Toni Morrison's Beloved. 

Reading and lounging and watching.
May 18 2006 2:42 PM

Why Is Beloved Beloved?

After all the plaudits, it's time to look at the novel's merits.

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What Beloved does feel grounded in, and firmly, is a repudiation of everything that exerts a soft but nonetheless unpleasant authority in a young person's life. In place of the need to master hard knowledge or brute facts, there is folk wisdom; in place of science, animism; in place of the strict father, the self-sufficient matriarchy, first of Baby Suggs', and later Sethe's, house; and finally, in place of a man's world, the hallowed sorority of women, especially women of color—though on this last, Morrison does not insist too heavily. As Sethe, very pregnant fugitive, breaks for the Ohio border, she runs into a young white woman named Amy. At first Sethe is fearful, but Amy is raggedy and a little touched in the head and presents no danger; and eventually she helps Sethe through (a peculiarly uneventful) labor. In a passage Morrison has identified as holding out hope for racial reconciliation, Sethe and Amy swaddle the newborn on the banks of the Ohio. "A pateroller passing would have sniggered to see two throw-away people, two lawless outlaws—a slave and a barefoot whitewoman with unpinned hair—wrapping a ten-minute-old baby in the rags they wore."

If Beloved expends almost no energy mapping its historical reality—the wage system, like parturition, has been oddly gentle to Sethe—it's because Beloved was not designed to conjure with the past as a concrete reality. True, the past, in all its ugliness, breaks into the present, but the landscape of Morrison's present is mostly an interior one. Late in the novel we discover that the painfully withdrawn Denver, like George Harris before her, is clever. "Other people said this child was simple, but Lady Jones [her teacher] never believed it. Having taught her, watched her eat up a page, a rule, a figure, she knew better." But this is a small flourish, another aside. Beloved is not Denver's story, the story of a worldly gift artificially depressed by bigotry. It's Sethe's story, as Sethe stands poised before the possibility of her own therapeutic self-renewal. The word "self" is worth pausing here. If you asked a college student in 1967 what she most believed, she might put a finger in your face, before telling you off about the war; these days, too often she points to her own chest. In a folk ideology, the ardor with which we believe becomes its own truth. Not coincidentally, Morrison has spoken eloquently of "the precious interior, the loved self, whatever that is, whatever vocabulary you ascribe to it, [that] is suppressed or displaced and put someplace else."

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The language knocked around in my head for days after I read it. Where had I heard this before? In the late '70s, coincident with the emergence of Toni Morrison as a major novelist, a European psychologist named Alice Miller wrote a best seller called The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self. The opening paragraphs reads as follows:

In order to become whole we must try, in a long process, to discover our own personal truth, a truth that may cause pain before giving us a new sphere of freedom. If we choose instead to content ourselves with intellectual "wisdom," we will remain in the sphere of illusion and self-deception. … The damage done to us during childhood cannot be undone, since we cannot change anything in our past. We can, however, change ourselves. We can repair ourselves and gain lost integrity by choosing to look more closely at the knowledge that is stored inside our bodies and bringing that knowledge closer to our awareness.

Beloved is indeed a work of genius. No other American novel of the past 25 years has so elegantly mapped the psychobiography of its ideal reader.

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.