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Critical Essay by Eusebio L. Rodrigues
SOURCE: "The Telling of Beloved," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 153-69.
In the essay below, Rodrigues comments on the narrative techniques in Beloved, which he calls "a triumph of story-telling" and an example of "the blues mode in fiction."
Beloved is a triumph of storytelling. Toni Morrison fuses arts that belong to black oral folk tradition with strategies that are sophisticatedly modern in order to create the blues mode in fiction, and tell a tale thick in texture and richly complex in meaning. The reader has to be a hearer too. For the printed words leap into sound to enter a consciousness that has to suspend disbelief willingly and become that of a child again, open to magic and wonder.
"124 was spiteful": thus the narrative shock tactics begin. Here is no fairy tale opening but an entrance (124 is not a number but a house as the last sentence of the first paragraph will confirm) into a real unreal world. Toni Morrison's narrator—it is a woman's voice, deep, daring, folk-wise—has full faith in her listeners (curious males have gathered around her) and in their ability to absorb multiple meanings. She plunges into medias res and begins her tale with the arrival of Paul D.
Paul's arrival sets the story in motion. Outraged by the spiteful persecution of a "haunt" that resents his sudden irruption into a house it has taken possession of, Paul attacks it and drives it out. The incident has a tremendous impact—on Paul, on Sethe, who has resigned herself to a certain way of life, on Denver, who feels deprived of the only companion she ever had, and especially on the listener, who is bewildered, utterly disoriented. For he is flung into a dark fictional world without any bearings or explanations. He has to be patient and wait for light to filter in through cracks in the thick darkness. Exhalations from the dim past arise—a baby is furious at having its throat cut, a grandmother's name is Baby Suggs, a baby is born in 1855, Sethe's milk is taken—but they lack meaning and cannot, yet, be chronologically aligned or connected with the events of the present, the year 1873.
Toni Morrison begins the slow process of conjuring up a world that has receded into the past. Here is no extended Proustian act of remembering a lost world with the help of a madeleine dipped in tea. For the past, racial and personal, seared into the being of her characters, has to be exorcized by "rememory." Unspeakable, it emerges reluctantly. The major characters, Sethe and Paul, have to tear the terrible past, bit by painful bit, out of their being so that they, and Denver, can confront it and be healed. Toni Morrison's narrator will stage an extended blues performance, controlling the release of these memories, syncopating the accompanying stories of Sixo, Stamp Paid and Grandmother Suggs, making rhythms clash, turning beats into offbeats and crossbeats, introducing blue notes of loneliness and injustice and despair, generating, at the end, meanings that hit her listeners in the heart, that region below the intellect where knowledge deepens into understanding.
The structural ordering of this "aural" novel is not spatial but musical. [In an endnote, Rodrigues quotes Morrison on the "oral-aural" qualities of her fiction: "Ah well, that may mean that my efforts to make aural literature—A-U-R-A-L—work because I do hear it. It has to be read in silence and that's just one phase of the work but it also has to sound and if it doesn't sound right … Even though I don't speak it when I'm writing it, I have this interior piece, I guess, in my head that reads, so that the way I hear it is the way I write it and I guess that's the way I would read it aloud. The point is not to need the adverbs to say how it sounds but to have the sound of it in the sentence, and if it needs a lot of footnotes or editorial remarks or description in order to say how it sounded, then there's something wrong with it."] It consists of a title, a dedication to Sixty Million and more, an epigraph from an obscure Biblical passage, and three unequal parts. Part I, of eighteen sections, appears to be lopsidedly long, a stretch of 163 pages; Part II, with its seven sections, goes on for 70 pages; Part III, of 3 sections and only 38 pages, ends with a word that is an isolate, at once a re-dedication and a whispered prayer, Beloved.
Part I takes its time in order to establish the many modes Toni Morrison uses to create a world. Her narrator begins the tale, and immediately allows an interplay of voices to begin. Torn fragments of the past float out of Sethe and Paul, who have met again after eighteen long years. Their voices join those of Baby Suggs, dead for eight years, and of Denver, for whom only the present matters. The voices set a world spinning, the world of slaves and slavery whose horrors can no longer be visualized today but whose sounds of pain and suffering still linger on. They issue out of the shared stories of Sethe and Paul D set in two focal regions: in Sweet Home, a farm in Kentucky, where events take place that project and compress rural slave life before 1865; and in 124 Bluestone Road on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, an urban setting that highlights the painful consequences of post Civil War freedom. The narrator transforms the interlinked stories of Sethe and Paul into a paradigm of what it meant to be a slave, especially a woman slave in America.
