In this Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterpiece, Beloved, a runaway slave, Sethe, with her capture imminent, kills her infant child rather than have her taken into bondage. What kind of mother would cut her daughter’s head off with a hacksaw? This is what Toni Morrison explores in this chilling and the brilliantly written book which is inspired by real life events.
”I was amazed by this story I came across about a woman called Margaret Garner who had escaped from Kentucky, I think, into Cincinnati with four children,” Ms. Morrison said. ”And she was a kind of cause celebre in the fight against the Fugitive Slave laws, which mandated the return of escapees to their owners,” Morrison writes. “She killed one of them, just as in the novel. I found an article in a magazine of the period, and there was this young woman in her 20’s, being interviewed – oh, a lot of people interviewed her, mostly preachers and journalists, and she was very calm, she was very serene. They kept remarking on the fact that she was not frothing at the mouth; she was not a madwoman, and she kept saying, ‘No, they’re not going to live like that. They will not live the way I have lived.”
Beloved, like so many great novels, is not easy to sum up. So nuanced is its view of life and human beings, and so rich and profound is its intention.
Frontally, Beloved is the story of Sethe and her daughter, Beloved. Sethe is an escaped slave and mother of four young children. Her joy at successfully escaping while pregnant, giving birth in flight, and finding refuge at her mother-in-law’s, Baby Suggs, home comes to an end twenty-eight days later. Her cruel owner has tracked her down, and rather than let her children suffer the pain of slavery Sethe proceeds to kill them. For killing her third child, Sethe spends time in jail. She is later freed and returns to her mother-in-law’s house-number 124. It has now become a haunted house-full of the dead baby’s venom.’
After all the misery of her life, Sethe, now a free woman returns to a house of shattering mirrors, turned up slop jars, and smacks on the behind. Hers became a life suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead. It doesn’t take long for her sons, Howard and Buglar to turn their backs on 124, and flee from the ghost’s invisible spite. Even Baby Suggs soon dies in the midst of the outrageous behaviour of the baby ghost.
Enter Paul D, one of the ”Sweet Home men”, the male slaves, from Sethe’s past. Their owner, Mr. Garner, treated them well. But, he later dies, and his sickly widow, Mrs. Garner, brings in her relative, who is known as ”the schoolteacher.” The latter’s cruelty and sadism defy all description. He also had two repulsive nephews. Sweet Home soon becomes Hell on earth, and most of the slaves, including Sethe, flee. Halle, her husband, doesn’t. But, Paul D. does. Eighteen years after fleeing from Sweet Home, they meet again, as Paul D arrives in house 124, despairing and with his spirit broken from his travails.
Paul D and Sethe try to form a ”real” family, and the baby ghost is driven out by Paul D. For a while some domestic equilibrium is established. But, then, a strange, beautiful, real flesh-and-blood young woman arrives at 124. She is about 20 years old, the same age as Sethe’s dead daughter would be.
The young woman doesn’t remember where she comes from, takes an intense interest in Sethe, and says her name is Beloved. It is as if the dead child has been resurrected, determined to make Sethe pay for having taken her life.
The book then fluctuates between the present and the past, and through different voices the sordid past of America is narrated. The novel is a harsh dissection of slavery, and it abounds with suffering and loss. Many of its characters are either captives or fugitives from captivity. The characters in Beloved are all stained by the inhuman and predatory culture that prevailed at the time.
There is also a strong theme of the supernatural. Beloved is an intriguing character, and through her we learn about Sethe-her childhood, her adolescence and Sethe as a mother. The discourse and interactions between a mother and her ghost-child are told with great skill. Despite her tormented life, Sethe’s love for her children is immoderate. She lives in a community where there is loyalty among friends, and the poor share the little they have.
One of the things that make Beloved the supreme novel it is about history, humanity’s excesses and survival is Toni Morrison’s virtuosity-delivered with intellect and imagination that is unmatchable. The canvas the author paints on is vast, and yet she is able to bring to life characters in a world that is both real and magical. Even the most gruesome aspects of the story, strangely, are delivered with humour.
For all its literary beauty, Beloved remains a novel against injustice and the erasure of memories. The women are the primary symbol of that protest and fight against the trivialization of human life. Beloved is a gem and a treasure to be savoured, read and re-read.