Narration/Point of View
For the most part, Beloved uses a third-person narrator-one who tells the story by describing the action of other people (“he said” “they did”). Because the narration describes what various characters are thinking and doing, it can also be classified as omniscient (“all-knowing”) narration. This third-person narration remains fairly constant throughout the novel, but the point of view (or perspective) from which the story is told changes from section to section. In the first chapter alone, for instance, the point of view switches from Baby Suggs (“Baby Suggs didn’t even raise her head”) to Sethe (“Counting on the stillness of her soul she had forgotten the other one”) to Paul D (“He looked at her closely, then”) to Denver (“Again she wished for the baby ghost”). The changing point of view is important to the novel for several reasons. First, by including the thoughts and memories of several different characters, the narrator allows the reader to witness the various ways slavery can violate a person’s humanity. Second, the changing point of view allows the reader to gain fuller portraits of each of the characters than if the focus was on a single person. These portraits are made even more intense when Morrison changes the narrative style. In the middle of Part Two, the narration switches from the third person to the first (“I”) in four consecutive sections that are told directly by the characters. In these sections, Sethe, Denver, and Beloved contemplate how Beloved’s arrival has changed their lives. By adding these first-person sections late in the novel, the author enhances her portrait of these characters, deepening the reader’s understanding of them even further.
A flashback is a literary device used to present action that occurred before the beginning of the story. In Beloved, the narrator structures the story in such a way that past events are related as a way of explaining the present. In the first paragraph, for instance, the narrator says that “by 1873, Sethe and her daughter were [the ghost’s] only victims.” This sets the main action in 1873, but the paragraphs that follow explain how Baby Suggs and the two boys escaped the ghost prior to that date. Flashbacks are also presented as the memories or stories of several of the characters. When Paul D first sees Sethe, for instance, he begins to recall how the men of Sweet Home reacted to her arrival over twenty years ago. As Paul D and Sethe spend time with each other, they remember moments of their previous time together and tell each other stories of what has happened to them since their time at Sweet Home. There are more direct flashbacks in the narrative as well, when past events are related directly, without present-day comment from the person telling or remembering the tale. Examples of this direct style of flashback occur when Beloved first hears the story of Denver’s birth and when Paul D recalls how the Plan went wrong. Deborah Horvitz notes in Studies in American Fiction that flashbacks play an important role in the novel, for they reflect one of its important themes. The flashbacks, the critic writes, “succeed in bridging the shattered generations by repeating meaningful and multi-layered images. That is, contained in the narrative strategy of the novel itself are both the wrenching, inter-generational separations and the healing process.”
Idiom refers to a word construction or verbal expression that is closely associated with a given language or dialect. For example, the English expression “a piece of cake” is sometimes used to describe a task that is easily done. In Beloved, Morrison makes use of idiom to help re-create the sense of a specific community, that of African Americans in Reconstruction Ohio. When the characters use words like “ain’t” and “reckon” and phrases like “sit down a spell,” it helps place their characters within that community. One particularly interesting example of this idiom is the way in which it describes people of different races. In compound words such as “whitegirl,” “blackman,” and “coloredpeople,” a person’s race is actually part of the word that describes them. This seems to indicate that there is a fundamental difference between blacks and whites, for if the only difference between them were color one would say “black woman” and “white woman.” Instead, the compound words seem to indicate that blacks and whites are entirely different creatures. These words thus reinforce one of the themes of the novel: that one of the foremost evils of slavery is the way in which it dehumanizes people, both black and white.
A motif (sometimes called a motiv or leitmotiv) is a theme, character type, image, metaphor, or other verbal element that is repeated throughout a piece of work. Throughout Beloved, there is one such motif that is repeated with regularity: a description of the characters’ eyes and how they see. “The eyes are windows to the soul,” goes the common saying, and the eyes of the novel’s characters are likewise revealing. Sethe, for instance, has had the “glittering iron” punched out of her eyes, “leaving two open wells that did not reflect firelight.” When schoolteacher catches up to Sethe, her eyes are so black she “looks blind,” and after too much conflict with Beloved her eyes turn “bright but dead, alert but vacant.” Similarly, the disturbing thing about Beloved’s eyes is not that the “whites of them were much too white” but that “deep down in those big black eyes there was no expression at all.” When Paul D recalls his time on the chain gang in Georgia, he remembers that “the eyes had to tell what there was to tell” about what the men were feeling. When the schoolteacher comes upon the scene in the shed, he decides to turn back for home without claiming any of the survivors because he has had “enough nigger eyes for now.”
The way people use their eyes is also important. Denver thinks of her mother as one “who never looked away,” not even from pain or death. Paul D thinks he is safe from Beloved’s advances “as long as his eyes were locked on the silver of the lard can.” Denver thinks it is “lovely” the way that she is “pulled into view by the interested, uncritical eyes” of Beloved. It is shortly after Beloved asks Sethe, “you finished with your eyes?” that Sethe realizes Beloved is the ghost of her baby daughter. “Now,” she thinks, “I can look at things again because she’s here to see them too.” But as Beloved drains the energy from Sethe, “the brighter Beloved’s eyes, the more those eyes that used never to look away became slits of sleeplessness.” When Paul D wants to return to Sethe, he considers how he looks through other people’s eyes: “When he looks at himself through Garner’s eyes, he sees one thing. Through Sixo’s, another. One makes him feel righteous. One makes him feel ashamed.” Finally, however, he considers how he looks through Sethe’s eyes. After he does this, he returns to the only woman who “could have left him his manhood like that.”
Imagery refers to the use of images in a literary work. Critics frequently describe Morrison’s writing as “lyrical” or “poetic” because her use of vivid, powerful imagery. One such image is that of the “chokecherry tree” on Sethe’s back. Instead of having the narrator give a simple description of the oozing wounds on Sethe’s back, Amy Denver describes it as a chokecherry tree, complete with sap, branches, leaves, and blossoms. The picture this comparison draws in the reader’s mind is much more disturbing than a straightforward description would be. This is just one example of how the author sets beautiful natural images in contrast to the horrors of slavery, the better to highlight its evil.