‘Beloved’ addresses the issue of slavery in nineteenth century America. It is not an easy read – the novel does not shy away from the horrors of slavery; at the same time it avoids gratuitous descriptions of the physical, sexual and psychological tortures that slaves had to face. When dealing with nightmares such as this experience the author has to walk a tightrope – to deny the magnitude of the crimes against humanity that slavery represents would be wrong, but to simply show horrifically bad things happening to people would be unbearable, and quite possibly exploitative. Morrison manages this balance by giving a voice to the slaves themselves – the story is told through the eyes of the enslaved and the newly freed.
The book tells the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver after their escape from slavery. Their home is haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s daughter. Sethe’s teenage sons have run away from home, and her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, for a long time a stabilising maternal figure in her life, has died. Sethe and her surviving daughter, are haunted by horrific events from their past which are revealed slowly through the course of the novel. In reconstructing the events for a summary of this kind it is convenient to present these events in a ordered, chronological structure, but in the novel itself there is no such order – events are presented in a chaotic, fractured manner with numerous jumps in time and space, representing the chaotic nature of the characters lives, and the difficulty they face in escaping their memories and pasts.
Paul D, one of the slaves from the plantation where Sethe and her family were once enslaved, arrives at her home, moves in, and (briefly) exorcises the ghost. But on the way back from a trip to a carnival, one of the few carefree moments the characters enjoy, they meet an ethereal young woman, calling herself Beloved, who we slowly are led to believe is the reincarnated spirit of Sethe’s murdered baby. Gradually, Paul D is forced out of the home by Beloved. At the heart of the novel is a terrible scene alluded to at several points, but finally shown, where to avoid being re-enslaved Sethe tries to kill her children, although ultimately only killing her eldest daughter, the eponymous Beloved.
Whether Beloved is an actual ghost, or a traumatised escaped slave assuming a role given to her, has diverted some readers, but Morrison quite deliberately leaves this question open, so trying to locate a definitive answer to this question is pointless. She is neither and both.
In ‘Beloved’ Morrison stares into the face of the horror that was slavery, and there are no easy escapes – although the characterisation of white people is carefully nuanced, (they are not all monsters), there is no avoiding that fact that even the ‘kind’ slave owners were guilty of a horrific crime against humanity. Morrison shows the fully diversity of the experience of black and mixed race people – some lead less tortured lives than others, but all are devastated by the experience in different ways, from the slaves who die needlessly in punishment killings and lynchings, to the free mixed race school teacher who cannot avoid the “taint” of her heritage. For too long I have known about the barbarism that was the 19th century slave trade, but avoided reading about the issue – this novel has inspired me to remedy that as soon as possible.
P.S. Just a note about the Virago edition – a really poorly printed version where the ink has bled slightly into the paper, making it all a little fuzzy. Even the cheapest mass produced editions are usually better than that!