Studying The Novel Beloved Slavery Experience English Literature Essay

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1st Jan 1970 English Literature Reference this

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In what ways does Toni Morrison’s Beloved present the Slave Experience? This novel is incredibly rich and deliberately embedded with various literary techniques so it was necessary to dissect the novel as the primary source of investigation, focussing on the effect of these techniques and how they allowed the slave experience to be presented. There was a lot of information available about the novel as it had won a Pulitzer Prize; I used this to help put the novel in context, seeing if I believed these interpretations to be valid. Many describe Morrison’s writing as obscure, but having access to her interviews about Beloved and her own biography was advantageous because they shed light on these ‘obscurities’ allowing the novel in its full glory to be analysed and a conclusion met.

After completing the investigation I concluded that this novel, which is characterised by some as an apocalypse novel [1] , seems to present the slave experience as something that cannot be forgotten and which is necessary for all to know and come to terms with in order to overcome this ‘national amnesia’ [2] . The narrative is presented as emotionally true, giving the reader an insight into the slave experience from the slaves’ perspective; giving them the voice that they were previously denied. The stark contrast of the novel with previous accounts of slavery and its emphasis on the slaves’ psyche suggests that Morrison is disregarding the previous attempts to present the slave experience, allowing this novel to reclaim and highlight the history, thus making it ‘their-story’

Table of Contents

Introduction 5

The Dehumanisation of Slaves 6

Narrative Structure 8

“Rememory” 10

Spirituality in Beloved 14

Conclusion 17

Bibliography 18

In what ways does Toni Morrison’s Beloved present the Slave experience?

1.Introduction

The dedication, “Sixty million and more”, at the beginning of Beloved, clearly defines the narrative that follows; Beloved is a novel that fills up a void in history, gives a voice to the unheard and tells a forgotten and suppressed tale in a unique manner. I will investigate what makes this novel address the absence of knowledge regarding slavery and how successful it is at doing so.

Whilst this novel is set during the Reconstruction, it still deals with the traumatic slave experience, outlining the horrors of the slave trade and importantly, its effect on the slaves. These attributes seem to be synonymous with a slave narrative, memoirs written by slaves and pro-abolitionists whose primary function was to convince people that the institution of Slavery was against human rights, however, the events in Beloved are not censured as they are in the slave narratives. I thought it would be interesting to see how Morrison’s neo-slave narrative could be contrasted with the original narratives. The horrible events that unfold, and how they dehumanise the slaves, will be analysed in order to address the research question.

Crucially, it seems that in order to find an African American’s comment on the slave experience we must look to modern literature; previous slave narratives were not comments- their function was to characterise the institution of slavery as a negative thing, whilst others like Harriet Beecher Stowe [3] were also concerned with abolishing racism and stressing the fact that black people were human and were to be treated as such. However, having known the focal point of the novel, Sethe kills her young daughter in order to protect her from slavery, Morrison is highlighting both the slaves’ humanity and bestiality at the same time, so I thought it necessary to see why and how Morrison has included this in her narrative.

Morrison deliberately manipulates language to create remarkable novels, as she herself says: “I must use my craft to make the reader see the colours and hear the sounds” [4] ; Beloved’s structure and style is equally as important as the plot because it influences the reader just as much. In order to come to a conclusion as to how Beloved presents the slave experience I intend to explore: the dehumanisation of the slaves, the narrative structure, references to religion and spirituality, and of course ‘rememory’.

2. The Dehumanisation of Slaves

It is clear that slaves are considered as a human commodity and are subjected to sale and valuation. The idea of slaves merely being property and that “anybody white could take [their] whole self for anything that came to mind” [5] is revealed to be what “Baby Suggs died of…and what made Paul D tremble” [6] . The repeated use of the prefix ‘any’ in both the words ‘anybody’ and ‘anything’ really emphasises the small price that a slave could be sold for; alerting the reader to the sense of the uncertainty and instability of the slaves’ present and future. This also highlights the unlimited amount of control that the ‘whites’ have over them, whilst it also helps the reader to empathise with Sethe and with the other slaves.

