Beloved | Critical Essay by Karen E. Fields

This literature criticism consists of approximately 19 pages of analysis & critique of Beloved.
This section contains 5,692 words
(approx. 19 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Karen E. Fields

SOURCE: "To Embrace Dead Strangers: Toni Morrison's Beloved," in Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman, Greenwood Press, 1989, pp. 159-69.

In the following essay, Fields explores Morrison's emphasis on "the nature of love," focusing primarily on the personal relationships between Sethe, Beloved, Paul D., and Denver.

The most obvious feature of Toni Morrison's Beloved has been least noted that, whatever else, it profoundly is a meditation on the nature of love. The meditation begins as a love story about a man and a woman. In it Paul D and Sethe meet again after many years and redeem one another. Paul D redeems Sethe from her entrapment in a haunted present; and Sethe, Paul D from his fate of continual wandering. At the time of meeting both are afloat on the surface of the present, set adrift by pasts that have burned away most human connection. To both the future exists only after the fact, as time elapsed for Sethe, as distance traveled for Paul D.

Paul D's travels eventually bring him to Sethe's haunted house, which stands off to itself at the far end of a road, on the outskirts of Cincinnati. It is a house the townspeople avoid altogether or hurry past. But Paul D walks up to it and then into it, as if it has been his destination of many years; and he banishes Sethe's ghost. By so doing, he unlocks her desire and his own to envision the future and to plan. In a sense, they bring one another back to life. Like that of the man and woman in a fairy tale, whose coming together ends an enchantment, their love is activated, as it were, the instant they meet; yet it is wholly personal, existing only because it is he, because it is she. In the telling of who they both were, the story's meditation about love unfolds. By the end they seem poised to live happily together thereafter: "Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody," Paul D tells Sethe. "We need some kind of tomorrow."

Their reunion occurs eighteen years after a lovingly planned but hideously aborted escape from a plantation in Kentucky called Sweet Home, on which embarked Paul D and his half-brother, Paul A, Six-O, Sethe (pregnant), her husband, Halle, and their three children. Paul D, Sethe, and one daughter are, to their knowledge, the only survivors. The "yesterday" Paul D refers to unfolds as concrete events and spiritual passages. Sethe has resisted being retaken with her children a month after the escape, by trying to kill her children and herself. She succeeds in killing a baby girl, who returns to haunt the house, injecting her spite into the lives of her two brothers, who leave, her grandmother, who dies, her sister, Denver, and Sethe, who make their own separate peace with it. Paul D has escaped and been retaken five times since the day they all tried to leave Sweet Home together; he has traveled America far and wide, witnessing its physical beauty and its human monstrosity, and has concluded with both a hard-edged peace.

Their spiritual passages over those years are revealed through their separate struggles with another apparition, which entered Sethe's life at about the same time as Paul D. This new apparition is a strange-looking girl of about twenty, who says her name is Beloved. She may or may not be a ghost and may or may not be the ghost of Sethe's child. Who or whatever she is, she takes up residence in the lives of Sethe, Paul D, and Denver, Sethe's bottomlessly lonely daughter. She resides with them as Need itself—need for human connection, for warmth, for identity, for stories and on ad infinitum through all the things one human can willingly give to another, and more than that. But there is also reciprocity with this ghost-or-girl. In giving to this being of unbounded demand, the three also receive. Beloved gives by taking.

In the way of ghosts, Beloved manifests herself differently to the different people who experience her. In that, of course, she is not different from an ordinary human being. To Paul D she is a terrifying seductress who compromises his loyalty to Sethe, but from whom he at the same time gets back parts of his living self long shut away. To Denver she is a dominant sister who extorts devotion, but who gives her the secret-sharing, storytelling complicity of childhood and, therewith, instruction in loving and caring for another. To Sethe she is a destroyer, who tries by turns to kill Sethe and to absorb her; but she is also by turns a daughter to care for and the daughter she killed. She is a chance to make up for and a chance to explain; she is a compensation and a retribution.

The retribution is not for the murder, however, but for the separation. Beloved will not hear that Sethe intended to kill all her children and herself so that they could go together to the other side or that Sethe's killing her had been a mother's act of protection. Beloved is not interested in plans or intentions, only in the result: that where she went she had no mother. She hurls at Sethe again and again the accusation of abandonment. In repeating this accusation, she becomes confounded with Sethe crying out herself against abandonment by her own mother and crying out for reunion.

