Beloved

Baker-Fletcher, Karen

FIERCE LOVE COMES TO HAUNT BELOVED Toni Morrison Alfred A. Knopf, $18.95, 275 pp. Karen Baker-Fletcher I have never liked ghost stories. I either find them unbelievable or too sensational ...

...Shouldn't parts of AfroAmerican history be left behind and safely buried...
...The race that enslaved her saves her from the gallows...
...Beloved is the kind of story that some black mothers, as well as white ones, would like never to be told...
...As a black woman, I can imagine my grandmother who never likes this kind of story asking the same question with a tone of disapproval...
...It is this same ability that will make Beloved appeal to a wide audience...
...As in Morrison's first four novels, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981), the community itself is a character in Beloved...
...The characters in Beloved spend much time wrestling with the ethics of Sethe's act...
...In Sethe's mind, she has saved Beloved from something far worse: "That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to 631 mind...
...Beloved draws Sethe out gently at first, asking her to talk about her'' diamonds.'' Gradually, Beloved becomes more and more demanding, accusing Sethe of leaving her behind...
...The novel provokes us to ask: Exactly what is Sethe's crime...
...Out of ambivalent feelings for the prosperity of "Baby Suggs, holy," Sethe's preaching mother-in-law, the community participates in Sethe's "crime" by failing to warn her of the slave-catcher's approach...
...Sethe is known as the woman who killed her baby daughter when her former master, Schoolteacher, tracked her down to take her and her children back into slavery...
...She served time in jail, nursing at her breast her youngest daughter, Denver, who is now ostracized by her peers and is also haunted by the past...
...In Sethe's eyes, the ghost who has come to haunt her is her own dearly beloved daughter...
...The text suggests that their religious heritage is older than Christianity and comprised of a mixture of traditions...
...Through Morrison's rich and balanced prose, Sethe emerges as a woman of great courage...
...But Toni Morrison's novel Beloved successfully avoids these traps...
...I usually do not like contemporary attempts at slave stories for the same reason...
...Morrison has authored a sensitive tale of an ex-slave woman named Sethe who loved her children fiercely as the best part of her own self...
...Sharp lines are not always drawn between good and evil, black and white...
...Whether or not faith and grace can be held onto is an issue for the characters in this book...
...In Tar Baby, "night women" crowded into the room of the high-fashion model Jadine, challenging her to be a daughter to take care of those who had taken care of her...
...She is as much a living legend in her Ohio community of ex-slaves and abolitionist whites as Beloved is a living ghost...
...Is it that she has murdered her own child...
...In writing Beloved, Morrison reveals that there is something far more than shame, scandal, or horror in this event...
...Whether or not Beloved should have been written is an ethical question in itself...
...Her ex-slave peers well understand the social conditions that led her to attempt to take her children's lives and to successfully kill one...
...Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you...
...Our media all too easily glory in the suffering of the victim and in the power of the oppressor...
...When thirty women come before "124" to pray, Sethe feels as if the Clearing has come to her "with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words.'' For this community of women, "In the beginning there were no words...
...I find myself asking: Why did Morrison write Beloved...
...Morrison shows artfully that the past, for better or worse, can not indeed will not be left buried...
...Morrison is not insensitive to this dilemma...
...In the be632 ginning was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like...
...If Morrison simply portrayed Sethe as a woman of great courage, she would seem unbelievable...
...not only because of the enormous historical detail that is embedded in the text, but because Morrison shows us Sethe greatly traumatized, and in need of healing...
...Sethe herself finds it difficult to confront the past at full face and Denver has trouble hearing it...
...But Beloved has a feeling of authenticity...
...Religion has a more explicit place in Beloved than in any of Morrison's previous novels...
...It is only when Beloved appears that Sethe begins to tell her "rememories...
...Indeed, the very house Sethe and Denver live in, "124," is avoided by their neighbors because of the haunting that goes on there...
...Now, in Beloved, the community is alternately envious, curious, mean, loving...
...Or is it that she feels right in doing so...
...Morrison's ability to draw us far into the interior of her characters' minds evokes a sense of the complexity of human good and evil...
...Has Sethe committed any crime at all...
...In The Bluest Eye we saw the community's concept of ugliness culminate in Pecola's being raped by her father and in her subsequent insanity...
...Morrison was motivated to write Beloved after coming across an article in a nineteenth-century newspaper about a woman named Margaret Garner, who tried to kill her children to prevent their return into slavery...
...Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn't think it up...
...What makes the ghost, Beloved, give a sense of authenticity to the novel is that she is not so much a ghost as she is a personification of the love and horror of the past...
...The community that shuns her returns to heal her...
...I either find them unbelievable or too sensational too exploitive of a perverse morbidity that feeds on images of death and violence...
...Sethe, like the nineteenth-century figure who stands behind her, dares to claim that her children belong not to the slaveholder but to herself...
...As the love between Sethe and Beloved threatens destruction on both sides, we find ourselves asking: How is Sethe going to come through this relationship intact...
...It is only when Denver reaches out to the women of her community that the "roaring" that has plagued "124" is brought to an end...
...Just as Sethe needs to give up her pride and receive forgiveness in order to love herself, so must the community give forgiveness and come to her aid...
...What good could' possibly come out of telling it...
...Baby Suggs, holy" gives up on faith and grace, abandoning the Clearing where she preached, danced, and sang...
...Dirty you so bad you couldn't like yourself...
...As Sethe's oldest friend Paul D. puts it: "For a usedto-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her own children she had settled on to love.'' In the eyes of the sheriff and the townspeople, Paul D. is right...
...But they condemn Sethe's pride and her self-justifying attitude...
...The ghost that loves Sethe also accuses her...
...At the same time, we learn from Beloved that we must not allow that past to take full possession of the present self...
...More important, a woman has fought to claim a basic human right...
...There are no saints in Beloved...
...In their view, her worst offense is not the act she has committed but her response to it...
...What constitutes a sinful act or a loving act in an inhumane society...
...Her greatest flaw loving her children perhaps too much could be seen as other than righteous only in a world that denies her human rights...
...Morrison allows Sethe's story to emerge in bits and pieces with the help of a full cast of characters and an intimate narrative voice that speaks with an interior knowing...
...Sethe is a tragic heroine...

Vol. 114 • November 1987 • No. 19


 
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