Questions, Intuitions, Revisions:
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1987.
The Thought Picture
It was one of the nights when the darkness just seems to take hold of you with that icy grip combining both the might of winter’s breath and the fierce obscurity of the unknown. I was asleep, wandering in a dream world where light could find its way clear to reassure my weary heart when my sister crept through the room on tiptoes. I could feel her eyes on me with this guilt and insecurity filling her, but as she turned to leave, the sight of the shadows looming large in the narrow hall brought her back to my side, and this time she woke me up. It happened a lot, both when we were children and even as we got older. The night time wake up was a sister’s duty. Together, half asleep, a fearful sister would lead a half asleep zombie down the stairs and to the television where a comedy or Disney feature film was waiting to pacify the evils of the night sky. The experience was also filled with droopy eyes and yawns, but by the next day, by daybreak and the return of safety, the memory was void of the fear, depleted of its sleepy filled resonance. It was a moment of family and love, the moment of sisterly reassurance that the night, that the shadow, would always be fought side by side, as would any other evil.
Perhaps this is a sentiment shared only by sisters, but I suspect it is more. The greatest feeling of love, of being loved, comes from the safety of distance, of memory. The present is filled with thought and response; the past is filled with safety and remembrance. The most fond, most loving memories of my family occurred without my knowing the degree of love that was spewing from my heart, without my knowing that I was, in fact, creating the sentiment of love. It is a hard concept to describe, but if you imagine the most loving memory of your family, you’ll probably realize that at the time you did not consciously realize you were being loved, or at least not to the degree that you realize it after the memory is created. Hugs, kisses, tears, and sleep are the actions of a conscious present; love is a thing of consideration, of thought, of the past.
Of course this elevates the issue of the past to new heights. Memory is no longer a biography but an emotional necessity. What are we if we are not loved? Who are we if we don’t mean anything to anybody? We become an empty vacuum with a void heart demanding its fill. The title of the book “Beloved” is just that, a statement to the importance of love. Not just referring to the character Beloved, the title speaks to the motivations of all the characters, to their vacuum and their necessity to find their fill. Beloved wants her mother, Sethe demanded, once free anyway, the love of her children, Paul D. wanted Sethe’s love, and Denver the love of a family in which she could finally feel safe. Love was not just a motivation or footnote for the story; love was the story. The book is called “the one who is loved” because they all wanted to be loved, but memory stood as an obstacle.
Memory, the past, is that chain that binds us, or, perhaps better put, the roots that keep the tree both alive and forever stagnant. Sethe’s scars in the shape of the tree were a “way [to] her sorrow, the roots of it (17.)” We are stuck with these roots. Unfortunately for Sethe and Beloved, the roots were not to love but to a much different emotion, a betrayal or loneliness. This they were forced to overcome, but you can’t escape your past. As Sethe’s says, “where I was before I came here, that place is real. It’s never going away (34.)” Our memories anchor us in emotion.
Sethe is able move on, able to find love because she is able to create new emotions, able to grow new roots. Beloved does not have this luxury. She suffers what is probably the ultimate betrayal, murder and death at the hands of the woman who gave her life. How do you even begin to overcome the memory of having your own mother hold your chin up so that she might row the teeth of a handsaw back and forth upon your veins? How do you find love when that is your last living memory? Can you find love when that is a memory at all? The two boys finally split and even Denver, who couldn’t remember her own near death, found the root to such a childhood unsettling and frightening. She didn’t hate her mother, but she didn’t seem to love her either, and perhaps she wasn’t able to love her mother. Her indifference is demonstrated by her constant dreaming for a father, for Halle. She didn’t care whether or not Sethe stayed so long as she had her father.
The confusion comes when Denver decides to protect Sethe rather than Beloved. Where did this love come from? How did Denver overcome her own fear and her own memories of a mother who tried to kill her children? Denver had enough other experiences to build new roots and new bonds with her mother, but at the same time, she was a play partner with Beloved since they were children. She lost her deafness only when she heard her sister trying to crawl up the stairs. She had roots to both of the women, but one had tried to kill her. How does she find this love when it doesn’t exist early in the novel?
Does she even learn to love Sethe? She doesn’t switch her protection roles until it becomes “obvious that her mother could die and leave them both and what would Beloved do then…It only worked with three—not two….(231.)” Beloved is still the person Denver seems sincerely worried about loosing, worrying more about what Beloved would do when Sethe died than Sethe actually dying.
Can we overcome our pasts, our memories, and grow new roots and new loves when there are such dramatic event in our past? Is that possible? Sethe was able to find love, a love claimed “too thick (156.)” If we’re able to move on with our lives, able to find new emotions and loves, then how there is this obsession with the past. Transitions between the past and present take place as though there is no transition, as though there is no need because our past is always in the present with us. It is inescapable. This would leave us like a tree, totally stationary and unable to move beyond our past. This can’t be a good thing.
Or can it be? The hard thing is moving beyond a past with blood and murder and hand saws in it. My childhood was more freeing with those night excursions to the tv with my sister perhaps the most freeing of all. I had nothing to fear. If I had a past with slavery, the story of my life would be different. I might be more anchored to those memories.
