American author, Toni Morrison, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. She was born in 1931 and is one of the USA‘s most eminent literary scholars. I have read just one or two of her works, and yet I can state emphatically that she is one of my favourite writers in any form. Not just for her range, vision and sense of history, but for the feelings that she pours into her prose.
In compiling my dossier on South African politician , Julius Malema, I found two significant quotes by Ms Morrison on racism and rape. Malema is notorious for his racist outbursts and disregard of women, particularly victims of rape. When I wrote a paper on hate speech, using Malema as my subject matter, I found just one single line attributed to Ms Morrison. It is blunt and to the point. I happen to agree wholeheartedly with her statement on hate speech.
On racism, she says:
“I always looked upon the acts of racist exclusion, or insult, as pitiable, for the other person. I never absorbed that. I always thought that there was something deficient about such people. ”
Here is what she has to say about rape:
“Rape is a criminal act whatever the circumstances. A woman riding the subway nude may be guilty of indecency, but she may not be raped. If she invites or even sells sex at 10 and refuses it at 10:45, the partner who disregards her refusal and forces sex is guilty of rape. If she is drunk, asleep, mentally defective, paralyzed or dead, she must not be raped. Why? Because sexual congress must be by concent.”
Simply put, it is a matter of law, human morality, even religion in most countries of the world where the rights of women, men and children are sanctified, but still disregarded.
As part of my paper on hate speech, I quoted Morrison’s statement;
“Oppressive language does more than represent violence, it is violence.”
Morrison’s novel Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Interestingly, Alfred Uhry’s stage drama, Driving Miss Daisy, won the prize for Drama in the same year. It was later adapted for the film screen and starred Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman.
To most North American readers, Toni Morrison needs little or no introduction. Mainly, her literary work explores the condition of the African-American, historically, contemporaneously and psycho-analytically. For the rest of the reading world, I would mark Ms Morrison’s writing as essential reading. Morrison, like James Baldwin before her, departs from the contemporary, mainstream great American novel of triumphs, tragedies, victories and losses.
My review of Beloved is a dedication to those Americans who fought tirelessly for their civil rights since their ancestors first arrived on the shores of North America as slaves from Africa.
It is also a dedication to Oprah Winfrey, best known for her talk show.
She is an exceptionally gifted actress who gave an eponymous and haunting portrayal in the film version of Beloved in which the British actress, Tandie Newton, played the part of the ghost-like child. Film buffs may also recall Winfrey’s part, in Steven Spielberg’s direction of Alice Walker’s tragic, but hopeful novel, The Colour Purple, which also featured a young Whoopie Goldberg. If I recall, this film marked Goldberg’s arrival as an accomplished actress. Coincidentally, Danny Glover, last seen with Newton in the heroic, but ridiculous epic 2012, features in both Beloved and The Colour Purple. In both films he is cast as the proverbial abusive black brother.
Professor’s impression of my review: “Sound and very promising” – 80%
“Terrible, unspeakable things happened to Sethe at Sweet Home, the farm where she lived as a slave for so many years until she escaped to Ohio. Her new life is full of hope, but eighteen years later, she is still not free.”
“Sethe’s new home is not only haunted by the memories of her past, but also by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.”
In this review we can decide whether or not Beloved is a ghost, a real woman, or the concretisation of Sethe’s repressed memory. We can identify where Beloved comes from and indicate what she wants from Sethe, Denver and Paul D. We comment on the literary techniques that Toni Morrison uses to create the feelings of uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding her character and to heighten the reader’s awareness of the significance of the events which unfold throughout the fabula. It is appropiate to repeat the text’s first epigraph;
“Sixty Million…and more”
Both my opening (quoted) epigraph and the author’s foreword to her novel give clear ideas as to who or what Beloved is. She is a multifaceted character. The question of whether she is a ghost, a real woman, or Sethe’s (Beloved’s mother) repressed memory, is open to our own interpretations. Beloved is a ghost, however, the post-modern technique of ambiguity allows the reader to decide on the status of Beloved. I argue, however, that there are enough indications throughout the text that Beloved is indeed a ghost. The supporting characters already mentioned above react and relate to Beloved differently, opening the text to different points of view. My conviction that ghosts exist supports my view that Beloved is a ghost.
In her clarification of who or what Beloved is, critic Marsha Darling aptly states that; “she is a spirit on one hand, literally she is what Sethe thinks she is, her child returned to her from the dead. And she must function like that in the text. She is also another kind of dead which is not spiritual but flesh, which is, a survivor from a true, factual slave ship.”
The source of Beloved’s existence can be traced to the inter-textual reference to the Biblical passage of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, used as a second epigraph to this astonishing story;
“I will call them my people which were not my people; and her beloved which was not beloved.”
