Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved (Morrison), based loosely on a real life experience of a Cincinnati area former slave, mirrors her own journey from her early life living in a segregated South to her moving to a more racially friendly Lorain, Ohio (Reinhardt). Her life in Lorain was free of many of the prejudices that would have been present if she had remained in the South but she was still subject to hearing her older relatives relate stories of their prior Southern lives. These memories, like the memories of her characters in Beloved, form the background of many of Morrison's novels.
In Beloved, Morrison tells the story of emancipated woman slave named Sethe who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio after having escaped from slavery in Kentucky a few years following the Civil War. The joys of her escape, however, are short-lived as she soon discovers that her former owner has successfully tracked her down. Fearing that her children will be returned to slavery, she attempts to kill her children but she is stopped by a friend after only successfully killing her youngest child, Beloved. The murder of this youngest child forms the main theme of the novel as this child continues to haunt Sethe first as a ghost and later in human form. In both capacities, the murdered Beloved is intent on making Sethe pay for having taken her life. The novel develops as the various characters address the effects of their past and attempt to go forward with their lives without allowing the burdens of the past to dominate their thinking and feelings.
The story line used by Morrison forms the basis for her to examine the issues of race and slavery and their impact on love and family. The main characters in her story and, most of the background characters, are ex-slaves and the story relates how these characters manage to withstand the travesty of slavery and organize their lives. In Beloved, Morrison examines the various effects of slavery and how such effects are long lasting even years after the slavery has ended. Morrison's character, Sethe, battles throughout the entire story with her sense of self. This battle resonates when she rationalizes that it is better for her to kill her own children than to allow them to return to slavery. For Sethe it is better for her to murder her children than to allow them to be destroyed by the effects of slavery. As the character Baby Suggs says about Sethe: "That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn't like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn't think it up… The best thing (Sethe) was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing (ibid at 251)."
Each of Morrison's black characters is shackled with the horrors of their past. Each has been made to endure a past that is full of unimaginable horrors. Sethe has been raped and had to endure the shame of murdering her own child. Paul D. has witnessed Sethe's being raped and then suffered the indignities of being imprisoned. Many other similar occurrences are offered throughout the course of the novel but somehow all the characters have managed to repress the past and go on with their lives in some form and deal with their present reality only.
The ambiguity of morality is addressed by Morrison in regard to Seth's murder of her youngest child, Beloved. At various times throughout the novel, Sethe is forced to address her decision. In the end the reader is left with the impression that it was likely the right thing to do but that Sethe did not possess the moral right to do it (Rothstein). On balance, the decision rested on whether the child would have been better off sold back into slavery or being dead. Based on her moral point-of-view Sethe decided that death was preferable. The black community in Cincinnati never forgave Sethe but she learned to live with her decision once she was able to rid Beloved's spirit from her life.
In writing Beloved, Morrison uses a writing style reminiscent of James Joyce in that she uses free association to jump from one story line to another while going forward with the main story line (Feng-hui). Through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences she skillfully ties the stories of her main characters together in order to supply the reader with insights into the character's respective lives and how each of them is uniquely affected by the experiences. Through a constantly changing point-of-view, Morrison is able to tell her story through a variety of characters while allowing the constantly changing point-of-view to tell a unified story. By changing the point-of-view, however, Morrison is able to show bias through the eyes of some white men who view slaves as animals and black men and women who are spiritually destroyed by the effects of slavery. In the end it is the reader who must piece together the different points-of-view and draw his or her own conclusions.
Morrison true talent is exposing slavery for what is was and not the sterile imagery often offered by other writers. For Morrison there is nothing romantic about slavery in America. She clearly sets forth the gruesome physical and mental abuses suffered by slaves and the mental turmoil that was suffered subsequently. Through her characters, Morrison effectively speaks for the millions of slaves who were never afforded the opportunity of expressing their feelings and emotions for having suffered such indignities.
In writing her novel Morrison was concerned that the United States had been repressing the memories of slavery for too long. In an interview in Time magazine in 1989, subsequent to the publication of her novel, Beloved, she addressed this concern. She stated that not only do whites repress the memory but so do blacks. Morrison, however, believes that it is important for both races to recognize that the crime of slavery was committed (Angelo) because it affected both races. The novel reveals that slavery caused everyone involved in it to suffer a loss of humanity and compassion and that, like the characters in the novel, healing from its effects must be done through confronting the dark and hidden corners of what occurred. Denying that it occurred does not result in healing. It must be confronted.
Beloved depicts slavery's power to affect two of life's most basic human emotions: the capacity to love and the basic human instinct toward self-preservation. Through the telling of her story in Beloved, Morrison successfully demonstrates how these emotions become distorted through slavery. Each of her characters struggles with both emotions. They have spent so much of their lives having their worth determined by their market value and ability to reproduce that they have lost all concept of their subjective worth. They have lost all sense of their ability to feel and care. For instance, Paul D. is very insecure and overly concerned whether he can ever be a real man. Sethe has no sense of herself. Her entire existence is determined by her children and her capacity and ability to love them.
These distortions affect how the characters are able to love both themselves and others. While much of the Beloved story details the tragedy of life it also addresses love and the importance of love to the enjoyment of life. In attempting to assess this importance the novel offers different opinions on what it means to be loved. A hard-headed character named Ella tells Sethe, "If anybody was to ask me I'd say, 'Don't love nothing. (ibid at 92). For Paul D. The best way to love was to "…love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so that when they broke its back, shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you'd have a little love left over for the next one" (ibid at 45). For Sethe, "Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all (ibid at 164).
In offering these different opinions, the novel offers a perspective of love and how it affects everyone differently and means different things to different people. How the characters are affected in their struggle for love determines how the story develops and how they all eventually reach an accommodation in their struggles. Unfortunately, readers will not always agree with the characters' demonstration of their love. Few, for example, will be capable of understanding how Sethe's killing her daughter, Beloved, was an act of love but it is a perfect demonstration by Morrison of how demonstrations of love are unique to each individual (Koolish).
The essential value of Morrison's book was the fact that it stirred debate about slavery and its effects among a generation of Americans that had largely ignored the issue (Kimberly). A generation that saw racism being less obviously displayed and more opportunities being…