Toni Morrisons Pulitzer Prize winning book Beloved, is a historical novel that serves as a memorial for those who died during the perils of slavery. The novel serves as a voice that speaks for the silenced reality of slavery for both men and women. Morrison in this novel gives a voice to those who were denied one, in particular African American women. It is a novel that rediscovers the African American experience. The novel undermines the conventional idea of a storys time scheme. Instead, Morrison combines the past and the present together. The book is set up as a circling of memories of the past, which continuously reoccur in the book. The past is embedded in the present, and the present has no foundation without the past. Morrison breaks up the time sequence using the visions of the past that arouse forgotten experiences and emotions. The visions of the various occurrences of slavery survive time and continue to haunt not only the characters directly involved, but also their loved ones. In Beloved, Morrison makes the past visible in the present by making it into a tangible place that can be revisited, where people can be seen and touched, and where images and pictures survive and are projected outward from the mind.
Morrison transforms these projected images into events for the reader to experience. The reader becomes part of the tradition of passing on the memories of the past. Yet, in the last two pages of the novel, Morrison instructs her readers that Beloved is not a story to be passed on. (275) It is not a story about happiness or healing or the success of one womans escape from slavery. Rather, Morrison communicates these images through a maze of emotions to accentuate the pain and suffering left by the remains of slavery. It is the story and the experience that Morrison wishes for the reader to remember, and not the characters. The novel is based on real events, that have past and been forgotten. Yet Morrison is not telling a story about happiness or healing or the success of women escaped from slavery. Rather Morrison delivers the past experiences of enslaved African American women, a past which is often forgotten. In the novel, Morrison brings to life the events and the stories that become permanently imprinted on the readers conscious. Morrison communicates these images through a maze of emotions that accentuate the pain and suffering left by the remains of slavery. Morrison wants the reader not to remember the characters; instead it is their experience that she wants the reader to remember. Throughout
Beloved, the past is continually brought forth in the present, both physically and mentally through visual images, particularly those relating to slavery. The life at sweet home is all too real to escape for Sethe, her family, and all the others who once lived there. Sethe is continually brought back to Sweet Home through her rememory, against her own will to forget. Physically, Sethes body bares her memory of Sweet Home; the choketree that is on her back, a maze that Paul D describes as a decorated work of an ironsmith too passionate to display (17). Yet, it is not the physical markings that cause the most pain to those who survived the bonds of slavery, as the story strongly points out, it is the mental images that haunt them along with past emotions of fear, horror, and regret, that manifest themselves physically with vengeance. Morrison uses the word rememory to mean the act of remembering a memory.
This rememory is when a memory is revisited, whether physically or mentally. Yet the word is not a verb but a noun. It is an actual thing, person or a place that takes on the existence of a noun. When Sethe explains rememory to Denver, she states, If a house burns down, its gone, but the place-the picture of it-stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around there outside my head. I mean, even if I dont think about it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. (36) To both Sethe and Denver, the past is inescapable. Denver come to realize that the past is something that cannot be blotted out. It is the question of the past, asked by Nelson Lord, that makes her understand the present. She was so happy she didnt even know she was being avoided by her classmates-that they made excuses and altered their pace not to walk with her.
It was Nelson Lord-the boy as smart as she was-who put a stop to it; who asked her the question about her mother that put chalk, the little i and all the rest that those afternoons held, out of reach forever….but the thing that leapt up in her when he asked it was a thing that had been lying there all along. (102) Denver, while attending school at Lady Jones, first comes to understand the past of 124. Ironically it is hearing this, which causes Denver to lose her hearing. It is her means of blocking out the past that is too painful for her to accept. Even when she did muster the courage to ask Nelson Lords question, she could not hear Sethes answer, nor Baby Suggs words, nor anything at all thereafter…. For two years she heard nothing at all and then she heard close thunder crawling up the stairs…. The return of Denvers hearing, cut off by an answer she could not bear to hear, cut on by the sound of her dead sister trying to climb the stairs…. (103-104) The past exists on its own and lingers in the air, haunting all those who live in the present. What is scary about this idea of rememory, however, is that it effects everyone, not just the person who experienced the event.
The rememories are tangible. Sethe explains, Its never going away. The picture is still there and whats more, if you go there-you who never was there-if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you. (36) Sethe though tries to protect Denver from the past by keeping it from her. She tells Denver, Its when you bump into a rememory that belongs to someone else….So, Denver, you cant never go there. Never. Because even though its all over- over and done with- its going to always be there waiting for you (36). Sethe tries to keep Denver away from the expereince of slavery. So by keeping Denver from the reality of the past, Sethe is preventing her from experiencing the trauma of slavery. But eventually, Denver is awakened by the past as she is forced to take responsibility for saving her mother from the same past that her mother tried to save her from.