According to the scripture Paul speaks about God’s patience with man (and woman) and the startling fact that “only a few of them will be saved”. Morrison’s response alludes to the bigoted white men and women who believed that they were God’s chosen few. They believed that they had a divine and custodial stranglehold over the inferior “others” who lacked God and a spiritual home. Baby Sugg’s characterisation as an unorthodox spiritual leader challenges the perverted beliefs of the white American land owners, and Morrison asks whether or not God has lost patience with “the chosen few” and instead will turn his divine will to those who suffer and are persecuted the most by man’s evil and save them.
Beloved came about as a result of Morrison’s initial desire to speak about the rights of women;
“…equal pay, equal treatment, access to professions, schools…and choice without stigma”
“To marry or not. To have children or not.”
This desire leads her to respond inter-textually, with the creation of her character Sethe, to “the historical Margaret Garner” who was “a young mother who, having escaped slavery, was arrested for killing one of her children rather than let them be returned to the owner’s plantation.” I agree with Cape Town poet and teacher, Finuala Dowling’s belief that Morrison was inspired by this woman.
To Sethe’s lover, Paul D, Beloved is a woman. He is fearfully unable to accept her presence at Sethe’s rented home, 124. Indeed, the narrative starts; “124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom.” And yet we have no way of knowing at this stage whether Paul D, the black slave woman’s nemesis rather than brother, is reacting superstitiously, and whether or not he believes that Beloved is a ghost. Beloved takes the form of a human in order to realise her desire of being loved.
As a ghost, Beloved is, according to this statement – “the concretisation of Sethe’s repressed memory”. This claim is important, because it brings us to the story’s main theme of memory. Morrison’s textual introduction “Sixty Million and more”, alludes to the devastating effects slavery has had on African Americans, their counterparts and their African descendants. She argues that we must never forget such calamitous events in our history, and yet acknowledges through Sethe that the pain of remembering the past is excruciating, so much so that it may be better to forget the past, but it is the human condition that such terrible traumas remain buried deep in the psyche until it is prised out. This is Beloved’s tearful role. Sethe, in wanting to forget her past, initially believes that her child has been brought back to her and that she has been forgiven for her act of infanticide, like Garner, justifying her actions in light of the abuse that she and her peers endure at the hands of their repressive “white owners”.
The fabula is linear, beginning with introductions to Sethe, Denver and Paul D at 124, but time is shifted throughout the narrative, inviting the reader to trace Beloved’s roots. At one stage we are led to believe that Beloved is a reincarnation of Sethe’s mother, Baby Suggs, however, it is significant how this remarkable woman is used to show Sethe’s origins. Sethe believes firmly that her deceased mother has sent her child back from “the other side” which we interpret as an abyss between Heaven and Hell, purgatory as it were, a place where the restless dead wait for their day of reckoning. We could offer that Beloved’s return to her mother on earth below the clouds is a day of redemption, however, no ultimate peace is made between mother and daughter, with the mother unable to accept her child’s ghostly state.
Beloved’s purpose as a supernatural being is also to help Sethe come to terms with her actions. Sethe lays claim to her as her own;
“Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing.”
That she does not succeed is tragic. Sethe is not able to come to terms with her tragic past and deeds and, never finding peace, loses her sanity, and Beloved, no longer useful, leaves her once more to wonder restlessly as her mother laments;
“She left me.”
Contrastingly, Denver, wary of her mother, finds peace, and is a beacon of hope for the black, emancipated women of the future, finding peace of mind, learning “book stuff” and gaining meaningful employment in order to support her deranged mother. She is acutely aware of Beloved, where she comes from and why she has come. and why she has left.
Paul D’s actions towards Beloved are understandable in light of the circumstances of the lives of Sethe, Denver and himself, but it signifies a warning to women that they are never entirely free from their bondage, whether from slavery, or from male prejudice.
This and Sethe’s treatment is Morrison’s post-feminist response to the condition of African American women under the yolk of slavery during the nineteenth century in America.
The defamiliarising technique which Morrison uses to refer to the white land owners is powerful. The ruthless “schoolteacher” is always referred to in lower case type to emphasise the insignificance of his status as a sub-human, in contrast to his treatment of black slaves as sub-humans. The reference to white men as “men without skin” is haunting. This is a post-colonial response to the white colonist who becomes “the other”, a strange and unfamiliar pale human who is without strength and courage.
Beloved wants love from Sethe, friendship from Denver and recognition from Paul D. In seeking out Paul D, Morrison opens up another “tin box” using Beloved as a mythical creature to terrorise Paul D who does not accept her, and confuse the reader’s expectations of the text.
So, we have concluded that Beloved is a ghost, but we acknowledge Morrison’s use of ambiguity and point of view through narration and characterisation to open up the text to different interpretations of a tragic yet important event in history, which she feels should be remembered and never forgotten. Thus;
“Sixty Million…and more.”
Rating of the film Beloved: **** (please visit my blog Film&Lit to see how my rating system operates)