In the forward of Beloved Toni Morrison explains how in 1983 after seeing a newspaper clipping from the Black Book she was inspired to write Beloved.
She wanted to tell a story about the earlier history of black women but make it relevant to contemporary issues.
Beloved has a plot where people enslaved Sethe. She escapes. She chooses to kill her child rather than give her back to slave owners and she deals with the consequences, but this being a Medias Res structure, the readers comes into her house number 124 when these events have already occurred. Sethe living with suppressed memory is in a continuous state of aberration. The plot is a Rebirth because she eventually overcomes this crisis. We discover that suppressing memory did not heal Sethe. Her source of trauma i.e. the child that she murdered comes back to life (starting with a childlike state she mentally grows up) and establishes a bond that mends their lives. This suggests recognition, understanding and love as the three parts of their healing process. There are constant flashbacks spanning several decades (due to suppressed memory and many views). Beloved has inadequate narrators who do not wish to remember or as in the case of Denver or Beloved the characters do not understand. To tell the story we are dependent on many points of view retelling fragments of it. The haunting and the child coming back to life (not for the purpose of horror but for a rebirth) establish Beloved as magical realism.
I see a parallel between Anne frank’s house and 124 (home of Sethe). The two houses help us envision what devastating tragedy happened to millions of people by knowing the fate of a few. We visit the house, become an occupant, unsettled by the incidents and when the them becomes us we leave as transformed individuals.
In short, tell a story about a house and you can tell a tale of a nation.
The opening read loud is perhaps close to a free verse structure (lines have a variety of cadences and number of syllables and are end-stopped i.e. end of line coincides with end of sentence which is how Jeffery wainwright describes free verse (wainwright: 2008)) and there is a sense of drama. Here is the opening (with the dramatic words in bold).
“124 WAS SPITEFUL.
Full of a baby’s venom.
The women in the house
knew it and
so did the children.”
(Morrison, 2007, p.1)
The word 1-2-4 is like knocking at a door with the sound of knock-knock-kock.
This is also a retelling of folklore. Morrison uses poetic language throughout the book. As in the repetition of they, no body and nothing:
“They drove you ‘cross the river.”
“On my son’s back.”
“They gave you this house.”
“Nobody gave me nothing.”
(Morrison, 2007, p.287)
She sometimes tells an indirect story by having characters such as Paul D. singing about an agonizing life and wishing for death. She does this in opening a window to the character’s mind.
“Lay my head on the railroad line,
Train come along, pacify my mind.”
(Morrison, 2007, p.40)
Morrison uses allegory in shaping her story. In this section we have Beloved’s stream of consciousness within the cells of a slave ship. The white spaces between words have been turned into verse. Beloved goes from a death like birth (being too young to comprehend) into another kind of death by making the crossing to a new world. (There is a sense of poetic rhythm of a child like recollection with the rocking of the ship).
“there is no one to want me
to say my name
I wait on the bridge
Because she is under it
There is night and there is day”
(Morrison, 2007, p.251)
Here is an example of psychological writing. Paul D. the main male character represses his emotions in a tin tobacco case. The tin case represents Paul’s heart. Closeness to Sethe sometimes forces his heart to open, which leads him to feel insecure.
“Paul D never worried about his little tobacco tin anymore.
It was rusted shut.”
(Morrison, 2007, p 137).
The characters have visible and psychological scars. Being in a constant state of apprehension is one of these scars.
“If a Negro got legs he ought to use them.
Sit down too long, somebody will figure out a way to tie them up.”
(Morrison, 2007, p 6-11)
Beloved deals with human degradation rape, abuse and torture of the slaves.
“They beat you and you was pregnant?
And they took my milk”.
(Morrison, 2007, p.20).
It has many biblical references. Here the four horsemen reference conjures up images of the apocalypse.
“When the four horsemen came-schoolteacher, one nephew”
(Morrison, 2007, p. 174).
Reading the dialogue of the characters loud one can detect the skaz and the American inflection i.e. short sentences with rhythmic pattern and words are unstressed and elongated at the end of sentence.
“Folks came, he said.
“Folks come; folks go,” she answered.”
(Morrison, 2007, p.210-211).
Throughout the book many narrative styles have been adapted.
The beginning and for most parts it has an anonymous omniscient narrator. When expressing the character the emotions of the character funnel through that voice. Omniscient narrator does not become translucent but can sometimes be judgemental. The Omniscient narrator has a mournful voice, which as I stated earlier is emphasised by a poetic-dramatic language. (I have highlighted the judgemental word followed by the dramatic phrase).
“Counting on the stillness of her own soul,
she had forgotten the other one:
the soul of her baby girl.”
(Morrison, 2007, p.5)
In the following extract the Omniscient narrator simply funnels Denver’s emotions again without becoming translucent:
“Paul D messed them up for good”
(Morrison, 2007, p 45).
The Omniscient narrator also gives control to the individual characters for a dialogue or monologue. Here in a tender exchange Paul D in response to Sethe explains the reason why he came to 124. (The dialogue reveals Paul D’s directness as well as his ripened desire for her).
“That’s some of what I came for. The rest is you”.
(Morrison, 2007, p 8)
Stream of consciousness is also used. A section where Sethe forces herself not to remember as she leaves the house. This gives us the private state of mind of characters and makes us aware of them living with scars of trauma.
“I don’t have to remember nothing.
I don’t even have to explain. She understands it all.”
(Morrison, 2007, p. 216).
Morrison explores female identity and the female family bond via short chapters that are like love poetry. As well as the language a simple juxtaposition of the opening of such short chapters (about five pages) has the poetic result.
Here are examples of the chapter openings where individual characters express their thoughts:
“BELOVED, she my daughter.
She mine. See.”
(Morrison, 2007, p. 236).
“BELOVED is my sister.
I swallowed her blood”.
(Morrison, 2007, p. 242).
This then becomes a chorus of warm exchanges between the three women. A mother daughter exchange followed by the two sisters.
Morrison states “fiction should be beautiful, and powerful, but it should also work. It should have something in it that enlightens; something in it that suggests what the conflicts are. But it need not solve those problems because it is not a case study, it is not a recipe.” (Morrison, 1984).
Reading beloved I found the poetic aspect very appealing and thought it helps to deal with a very bleak subject rather well. I will experiment with Morrison’s use of omniscient narrator and tone, set a mood of a place and use poetic prose and skaz, use stream of consciousness and see if it works.