Content warning: violence, death, homicide, slavery, racism, bestiality, sexual assault/abuse
My fourth book in the 2022 challenge is Beloved by Toni Morrison. The book satisfies Category 10 of the challenge, a book that received a national literary award; namely, the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
I could have easily chosen this book for the controversial novel category, as it definitely provokes strong feelings in its readers. I didn’t want to talk about this aspect of the book, but I feel like I have to, especially with all the laws and potential laws attempting to govern what we can and can’t say about history and race.
In the negative Goodreads reviews for Beloved, one common complaint is that the reader felt Morrison wrote the book to make white people feel guilty. Let’s examine this claim.
As you might expect from a book mostly told from the perspectives of former slaves, the portrayal of most of the white people in it is less than flattering. And why would it be otherwise? Slavery is a disgusting chapter in our country’s history. I’d even say sugarcoating it does a disservice to the horrors that people experienced under slavery.
That said, I don’t think making white people feel guilty was among Morrison’s intentions for the book. For one thing, she talked about how difficult the book was for her to write. Oh, reading about slavery’s atrocities makes you uncomfortable? Imagine that the victims in these stories are your ancestors. Not only that, but to ensure that the story felt authentic, Morrison imagined herself in her characters’ shoes in various situations, including the parts where they make some gruesome choices.
It’s true that Morrison didn’t prioritize the comfort of white readers in Beloved, or probably in any of her books. That’s not the same thing as intentionally trying to make white people feel guilty, though. As white people, so much is centered around our preferences that if we don’t seek out other perspectives, anything that isn’t made for us can feel like an attack. But it isn’t. We’re not always the good guys, and telling those stories is totally fair game.
As of this writing, there is a bill working its way through the state legislature in Florida that would prohibit teachers from teaching anything that would make any individual feel guilt or discomfort. Now even if it’s signed into law, I think even the current Supreme Court will strike it down as unconstitutional. But the fact that it’s even gotten this far in the process should concern people. Education that never challenges you and only tells one side of the story isn’t education; it’s propaganda. There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t have shameful events in its history, and we should be able to discuss those events honestly.
OK, with all that out of the way, let’s discuss Beloved as a work of art.
The book’s protagonist, Sethe, is a woman who attempts to escape slavery with her children. At one point Sethe is close to being captured and kills one of her daughters, Beloved, to prevent her from being captured into slavery. Although Sethe and her other children ultimately don’t have to return to slavery, the trauma of their experiences haunts them in different ways, and Beloved’s spirit haunts the house where Sethe lives in isolation with Denver, her youngest daughter and the only surviving child of Sethe’s who hasn’t run away.
The story begins 18 years after Beloved’s death. Because of Sethe’s actions, she’s an outcast and basically only leaves the house to go to her job as a restaurant cook, which is where she also gets her food. By this point Denver has not left the house in years. But Sethe and Denver seem more or less at peace with Beloved’s spirit haunting the house, accepting it like another member of the family.
Everything changes when Sethe receives a visit from Paul D, one of her fellow former slaves from a Kentucky plantation called Sweet Home (clearly Morrison’s sense of irony was fully functional). Paul D has been harboring a crush on Sethe since they were at Sweet Home, and since Sethe’s husband is almost certainly dead, she’s available for a relationship, at least in theory.
In practice, Sethe is not accustomed to letting people in physically or emotionally, but against the odds, she invites Paul D to stay. Paul D, however, isn’t so comfortable with Beloved’s spirit hanging around, so he drives the spirit from the house. After that, Paul D, Sethe, and Denver start to build a life together.
One day Paul D takes Sethe and Denver to a local carnival, and when they return home, a young woman is sitting in front of the house. When they ask her who she is, she says her name is Beloved. Since she appears to be the same age that Sethe’s daughter would have been had she lived, Sethe and Denver immediately assume the young woman is some sort of manifestation of the Beloved who died 18 years prior. However, Beloved’s presence stresses Sethe’s relationship with Paul D, ultimately prompting him to leave. Over time Sethe behaves more erratically as Beloved’s behavior turns parasitic.
What I liked
It’s not necessary to be a master of the language to be an effective writer, but it’s so nice when you encounter one, which Morrison is. For example:
Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight, copper dirt, moon—everything belonged to the men who had the guns.Beloved, Part One
I love the way that Morrison combines the beautiful imagery from nature with the brutality of, in this instance, a prison chain gang.
Another thing I liked about this book was that it wasn’t preachy. I felt like the characters were fully realized and not just stand-ins for principles that Morrison wanted to illustrate. It’s all too common in books that try to make political points that the characters are one-dimensional straw men. But with Beloved, even when I didn’t like a choice that a character made, at least I believed it. No character is completely good or beyond redemption. That’s a testament to the book as a work of art, which sometimes gets buried in all the discourse about the book’s themes.
What I didn’t like
About two-thirds of the way through the book, there are these stream-of-consciousness monologues from Sethe, Denver, and Beloved that eventually merge into some kind of counterpoint. While they’re some of the most beautifully written passages in the book, I didn’t feel they advanced the story. They just put extra emphasis on something I already thought was pretty clear by that point.
If it isn’t obvious by now, I highly recommend this book. Especially if you’re white and had to read Gone With the Wind in high school, as I did. Yes, there is a lot of disturbing material in there. But we owe it to ourselves to know the truth about what slavery was like.
Incidentally, although the book mostly concerns former slaves’ experiences and how degrading and even dehumanizing those experiences were, Morrison points out that the perpetrators of slavery also damaged their own humanity in the process. She expressed a similar view years later in an interview with Charlie Rose. If you’re the kind of person who has to treat other people as less than human to feel good about yourself, what does that say about you?
Tl;dr – you shouldn’t read Beloved because it’s good for you. You should read it because it’s good.
My next book will be Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi. It satisfies Category 1 of the challenge, a novel published in 2022. This appears to be another one that makes some readers uncomfortable, so I’m curious to see how it plays out.
Have you read Beloved? What’s your favorite book that made you uncomfortable? Drop your thoughts in the comments!
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