- Mass Market Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (21 Aug. 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0099760118
- ISBN-13: 978-0099760115
- Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.2 x 19.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 189 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 115,149 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Beloved Mass Market Paperback – 21 Aug 1997
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In the troubled years following the Civil War, the spirit of a murdered child haunts the Ohio home of a former slave. This angry, destructive ghost breaks mirrors, leaves its fingerprints in cake icing, and generally makes life difficult for Sethe and her family; nevertheless, the woman finds the haunting oddly comforting for the spirit is that of her own dead baby, never named, thought of only as Beloved.
A dead child, a runaway slave, a terrible secret--these are the central concerns of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. Morrison, a Nobel laureate, has written many fine novels, including Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, and Paradise--but Beloved is arguably her best. To modern readers, antebellum slavery is a subject so familiar that it is almost impossible to render its horrors in a way that seems neither clichéd nor melodramatic. Rapes, beatings, murders, and mutilations are recounted here, but they belong to characters so precisely drawn that the tragedy remains individual, terrifying to us because it is terrifying to the sufferer. And Morrison is master of the telling detail: in the bit, for example, a punishing piece of headgear used to discipline recalcitrant slaves, she manages to encapsulate all of slavery's many cruelties into one apt symbol--a device that deprives its wearer of speech. "Days after it was taken out, goose fat was rubbed on the corners of the mouth but nothing to soothe the tongue or take the wildness out of the eye." Most importantly, the language here, while often lyrical, is never overheated. Even as she recalls the cruelties visited upon her while a slave, Sethe is evocative without being overemotional: "Add my husband to it, watching, above me in the loft--hiding close by--the one place he thought no one would look for him, looking down on what I couldn't look at at all. And not stopping them--looking and letting it happen.... And if he was that broken then, then he is also and certainly dead now." Even the supernatural is treated as an ordinary fact of life: "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby," comments Sethe's mother-in-law.
Beloved is a dense, complex novel that yields up its secrets one by one. As Morrison takes us deeper into Sethe's history and her memories, the horrifying circumstances of her baby's death start to make terrible sense. And as past meets present in the shape of a mysterious young woman about the same age as Sethe's daughter would have been, the narrative builds inexorably to its powerful, painful conclusion. Beloved may well be the defining novel of slavery in America, the one that all others will be measured by. --Alix Wilber
"[Beloved] has left the realm of fiction and become a force of nature" (Guardian)
"A triumph" (Margaret Atwood New York Times Book Review)
"A magnificent achievement... An American masterpiece" (A. S. Byatt Guardian)
"There is something great in Beloved: a play of human voices, consciously exalted, perversely stressed, yet holding true. It gets you" (New Yorker)
"Toni Morrison has created a frightening, beautiful and intensely exciting novel about America and its past. I am not able to think of a better one" (London Review of Books)
"A work of genuine force… Beautifully written" (Washington Post)
"Toni Morrison makes me believe in God. She makes me believe in a divine being, because luck and genetics don’t seem to come close to explaining her" (Guardian)
"[Beloved] has left the realm of fiction and become a force of nature"
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The American Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Beloved, her fifth book, was inspired by a true story about a slave-mother in the mid-nineteenth century (called Sethe in the novel), who escaped across the river Ohio to the free city of Cincinnati, just before the Civil War.
There are four principal voices, about whom we learn as much from how they talk as what they say. There is a shocking central narrative, which darts back and forth in time like the unfolding of a shared trauma in group psychoanalytic sessions. The African-Americans who tell the story are profoundly instinctive and generally terrified of 'whitepeople', who are usually seen as non-human.
Other characters are also brought to life, such as the slave-owner, 'Schoolteacher', or the old-timer and ex-slave, 'Stamp Paid'. Though hers is not the pivotal character in the story, Sethe's daughter Denver became (for me) the anchor, as the most sympathetic and rounded person, who eventually frees herself from mental subjugation.
