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Toni Morrison’s Beloved: A Neo-Slave Narrative

Updated on December 7, 2015


In her 1987 novel Beloved[1], Toni Morrison[2] borrows heavily from Frederick Douglass’s [3]Narrative, but she departs from its rhetorical and political objectives. This is due to the historical differences between the audiences of Douglass and Morrison. Douglass wrote his Narrative as a fugitive slave in the early 1840, and was aware of his white audience. So his attack was mainly on the institution of slavery itself and not against the white supremacy in his time. Toni Morrison’s novel is a revolutionist, post-modern rewriting of American slave history. Since Morrison embarks on a story that took place in a time when slavery was practiced in the United States and since her themes of the sufferings of slaves mentally and physically, her novel Beloved is a neo-slave narrative. Morrison makes use of slave narratives in order to evince the brutality endured by slaves. In so doing, as my paper is going to demonstrate, she rewrites the history of slavery in order for it to be remembered and well fathomed. But it is necessary that I would point to the heritage left by slave narrative and the influence it has on modern and post-modern African American writers. From all slave narratives, I have chosen Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave[4], and Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl[5]. Both narratives are read in parallel because they share so many themes. I’m going to show how Toni Morrison rewrites a real incident which took place in the time of slavery. Her novel, thus, is an extension of slave narratives written mainly by fugitive slaves.

Slave narratives are the accounts written by enslaved black men and women born into a morally repugnant, universally inhuman, and economically driven system known as slavery. These accounts are authentic and vivid records of the brutality of slavery as was practiced in the system of plantations in Southwest of America. Slavery, as a matter of fact, was legally institutionalised in the early colonial period of America when slaves were excessively imported from Africa to the English Colonies, but after the American Revolution, slavery was partly abolished, especially in the Northern States, and a bill that prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territories was passed. This was, of course, a public denunciation of a practice which contradicts the American values, and articles of the American Declaration of Independence which states that ‘’ all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’’[6] Notwithstanding, Slavery was deeply entrenched in Southwest and slaver-owners were very adamant to change a system which brought them a lot of profit. The cotton industry was flourishing, and it needed much labour, which only slaves could cater for without remonstrance or indignation. This gave rise to a system of Slave and Free states. The American Congress, however, had much grit to legalize the import and export of slaves.

Slavery was established in the Southwest and so many horrors and atrocities were meted out to black men and women who were stripped of their humanity and treated in the same manner as livestock. It was not expected from a slave to write and voice his indignation towards a system which wrested his humanity from him or her. But against the odds, a new literary genre was born as a reaction against slavery, in the form of narratives that depict the lives of real slaves who managed to escape from the shackles of slavery, and who resolved to make the public realise with how much suffering they lived into a system that denied their humanity and made them subject to use, purchase, or humiliation. Slave narratives, due to their authenticity, were popularised thanks to the abolitionist movement, a movement that was created by anti-slavery advocates, whose goal was the gradual emancipation of slaves. These early abolitionists were advocating the emancipation of slaves essentially on religious grounds, and among these were the Religious Society of Friends, The Quakers, who were the first to condemn slavery as illegal and inhumane.

The abolitionist movement made use of anti-slavery writings that were read by the Northern public as an outcry against slavery. These writings were authentic records of the lives of slaves who were born into, and either witnessed or lived, in the plight of slavery. Among these, two narratives were public renowned, namely Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave, and Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In this paper, I’m going to show how Toni Morrison makes use of the tradition set by fugitive slaves and how her novel, Beloved, could be read in juxtaposition with that tradition, an echo of slave narratives.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is an exploration of the ‘’ horrors of the slave trade from an intense and intimate experience.’’ It’s a patchwork of flashbacks, memories, and nightmares that is channelled to unearth those unspeakable horrors of slavery while giving them life through a life-giving, eternal story. Toni Morrison joined the league of slave narrators, by producing a text which is set to make the horrors of slavery once again alive, and saved from the oblivion which forced by some Americans who were eschewing historical facts in order to adopt a less disturbing and more favourable account of slavery and its aftermath. In this light, Toni Morrison’s Beloved worthy of study in relation to slave narratives. Though different in focus and goal, Beloved and slave narratives are all instigated by slavery and its legacy on the American literature.