History, however, is not treated as mere documentary. For that readers could turn to slave narratives. Toni Morrison makes history integral to her novel. In musical terms her narrative melodies are sung against the groundbeat of historical detail. The details are thrown in casually, understated, as in the true blues idiom, to intensify the horror. Baby Suggs' eight children had six fathers. Men were put out to stud, slave women were sold suddenly, children vanished into the unknown. After the war there was chaos, black human blood cooked in a lynch fire stank, there was madness, segregation, the South was "infected by the Klan." Before the war hangings were common (Sethe saw her mother's unrecognizable corpse cut down), slaves were branded (Sethe's mother's identification mark was a cross and circle burnt into the skin under her breast), and an iron bit was thrust into the mouth for days as punishment (Paul complained not about sucking iron but about his intense need to spit). What happened before the slaves got to America was, for them, only a dim memory. At times Sethe remembers her mother dancing the antelope (there is no such animal in America) and remembers, at times, faintly, the ghostly voice of Nan, her mother's friend, speaking about a sea voyage in a language Sethe knew but has now forgotten. The memories of the other characters do not extend to the African past. The narrator will devise a way to resurrect this past.
But before this past can spring to life for the community of listeners (women, their work done, have joined the semi-circle now), the present has to be made alive and exciting. The telling therefore does not begin from a point fixed in time. Nor will the narrator use symbolism (an overused mode), or channel her stories through points of view (too thin, too limited), or through a consciousness that flows like a stream. The words will not have a Hemingway translucence but a Faulknerian density, for the language, slow moving, will be thick with history. Tenses will shift when needed to quicken pace. The oral-aural mode will use repetition to intensify the experience. Words will be repeated; phrases and images will be used over and over again to generate rhythmic meanings; fragments of a story will recur, embedded in other fragments of other stories. A born bard, the narrator, a blueswoman, will cast a spell on her audience so that fragments, phrases, words accelerate and work together to create a mythic tale.
The words repeated are simple but vibrant. Plans, repeated to warn slaves not to make any, for they have no future, anything could happen any time. Interlinked words, pieces, parts, sections, warn a slave about the lack of a unitary self. The slave is a bundle of pieces, of names, food, shelter provided by changing masters; a collection of fractured parts, outer and inner, that have been defiled. Sethe knows she could easily break into pieces. That is why Baby Suggs bathed the rescued Sethe in sections; that is why Paul D will have to wash off Sethe's defilement part by piece by section at the end, before his love (like that of Sixo's woman) can make the pieces come together. Beloved, it becomes clear, is afraid of breaking up into pieces, an indication that she is a composite of slave pieces of the past.
Smile/smiling: these word-forms, tossed out casually at first, begin to resound when associated with Beloved, who emerges from the water smiling mysteriously, fascinating Denver. They gather more resonance when Sethe connects the smile with her mother's smile, and realizes that her mother "had smiled when she did not smile," realizes further that it was the iron bit clamped on the tongue that had produced that perpetual smile. It was the same smile worn by the Saturday prostitutes who worked the slaughterhouse yard on pay day. Sethe's own smile, as she makes these connections, is one of knowledge. Paul D, during the telling of his story to Sethe, can understand why, when he was led away, iron bit in the mouth, his hatred had focused on Mister, "the smiling boss of roosters." What Paul saw on the rooster was a white smile of supreme contempt and arrogance, a looking down on one less than a chicken. In Part III the full force of the word-forms rings loud and clear. Beloved smiles dazzlingly before she explodes out of existence. What remains at the end is the scar on her handsawed throat, the "smile under the chin," the memory for Sethe of "the little shadow of a smile." Smiling, the listener realizes, is a silent statement of endurance. To smile is to know the horror of what it means to be a slave.
The narrator makes words function as musical notes. She also makes use of musical phrases together with chordal accompaniments to produce assonance, consonance, dissonance. "Wear her out": associated at first with the young Denver, who is always tired, this phrase is applied to Sethe and then modulated and amplified when linked with Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid. Stamp Paid himself feels bone tired towards the end; only then does he understand the marrow weariness that made Baby Suggs give up the struggle, and get into bed to die. "Lay it all down," she advises Sethe and Denver, echoing a line out of a spiritual. Sword and shield, lay it all down; she urges resignation, it's useless to fight, one cannot ever defend oneself. The phrase becomes a refrain, a burden (in both senses), that insists on the unbearable weight of racial suffering and injustice.
Images and metaphors of food intensify this suffering. "The stone had eaten the sun's rays": a mere trick of style, did the verb not compel listener and reader to pause, for "eaten" springs out of the consciousness of the famished Sethe. Sethe is constantly chewing and swallowing; she keeps "gnawing" at the past. The narrator uses the language of hunger lest her listeners forget essential truths, that all food was decided and provided by the masters, and that hunger was yet another burden of slave life. Sugar was never provided; that's why Denver and Beloved crave sweet things. The only food the slave mother could provide her babies was her own milk. "All I ever had," Sethe tells Paul. That's why she felt outraged when the two white boys stole her nursing milk. That is why she was ready to bite out the eyes, to gnaw the cheek of anyone who would stop her from getting to her starving baby. That's what drove her on from Kentucky to Ohio.