The constant reference to debt and trade throughout the novel helps to reiterate the fact that slaves are perceived as being a human commodity. When Denver remembers the story of her birth, it makes her feel as if she has a “bill…owing” [7] , whilst Stamp Paid’s name confirms his “debtlessness” [8] ; in addition to this, Paul D believes that he may have “bought” [9] time when he proposes that he and Sethe have a child together. The major concept that human life can in fact be bought and sold, even for as little as $900 [10] in the case of Paul D, is inherent in the language of the narrative and helps to repeatedly expose the reader to the theme of transaction. Through repetition Morrison helps to bring this theme to the forefront of the reader’s mind, making it unforgettable and highlighting this part of the slave experience.

The ability to buy and sell slaves as you please is reserved to the ‘whites’, which helps to draw attention to the racial hierarchy that exists in the novel. This is stressed in the interaction between Sethe and Amy Denver, who are both two “throw away people” [11] . Despite the moment of mutual understanding that they experience as Sethe gives birth to Denver by the riverside, their race still divides them. Sethe refers to Amy Denver as the “young little white voice” [12] before she has even seen her and Amy Denver immediately calls her a “nigger” [13] , showing that at first contact the first method of identification is by race, which emphasises the presence and strength of the racial hierarchy system that is in place.

During the labour, Amy asks Sethe if she is going to “lay there and foal” [14] . This is reminiscent of Denver being referred to as a “little antelope” [15] and the escape from Sweet home as a “stampede” [16] . White people often refer to their slaves and black people using the language of domestic animals. The casual inclusion of animalistic references in the white people’s language is an indication of how natural it is for them to refer to the slaves as animals, showing that their belief that black people are subhuman is something naturally assumed, certain, definite and unquestionable.

The belief that slaves are subhuman is not something that is merely expressed in the white people’s language, it is something that is acted upon and Sethe’s ‘milking’ is an example of this. Sethe was violently beaten and her milk was stolen by Schoolteacher’s nephews. This moment is repeatedly referred to throughout the novel from both Schoolteacher’s and his nephew’s perspectives. Schoolteacher believes that the reason that Sethe kills Beloved and has “gone wild” [17] is “due to the mishandling of the nephew who’d overbeat her” [18] . This justification is painful to read because Schoolteacher is comparing Sethe to an animal, once again, which can be “handled” and manipulated according to his desires. It is ironic that he thinks the reason she tried to escape was because of her ‘mishandling’; the reader has been privileged to hear Sethe’s own point of view and so knows that Sethe had been planning to run away before the incident had actually even occurred. This suggests that Schoolteacher thinks that the way he treats the slaves is appropriate, except the overbeating- not because it is unfair, but because strategically, overbeating the slaves may cause them to eventually rebel. Schoolteacher subsequently punishes his nephew by preventing him from attending the “hunt” [19] , again an example of casually referring to the slaves as animals.

Morrison presents the way in which the slaves are dehumanised using sophisticated literary techniques and without censuring any of the information in order to create an accurate picture of the slave experience.

3. Narrative structure

Beloved contrasts the traditional novel because it is not a linear narrative; it does not contain an initial conflict that is followed by a climax which results in resolution. Instead, the reader is constantly shuttled from one time to another. This obvious shifting in time indicates that that memory is the main structuring device in Beloved; Beloved presents the slave experience as a string of different character’s memories. The use of memory as a structuring device allows the reader to understand what each character feels, what life is like for them and each character’s persona. This technique is incredibly effective because it grants the reader insight, and allows them to receive the slave experience at a personal level, breaking down the boundaries of time and the limits of history. Morrison herself says that “we have to re-inhabit those people [the slaves]” [20] , and what better way to ‘re-inhabit’ [21] the slaves than to be privileged with access to their minds and their inner most thoughts.