[1] Beloved is a novel by the American writer, Toni Morrison, published in 1973.

[2] Toni Morrison is an American Novelist, editor and professor.

[3] Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was an American social former, orator, writer and statesman.

[4] Frederick Douglass : The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999. (N15)

[5] Jacobs, Harriet, A. Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, INC, 2001.

[6] Quote from the Declaration of Independence, By Thomas Jefferson

Slave Narratives: an Established Literary Genre:

An online definition of slave narrative by Britannica states that ‘’ slave narrative, an account of the life, or a major portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave, either written or orally related by the same slave personally.’’ This suggests that any work which is essentially produced by a former slave, a fugitive slave, is read as a slave narrative, written essentially to expose the horrors of slavery. These former slaves provided the white audience with first-hand records of their experiences on plantations and in cities. These accounts were an authentic resource for understanding the lives of slaves into the system of slavery that was then practiced brutally in the Southwest. Their texts were rich as they depict with vividness the many atrocities of slavery as lived, experienced and remembered by slaves, making their accounts rather windows into understanding slavery. They wrote their records of slavery with an outcry against the dehumanizing system which stripped them out of their humanity. These writings were committed essentially to call for the abolition of slavery, by pointing out to its atrocity, awfulness, inhumanity and barbarity. Frederick Douglass’s accounts of the horrors of slavery depict it as barbarous and completely alien to the values of the America. Harriet Jacobs based her narrative on the sentimental novel, essentially to address the white middle-class women of the North who were undoubtedly acquainted with major romantic novels written in the Victorian Era. “Why does the slave love?’’, asks Harriet ingeniously in her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Former Slaves in the example of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, had acquainted themselves with the instruments that could aid them into bringing about a literary genre that could make their cause more persuasive and appealing, thus establishing a whole new literary genre, namely slave narrative. When we look closer at these narratives, we detect that they drew on biblical allusions and imagery, the rhetoric of abolitionism and that is very conspicuous in Douglass’s narrative, and also the tradition of captivity literature. This demonstrates that these narrators were essentially good readers of literature, a fancy which they developed due to the solace they would find in identical narratives. Most renowned of all these are Douglass’s and Harriet Ann Jacobs’ narratives.

1. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave

The narrative of Douglass is undoubtedly the most read of all. It narrativizes the anguish and pain that Douglass himself endured as a slave. It is a text which is rich with polemics that call for the abolition of slavery. Frederick Douglass was born into Talbot County, Maryland as a slave. As a child he could not access information concerning the date of his birth, and that was a source of dissatisfaction for him. Later in life, he chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14. Being denied access to basic information, concerning one’s date and place of birth, made Frederick Douglass indignant towards his enslavers, and he perceived of that as being compared to animals and livestock. The first paragraph of his narrative makes this clear:

I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic records containing it. By far the large part of slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant[1]

It is just very clear by reading the first beginning of the narrative that Frederick Douglass deploys logical facts which make of slavery both illogical and barbarous. He acquainted himself with all the instruments that made of his writing persuasive and hard-hitting. He was addressing the white educated men, and he was no less an educated person himself, more educated than his enslavers, and by so doing, Frederick Douglass was so shrewd as to make his words evocative and powerful. A first reading of the Narrative brings forth an impression that this piece of work is not written by a used-to-be slave, but we get deeper into this controversial piece of work, we get to know that Frederick Douglass conceived of language as a prominent tool that would restore his humanity and his self-worth as a real man, rather than an enslaved, animal-like black man.

The narrative gives us an account of the horrors of slavery as lived and witnessed by Douglass. His touching account of slavery and his later escape lent Douglass’s speech a certain authenticity against the pernicious system of slavery. The use of a colourful language, laden with polemics, and allusions, in depicting the lives of slaves, who were gravely tormented, made his book a powerful indictment against a country which perceived of slavery as lucrative and fundamental to its flourishing and growth.

In his narrative, Frederick Douglass addresses the negative aspects of enslaving human beings reducing them to the status of animals. He points to the detrimental effects of slavery on both slaves and slave-holders. Masters, by sexually exploiting their female slaves, produce a whole different class of slaves whose parents are white men, but whose status is not different from that of other slaves. This is detrimental to slave-holders as they keep enslaving their offspring.