Milk, more than just food, was the flow of love Sethe wanted to release into her babies. Denver, sucking on a bloody nipple, took in Sethe's milk with her sister's blood. The baby sister never did get enough of Sethe's milk. That is why, when she returns as Beloved, she has a "hungry" face. Sethe, says the narrator, "was licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved's eyes." Beloved was "greedy" to hear Sethe talk, and Sethe "feeds" her with stories of the past it always hurt her to tell others, even Denver. The narrator's language becomes thick with insistent references to and images and metaphors of food and hunger, so that listener and reader become aware of many slave hungers—for food, for things sweet, for an understanding of the past, for communion, for community, and, above all, for a form of sustenance slaves were deprived of, love. It was dangerous to love, for the beloved could be torn away at any time. Beloved, as name, title and emanation, now gathers significance but the meanings do not come together yet. Nor can the hearers grasp the connections between food and religion—"the berries that tasted like church," the Biblical references to "loaves and fishes," the setting-up of the food after Baby Suggs' funeral. All connections and meanings, all notes and musical phrases, will be made to converge and resonate in Parts II and III.
Before such a convergence can occur there has to be an awareness of the magical sounds of the language through which meanings flow. Toni Morrison undermines the heaviness of print by turning word-shapes into word-sounds in order to allow her narrator to chant, to sing, to exploit sound effects. "… No. No. Nono. Nonono": these staccato drumbeats—single, double, triple—translate Sethe's fears of the threatening white world into ominous sounds. Word-sounds enact the rhythmic steps of a dance: "A little two-step, two-step, make-a-new-step, slide, slide and strut on down." A page presents consecutive paragraphs that have a one-word beginning, "but" with a period. The reader can see the pattern the buts make; the listener hears the repeated thuds that drive in the utter futility of slaves making plans to escape. At one point the narrator refers to Sethe's "bedding" dress made up of pieces Sethe put together—two pillow cases, a dresser scarf with a hole in it, an old sash, mosquito netting. The strange adjective is used to trigger an ironic rhyme-echo, for a slave woman could never have a "wedding" with a ceremony and a preacher, but only a coupling. Sad, but full of admiration and affection for Sethe, the narrator herself turns celebrant, the music of her language transforming the mating into a unique fertility rite in a tiny cornfield, witnessed by their friends who partake of the young corn. Fourteen-year-old Sethe's virgin surrender to Halle, her moments of pain and joy, have as accompaniments the dance of the cornstalks, the husk, the cornsilk hair, the pulling down of the tight sheath, the ripping sound, the juice, the loose silk, the jailed-up flavor running free, the joy. Light monosyllabic sounds bring this epithalamium to a close: "How loose the silk. How fine and loose and free."
Beloved makes many aural demands for its musical patterns are many. Toni Morrison turns her narrator into a Bakhtinian ventriloquist who throws her voice into Baby Suggs. Oh my people, cries Baby Suggs, that preacher without a church, calling out to her congregation in the Clearing, repeating the words "here" and "yonder," and "flesh" and "heart" and "love," exhorting her people to love their unloved flesh, their beating hearts, so moving them that they make music for her dance. By using repetition for emphasis, participles for movement, internal rhyme and alliteration, the narrator heightens the voice and the word-patterns of Paul D (who cannot read) to translate into thudbeats the unspeakable fears and cravings of forty-six chain-linked chain-dancing men pounding away at rocks with their sledge hammers:
They sang it out and beat it up, garbling the words so they could not be understood; tricking the words so their syllables yielded up other meanings. They sang the women they knew; the children they had been; the animals they had tamed themselves or seen others tame. They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain, and rocking chairs.
Toni Morrison endows her narrator with a voice that has both range and energy, without being artificial or literary. It is a human voice, warm and friendly, not detached or distant, a voice that reaches out to touch the whole village community now gathered around her. She is, after all, their bard; she knows their language and can speak the vernacular. There is no need, therefore, for any comments, or for the language of explanations; only the need for a heightening of the black idiom in order to summon up a world buried in their racial memory.
Hence the language intensification. "Knees wide open as the grave": this startling simile erupts as Sethe remembers rutting among the headstones to get the seven letters of "Beloved" chiseled for free. A flirtation "so subtle you had to scratch for it": Sethe's verb springs out of her world; the implied image is that of hens in a farmyard. A memory of something shameful seeps "into a slit" in Sethe's mind; she is poised on the "the lip" of sleep; Beloved has "rinsed" certain memories out of her mind, explains Sethe to Denver. The language becomes intensely vibrant at times, as when Paul D suddenly realizes he was completely wrong about Sethe:
This here Sethe was new. The ghost in her house didn't bother her for the very same reason a room-and-board witch with new shoes was welcome. This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw. This here new Sethe didn't know where she stopped and the world began.
The verbal phrase, "cleave the bone," the repetition of "talked," of "like any other woman," the repetition of thematic words used earlier in the story, "love," "safety," "world," the insertion of "here" between "this" and "Sethe" to colloquialize the phrase, its repetition three times, and then the modulation into a four beat phrase "this here new Sethe"—all work together to produce the thick flow of Paul's realization.
Toni Morrison's ability to charge the vernacular with power and sound enables her to give a mythic form to the story of her people, the Afro-Americans. Oh my people, cries Toni Morrison, hear the voice of the bard. This bard is a Blakean griot in whom the ancestral experience is stored and who can see and sing the past, present, and future. She sings an ongoing story of the savage uprooting of sixty million and more, of a sea passage from Africa to America, of selves fractured and reduced to things lower than animals, of freedom imposed by others from the outside, and then the painful process of healing, of the achieving of inner freedom, and of slowly discovering themselves as human beings in a new world. It is a story of generations, of two hundred years and more compressed in time and channeled through a few individuals. The telling is a teaching, too, directed to the generations yet to come, lest they forget. History had to be transformed into myth.