Ghosts are flesh and blood entities in Beloved. Sethe's daughter (called Beloved) reappears after many years, despite having been killed when an infant by her mother, who did not want her baby to be captured by a vicious slave-owner. This incident had led to Sethe and her family being shunned by their community. As in South Africa under apartheid, oppression can lead not to solidarity amongst the oppressed but to fierce mutual suspicion. This feels more realistic than the somewhat simplistic characterisations in the Oscar-winning film, 12 Years A Slave.
Occasionally the novel can be obscure. But this minor fault is massively outweighed by the imaginative writing which brings to life the hemmed-in and yet freely-roaming mindsets of the central characters.
Despite the ghostly presence of Beloved, this is mainly a straightforward account of the horrific treatment meted out to many slaves and of the need for the characters to face their past in order to be able to create a better future in their hard-won freedom. Beloved is an obvious metaphor for slavery itself, still haunting and torturing those who have apparently escaped its chains. And the 'message' is that freedom is as much a state of mind as of body – that slavery's after-effects still have Sethe in its toils, and that even the next generations, embodied in Denver and the missing sons, live their lives in its shadow.
The simplicity of the message does not, however, make it in any way a simple book. Morrison's brilliant writing and imagery turn this into one of the most powerful and emotionally devastating books I have ever read. There is furious anger here, in scenes of brutal horror, cruelty and vile humiliation, but the overwhelming tone is of a sorrowful lament for humanity. And to make it bearable, just, there is also beauty, love, some kind of healing, and ultimately hope.
Sethe was born into slavery and sold to Sweet Home when she was a young girl – the only girl amongst a small group of men. Sethe had her pick of them and her choice fell on Halle. The story of Sethe's time on Sweet Home is told in flashback, so the reader is quickly aware that some horrific series of events led to a heavily pregnant Sethe, alone, on the run, trying to make her way to the Free States. Her three children had been smuggled out before her and she is desperate to get to her youngest daughter, whom Sethe was still breast-feeding when they separated. But we also know from flashbacks to a later period, when Sethe has made it to freedom, that this is the daughter who dies in infancy.
Morrison uses the imagery of milk throughout the book, as a symbol of the bond between mother and daughter, and of the basic right of any woman to nurture her own child. Sethe herself was denied this right as a child – it was more economic for there to be one slave to feed all the children than to allow mothers to feed their own. So for her, giving her milk to her own children is a deep need, an assertion of her humanity. And in an act of extreme brutality, she is subjected to something that for her is worse than rape – the stealing of her milk, her children's milk. It is this moment of fundamental violation that drives her to act as she does – to be willing to do anything rather than see her children, especially her daughters, raised as slaves.
Paul D's story is just as harsh, and Morrison's telling of it is an eloquent indictment of some of the worst practices inflicted on slaves – not just appalling physical cruelty, but a process of psychological dehumanisation that left the men stripped of the strength to rebel. And perhaps the worst aspect of it is that it is entirely believable – the basest cruelties carried out with a casual disregard – man's inhumanity to man indeed.
These are the histories that Sethe and Paul D, and Beloved, must face and understand before they can have hope of true freedom. As the memories, or rememories as Sethe calls them, are told, they will have to be able to forgive each other and themselves for the things they did to survive. And Denver, the one child not born into slavery, if she is to provide hope for future generations, will have to find some way to break the chains that bind her to her mother's history. As the book draws towards the climax, these three women, Sethe, Denver and Beloved, reveal their deepest selves in an intertwining stream of consciousness of unforgettable horror, power and dark beauty.
Even when the imagery is at its harshest, Morrison fills it with a savage poetry that lifts it to something so much more than a mere catalogue of human baseness. The sheer beauty of the writing contrasts so vividly with the ugliness of the story that it, in itself, provides a kind of promise of redemption – a proof that humanity can indeed rise from the ashes, however devastating the fire. In the end, Sethe comes to believe that Beloved's is not a story to pass on – but it is! It is a story that must be understood if we are ever to truly understand ourselves, and ultimately isn't that what literature is for? Tragic that such a book should ever have come to be written, heartbreaking and devastating to read, but I count it a true privilege to have been given an opportunity to hear Beloved's story.
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