Perhaps it’s possible then that the tree is a symbol of hatred, of slavery, a hideous past while the doves and the birds within the book become a symbol of love, of a freeing past. Whenever Sethe prepares to kill someone, she “hears wings. Little hummingbirds… (248.)” She kills out of love. Paul D. brings the doves into the story as he recalls “having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy (154)” their song because “everything belonged to the men who had the guns.” At the same time that the birds take on a sense of freedom, a sense of love, stationary or low objects become limiting. By the end, Beloved is a “naked woman with fish for hair (253.)” She is with the water, water existing as a very anchored thing. But water moves too. And Sethe was still obsessed with the past when she heard the hummingbirds.
There is a major obsession with the past in the novel, but that is because the past is so essential to who we are. It is a part of us that we can’t outrun. We gather our sense of freedom, our sense of limitation from our past and the degree to which we were either loved or not. Whether we are loved has a severe affect on our lives because everyone requires someone, a sign that they mattered in some way to a life. In this way, I suppose our past is a tree, tied down and stretching towards the sun for a little affection.
Haunting Stories of the Past
The characters in Beloved are haunted by memories of the past. They are stuck between the reluctance to remember the horror of the past and the motivation to face and fight it. In order to look to the future, Sethe had to forget the past. She needed to let the past go and loosen the hold her memories had on her. She was trying to protect her children from the life she had lived, regardless of the consequences.
Denver liked to hear the story of her birth, but she was afraid to hear other stories about her mother’s past. Like Sethe, Denver wanted to hide from the horror of the past. But hiding from it prevented Sethe from forgetting it. Beloved was enthusiastic to hear their stories. She asked Denver to retell the story of her birth, Denver became alive as she narrated the tale and it was a relief to reveal the past. The memories weighed the characters down. Beloved motivated Sethe and Denver to tell their stories. They no longer fought from keeping them back.
Paul D. was also haunted by the past. Both he and Sethe came from Sweet Home but they had different stories to tell and different ways of dealing with their memories. Paul D. sang his tales. These songs were a way for him to face his past, yet they did not hurt anyone else. They were sad, but not revealing.
Paul D. was motivated to tell Sethe the truth about him and Beloved. He was ashamed and he needed to break away from his guilt. He needed to break away from the home and the haunting past. The ghost continued to have a strong hold on 124, similar to the hold the past had on the characters.
When Sethe becomes aware of who Beloved is, she no longer needs to bear the weight of her past. She finally can come to terms with the memories of her life. She is released from the guilt that has weighed her down. She is now eager to explain to Beloved and apologize for the past. Her daughter is safe and she is ready to create a future for her she thought she had destroyed.
The characters in Beloved struggle to deal with their haunting pasts in the aftermath of slavery. The book shows Sethe’s attempts to release herself from the horrible memories of the degradation and pain she had experienced in her life. She tries to create a hopeful future for her family separate from any memories of slavery. After Beloved disappears, the past can be forgotten and Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. can begin new lives. The memory of Beloved also fades. The past has been revisited and confronted, yet the memories remain. But they no longer haunt the lives of the characters in the novel.
We now know, after studying tacit learning, that there are thoughts in the back of our minds that have a large role in what we do and say. There is knowledge that we don’t need on a conscious level and knowledge that we don’t want to have on a conscious level. We may have buried some thoughts that we’d rather not think about so deep into our minds that we almost forgot they were there. What Beloved proves is that those thoughts that we think we have discarded are still there and can come back to haunt us. They will show us that we can’t get rid of the past and can’t get rid of our tacit knowledge.
Seth had covered up her past for a long time. She had even sheltered herself from the truth. She never felt a need to tell her daughter Denver the stories of slavery and the life she saved her children from. Seth didn’t talk about the past and didn’t think about it. She had thought it was over but the supernatural presence in her house didn’t. This ghost of Seth’s baby raised all her mother’s forgotten thoughts to the surface. Seth wasn’t aware of thinking about her slave days but those thoughts were there with everything she did. Her relationship with her daughter Denver, her motives for staying in 124 Bluestone Road for years and the reason Denver and Seth isolated themselves from the community are all effects of Seth’s past.
The arrival of Beloved, the young girl who is found in front of 124, signals a merging of the past and the present. Beloved seems to evoke stories from Seth that she wouldn’t otherwise remember. Beloved is the catalyst that drives Seth’s tacit knowledge into the open. She is the symbol of slavery and the fact that it won’t be shut out and forgotten. There are scars that run too deep to rub away. Seth finds that she will not be able to continue on with life and the people she loves unless she faces her demons. Though it is a battle, Seth will find that life can continue along with the memories from the past.
Most of the relationships tying together the plot and characters of Beloved are derived from the tacit knowledge of each individual person in the novel. They are linked by memories and common knowledge, of their enemies the white people, of the ghosts of the dead, and the methods by which it was possible to keep on living.
All of the characters in the novel share a common tacit knowledge of the ways of white people. Some, like Baby Suggs, drew the conclusion that there would always be the danger and unpredictability of the more socially powerful race. Others, like the Sweet Home men (except for Sixo), believed that since the white people who personally held the power over their own lives were relatively benevolent, so must all the others be. However, no matter what one’s attitude, there was at all times the awareness of that power.
Perhaps because of this shared unhappy life, nearly all the slaves or ex-slaves also believed in ghosts and spirits, the angry or grieving dead that refused to stay in their graves. Maybe it was only this belief that gave the dead the power to become spirits; maybe they would not have been able to, were it not for the altering of reality caused by these shared beliefs. Some people feared the ghost Beloved, while others loved it, hated it, or felt in debt to it. Denver, who had had insufficient company after her brothers ran away and Baby Suggs died, accepted it as an oddly-behaving but nonetheless harmless sister. Sethe greeted the spirit as a responsibility she must meet straight-backed and strong, but when Beloved appeared in her bodily form, Sethe swiftly grew apologetic and subservient to it. Were it not for the beliefs of these two, that accepted it as reality, perhaps the ghost would have given up, would have been unable to affect them as it did. Even Paul D, who was able to rout the spirit for awhile, never faced it with disbelief.
