Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a novel aware of its potential; rather than just tell a story and let readers come to their own conclusions, Morrison seems to explicitly situate Beloved as a text cataloging the horrors of the past some would rather forget, so a more enlightened future can be reached. While the text itself may warn “This is not a story to pass on,” the novel is thematically concerned with the importance of history. Various characters alternately try to forget and quash their histories, have no access to their history because of institutionalised slavery, or try and harmoniously accept their past to move to a more enlightened future. Morrison suggests without history it is difficult to forge an independent identity, and American slavery featured a huge institutionalised destruction of slave’s identity.

It took me some time to get used to Morrison’s style; I enjoyed parts two and three much more than part one. Some oddities lingered for me. The casual description of the Sweet Home boys dreaming of raping Sethe and then sexually abusing cows really, really startled me. It wasn’t a one-off line, it was repeated a few times. I still struggle to come to terms with that; Paul D is very much situated as a primary character with at least some redeeming qualities, but I could never get over that line of him and the other boys dreaming of rape and then copulating with cows.

I think magic realism worked excellently for this book because it enabled the characters to be confronted by a direct allegory for slavery in Beloved, as well as allowing for more explicit reactions to Sethe’s past. It also enabled a more natural resolution of the theme of community (and how slavery brought about self-destructiveness in both the slave, former-slave, and even slaver communities) in the third section; the townsfolk actually being confronted by Beloved was a strong dramatic choice.

This wasn’t exactly a pleasant book to read, but I’m very glad I read it. Morrison plays with a lot of literary conventions to craft a very powerful piece on slavery and what it did to the slaves, the former slaves, and the slavers. I really appreciated how deep Morrison dug into the psychological issues of the characters here. She demonstrates how the evils of slavery went so far beyond just the physical, how the identities and histories of a people were destroyed, and how difficult it is to forge new identities and not try to bury the past. Morrison pulls no punches here, and with a topic like this she definitely made the right choice. A tremendous read.

I give it four blueberry pies and a tin tobacco box.

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