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Beloved by Toni Morrison A Critical Response

Updated on October 20, 2009

Beloved by Toni Morrison - A Critical Review


          Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) is about an African-American family in the mid 1800’s whose beliefs and values have been influenced by the effects of slavery.  It is a story of how this family struggled against those effects and against the effects of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the status of slave owners and their ability to recapture escaped slaves before that time.  It is also the story of the character, Sethe, who had escaped slavery and who was haunted by her own baby daughter, Beloved, whom she had murdered rather than let her daughter be captured and returned to slavery.

     One of Morrison’s themes recognizes the importance of community and human nature in the lives of Sethe’s family and friends.  This is told throughout the book in the recounting of the people who helped organize Sethe’s escape from slavery, the white woman who assisted her in the birth of Denver, the influences of Baby Sugg and Paul D., the people who gave her employment, and the people who came to the family’s aid, leaving food and other gifts when Sethe’s mental capacity kept her from being able to provide for her family herself.

     Most of the book is narrated in third person, but occasionally switches to the different characters’ perspectives of the events in the story.  It starts with Baby Suggs, then Sethe, Paul D and Denver.  These characters all believe in ghosts and they all appear to believe that the book’s title character, Beloved, is the ghost of the baby daughter whom Sethe had murdered.

     Whether you believe in ghosts or not, Morrison’s writing can lead you to believe that it might be possible that the spirit that Paul D. had driven out of the house was a ghost; but, because the other accounts of Beloved are of her as a human, it is difficult at times for the reader to believe that Beloved is a ghost.   I even wondered at times if Beloved had really ever been murdered, but, instead, was taken away and, as an adult, found her way back.  That idea kept being discounted when they talked of the witnesses to the murder and the grave.    Then I wondered if there ever really was a human Beloved.  Did they believe so strongly in the ghost that they believed she took over a human’s body and intermingled herself within their lives? 

     The theme of the importance of family and how human nature responds to something so dehumanizing as slavery is driven throughout the narration of what Sethe thought was her only choice as a mother . . .  the murder of her own child and the resulting acceptance of Beloved as the ghost of that child.  Of the murder, Sethe’s explanation was simply, “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe.”   When Paul D. had suggested to Sethe that what she had done was wrong -- that there might have been some other way, Sethe asked, “What way?” (165)

    Again, I was confused when Sethe had said she put her babies where they would be safe.   I wondered about the idea that the child was not murdered.  She could have covered the child in pig’s blood or something and drugged her into a deep sleep to make her appear to be dead.   The grave may have been empty.  Then I wondered how she could vanish as quickly as she appeared.   No matter how I tried to figure it all out, the thing that remains is that Beloved comes from a true event where a woman killed her own baby by using a hacksaw rather than

allowing the child to be forced into an indignant life of slavery as she was.  In those times, and in the eyes of the slaves, the atrocities of slavery and the fact that they were treated as inhuman made the murderous act an honorable one in their eyes.

     The effects of fighting for identity in a world of slavery and post slavery are shown in the lives of Baby Sugg, Sethe, Paul D. and Denver.  Morrison’s Beloved was surely influenced by the fact that she is a black female writer touched by the torturous history of blacks in America, particularly in mid-western Ohio during Reconstruction after the Civil War.  Morrison tells the story with deep passion and uses a language that is beautiful but dark , creating a spellbinding momentum to the end.

     I feel Beloved is an insightful book on black culture and history.  I do believe an understanding of the culture of that era might be helpful in understanding some of the deeper meanings in this book.  For instance, I felt sure that the number of Sethe’s house, 124 had a deep connection or meaning.  It had history and significance.  It was the first word in the book.  It was mentioned often.  It connected the people to a time and a place.  “124 was spiteful.”  And as for Denver, “124 and the field behind it were all the world she knew or wanted.”

     Another symbolic form came out whenever there was any mention of the scars on Sethe’s back from her beatings.  It was called a tree . . . “a chokecherry tree.  See, here’s the trunk –it’s. red and split wide open, full of sap, and this here’s the parting for the branches.  You got a lot of branches.  Leaves, too, look just as white.  Your back got a whole tree on it.  In bloom.  What God have in mind, I wonder.” (79) 

    “Whitepeople”, “blackpeople”, and “slavewoman” were words that appeared to me as typos at first until I realized they were used as forced compound words rather than separating them.  That was a way of symbolizing the definitive differences in these types of people.  They were a certain region of people with their own peculiarities . . . yet they all lived within the same area.

     Though I was mesmerized by Beloved, I found it, at times, to be difficult to understand.  I would recommend it to anyone, but I feel I personally would need to re-read it a time or two in order to clarify what some of the expressions refer to.  It is an important book which makes us aware of a miserable past right here in our own nation.  It is too important to toss aside without coming to a true understanding of what lies between the covers.


     Morrison, Toni: Beloved a Novel, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998


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