Beloved | Critical Essay by Elizabeth B. House

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Beloved.
This section contains 4,707 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Elizabeth B. House

SOURCE: "Toni Morrison's Ghost: The Beloved Who Is Not Beloved," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 17-26.

In the following essay, House argues that the character Beloved in Morrison's novel is not literally a reincarnation of Sethe's slain infant, but an orphaned child upon whom it is convenient for Sethe to project her anguished feelings of remorse and guilt.

Most reviewers of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved have assumed that the mysterious title character is the ghostly reincarnation of Sethe's murdered baby, a flesh and blood version of the spirit Paul D. drives from the house. Judith Thurman, for example, writes in The New Yorker [2 November 1987] that the young stranger "calls herself by the name of the dead baby—Beloved—so there isn't much suspense, either about her identity or about her reasons for coming back." In The New York Review of Books [5 November 1987], Thomas R. Edwards agrees that the "lovely, historyless young woman who calls herself Beloved … is unquestionably the dead daughter's spirit in human form," and, concurring with these ideas, the Ms. reviewer, Marcia Ann Gillespie, adds that "Beloved, blindly seeking retribution, is a succubus leeching Sethe's … spirit" [Ms., Vol. 16, No. 5, 1987]. Similarly, Stanley Crouch, in his New Republic review [19 October 1987], chides Morrison for creating unreal characters and then laments that "nothing is more contrived than the figure of Beloved herself, who is the reincarnated force of the malevolent ghost that was chased from the house." And, in the same vein, Carol Rumens says in the Times Literary Supplement [16-22 October 1987] that the baby ghost, after being driven from the house, "loses little time in effecting a more solid manifestation, as a young woman runaway." Then Rumens faults Morrison for using a spirit as a main character, for, as she says, "the travails of a ghost cannot be made to resonate in quite the same way as those of a living woman or child."

Clearly, these writers evaluate Morrison's novel believing that Beloved is unquestionably a ghost. [In a footnote, House adds: "A few other reviewers take the more moderate position of expressing puzzlement about Beloved rather than claiming that she is either ghost or human. For example, in her New York Times review of the novel, Margaret Atwood concludes, 'The reader is kept guessing; there's a lot more to Beloved than any one character can see, and she manages to be many things to several people.' See 'Haunted by Their Nightmares,' The New York Times Book Review (September 13, 1987). Similarly, in a Newsweek piece, Walter Clemons writes that 'Beloved … has an anterior life deeper than the ghostly role she fulfills in the … household she visits.' See 'A Gravestone of Memories,' Newsweek (September 28, 1987). And, Paul Gray in a Time review says that 'the flesh-and-blood presence of Beloved roils the novel's intense, realistic surface. This young woman may not actually be Sethe's reincarnated daughter, but no other explanation of her identity is provided.' See 'Something Terrible Happened,' Time (September 21, 1987)."] Such uniform acceptance of this notion is surprising, for evidence throughout the book suggests that the girl is not a supernatural being of any kind but simply a young woman who has herself suffered the horrors of slavery.

In large part, Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning fifth novel is about the atrocities slavery wrought both upon a mother's need to love and care for her children as well as a child's deep need for a family: Sethe murders her baby girl rather than have her taken back into slavery; Baby Suggs grieves inconsolably when her children are sold; Sethe sees her own mother, a woman who was brought from Africa on a slave ship, only a few times before the woman is killed; Denver loves her mother, Sethe, but also fears the woman because she is a murderer. These and other incidents illustrate the destruction of family ties brought by slavery, and Beloved, seen as a human being, emphasizes and illuminates these themes. [In a footnote, House continues: "Sethe's own need for a parent is expressed in a pained suspicion that her mother had been hanged for attempting to run away, an action that would have separated the woman not only from the horrors of slavery but also from her own daughter. Speaking to Beloved in a stream-of-conscious remembering, Sethe explains, 'My plan was to take us all to the other side where my own ma'am is. They stopped me from getting us there, but they didn't stop you from getting here…. You came right on back like a good girl, like a daughter which is what I wanted to be and would have been if my ma'am had been able to get out of the rice long enough before they hanged her and let me be one…. I wonder what they was doing when they was caught. Running, you think? No. Not that. Because she was my ma'am and nobody's ma'am would run off and leave her daughter, would she? Would she, now?'"]

