Why Is Beloved Beloved?
After all the plaudits, it's time to look at the novel's merits.
In 1987, Toni Morrison's Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1992, with Beloved still widely regarded as her masterpiece, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Three legs make a stool: This past month, in a New York Times poll of 200 critics, writers, and editors, Beloved was named "the single best work of American fiction published in the last twenty-five years," beating out novels by such luminaries as Roth, DeLillo, and Updike. I participated in this survey and can attest that, from the moment the solicitously hand-typed letter from the Times Book Review arrived in the mail, Beloved was the presumptive winner.
Like two other American novels devoted to race, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved exists wholly beyond its own artistic merits and demerits. These books have become something more than mere literature; they're homework, with an afterlife guaranteed by their place (or in the case of Huck Finn, its embattled absence) on the high-school and college syllabus. ("Only Shakespeare rivals her in the number of senior theses devoted to her work," Harvard English professor Barbara Johnson has said.) Were it simply a matter of social redress, we could all go home now, the Dead White Males having been forced to cocktail with a Living Black Woman. But Beloved isn't solely a work of protest and advocacy, as Morrison herself has insisted, nor solely a symbol for the progress and virtue of the prestige-granting institutions in American letters. It's a serious novel and a work of art, and it deserves to be accorded the highest respect. It deserves, in other words, to be asked, Yes, but are you any good?
For those who haven't read it, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an ex-slave who has resettled to the outskirts of Cincinnati with her daughter, Denver. Near the beginning of the book, the two are joined by Paul D, once Sethe's fellow slave on a Kentucky plantation called "Sweet Home." (After years of thankless yearning, Paul D has at last become Sethe's lover.) It's 1873, the Civil War has been fought, and though slavery as a legal institution is over, it has only started its haunting of the African-American psyche. This Morrison dramatizes with the actual haunting of Sethe's house by Sethe's deceased baby daughter. We never learn that baby's given name, but in exchange for sex, Sethe has had a headstone carved for her girl, bearing the single word "Beloved." Paul D exorcises the house of the ghost, but later, upon returning from a carefree day spent at a carnival, Sethe, Denver, and Paul D discover a young woman sleeping near the front door of their house. The young woman goes by the name Beloved, and from all appearances she is a revenant, the embodied spirit of Sethe's dead daughter.
Morrison presents Sethe's turbulent inner life through a process both Morrison and Sethe herself call "rememory," a kind of psychic haunting in which the specifics of a traumatic incident are told and retold, even as the teller tries to block their full emergence into the conscious mind. The central traumatic episode of Beloved, to which the narrative returns again and again, is an infanticide: Twenty years earlier, Sethe beheaded her baby Beloved with a handsaw rather than allow her return to slavery. In Beloved, Morrison perfected a mode of narration, entirely her own but with roots in everything from the African griot to As I Lay Dying, built out of compulsive repetition, in which the onion, as it were, is constantly being both peeled and reconstituted; in which memories are constantly being both exhumed and buried; and in which the mind of the storyteller is both imprisoned and set free in the act of retelling. And so, like the return of Beloved, and the enduring curse of slavery itself, rememory is both a reconciliation and a vexation, both a healing and a wounding.
No wonder Beloved has been such a success: It draws up so elegantly on the blackboard. And in some very real sense, the central deranging tragedy of American life has found its finest expression in the oceanic rhythms of Morrison's prose, with its deft use of synecdoche, anaphora, and incantatory repetition, with its unique combination of seething plaintiveness and iron triumph. At the same time, though, one notices a secondary effect of these rhythms: The traumas depicted in Beloved don't actually feel, to the reader, particularly traumatic. On the contrary, the dominant sentiment of the book is the nobility of sheer endurance, a sentiment that transfers rather too easily to the reader's own self-regard. Would this nobility have transferred so easily had the book portrayed its humiliations more graphically? For a novel that will educate many Americans about racism, the grislier facts of the post-bellum world have been strangely muted—there is a single, somewhat oblique mention of the Klan ("Desperately thirsty for black blood, without which it could not live, the dragon swam the Ohio at will"), and there is almost no sense of hunger or deprivation. ("Feeding her is no trouble," Sethe says of Beloved. "I pick up a little extra from the restaurant is all.") Certainly Beloved contains passages meant to invoke intense horror, but none is immediate or documentary. For vividly portrayed action in the novel's present tense, the following passage is more representative:
Beloved took Denver's hand and placed another on Denver's shoulder. They danced then. Round and round the tiny room and it may have been dizziness, or feeling light and icy at once, that made Denver laugh so hard. A catching laugh that Beloved caught. The two of them, merry as kittens, swung to and fro, to and fro, until exhausted they sat on the floor.
A Land of Cockaigne quality pervades their lives, with meat stews on the stove and pies in the oven, so that when Sethe fetches pillows for her girls "from the keeping room," I had to work not to picture items out of the Cuddledown catalog. Physical humiliation is downgraded in favor of psychic humiliation, which is then dispersed into ambient waves of spiritual uplift. Sethe's mother-in-law was a lay preacher who once worked a spot called simply the Clearing:
Finally she called the women to her. "Cry," she told them. "For the living and the dead. Just cry." And without covering their eyes the women let loose.
It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women, and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.
In the universe of Beloved, rational knowledge isn't denigrated so much as absent—a notable regression from Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book written more than a hundred years earlier. In Stowe's novel, an interesting allegoricalconflict had been generated between the characters Uncle Tom and George Harris. As a simple man in the image of his lord and savior, Tom is totally exempt from the world of rational calculation, an innocent when it comes to profit and loss. His worth, Stowe lets us know with her signature operatic bluntness, is infinite. Harris, in the meantime, is a black man who is mentally talented. How do you stand between him and his fullest potential, Stowe asks,between him and his fair market value as a wage earner? Knowing full well that religious zeal, and not Jacksonian free enterprise, would carry the cause of abolition furthest, Stowe made Tom, and not Harris, her symbol for the brutality of racial oppression. Uncle Tom's Cabin, according to a bon mot often attributed to Lincoln, started the Civil War. Beloved … well, it has won a black woman the major literary prizes, hasn't it?
Uncle Tom's Cabin, Black Boy, Invisible Man … Beloved? Perhaps the reduced compass of its ideological ambitions is an expression of the book's feminism, in the same way, for example, the Great War has been reduced to a mere parenthetical in To The Lighthouse. And yet, though Virginia Woolf always wrote as a woman, and often as a feminist, nothing she ever wrote feels written for women. A feminist's rage against the facts of a man's world, and especially a recent tendency to mass violence, runs throughout her work. Beloved, meanwhile, is a historical novel that doesn't feel grounded in history. Its historical details, such as they are, feel quickly sketched, and much of its imagery is vague, combining a tendency to faux-folksy countryism with a casual use of modern slang (Paul D is said to have "beat the shit out of" the haunting spirit of the baby Beloved).
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."
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.