Toni Morrison has her narrator employ the technique of circling round and round the subject that Sethe, her central character, uses for telling the essentials of her story to Paul D: "Circling, circling, now she was gnawing something else instead of getting to the point." All the stories—that of Sethe and Paul D, of Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid, of Beloved and Denver, and of Sixo—have their chronologies fractured and the "pieces" made to spin together to form one story, monstrous and heroic. The fragments keep sliding into and out of each other for they cannot be separated. Their love for each other makes Sethe's story Paul's too. The stories of Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid tell of an earlier generation. The stories of Sixo and the Cherokee Indians present yet another account of suffering and injustice. Denver's story leads into the future, while Beloved's reaches to the past. Sure her people will slowly understand the story of their own past, the narrator begins with Sethe.
Sethe, in 1873, has resigned herself to her situation. Isolated from the Bluestone community, terrified of the exhalations of the past she kept buried within her damaged being, Sethe needs healing. The re-entry of Paul D and of Beloved into her life begins the slow process that leads her to understanding, love and community. Sethe is compelled to re-live two ordeals, the birth of Denver and the killing of her third child.
The story of Sethe's harrowing escape and of Denver's miraculous birth takes eight sections of Part I to be told, but the narrator does not release all its meanings. Certain clues are offered; the listener gets accustomed to a mode of telling that involves delay, repetition, and a slow but controlled release of information. Sethe casually mentions "that girl looking for velvet" to Paul D. Only later is her name, Amy, revealed (the first clue, the name, from Old French, means beloved). The story is relayed through dialogue, recall and narration. Sethe begins the narrative; Denver remembers parts that Sethe told her, and, as if under a spell, she "steps into the told story" to recreate it for Beloved. The narrator takes over and finishes the telling which is exciting, full of horror and pathos and beauty. She smuggles in significant truths through the words of Amy—that anything dead coming back to life hurts, that nothing can heal without pain—that she hopes some of her listeners will ponder. The unexpected aria that bursts out of the narrator towards the end, just after the birth of Denver, is a musical celebration the audience can respond to but cannot understand, yet:
Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines hard to see unless you are in or near them, lying right at the river's edge when the sunshots are low and drained. Often they are mistook for insects—but they are seeds in which the whole generation sleeps confident of a future. And for a moment it is easy to believe each one has one—will become all of what is contained in the spore: will live out its days as planned. This moment of certainty lasts no longer than that; longer, perhaps, than the spore itself.
The story of Sethe's other ordeal is told in "pieces" that are scattered through all 18 sections of Part I, and that have to be put together. The focus is on two consecutive days, four weeks after Sethe's arrival at 124. On the first day the whole community is invited to a feast, a communion, a ritual "celebration of blackberries that put Christmas to shame." The second day is one of foreboding for Baby Suggs, who smells two odors, one of disapproval, the other of a "dark and coming thing." What happens in the shed appears to be both a killing and a ritual sacrifice, the red blood spurting out of the cut throat of the baby held against the mother's chest.
The horror is not immediate, nor are the details graphic. The scene has a stabbing intensity, for it is a chill horror that takes time to penetrate and implode. The narrative tactics shift; the temperature of the language drops. The scene (section 16 of Part I) is relayed through four voices that slide one into the other to form a "white" composite. That of the slave catcher presents a hunter calculating his profit: "Unlike a snake or a bear, a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin." The nephew simply cannot understand why and how a mere beating could cause such a reaction. The schoolteacher presents a doleful view of "creatures God has given you the responsibility of." The sheriff sees before him a proof that freedom should not have been imposed so soon on these poor savages. The language of all four voices is cold, aloof, detached, clinical. After all these are creatures and cannibals, aren't they, what else can one expect. Drenched in savage irony the scene becomes almost unbearable. Mercifully the narrator takes over; the ironic mode loses its edge but still continues with the sudden entry (as in a Hitchcock movie) of two white children, one bearing shoes for Baby Suggs to repair. The unmentioned color emits a tiny scream as the narrator's voice drops into silence at the end: "The hot sun dried Sethe's dress, stiff as rigor mortis."
The story of Sethe and her ordeals forms the spinning center around which the other stories of collapse spin. The outer circle is made up of the stories of the Cherokee (yet another people decimated, and uprooted from the lands they owned) and of Sixo the Indian, Paul's "brother," who laughs when his feet are roasted and sings "Seven-O!, Seven-O!" before he is shot. Then the story of Baby Suggs, seventy years old, who had proclaimed the gospel of love after she got her freedom. She realizes that she had preached a lie, and that it was all useless. White folks came into my yard, she says, using the language of understatement. She "lays down" in bed to die there. Two sentences sum up the slave life of Paul, whose heart has become a rusty tobacco tin into which he has stuffed his experiences: "It was some time before he could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest. By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open." How much is a nigger supposed to take, he asks. All he can, Stamp Paid replies, and Paul can only repeat why why why why why. The Stamp Paid story is of one who had dedicated his entire life to the rescue and service of his people. He finds himself in a state of despair in 1874, nine years after his people were set free. He had found in his boat a tiny red ribbon that smelt of skin and embodied for him all the lynchings and the burnings that his people still had to endure. "What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?" he asks.
