Beloved has been characterized as historical fiction, gothic horror story and bildungsroman, and I think it is really all of this. Critics who disapproved of the novel have called it "blackface holocaust" and a revamped "heart of darkness"; I think that up to a certain degree they are right as well. The novel is based on a news clipping, makes use of themes and images of the gothic horror story and there clearly is a development of Sethe, the major character, that can be categorized as rite of passage. The living conditions of the slaves in America do certainly have similarities to those of the victims of the holocaust and Heart of Darkness shows as well at least some elements of gothic horror stories and rite of passage novels.
Marcia Ann Gillespie once said that through all her major characters, Toni Morrison asks her readers the same question again and again:
What is power? What is love? What´s the real cost of living? Who and what can you claim and or control? What tricks do you have to play in order to get through? How do you define yourself?
Although all of these questions are somehow with us all the time, it is in the most extreme situations that they come to claim their place as the foundation we all have to build our lives on. In my opinion Morrison is very right to create a story that is as cruel and gruesome as Beloved. The news story on Margaret Garner, the Kentucky slave woman who in 1855 murdered one of her four children to save it from being taken away from her by the slave hunters, shows once more that reality tends to be more cruel than a writer´s imagination.
There are two reasons why I liked Beloved more than Morrison´s other novels. One is her concept of rememory, the way the characters´ memories change each and every time they relive them. The other is the way she uses flashbacks, circular narrative and different viewpoints to give away only little pieces of Sethe´s story at a time. There is not the "truth" that gives us a clear picture of Sethe´s past and allows us to judge her one way or the other. As in "real life" truth and reality in Beloved can rather be seen as abstract ideas than something one can base his actions and judgements on.
Having first read Sula and then Song of Solomon it was indeed Song of Solomon that left me with a craving for more of Morrison´s works. And so, it was with this new found hunger that I approached Beloved, Toni Morrison´s fifth published novel, the story of a slave mother who kills her own baby in order to spare her the horrors of slavery.
I found the novel completely different from Sula and Song of Solomon, and to be a complex but most enjoyable read. The narrative is based around, as the main character Sethe labels it, "rememory" - where it is possible to bump into and inhabit another person´s memory. It is through this process that the events of the story unfold, each time from a different character´s point of view. I was most intrigued by the character Sethe, the mother who commits the infanticide. It is through the process of ´rememory´ that we get most of our information about Sethe. For me her character was always being developed and exposed through another character´s point of view. She was always being rounded and shaped by events that happened to her, and circumstances she was placed in; very seldom did we experience Sethe´s own feelings. I finished the novel feeling that, whereas I appreciated it, I never got to know the real Sethe - this was no doubt intentional on Toni Morrison´s part. Perhaps Sethe´s soul was long dead.
Irish exchange student
Toni Morrison's novels Song of Solomon and Beloved both deal with a plethora of themes; among the ones they have in common is the problem of how to deal with the dead. In both books it seems that you have to carry the bones of the deceased on your back, both literally and figuratively, until you have buried them, also in these two ways.
In Song of Solomon, Pilate takes what turn out to be her father's bones along with her for decades during her wanderings. When at last they are buried, Pilate feels secure in her identity and no longer needs to bear her name with her at all times in a little brass box strung through her earlobe. The sack containing the bones thus symbolizes the spiritual load Pilate has had to carry through life.
In Beloved the literal interment of an infant daughter is quickly done, but the figurative burial takes two decades. Sethe has killed her daughter out of love to save her from slavery. The burial takes place in the proper way: There are a pastor and a pink granite tombstone with at least one word carved on it, "Beloved". Sethe has even prostituted herself to achieve this measure of decorum and commemoration. But for twenty years Sethe is haunted by her daughter's spirit. Only by giving the ghost all she would gladly have given to the living daughter during the past twenty years - and thus in several ways nearly bleeding herself to death - does Sethe find her peace of mind again, with the help of her living daughter Denver and finally the community of women in the neighborhood.