10 Things You Should Know About Beloved by Toni Morrison

10 Things You Should Know About Beloved by Toni Morrison

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    Beloved: A Family of Outcasts

    By Russ Adams

     

    I want to approach Toni Morrison’s novel as it pertains to genre. Magical Realism is a lesser known genre, but one with distinctive characteristics. Although the genre is unique in its attributes authors often feel encumbered when their work falls into this cannon of literature. It’s the magic in magical realism that stirs the pot. It leaves most writers and unfamiliar readers conjuring images associated with fantasy but nothing could be further from the truth.

    Magical Realism blends natural and extraordinary worlds. In fact, the most visible element of the genre is its use of the supernatural as a common and accepted social element. Its use of political critique is, arguably, a close second.  Yet, there is a facet of Magical Realism that is rarely explored, if ever—isolation.

    The genre can be described as a means to access a deeper understanding of reality. “…magical realism: a sort of extreme form of symbolism, an exaggeration to the point of impossibility for the sake of driving home a metaphor…” (Deliberate). I would add that it is also a response to oppression. In most of the genre’s novels an individual, group, or community is subjugated. This oppression is in the forefront of the writing, but takes a backseat to Magical Realism’s more common elements. Through isolation magical realism creates the concept of the others, which grounds exceptional characters forcing them to exist as outsiders among the mundane.

    But, within the pages of Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, isolation is debilitating and infectious. Morrison cultivates this infection in such a way that few characters escape its grasp. Isolation spills off the page festering into history—alienating the reader. 

    In Beloved, ex-slaves are the embodiment of human suffering and of the human will to rise above that suffering. The black community shares a common anguish. Their torment is written on their faces, on their backs, and on the color of their skin. Baby Suggs preaches this in the clearing.  “Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out” (Morrison 92).

    Baby Suggs preaches that her congregation is special, they survived, and they must celebrate that survival everyday. She asks her people to raise their hands, to dance, laugh and to cry in celebration of that survival. Yet, isolation holds them back. It is the greatest oppressor, in both life and magical realism. This mechanism keeps these freemen from being completely free; and it only ever allows them to be ex-slaves. 

    Although they suffer as a people, the community of ex-slaves in Cincinnati do not completely pull together. In fact, they often double the power of the curse by pushing individuals to the community’s peripheral. Jealousy infects them and causes the community to turn on itself. 

    As Nancy Jesser suggests in Violence, Home, and Community in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Baby Suggs is too blessed. Her curse is a quiet isolation—full of poison daggers behind the smiles of those in the community she seeks to help. “They see Baby Suggs as a locus of blessings, of realized dreams- getting her family out, getting out herself” (Jesser 335). 

    The community forgets the price Baby Suggs pays for her blessings. She was a slave for sixty plus years and loses her son to the brutality of Sweet Home, but the community focuses on her house, her positive energy, and the few family members that do survive. “…these blessings creates a separation between her and the community” (335).  Baby Suggs and her family become outcasts among outcasts. It is first a slow segregation, but as the jealousy grows their seclusion grows.

    It is this undertone of jealousy that leads to Sethe’s dark action—choosing between her children’s life in slavery, and their death as free black children. The narrator states,

    Not Ella, not John, not anybody ran down or to Bluestone Road, to say some new white folks with the Look just rode in. The righteous Look every Negro learned to recognize along with his ma’am’s tit. …Nobody warned them… (Morrison 157).

                Morrison suggests that the community turned on Baby Suggs and Sethe, “Maybe they just wanted to know if Baby really was special, blessed in some way they were not” (157).

    After the dark act that took place that twenty-ninth day at Baby Suggs, the community completely turned their backs on Sethe. Jesser points out the irony of the community’s choice. It was the lack of communal action that put Sethe in a position which forced her too choose her children’s fate (Jesser 406). Sethe may have murdered her daughter, but it was the community that allowed her to be cornered, and forced her to choose death over a life of oppression.