The narrator is confident that this question to Jesus will direct her audience (some white people have drifted into the group now) to the Christian dimensions of her tale. After all, they also have been sustained and comforted by their Christian faith and by the Bible. They would pick up the Biblical references to "loaves and fishes" during the celebratory feast, to Stamp Paid's real name, Joshua (the successor to Moses), and to the origins in Genesis of Sethe's name. They would realize that Baby Suggs had lost faith in the God she once believed in; that Stamp Paid, who had relied on the Word and who had believed that "these things too will pass," abandoned his efforts to rescue the inhabitants of 124 menacingly "ringed with voices like a noose." And they would sense that additional help was needed from other sources to deal with things "older, but not stronger, than He Himself was."
Listeners (aware of African religious beliefs) and readers (familiar with books by Janheinz Jahn and Geoffrey Parrinder, and with the Indic tradition) slowly begin to realize that Beloved has sprung out of pre-Christian sources. A complex creation, Beloved is made up of "pieces" that Toni Morrison has spun into being so skillfully that it is difficult to isolate their sources. Some elements derive from the Afro-American belief, shared by the Bluestone community, that the unfulfilled dead can return to the scene of their former existence. According to Baby Suggs almost every house is "packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief." Other elements spring from the belief, purely African, that "the departed are spiritual forces which can influence their living descendants. In this their only purpose is to increase the life force of their decendants" [Janheinz Jahn, Muntu, 1961]. Toni Morrison fuses these elements with others of her own invention in order to intensify her tale and raise it to the level of myth. She makes her narrator control the pace of the telling, releasing the story slowly so that listener and reader are persuaded to accept Beloved as a "presence," allowing a number of meanings to accumulate so that, at the end, it becomes a story of haunting significance.
In the beginning the baby ghost is merely a disturbance, mysterious not to Sethe and Denver but to the listeners, exciting their interest in a good story. Only after the Thursday carnival, after Beloved returns from the other side of the grave, does the tale become more than a ghost story. Toni Morrison set herself two fictional problems. She had to delay Sethe's recognition of Beloved as her baby daughter, while allowing Denver to be aware that Beloved is her sister almost from the beginning. The second problem was to provide Beloved with a voice and a language. Toni Morrison carefully controls the release of details about Beloved. That Beloved is a nineteen-year-old (the age she would have been had she lived) who acts like a baby in the beginning is clear (though not to Sethe who is distracted by her love of Paul D): Beloved has sleepy eyes, her hands and feet are soft, her skin is flawless, she cannot hold her head up, she is incontinent. She "grows" up in the course of a few days because Sethe "feeds" her with stories of her own past. This "feeding," a form of narrative strategy, allows the novelist to evoke Sethe's past for her readers, and it allows Sethe to exorcize what she had kept buried within herself. Sethe's rememory pours out of her in response to the many questions Beloved keeps asking, using a strange, raspy voice. It takes over four weeks for Beloved's "gravelly" voice, with its African cadence, to shift unobtrusively into the rhythms of Afro-American speech.
The talks with Sethe establish the reality of Beloved as a human being. The scenes with Denver and with Paul suggest that Beloved is also a catalytic life force. The shed behind 124 becomes the locale where the racial past is reenacted. Beloved "moves" Paul D (the way slaves were moved from place to place; there was nothing they or Paul could do about it), "like a rag doll," out of Sethe's bed and into the dark shed where she forces him, much against his will, to have sex with her, and to call her by her true name, Beloved, not the one the "ghosts without skin" called her in the daylight, bitch. Paul turns into a version of Seth, the black man on the slave ship whom Sethe's mother loved and after whom Sethe was named. The dark shed becomes the ship's hold as Beloved forces Denver to re-live the experience of panic, suffocation and thick darkness (with cracks of daylight) where the self is reduced to nothing. These painful experiences will be healing (as Amy had said). Denver, who belongs to the future, lives through a racial past without whose knowledge she would not be complete. Paul's rusty tobacco tin, which "nothing in this world could pry open" (my italics), opens up into a red, warm heart.
Before presenting Sethe's sorrows and sufferings the narrator halts the recitative and turns into a blueswoman, making a trio of voices sing "unspeakable thoughts, unspoken." The timing of this musical interlude sung by a mother and her two daughters is exactly right: Paul D has been made to leave 124; Sethe knows that her baby has come back from the other side; and the past has been disinterred. The interlude of four sections provides a time of rest and slowdown before the final narrative outburst.