I am Beloved and she is mine. I am not separate from her there is no place where I stop her face is my own and I want to be there in the place where her face is and to be looking at it too a hot thing.

Morrison makes this cry reverberate up and down generations, placing in a single poetic vision a long stream of disembodied memory that encompasses Sethe's mother, perhaps also her mother's mother and Denver. It encompasses slaves, living and dead, and their captors, those who survived the raids, the middle passage, slavery itself, and those who did not. The conundrum of individuation and kinship alternates with that of individuation and reciprocity throughout Morrison's slow and ramifying meditation about love.

As a meditation about love, Beloved is sober yet optimistic, intent yet undidactic. Above all, it has mind and senses attuned to what can be learned in general from the world of a particular place and time. Morrison explores love in its interested and disinterested forms, in forms that uplift the human person and in forms that carry profound moral danger. She follows out its convolutions as pride and self-sacrifice, as possession and domination, as subjective emotion and objective experience. She considers how love could be manifest in ties between people as nearly equal as fellow slaves and as fully unequal as slave and master. Sometimes she detaches love from particular objects and relationships and lets it appear simply as itself, unshaped by rules of human feeling and connectedness. Love standing on its own is personified by the ghost-or-girl Beloved.

We habitually think of love as an inhabitant of the familiar human relations that at once construct and constrict it. It seems to lean and grow upon human relationships known to us, much as ivy leans and grows upon a familiar wall. But love can also be thought of as a part of nature that exists in and for itself, as a free-growing plant that enters the world of human beings on its own. With a wall the growing ivy reveals the wall. Without a wall, the ivy entwines upon itself, revealing a luxuriance of ramification and convolution that the wall conceals. Love considered standing for itself reveals complexity that is concealed by the simplifying elements of law, rules, conventional emotions, moral conduct, and behavior unequivocal or transparent in its import. Morrison meditates upon the nature of love by imagining its autonomous existence in the world. What appears in the personage of Beloved as disembodied demand appears in that of Paul D as embodied kindness.

Not even trying, he had become the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry. Because with him, in his presence they could. There was something blessed in his manner. Women saw him and wanted to weep…. Strong women and wise saw him and told him things they only told each other…. Young girls sidled up to him to confess.

Love expressed as disinterested kindness appears again in the encounter of Sethe and Amy Denver, two runaways:

"You ain't got no business walking around these hills, miss." "Looka here who's talking. I got more business here'n you got. They catch you they cut your head off. Ain't nobody after me but I know somebody after you." Amy pressed her fingers into the soles of the slavewoman's feet. "Whose baby that?"

That simply, Amy pauses in her own flight, to massage Sethe's feet and ask a question. She continues for a night and a day letting one task after the next signal its immediacy and detain her: helping the wounded and very pregnant Sethe to shelter ("Thank your maker I come along so's you wouldn't have to die out there in them weeds"); finding wild medicine with which to treat Sethe's wounds ("Amy returned with two palmfuls of web, which she … draped on Sethe's back saying it was like stringing a tree for Christmas"); talking a blue streak and singing a little while Sethe swung between survival and death; later, making it possible for Sethe to walk on her own ("She tore two pieces from Sethe's shawl, filled them with leaves and tied them over her feet, chattering all the while. 'How old are you, Lu?' I been bleeding for four years but I ain't having nobody's baby. 'Won't catch me sweating milk cause….' 'I know,' said Sethe. 'You going to Boston'"); she stayed on when Sethe suddenly went into labor, washed and wrapped the baby, tied it to Sethe's chest, then continued on her lone way to Boston: the Good Samaritan.

This story of Amy stands for a moment on its own, as a perfect portrayal of disinterested love—wholly contained in the actions that express it, needing no request and no reward, purely contingent, transient, and impersonal. The next moment we remember that it does not stand on its own, for it is told elsewhere quite differently. In the present idealized form, it is one of Denver's unfree gifts to Beloved: "She swallowed twice to prepare for the telling, to construct out of the strings she had heard all her life a net to hold Beloved." To hold Beloved, she must satisfy Beloved's appetite for knowledge about Sethe's past. She tells it as it relates to herself. Along this way she arrives at a secret of her own. It is a recurrent nightmare made the more frightening by the resemblance of Sethe's act of murder to the kindly caring of the Good Samaritan. In the dream Sethe slowly mounts the stairs to Denver's room to cut off her head, then take it back downstairs to comb and braid the hair: "Her pretty eyes looking at me like I was a stranger. Not mean or anything, but like I was somebody she found and felt sorry for."

