Beloved | Critical Review by Walter Clemons

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Beloved.
This section contains 963 words
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Critical Review by Walter Clemons

SOURCE: "A Gravestone of Memories," in Newsweek, Vol. CX, No. 13, September 28, 1987, pp. 74-5.

Clemons is an American critic and short story writer. In the following review, he praises Beloved as a masterpiece of psychological and historical evocation which re-creates the "interior life" of black slaves "with a moving intensity no novelist has even approached before."

In 1855 a runaway slave from Kentucky named Margaret Garner was tracked by her owner to Cincinnati, where she had taken refuge with her freed mother-in-law. Cornered, she tried to kill her four children. Afterward, she was quite serene about what she had done. A newspaper account of this stark event taken from a documentary sourcebook stayed in Toni Morrison's mind over the years. Now it has become the germ of a magnificent novel.

In a lecture last year [1986], Morrison spoke about omissions in slave narratives written for abolitionist readers during the 19th century. Addressing sympathetic whites, blacks tactfully suppressed feelings of outrage that might offend their hearers. They mentioned "proceedings too terrible to relate" only in formulaic euphemism. They "forgot" many things. "Most importantly—at least for me," Morrison said, "—there was no mention of their interior life."

In Beloved, this interior life is re-created with a moving intensity no novelist has even approached before. Morrison has been able to imagine an existence of almost unimaginable precariousness, in which it was illegal for slaves to be taught to read or write, to love and marry with any expectation of permanence, to become parents with any hope of living with their children to maturity.

Through Morrison's bold imagination, the historical Margaret Garner has become Sethe, a stoic outcast; she lives with one daughter in the house outside Cincinnati given to her mother-in-law by a kindly abolitionist. Eighteen years have passed; it's 1873. Sethe's mother-in-law—an eloquent preacher known as Baby Suggs—has died and her two sons have run away, frightened by their mother and by the capricious ghost that shakes the house—the malicious spirit, apparently, of the baby daughter Sethe succeeded in killing before she was prevented from killing the others.

To this house comes Paul D, a former slave on the plantation in Kentucky from which Sethe escaped. Soon there's another arrival—a mysterious, blank-eyed young woman from nowhere, whom Sethe's daughter Denver at once accepts as her murdered sister, grown up and come back from the dead. This is Beloved, who takes her name from the word chiseled on the gravestone of Sethe's dead child.

To outline this story is to invite the very resistance I felt on first reading it. A specter returned to bedevil the living? A Gothic historical romance from Toni Morrison? But with magisterial confidence Morrison has employed a monstrous anecdote as entrance key to the monstrosity of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued exactly a decade before this novel begins. Though technically "freed," the book's black characters have stumbled into post-Civil War existence unable to free themselves from memories of a system in which they had no rightful ownership of a Self. Memory is so oppressive for the novel's characters that stifling it is a means of survival. The splintered, piecemeal revelation of the past is one of the technical wonders of Morrison's narrative. We gradually understand that this isn't tricky storytelling but the intricate exploration of trauma.

Under a system in which "men and women were moved around like checkers," Sethe's murderous act was a distorted exertion of her balked maternal instinct. "She ain't crazy. She love those children," says a black man who was at the scene. "She was trying to outhurt the hurter." "My children my best thing," Sethe says, her sense of her own value having been maimed. She wanted to rescue her children from the life she'd fled, and killing them to prevent their return to slavery was the expedient that occurred to her. She welcomes the arrival of the spectral Beloved as a chance to explain herself. Sethe's arrogance has made the black community of Cincinnati shun her, and Paul D, who has not heard of her bloody past during his own 18 years of wandering, deserts her when he learns of it. Her isolation binds her in an unholy relation with Beloved.

At the heart of this astounding book, prose narrative dissolves into a hypnotic, poetic conversation among Sethe, Denver and the otherworldly Beloved. The broken speech of Beloved reveals that she's something other than the ghost of Sethe's murdered baby. "You think she sure 'nough your sister?" Paul D asks Denver. Denver replies: "At times I think she was—more." In Beloved's monologue we can grasp that this something "more" is that she remembers passage on a slave ship, which Sethe's murdered baby couldn't have. Though Sethe and Denver have accepted Beloved as the reincarnation of the dead baby, grown up into a young woman with a baby's insatiable demands—and Sethe never learns otherwise—Beloved is also a ghost from the slave ships of Sethe's ancestry. Beloved rose from water in a nearby river to come to Sethe's doorstep. Sethe invited the invasion, wanting to justify herself, but the Beloved who materialized has an anterior life deeper than the ghostly role she fulfills in the Cincinnati household she visits.

Morrison casts a formidable spell. The incantatory, intimate narrative voice disarms our reluctance to enter Sethe's haunted house. We are reassured by feeling that the eerie story is reinforced by exact attention to verifiable detail about the lives of postwar Cincinnati blacks and the inferno from which they emerged. When Sethe's Cincinnati neighbors come to her rescue, and the incubus child who nearly consumed her life has vanished, the flood of daylight that ends the book is overpowering. I think we have a masterpiece on our hands here: difficult, sometimes lushly overwritten, but profoundly imagined and carried out with burning fervor.

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This section contains 963 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Walter Clemons
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