Toni Morrison’s Beloved is an exercise in traumatic haunting and the impact of slavery on both the individual and the community. Dedicated to the “sixty million and more,” the book operates as a type of monument to the unspeakable tragedy that was institutionalized through systemic slavery.
Told through shifting perspectives in both narrative and chronology, one of Morrison’s major themes throughout the novel is the subsequent fragmentation created by trauma, and the text itself embodies this fragmentation. There are gaps in the story as characters attempt to rationalize tragedy and communicate their past. These gaps create a space for the reader to engage, to reconsider details and attempt to reconstruct the lives of the characters in an active rather than passive way.
Another one of Morrison’s major themes is “unspeakableness.” The title character, Beloved, functions as both the individual ghost of Sethe’s murdered daughter and all those lost and disembodied throughout this tragic history. Her tragedy is a microcosm of all the tragedies that have come before and will come after. Yet, as a narrative voice Beloved remains to some extent silent. We have but a glimpse of her internal turmoil in her brief monologue, within that narrative space her language is layered, fragmented and broken.There is no language that can describe her tragedy and so she speaks in a multiplicity of voices throughout time and space, exchanging the unique specificity of a two year old girl murdered in a woodshed for the generalized “Dearly Beloved.”
The ambiguity of who is speaking, as well as the layering of text, creates a type of narrative columbarium. We see in Beloved’s monologue the suggestion of characters we caught mere glimpses of now given a line of text to memorialize their death. We recognize Sethe’s mother crouching from the men that will impregnate her on this voyage. We recognize the girl locked away since she was a “pup” in a house “over by Deer Creek,” watching herself break into pieces as:
“he hurts where I sleep he puts his fingers there I drop the food and break into pieces …” (246) 1
The chorus of the ‘Dearly Beloved’ pour out their stories in scraps and whispers, the narrative is broken and in ‘pieces’ just as the lives it tries to describe. Syntax and structure metaphorically have been thrown overboard along with the dead bodies.
The impact of slavery and it’s residual trauma was not something you could leave behind. It not only destroyed human bodies, but it was also something that distorted identity and fragmented human minds. For Morrison slavery has distorted everything. Her characters must cross not only the physical Ohio river, geographically separating them from freedom, but also the metaphorical Ohio river psychologically separating them from healthy wholistic conceptions of themselves. Each one haunted by the ghosts of slavery in a unique and individualized way.
The shifting perspectives create vignettes into the many permutations of ‘freedom’ and what it has cost. Baby Suggs is the only character to be manumitted, but the cost was to leave her son behind. As the novel opens she is waiting to die, contemplating different colors, because to let her mind wander through the memories of a lifetime of pent up grief would destroy her.
On the other end of the spectrum, Denver is born into ‘freedom,’ and yet represents the dysfunction of generational trauma. She has spent her life in isolation and fear. The details of Beloved’s murder seem to have never been fully communicated and so she has no context in which to interpret them. The only thing she knows is that the murder happened outside, and so while Sethe believes she has woven a cocoon of safety for her daughter, Denver avoids leaving the house so that: “it can’t happen again and my mother won’t have to kill me.”(273) The thing Sethe has tried to create: i.e. safety, is exactly the thing missing from 124.
For Sethe, as the novel opens her grief has been manageable. Their house is merely haunted by a baby ghost, and they consider themselves lucky. (12) When Paul D. shows up he threatens this manageable grief by offering hope. Hope will destroy the structure of grief she has created; hope that she won’t exist in isolation, that someone will care enough to take responsibility for her breasts and put his story next to hers. Hope is enough to enrage the demons of grief, guilt and shame, and although the baby leaves the house, she comes back, a full grown ‘Beloved’, the past literally haunting the present with it’s physical presence and accusatory gaze.
When Sethe realizes that Beloved is her murdered daughter, she becomes enslaved by grief. She is consumed and devoured by Beloved one story at a time as she attempts to explain and justify her actions to a ghost. Slowly, Sethe walks away from her job, from the last exposure to the outside world and tunnels, in isolation, into her grief.
“She began to talk, explain, describe how much she had suffered…none of which made the impression it was supposed to. Beloved accused her of leaving her behind.” (278)
Left alone with her grief, her words are ineffective. Both Beloved and Sethe are communicating in different vortices, their words never quite reaching each other. Beloved says dead men have laid on top of her, that “ghosts without skin stuck their fingers in her and said beloved in the dark.” These accusations slip past Sethe, who tries to untangle the meaning of each word, tries to justify how the unspeakable could have happened.
Beloved operates as a foil to expose each character’s greatest fear and brokenness. For Paul D. his life is a representation of the emasculated and impotent black male. Unlike the sexually aggressive black men in “Birth of a Nation” that haunted the American imagination in 1915, or the equally haunting “super-predator” of the 1990’s, the men of Sweet Home have been taught that “one step off the ground they were trespassers among the human race…gelded workhorses whose neigh and whinny could not be translated into a language responsible humans spoke.” (146)
Paul D. has grown up in a petri dish of abuse. His formative sexual experiences were with cattle, and now years later, having escaped the horrors of Georgia, he is still enslaved to a broken sexual narrative. Cattle come up over and over again as his sexual standard:
“..he had become a rag doll- picked up and put back down anywhere any time by a girl young enough to be his daughter. Fucking her when he was convinced he didn’t want to. Whenever she turned her behind up, the calves of his youth (was that it?) cracked his resolve.” (147)
Beloved has “cracked” more than just his resolve. He is forced to recognize the reality of who he is: a play thing, a rag doll, with little volition and no agency. He mistakenly believes that virility can absolve shame, but what he actually needs is not virility but the freedom to love big. Whatever capacity he had to love before was fully and equivocally stripped from him in Alfred, Georgia. He sees Sethe’s love for her children and envies it:
“He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose- not to need permission for desire - well now, that was freedom.” (189)
Eventually, by putting his story next to hers he recognizes that he is no longer capable of judgement. To pretend that they managed to escape from a world that treated them as less than human with their humanity intact is now no longer feasible. After both of them have been in some sense destroyed by Beloved, they are now able to coalesce with honesty about what their own specific tragedies have cost them. Sixo's description of his Thirty-Mile Woman makes sense in a new and tangible way:
“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order..”(314)
Morrison’s perspective is powerful. It doesn’t allow the reader the comfort of distance, but rather drags the reader into a dialogue about trauma. Grief in isolation destroys the human spirit. It isn’t until a community of women come to her aide, that Sethe is set free. In the same way, the stories that haunt our past in isolation are allowed to grow and metastasize, unfettered and without restraint. Morrison’s thesis is that healing from our wounds whether singular or communal will never happen in isolation. That we need a community to speak truth to us when we are too blind to see the battleground laid out before us. These stories need to be told, remembered and recognized in both their past and present day permutations so that we don’t repeat them in our ignorance or pass them on to our loved ones.
1. All quotes taken from: Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2006