Far from being merely a biographical account, the narrative, ingeniously, touches on issues that are fundamental to all American. Freedom, social justice and equity, the importance of literacy, and a condemnation of violence are major themes in the narrative, which is written essentially to address the white public in lectures and conferences. Douglass’s story is touching and could alone make of slavery an inhuman, ridiculous practice being legalised in a country which fought for freedom and made it one of its essential tenets.

1. Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl:

Harriet Ann Jacobs’ biography, written under the pseudonym Lenda Brent, is another vivid text which speaks against the dehumanising effects of slavery. In her narrative, Jacobs gives details of her experience as a slave, her eventual escape, and her sexual harassment by her master. The book is written chronologically, giving every detail about Jacobs’ life as a slave; with the decisions and plans she devised to free herself from the shackles of slavery. Unlike, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Ann Jacobs uses a different tone in her narrative, one which addresses the negative effects of the sexual exploitation of female slaves. Born in Edeton, North Carolina in 1813, Harriet suffered many hardships as a slave. After the death of her father and mother, Harriet Jacobs was raised by her maternal mother, Molly Horniblow. Jacobs leant to read, write and sew under her first mistress, who was kind to her, but unfortunately for the young, Harriet her kind mistress willed her to Dr. James Norcom, a decision which caused Harriet to suffer many later hardships as a slave sexually exploited:

After a brief period of suspense, the will of my mistress was read, and we learned that she had bequeathed me to her sister’s daughter, a child of five years[2].

Unlike, Frederick Douglass, Ann Jacobs conceives of relationships as more important in her struggle against slavery and the sexual exploitation that was forced on her by her master.

Both Narratives are often read as twin classics sharing many similarities. They both give authentic records of slavery. They usher us into the evil practice of slave-holding, making us feel the anguish and torment they endured as slaves. Both narratives address issues like, freedom, equality, literacy, sexuality, gender, and self-worth. They are very important as they are often read in connection with modern black American literature, and that is mainly due to the thematic topics both narratives stress. Most modern black American writers could then be read as echoes of a tradition set mainly by slave narratives written by real former slaves.

[1] Frederick Douglass expresses his unhappiness and frustration concerning his lack of knowledge; we can notice here that knowledge holds an important status in his life as a slave and abolitionist (P.15)

[2] Here Harriet Jacobs hints that it is hard for a slave to realize his identity as a slave. She was happy when she didn‟t know about her condition. The horrors of slavery stem primarily from the feelings of inferiority and loss of dignity.

Beloved: an Echo of Slave Narratives

Beloved is a novel by the American black writer, Toni Morrison, 1987. The novel is inspired by the story of an African American Slave, Margret Garner, who managed to escape from slavery by fleeing to Ohio in 1856. Ohio was then a free state. But when a posse arrived in Ohio to bring her and her children back in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which gives slave-owners the right to hunt for fugitive slaves, Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter so as not to let her live in slavery. Though it was written in 1988, Beloved’s historical context is within the American slavery and its abolition rather than the twentieth century. It is written in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law that victimised Margaret Garner and her family in 1855. The law was passed in order to maintain a balance between the Northern ‘’ Free’’ states and the Southern ‘’ slave’’ states. It gives slaveholders the right to chase runaway slaves even in Northern states where slavery was prohibited. This was intended to prevent the outbreak of the civil war which broke out only ten years after the law was enacted.