Because Beloved is set among slave owners, slaves, and ex-slaves a decade before and after the Civil War, it can appear to be about a subject and human predicament of less than universal scope. But the details about slavery and Reconstruction serve as resources with which to create real human beings, alive in real circumstances. They are not the story itself. Without specifics of place and time, we cannot tell a love story, for we cannot say who loved. Beloved is no more about Afro-Americans in mid-nineteenth-century America than Romeo and Juliet is about Renaissance Veronese. And no less. We cannot grasp the movement of either story without knowing what facts in each case shape the human capacity to love. The facts that confront Romeo and Juliet are the inverse of those that confront Sethe and Paul D. Romeo and Juliet love outside the law, in a world where individual identity is inscribed within membership in a family. In their world love can climb and grow upon—or grow away from—walls that are authoritatively upheld in social life. It is a world in which the love that joins men and women, parents and children, siblings and friends is subject to well-established orderliness. Sethe and Paul D, by contrast, were reared in a world from which order in human relations is excluded for practical reasons and where individuation is stretched to its very limit.

The essence of slavery was the creation of free-standing individuals, not families or communities. As units of a commodity to be bought, sold, or put to use, individual slaves stood apart from any authoritative claim to human connection. Any such claim compromised the owner's property in the commodity. In consequence, even gender and generation, the primordial constraints upon individuality, were broken—and, with them, the building blocks of the wall upon which love ordinarily grows. What would elsewhere have been "man" and "woman" became simply "male" and "female"; and what could have been differences of generation amounted to no more than differences of physique. Paul D and Sethe were reared in such a world of individuals. The drama of their love is not a struggle against social constraint but, on the contrary, a struggle to create constraint out of the bits and pieces available to them. Their love thus has as its prehistory the creation of order out of lawlessness. In Beloved slavery as a state of nature offers a vantage point from which to contemplate love afresh.

Some of Morrison's characters live life, in this respect, as they find it. "Don't love nothing" is the beginning and end of what Ella has to say about children. Sethe's husband's mother, Baby Suggs, achieves the equivalent by forgetting: "My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that's all I remember." Sethe's own mother aborted all her children but Sethe, whom she nursed very briefly before being returned to work in the rice, forced to leave Sethe to struggle for her share from a wet nurse. Sethe remembered that her mother scarcely ever looked at her, and when she did always with a smile—not her own but a deformity, the result of being punished with an iron bit in her mouth. Sethe grieved that her mother had never even combed her hair and that she had never known a real smile. The one time she said in effect "I want to be like you," the mother slapped her but said nothing. Her mother left her by being hanged and Sethe, remembering, wished to think that her mother would not have been trying to escape without her. Throughout the story Sethe does not know and sometimes suspects the worst.

As a mother herself Sethe struggles against the logic that puts her to use without leaving any room for her to make the physical connection between female and offspring into a moral connection between mother and child. She scurries back and forth, between her work for Mrs. Garner and a grape arbor under which she has sheltered her daughter, rushing in to do her ironing, rushing out to shoo the flies from the baby's face. Later on, in freedom, she combs her daughter Denver's hair so memorably that it figures in the girl's recurrent nightmare. Again, during the escape when Sethe is dragging herself along, horribly violated and brutally whipped, she keeps herself going with the single idea of delivering her milk to the baby, who has been sent ahead.

If in such miniatures we witness the destruction and construction of generation, we witness the construction of gender in the contract Paul F, Paul D, Paul A, Halle, and Six-O make when Sethe is brought to Sweet Home. She is a beautiful girl of fourteen, the only girl on the farm, and they are men. But they are the Sweet Home men and proud of it. So although they lust as males after this solitary female, they agree to let her choose and wait the year it takes for her to choose Halle: "A year of yearning, when rape seemed the solitary gift of life. The restraint they exercised possible only because they were Sweet Home men—the ones Mr. Garner bragged about." By an act of collective will, which Morrison marks off with an act of pollution, they make a contract that lets them be men and lets Sethe be a woman who can be loved lawfully. Unlike other contracts, this one is durable only so long as the parties sustain their generosity to one another and to Sethe—and will it to be durable. That this act of generosity is powerfully connected with personal pride adds to the depth of Morrison's Paul D, "the last of the Sweet Home men."

