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Introduction

After publishing four novels, Toni Morrison had already established herself as one of the most popular and successful black female writers of her time. With the publication of her fifth novel Beloved, however, critics worldwide recognized that here was an author with a depth and brilliance that made her work universal. In this tale set in Reconstruction Ohio, Morrison paints a dark and powerful portrait of the dehumanizing effects of slavery. Inspired by an actual historical incident, Beloved tells the story of a woman haunted by the daughter she murdered rather than have returned to slavery. Part ghost story, part realistic narrative, the novel examines the mental and physical trauma caused by slavery as well as the lingering damage inflicted on its survivors. In a prose both stark and lyrical, Morrison addresses several of her enduring themes: the importance of family and community, the quest for individual and cultural identity, and the very nature of humanity.

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Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. Growing up during the Depression, Morrison witnessed the struggle of her parents, George and Ramah Wills Wofford, as they worked multiple jobs to support their four children. In the face of hard and often demeaning work, her parents held on to a sense of pride and self-respect which they passed on to their children. Because of their experiences with racism, they also emphasized the value and strength of African-American individuals, families, and communities. Music and storytelling were also valued in Morrison’s home, and dreams and ghostly apparitions were often featured in the stories people told each other. Reading was highly regarded in the family-one grandfather was a figure of respect because he had taught himself to read-and Morrison learned the skill at an early age. As she matured, Morrison became a capable student and read widely, from Russian novels to Jane Austen. While these works did not speak directly to her experience as a young black woman, they taught her about creating setting and atmosphere. As she told Jean Strouse in Newsweek: “I wasn’t thinking of writing then-I wanted to be a dancer like Maria Tallchief-but when I wrote my first novel years later, I wanted to capture that same specificity about the nature and feeling of the culture I grew up in.”

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Plot Summary

A Part I

In Beloved, Toni Morrison chronicles the hardships Sethe and her family endure before, during, and after the American Civil War. The novel opens with a description of the “spiteful” atmosphere of 124 Bluestone Road in rural Ohio in 1873, where Sethe, her daughter Denver, and a troublesome spirit live. They are soon joined by two others: Paul D., who knew Sethe from their years as slaves on a Kentucky plantation, and a strange woman who calls herself Beloved. All quickly become caught up in conflicts that have their roots in the past, which Morrison reveals to the reader in the fragmented flashbacks of Sethe’s memory. The novel’s complex interweaving of past and present produce a compelling portrait of a black family’s struggle with the devastating and inescapable effects of slavery.

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Characters

A Stamp Paid

Stamp Paid was originally named Joshua, but he renamed himself after he “handed over his wife to his master’s son” and gave in to his wife’s demand that he stay alive and not take revenge. “With that gift, he decided that he didn’t owe anybody anything.” This “debtlessness” does not satisfy him, however, and so he takes to helping runaways across the Ohio River, “helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery.” He is witness to the “Misery” that occurs when the schoolteacher comes to take Sethe back to slavery, and prevents her from killing Denver as well. He is concerned about “truth and forewarning,” and so he shows Paul D a newspaper clipping about Sethe’s arrest. Stamp Paid has second thoughts about his actions after Paul D leaves 124 Bluestone, however, and thinks maybe he does owe the family something. When he returns to the house to try to set things straight with Sethe, he sees Beloved, and it is through Stamp Paid that the community comes to learn of Sethe’s trouble.

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Themes

A Human Condition

A1 Race and Racism

“You got two feet, not four,” Paul D tells Sethe when she reveals her secret to him, and the dehumanizing effect of slavery is a primary theme of Beloved. According to the schoolteacher, slaves are just another type of animal: not only does he list their “animal characteristics,” he considers them “creatures” to be “handled,” similar to dogs or cattle. In some ways, they are not even worth as much as animals: “Unlike a snake or a bear,” he thinks while pursuing the runaways, “a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin.” Because slaves are treated no better-and sometimes worse-than animals, it leads them to question what it is that makes one human. While Mr. Garner was alive, for instance, Paul D truly believed that he was a man. But after schoolteacher arrives and puts the bit to him, he learns a different lesson: “They were trespassers among the human race.” There is another side to the dehumanizing effects of slavery, however: just as it turns slaves into animals, it turns owners into monsters. As Baby Suggs thinks of white people, “they could prowl at will, change from one mind to another, and even when they thought they were behaving, it was a far cry from what real humans did.” Stamp Paid understands this effect as well: “The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince [whites] how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, … the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them,” Stamp Paid thinks, but “the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread … until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made.”

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Construction

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.

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Historical Perspective

A The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

One of the central events of the novel-Sethe’s attack on her children-is described as “her rough response to the Fugitive Bill.” Prior to 1850, U.S. law permitted slave owners to attempt to recover escaped slaves, but state authorities were under no obligation to assist them. Many Northerners saw aiding and protecting fugitive slaves as one way to combat the evil of slavery. Escaped slaves who settled in free states were therefore relatively safe from capture, since their abolitionist communities rarely cooperated with slave owners. This sense of safety was jeopardized by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

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Questions

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 changed the way free states were required to deal with fugitive slaves, leading to Sethe’s terrible response to her capture. Research the history of the legal status of fugitive and freed slaves in America. Create a timeline tracing these legal developments, and include both Supreme Court decisions and state and federal laws.

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