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The Post-Modernist American Short Story - Toni Morrison – Beloved

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The Post-Modernist American Short Story

Toni Morrison – Beloved




Toni Morrison (born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931), is a Nobel Prize-winning American author, editor, and professor. Her novel Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988.

Toni Morrison wrote Beloved on a foundation of historical events. The most significant event within the novel - the 'Misery', or Sethe's murder of Beloved - is based on an actual historical event. In 1856, Margaret Garner murdered her children to prevent them from being recaptured and taken back into slavery with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Morrison admits to 'an obsession' with this account after she discovered it while helping edit a scrapbook on black history. This gives the novel a powerful impact.

Plot summary

The book follows the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver as they try to rebuild their lives after having escaped from slavery. One day, a young lady shows up at their house, saying that her name is 'Beloved.' Sethe comes to believe that the girl is another of her daughters, whom Sethe murdered by slitting her throat with a handsaw when she was only two years old to save her from a life of slavery, and whose tombstone reads 'Beloved.' Beloved's return consumes Sethe to the point where she ignores her other daughter and even her own needs, while Beloved becomes more and more demanding.

The novel follows in the tradition of slave narratives, but also confronts the more painful and taboo aspects of slavery, such as sexual abuse and violence. Morrison feels these issues were avoided in the traditional slave narratives. In the novel, she explores the effects on the characters, Paul D and Sethe, of trying to repress—and then come to terms with—the painful memories of their past.

Beloved – the character

Beloved’s elusive, complex identity is central to our understanding of the novel. She may, as Sethe originally believes, be an ordinary woman who was locked up by a white man and never let out of doors. Her limited linguistic ability, neediness, baby-soft skin, and emotional instability could all be explained by a lifetime spent in captivity. But these traits could also support the theory that is held by most of the characters in the novel, as well as most readers: Beloved is the embodied spirit of Sethe’s dead daughter.

Beloved is the age the baby would have been had it lived, and she bears the name printed on the baby’s tombstone. She first appears to Sethe soaking wet, as though newly born, and Sethe has the sensation of her water breaking when she sees her. Additionally, Beloved knows about a pair of earrings Sethe possessed long ago, she hums a song Sethe made up for her children, she has a long scar under her chin where her death-wound would have been dealt, and her breath smells like milk.

A third interpretation views Beloved as a representation of Sethe’s dead mother. In Chapter 22, Beloved recounts memories that correspond to those that Sethe’s mother might have had of her passage to America from Africa.

Beloved is presented as an allegorical figure. Whether she is Sethe’s daughter, Sethe’s mother, or a representative of all of slavery’s victims, Beloved represents the past returned to haunt the present. The characters’ confrontations with Beloved and, consequently, their pasts, are complex. The interaction between Beloved and Sethe is given particular attention in the book. Paradoxically, Beloved’s presence is enabling at the same time that it is destructive. Beloved allows and inspires Sethe to tell the stories she never tells—stories about her own feelings of abandonment by her mother, about the harshest indignities she suffered at Sweet Home, and about her motivations for murdering her daughter. By engaging with her past, Sethe begins to learn about herself and the extent of her ability to live in the present.



Although Beloved vanishes at the end of the book, she is never really gone—her dress and her story, forgotten by the town but preserved by the novel, remain. Beloved represents a destructive and painful past, but she also signals the possibility of a brighter future. She gives the people of 124, and eventually the entire community, a chance to engage with the memories they have suppressed. Through confrontation, the community can reclaim and learn from its forgotten and ignored memories.

Chapter 22.

Summary of the excerpt

She begins, “I am Beloved and she is mine.” Her patchy memories are of a time when she crouched among dead bodies. She speaks of thirst and hunger, of death and sickness, and of “men without skin.” She says all the people are trying to leave their bodies behind.