While it provided a social residence for different kinds of love, the bond the Sweet Home men forged among themselves and then between themselves and Sethe was no more protected than the bond between the slaves and the Garners. Its fragility was exhibited when Paul F's sale away undid his status as a Sweet Home man. Sethe's status as Halle's wife could have easily been undone in many ways (although as things happened it was not). But the Sweet Home men's status as men collapsed as soon as Mr. Garner died. While he lived, however, a convolution of generosity and love of self, not unlike the men's, revealed itself in Garner's esteem for his slaves. It is not clear that, if he had had sons, he would have "raised" his slaves as he did. Perhaps by sad happenstance, he taught his slaves to read and count if they wanted, let them have hunting guns, listened to what they thought and felt, which mattered to him; and he worked with them. In the process, he was consciously making them men by his own proud creation; but by the same act he consciously made himself a man in a sense he could not be without them.

"Beg to differ, Garner. Ain't no nigger men." "Not if you scared, they ain't…. But if you a man yourself, you'll want your niggers to be men too." "I wouldn't have no nigger men around my wife." It was the reaction Garner loved and waited for. "Neither would I,"… and there was always a pause before the neighbor,    or    stranger,    or    peddler,    or brother-in-law … got the meaning.

Out of the brawl or hot argument that invariably followed there came home to Lillian Garner a scratched-up but happy man's man and slave owner's slave owner, "a real Kentuckian, one strong enough and smart enough to make and call his own niggers men."

The same ramifying branches that join the Sweet Home men to each other, to Mr. Garner, and to Sethe, also join Sethe to Mrs. Garner. After choosing Halle, she wonders about a wedding:

There should be … dancing, a party, a something. She and Mrs. Garner were the only women there, so she decided to ask her…. "Is there a wedding?"

Mrs. Garner put down her cooking spoon. Laughing a little, she touched Sethe on the head, saying, "You are one sweet child." And then no more.

But she did respond. She overlooked (and Sethe knew she overlooked) the temporary theft of two pillowcases, a dresser skirt, an old sash, and some mosquito netting, the bits and pieces out of which Sethe made the dress she wore the day she and Halle became a couple. The day after, according to Sethe, "Mrs. Garner crooked her finger at me and took me upstairs to her bedroom. She opened a wooden box and took out a pair of crystal earrings. She said, 'I want you to have these, Sethe.'" The gesture was authentically maternal, in manner as much as in content, and no doubt both enjoyed it as such, until Mrs. Garner's next question revealed the loose end: "Are your ears pierced?" Still, she said and meant that Halle was nice, that she wanted them to be happy; and Sethe said and meant her thank you. But Sethe tied the earrings in her skirt and did not put them on until she had left her Kentucky home.

And so we begin to see an infinitely delicate imagining of love on its own, without the authority of the conventional ties that could make it coherent and durable. It is a makeshift. Here it is stitched to an outlying bit of the conventionally intimate mother-daughter relation; there it returns to the conventionally distant slave-mistress relation. The mother-daughter relation Sethe and Mrs. Garner stitch together is inherently unstable because it cannot be upheld beyond the voluntary complicity of the two, and because nothing sustains it but their separate desires. This lack of social authority means, among other things, that the relationship cannot demand of either party more than she wills voluntarily to give it. So while the tie between Sethe and Mrs. Garner exhibits the disinterested traits of the categorical mother-daughter relation—some things are given without expectation of reward, but simply "because it was she"—it also exhibits some of the traits of a mutually self-interested exchange—each woman for her own reasons needs part of the other. This portrayal of an undomesticated love relation, growing on itself, invites reflection on the parts of its domesticated relative that grow well away from the pruned surface.