Most important to the novel was the knowledge of life accumulated through the trials of the characters. The transition from slave to free woman affected both Baby Suggs and Sethe in a similar way, causing them to be less wary of love. Baby Suggs expressed this through her meetings at the Clearing, through her help offered to any stranger that needed it. Sethe, for the first time, allowed herself to wholly love her absent husband and her own four children, a luxury that Baby Suggs had not had, that no slave woman had, for always there was the fear of being separated and sold away. This awareness of love was central to the novel. Paul D spoke of rationing love, giving one’s heart away only a bit at a time, so that when the recipient was sold or hung or ran away, you too did not give up. Loving people at all was sometimes too much; sometimes one’s love must be restricted to small things: a star, a flower, a blade of grass. The sudden swelling of emotion in the newly freed Sethe was perhaps what caused her to try and murder all of her children. She now cared far too much what happened to them, and the worst thing she knew was about to happen, was riding towards them with his hat tipped down.
The novel dealt with knowledge, knowledge of love and death and the interference of white people in both. It dealt with the ways people tried to get by in life, trying to survive so that their children could live free or at least freer than they did. It dealt with what happened if that freedom wasn’t possible.
I understand the story because I feel it.
As I said above, to me this book is not primarily about Sethe’s personal story, nor the story of any of the characters Morrison invents. At least, I don’t believe this is the source of the story’s power or importance. Not for me. This story encompasses the historical experience of a community of people, and that people’s story is told in the context of our country’s story. Although this context is not explicit (as might be the case if the story were in the style of social realism??) it nonetheless hangs over the story, itself a haunting out of our country’s past. This, I think, puts Beloved into a different category of storytelling. And at this time in my life, I have a preference for stories that connect to the larger community, and am less moved by storytelling that is too inward looking, “slice-of-life,” and, to my mind, obsessed with the psychology of the individual.
I believe a point was raised in class about whether this story was ‘conservative’ as in not forward-looking. I think it’s both conservative and forward-looking. This story springs from a community for whom the terrible past is part of its own, and this country’s, unfinished business. Morrison’s book suggests this unfinished business haunts our ability to move into the future. In order to move forward in a clearly affirmative, life-sustaining, way a terrible past demands attention. Not everyone wants to hear this past story retold, of course. Think of the controversies surrounding the issue of reparations for African-Americans, or the recent revelations of how upstanding Northeast companies (still open for business) as well as certain Ivy League institutions benefited from money generated by slavery. Unlike the story of the Holocaust, this story is very much closer to home and we were not, in a clear and decisive way, the heroes. Let’s face it, the story of just how inhuman humans can be to one another, wherever it happens to be set, is never an easy one to hear.
Luckily, there's more than one way to tell a story. And if Morrison's style doesn't do it for everyone, we can turn to other story-tellers working in fiction and non-fiction.
(I've read many reviews and opinions on this novel, and so I expected it would be annoying or difficult to read. That has not been the case for me at all. I love this novel, and I am not at all disrupted as a reader to the author's style of jumping from memory to memory. In fact, if it hadn't been so often pointed out, I wouldn't have noticed....)
I feel as if I could write an essay for very nearly every sentence in this book.
It is the late 1800s, post-slavery and I find myself in Ohio. Toni Morrison has placed me there via her novel, Beloved, forcing me to bear witness to the once unspeakable details of the horrors of slavery and its aftermath. It feels as though Ms. Morrison is standing behind me as I read, holding my head between her hands turning it in the direction of each scene, insisting I watch what is so hard to accept and understand. I can almost hear her affirming what I’m seeing, because she knows I can’t believe it.
Before I have time to digest the unimaginable humiliation of a woman named Sethe selling her body for the price of seven letters on a tombstone, my head is turned to another setting and I hear the words of Baby Suggs saying, “Not a house in the country ain’t packed with some dead Negro’s grief.”
And I’m only on page 5. (Realizing there are more than 250 pages to go, I brace myself emotionally for this beautifully written yet brutally frank account of post-slavery.)
The theme of memory -- or rememory as Sethe calls it -- is constant, and I can’t help but reflect on how the body never forgets. The “tree” Sethe refers to on her back is taken so literally by Paul D; he seems to think he’ll see something physically growing out of her body. Sethe says she’s never seen the tree, and never will, but she knows it’s there. In my mind, this tree symbolizes other deep-rooted memories that have scarred her but that she does not want to remember. The memories, like limbs on that tree, are now part of her being – part of her flesh – and the author literally brings them to life.
A white woman who massaged Sethe’s bloodied feet, told her “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” This makes me think of when Sethe said her mind was devious, because she never knows when something like the scent of cherry bark ink, or the feeling of a cool breeze on her face will bring to mind the old pictures of Sweet Home.
Even if you think you’ve buried a memory forever, it’s still inside you somewhere and you never know when it will be called to consciousness – or what will trigger its resurrection. Sethe’s repressed memory of having murdered her child arrives in the form of a ghost, and later manifests into a physical being – a young woman – who comes to live with her.
