Toni Morrison says she intended her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Beloved to be disorienting. And she succeeded. She throws readers into the internal chaos faced by former slaves, who live in a constant state of grief, anxiety, and determination. This book is the ultimate definition of showing rather than telling. As we read, our minds try to make sense of a story that is non-linear to the extreme, that is usually unclear and unexplained. But Morrison wants us to experience, at least to a small degree, what it felt like to be a slave.
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another,” says the main character, Sethe, late in the book.
The details of what happens in the book can be difficult to determine empirically, especially for people who want all the pieces of a puzzle to fit. In Beloved, Morrison leaves us with pieces we have to imagine ourselves. This is a sensual book, not a logical one.
The story begins with Sethe living at 124 Bluestone Road, on the outskirts of Cincinnati. She’d escaped the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky with her two boys and the baby she was still nursing. She’d sent her children ahead and had a fourth baby on her way to Ohio, helped by a young white woman named Amy Denver; she named the baby Denver, after the mysterious woman. With the help of another former slave, Stamp Paid, she made it to 124, where her mother-in-law Baby Suggs lived as a free woman, bought by her son Halle, Sethe’s husband.
Sethe has a month of freedom before Schoolteacher, who took over Sweet Home, finds her. In terror and rage, she kills her baby to keep her from slavery, slitting the child’s throat. She is briefly jailed and then returns to 124, which is now overcome with the spirit of the dead baby. She has only enough money for the word “Beloved” to be placed on the baby’s gravestone–not enough to add “Dearly.”
The first line gives a solid clue about where we’re going: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
The house is a character in this complex work, a haven, a protector, but also a prison and a keeper of secrets. Baby Suggs has since died and Sethe and teenage Denver live in the house alone. The two boys have run away, pushed out by the house’s violent spirit. Sethe works in town, cooking at a restaurant.
Paul D., who was a slave at Sweet Home with Sethe, shows up early on. He feels the mood of the house and calls it evil. “Not evil, “Sethe says, “Just sad.” Denver disagrees, saying the ghost “is not evil, but not sad either.” What is it? “Rebuked. Lonely and rebuked,” Denver says.
Paul D. may or may not be the catalyst for the arrival of a young woman who calls herself Beloved, who emerges out of the river shortly after Paul D. shows up. It’s more than 20 years since Sethe escaped the plantation, where, as slaves, both faced horrors neither can forget, or live with.
Who is Beloved? Is she actually the spirit of Sethe’s murdered child, come back to seek revenge? The clues are there—she’s the right age, she speaks with a raspy voice because she had died of a slit throat, her feet are like a baby’s, and she behaves like a toddler—an angry, spiteful one.
To Sethe and Denver, who have lived with Beloved’s ghost, it’s a given that the young woman who showed up on their porch one summer day is the baby who died in the shed behind their house.
But to Paul D., Beloved is a threat to his happiness with Sethe, whom he has loved for decades. And she’s a vestige of what he left behind. But Sethe’s strong feelings worry him. It’s not safe:
Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.”
Beloved’s control over Sethe builds until it nearly kills her. Denver, originally under Beloved’s spell, sees her as a danger and an aberration and finally leaves the house and goes to town, seeking help. She finds a community to support her, especially the women who come to 124, singing and praying in an attempt to rid 124 of the ghost. When the women see Beloved, they “surprise themselves by feeling no fear.” Mr. Bodwin, basically a good guy and protector of slaves, drives up. But he’s white, and Sethe thinks he’s coming after her “best thing,” her child, Beloved. This sets her into another rage. This time, Denver and the women constrain her.
Beloved disappears and a boy says he saw a woman walking into the river with fish for hair. Are we to make sense of this? We can try, but whatever it means, Beloved is gone.
Later, Sethe tells Paul D. that Beloved was her “best thing.”
“No,” Paul D. replies. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.”
— Pat Prijatel