Book review: ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

When reading the first few chapters of “Beloved,” I wondered not only how did the novel get that name, but who or what was Beloved? The story begins in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1873. Since this is not the Old South, Negroes live in relative freedom. Sethe, an escapee from Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky, has lived in 124 for some time. When she escaped, she came here to live with her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs (there is a reason for the strange name), who has now been dead eight years. Baby Suggs had been well respected for her gift of spreading the Word and for her good deeds. 124 had been the place to stop if you were new in town or had a need. No more. We learn that there is a considerable backstory.

When reading the first few chapters of “Beloved,” I wondered not only how did the novel get that name, but who or what was Beloved? The story begins in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1873. Since this is not the Old South, Negroes live in relative freedom. Sethe, an escapee from Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky, has lived in 124 for some time. When she escaped, she came here to live with her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs (there is a reason for the strange name), who has now been dead eight years. Baby Suggs had been well respected for her gift of spreading the Word and for her good deeds. 124 had been the place to stop if you were new in town or had a need. No more. We learn that there is a considerable backstory.

It’s about here, where the ghost that haunts 124 is made known, that I began to wonder why this book would win a 1987 Pulitzer Prize. A little research suggested that “Beloved” provided deep insight into the character’s lives, explored the concept of love and had a healthy dose of the supernatural. The Pulitzer is awarded “for distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”

As the story opens, Paul D. is just arriving. The resident ghost is obviously at work, and a ruckus is being carried on in 124. Paul D. knocks anyway, and Sethe greets a welcome sight from the past, another Sweet Home alumnus. After some catching up, Paul D. takes on the ghost and seemingly drives it away. Paul D.’s presence and actions aren’t welcomed by everyone. Sethe’s daughter, Denver, is not all that anxious to share her mother, and the ghost, reputed to be that of her dead sister, she considers a friend. 

Some years ago, Sethe had made a daring escape from the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky, and with the help of a white girl, made her way north to Cincinnati, where her mother-in-law lived. When her former owner showed up with the sheriff to reclaim his property, Sethe attempted to kill her four children and herself rather than subjecting all to the cruelty of slave life. She succeeded in killing only the baby girl. It is the murdered girl’s ghost that everyone feels is inhabiting 124. 

Though she was eventually released from jail, she has been a pariah since. From her perspective, she was attempting to do the right thing. She was taking her babies to the other side, where they would be safe. “It’s my job to know what is and to keep them away from what’s terrible … They ain’t at Sweet Home, School Teacher ain’t got ‘em.” Apparently, the ghost is not so sure it was the right thing.

We learn a great deal about what slavery really was. The reality of being property is brought up many times as flashbacks enumerate earlier experiences; but besides the inherent brutality with which slaves were controlled, the fact that they were property meant they had financial value. The sale of wives and children and husbands brought revenue. A slave had to learn not to love too much because the object of that love was usually sold away. “Paul D. remembered his own price as being $900, but Sethe’s price would be greater than his; property that reproduced itself without cost.”

But freedom for the Negro wasn’t free either. “That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore.”

There is a reason that the book is named “Beloved.” And it is explained, eventually, often in flashbacks. There is a considerable element of the supernatural in the novel, something I usually don’t care for. It works for Toni Morrison, as it is a necessary part of the story. It would be easy to get turned off by the Negro dialect as portrayed in “Beloved,” or by the supernatural elements, and miss the novel’s richness. That would be a mistake.

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