This novel also introduces me for the first time, to the humiliation suffered by the enslaved male population. My mind races to the present where I can’t help thinking of the disproportionate number of black male prisoners. They are still carrying the degradation of slavery.
I now feel I’ve been lied to for many years, since the stories about slavery that I’d heard had obviously been meticulously cleansed, and made easier to tolerate. There is nothing easy about Toni Morrison’s novel, and she seems determined to show us the truth with all the grisly details. At times I’m so overwhelmed, I find I need to close the book to escape its painful realities. And then I feel guilty because I can.
The book brings to life the dead and forgotten. It is merely one story – and so we must remember to multiply it by the thousands in order for us to even begin to understand the enormous suffering that was borne out of slavery.
I don’t know where to begin writing about Beloved. It’s an enormous book. Any little facet I choose to focus on suddenly becomes the universe. I’m intimidated by the task. I fear that anything I say about the book will be inadequate. Anything I say will leave out something of vital importance. Beloved leaves me nearly speechless. At the same time, I feel the need to write endlessly about it.
The facet I’ve chosen to focus on with this particular reading of Beloved is the moral riddle behind Sethe’s choice. Sethe murders her infant child. The murder of a child, the absolute innocent, by her own mother seems like such a horrible crime that there can be no redemption from it. It’s a fundamental betrayal of a deep, primal trust. It seems like a violation of natural law.
Yet, we know Sethe, and I think most readers of the book will not judge her harshly for her choice. I identified so deeply with Sethe that I was upset with Paul D for leaving her after learning her truth. I wanted him to understand her, to pity her, to love her.
Why does understanding create such compassion in the face of horror? This seems like a profoundly important question, especially in a time of war. Should we forgive those who kill the innocent? Should we love them, pity them? Is any action completely evil? Is any person evil? Are the qualities of good and evil the products of circumstance and environment alone, or do they rest somewhere deeper? If they do arise from circumstances, how can anyone be judged or despised? If they do not, then where do they come from? Do they exist at all?
I could keep asking questions like this for pages. A long tradition of moral philosophy has wrestled with these questions. Toni Morrison poses them eloquently and beautifully in Beloved.
In Beloved, evil is dreadfully real. The face of slavery silences the question of the reality of evil. Good, too, is vividly real. Amy Denver, Stamp Paid, Halle’s purchase – these are all clear and realistic portrayals of goodness. The extremes throw sharp shadows, which make the moral blurriness of Sethe’s choice all the more pronounced.
Sethe kills her baby. This is horribly wrong for a mother. Yet, Sethe protects her baby. This is absolutely right for a mother. What can right and wrong mean under such circumstances?
The key to understanding, perhaps, comes in Paul D’s response to learning of Sethe’s choice. She pours out her story to him, tells him that what she had provided for her child was safety. He says to her, “You got two feet, Sethe, not four.” (p. 156)
Paul D is a man who knows the difference between a human being and an animal. He’s struggled to be human his whole life, while the world treats him like an animal. Paul D walks right along the borders of humanity, so when he talks about that border, he’s saying something important.
“More important than what Sethe had done was what she claimed,” Paul D realizes. Sethe claimed that she had stopped schoolteacher and saved her baby. She made a claim that she had been a good mother. She claimed goodness. She claimed that there had been a right choice that day, and that she had made it.
An animal reacts without reflection. An animal has all its choices made for it, by nature and circumstance. To be human is to make one’s own choices and to take responsibility for them. Humans can be held responsible for their actions because they have free will. Animals cannot be said to be good or evil, they just are. Sethe has two feet, not four. She’s a human being. She has volition and free will, and she is responsible for her choice.
To respect her humanity, Sethe has to acknowledge the horror of what she did. The ghost Beloved is such a rich, deep metaphor that any definition is probably inadequate, but I see the ghost as a personification of that horror. It’s there, a constant companion, creating despair and havoc in the household. Sethe cannot go on with her life as a free human until she deals with that ghost. As long as it is outside of her self, she remains a slave.
