Sunday, August 18, 2013

Beloved by Toni Morrison

While I was reading Beloved, the Puliizer-prize winning novel by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, I knew that I would struggle with how to blog about it.  On the one hand, it is a complex, richly layered novel, beautiful, horrific, honest, and angry. It gave me a lot to think about, and my chest was tight with anxiety during much of the time I was reading it.  But, what to say?  

This morning I Googled discussion questions for inspiration.  Here's what I found on Lit Lovers:
1. Consider the extent to which slavery dehumanizes individuals by stripping them of their identity, destroying their ability to conceive of the self. Consider, especially, Paul and how he can't determine whether screams he hears are his or someone else's. How do the other characters reflect self-alienation? 
2. Discuss the different roles of the community in betraying and protecting the house at 124. What larger issue might Morrison be suggesting here about community.
3. What does Beloved's appearance represent? What about her behavior? Why does she finally disappear—what drives her departure? And why is the book's title named for her? 
4. Talk about the choice Sethe made regarding her children when schoolteacher arrives to take them all back to Sweet Home. Can her actions be justified—are her actions rational or irrational?
5. What does the narrator mean by the warning at the end: this is not a story to pass on." Is he right...or not.
 I could write an essay about any one of these, but I'm still not sure that would get at the heart of why or how this book affected me.

So, I'll go back to what I was thinking about while I read the book.  SPOILERS BELOW...

I thought a lot about the selfishness of infants and children and why they must be so in order to survive.  When Beloved first came to live with Sethe and Paul D and Denver and it became clear that she was the ghost of the baby Sethe killed, she struck me as infantile.  She may have assumed the body of a 20-year old, but she had the emotional reasoning of an "already crawling?" baby.  This made me think about my son as a baby of this age--while I was nursing him or even just holding him, if I happened to look up or away from his face, he would reach up and grab my chin and turn my head so that I was looking at him and him alone.  I loved his instinctual insistence on my focus.  He was dependent on me and needed me to care for him in order for him to survive.

In the same way, Beloved insists that Sethe focus on her, and finally give her what she needs to survive.

I tried to understand Sethe's rationale that killing her children was the only way to save them from slavery. I can understand the despair of seeing one's children enslaved, but I wondered if was more an act of anger than of love.  In Sethe's defense, what she endured during her escape from Sweet Home must have unhinged her and expecting rationale behavior might be unrealistic.  On that topic, robbing a lactating mother of her baby's milk is one of the more horrific scenes I've read.

I saw Beloved as symbolic of our country's legacy of slavery.  It will haunt us and it should haunt us.  We have to look it in the face--just as my baby son demanded that I look him in the face, just as Beloved demanded that Sethe focus on her--and not rationalize it or say that it was in the past.  Slavery has scarred us all, but like Denver, we can step off that porch, find a job, make connections, live our lives, care for our families, and grow up.

Truly, an amazing book, and one that I read for my Back to the Classics challenge.

Oprah Winfrey as Sethe, Thandie Newton as Beloved


  1. It /is/ an amazing and horrific read and I found it very... fascinating in a horrifying way. I don't think we could even begin to understand Sethe or try to rationalize her actions without having lived under the conditions she did. On the surface, the story of a mother killing her child is horrifying, but the more I read this novel, and the more contextual stuff I read I began to see why she did it. And, in a way, it actually took a great amount of courage for her to do what she did. It's a strong story. It still pulls me.

  2. That is an interesting observation about the selfishness of children and infants - I never thought of it that way but it is true that they need selfishness in order to survive. This is an amazing book - they are always the hardest to write about.

  3. Beloved has been on my tbr shelf longer than any other book I own! It has moved with me from house to house three times, I've started it at least four times, and yet never seem to make it beyond page 50. What is wrong with me? Wonder what would happen if I tried to listen instead...

    1. It's amazing how we seem to have books that we want to read but never actually read them. I've had a copy of Tristram Shandy for a good thirty years. I'm not sure I will ever actually read it!

      Beloved would work well as an audio book, I think. I actually thought about that, but I had such a pretty new copy that I decided to go old school with it.

  4. I've just downloaded iStripper, so I can have the sexiest virtual strippers on my taskbar.