It is unimaginable how thousands of Northern blacks lived in constant fear of being recaptured, kidnapped, or having their families separated. Toni Morrison is not the first woman of literature to address this particular issue. Harriet Beecher Stowe published her renowned novel, Uncle Tom’s cabin about 130 years before Morrison. Stowe’s novel was read as an excoriation of the slave trade and the Fugitive Slave Law[1]. This made Stowe a very important figure for the abolitionists and those who sympathised with the cause and plight of slaves. On the other hand, Toni Morrison’s novel is written in another era, another time, about 130 years after Stowe, and this allows Morrison to psychologically penetrate the issue of slavery without its political intricacies and propaganda. Though its historical context is within the era of American slavery, the novel is still read from a post-modern angle.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved draws heavily on the incident of Margaret Garner. Her main character, Sethe kills her daughter while trying to kill all of her children when a posse arrived in Ohio to hunt them back. The Novel is about the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver, a slave who managed to free herself from slavery by escaping to a free state. In 1873, Sethe and her Daughter Denver live in 124, a house in a remote area near to Cincinnati. The house was haunted by a ghost who was believed to be Sethe’s daughter. Sethe’s two sons ran away from their home because of the malevolent presence of an aggressive ghost. Denver likes the ghost, which she believes to be her sister’s spirit. Sethe is haunted herself by her memories of Sweet Home, a plantation, where she raised her children with her husband whom she has never seen since she fled away. After wandering her backyard, Sethe comes home to find Paul D sitting in her porch waiting for her. Paul is the last of male slaves to survive after their escape from Sweet Home. After learning about the ghost which haunted Sethe’s house, Paul decides to exorcise it, which is so sad for Denver who has no friend but her ghost sister. The coming of Paul D was a source of happiness, because he starts to listen to her stories and becomes her lover. However, Denver is never happy because she thinks that Paul is stealing her mother from her.

As the story unfolds more and more, Sethe lives happily in a black community for eighteen days when Schoolteacher appears to claim her and her children. When she beholds an approaching throng of horses and recognizes the Scoolteacher’ hat, Sethe garners all her children and runs to an empty woodshed. She intends to kill all of her children so as not to be returned to the misery of slavery. She manages to kill only her oldest daughter when Stamp Paid rescues the other children. Sethe is arrested and jailed but she is not held for long because she is a nursing mother. When she returns to 124 Bluestone, Sethe learns that Baby Suggs, appalled by the happenings in the woodshed, has given up preaching ad lost her will to survive. She also learns that the black community completely ostracised her and her children—They will not speak to her for eighteen years.

Just by giving a very brief synopsis of the novel, we begin to detect some similarities that the novel shares with slave narratives. It is about fugitive slaves who fled away from slavery to Northern Free States, and who were always haunted by the damaging effects of slavery. Slaves were denied unalienable rights that are very basic to all humans. The novel lays stress on the dehumanizing tactics deployed by slave-holders to subjugate their slaves. Dehumanising occurs when a human being is denied access to very basic human rights. It is then clear that Toni Morrison, when writing her novel, has acquainted herself with the literature concerning ex-slave narratives which were very popular in the ante-bellum America. By focusing on themes that are central to those narratives, Toni Morrison reproduced a text that speaks of the torments of slaves, by giving them life in a life-rendering story.

Beloved: a Text for Remembering Slavery

It seems that Toni Morrison’s ultimate goal was to bring into life the issue of slavery which seemed to be forgotten by modern American white historians. In Playing in The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison points to the fact that many modern literary historians fail to recognize that the black presence had any effect upon the vast literary product by Americans throughout the history of American literature.

Toni Morrison devoted her novel to the “Sixty Million or more,’’[2] people who died during the slave trade. But these people didn’t experience slavery and its aftermath as experienced by generations of black Americans. Even if they were victims themselves of the brutality of slavery, these sixty million people didn’t experience a long perturbing period of pain that African generations had to endure psychologically throughout the years after the slave emancipation. Though it’s essentially dedicated to the slaves who died in the time of slave trade, the novel is a text which is essentially made to memorialise the pernicious institution of slavery as it genuinely existed in the land of the free, the United States. As has been pointed above, the institution of slavery was cast into oblivion in the contemporary American culture.

‘’ There’s a necessity for remembering the horror, but of course, there’s a necessity for remembering it in a manner in which it can be digested, in a manner in which the memory is not destructive. The act of writing the book, in a way, is a way of confronting it and making it possible to remember’’[3]

Here Morrison argues that it’s not possible to overcome the trauma of slavery by trying to forget its horrors, but by remembering it in a way which makes it understood and perceived in its context, slavery as a dehumanising institution could be once again alive through the stories of those who rather suffered from its pernicious effects. The story is, thus, a bold gesture from Toni Morrison to confront the memory of slavery and make it easy to remember. Remembering slavery and its horrors, while trying to understand its effects, is the only thing that could help African American people to surmount the trauma of slavery. The text becomes a site for remembering the lives of those who lived and suffered from slavery. The Novel is a patchwork of snippets of memories, clippings of experience which were collaged to bring into life the sufferings of those who lived into slavery. This process of remembering reflects Morrison’s desire to re-connect and ‘’put something broken back together.’’[4] So rather than trying to forget slavery, remembering it makes it more amenable to be ‘’digested’’, and understood.

