I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an outpouring of grief for an author who passed away like that I saw after Toni Morrison passed in August 2019. My Instagram was flooded with quotes and remembrances to the Great American Novelist, and the book referenced most often in this eulogy-en-masse was Beloved. I’d heard a lot about it prior to then, of course, but never actually read it… until now. Yes, Keeper Upperers, I have finally read Morrison’s most-beloved 1987 novel.
First, a bit of history (because you can’t read or understand Beloved without its history): the story was inspired by the real-life story of Margaret Garner. She was a slave who escaped from Kentucky and fled to the free state of Ohio in 1856. When U.S. marshals busted into her cabin and arrested her, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, they found that she had killed her own two-year-old daughter and was attempting to kill her other children. The motive, as we understand it today, was to prevent her children being returned to a life of slavery – a fate worse than death. Morrison came across Garner’s story in an old newspaper article, and reproduced it later in a compilation of black history in 1974. But Morrison wasn’t done with Garner’s story; it was the seed that grew into Beloved.
Beloved is dedicated to “Sixty Million and more” – a reference to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the slave trade. Morrison lamented the fact that there was no true memorial to the deaths of those men, women, and children, and so Beloved became her own personal tribute. Upon accepting the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award in 1988, she said: “There’s no small bench by the side of the road. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”
The story of Beloved begins in 1873, with Sethe – a formerly enslaved woman – and her daughter Denver living at 124 Bluestone Road, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sethe’s older sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away years ago. The house is haunted, see, by the memories and inherited trauma of Sethe’s past, which are personified in the ghost of the child she buried. The child was never formally named, but buried beneath a tombstone with the only phrase Sethe could remember from her Christian funeral: Beloved. (She would have had “Dearly Beloved” engraved, only her “services” to the engraver only purchased her ten minutes of time to carve a name.) Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law and a fellow escaped slave, also lived at 124 Bluestone Road, but she died shortly after the boys ran away, eight years before Beloved begins. The early chapters of the novel sketch out this rough history, and Morrison’s capacity to take your breath away with her blunt insight is on full display.
[The plantation] never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too.Beloved (Page 7)
Morrison doesn’t just give you one inciting incident: she gives you two. First is the arrival of Paul D, another enslaved man from Sweet Home (the plantation where Sethe, Baby Suggs, and several other characters were ‘owned’). A romance kindles quickly between him and Sethe, but the ghost of Beloved freaks him the heck out and he banishes her with a lot of shouting and table-flipping. It takes a bit of doing, but eventually he wins Denver over, and the three of them attend a local carnival as a family, happy to be rid of the ghost that haunted them.
When they return to 124 Bluestone Road, however, a young woman (yes, this is the second inciting incident, hold onto your hats, people!) is waiting for them on the front step. She calls herself – durn, durn, durn – Beloved. Sethe is charmed by the young woman and takes her in, despite Paul D’s repeated warnings that it could only lead to trouble. Denver has no problems believing that this Beloved is her deceased sister manifest, and quickly develops an intense bond with her.
Naturally, the manifest ghost starts causing all kinds of problems. First, she bewitches Denver. Then, she charms Paul D into a bonk. He’s disgusted with himself, and triggered by the memories of Sweet Home that the sex with Beloved recalls, and (somewhat inexplicably) he decides the best way to deal with it all is to get Sethe knocked up. Only, when he tells his friends about it, one of them – Stamp Paid – reveals Sethe’s deepest, darkest secret (uncool, but kind of warranted).
You ready for the big spoiler? It’s coming, ready or not!
Sethe killed her infant. After she’d escaped Sweet Home and made it to Baby Sugg’s house at 124 Bluestone Road, four horsemen came looking for her with bad intentions. Hearing that they were clip-clopping up the street, Sethe ran to the woodshed where her children were and tried to kill them all, but Beloved was the only one she had time for. Eeek!
Paul D confronts Sethe, and ultimately leaves her, saying that her love for her children is “too thick” for him to deal with. She holds firm in her position that “thin love is no love” and that she did the right thing in killing Beloved. She has all the evidence she needs; Beloved has come back to her.
After Paul D runs off, Beloved consumes Sethe’s every waking thought and movement. She hardly eats, while Beloved grows bigger and bigger, eventually appearing to be pregnant. Denver is kind of freaked out by all of this (understandably), and braves her fear of the Cincinnati streets to go out in seek of help. The local women come to her aid, to exorcise Beloved – figuring, naturally, that she’s a ghost who’ll flee at the whiff of some holy water – coincidentally at the same time as the landlord of 124 Bluestone Road comes trotting up on his horse.
It’s all too much for Sethe, who is big-time triggered by the memory of those horsemen coming for her and her children to return them to Sweet Home, and she has a breakdown. Beloved disappears, and Sethe never recovers. She remains bed-ridden for the rest of her life, and Paul D returns to find her a shell of her former self. Over the years, everyone forgets about Beloved, until all traces of her are gone.
Phew! Do you need a second? I sure did, after I finished reading Beloved.
So, what was the character Beloved? A ghost? A demon? That question is the heart of this story, and probably a big part of the reason it has captured so much popular and academic attention. Morrison told us plainly that she was the daughter that Sethe killed, but we can all kind of tell that she’s also a symbol, a manifestation of the repressed trauma of slavery.
Beloved smacks of a book that needs to be re-read over and over again to be appreciated fully. I wanted to love it outright; everyone said that I would and that I should… but I didn’t, really. In fairness, lockdown probably wasn’t the right time for me to read it. There’s some future me who will re-read it and find it completely wonderful, but the present me can only concede that it was a brilliant but not enjoyable read. A lot of Morrison’s cleverness didn’t really “click” until later, writing up this review (e.g., the Schoolteacher from Sweet Home was never named, but all of the former slaves and children of slaves were, a very interesting subversion and re-claiming of the narrative). Basically, I didn’t have the brain space for Beloved, which I regret – and I’d recommend you don’t pick it up until you do.
Luckily, a lot of people far wiser than me read it when their brains weren’t turned to mush by the Delta variant. Beloved was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it was a finalist for the 1987 National Book Award, and it was ranked as the best work of American fiction (by literary critics for the New York Times) from 1981-2006.
Incredibly, despite what it has to teach students about history and about writing craft, Beloved has been banned from five U.S. schools since 2007 (let alone all the times it was challenged and banned before that). Apparently, some parents don’t want their precious progeny exposed to “bestiality, infanticide, sex, and violence”, even in fiction. Every great book, it seems, has a long history of being banned and censored, and Beloved is no exception.
If you’d asked me before I started writing this review, I would have said – with certainty – that Beloved was universally… well, beloved. It’s only since I started Googling possible reasons for my own ambivalence towards it – it just wasn’t a fun read, you know? – that I encountered some pretty heavy criticism. It’s been called sentimental, sensational, overwritten, and overblown. But, despite that criticism (and my own mixed feelings), I must acknowledge that Beloved is a book that has taken on mythical proportions in cultural significance. Its importance in representing the impact of inherited trauma, correcting the false narrative around slavery, and giving voice to African Americans cannot be denied… regardless of one person’s experience of reading it.