Some time last year, I saw this Toni Morrison’s interview with Stephen Colbert (I miss Colbert!). She said something amazing. After 20-something years, she read Beloved again a few weeks before the interview. She said, “It was really good…”
A writer is his/her own best/worst critic, so for her to say that, I thought, was really special. Also, the novel won the Pulitzer Price for Fiction in 1988, so it must be good.
I added the book to my wish list. Fast-forward to April this year, during a visit to NYC (best city on earth), I came across a couple who were selling their used books on the side of the street near the NYU campus. I browsed, of course, and found Beloved!
Thoughts on the Book
Chilling. Powerful. Mysterious. Beautiful. Like a painting. I wrote a review here.
The language, the words, and sentences are very powerful. It was poetic and its rhythms change depending on the narrative style. It’s truly a work of art.
What led me to start reading this book was Just Mercy. For me, this book continues the thought that Bryan Stevenson proposes, that as a society, we need to heal from slavery through a process of truth and reconciliation. It’s a painful process, but denying or suppressing this history will only cause more problems.
Toni Morrison, Beloved, Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998.
Chilling. Powerful. Mysterious. Beautiful. Like a painting.
Beloved is a work of art. And like many pieces of art, there are aspects of it that I don’t understand. I’m not too left-brained, however, to miss the beauty of Morrison’s words and phrases.
Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an ex-slave, and her daughter, Denver. They live in a house, called 124, which seems to be haunted by the spirit of a baby—Sethe’s dead child. Upon the arrival of Paul D, an old friend/fellow slave of Sethe, the spirit left the house. But not long after, a girl about the age of Sethe’s daughter if she had lived arrives at 124 and catalyzes a series of reactions from the 3 main characters. This woman calls herself Beloved.
The confusion of who, or what, Beloved is remains a mystery, both to the characters in the novel and the readers. Sethe and Denver believe she is the dead child returning in flesh. Or, she may be just a confused girl who believes Sethe is her mother. Regardless, as a literary device, the character Beloved is brilliantly created to trigger the other characters’ development.
Indeed, character development is, to me, the meat of the story. With Beloved’s presence, they are faced with history in slavery, their past actions, and how they are impacted by their past. Beloved’s identity is confused with the beliefs that each character projects to her—whom they think she is.
My favorite parts of the book are when Morrison zooms in to the internal narratives of each character, employing the first-person point of view. The emotions are palpable. The plot’s climaxes are also glorious, in a terrifying way (I won’t spoil any plot).
Zooming out to the social context that Morrison is addressing,Belovedis a powerful painting of what slavery does to humans and their sense of ‘self.’ Multiple times in the novel she describes a fragmenting experience that the characters experience—feeling that their heads, arms, or legs are coming apart, or not recognizing their own voices. Even though the characters are technically free men and women, the trauma of being owned and tortured remains in their lives.
There are two things (for the sake of this short review) that I think Morrison highlights in the novel. One, the impact of slavery is intergenerational. Denver grows up free, but she very much reaps the experiences of her mother and grandmother. The healing process from the evil of slavery is long and arduous. Two, when someone or a people is degraded, all humanity is degraded. Slavery does not only degrade the slaves, but also the perpetrators. A web of humanity connects us all.
The recent happenings and discussions surrounding race relations in America have prompted me to return to an old blog post from 3 years ago, If I Lived Then. It was penned after digesting a series of historical books, on World War II, on the British abolitionist William Wilberforce, on the Bosnian War. I asked myself the question, If I lived then, would I be on the right side of history?
It is easy to be distant and judgmental of the great evil recorded in historical books: “I cannot believe how evil these people are.” But what guarantees us that we would not act the same way given the same situation, living in the same cage of manufactured hatred by the prevailing powers? I’d like to think that I would stand for the tortured if I lived during Nazi Germany. I’d like to think I’d champion Wilberforce’s cause to abolish slave trade in Britain if I lived in the early 1800s. But what guarantees that I would indeed be such a person given the social pressure of the time?
If I don’t have human compassion right now, there is no guarantee that I wouldn’t be part of humanity’s evil in any part of history. What I can do right now, as a 21st century global citizen, is to abolish any notion that “I am better than you” due to socio-economic status, race, education, or any social strata we have manufactured for ourselves. I need to cultivate that human compassion by seeing each person with respect and dignity. Then maybe, if I was thrown into complicated situations, I would actually have the moral backbone to stand for fellow mankind, no matter what race, religion, level of education, social status, or any group they belong to.
It has been made abundantly clear that the nature of humanity’s evil then is still the nature of humanity’s evil now. By this I mean the condition of the soul that produces the evil deeds. The attitude that undermines another human being or another group is ever present and has the potential to manifest itself in various, horrendous ways.
Racism is something each person must fight against first internally, then also outwardly. The claim of immunity, I am convinced, is of utmost danger. We all carry baggage from the past, from our upbringing, from the society we are apart of. It would do us good to examine our internal thoughts and feelings towards ‘other people’, whoever that ‘other’ may be.
The antidote of many great wars and conflicts lies in the simple, but profound, powerful statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because my neighbor and me are equal. The phrase is said often, perhaps too lightly. But it carries with it such power that can counter and prevent much evil.
What a powerful display of love it was when the families of the victims in South Carolina forgave their enemy. What strength of character. This was worth pausing and thinking about.
Today, June 2015, we are faced with tests of character similar to many in history. If I lived then is no longer hypothetical, because the same question applies to now. I live now. What will I do now?