Somebody had to be saved, but unless Denver got work, there would be no one to save, no one to come home to, and no Denver either. It was a new thought, having to look out for and preserve. And it might not have occurred to her if she hadnt met Nelson Lord leaving his grandmothers house as Denver entered it to pay a thank you for half a pie. All he did was smile and say, Take care of yourself, Denver, but she heard it as though it were what language was made for. The last time he spoke to her his words blocked up her ears. Now they opened her mind. (252) In the end of the novel when the mob of the townspeople visit 124 Bluestone road for the first time in ages, they fall into their own rememories, and see themselves as children in their own past. They are forced to return to the party that took place before the arrival of Schoolteacher. When they caught up with each other, all thirty, and arrived at 124, the first thing they saw was not Denver sitting on the steps, but themselves. Younger, stronger, even as little girls lying in the grass asleep.
Catfish was popping grease in the pan and they saw themselves scoop German potato salad onto the plate. Cobbler oozing purple syrup colored their teeth. They sat on the porch, ran down to the creek, teased the men, hoisted children on their hips or, if they were the children, straddled the ankles of the old men who held their little hands while giving them a horsey ride. Baby Suggs laughed and skipped among them, urging more. Mothers, dead now, moved their shoulders to mouth harps. The fence they leaned on and climbed over was gone. The stump of the butternut had split like a fan. But there they were, young and happy, playing in Baby Suggs yard, not the envy that surfaced the next day. (258) It is almost as if these places exist devoid of time and space, and appear in the form of the past, serving as a permanent reminders of a time that most of these characters long to forget, not pass on.
Their souls are branded with the memories of slavery, chain gangs, lynchings and beatings. The memories still exist for the characters in the book, even though the Civil War has been won and slavery abolished. Morrison moves around in the novel, allowing each character to in turn, share pieces of their rememory. This multiple narrative viewpoint enables Morrison to fully establish the past, which she has created. Each account of suffering has the haunting of 124 as its center, while the events which caused it explained in ever-widening detail, embracing the composite experience of slavery. The enormity of the experience focuses on the triple burden carried by African American women who had no control over their children or their bodies. Along with the rememories that resurface to the present, there are also mental images, or pictured thoughts that arrest the mind and torment the heart. It is futile to try and escape, or to try to beat back the past, because like the places, the images that are revived by the brain are even stronger.
This is something that Sethe comes to learn in the book. She shook her head from side to side, resigned her rebellious brain. Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept? Like a greedy child it snatched up everything. Just once, could it say, No thank you? I just ate and cant hold another bite? I am full God damn it of two boys with mossy teeth, one suckling on my breast the other holding me down, their book-reading teacher writing it up. I am full of that, God damn it, I cant go back and add more. (70) Yet she does add more, because she is forced to. The internal and external scars which slavery has left on Sethes soul are irreparable. Her brain will not let her forget the images ingrained in her mind, just as Paul D is haunted by his own images; nights in the cellar, pig fever, iron bits, smiling roosters, fired feet, laughing dead men, hissing grass, rain, apple blossoms, neck jewelry, Judy in the cherry trees, cameo pins, aspens, Paul As face, sausage or the loss of a red, red heart. (235)
Paul D similar to Sethe also tries to forget his past. Paul hides his past inside his tin heart: It was some time before he could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest. By the time her got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open. (113) While Paul D helps Sethe face her own past, he too is forced to return to his own past and open his sealed tin heart. Going back to the past disrupts the peace of the present for both Paul D and Sethe. Even though they do share their memories, there is only so much that both of them are willing to divulge. They both share the same belief that it is best to keep the past buried. Saying more might push them both to a place they couldnt get back from (72). For both Sethe and Paul D, Beloved forces the two of them to deal with the past they are afraid to. Part of Beloveds character is her mechanism for causing others to deal with their pasts. The image of the tobacco tin containing all of Paul Ds repressed memories of abuse and degradation through his life of slavery is used throughout his story.