During the attempted escape from Sweet home we are told that “Sixo is about to crawl out to look for the knives he buried. He hears something. He hears nothing. Forget the knives. Now.” [22] Some of the writing in this episode seems to be asyntactic in style; Morrison places incredibly short, sometimes singularly worded sentences, next to longer sentences. Whilst the successive short sentences help to build the tension and represent panic, there is also a sense of complete incoherence created by the differing sentence lengths. This mirrors the characters’ disjointed thought processes. Morrison’s apt use of this literary technique adds an effect of authenticity, convincing the reader that they are almost inside the mind of the character, to the extent that it feels as if they themselves are present in the action taking place.

The use of the present tense throughout this episode, and other episodes which occur in the past, is especially effective; it allows the reader to feel as if they are learning about the episode simultaneously as it occurs. This completely blurs the edges of time, making it difficult to distinguish between the past and present. Even though it is regularly assumed that this narrative takes place in a specific time frame, I see this as false; it takes place in another realm in which the past and present coexist simultaneously, in which the time scale is elastic. The lack of division between the past and the present illustrates the importance and relevance of the past; the past is almost inseparable from the present because essentially, it is what influences and creates the present.

4. ‘Rememory’

“Rememory” [23] is Sethe’s way of expressing time as being both elastic and existing simultaneously. During the narrative we see Sethe deep in contemplation, so deep that Denver believes her to be ‘praying’ [24] . Instead, she reveals that “[she] was talking about time” [25] , she says that “it’s so hard for [her] to believe in [time]” [26] . She doesn’t understand how things that have occurred in the past, things that are “over-over and done with-[are] always going to be there waiting” [27] . She also agrees with Denver’s conclusion that “nothing ever dies” [28] , which personifies memory as something that is immortal, everlasting and almost haunting. This reveals that the past is an immense burden on Sethe and the protagonists. Sethe’s belief that things are everlasting gives the impression that her past, or her memories of life as a slave, are holding her back and preventing her from moving on.

Morrison uses techniques which help to characterise the past as an overpowering and controlling force. Sethe is reluctant to process the information that Paul D relays to her about her husband Halle, who she has not heard from since she ran away from the plantation. She believes that she “God damn it, can’t go back and add more” [29] painful memories to the other emotional memories that she is “full of” [30] . The use of the verb ‘can’t’ stresses that she is unwilling to accept the tragic information. This along with her use of the word “disremember” [31] suggests that she is deliberately and intentionally trying to suppress her memories, illustrating her inability to come to terms with the past.

Whilst Sethe constantly reiterates throughout the novel that she doesn’t “want to or have to remember” [32] the painful incidents of her past slave life, her attempt to suppress and reject these memories does not seem to be as successful as she would hope. She describes her brain as “rebellious” [33] and says that “[l]ike a greedy child it snatched up everything” [34] . Morrison’s use of personification and simile really highlights the amount of control her mind and her memories have over her. It also emphasises an element of juxtaposition; Sethe is meant to be in control of herself and her thoughts, but instead her brain and her past dictate what it is she thinks. This switch of roles presents Sethe as an extremely vulnerable woman who has been crippled by her past.

Sethe’s description of the brain as ‘greedy’ reiterates the fact that she is already ‘full of’ bad memories. This is further complemented by the statement that her brain is “[l]oaded with the past and hungry for more” [35] and “not interested in the future”. Morrison’s use of the word ‘loaded’ indicates weight, characterising the past as something that is burdensome, overbearing and which will prevent all advancement. Morrison’s use of anaphora also creates a feeling of burden; she repeatedly begins sentences with ‘And’. This technique makes it seem as if Sethe’s list will never end, as if the reader is stuck in this moment indefinitely, which almost embodies the fact that Sethe herself cannot move on with her life due to the past. The technique, coupled with the repetition of ‘full’, can also lead to the reader feeling slightly overwhelmed by all the information, just as Sethe is overwhelmed by her memory.