UNBLINDED Beware Beloved. Beware the book that lives. What lives must consume. That book is more than paper and ink. Paper and ink and a book thats pink, sounds like nothing, but its not. The pink and the name, Beloved, they are con artists, total imposters. Just remember the eyeless readers. Eyeless they are after lifting that pink cover, and letting their eyeballs in between the pages. Remember Tacetta, that white lady, sitting on the green tapestry sofa, all cozy, all safe. Lost her eyeballs though. Beware Beloved, if you want to keep your eyeballs. That book is alive. Living things have their way of getting what they need, and they always need to feed. People like Tacetta are such easy prey, sticking their heads in the guillotine like that. Like all those college girls at Big Bear Schools. They go asking the professors and looking for wizards to smash their skulls open or cut off their heads clean with the guillotine. They want the Big Bear professors and wizards to open their squishy brains, they want them stuffed with new meat and opened up at the same time. They dont want them re-attached until they are done. What do they expect? They are just asking for a book thats looking to hook itself into a nice soft open head. They dont even notice when the needles come out of it. Tacetta didnt. That book had already sewn one eyeball to the edge when she started to notice, when she couldnt get her eye off of it. But, with her brain all full of holes, she thought maybe it was a good thing and besides she was already attached. So the sewing continued. That hungry book sewed her other eyeball around the rest of its cover. And there she was with two eyeballs held two feet away from the open book, the red thread making a web, a cacoon that wrapped her in front of its open pages. Sewn in like that, she was barely moving when her husband came home. Runno was used to that. He just saw what he always saw, the snapshot his mind provided as he dashed past her. His visual shorthand said she was reading on the sofa. He went about his usual post-work bustle, thinking that Tacetta was fine. Too bad, by the time he noticed, it was too late. Way too late--beware Beloved, the book that lives. It had her good by the time Runno actually saw her, or what was left of her. He almost ran at the horror, but then he heard Tacettas little girl voice, the one she couldnt control when she was excited. He had to listen. "Hi honey. Oh my God! This book is so great! Look what it did to me," she said. He could hear her smiling tone, but he couldnt find her mouth. All he could see on the monster was two white eyeballs, the rest was black. He tensed his biceps and his back, trying to force his body to stay standing. "Dont worry, Im fine. In fact, its great! Whoa! This is incredible. See, its so powerful. First my skin flew off--its over there behind the pianothen, this warm black liquidy stuff surrounded me, except for my eyes." The monster didnt move. Runno saw her white eyeballs, no more blue in them, sewn to the outer edges of a book. "Wha..wa..what book is that?" He said "Its Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Man, I cant believe this! This is the Beethovens 9th of literature! I feel like shes inside my head. I mean it feels like the way my mind is or something." Her voice was helping him calm down. It was still Tacetta, his lovely wife, thank God, but...could he touch this black jelly creature? He avoided looking toward the piano. The thought of her skin lying in a heap over there made a half groan half croak sound come out of his mouth. Act normal, just get through it. Maybe its not real. He felt his mental armor clang over himself. His breastbones hardened. "Thats great," he managed an enthusiastic tone, "Im glad you like it. Are you almost done?" "No. Oh God no! I cant stop going back over pages. Over and over again. But dont worry. Look, this is so cool! When the pages turn back and forth and over again, it blows up my skin. See." Tacetta paused. "Its o.k. honey. Dont be afraid to look. Youll like it I promise. Its the coolest thing!" But, he could not look. "I love this," she continued, "my skin gets blown up from the pages flipping and flying. Then, guess what? It goes to school for me! Huh-hu-ha!,"she laughed "Its a skin balloon!" Tacetta said the last three words so loudly, Runno could feel her breath in his ear. But wait! His chest went to ice as he turned his head toward the breath. There she was, Tacitta, all soft and peachy, and human! And eyeless. Runnos eyes stared straight into two white sockets that looked like two sideways white almonds. Oh my God! He wanted to weep or scream or pound this nightmare to bits. He clenched his fists hard enough to get the short fingernails to scrape his palms. Oh it was real alright. Beware Beloved, the book that lives. ...to be continued.
Beware Beloved. Beware the book that lives. What lives must consume. That book is more than paper and ink. Paper and ink and a book thats pink, sounds like nothing, but its not. The pink and the name, Beloved, they are con artists, total imposters. Just remember the eyeless readers. Eyeless they are after lifting that pink cover, and letting their eyeballs in between the pages. Remember Tacetta, that white lady, sitting on the green tapestry sofa, all cozy, all safe. Lost her eyeballs though. Beware Beloved, if you want to keep your eyeballs. That book is alive. Living things have their way of getting what they need, and they always need to feed. People like Tacetta are such easy prey, sticking their heads in the guillotine like that. Like all those college girls at Big Bear Schools. They go asking the professors and looking for wizards to smash their skulls open or cut off their heads clean with the guillotine. They want the Big Bear professors and wizards to open their squishy brains, they want them stuffed with new meat and opened up at the same time. They dont want them re-attached until they are done. What do they expect? They are just asking for a book thats looking to hook itself into a nice soft open head. They dont even notice when the needles come out of it. Tacetta didnt. That book had already sewn one eyeball to the edge when she started to notice, when she couldnt get her eye off of it. But, with her brain all full of holes, she thought maybe it was a good thing and besides she was already attached. So the sewing continued. That hungry book sewed her other eyeball around the rest of its cover. And there she was with two eyeballs held two feet away from the open book, the red thread making a web, a cacoon that wrapped her in front of its open pages.
Sewn in like that, she was barely moving when her husband came home. Runno was used to that. He just saw what he always saw, the snapshot his mind provided as he dashed past her. His visual shorthand said she was reading on the sofa. He went about his usual post-work bustle, thinking that Tacetta was fine. Too bad, by the time he noticed, it was too late. Way too late--beware Beloved, the book that lives. It had her good by the time Runno actually saw her, or what was left of her. He almost ran at the horror, but then he heard Tacettas little girl voice, the one she couldnt control when she was excited. He had to listen.
"Hi honey. Oh my God! This book is so great! Look what it did to me," she said. He could hear her smiling tone, but he couldnt find her mouth. All he could see on the monster was two white eyeballs, the rest was black. He tensed his biceps and his back, trying to force his body to stay standing.
"Dont worry, Im fine. In fact, its great! Whoa! This is incredible. See, its so powerful. First my skin flew off--its over there behind the pianothen, this warm black liquidy stuff surrounded me, except for my eyes." The monster didnt move. Runno saw her white eyeballs, no more blue in them, sewn to the outer edges of a book.
"Wha..wa..what book is that?" He said
"Its Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Man, I cant believe this! This is the Beethovens 9th of literature! I feel like shes inside my head. I mean it feels like the way my mind is or something." Her voice was helping him calm down. It was still Tacetta, his lovely wife, thank God, but...could he touch this black jelly creature? He avoided looking toward the piano. The thought of her skin lying in a heap over there made a half groan half croak sound come out of his mouth. Act normal, just get through it. Maybe its not real. He felt his mental armor clang over himself. His breastbones hardened.