Unraveling the mystery of the young woman's identity depends to a great extent upon first deciphering chapters four and five of Part II, a section that reveals the points of view of individual characters. Both of these chapters begin with the line "I AM BELOVED and she is mine," and in these narratives Morrison enters Beloved's consciousness. From Beloved's disjointed thoughts, her stream-of-conscious rememberings set down in these chapters, a story can be pieced together that describes how white slave traders, "men without skin," captured the girl and her mother as the older woman picked flowers in Africa. In her narrative, Beloved explains that she and her mother, along with many other Africans, were then put aboard an abysmally crowded slave ship, given little food and water, and in these inhuman conditions, many blacks died. To escape this living hell, Beloved's mother leaped into the ocean, and, thus, in the girl's eyes, her mother willingly deserted her.

In order to grasp the details of this story, chapters four and five of Part II must be read as a poem: thus, examining the text line by line is often necessary. As Beloved begins her narrative, she is recalling a time when she was a young girl, for she says "I am not big" and later remarks again "I am small." However, the memory of these experiences is so vivid that, to her, "all of it is now." One of the first traumas Beloved describes is being in the lower hold of a slave ship. The captured Africans have been crouching, crammed in the overcrowded space for so long that the girl thinks "there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching" and then she notes that "someone is thrashing but there is no room to do it in." At first the men and women on the ship are separated, but then Beloved says that "storms rock us and mix the men into the women and the women into the men       that is when I begin to be on the back of the man." This person seems to be her father or at least a father figure, for he carries the young girl on his back. Beloved says "I love him because he has a song" and, until he dies on the ship, this man sings of his African home, of the "place where a woman takes flowers away from their leaves and puts them in a round basket       before the clouds."

These lyrics bring to mind the first scene in Part II, chapter four. Beloved's tale begins with the girl watching her mother  as  the  woman  takes  "flowers  away  from leaves       she put them in a round basket…. She fills the basket       she opens the grass." This opening of the grass is probably caused by the mother's falling down, for Beloved next says, "I would help her but the clouds are in the way." In the following chapter, the girl clarifies this thought when she explains, "I wanted to help her when she was picking the flowers, but the clouds of gunsmoke blinded me and I lost her." Thus, what the girl is remembering is the capture of her mother by the men without skin, the armed white slave traders. Later, Beloved sums up her story by explaining that the three crucial points in her life have been times when her mother left her: "Three times I lost her: once with the flowers because of the noisy clouds of smoke; once when she went into the sea instead of smiling at me; once under the bridge when I went in to join her and she came toward me but did not smile." Thus, the slave traders' capture of her mother is the first of three incidents that frame the rest of Beloved's memories.

Once incarcerated on the ship, Beloved notices changes in her mother. She remembers seeing the diamond earrings, "the shining in her ears," as they were picking flowers. Now on the ship, her mother "has nothing in her ears," but she does have an iron collar around her neck. The child knows that she "does not like the circle around her neck" and says "if I had the teeth of the man who died on  my  face  I  would  bite  the  circle  around  her neck       bite it away         I know she does not like it." Sensing her mother's unhappiness, her longing for Africa, Beloved symbolizes the woman's emotions by ascribing to her a wish for physical items: "She wants her earrings       she wants her round basket."

As Beloved continues her tale, she explains that in the inhuman conditions of the ship, many blacks die. She says "those able to die are in a pile" and the "men without skin push them through with poles," evidently "through" the ship's portholes, for the hills of dead people "fall into the sea which is the color of the bread." The man who has carried her on his back is one of those who succumbs, and as he takes his last breath, he turns his head and then Beloved can "see the teeth he sang through." She knows that "his song is gone," so now she loves "his pretty little teeth instead." Only after the man's head drops in death is the girl able to see her mother; Beloved remembers, "when he dies on my face I can see hers        she is going to smile at me." However, the girl never receives this gesture of affection, for her mother escapes her own pain by jumping into the ocean, thus committing suicide. The scene is etched in Beloved's memory: "They push my own man through       they do not push the woman with my face through       she  goes  in       they  do  not  push her       she goes in       the little hill is gone she was going to smile at me." Beloved is haunted by this second loss of her mother for, unlike the separation caused by the slavetraders' attack, this time the mother chooses to leave her. The girl agonizes as she tries to understand her mother's action and later thinks that "all I want to know is why did she go in the water in the place where we crouched? Why did she do that when she was just about to smile at me? I wanted to join her in the sea but I could not move." [In a footnote, House remarks: "In an interview with Walter Clemons, Morrison brought to his attention Beloved's dedication, 'Sixty Million and more,' and explained that 'the figure is the best educated guess at the number of black Africans who never even made it into slavery—those who died either as captives in Africa or on slave ships.' Morrison notes, too, that 'one account describes the Congo as so clogged with bodies that the boat couldn't pass…. They packed 800 into a ship if they'd promised to deliver 400. They assumed that half would die. And half did.' And, the author wryly adds, 'A few people in my novel remember it…. Baby Suggs came here out of one of those ships. But mostly it's not remembered at all.' See 'A Gravestone of Memories,' Newsweek (September 28, 1987). Of course, Beloved is the most important person in the novel who remembers the slave ships' horrors. However, Morrison does not reveal that fact here; she merely hints at it."]

