Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Toni Morrison's "Beloved"

The novel is a brutal indictment of slavery. Its protagonist, Sethe, a runaway slave, tries to kill her children when their owner catches up with them, and she succeeds in killing a daughter. Beloved haunts Sethe's house 124, first as a ghost, and then, when Paul D, Sethe's fellow slave at Sweet Home, chases it out, returns in person. And so the plot itself embodies the novel's truth: slavery is not over even when it is over. Its horrific effects continue to lash the freed, who will never be free.

The novel moves by visiting and revisiting the past, as one character, and then another, recalls ("rememories") their enslaved life at Sweet Home, their escape, their attempt to live as freed slaves (to lay down the sword and shield, as the novel puts it). Common memories, of great pain and sorrow, bind those who share them, and exclude those who don't. Different memories delineate the different experiences of men and women, and so encompass different kinds of savagery. Sethe giving birth to Denver in the open, with the help of a poor white girl. Paul D working in a chain gang. Baby Suggs, Sethe's mother-in-law, freed by her son's permanent enslavement. Stamp Paid giving up his wife to his master's son.

The one memory that sets Sethe apart from all the others is the memory of killing Beloved. The drama in the novel lies not only in her struggle with that memory, but also in the struggle of the others with the fact of the deed. Paul D, a figure from the common past, appears to offer Sethe a way out of that past, but he could not accept her when he learns of her deed. When he does accept her, at the end of the novel, I do not understand how he could have done so. The plot offers no reason. Perhaps he rejected her at first out of guilt for sleeping with Beloved. But that diminishes the moral disgust he expressed over the murder, and the more diminished the romantic obstacle is, the less noble and satisfying the final reconciliation. The ending of the novel strikes me as wishful thinking. The man, who fucked her dead daughter, who abandoned her, walks right back into the house and saves the dying woman.

My other reservation is inextricable from the aesthetic power of the book. In externalizing the consequences of Sethe's murder, through the figure of Beloved, the novel shows how actual our struggle with the past is. The novel loses by that means, however, the opportunity to depict the flickering light of consciousness. The drama is outside, not inside. Beloved is finally exorcised by a group of praying women, and not by any subtle but vital change of mind. When the characters speak of their inside, they "rememory" in the form of already coherent narratives. That is why the four brief "chapters" written in stream-of-consciousness technique stick out. They are not organic to the more traditional storytelling in the rest of the novel.

They are also not organic to the novel's dominant view of people, that people are moral beings, rather than psychological beings. At its least subtle that moral perspective creates unbelievable innocents like Halle, who buys his mother's freedom by paying a lifetime of Sunday work. Most of the time, however, that moral perspective is capable of fine distinctions. For instance, the Garners, owners of Sweet Home, may treat their slaves benevolently, but they are still masters of that universe. The moral perspective at work is consonant with the moral question of Sethe's infanticide, as well as the moral condemnation of slavery. Having chosen such a focus and such an intention, the novel, in adopting a moral perspective, is only being true to its focus and intention. To depict in a psychological manner the white schoolteacher who bridled Paul D's mouth with iron, lynched Paul A, burned Sixo to death would have muddied the moral purpose of the novel; it would offend our moral sense. That is the difficulty of approaching the topic of slavery any other way.


John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Jee, I found you through goodreads and tracked you down to your blog. You have so much great stuff here. I was going through your pub links and noted the one from crab orchard review (I've published there too.). I clicked and went to the submissions page! I thought I would let you know.

Now I'm going back to your pubs. Thanks.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi John,
Thanks for finding me in the electronic wilderness. Always good to hear a companionable voice.