"Thats great," he managed an enthusiastic tone, "Im glad you like it. Are you almost done?"
"No. Oh God no! I cant stop going back over pages. Over and over again. But dont worry. Look, this is so cool! When the pages turn back and forth and over again, it blows up my skin. See." Tacetta paused. "Its o.k. honey. Dont be afraid to look. Youll like it I promise. Its the coolest thing!" But, he could not look.
"I love this," she continued, "my skin gets blown up from the pages flipping and flying. Then, guess what? It goes to school for me! Huh-hu-ha!,"she laughed "Its a skin balloon!" Tacetta said the last three words so loudly, Runno could feel her breath in his ear. But wait! His chest went to ice as he turned his head toward the breath. There she was, Tacitta, all soft and peachy, and human! And eyeless. Runnos eyes stared straight into two white sockets that looked like two sideways white almonds. Oh my God! He wanted to weep or scream or pound this nightmare to bits. He clenched his fists hard enough to get the short fingernails to scrape his palms. Oh it was real alright. Beware Beloved, the book that lives.
...to be continued.
For me the beginning of this novel was startling and painful. It made me want to slam the book shut to stop the hurt I felt for Seth and her family. As a mother myself, it made ponder on how she could have killed her own child, but I stopped myself from engaging in that vein of thinking because I wasn’t in any position even close to hers to make such a judgment.
I feel Seth wanted desperately to come to terms with the torment of taking her child’s life. She could not bear it. Because Seth loved her child so much she inflicted the most unimaginable pain upon herself by taking her own child’s life, and struggles with this haunting question that cuts in her heart like a knife. Seth struggles with how to forgive those that forced her hand and pushed her over the edge and more profoundly on forgiving herself for taking her own child’s life. She is haunted by the memories of her torture, her reaction and what could have been….
More to come…
Beloved is not "interesting". It is full of venom. It rams ice picks through my softness and turns my pat liberal assumptions into a mess of inadequacies that stew in their own liquor like greens left to boil too long. It harasses me and then sends me soft moments of a lyric pastoral that in turn quickly descend from Eden to snake filled sloughs with gray hanging moss and black sucking mud. Sweet Home is not. 124 is a riot of illogical unnumbered chaos. And yet it is a house where the windows open to a star filled sky. It is a house of freedom and a house of enslavement. Sethe is soothing and seething. Baby Suggs is wise and energized with love and yet broken by a tragedy, one more than even she can cope with. Beloved is beautiful but as full of choking tendrils as wisteria gone wild on a host tree. Paul D. is honorable, patient respectful. He is humiliated, driven, and unable, until he arrives at 124, to still his restlessness born of running. The settings and the characters move out of their stillness and beauty and into the drumming staccato of personal and collective horrors.
Sethe appears dignified and accepting but also lifeless and inanimate worn out by all her in dwelling, unexpressed rage and grief. Beloved haunts her. She is paralyzed by the impasse of her choice (or lack of choice) in the moments of imminent capture. She is a person more dead than alive. She has less energy than the dead child, Beloved. Baby Suggs, even in death, has more energy than Sethe. She longs for color, something Sethe doesn't even miss. Sethe's sons have more energy: they run off in their fear and anger. Here Boy, the dog, even has more energy, as he physically fears the specter of Beloved. Every one has an energy with which to cope or react. Everyone but Sethe. Sethe enslaves herself by killing Beloved. She may liberate Beloved but she has sold herself to a horror that cripples her. Sethe refers to her dead child as Beloved, a name she hears at her burial, not her given name. Her given name is lost along with her life. Beloved, the name chosen at the height of a tragedy, speaks of all the nameless in nameless unmarked graves of those who went before. Those without names cannot rest or be mourned. Sethe plods through her days in a trance of routine and nameless loss. Beloved whose very name contradicts and mocks, seduces a sister, scares off brothers, breaks a grandmother and saps the vital juices of her mother. With special virulence, Beloved attacks a visitor from the past who arrives with an antidote, the healing of love. In a book mired with perversions, it almost seems surprising that Sethe didn't take her children's lives as they were born. The drive to give life is put through the grotesque twist of having it taken away by slavery. Death does seem a sort of freedom in this darkness. But because something seems a truth in the dark, doesn't mean that in the light it will hold the same reality or lack of it. That is Sethe's tragedy and the tragedy of those who love her.
Reading Beloved, I feel a wrenching, suffocating, angry, impotent, destructive, dulling, compelling and weirdly lyrical instability. Nightmarish scenes of torture and degradation shove into one at a visceral level. The inversions of humanity suck the air out of rationality. The ability of the characters to survive as recognizable albeit scarred spirits is the only impetus for reading on. Then book has small giving moments of wonder as when Paul or Sethe think of trees in their lives, Denver dances in her precious ring of boxwood, and the stars shine in through the roof windows. The contrast of limited lyricism and ongoing horror make a taut rope of counterpoint, bitterness with sweet touches of pure spirit. The sweetness underscores the lye and makes it burn like the brine blisters on Sethe's arms when she forgets the bouquet of salsify.