Toni Morrison, by drawing heavily on the story of Margaret Garner, has sought a compensation that could once again narrativize the anguish and pain of black people who suffered greatly during the slave trade. Remembering slavery gives life back to the sixty million people who died during its time. It is not something which could be utterly forgotten no matter how white historians would try to adopt a less disturbing tone when addressing the issue of slavery as was practiced in America.

[1] TheFugitive Slave LaworFugitive Slave Actwas passed by theUnited States Congress on September 18, 1850.

[2] This is an inscription at the beginning of the novel Beloved

[3] Danille Taylor-gutherie, ed, conversations with Toni Morrison ( Jackson: University Press of Mississipi, 1994), 248



Slave narrative is the form of literature which emerged as a reaction against the barbarity of slavery. It is through these accounts of authentic records that the evil system of slavery was exposed and later abolished. Those records were essentially written by former slaves who managed to free themselves from slavery by running to the Northern Free States. All slave narratives shared one theme which is the critique of the unspeakable institution of slavery, which stripped them of their humanity. They all endeavoured to offer their white audience with authentic insights into slavery and its brutal effects on slaves and slave-owners.

In the South, cotton was a commodity that was a key to the slave issue. By 1840, Cotton was more valuable than all the products the United States of America exported put together, and by 1860, the value of slaves was greater than the value of the entire American manufacturing, banking even if put together. This explains why the South was adamant to freeing slaves, and this also explains why such an inhuman law as the Fugitive Slave Law was implemented. The law which coerces Sethe in the novel to kill her daughter, and she could kill all her children, haven’t they been rescued. This incident only makes it clear that slavery was horrible and nightmarish to all black American slaves. A form of writing raised awareness about the issue of slavery, and that is slave narrative. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the first novel to tackle the issue of the Fugitive Slave Law, and Toni Morrison is a modern writer who reinvestigated it again, with more in depth psychological penetration.

Slave narratives were written mainly to address the issue of slavery, to launch an attack on the system of slavery itself, while ‘’postmodern slave narratives like beloved question not only the ideologies hidden with specific historical representations of slavery but also those ideologies that form the basis of Western historiography.’’[1] That is to say, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a revolutionist rewriting of the history of slavery. Her main concern is not slavery itself, but the way it was handled afterwards. On the other hand, we observe in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative a tone completely different than Ton Morrison’s in Beloved. His rhetoric’s, allusions, and logic are geared towards gaining sympathy from the white audience. Harriet Ann Jacobs even wrote her novel in compliance with the sentimental novel, which was in a certain way, the form of writing that attracts middle class Northern white women. This is not the case with Beloved which is written in an age where the writer enjoys more freedom of speech.

Toni Morrison produces a text based on memory, oral culture and elements of the gothic novel as structural and thematic devices. Her text is designed to remembering slavery through real incidents in its real historical context, though with a chronological distance that allows the writer to question the issue of slavery from different angles, with a precisely post-modern rewriting of slavery. Toni Morrison rewrites slavery, while drawing from a tradition set by early slave narratives, making it possible for us to go back in time when slavery was still practised.

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      Mahendrakumar Patle 3 years ago

      Toni Morrison has depicted the incessant plight, pain and suffering of African American people. Morrison: a powerful and dynamic voice of voiceless people.

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      Incorrect 4 years ago

      Sethe had 28 days, one moon cycle, before Schoolteacher came....

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      m,lml 4 years ago


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      writer 4 years ago

      You're welcome :) this is the kind of stuff I like writing about, being my major. I hope you enjoyed it

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      Ruby Jean Fuller 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I must say that this is heart wrenching and very sad. It is still difficult for me to read of the atrocities suffered by slaves. How any country could legalize slavery is a mystery that will never be explained truthfully. I want to read Toni Morrison's book. It is ironic, i received a letter from her yesterday requesting a donation to the organization ACLU of which i am a member. Thank you for this....

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      January Moon 4 years ago from NY, Now Living in Atlanta Ga

      I love Tony, she is one of my favorites