It would be a simpler task than Morrison set herself not to explore the inner and outer limits of authentic love between slave owner and slaves. But as the creator of a man and woman capable of love despite their rearing as slaves, she reckons with the fact that no ties enjoy protection, neither those that join slaves to other slaves nor those that join slaves to owners. Therefore to disparage a priori the possible makeshifts between owners and slaves is not to leave those between slaves credible. The makeshift we see, of Sethe's becoming a daughter, and the daughterless Mrs. Garner's becoming a mother to her, is as important to Sethe as her unrealized relationship with her own mother. Indeed, the two fuse together in her mind. We learn how important Mrs. Garner was to Sethe at the moment when she embraced Beloved as her dead daughter. "Beloved, she my daughter, she mine…. She come back to me of her own free will and I don't have to explain a thing." But, farther on: "I'll explain to her even though I don't have to." And then the explanation moves from how Sethe braved everything to deliver milk to her baby, to how the Garners' grown nephews forcibly nursed her, to the act of murder to keep her daughter safe, to Mrs. Garner's sickness the night the sign came that it was time to run:

I tended her like I would have tended my own mother if she needed me. If they had let her out of the rice field, because I was the only one she didn't throw away. I couldn't have done more for that woman than I could my own ma'am … and I'd have stayed with her until she got well or died. And I would have stayed after that except Nan snatched me back.

She told Mrs. Garner how the grown-up nephews had taken her behind the stable and nursed her: "Last time I saw her she couldn't do anything but cry, and I couldn't do a thing for her but wipe her face when I told her what they done to me." The sick and feeble Mrs. Garner's protest to her nephews against this violation led to the brutal whipping Sethe got.

In Denver's story of Sethe's escape, Amy's selflessness during an awful night and day is matched by Sethe's own. She will endure any hardship to get milk to the baby who has been sent ahead. In Sethe's account to Paul D, this selfless striving promotes something more:

I did it. I got us all out…. I had help … but still it was me doing it…. Me using my own head. But it was more than that. It was a kind of selfishness I never knew anything about before…. I was big, Paul, deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide.

It was this exultant exultant Sethe, not the Sethe groping with the others toward the decision to escape, who had found it within herself to resist recapture, whatever the cost. The community picked up Sethe's pride and judged her for it. As Janey said, when she heard of Sethe's last tribulation: "This Sethe had lost her wits, finally, as Janey knew she would—trying to do it all alone with her nose in the air." "Like she was better," said another. "Guess she had it coming," someone else put in. When one of them whispered to Paul D about the day the patrollers arrived, and Paul questioned her, he concluded: "There could have been a way. Some other way." Having been seduced by Beloved (his "stepdaughter" to the extent she was Sethe's "daughter"), and guilty himself, he was primed for judging and so he judged. At the end of their conversation, he broke his promise to hold onto her ankles and not let her fall. He left Sethe's house, taking up nighttime residence in the basement of the Church of the Redeemer and daytime residence on its front steps, with a bottle in his hand.

On the day the patrollers arrived, Sethe had acted without hesitation and without regret, without need to explain anything to anyone or to seek forgiveness anywhere. In any case, it was not an act to be forgiven. Perhaps it was one to be gotten beyond by placing oneself into the hands of the community's capacity for mercy after its judgment. Sethe invited no one's participation either way. When she returned from jail with Denver, neighbors and former friends left her to herself, and she sought no one. She went back and forth to her drab work in a restaurant kitchen, did housework from day to day, and kept plodding as her sons left to follow the Union army, Denver retreated into deaf and dumb shock, and Baby Suggs decided to take to her bed, pine, and die. After a brief notion of moving, quickly abandoned, she accepted matter-of-factly the baby ghost's interfering presence in the house and made practical allowance for it. She accommodated Denver's solitude, loving in parallel with her when anything else was impossible. She managed her life, a full survivor of the terrible events that happened twenty-eight days after her declaration of freedom. She simply pinned her life into the present during the next eighteen years; and then everything came undone.

What really happened to Sethe and how is left to the reader's own meditation. The paradox of the story is that, with the arrival of the two apparitions that boded better things, Sethe collapsed. First was Paul D, who as the last of the Sweet Home men rejoined her with her past. He interrupted her sober practicality with laughter, a "bed life," the comfort of past acquaintance, a vision of the future, and the offer of safety in which to entertain an inward life: "Jump, if you want to, 'cause I'll catch you, girl. I'll catch you 'fore you fall. Go as far inside as you need to, I'll hold your ankles. Make sure you get back out." Beloved interrupted Sethe's sober practicality with the deadliest of temptations: "to take care of and make up for" and to explain, to seize the forbidden fruit of doing the past over again, better. The miraculous gift of having her murdered daughter back and doing the past over, therefore came at the cost of remorse, guilt, self-doubt, and unending self-justification. The attempt to do the past over, as an ordinary mother, brought her within reach of the community's judgment. She had not been before.