The tacit assumption I bring to this book is the belief that buried deeply in the most disabled being lies a small light that no amount of alienation can destroy. This novel challenges me for thinking that and pulls at my assumptions with sharp and terrible images. It takes whole incidents and turns of plot and unfolding horror upon horror to hammer home that my assumptions may be ones that come from a privileged individual history and a collective history that includes religious persecution but a persecution with the freedom of choice to start over in a new land with faith intact. Slavery in America still has not, even after its abolition, given that freedom of choice. I am listening to survival on a level I had assumed no one could ever descend to or it seems fully arise from. I have looked at my tacit optimism and brought it to consciousness and think by looking down to a deeper level of endurance am able to see a higher level of survival. My tacit understanding and compassion has been pulled out of secure space and examined in light of a less hospitable space.
When I began reading the book “Beloved” for the first time several years ago I found that I was quickly drawn into the story of the people who lived at 124 Bluestone Road. Sethe, an ex-slave, and her daughter, Denver, inhabit a house that is possessed by the ghost of Sethe’s other daughter who died before her second birthday. This baby ghost is mean and spiteful and full of venom. Her presence has caused so much distress that Denver’s two older brothers have run away. Baby Suggs, the grandmother, who died soon after, found living with this ghost as “intolerable” as living her former life as a slave. When the story begins, Sethe and her daughter are visited by Paul D, who moves into the house with them.
The horrible circumstances of life as a slave are revealed gradually in bits and pieces through a series of flashbacks. The story is vividly and graphically re-told in brutal detail. But what makes this story different for me is that it is told from the point of view of the sufferers. We can hear their voices cry out in shock and disbelief at the atrocities inflicted upon them. Sethe says many times “They took my milk” as if she can’t quite believe, despite having borne all the degradation a slave can know, that they could stoop to this. She repeats the only words she can find to express her anger and insult. And we know what Sethe must know: that mere words are inadequate for describing the depths of her insult and outrage.
But the author has us watch the way these characters behave with the burden of their suffering. They don’t rebel. They don’t spend long hours commiserating with one another. They don’t act out in a formal, unified way. They simply forget. The loss of memory, as a recurring theme throughout the book, is a common coping mechanism used by the former slaves. They have been so traumatized by the horrors of slavery that they bury their memories of it. As we watch them trying to carry on their lives after emancipation, we can see that along with those memories they’ve also lost so much more: their emotions are blunted –Sethe says that everyone she ever loved was taken away form her or left her -–and they are unwilling/unable to commit to lasting emotional attachments. There is too much risk in that. They’ve lost joy and hope in their lives. They are simply trying to survive from one day to the next. We can begin to understand how Sethe, the embodiment of mother love, who suffered tremendous physical pain and was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to help her children escape to freedom, is now only capable of a detached relationship with her only remaining child, Denver. She has learned her lesson well; don’t care too much for you will surely lose her, just as you lost the others.
And what must it be like for Denver growing up knowing that her mother murdered her sister? Does she fear that under the right set of circumstances her mother may kill her, too? We see the aftermath of slavery played out in the nuances of the every day lives of the ex-slaves and their families. Although the focus is on the family at 124 Bluestone, Baby Suggs says “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.”
I felt so completely absorbed in the reading of this book that I wondered about my own motives for immersing myself in its tragedies. But it was more than gawking at the litany of horrors. In addition to the fact that it is a compelling story and beautifully written, I felt as though I was being given a clearer window on history. That Tony Morrison was somehow able to grab hold of this important nugget of history and present it in a way that made me not only know it, but feel it, too. I felt as though, in reading this book that I was being called upon to witness a truth about our history that goes beyond mere documentation. In this telling there is also unavoidable empathy. Sethe’s story, magnified throughout African American culture, does not belong solely to one race. We all are affected by it. If we won’t do the right thing for it’s own sake, at least recognize that discrimination, our proclivity towards “othering”, ultimately hurts us all.
During my initial reading, although fully dwelling within the story, I had some difficulty with the concept of a ghost that was treated as a real entity. I expected that Sethe would somehow be labeled mentally deranged for her belief in the presence of Beloved. And she was ostracized by her community, but not for being crazy. The former slaves knew that Sethe’s ghost was real, alright. But there was a tacit understanding among them that this was something not to be acknowledged. They all had their own ghosts to bury.
In our class discussion, I came to realize the importance of the spirit world in black culture. Tony Morrison grew up living these kinds of stories.
Ghosts tell us that the spirit does not die, that it outlives the flesh, and that it refuses to be silent. Accepting this concept is making a huge difference in re-reading Beloved, in uncovering more layers of meaning. But this leap has caused me to think that there are in fact, two leaps that those of us living in the present American culture must make in order to grasp Sethe’s story. In regard to Sethe’s murder of Beloved, we have to realize that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person.