                Although, Sethe’s isolation was, in part, her own doing. When she kills Beloved and attacks Denver and the boys, she is crossing a line most parents might never consider. Given the darkness from which she sprang, the recollection of her last days at Sweet Home, and her mother’s fate at the end of a rope, her actions on that day were arguably warranted.

    Sethe can never explain what she did because the event is outside of the logic of words and justifications, of cause and effect. Her act was a physical and emotional reaction, the culmination of her life up to that moment (Krunholz 406).

                Sethe was a child killer in the eyes of the community. She was a parent gone mad. Even Schoolteacher wanted nothing to do with her after witnessing the darkness in the shack. The slave master, brutal in his methodology, heartless in his rein, turned his back on the slave woman he had traveled so far to reclaim. Sethe had surpassed even his brutality.

    Sethe becomes a plague, her isolation a punishment for crossing a line others would dare not consider. Her isolation becomes a curse that remains until the women of Cincinnati come together on Sethe’s behalf, and exercise Beloved from the realm of the living.

    Beloved attempts to break the curse of her seclusion. She unearths herself and literally crawls out of the darkness to seek out what is rightfully hers. Alas she cannot break the curse. Though Beloved is among her family she can never be one of them. She is undead, a spirit out of place and unable to fully function amongst the corporal world. When the black women of Cincinnati pull together in support of Denver and Sethe, Beloved is forced to return to the darkness.

    Beloved’s isolation maybe the saddest curse of all. Her mother forced her into the darkness and later allowed Paul D to force her spirit from the house. Beloved was Sethe’s pride and joy, yet Beloved was constantly forced away from her mother. Beloved was the blessing that Baby Suggs and Sethe could never enjoy. When Beloved finally takes back what is rightfully hers, she is again forced into darkness. The murdered child of a desperate woman is cast out by the community that may have caused her death in the first place.

    And then there is Denver. The only people in Denver’s life are her mother, the ghost of her sister, and for a short time, Baby Suggs. Denver is still isolated among these few family members. Denver is set apart from her mother because she cannot connect with Sethe’s past at Sweet Home, while Sethe and Paul D are bound by that past. Since Denver is excluded she must mourn in isolation the lost part of her mother to which she can never connect.

    Denver’s connection to Beloved is only superficial. Beloved makes it very clear that Denver can leave at any time. She tells Denver that she only wants Sethe. Beloved’s words empower Denver’s loneliness. Her sister, her blood, abandons her in a single phrase, stripping her of any opportunity to truly connect with anyone.  

    Denver’s isolation is magical. The power of that seclusion holds her within the boundaries of 124 Bluestone. She is trapped by fear, by the judgment of the community that shuns her mother. It is not until Baby Suggs ghost appears that Denver is brave enough to wander off the property. “But you said there was no defense. ‘There ain’t.’ Then what do I do? ‘Know it, and go on out the yard. Go on’" (Morrison 244).

    The haunting return of a dead child, and the communal acknowledgment of her existence certainly demonstrate a typical aspect of magical realism, but it isn’t a governing factor within the story. While Beloved is Sethe’s dead child, she is the embodiment of slavery. Like the slave, Beloved is isolated from humanity. She is sacrificed to show the links a slave would go to preserve her children’s freedom. She is a haunting reminder of America’s sinister history.

    While slavery and the post slave condition undoubtedly reflects a political critique within American history, slavery itself isn’t the central theme of the tale either. Toni Morrison’s story is about the death and isolation of the human spirit. This is what isolates the ex-slave from the free world. Isolation is the shame that comes with what the slave endured, the fear that it might happen again, and the inability to share that suffering with a community that only wants to bury the memory, but cannot.

    Morrison works the torment and horror of isolation like a master sculptor, creating a beast that devours its victims—letting their pain and sadness echo throughout the book. Beloved is a masterful use of the extreme license endowed by magical realism and turns a metaphor into a virus, which cannot be contained within the pages of the novel. 

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