The first two sections open with the voiced thoughts of Sethe and of Denver, recapitulating, in fragments, the significant moments of their past. The third section begins in the present with "I am Beloved and she is mine." Then the I swells into a collective choric I that comes as if from a distant time and place, as though sixty million and more voices had been compressed into one. Toni Morrison could use only a few typographical devices to activate print into tempo. All punctuation is banished (except for the period that ends the opening sentence). There is quadruple spacing between sentences and there are double gaps between paragraphs. These pauses slow down the voice and make it resonate, so that a lamentation fills the air as the African beginnings of the horror are reenacted. Visual details blur and dissolve: women crouch in the jungle picking flowers in baskets, there is gunsmoke during the hunt for slaves, the men are crammed into the ship's hold, children and women, naked, crouch on the deck and on the bridge, storms at sea force men and women to be packed together, there is the sweet rotten smell of death, corpses are stacked in piles on the deck and then pushed out into the sea with poles, suicide by jumping into the sea and rapes are common. [In a footnote, Rodrigues remarks: "In the Time interview (May 22, 1989) Toni Morrison refers to 'travel accounts of people who were in the Congo—that's a wide river—saying, "We could not get the boat through the river, it was choked with bodies." That's like a logjam. A lot of people died. Half of them died in those ships.' In his introduction to Adventures of an African Slaver by Captain Theodore Canot, Malcolm Cowley mentions a strange phenomenon: that 'in Bonny River … the bodies of slaves washed backwards and forwards with the tide, the women floating, it is said, face downwards; the men on their backs, staring into perpetual clouds which were almost the color of their eyes.' In the slaveship's hold 'the slaves were packed as tightly as cases of whisky…. The slaves were laid on their sides, spoon-fashion, the bent knees of one fitting into the hamstrings of his neighbour. On some vessels they could not even lie down; they spent the voyage sitting on each other's laps.' Beloved demonstrates this position to Denver in the shed when she 'bends over, curls up and rocks.'"]
Out of such visual horror arise cries of anguish as beloved is torn from beloved, women from their children, mothers from their daughters. The anguish is never ending, for "all of it is now it is all now." The past is still present, as those who have listened to the tale so far know. Beloved becomes the embodiment of all slave daughters; Sethe stands for generations of slave mothers. Denver experiences something worse than death, the utter lack of self in the shed; Paul trembles uncontrollably in Georgia like the man in the hold packed so tight he had no room even to tremble in order to die; Sethe experiences choking to make her know what it felt like to wear an iron circle around her neck; Beloved gazes in tears at the turtles in the stream behind 124, as if her earlier self were looking for her Seth who had leapt from the bridge of the slave ship. All experiences repeat or parallel each other. The fourth section returns the listeners to the present where the trio of voices chant a dirge in liturgical fashion as the interlude ends.
The narrator then takes up again the story of Sethe, who lavishes all her love on her baby daughter, excluding Denver and feeding the uncomprehending Beloved with explanations, telling her that she had to kill her in order to save her. Beloved grows monstrously fat devouring Sethe's love while Sethe wastes away. Denver, through whom most of Part III is channeled, does not understand what is happening but is afraid there could be another killing.
Both reader and listener have to understand why Beloved and Sethe behave in this unnatural manner. Sethe does not realize that Beloved's demands are not those of a human being, but of an impersonal life force that has got what it wanted, but cannot stop its blind, unreasonable demands for more. The narrator calls her "wild game." The Bluestone community refers to her as an "it" that will destroy Sethe, who has committed a crime. Sethe, on the other hand, believes that "what she had done was right because it came from true love."
Toni Morrison does not judge Sethe. Neither does her narrator allow her listeners to pass judgment on Sethe. The Bluestone community cannot forgive what they regard as an act of senseless murder. Even Baby Suggs was horrified on that day, and fell on her knees begging God's pardon for Sethe. Denver, who is afraid of her mother even though she loves her, has an inkling of what it was that drove Sethe on: it was a "something" in her mother that made it all right to "kill her own." The thing was "coiled" up in her, too, for Denver felt it leap within her at certain moments.
What the "thing" is is never made clear. But Sethe's story provides some clues. The process begins at edenic Sweet Home, that "cradle" of innocence, at the moment when Sethe's knowledge of evil begins, the knowledge that the white world, in the person of schoolteacher, considered her part animal. He had told his nephews to categorize Sethe by setting down her animal characteristics on the right, her human ones on the left. Overhearing these words, Sethe feels her head itch as if somebody were sticking fine needles in her scalp. During the escape, before the meeting with Amy, Sethe senses a "something" that came out of the earth into her and impelled her to attack: "like a snake. All jaws and hungry."
It was this "something," a blind animal force perhaps, that leapt within Sethe just before the killing. At the sight of schoolteacher's hat she heard wings: "Little humming-birds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings." Stamp Paid, who was present, saw a dramatic change in Sethe, whose face "beaked" and whose hands worked like claws before she snatched up her children "like a hawk on the wing," and dragged them into the shed.
Stamp Paid tries to tell Paul D that love drove Sethe to "outhurt the hurter." Paul cannot understand such love. Too thick, he tells Sethe, adding that Sethe had two legs not four, implying that she was not an animal but a human being. A "forest" sprang up between them, adds the narrator who, reluctant to explain anything to listener or reader, compels them to ponder the image of the forest.