Beloved did not seem to her to be "the daughter," as distinct from "a daughter," until the moment when "the click" came, and Sethe began to see the scar around the young woman's neck and three fingernail marks on her head. As simply a daughter and one of a threesome with Sethe and Denver, Beloved added to their joy frolicking together on ice skates, planning the next summer's garden, sewing fancy clothes, eating fancy foods, telling stories and jokes, singing. Denver's "click" came long before Sethe's, and so her love evolved into holding onto Beloved and then into holding Beloved together before Sethe's did. When Sethe's came, she held on too, and Denver let go. Giving up her job so as never to leave Beloved alone again, giving up eating or caring for herself, Sethe gradually became weak and weary of life, as she tried, ever more ineffectually, to explain to Beloved the colossal act of a mother who had been "that wide." Watching, and remembering how Baby Suggs had let herself pass away, Denver set in motion the events that saved her mother but exorcized Beloved.

With Beloved gone, Paul D came back to the house. He found Sethe in a physical state that told her spiritual connection to the dead. She was lying in Baby Suggs's bed and decay was in the air. He thought he saw what she was planning and asked. "Oh, I don't have no plans," she told him, "No plans at all." He said:

"Look…. Denver be here in the day. I be here in the night. I'm a take care of you, you hear? Starting now. First off, you don't smell right. Stay there. Don't move. Let me heat up some water." He stops. "Is it all right, Sethe, if I heat up some water?"

And then, with Paul D's simple acts of bathing Sethe and rubbing her feet, Morrison turns the light brilliantly up around Baby Suggs's bed. Sethe "opens her eyes, knowing the danger of looking at him…. The peachstone skin, the crease between his ready, waiting eyes, and sees it—the thing in him, the blessedness, that has made him the kind of man who can walk in a house and make the women cry."

An Excerpt from Beloved

Sethe knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. If they didn't get it right off—she could never explain. Because the truth was simple, not a long-drawn-out record of flowered shifts, tree cages, selfishness, ankle ropes and wells. Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher's hat, she heard wings. Little humming-birds stuck their needle beaks right through her head-cloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe. And the hummingbird wings beat on. Sethe paused in her circle again and looked out the window. She remembered when the yard had a fence with a gate that somebody was always latching and unlatching in the time when 124 was busy as a way station. She did not see the whiteboys who pulled it down, yanked up the posts and smashed the gate leaving 124 desolate and exposed at the very hour when everybody stopped dropping by. The shoulder weeds of Bluestone Road were all that came toward the house.

When she got back from the jail house, she was glad the fence was gone. That's where they had hitched their horses—where she saw, floating above the railing as she squatted in the garden, schoolteacher's hat. By the time she faced him, looked him dead in the eye, she had something in her arms that stopped him in his tracks. He took a backward step with each jump of the baby heart until finally there were none.

Toni Morrison, in her Beloved, Plume, 1987.

In keeping with the grandeur of her subject, Morrison moves us from the happy ending, in which Paul D and Sethe seem poised to begin a sunlit new story, to a twilight in which to contemplate the old one: the meaning of Beloved's appearance in the lives of three people; the permutations of happenstance and will that made Paul D and Sethe the people they were; the content of their tie to one another. And who was the girl, Beloved? The ending offers new material with which to return to the beginning. "There is loneliness that can be rocked…. Then there is loneliness that roams…. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet seem to come from a far-off place." Morrison's narrator continues by insisting, "It was not a story to pass on. So they forgot her."

It also is not a story to be retold in only one way. For Beloved has the property Walter Benjamin attributed [in "The Storyteller," in Illuminations, 1969] to all great stories. Its essence is not expended in one telling. The psychological connections are not made but are left to the readers, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. In that way, Beloved lays claim to a place in memory and in retelling. I have retold Beloved as a meditation upon the nature of love. To me, it is a story that trains this meditation by inviting us, from the very beginning, to embrace dead strangers. "Sixty million and more," Morrison tells us in her own voice—and then, in God's, "I will call them my people which were not my people; and her beloved which was not beloved." But Beloved is not a story to be retold in only one way. It is a story to pass on.

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