Of all the slaves that the world has produced, there lived no such slave as the African American. For these who were stripped and robbed of all their dignity, a burning death was deemed more welcome than a life of servitude. Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved is the story of one such slave and mother who had the willingness to risk everything, for what was to her the necessity of freedom. Morrison scrutinizes the terrifying physical and emotional trauma that slavery unleashes, to make undoubtedly what we can call her best work to date – Beloved. The novel was inspired by the true story of a black American slave woman, Margaret Garner, who was infamously known for killing her own daughter rather than seeing the child return to slavery. Morrison plumbed into Margaret’s story and invented her thoughts and the process of claiming her own freedom in Beloved. "I thought at first it couldn't be written, but I was annoyed and worried that such a story was inaccessible to art", the writer had said about the book in an interview.
Morrison’s novel centers around the life of a mother of four children and a former slave, named Sethe. Sethe flees from slavery, without her husband and returns to her home in Cincinnati. But even eighteen years after she is liberated from Sweet Home, the farm where she worked as a slave, Sethe is not free. Old memories of her life at Sweet Home, literally keep her haunted.
As the novel opens, we see the entrance of Paul D, a fellow slave who begins to live with Sethe in her household Bluestone 124. Paul D, the man who worked with Sethe in Sweet Home rekindles further the hideous memories of their past that Sethe has kept buried for so long. And in those memories is a truth that is far too frightening – A month after Sethe runs away from Sweet Home, she is discovered by a white man. In an endeavor to save her children from being crushed like her in a world of slavery, she kills one of them. Beloved was the only one word Sethe could afford to put at the tomb of her “beloved" dead infant.
Bluestone 124 consequently becomes haunted by the ghost of the baby that Sethe killed - A spiteful place, full of a baby’s venom. Except for a withdrawn Denver, all of Sethe’s children pack their bags and creep away from the spite that the house feels for them. So it is Sethe and Denver, who are left to deal with the anger of the baby ghost in the form of turned over jars, smacks on the backs, shaking floors and gushes of air. After some years, when Paul D moves into the house, the ghost is obscurely exorcised from the household. Sethe and Denver continue to live with Paul D like a family, keeping their pasts carefully at bay, until the murdered child returns twenty years later in the form of a woman with baby soft skin who calls herself Beloved.
The novel presents itself in two spheres - One with the stories of Kentucky where Sethe worked as a slave in Sweet Home, and the other of her so called life of freedom in Cincinnati. Sethe, Denver, Paul D and all the other characters in the novel live concurrently in their present and in past. In Sweet Home Sethe works with her husband Halle who work additionally on Sundays in order to buy his mother, Baby Suggs, her freedom. They are accompanied in the plantation by Paul A, Paul F, Paul D and Sixo, the man who plans their escape from Sweet Home. Sethe’s latter life, after she flees from the plantation with no news of her husband, is blotched with excruciating images of Sethe beheading her Beloved baby with a handsaw. The story continues to unfold to us in this manner, alternating between the past and the present, as it gets increasingly harrowing, sad and cruel.
Beloved takes the reader into the heart of emotions and truth, showing to them through a crystal glass what the ingredients of true slavery are about. It was the “Sixty Million and more” of the black Africans who died in the Middle Passage that Morrison had dedicated her novel to. (The Middle Passage refers to the forcible passage of African people from Africa to the New World, as a part of the Atlantic slave trade.) Morrison’s readers indulge in her fiction primarily for the astonishing ways in which the writer tackles the subjects of race, gender, struggle and sexuality. By incorporating the element of the supernatural in her book, Morrison makes this an experience that is beyond creditable articulation. She uses the full stop as her best weapon, with a language that is short, crisp and poetic. But many critics believe that the novel is hardly about good or bad writing. Morrison herself elucidates, “To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way.” This book encapsulates a cruel time and struggle in history, more intimately than any other written document does, and for this by itself it is worth all the veneration.
It is only after the release of this book in 1987, that Toni Morrison who had written other novels like The Bluest Eye and Sula, attained worldwide readership. She won the privileged Nobel Prize for Literature too, six years after this novel was published. Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005, and The New York Times poll of 200 critics, writers, and editors, recently named Beloved as “the single best work of American fiction published in the last twenty-five years.” In 1998, the great novel was made into a film directed by Jonathan Demme and produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey.
The accolades of the novel are innumerable as already ascertained, but the end result of a novel like Beloved as a personal experience, is that it fearlessly takes you through the formidable and pathless terrains of slavery. Morrison writes with a ferocity that is innovative and provoking. And what we get finally, is a shuddersome surrounding that brings you out of your comfort zone and shows you the realities of a world where people endlessly endure, dream, fail and still survive.