This tin container is the means for holding what his soul cannot. But Beloved seduces Paul D in the cold house, thus provoking the flaking of the rusty tin and exposure of his red heart (p117). She moved closer with a footfall he didnt hear and he didnt hear the whisper that the flakes of rust made either as they fell away from the seams of his tobacco tin. So when the lid gave he didnt know it. What he knew was when he reached the inside past he was saying, Red heart. Red heart, over and over again. (117) Sethe goes through a cycle in the novel. She goes from one extreme to the other. Sethe at first is insistent on beating back the past. With everything she does in the present, is a means to erase the past. Working dough. Working, working dough. Nothing better than to start the days serious work of beating back the past (73). Eventually Sethe is forced to face the past because of Paul D and Beloved. When she finally is able to face her past, she becomes a different woman. She becomes so infatuated with her past that she begins to neglect the present.
She neglects her life and the responsibilities of the present. Beloved plays the key role in the process of rememory for Sethe. It is Beloved who makes Sethe remember her actions and feel her feelings. In the novel, she exists in the flesh, baring the scar of death along her neck. She is in a sense, the ultimate rememory- the ultimate reincarnation of a miserable past burdened by the horrors of slavery. As Paul D tells Stamp Paid, She reminds me of something. Something, look like, Im suppose to remember (234). In Beloveds monologues, she conveys a series of impressions of the terror of the life of the baby ghost and the blended memories of slavery. Although it is never clear whether Beloved comes back to life out of her own will, or if she is just the product of Sethes mind that longs for redemption.
Beloveds image disrupts the life of the present, defies all laws of coherent time-lines, and leaves in its wake an open scar still bleeding from the past. All these images of the past that find a life in the present erase the boundary between time, and leave in its place a life of eternal regression. Many of the characters are aware of this and refer often to the idea of timelessness. After Sethe realizes that Beloved is her deceased daughter, she rushes back from work, longing to return home. Sethe becomes trapped in the past she had first denied. She forgets herself and wallows in her past pain. Once again with Beloved, Sethe puts the girls interest ahead of her own. Morrison shows the complexities of Sethes character, which is a woman who chooses to love her children but not herself. Structurally, Morrison mirrors this idea of timelessness in her writing. Throughout Beloveds entire monologue there are no periods, and no endings- only spaces. The same idea prevails with time. There are no beginnings and no ends, just a long expanse of chaos.
One of the ways Morrison depicts this sense of chaos is by switching and intermingling tenses throughout the book. The scene in which Paul D tries to tell Sethe about what Beloved is doing to him, but instead asks her to have another child, is taking place in their present, yet it is written in the past tense: He waited for her. (126) Yet, later in the novel, when Paul D is remembering the past and the days before they all planned their escape from Sweet Home, Morrison switches her tense to the present: Paul A goes back to moving timber after dinner. They are to meet at quarters after supper (224). Morrison includes the voices and perspectives of the deceased, including that of Baby Suggs. All of these tense changes show how the characters in the novel perceive time, or no time (191).
Their pasts are being relived in their present, and the present time immediately flows into the past. Time is not depicted in a linear progression. Instead, time is presented as an interweaving of past and present events in an ever-widening circle, with the past juxtaposed on the present. Morrisons technique is deliberate, for the issues that she is addressing are too horrific. Similar to how Sethe explains Beloveds murder to Paul D, Morrison too circles around the subject. She never directly acknowledges her actions as murder. Sethes blindness is such that she displays her love by mercifully sparing her daughter from a horrific life. Yet at the same time Sethe refuses to acknowledge that her show of mercy is also murder. Sethe knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. If they didnt get it right off- she could never explain.
Because the truth was simple, not long-drawn-out record of flowered shifts, tree cages, selfishness, ankle ropes and wells. Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteachers hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she though anything it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away over where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe. (163) Morrison, in the same fashion, spirals into the story. She brings the reader from being that of an outsider to an insider to the events. She slowly draws the reader in by giving bits and pieces of the entire picture. Reading this novel, one comes away with a sense that the past, as well as the people, never dies. The past, present, and future all exist together.
The characters stories are not forgotten, nor the sixty million or more people that were victims of the bonds of slavery. Yet, to resurrect all these images of pain and suffering, only extends the burdens that each of Morrisons characters are forced to carry with them for the rest of their lives. They could resurrect the past if they like, but dont, because they know things will never be the same if they do (275). Amy Denver told Sethe that anything dead coming back to life hurts (35). She refers to the soreness in Sethes feet that are the result of several days of brutal physical exhaustion. Her astute generalization holds true particularly through the last pages of the novel. Throughout the book, healing the painful memories of the past reincarnates the painful emotions. Similar to the pain of healing that occurs with Sethes feet.