Time passes and Beloved notes that "the others are taken       I am not taken." These lines suggest that when the other slaves are removed from the ship, Beloved, whose beauty is noted by several characters, is perhaps kept by one of the ship's officers. At any rate, she is now controlled by a man who uses her sexually, for "he hurts where I sleep," thus in bed, and "he puts his finger there." In this situation, Beloved longs for her mother and explains, "I wait on the bridge because she is under it." Although at this point she may be on an inland bridge, Beloved is most likely waiting for her mother on the ship's bridge; if she is being kept by one of the vessel's officers, the girl would logically be there. But, wherever she is at this time, Beloved last saw her mother as the woman went into the sea; thus, the girl associates water with her parent and believes she can be found in this element.

Beloved's stream-of-consciousness narrative then jumps to the time, apparently several years later, when she arrives at the creek behind Sethe's house. Morrison does not specify exactly how Beloved comes to be there, but various characters give possible explanations. The most plausible theory is that offered by Stamp Paid who says, "Was a girl locked up in the house with a whiteman over by Deer Creek. Found him dead last summer and the girl gone. Maybe that's her. Folks say he had her in there since she was a pup." This possibility would explain Beloved's "new" skin, her unlined feet and hands, for if the girl were constantly kept indoors, her skin would not be weathered or worn. Also, the scar under Beloved's chin could be explained by such an owner's ill-treatment of her. Morrison gives credence to Stamp Paid's guess by having Sethe voice a similar hypothesis and then note that her neighbor, Ella, had suffered the same fate. When Beloved first comes to live with the family, Sethe tells Denver "that she believed Beloved had been locked up by some whiteman for his own purposes, and never let out the door. That she must have escaped to a bridge or someplace and rinsed the rest out of her mind. Something like that had happened to Ella…." In addition, Beloved's own words suggest that she has been confined and used sexually. The girl explains to Denver that she "knew one whiteman," and she tells Sethe that a white man "was in the house I was in. He hurt me." In a statement that reveals the source of her name, Beloved says that men call her "beloved in the dark and bitch in the light," and in response to another question about her name, she says, "in the dark my name is Beloved."

Whatever situation Beloved has come from, when she reaches the creek behind Sethe's house, she is still haunted by her mother's absence. The lonely girl sees the creek, remembers the water under the ship's bridge where she last glimpsed her mother, and concludes that her lost loved ones are beneath the creek's surface. In her soliloquy, Beloved links the scene to her mother and father figure by evoking images of the African mother's diamond earrings and the father's teeth. She says that she knows the man who carried her on his back is not floating on this water, but his "teeth are down there where the blue is … so is the face I want the face that is going to smile at me." And, in describing the creek she says, "in the day diamonds are in the water where she is and turtles in the night I hear chewing and swallowing and laughter it belongs to me." [In a footnote, House explains: "In The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1940), James G. Frazier notes that several American Indian groups believed that the dead souls of their relatives returned to earth in the form of water turtles. This concept fits with Morrison's use of the turtles in the scene in which Beloved decides that her lost loved ones are beneath the creek's surface."] The diamonds Beloved thinks she sees in the water are most likely reflected bits of sunlight that make the water sparkle. Similarly, the noises the girl interprets as "chewing and swallowing and laughing" are probably made by the turtles. Alone in the world, Beloved's intense need to be with those she loves undoubtedly affects her interpretation of what her senses perceive.