The past is further characterised as a force when we find out that Sethe believes that there is “[n]othing better than [working dough] to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past” [36] . Morrison’s repeated use of plosive sounds in the metaphor ‘beating back the past’ [37] creates a feeling of violence, highlighting the amount of effort and aggression that must be used, and the characters are willing to use, in order to keep the past at bay.

Although the protagonists strive to keep the past behind them, conversely it seems that knowledge of the past is crucial for the reader to understand the narrative itself. Morrison’s use of self reflexive metaphors, metaphors which allude to moments and circumstances that have already been stated within the narrative, results in the reader forging a set of connections within the narrative’s imagery. The metaphor used to express Denver’s love of being “examined” [38] by Beloved is in line with Denver’s previous experiences; her “skin dissolve[s]” [39] and becomes “soft and bright like the lisle dress that had its arm around her mother’s waist” [40] . For the reader this is clearly reminiscent of the dress holding her mother’s waist earlier in the narrative [41] . This comparison is consonant with Denver’s experience instead of referring to anything external, which suggests that almost all present experiences are compared to and measured against past experiences, making it seem as if the past completely defines these characters.

Similarly, characters refer to moments in the past that are only fully understood by readers later on in the novel: Sethe labels the scars on her back as “branches on her chokecherry tree” [42] and we later understand this to be how Amy Denver describes these scars; Sixo’s last laugh is only contextualised [43] after an initial reference made by Paul D [44] which is difficult to comprehend; Paul D concludes that Sethe does need to know about her husband, Halle, and the ‘churn’, we later learn that the “[l]ast time [Paul D.] saw [Halle] he was sitting by the churn. He had butter all over his face…because the milk they took [was] on his mind” [45] . I believe that this technique results in an intense novel that seems to resonate and pulsate, highlighting terrible events, thus making them all the more clear and memorable. Even though these horrible moments are constantly referred to, it does not get even marginally easier for the reader to accept them, which helps to increase the readers’ incredulity at the horrors of slavery.

The various literary techniques that Morrison uses to manipulate time outline one of the messages that she seems to be propagating. Whilst ‘rememory’ may be painful and unwanted, it is essential; it is the only way that the slaves can move on and learn from previous experiences. Therefore, the past and the present are directly linked. It is as if the reader themselves are participating in the process of ‘rememory’; they are being forced to repeatedly ‘re-witness’ the worst of events against their wishes, just as the characters are. Morrison herself says about Beloved:

I thought this has got to be the least read of all the books I’d written because it is about something that the characters don’t want to remember, I don’t want to remember, black people don’t want to remember, white people don’t want to remember. I mean, it’s national amnesia. [46] 

which shows that the slave experience is a taboo subject. The repeated utterance of “[i]t was not a story to pass on” [47] in the epilogue mirrors this notion.

The issue of ‘rememory’ links to the idea of Beloved being an apocalypse novel [48] . An ‘apocalypse’ novel is a novel which is “of revelatory or prophetic nature” [49] and so Beloved can be characterised in this way because it unveils hidden information. I believe that the veil that Morrison is trying to remove is forgetting and the suppression of the slave experience, which is why this novel is so concerned with the past and its recognition.

Many African-American writers had hoped for “the longed for racial battle” [50] as the “culmination of history and the revelatory moment of justice and retribution” [51] , and Beloved seems to address this, bringing forth the information that once was concealed. In contrast, Beloved also differs from the average apocalypse novel in that it is steeped in the past and delving into the past seems to be the only way that ‘retribution’ [52] seems attainable, whereas many apocalypse novels concentrate on future changes.

‘Rememory’ is an extremely important concept in this novel and it forces the reader to remember that which would rather be forgotten.

4. Spirituality in Beloved

The epigraph at the beginning of Beloved is taken from the Bible, Romans 9:25, and so it introduces the reader to the Christian ideas that are set to play an important part in the rest of the novel. This epigraph also exposes the reader to Morrison’s unconventional treatment of time discussed above; it is a New Testament passage in which Paul cites an Old Testament passage, Hosea 2:23, and so the boundaries between the past and the present seem somewhat blurred. Also, the ‘four horsemen’ [53] who come to claim Sethe and her children are reminiscent of the horsemen of the Apocalypse which is described in the book of Revelations, 6:1-8..

