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Summary Article: Beloved from The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature

Remarkable for its thematic complexity and stylistic brilliance, Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved (1987), earned her a Pulitzer and no doubt paved the way for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Employing techniques of flashback and multiple points of view, this nonlinear novel confronts the painful and avoided history of slavery. With great specificity it chronicles the racial, sexual, and psychic violence endured by African American ancestors. Dedicated to the “sixty million or more” who perished in the Middle Passage of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the novel urges us to remember . . . and then, to move on.

The novel is based on a true story of Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave from Kentucky, who when hunted down by slave catchers in 1856 intended to kill her children and herself rather than be returned to slavery; she was prevented from doing so after she took the life of her daughter. Modeled after Garner, Sethe is the novel’s central character who flees the Kentucky plantation ironically called “Sweet Home” and when facing captivity kills her baby daughter named Beloved.

The novel opens in post-Civil War Ohio with Sethe’s sad and haunted house eighteen years after Beloved’s death. Ostracized by the black community for the infanticide, Sethe and her lonely daughter Denver put up with the restless ghost of Beloved. The spiteful ghost that drove Sethe’s two sons to flee their home is driven out by Paul D, a fellow-fugitive from “Sweet Home” who returns to Sethe’s life after eighteen years. His return stirs Sethe’s memories and the two recount to each other their traumatic memories: Sethe’s abuse as a mother reproducing for the plantation; the madness and death of her husband, Halle, whose spirit is broken by the brutality of School Teacher, the plantation overseer; wistful memories of her long-suffering but valiant mother-in-law, Baby Suggs; Paul D’s chain-gang experiences in Alfred, Georgia.

Paul D and Sethe’s companionship is short-lived as an intruder who answers to the name of Beloved occupies Sethe’s house and takes over her life. Sethe believes this homeless young woman is the ghost of her baby daughter Beloved coming back for reparation. But Beloved is hard to appease. After she seduces and drives out Paul D, who is alienated from Sethe when he learns of the infanticide, Beloved cannot have enough of Sethe’s attention. Increasingly isolated, wracked by guilt and remorse, Sethe withdraws into herself. Her adolescent daughter Denver is forced to venture out of the house in search of help from the community. Eventually the community of black women rescues Sethe from her torment. Beloved leaves, vanishing mysteriously. Paul D, wiser, comes back to befriend Sethe, who is finally released from her past into the present.

Beloved takes up literally and metaphorically the theme of possession and exorcism. Constructed by different characters recalling their difficult pasts, these collective narratives of “rememory” take us into the very heart of slavery: the gendered nature of the oppression of black men and women and their resistance to it; the intergenerational impact of the pervasive loss and suffering; and the necessity of healing for both the individual and the community by remembering and working through this trauma.

Further Reading
  • Andrew, William L., and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. Toni Morrison’s Beloved: A Casebook. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
  • Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations: Beloved. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999.
  • Grewal, Gurleen. Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1998.
  • Peterson, Nancy J. “Toni Morrison and the Desire for a ‘Genuine Black History Book’.” Against Amnesia: Contemporary Women Writers and the Crises of Historical Memory. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2001. 51-97.
  • Gurleen Grewal
    Copyright © 2005 by Emmanuel S. Nelson

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