If Stamp Paid is right and the girl has been locked up for years, then she has not had normal experiences with people or places. She lacks both formal learning and the practical education she would have gained from a family life. These deficiencies also undoubtedly affect her perceptions, and, thus, it is not especially surprising that she does not distinguish between the water under the ship's bridge and that in the creek behind Sethe's house. To the untutored girl, all bodies of water are connected as one.

Apparently, Beloved looks into the creek water, sees her own reflection, and concludes that the image is her mother's face. She then dives into the water, believing that in this element her mother will at last give her the smile that was cut short on the slave ship. Beloved says,

"I see her face which is mine        it is the face that was going to smile at me in the place where we    crouched      now   she    is   going to       her face comes through the water … her face is mine       she is not smiling…. I have to have my face        I go in…. I am in the water and she is coming         there is no round basket       no iron circle around her neck."

In the water, Beloved cannot "join" with the reflection, and thus she thinks her mother leaves her for a third time; distraught, she says, "my own face has left me        I see me swim away…. I see the bottoms of my feet       I am alone."

Beloved surfaces, sees Sethe's house, and by the next day she has made her way to the structure. Exhausted by her ordeal, the girl is sleeping near the house when Sethe returns from the carnival. [In a footnote, House continues: "The narrator says that all of Sethe's neighbors are eager to see the carnival, a show that advertises performances by people who have two heads, are twenty feet tall, or weigh a ton, and 'the fact that none of it was true did not extinguish their appetite a bit.' That Sethe and Denver attend this carnival immediately before meeting Beloved foreshadows their willingness, in fact their need, to believe that the mysterious girl is something other than an ordinary human. Neither the carnival world nor Beloved's status as a child returned from the dead is based on truth, but both provide much desired escapes from the pain of everyday reality."] Beloved says,

"I come out of blue water…. I need to find a place to be…. There is a house…. I sit       the sun closes my eyes       when I open them I see the face I lost       Sethe's is the face that left me…. I see the smile…. It is the face I lost        she is my face smiling at me        doing it at last."

Thus, when Beloved awakens and sees Sethe smiling at her, the girl mistakenly thinks that the woman is her long lost mother. In the second half of her narrative, Beloved even more clearly states her erroneous conclusions when she asserts, "Sethe is the one that picked flowers … in the place before the crouching…. She was about to smile at me when the men without skin came and took us up into the sunlight with the dead and shoved them into the sea. Sethe went into the sea…. They did not push her…."

What finally emerges from combining Beloved's thoughts and the rest of the novel is a story of two probable instances of mistaken identity. Beloved is haunted by the loss of her African parents and thus comes to believe that Sethe is her mother. Sethe longs for her dead daughter and is rather easily convinced that Beloved is the child she has lost.

Morrison hints at this interpretation in her preface to the novel, a quotation from Romans 9:25: "I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved." As Margaret Atwood notes, the biblical context of these lines emphasizes Paul's message that people once "despised and outcast, have now been redefined as acceptable." However, Morrison's language, especially in the preface, is rich in meaning on many levels. In view of the ambiguity about Beloved's identity found in the rest of the novel, it seems probable that in this initial line Morrison is suggesting an answer to the riddle of who Beloved really is or, to be more exact, who she is not. The words "I will call … her beloved, which was not beloved" suggest that the mysterious girl is not really Sethe's murdered daughter returned from the grave; she is "called" Beloved, but she is not Sethe's child. Also, the line "I will call them my people, which were not my people" hints that Beloved mistakenly thinks Sethe and her family are her blood kin.

Seen in this light, Beloved's story illuminates several other puzzling parts of the novel. For example, after Sethe goes to the Clearing and feels that her neck is being choked, Denver accuses Beloved of causing the distress. Beloved replies, "'I didn't choke it. The circle of iron choked it.'" Since she believes Sethe and her African mother are the same person, Beloved reasons that the iron collar her African mother was forced to wear is bothering Sethe.

Beloved's questions about Sethe's earrings are one reason the woman comes to believe that the mysterious girl is her murdered child. Before her death, Sethe's baby girl had loved to play with her mother's crystal earrings. Sethe had "jingled the earrings for the pleasure of the crawling-already? girl, who reached for them over and over again." Thus, when Beloved asks "where your diamonds?… Tell me your earrings," the family wonders, "How did she know?" Of course, Beloved asks this question remembering the "shining" in her African mother's earrings, the diamonds that were probably confiscated by the slave traders. However, Sethe thinks Beloved is remembering the crystal earrings with which the dead baby played.