Yet another clue had been provided earlier when, asked by Paul to have his baby, Sethe thought: "Unless carefree, motherlove was a killer." Paul D had observed that, for a slave, any form of love was fraught with danger, and that human love needed freedom. One can only speculate that mother love, when not allowed free expression and growth in human society, remains a primal instinct. Fiercely possessive and predatory, it kills to protect the young from the enemy. That explains perhaps why there are so many animal references. Slaves were regarded as property, as possessions, as animals.
In this light Sethe's act of murder transforms itself from a mere killing into a ritual sacrifice of the beloved, an expression of the helpless rage and outrage of many slave mothers who either wanted to or did kill their young to deliver them from slavery. But one sin cannot cancel out another. 124 with its shed is more than a gray and white house: it becomes the arena where the resurrected past demands vengeance and threatens to overwhelm the present. A ritual atonement is needed. Denver, the future, has to step out of this dark world to seek help. She goes to the community.
With a few deft touches all through Parts I & II, the narrator has established the reality of the Bluestone community, a loosely knit group of colored folks living at the city's edge. They are a good bunch, Stamp Paid tells Paul D, a little proud and mean at times, but ready to help anyone in need. They had two meeting centers: the Church of the Holy Redeemer with Reverend Pike as preacher, and the Clearing in the woods where that unchurched preacher, Baby Suggs, holy, restored their faith in themselves and in their bodies. 124, at that time, had been a "cheerful, buzzing house," a way station and a place of refuge for runaways, where Baby Suggs provided food, comfort and help. What led to the estrangement between 124 and the community is not quite clear, but the narrator is confident that her listeners (their circle has now expanded into a vast human congregation) will understand and forgive human failings.
A few listeners might be aware of the term hubris, but all would know that pride and arrogance were sins that could lead to misunderstanding. Baby Suggs knew that she had been guilty of pride on the day of the celebration, knew that she had "offended them by excess." That is why, on the next day, she could smell the disapproval of the community. The ninety friends and neighbors were guilty too, of enjoying the feast of "loaves and fishes" and then displaying anger, envy and resentment towards the provider. Sethe, too, is guilty, of arrogantly isolating herself and not going to the community for help, even after the death of Baby Suggs. The setting-up after the funeral did not lead to communion. Sethe did not eat of their food, and they would not eat what she provided. It is Stamp Paid, that Soldier of Christ, who tries to help. Driven by a sense of guilt and by the memory of his friend, Baby Suggs, he tries to pass through two barriers: the circle of nightmarish voices, and the door that remains locked despite his knocking. He abandons his efforts to reach the inhabitants of 124.
Having made her listeners fully aware of the many meanings of 124, the narrator now quickens the pace of the telling. The tempo increases, the sound effects grow intense. "124 was loud," the opening of Part II, echoes the opening of Part I, "124 was spiteful," and there is a re-echo in the opening of Part III, "124 was quiet." Quiet because its inhabitants, locked in a meaningless love, were starving and would die of hunger. Denver is afraid of stepping off the porch of this prison:
Out there where small things scratched and sometimes touched. Where words could be spoken that would close your ears shut. Where, if you were alone, feeling could overtake you and stick to you like a shadow. Out there where there were places in which things so bad had happened that when you were near them it would happen again. Like Sweet Home where time didn't pass and where, like her mother said, the bad was waiting for her as well. How would she know these places? What was more—much more—out there were whitepeople and how could you tell about them? (italics mine)
The listener can easily respond to the reference to Sweet Home as a place where time had stopped, to the rhyme-echoes and repetition (with variation) of "out there," "where," and "were" that enact Denver's fears and hesitations, and trigger Denver's rememory of the rats in prison and her sudden deafness.
Neither Sethe nor Denver can hear the loud voices that menace 124. Only Stamp Paid, that witness of his people's sufferings, listens and can recognize the two sets of voices: the roaring of all the slaves who were lynched and burned; and the terrified mutterings, near the porch, of whites (like the schoolteacher who had created a "jungle" in Sethe) in whom the jungle of hate and terror had entered. The pack of haunts is ready to pounce.
The listeners can tell the end is near. The narrator summons up techniques that tellers of tales use to create suspense—tantalizing pauses, breaks in the narrative, switches and cross-telling (like cross-cutting in film). It is an ominous Friday, three in the afternoon, a steaming tropical day reeking with foul odors. Three narrative movements converge: Bluestone women, thirty of them, led by Ella, make their way to 124 to rescue Sethe from the devil child; Mr. Bodwin, who had helped in the defense of Sethe, is on his way to 124 (where he had been born), to fetch Denver, who is waiting for him on the porch; Sethe, inside 124, uses an ice pick to break some ice for the sweating Beloved.
To amplify her story the narrator now summons her co-tellers, the blueswoman and the bard. The blueswoman vocalizes the rhythms of the approaching mumbling chorus of thirty women (significantly, no man, not even Stamp Paid, is present). Some of them kneel outside the yard, as though in church, and begin a series of responses to a prayer call: "Yes, yes, yes, oh yes. Hear me. Hear me. Do it, Maker, do it. Yes." Then Ella begins to holler, an elemental cry that sweeps all the women to the very beginning, of time perhaps, even before the Christian Word. "In the beginning was the sound," the blueswoman announces.
