Ironically it was my husband who suggested I read Beloved when I told him I needed to find a woman besides Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier who writes ghost stories and Gothic tales. I haven’t read Toni Morrison in years; Beloved, not since high school. So I jumped on that idea and spent the last couple of weeks rereading Morrison’s masterpiece.
The reason I decided to write about the book in my first post isn’t simply because it’s one of the greatest—if not The Great—American novels ever written, but because an aspiring author on Goodreads left it a one-star review.
It sounds petty, I know.
I’ve disliked some books that other readers are crazy about, like Uprooted; but I didn’t feel “insulted” by the time I spent reading the story, I didn’t see engaging with the narrative as a waste of my time. I appreciate the value and uniqueness in the novel, its contribution, the writer’s talent, too: it’s just not my style.
And I can understand Beloved not being to every reader’s liking. The book is difficult on multiple levels—emotionally, for one, but also aesthetically, perhaps, because of the expert way Morrison wields her craft throughout the narrative. Morrison’s sentences might be simple and straightforward, but the way she interweaves the sensory and the everyday—“Beloved is my sister. I swallowed her blood right along with my mother’s milk”—is a shock to the senses. We can’t comprehend an experience that the speaker accepts as her reality.
Then of course there’s the third-person omniscient, third-person focalized, and first-person points of view. The stream of consciousness, chorus, call-and-response, internal monologue. It takes some unpacking to get to the bones of the book, to follow the plot’s path through the different narrative positions and devices the author employs. But just as Beloved demands her family work for her affection and her love, really earn their place with her, learn who she is and why, so too does the book demand its readers deserve to surround themselves with its world, its characters, and its message.
There’s so much more to say about story and style, and so much more that makes this book tough, so, yes, it’s fine to not like it. But it’s one thing to not like the book and another to just be wrong.
Toni Morrison is a genius. To not recognize the beauty, talent, and spirit with which she writes is willful ignorance. To say that reading this novel is an “offensive waste of time [sic]” is offensive in itself. Because, yes, it’s a difficult subject, and yes, it’s a difficult piece to read and comprehend, but it’s not difficulty of emotion or style that spurred that one-star review.
Beloved, for me, is an attack on the American dream, that effervescent concept so ingrained in the American way of thinking and so central to what Americans believe makes their country—and them— special. I would say that it’s our biggest source of nationalistic pride. But this book reveals both the myth and the foundation of the American dream: that its achievement includes everyone, and that it’s built on the backs of those who have been excluded. The book blanketly criticizes the “dreams” that have precluded the historically disenfranchised from escaping institutionalized racism, lushly symbolized by the ghost of Beloved. It is a critique of slavery, of course, but also of systems like education which perpetuate racist thinking and, at the same time, a celebration of Othered spaces like Lady Jones’s that offer those in it the chance to see themselves as someone to take care of, someone with a story to pass on. Someone with an identity.
Beloved doesn’t vilify all whitemen, it’s not a statement of hatred against white people, it’s not saying that all white people are evil. It’s not even saying that every character in the book hates white people or should hate someone whose skin is different from theirs. In fact, I would argue that the book’s criticism of racism goes both ways. We can see that Sethe’s justified fear of what white people represent, the fear and ferocity that compel her to protect her children from Sweet Home’s secrets, still imprison both Denver and Beloved in a different way and ostracize Howard and Buglar—and Sethe herself—from the community of 124.
But Beloved empowers those whom the whiteman’s society has Othered. Those who have had their worth tallied, totaled, summed up, written out—as if human value is a thing to be enumerated. And that’s scary to someone who’s American dream is built upon the belief that some people are more valuable than others.
Yes, I am saying that racism is a foundation—the foundation—of the American dream, because the American dream was made for rich white men and their well-made bootstraps.
I’d like to say that the aspiring author’s reaction to this story, which reminds us of a history that lingers and haunts and howls and cries like the ghost of Beloved—such a reaction is a reenactment and a reiteration of the mechanisms of prejudice that underpin American society. If this reaction illustrates anything, it’s that we have been taught to fear and to hate the ghosts that we don’t want or want to understand, rather than take the time to listen and understand them and give them peace, lay them at last to rest, but keep them forever alive in our hearts and our actions, as Beloved invites us to do.
For what is Beloved’s ghost if not a story that must be passed on, footprint that must be tracked back over, if we are to remember the “breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for”; to look upon the water with its swirling golden leaves and remember whose face is looking back?