The more hurt more better it is. Cant nothing heal without pain, you know (77). Nonetheless, why does Morrison explicitly draw the label of rememories paired with pain, even after 18 years of mental torment? Sethes sins are obvious and she is forced to live half of her life ostracized from society. Yet, the reader is not quick to condemn her for her sins as the community and Paul D are quick to do. Beloved returns to 124 Bluestone as the reincarnation of Sethes sins, on a mission to punish Sethe for a crime that was committed 18 years earlier. Her intentions are evil from the start, and it is Denver, who ironically undermines Beloveds motives. Denver though she understood the connection between her mother and Beloved: Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it (251). It is not Beloveds wrath that plagues Sethe, but rather the memories of the past that Beloved revives that wear her down.
Beloved uses Sethes guilt as a weapon against her. Her devotion to Beloved is based on the same destructive love of the past and also her sense of guilt. She is nave in the sense when she looks upon Beloved as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. But instead, the past is replayed against Sethe. The source of guilt that had enslaved Sethes soul develops into the physical apparition that literally enslaves Sethe. Beloved bending over Sethe looked the mother, Sethe the teething child, for other than those times when Beloved needed her, Sethe confined herself to a corner chair. The bigger Beloved got, the smaller Sethe became; the brighter Beloveds eyes, the more those eyes that used never to look away became slits of sleeplessness. Sethe no longer combed her hair or splashed her face with water. She sat in the chair licking her lips like a chastised child while Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it.
And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur. (250) Sethe is nave when she tries to rationalize Beloveds existence as an opportunity to start over, to erase eighteen years of guilt. Sethe has managed to suppress many of the memories of her past. Now with Beloveds presence, everything that originally made 124 a house of horror is resurrected. She is an invasion of two separate time periods, connecting all of the painful rememories. Thus, Morrison confronts her readers with several varying degrees of pain and guilt. From the late introduction of Sethes crime, the reader understands the circumstance of the situation. Sethe committed her crime out of a severe degree of love and fear of slavery that forced her to a crazed state. Such complicated issues and emotions are not easily transferable to those who have not directly experienced the gravity of these events. Sethe knowingly endures eighteen years of punishment, guilt, and ostracism for the death of her child. For this reason, she does not see Beloved as a phantom of vengeance, but rather as a second opportunity to be forgiven.
Morrison essentially creates this sense of pardoning of Sethe by the destruction of Beloved at the end of the book, a minor tribute to all the pain and anguish Sethe endures over the years. Yet are these characters necessarily blameworthy for their crimes? Are pain and punishment caused by their victims justified? In Beloved, the reader is unable to fully comprehend Sethes actions, but the pain she suffers over the years more than makes up for her crime. In addition, there is no justice in Beloveds attempt to destroy Sethe. It is the community lead by Ella, which had for so long condemned her that in the end saves Sethe from Beloved. They come to realize that regardless of the crime that Sethe committed eighteen years before, it is Beloveds intentions that are pure evil. Whatever Sethe had done, Ella didnt like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present. Sethes crime was staggering and her pride outstripped even that; but she could not countenance the possibility of sin moving on in the house, unleashed and sassy.
Daily life took as much as she had. The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind. And if it didnt stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out. (256) Beloved invades Sethes world at a time when eighteen years of painful rememories were just beginning to fade. Beloved drudges up the past and brings the nightmare to life. Beloved does not only bring forth the painful rememories of Sethe, but also the rememories of past women of slavery. Beloved conjures up all these images of painful rememories. It is these images that are passed on and remebered by the reader. It is these images that allow the reader to begin to understand the experience of slavery. The characters rememories are timeless; not only are the characters struck by a sense of no-time, or a sense of time flying, but the reader as well is struck by how strongly they are affected in their present by a past that is not even theirs. Morrison brings forth a novel that opens the experience of slavery to the reader. She makes the reader see the hopelessness, horrors, and realities of slavery.
The reader is forced to contemplate and only try to understand. Beloved stands not as a story, but as a memorial to the sixty million or more people that were victims of the bonds of slavery. This is a book that is not to be read, but instead experienced. It is through this novel itself, that the past lives on, and it is this power that makes Beloved stand out and succeed as being a memorial to those who suffered and died; those who would have been forgotten in the past. In essence, Beloved is not a story about slavery and its affect on the people involved, instead it is the experience. For Morrison, history is something to be reflected on, and she does this by reenacting the horrors of slavery and the impacts it had on the people involved. The reader is left to come to their own conclusions, and their own interpretations. What Morrison is essentially saying at the end is that Beloved is not just about individuals and individual experiences but about the experience of a race and a community.