The Bold but Unsuccessful Beloved
Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved, a vividly unconventional family saga, is set in Ohio in the mid 1880s. By that time slavery had been shattered by the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and the succeeding constitutional amendments, though daily reality for the freed slaves continued to be a matter of perpetual struggle, not only with segregation and its attendant insults, but the curse of memory.
Morrison’s heroine, Sethe, is literally haunted – by the baby daughter she killed in a gesture of terrible mercy, when threatened with recapture after her escape. Though robbed of friends by the poltergeist, she is living in the survivor’s state of stunned calm until one of her fellow slaves from Kentucky turns up on her doorstep after eighteen years. Paul D Garner, with his special quality of empathy, is “the kind of a man who could walk into a house and make the women cry.”
In the first few hours of his visit he rids Sethe’s house of the poltergeist, makes love to Sethe, and hugely antagonises her teenage daughter, Denver, not only by his interest in her mother, but because the poltergeist was her one companion.
The ghost, however, loses little time in effecting a more solid manifestation, as a young woman runaway whom Sethe shelters, and by whom she comes to be dominated. She gives up her job to be with Beloved and while the girl ghost thrives, she and Denver are reduced to near starvation. It is only when Denver dares to come out of her isolation and invoke the help of the rest of her black community that Beloved can be sent back to her grave and Sethe and Paul D. reunited.
Interwoven with this rather obviously symbolic story, and enriching it, is an account of the past lives of Sethe, Paul D., the anarchic Sixo and the other slaves who worked on the farm called ‘Sweet Home’. Morrison increases our sense of outrage of slavery by describing the system, initially, not at its most brutal but at its most enlightened. Mr Garner wants his slaves to be ‘men’ not ‘boys’; he encourages them to use their initiative, educate themselves, carry a gun. Sethe has the astonishing luck of six years of married life with the father of her children, “a blessing she was reckless enough to take for granted, lean on, as though Sweet Home really was one.”
The false idyll ends decisively when Garner dies and is replaced by the pedantic ‘Schoolteacher’, a cruel Mengele-like figure whose racism wears the trappings of ersatz science.
Toni Morrison can describe physical horror in an oddly delicate way that nevertheless makes the reader’s nerve-endings jump; her metaphorical devices have an intensifying rather than distancing effect. Sethe, pregnant, is beaten with a cowhide; she escapes and while on the run is tended by a white girl, Amy, who describes the wound on her back as a tree.
The well-worn metaphor of the tree-cross is thus brilliantly revitalised.
The story of the reincarnated Beloved takes up too much space in the narrative for it to be a mere symbolic embellishment. At times, especially in the book’s final pages, it seems that the girl speaks for all the “disremembered and unaccounted for”. Yet despite Morrison’s descriptive verse and exactness, the travails of a ghost cannot be made to resonate in quite the same way as those of a living woman or child. In a bold but unsuccessful ploy, Morrison lets Beloved take over the narrative at one point; while there is horror in her description of her escape from the grave – the hold of a slave-ship seems fleetingly invoked – the detail remains too vague for it to have as powerful and effect as those harrowingly physical journeys undertaken by the flesh-and-blood characters elsewhere in the novel.
As a family saga, ‘Beloved’ is somewhat lop-sided and suffers from gaps. The reader is left with several unanswered questions: what has happened to Sethe’s sons, Howard and Buglar, who though frequently invoked do not appear on stage? What will happen to Denver, whose new life is beginning as the novel ends?
In a ‘Guardian’ interview, Morrison spoke of her reluctance to end the story, and it certainly seems that there is more to be told. It may well be that Beloved’s story will turn out to be the painful, moving, but relatively minor part of a much larger narrative.