Beloved by Toni Morrison

Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has borne the unthinkable and not gone mad, yet she is still held captive by memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Meanwhile Sethe’s house has long been troubled by the angry, destructive ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

Sethe works at beating back the past, but it makes itself heard and felt incessantly in her memory and in the lives of those around her. When a mysterious teenage girl arrives, calling herself Beloved, Sethe’s terrible secret explodes into the present.

Somehow I got to my last year as an undergrad without ever reading or being assigned to read this book. The only other Toni Morrison book I’ve read is The Bluest Eye, a book I neither enjoyed nor understood. Despite this being a well-praised novel, I just wasn’t excited to read it.

Flash-forward to a few days ago: Sat down to read this, with my pacing schedule all figured out (~60 pages a day to finish in five days) and didn’t want to stop reading. This book is music. It’s poetry. It’s something that transcends pure fiction. It’s experimental fiction before experimental fiction was cool.

This book is just what it says it is: a story about haunting. Whether it’s literal, metaphoric, or symbolic haunting, this book is brimming with ghosts. And not nice quiet ghosts either. Ghosts who demand that their voices be heard, ghosts that once shut up in a room, ooze out of every nook and cranny.

I was assigned to read this book for class. In our class we’ve been discussing “haunted” texts and Freud’s theory of the uncanny, among other things. For those of you who don’t spend the better part of your time reading Freud from every which way, we can define the uncanny thus: something that is familiar and yet, isn’t. The uncanny is definitely rooted in Freud’s “mirror stage”-the moment when an infant looks into a mirror and recognizes its reflection as itself and yet, not itself.

Uncanny moments abound in Beloved. Between ghosts who refuse to rest and the dead who come back to life, we are confronted with a host of uncanny characters. The story of the title character, Beloved, forces Morrison’s cast of characters to live and breathe within the realm of the uncanny. Beloved who is the same, yet different, whose very existence in the novel transcends the station in life of a simple character. Beloved is part of the story and yet outside it. She possesses a power that no one else does, a power that eventually devours those she holds dear.

For someone who wouldn’t consider herself a Toni Morrison fan, Beloved was astounding. Difficult and occluded at times, yes, but on the whole, overwhelming brilliant. The prose sings, rippling and falling in the key of the uncanny.

From the close of the novel, I leave you with this passage. (It has been vetted for spoilers and has come up clean.)

There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind-wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.

Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.

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