The narrative pauses, then the narrator switches to Edward Bodwin, driving a cart to 124, haunted by time and by the recent wars and the fight over abolition that made him lose faith in what his father had told him, that human life is holy. The narrative breaks again to Sethe and Beloved standing on the porch of 124. The three movements converge and combine.
The blueswoman becomes one with the community of women out of whose being sounds explode, and rise to a crescendo of pure sound. More than a speech act, it is a mantralike utterance that rises from the creative female depths of their self, an act of exorcism: "Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash." The reference to water, the word "sound" used as a verb and noun, the allusion to Baby Suggs and to her powers associated with nature, "tremble," the word linked with Paul D, the double implication of "wash," all insist that this unpremeditated rite combines a pre-Christian archetypal cleansing with Christian baptism. Beloved's dazzling smile suggests that she does "understand" what has happened. But the listeners are puzzled.
It is the bard who knows what has been exorcized and begins to chant, switching from the past to the present tense because "all is now." The events of the past are once again made present. The words used earlier for what happened in 1855 (the definite green of the leaves, the staccato drum-beats of Sethe's fears) are repeated and relayed through Sethe's rememory. But this time, ice pick in hand, Sethe (after she sees Edward Bodwin's hat) attacks not her beloved but the "schoolteacher" attacker, a normal human reaction for the "thing" has been exorcised out of her. Denver and the women move in to stop her. The words used in the interlude (pile, faces, people, the man without skin) are also repeated to summon back from the remote past Beloved's ordeals on the slave ship. Then Beloved, her belly swollen with the past, vanishes. But this monstrous African past cannot be completely exorcized. It will linger on, wanting to be at least remembered.
The listeners, held spellbound by these events, experience catharsis. The tale has reached into their hearts and touched basic human emotions. It moves them, but not to action. For Toni Morrison is an artist, not a sociologist or a politician. Like Conrad, who wanted, before all, to make his readers see, Toni Morrison wants to make her people listen and, like the spirit of Baby Suggs urging Denver, know the truth about themselves and their "roots." Like Conrad, too, Toni Morrison feels compelled to "render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe" [Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the Narcissus]. The institution of slavery is condemned, but all white people are not. The listeners remember Amy (a "slave" herself who, significantly, is on her pilgrim way to Boston), the Garners (Sethe looked upon Mrs. Garner as if she was her mother), the Bodwins, even the sheriff (who had looked away when Sethe nursed Denver). But Toni Morrison insists that true freedom is essential and that equality between peoples is of absolute necessity. That is why the goodness of the Garners and the Bodwins is somehow flawed: on a shelf in the Bodwin house Denver sees a black boy figurine kneeling on a pedestal that reads: "At Yo Service."
Toni Morrison's sense of justice and compassion leads her to introduce notes of hope. The many Christian references suggest such a possibility, especially the name of the community church, and the redemptive tree of suffering that Sethe carries on her back and will carry for a lifetime. Paul's love will heal Sethe, rescue her from the fate that befell Baby Suggs, and put her pieces together. In the tableau at the end Paul touches Sethe's face as he whispers his tribute to her: "You your best thing, Sethe. You are." The story of Sethe and Paul will gradually recede into the past. Denver is the future. She is the child of the race, "my heart," Stamp Paid tells Paul D. Lady Jones can see "everybody's child" in her face. Clever and intelligent, she will go to Oberlin. Denver is like Seven-O, which is not just a cry of warning to his woman, but a continuation of Sixo, the name of his "seed" which she bears away with her. Denver needs no tribute, for the narrator has already sung an aria to celebrate her birth; she is the seed "in which the whole generation sleeps confident of the future."
With the stories of Sethe, Paul, and Denver told, the narrator and the bard know that the telling has to come to a stop. Their listeners have been rapt into a mythic world. But humankind cannot live there for long. The account of what happened to Paul D, which balances the story of Sethe, allows the listeners to return to ordinary human reality. When Paul D and Stamp Paid talk about what happened at 124, a strange laughter, like Sixo's, erupts out of them. "To keep from cryin' I opens my mouth an' laughs," as Langston Hughes puts it. Narrator and bard have finished their tasks, but something remains to be done. The blueswoman takes over.
She begins to keen, as though at a wake, a ceremony held in order to remember, to celebrate, and then to forget. But the lament soon changes into the sound of a biblical voice from on high (sounded in the epigraph), that summons an alien people unto itself and calls them beloved. The community remembers what Sethe rememoried, the voice of the preacher at the baby's funeral telling them who they are, addressing them all as Dearly Beloved. The voice of the blueswoman now develops a powerful hum, for she expresses, as in basic blues, not her own feelings but those of all her people. It uses not the minor (though it sounds plaintive) but the major mode of the classical blues. The words are unimportant for they all have been heard before, except the twice repeated, two-word word, "disremembered," which associates memory with pieces. The blueswoman and the community know that the past can linger on but has to be laid to rest. As in a blues ending they announce, then repeat, then repeat again, mixing the past and present tenses, that it was/is "not a story to pass on." Till, finally, the blueswoman allows her voice to sink into silence after a whispered prayer, Beloved.
This section contains 8,797 words
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