It is not only the matter to be born with the right female genital or to be of a certain age that make one a woman, it is much more than that. And Toni Morrison seems to hold the recipe for guiding her main character in the cycle of development for womanhood. Morrison directly speaks to the woman inside that is dormant but yet ready to live its part. The soul is the key component of this book beloved. The frame of the story of Sethe reminds me of an experiment made by scientists on a dog. This experiment is described by Clarissa Estes in her book Woman Who Run With the Wolves, as this. “One experiment they wired half the bottom of a large cage, so that a dog placed in the cage would receive a shock each time it set foot on the right side. The dog quickly learned to stay on the left side of the cage. Next, the left side of the cage was wired for the same purpose and the right side was safe from shocks. The dog reoriented quickly and learned to stay on the right side of the cage. Then, the entire floor of the cage was wired to give random shocks, so that no matter where the dog lay or stood it would eventually receive a shock. The dog acted confused at first, and then it panicked. Finally the dog gave up and lay down, taking the shocks as they came, no longer trying to escape them or outsmart them… Next, the cage door was opened. The scientists expected the dog to rush out, but it did not flee...the dog lay there being randomly shocked.” In Beloved Sethe is the dog, the white people are the scientist and slavery is the cage in which she is being mutilated. Although Sethe killed the last emotion and feeling left in her, they would never go away. The figure of the ghost comes to replace the Sethe’s soul, which both plagues and heals at the same time. The first pages of the book is actually the critical point of her her life when changes going to occurre. Like a fairy tale the story is full of symbolic images that take their source in the woman psyche. But unlike fairy tale, the story does not develop in a direct line. The juxtaposition of her present and past life gives the impression not only of a disordered life but also it gives the impression that her life as been shattered just like the mirror in the beginning of the story. She is not in search of the mystery. The mystery has been waiting for her to discover it. 124 when add together is the number seven and seven is how many year the malediction for braking a mirror last. Paul D is the one who helped her reconstitute pieces by pieces the alienating past life of hers. Here, Paul D, the powerful male figure acts like a mage; he is her strength. he is capable of interpreting what he sees. This attitude allows Sethe to recall, replace, and comprise the pieces that her and Paul D share together. Denver her heartfelt daughter is the reincarnation of her sleepy psyche. Beneath her gentleness, she has the aptitude for fighting. She is able to affront the world that is unknown to her and she is guided by the telling of her grand mother Baby Suggs. Although at first, she is not able to articulate once out in the world, she returned home enriched from it.
I am sorry I know you liked it but it is time for me to go to Ann class. Have a good day.
What do we achieve by telling stories?
Through our discussions of Beloved and the articles reviewed in this morning’s class, we have been exploring how stories help us to understand the many facets of human experience. Stories can instruct, inspire, heal, make us laugh or cry, and keep us connected with one another. From the Pueblo Indian perspective (Silko 84) “ stories are always bringing us together, keeping this whole together, keeping this family together, keeping this clan together”, and experiences are shared so that one doesn’t have to endure them alone. Sometimes, however, the story may be so foreign to us, as in the case of the headhunting practices of the Ilongots of the Philippines, that understanding eludes us despite all of our education and knowledge (Rosaldo 8) and our attempts to classify the story. The article by Coles, illustrates how we, by our own limitations, are influences on the stories that want (and at times desperately need) to be told. The author describes how psychoanalytic methodology to a great extent prevented him from listening to what his patients had to say, thus limiting his understanding of them.
Two common themes seem to have emerged from the above three articles (a) the importance of the emotional accessibility of the story, and (b) the listener’s participation in or response to the story. For the Pueblo Indian, “the words most highly valued are those spoken from the heart, unpremeditated and unrehearsed” (Silko 83). The audience is also vital because “a great deal of the story is believed to be inside the listener; the storyteller’s role is to draw the story out of the listeners” (Silko 84). For Rosaldo’s understanding of the tribe he was studying, it was necessary to transcend the anthropologist’s preferences for “symbolic webs of meaning, […] thick description, multi-vocality, polysemy (2).” This transcendence was ultimately achieved through personal sorrow: the powerful emotions elicited by the loss of his wife and brother enabled him to understand how “the rage in bereavement could impel men to headhunt” (3). Coles, also, learned to go beyond the psychological abstractions and jargon of his profession, and the cataloguing of patients’ symptoms by becoming “an all-day listener” (14). By teaching himself to become comfortable with “the give-and-take of storytelling” (18), by concentrating on understanding his patients instead of trying to change their behavior, he created a space for acknowledgement and healing to take place.
Sometimes, as the following excerpt will illustrate, listening and silent acknowledgement may be the most compassionate and appropriate way to respond to a story.
Dr. Rachel N. Remen submitted this article to the Winter 2001 issue of Self-Realization Magazine. Dr. Remen is a Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine.
“…[A] colleague of mine, a psychologist, told me this story. In the eighties, when she lived and practiced in New York City, she had decided to attend a two-day professional workshop based on twenty or so short films of one of Carl Jung’s last pupils, the great Jungian dream analyst, Marie-Louise von Franz. Between the showing of these films, a distinguished panel consisting of the heads of two major Jungian training centers and Carl Jung’s own grandson responded to written questions from the audience sent up to the stage on cards.
One of these cards told the story of a horrific recurring dream, in which the dreamer was stripped of all human dignity and worth through Nazi atrocities. A member of the panel read the dream out loud. As she listened, my colleague began to formulate a dream interpretation in her head, in anticipation of the panel’s response. It was really a “no-brainer,” she thought, as her mind busily offered her symbolic explanations for the torture and atrocities described in the dream. But this was not how the panel responded at all. When the reading of the dream was complete, Jung’s grandson looked out over the large audience. “Would you all please rise?” he asked. “We will stand together in a moment of silence in response to this dream.” The audience stood for a minute, my colleague impatiently waiting for the discussion she was certain would follow. But when they sat again, the panel went on to the next question.
My colleague simply did no understand this at all, and a few days later she asked one of her teachers, himself a Jungian analyst, about it. “Ah, Lois,” he had said, “there is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”
Perhaps a willingness to face such shared vulnerability gives us the capacity to repair the world. Those who find the courage to share a common humanity may find they can bless anyone, anywhere.”
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