning what should have been joyful anticipation into debauchery; things got a little out of control, gold was fashioned into an idol and factions formed that split up a group of supposedly cohesive people, focused on the same end: the Promised Land. 6 Similarly, the community nurtured by Baby Suggs and stewarded by Stamp Paid showed signs of fracture and dissent. To illustrate this, Morrison juxtaposes abundance and fellowship beside the word “angry,” almost like a refrain.

“Ninety people who ate so well, and laughed so much, it made them angry.”

“124 rocking with laughter, goodwill and food for ninety, made them angry.”

“Now to take two buckets of blackberries and make ten, maybe twelve, pies; to have turkey enough for the whole town pretty near, new peas in September, fresh cream but no cow, ice and sugar, batter bread, bread pudding, raise bread, shortbread—it made them mad. Loaves and fishes were His powers—they did not belong to an ex-slave…”

“It made them furious.”

In another of the novel’s vignettes we learn of Vashti; she’s Stamp Paid’s wife before he adopts the name. Like the Vashti in the book of Esther, she is called to perform a shameful act, in this case adultery, but also like the biblical Vashti, she’s politically astute. The master, a boy about seventeen or twenty years, no more, wants her, but only to feed his fleeting desire after which she would wish to return to Stamp. Stamp’s anger is palpable. He could kill the boy and in turn would get himself killed. She demands he stay alive. True to her namesake, Vashti could have refused her master, but her refusal might have led to a killing, most likely hers, or some other hideous outcome; such was the politics of slavery.

Vashti returns after the boy is through. Joshua is still simmering with anger. He imagines he could snap her neck, the same neck the boy once tied a black ribbon around.7 Instead, he forfeits any reprisal. “With that gift, he decided that he didn’t owe anybody anything. Whatever his obligations were, that act paid them off.” Afterward, he named himself Stamp Paid. He leaves on a Mississippi boat to Memphis, and then walks from there to Cumberland. Many years have passed and he is only now telling his story in a manner of penance for the debt he feels he owes Baby Suggs’ kin.

By the end of part two, it’s obvious Stamp Paid is obliged to check in on Sethe. His attempts at this find him inquiring about the girl he saw through her window. Asking around about her leads him to a little tête-à-tête with Paul D who is sitting with a bottle of liquor on the steps of a church—this is the first layer of irony. The plot thickens as Paul D confesses the tribulations haunting him. Then Morrison plays with the moral symbolism of the church, piling on extra layers of irony. Stamp Paid is there hoping his trespass against Sethe (the one he created by resurrecting the old newspaper clipping) will be forgiven. A white man rides up on a horse, asking about a gal named Judy who works over by the slaughterhouse (note: the slaughterhouse doubles as the town’s red light district). Stamp puts the red ribbon in his pocket before answering (no doubt an unconscious response to a white man exploiting another black woman in an untenable situation). So, the man, a john, says, “Look here,” to Paul D. “There’s a cross up there, so I guess this here’s a church or used to be. Seems to me like you ought to show it some respect, you follow me?” This would be laughable if it wasn’t so infuriating, but in the interest of turning the focus back to Stamp, we’re reminded he is there to absolve Sethe in his counsel of Paul D.

Beloved_Part_3In part three of the novel, Morrison imbues Denver with self-determination—the girl needs it, because Sethe is consumed by Beloved, she is wracked with guilt and haunted by her past—it’s killing her. Denver’s actions and those of Stamp Paid lead the community back to 124. An exorcism is performed.

Morrison leaves readers to ponder whether Beloved was metaphorical. She is there in the surrounding forest, occasionally seen, but no longer present at 124 Bluestone Road. Beloved no longer haunts Sethe. Paul D has returned and we’re left understanding that Beloved represents a legacy that is present for us all.

This review might seem like a spoiler, but trust me, there’s so much to excavate from this novel that you could thoroughly research and read it, and still come away surprised by something you overlooked. Because of that, no review can claim to be unique due to the flood of material that is already out there. However, I hope to have pointed out a thing or two that might help you in a discussion of the novel or in your own analysis—please cite or link what you’ve used.

I suggest checking out the obvious sites like Wikipedia, SparkNotes, LitCharts, and Schmoop, but I also looked through material on other sites; they were Citizen of Somewhere Else, Inquiries Journal, Bible Hub, Bible Gateway, a fellow WordPress blogger Sarah Says Read, and a pdf. posted as AP Lit.Bank on Weebly.

By all means, read Beloved—a Pulitzer Prize novel! What’s more, it’s required reading on most college-level book lists. You can alternatively enjoy the audio version performed by the author herself, which she reads to perfection of course. Google Toni Morrison, both a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner, to learn more.

_______
Endnotes:

1 Dr. Joy DeGruy is the author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, a book that addresses the residual impact that slavery has had upon successive generations. Her book opens a discussion surrounding how we can understand that certain coping skills from the past affect our collective healing in the present.

2 The notion of “all of us” is hinted at in the epigraph which quotes Romans 9:25.

3 “Too thick” is used by the character Paul D to describe the love Sethe had for her children, which he believed was dense enough to drive her toward the violence she thought would save them.

4 In terms of boys, Howard and Buglar come to mind immediately, but I’d suggest the boys referenced here are Paul A and Sixo who die hanging from a tree and tied to a tree respectively. Remember, Morrison is going for the deceptively sublime; Sethe’s memories are repressed before Beloved appears in the novel, and this scene focuses on the yin-yang, the beautiful and grotesque.

5 Rememory is the term Sethe uses when she recalls details of her past.

6 The biblical Joshua succeeded the aged Moses who never made it to the Promised Land. Joshua therefore ushered the Israelites into the land of Canaan.

7 Stamp Paid spotted a red ribbon in the river. He pulled it from the water to find it was still tied to a lock of hair with a bit of scalp attached. He kept the ribbon, a reminder of the insult he’d endured and the ongoing terrorism blacks experienced. According to custom, one might tie a string or ribbon around their finger so as not to forget.

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