Beloved | Critical Review by Clarence Major

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Beloved.
This section contains 738 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Clarence Major

SOURCE: "In the Name of Memory," in The American Book Review, Vol. 9, No. 6, January-February, 1988, p. 17.

Major is an American poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, and educator. In the following review of Beloved, he identifies its dominant theme as the residual power of memory and extols Morrison's ability to "disappear" from her own writing.

I am not an innocent reader approaching a book by a writer I have not known before. Only long ago was that innocence possible. Long ago was the excitement of that innocence. Now, only something close to that excitement happens. But I actually bought Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, with my own money and I bought it out of some vestige of that earlier excitement; I bought it in Washington, D.C., on a dry, windy afternoon in October. I was excited by the possibility of a great reading experience, like those I had as a boy discovering books such as The Catcher in the Rye and The Drunken Boat Party.

Another kind of magic—perhaps more critical and equally valuable—had taken possession of the experience. Maybe that earlier and apparently unrecoverable innocence was best unrecovered. I was not disappointed although I had not entirely left my body for the magical world of the text; had not entirely entered the world of Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver, Paul D, and Beloved. That world was certainly magical enough and full of the lyrical power necessary for the experience. Listen to this:

A fully dressed woman walked out of the water. She barely gained the bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree.

That is the arrival of Beloved. From this moment on she enters the lives of the people who live at 124 Bluestone Road, but she is there primarily because she belongs in an unbroken, passionate, blood-tied way to Sethe.

Let me explain who these characters are and what they are about and why they are where they are. Sethe, who is at the center of the action with Beloved, a ghost from the past, is the mother of Denver, a feisty young woman who is uneasy about the presence of Paul D, Sethe's live-in man. Then there is the profound, even mythic presence of old Baby Suggs herself, Sethe's mother-in-law. All of these folk are refugees from slavery or the legacy of it; escapees from the hardship of a slave plantation with an ironic name, Sweet Home. Although they are not exactly in limbo, they are like a group of survivors waiting on a rock in the middle of the ocean: not exactly without hope, but hard enough and realistic enough not to get too excited about what tomorrow might bring.

Yes, it is a ghost story, but not because things move around in 124, not because strange lights invade rooms; it is a ghost story because of the history of the human heart, because of the inability of the human spirit to shrug off that which might be best forgotten. Beloved, the ghost of Sethe's dead infant, brings to 124 a living presence that confirms all of this, a presence that is not meant to redeem anybody—certainly not Sethe in the murder of her own infant in no matter how noble a cause—not meant to punish anybody. Beloved comes in the name of memory—its right to exist in the present; in the name of its unbroken truce with the flesh and its earth-place.

This truce, as acted out between Sethe and Beloved, spins its way down through the novel like a cyclone, possessing every other human force in its wake. Yes, the reading experience was about as innocent and good as a reading experience can be for me these days.

And the writing itself helped to make that possible. But Morrison is the type of writer who would tell me that she works hard to make the presence of the writer disappear. Even so. Even so. When one goes to a book for a great reading experience, one does not wish to escape the page one is looking at. I found Morrison's disappearing act to be as skillful as Vermeer's when he is pretending he has nothing to do with the view of a street in Delft. No matter how successful he is in realistically submerging himself into the vortex of representation, it is precisely his disappearing act that most reveals his incredible presence. So it is with Toni Morrison.

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This section contains 738 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Clarence Major