Beloved remembers a woman putting leaves into a round basket. Then she remembers clouds getting in the way. A man above Beloved is dead. Beloved goes on in fragments about memories of this dead man on top of her and her fascination with his pointed, sharp white teeth, all the while referring to 'a hot thing.' She talks about white men who do unspecified things to Beloved and unknown others. The man with white teeth is pulled off of her and she misses his sharp teeth. It is so crowded that Beloved cannot fall. She sees a woman with something on her neck. Beloved focuses on a woman whose face she “wants” because it is hers. The rest of the monologue consists of Beloved’s description of her attempt to “join” with the woman. She wishes she could bite the “iron circle” from around the woman’s neck and mentions the woman’s “sharp earrings” and “round basket” several times. 'I see the dark face that is going to smile at me it is my dark face that is going to smile at me the iron circle is around our neck she does not have sharp earrings in her ears or a round basket she goes in the water with my face' Chapter 22, pg. 212

At the end of the chapter, Beloved is “in the water,” and neither she nor the woman has an iron circle around her neck any longer. : 'again again - night day - night day - I am waiting - no iron circle is around my neck.' So strong is Beloved's identification with her mother that the child's spirit loses itself in love: '[S]he is the laugh - I am the laugher - I see her face which is mine.'

In a surreal depiction of the watery division between earth and the afterlife that fails to separate Sethe from her daughter, the departed spirit remains 'in the water under the bridge.'

Beloved is waiting in water and looks down below “where the blue is and the grass.' She sees a face down there and wants the face to smile at her. She realizes that the face she sees is her face, which looks up at her through the water. Her face comes through the water and leads her down to the grass below, where a woman is waiting. She follows the woman, who is Sethe. She whispers to Beloved and touches her. Beloved imagines that 'she chews and swallows me.' But then Beloved sees herself swim away. She then describes emerging from the water and needing to find a place to be. She says “I am not dead I sit the sun closes my eyes when I open them I see the face I lost Sethe's is the face that left me Sethe sees me see her and I see the smile her smiling face is the place for me it is the face I lost she is my face smiling at me doing it at last a hot thing.” Beloved ends her monologue by saying, “now we can join a hot thing now we can join” Chapter 22, pg. 213



Analysis of the excerpt

This excerpt constitutes Beloved’s fragmented and complex first-person stream-of-consciousness monologue. This surrealistic chapter is seen from the perspective of the “other side” and is narrated by Beloved. It is a clear example of magic realism, juxtaposig 2 modes of representation which normally exist in opposition realism – her experience, fantastic, magic – her existence, because she is a ghost

She find it difficult to express herself, as she explains, 'how can I say things that are pictures.' On 'the little hill of dead people,' she is troubled by 'a hot thing'; the sensory impression Beloved describes represents Sethe's determined spirit, which wills her daughter back to earth. This is again an element of magic realism, her presence in the house is quite real to the persons around her but the way she got there is quite magical.

Beloved’s monologue is highly impressionistic, incredibly dense, and its meaning is elusive. The cramped, dark place that she describes could be a grave where death is a 'dead man on my face' and 'daylight comes through the cracks'. It could also be a metaphorical, inescapable womb. It could also be that Beloved is describing a slave ship transporting Africans to America. For instance, she mentions piled-up corpses. Packed in overcrowded hulls, many Africans died of disease and starvation on the journey to America. Beloved’s references to rape echo the experiences of Sethe’s mother, who was “taken up many times by the crew” during the Middle Passage. Sea-colored bread refers to the moldy, inedible provisions on board, and the “hot thing” could be a branding iron like the one that marked Sethe’s mother. The “men without skin” seem to be the white captors and masters who oppressed the slaves. Thus, Beloved reminds Sethe not only of the crime for which Sethe cannot forgive herself but also functions as a conduit for memories of the history of slavery. Within the novel, the two are certainly presented as interlinked, and Sethe needs to come to terms with both her family’s history and the history of slavery.

In order to capture the floating thoughts of an apparition, Morrison foregoes punctuation, leaving only spaces between words and capitalization. She also has Beloved exist only in the present, for earthly time has no meaning in the other world. Because she was killed as a young child, Beloved’s thought processes are not fully evolved into mature thinking.

What prevails in this extract is Beloved’s magical depiction and the magical elements with which Beloved describes her experiences in the other world or on her coming back to live. Her depiction and her identity are so vague that her journey could be any African’s journey to America.






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