This instance of misunderstanding is typical, for throughout the novel Sethe, Denver, and Beloved often fail to communicate clearly with each other. In fact, the narrator describes Beloved's and Denver's verbal exchanges as "sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be." This evaluation is correct, for as the three women talk to each other, each person's understandings of what she hears is slanted by what she expects to hear. For example, Denver, believing Beloved to be a ghost, asks the girl what the "other world" was like: "'What's it like over there, where you were before?… Were you cold?'" Beloved, of course, thinks Denver is asking her about Africa and the slave ship, and so she replies, "'Hot. Nothing to breathe down there and no room to move it.'" Denver then inquires whether Beloved saw her dead grandmother, Baby Suggs, or Jesus on the other side: "'You see Jesus? Baby Suggs?'" and Beloved, remembering the death laden ship, replies that there were many people there, some dead, but she did not know their names. Sethe has a similar conversation with Beloved and begins "Tell me the truth. Didn't you come from the other side?" and Beloved replies "Yes. I was on the other side." Of course, like Denver, Sethe is referring to a life after death world, while Beloved again means the other side of the ocean, Africa.

Encased in a deep and destructive need for what each thinks the other to be, Sethe and Beloved seclude themselves in Sethe's house, Number 124, and the home becomes like a prison cell for the two disturbed women. They separate themselves completely from the rest of humanity, even Denver, and they begin to consume each other's lives: Beloved continually berates Sethe for having deserted her. Sethe devotes every breath to justifying her past actions to Beloved. Their home life deteriorates to the point that the narrator says "if the white people … had allowed Negroes into their lunatic asylum they could have found candidates in 124."

Sethe's and Beloved's obsession with the past clearly affects their perception of what happens when the singing women and Edward Bodwin approach Sethe's house. Ella and the other women are there, singing and praying, hoping to rid Sethe of the ghost they think is plaguing her. Edward Bodwin is the white man who helped Sethe when she was jailed for murdering her baby; now he has come to give Denver a ride to her new job. However, when Sethe comes out of her house and views the scene, her mind reverts to the time when another white man, her slave owner, had come into the yard.

On that fateful day Sethe had killed her child, and she had first sensed danger when she glimpsed her slave master's head gear. When she saw the hated "hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew." Years later, as Sethe stands holding Beloved's hand, she sees Bodwin approach, and her unsettled mind replays her thoughts from long ago. She recognizes "his … hat wide-brimmed enough to hide his face but not his purpose…. She hears wings. Little hummingbirds stick needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thinks anything, it is no. No no. Nonono. She flies." Apparently deciding that this time she will attack the white intruder and not her own child, Sethe rushes toward Bodwin with an ice pick. Ella strikes Sethe, and then the other women apparently fall on the distraught mother, pinning her to the ground.

As this commotion occurs, Beloved also has a sense of déjà vu. First, the girl stands on the porch holding Sethe's hand. Then Sethe drops the hand, runs toward the white man and group of black women, and Beloved thinks her mother has deserted her again. Remembering that her African mother's suicide came after the hill of dead black people were pushed from the slave ship, Beloved sees the horrible scene being recreated:

But now her hand is empty…. Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind. Alone, Again … [she is running away]. Away from her to the pile of people out there. They make a hill. A hill of black people, falling. And above them all,… the man without skin, looking.

Beloved connects this "hill" of falling people with the pile of dead blacks who were pushed from the ship, and, terrified, the girl apparently runs away.

In his introduction to The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne notes that romances, one of the literary traditions to which Beloved is heir, are obliged to reveal the "truth of the human heart." And, in Beloved, Morrison does just that. An important facet of this truth is that emotional ghosts of hurt, love, guilt, and remembrance haunt those whose links to family members have been shattered; throughout the novel, Morrison shows that family ties can be severed only at the cost of distorting people's lives. In Beloved, Morrison also shows that past griefs, hurts ranging from the atrocities of slavery to less hideous pains, must be remembered, but they should not control life. At the end of the novel, Paul D. tells Sethe "'me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.'" And, throughout Beloved, Morrison's theme is that remembering yesterdays, while not being consumed by them, gives people the tomorrows with which to make real lives.

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