Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison

Photo by Nicole Rees-Williams.

By Sahina Sherchan.

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

This is not an easy read. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is about remembrance, a visit from the past disrupting the easy ignorance. We can no longer brush off conversations about slavery and the inequality that still persists in our society. This is a book in dedication to the “sixty million and more,” in reference to the Africans and their descendants who died in the Atlantic slave trade and subsequent institution of slavery. Pain stains and translates through generations in a way that is difficult to escape. 

But it is so much more than that. The matter of fact and poetic nature of Morrison’s writing completely envelops the reader. The novel follows a formerly enslaved woman named Sethe, with ghosts from generations that came before her and the anticipation of those who will come after. Set after the American Civil War, Beloved explores the life that Sethe and her daughter Denver have escaped to. The reader is taken on a journey weaving the reminiscent past with the living present. Throughout the book, they uncover exactly what Sethe and Denver are running from.

“Some things you forget. Other things you never do… Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place- the picture of it- stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.” 

The root of the problem and the suffering stays. Beloved was released in 1987, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the next year. The story is inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, who similarly escaped from slavery after the Civil War. However, Garner was more importantly remembered to have killed her own daughter instead of returning her to slavery. Morrison researched Garner’s life prior to writing Beloved, but at one point decided she no longer wanted to find out more- she wanted to tell her own version instead. Although the book is mostly fictional, the cruelty and torture described in the book were the lived experiences of many who have gone unmentioned in most traditional “history” books. 

Beloved explores so many agonizing experiences. There is the more obvious physical and psychological suffering brought on by slavery. But Beloved excels at portraying the nuanced effects of repression and pain that linger years after they’ve received the freedom that was rightfully theirs all along.  Not everyone can live explicitly. There are some who openly show their wounds but some who just can’t. But it is all still a cry for understanding and acceptance. These quieter yearnings and efforts to reclaim their ownership are highlighted in such a human and hauntingly beautiful way. In one instance, Sethe actively refuses the possibility of a future where she no longer is a fragmented self and can build relationships of her own. She is hesitant in accepting the luxury of a plan, plans as simple as allowing a man to love her, as simple as allowing herself to daydream about the prospect of a happier future. Sethe hesitating to plan a future of her own shows how difficult it was for her to claim ownership of her life. Another instance was the beautified description of whippings that Sethe withstood as a slave. 

“Your back got a whole tree on it. In bloom. What God have in mind, I wonder. I had me some whippings, but I don’t remember nothing like this.”

The beauty of the description is almost more painful than if it was literal. To me, Morrison’s language is a coping mechanism to soften the blow of all the painful memories, as if sugar-coating the reality would make it any less real. But I believe the aim and the effect might have actually been opposite. Her elusive description leaves the reader more shocked by their own imagination.

The way I see it, Beloved needs patience and understanding from the reader. The non-linear storyline, the circling, pain-filled narrative, and the overlap of life and death all need a tender reading. It’s as if your friend is opening up about a traumatic experience they have lived through. You don’t expect it to be bite-size or easy. You just listen. These stories, these realities, no matter what dosage, are necessary for all of us to take in.