I recently finished my second journey through Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and her magical realism is still flawless. “Beloved”, the titular character, enters the narrative first as a disembodied feeling of haunted anger connected to 124 Bluestone Road, a small house on a low-traffic road somewhere in Ohio. The narrator plays her hand immediately:
“124 was spiteful, full of a baby’s venom.”
Here the reader is immediately notified that something isn’t right here, that the house itself lives in some way, and that the spirit is that of a child.
However, as the story moves on, Beloved (the character) becomes more corporeal until, at the end of the book, she fades back into the house’s memory. She becomes “just weather”, an event that washes over a place from time to time then leaves again. This is a perfect, layered analogy for Toni Morrison’s grappling with the harrowing history of the main character’s life (Sethe).
I can’t help but feel that on my first read-through I missed some of the depth that Toni Morrison put into this book, both in its dialogue and in the nuances of what Beloved represents to the different characters (spoilers ahead). It isn’t simple and it can’t be reduced to one thing.
Yes, Beloved is the ghost of a child that Sethe killed in order to save her from a fate worse than death (letting slaveholders, or slavecatchers, make her less than human). Surely this is the first layer, but in reading through this book a second time and listening to the way the characters interact with each other and themselves, the emotions are immensely complex. The anger, loneliness, and sorrow are intermingled with a confusion of how or what to direct those emotions towards. I think it is more than just Sethe’s daughter that haunts Sethe. I think it is Sethe’s completely justified anger at the world and the slavers that destroyed her life to a point where she would rather her infant bleed out and rest in death than to go through what her mother had to go through.
It is Sethe’s daughter that haunts her, yes, but it is also Sethe that haunts Sethe; An African-American woman in a society that will not allow her to address her ghosts, because they still — on a systemic level — will always haunt her even through the people she meets on a daily basis.
“Sweet Home” (the plantation where she was held captive as a slave) is another layer of the haunting, added to the pile of things that led Sethe to mentally dissociate from her own life, including the betrayal that she feels towards existence and the apprehension she feels even towards allegedly generous and kind white people.
Perhaps it is even more than that though. Toni Morrison is so skilled at making her characters multi-dimensional that seeing a single motive in any action of the characters leaves me feeling like I have missed something. The dialogue is laced with layers that go beyond just the specific character and into the ethos of what it meant for Sethe to be a combination of freed slave, mother, lonely, and black. In many ways it is a brilliant, passionate exploration of human intersectionality.
Perhaps the most layered part of the book, however, are the phases of Beloved’s character and how Beloved aggressively (and dangerously) forces Sethe to change how she interacts with her past. Written into the dialogue is the eerie, scarring realization that the past is something that really couldn’t ever be forgotten, just pressed back into the landscape of the characters’ lives like Beloved as she becomes, in the final paragraph of the book, the weather and the grass.
“Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly.”
Beloved, like the bitter evils of slavery, rape, dehumanization, torture, and helplessness inflicted upon Sethe, is something that sinks into the land and taints it, rising up every now and again like brisk wind to remind Sethe of the evils that she suffered — and suffers. When it rains and the damp smell lifts from the earth and then recedes when the sun has dried it again, so too the past rises up, so too Beloved exists.
In all of the horror though, there is growth. When we first meet Sethe, she is hunched over, the tree-like whipping scars on her back brilliantly written to carry a tangible weight in the words themselves. At the end of the book, Sethe has in some ways risen up from that weight, left with enough of it to not forget, but she is as free as she ever can be. Beloved has left, perhaps signaling Sethe’s process of working out how to relate to her past and what it means for her future, and working out her mixed feelings of guilt and love towards her murdered daughter, guilt at her morbid actions mixed with a burdened duty that she felt driven to the act. She feels that she can only truly love her Beloved in death, as letting her live would not have been love. In some ways she does not want to let go of Beloved. As a ghost, she can have a relationship with her daughter that she never had, albeit one riddled with guilt.
Toni Morrison leaves us here, with Beloved sinking back into the landscape; more at peace, but never gone. We are left without simplistic answers, without a full recovery, but with a character that has grown despite the evils inflicted on her, without cheapening those evils as mere catalysts for her growth.
If I could have met Toni before she passed away, I would have asked her about the pain she experienced to be able to pen this narrative that feels close enough to her to be brutally real, but distant enough to be well-crafted, timeless, and meaningful.
I will never tire of this book, and, I think, until there is no longer a need for this heart-breaking story to be told, I hope it will not tire of me either, and I hope that its lessons — and its characters — never leave me.