In this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of 1988, Toni Morrison frees herself from the bonds of traditional narrative and establishes an independent style, just as her characters have freed themselves from the horrors of slavery and escaped from Kentucky to Ohio. Revealing the story of Sethe and her family as they survive the brutality of the farm, only to encounter torments even more punishing than whippings after they escape, Morrison presents scenes in a seemingly random order, each scene revealing some aspect of life for Sethe, her boys, her dead baby Beloved, and the new baby Denver, both in the past and in the present. Moving back and forth, around, and inside out through Sethe's recollections, she gradually reveals Sethe's story to the reader, its horror increasing as the reader makes the connections which turn disconnected scenes into a powerful and harrowing chronology.
As the novel opens, Sethe and Denver have lived in #124, a house in Ohio, for eighteen years, refusing to socialize and enjoying no company. When Paul D. Garner, one of the Sweet Home men and a friend of her long-missing husband, arrives on her doorstep and moves in, Sethe slowly reveals her long-buried nightmares, and the two share their stories of the events leading up to their escape. Most haunting to Sethe is the death of her young daughter Beloved, shortly after the escape from the farm, though the reader does not know for many pages the shocking manner of her death. When a ghostly figure who calls herself Beloved arrives at #124, shortly after Paul D., Morrison creates mystery and a heart-stoppingly tense atmosphere, when Beloved, too, moves in. As Beloved gradually takes over the household and seems to demand and then possess Sethe's soul, the sorrow which has burdened Sethe seems close to breaking her.
The sadism of some slave-owners, the devices used to torture, and the desperate measures some slaves took to protect themselves and their loved ones come fully alive here, the horrors growing as the reader gradually discovers the real source of Sethe's torment. By forcing the reader to make the connections, instead of spelling out details in a traditional narrative, Morrison strengthens the impact of the novel and its brutal revelations. Symbols of water, rain, snow, and ice connect the disparate scenes, and the use of shadows and the ghostly character of Beloved keep the reader on tenterhooks until the action is eventually resolved. A powerful, atmospheric, and shocking novel, Beloved is also a searing indictment of slavery and the damage it has done to the fabric of life, damage that cannot be repaired until it is fully recognized through novels such as this. Mary Whipple