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Beloved by Toni Morrison - Book Review
One of the arguments that literary critics support is that Beloved is a ghost story, or “horror” novel. In a way, I believe they are right. Beloved explores the emotional, physical and spiritual horrors that resulted from the effects of slavery, a horror that continues to haunt the ex-slaves in the novel, even in their new found freedom. One of the worst of slavery’s effects in the novel was its strong impact on the ex-slaves’ senses of identity. From this arises a reoccurring theme within Beloved of self alienation, estrangement and disaffection that the characters feel for their sense of identity because of slavery.
Sethe, for example, was extensively damaged psychologically by the horrors of slavery. She once overheard schoolteacher giving a mortifying lesson to his nephews about her. In the lesson he instructed them to categorize each of Sethe’s characteristics as either human or animal. She was raped by schoolteacher and beaten, and at one point was forced to kill one of her children to “over hurt the hurter.” Her memories of this cruel act and of the brutality she herself suffered as a slave intertwine with her everyday life and lead her to conclude that her past can never really be erased. Sethe’s fear of the past then leads her to ignore the overwhelming evidence that Beloved is the reincarnation of her murdered daughter. Even after she recognizes Beloved’s identity, Sethe shows herself to be still enslaved by the past because she gives in to Beloved’s desires and allows herself to be controlled by Beloved.
Sethe is consumed with hatred of herself and her past. And because of this, she sees the best part of herself as her children. But her children also have distraught identities. Denver coincides her identity with Beloved’s, and Beloved feels herself actually beginning to physically diminish then prosper, at one point becoming like Sethe. Slavery has also limited Baby Suggs’s sense of identity by shattering her family and denying her the opportunity to be a true mother, wife, and sister. As a result of her inability to believe in her own existence, Baby Suggs becomes spiritually depressed and tired.
Schoolteacher again displays the horror of his cruelty again when, after Baby Suggs’s departure, he stops Halle from doing any more work outside Sweet Home, thus depriving him of the chance to pay for the rest of his family’s release from slavery. When the family tried to escape, they were quickly caught causing Halle’s insanity, Paul A’s hanging, Sixo’s burning, and Paul D’s metal bit in his mouth.
Paul D is so detached from his identity that at one point he cannot tell whether the screaming he hears is his own or someone else’s. Slaves were told they were nothing but property and were traded as products whose worth could be expressed in dollars. Paul D discovers his monetary “worth” after he runs away from the plantation and finds nine hundred dollars as the reward for his capture. Paul D is very insecure about whether or not he could possibly be a real man, and he repeatedly wonders about his value as a person because of his bounty. He develops a “tin heart” and does not share a complete love for anyone because he wants to “leave room for the next” person or slave that he’d meet. Like Paul D, Stamp Paid is left estranged from the effect of slavery. His wife was raped leaving him without knowing her, even wanting to kill her. Later on however, Stamp Paid recognizes that both whites and blacks suffered at the hands of slavery, with blacks being dehumanized by their white masters, and whites being dehumanized because of their inhumanity towards blacks. A scene he refers to as a “jungle.”
Beloved’s presence in the book, in contrast to her ghostly and eerie vibe, gives the characters in the story a newfound forgiveness of the past. The problem posed by the characters were that they chose to forget, or like Paul D, run away from their past instead of confronting it. Beloved forces them to confront that fear and relive those painful memories that they’ve suppressed. From this, the characters can grasp a greater understanding of that past and learn from it, finally allowing them to have a better future with a sense of their own identity. In that respect, Beloved makes us confront our American history in Slavery so that we remember and learn from the past instead of forgetting these lost souls. It is an invigorating read with rich symbolism and detail that will forever show us the effects that slavery left on all of its victims.