Beloved is actually a quintessentially American story. Its topic slavery however may not seem to be a traditional one in American literature. The novel written by Toni Morrison is an American survivors tale, which depicts the collective experience of slavery defined by the identity of the black community in America for years. The topic of slavery continues to be a vital part of the American consciousness today, in addition, slavery as an institution was a part of American culture as a whole until the Civil War, and its repercussions on race relations are still being felt today.
The genre of the survivor’s tale is one way that contemporary authors can depict and discuss this formative American experience. Beloved is the tale of Sethe, a survivor of slavery, and her family. Sethe is an escaped slave who made the split second decision to kill her daughter, rather than have her return to a life of enslavement. The entire novel revolves around this horrific act; the entire story is slowly unraveled through the remembrances of Sethe and others. These memories and “re-memories” do not follow chronological order.
However, when they are all pieced together, the whole picture of slavery, Sethe’s act, and its aftermath emerges. A universal characteristic of the survivor’s tale is the subjectivity and incompleteness of the survivor’s knowledge. The author works to provide a more objective view of events by including several storytellers. Digression also provides a more complete picture by including minute details, such as the story of Miss Amy Denver and her love of velvet. Entwined with digression is regression. The story is told in the present, referring back to different points in the past.
These references are interrupted, and jumbled chronologically, reflecting the survivor’s inability to dwell in one area for too long and his or her own difficulty in articulating the story. Oftentimes, this regression stems from the pain of the memories. In Beloved, these digressions and regressions take the form of “re-memory”. The concept of re-memory is central in the authors telling of Sethe’s story. Sethe explains what a re-memory is to her remaining daughter Denver in the following passage: . . . Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay.
I used to think it was my re-memory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the picture of it-stays, and not just in my re-memory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened. ” A re-memory differs from a memory because it can be shared.
The collective nature of slavery created re-memories, known to more than one person. Even those who never shared in the experience can know its terror. Sethe’s re-memories about slavery are excruciatingly painful for her to talk about. She does not want her daughter to know the horror of slavery, and yet Sethe herself will never forget that horror. That is the paradox for Sethe: how to overcome the trauma of slavery while the memory of it still lives. The author stresses the collective nature of the experience of slavery, though she tells an individual story.
Though Beloved has a strong community focus, the author also explores the alienation that results from Sethe’s act. Sethe and Denver become isolated for a time, not only from the white community, but from the black community as well. Here the author delves into the divisions within the black community. Sethe’s isolation creates a more complex picture of the effects of slavery. The racial divisions are not purely polarized, black and white, but rather they are suggested. This is a key component to the authors approach to the survivor’s tale: individuality within community.
It is important to note, though, that the community does finally embrace Sethe and Denver. Beloved is a survivor’s tale that explores the American experience with slavery. Toni Morrison masterfully delves into that experience through the story of one woman. She has fictionalized the account in order to add more universal aspects to the story. Morrison accomplishes this task through the use of several devices, some traditional (digression and regression) and some more unique (interior monologues). The result is a story that holds meaning on different levels for all readers.