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Beloved ()

Westchester Women's Book Club

Well, I actually made it through the whole book, though I'll admit to having to look up criticism & reviews to figure out some of what she was trying to say and skimming some things like the section where the baby's memories are presented. (I've included some weblinks below which were extremely helpful.)

At the center of the book lies Sethe's guilt over murdering her two year old girl, rather than allowing her to return to slavery (this is apparently based on a true story). The child's ghost, Beloved--so named because that was all Sethe could get put on her tombstone, has returned to 124 Bluestone Road as an 18 year old woman to haunt her mother. The book details Sethe's efforts to come to terms with her grief and guilt and quiet the turbulent ghost.

Beloved is apparently also supposed to be a symbol for Slavery in general.  Sethe must come to terms not just with her action, but with the fact of Slavery as a whole.

One initial fact is very troublesome. If slavery is so awful why didn't Sethe kill herself, instead of just killing the baby? One thinks of the Jews at Massada. When the Romans finally took the fortress they found that all of the defenders--men, women and children--had killed themselves, rather than
surrender. It seems to me that there's something heroic in this, as opposed to the murder of a defenceless child. Similarly, polls show a vast dichotomy in opinion on mercy killing between the healthy and the dying. Healthy people are more likely to support euthanasia, while those who are actually dying oppose it.  We can usually find reasons why other peolpes lives might not be worth living, but we cling to our own.

I suppose it's significant that the character who most forcefully argues that the murder was wrong is Paul D--the male character. The essence of Morrison's writing is supposed to be that black women have had to face a double burden, first as blacks then as women. As a white male I'll admit that I don't
understand how Sethe could have killed her child and not also killed herself and this made it extremely difficult for me to relate to her.

There are a number of other books that deal with the theme of responsibilty for the death of a child--Sophie's Choice (see Orrin's review), Fearless (Rafael Yglesias) and Ironweed (see Orrin's review). Sophie was interred at Auschwitz and was allowed to save either her son or her daughter from death. Her guilt over having to make this choice leads her into a masochistic relationship with a
paranoid/schizophrenic. Fearless features a young mother who could not maintain her grasp on her baby during a plane crash & so is plagued by survivor guilt.  And in Ironweed, Francis Phelan has become a bum after accidentally dropping his 13 day old son to the ground & killing him. But in all of these stories, the child's death is beyond the control of the parent, so we can identify with them
and we feel their guilt all the more acutely.

As to Morrison's style, I suppose that she is trying to render her tale in a sort of afro-mystic manner. I found it merely annoying.

RESPONSE (from Amy Reilly):

One of the themes in Beloved, I thought, was not only the mother's guilt
over the obvious, but the incredible power of love between mother and
child. This love is different from other loves; perhaps because a child
really does evolve from a woman's flesh (a man's too, but it's not the
same). This is why, I think, Sethe flipped out so much when those nasty
boys attacked her and took her milk. To her, that was the worst thing
possible, worse than rape even, because a mother's instinct (according to
Morrison, it seems) is to protect her children BEFORE she protects herself.
This connects to your point about why didn't Sethe kill herself too. She
killed her child because in her mind, this was the only way to protect her.
Think of it as protection, not murder. Once captured, Sethe would have
absolutely no control over the fate of her child. The only way she could
control the fate of her child, her flesh and blood, was to kill her. And
she didn't kill herself for two reasons: one, she still had 3 living
children to take care of and 2) she probably didn't care all that much
about herself. She lived to protect her children, not to protect herself.
Her own sense of self was pretty much nonexistant, slavery took that away
from her, for the most part. She was merely the means to her children's
survival. Oddly enough, I think she cared less about her own survival than
she did her children's survival, and that's why she killed the baby, not
herself. Sounds backwards, of course, but that kind of adds to the drama
and the tension.

Was Sethe nuts? That's one thing we talked about. Probably. Guilt made her
crazy. Was she right in killing her child? Not in my mind. I couldn't
relate to the action, but I could relate to the crazed desire to do
ANYTHING to protect her kids. What she chose to do was perhaps not the
greatest choice. I guess what I mean is her reaction was something I
understood; her action itself was not.

We also talked about whether or not Beloved was real. Was she a real ghost?
Could other people see her? Was she purely a product of Sethe's mind -- and
Denver's? I don't know. I thought it was sort of interesting to consider it
both ways. I'm not convinced she was a literal ghost.

I didn't get the weirdo pages of Beloved's inner dialogue. When I read
stuff like that I always wonder if the author is just messing with the
readers. Kinda making it look like it Means Something when in reality it's
just a bunch of nice words.

I for one have no interest in seeing the movie. Can't imagine Oprah as
Sethe. She's just too damned rich!


Grade: (F)


Toni Morrison Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Toni Morrison
-INTERVIEW: Toni Morrison on Craft, Inspiration, and the Time She Met Obama: Sarah Ladipo Manyika Talks to an American Literary Icon (Sarah Ladipo Manyika, February 2, 2023, LitHub)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Genius of Toni Morrison’s Only Short Story: In the extraordinary “Recitatif,” Morrison withholds crucial details of racial identity, making the reader the subject of her experiment. (Zadie Smith, January 23, 2022, The new Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” Showed Me How Race and Gender Are Intertwined (KORITHA MITCHELL, 11/10/20, Electric Lit)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Nobel Prize
    -BIO: (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -Anniinna's Toni Morrison Page
    -General Notes on Toni Morrison's Beloved
    -Toni Morrison References on the Internet
    -Web Page of Toni Morrison's Beloved
    -Writing and Resistance>> Authors>> Toni Morrison
    -Authors Online: Toni Morrison  (Book Spot)
    -ESSAY:  Controlling the Images of Black Womanhood: The Contemporary African-American Women's Novel  (E. Lâle Demirtürk, Journal of American Studies of Turkey)
    -ESSAY : Transforming the Chain into Story: The Making of Communal Meaning in Toni Morrison's Beloved (Claire Cowan-Barbetti, Janus Head)
    -REVIEW: of Paradise (YVONNE CRITTENDEN -- Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW: of Paradise (DIANE MENZIES -- Edmonton Sun)
    -REVIEW: BLACK MADONNA: Toni Morrison's popularity is less a matter of literary taste than of mass psychology (David Klinghoffer, National Review)