Importantly, the death of Beloved seems to bring about freedom and salvation. Sethe only manages to kill Beloved during an attempt to kill herself and all her children in order to escape slavery forever. After this, Schoolteacher decides that “there was nothing there to claim” [54] because Sethe had “gone wild” [55] and so it seems as if Beloved dies as a substitute for them, freeing them from slavery for good. This is similar to the Christian notion of the death of Christ and so emphasises the sacrificial undercurrent of Beloved’s death. This idea of sacrifice is further supported by Denver drinking Sethe’s breast milk which is infused with Beloved’s blood; this act can be read as an act of communion which seems to pay homage to Beloved.

The regular allusion to Christianity is heavily contrasted with the evident references to African belief systems. At the beginning of the novel we are made aware that the Beloved’s ghost is haunting 124 Bluestone which may be difficult for many modern readers to accept and understand. However, it can be more easily understood within the context of African cosmology; the ‘spirit child’, who after its premature death returns to haunt its parents, plays a key role within West-African oral traditions, particularly Yoruba myths [56] . It is also quite normal, according to these traditions, for demons and spirits to interact with the living world; the belief in what some refer to as the ‘supernatural’ is part of many West-African cultures. Whilst this may repel some of the modern readers, some may argue that the novel should be rendered untrustworthy due to the inclusion of supernatural elements, I believe that the inclusion of these elements only adds to the authenticity of the novel.

The inclusion of references to African mythology is not only the way that Morrison achieves in producing a unique and cultural novel. Beloved is a dialogic [57] novel which allows us to hear many differing points of view, which is different to the traditional slave narratives written in the first person. Whilst it has already been established that the novel is structured by memory, it is important to understand that the narrative voice seems to be a blended composition of all of the characters’ voices. It is often the case that the voice we are hearing seamlessly changes from character to character, which creates a feeling of incompletion. An example of this is when Denver is analysing the relationship between Sethe and Beloved, she “thought she understood the connection between Sethe and Beloved” [58] . However, the narrative voice promptly switches to Sethe who goes on to explain that “[t]he best thing she was, was her children” [59] . The dialogic nature of the novel stresses the importance of the community and of the past.

The constant changing of the narrative voice helps to create a feeling of incompletion and fragmentation. Similarly, the reader is never actually privileged with the reason why Beloved actually appears, nor where she goes at the end. Neither is the reader directed to take a definitive stand over Sethe’s choice to kill Beloved, even though they repeatedly hear about it and see it from different characters’ viewpoints. It seems as if Morrison purposely created this feeling of incompletion, so that Beloved resembles a piece of music, particularly jazz music which is evident in African-American popular culture. The previous discussions of repetition support this because repetition is also a musical device. The literary techniques that she employs produce prose that is very poetic and rhythmic in nature. Morrison’s use of sibilance attests to this and is evident in the phrase “Sifting daylight dissolves the memory, turns it into dust motes floating in light”.

Beloved resembles music, makes reference to Christian and African culture and contains a lot of vernacular speech thus making it dialogic; it can be linked with various different customs. The fusion of all these traditions testifies to the fact that that meaning can only be sought from knowledge of them, stressing the importance of revisiting and revising that which the reader thinks that they know. This adds to the concept of ‘rememory’. Morrison chooses to present the slave experience using these features, illustrating her complete disregard for convention, and shows that she seems to be challenging it and presenting something new and fresh. She herself mentions in an interview that “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form” [60] , suggesting that she is not content with the treatment of black literature and wishes for it to be taken seriously

5. Conclusion

Beloved seems to present the slave experience it relays as something which must be taken heed of and remembered; the coexistence of the past and the present attests to the importance of the past. It illustrates how difficult it was for the slaves to move on from the horrors of their lives as

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