Genre Evaluation of Toni Morrison's Beloved

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18th May 2020 Literature Reference this

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Genre is a set of conventional constraints on the production and interpretation of meaning; providing a set of characteristics and conventions for authors to use as guidelines when writing their texts. Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved written in 1987 can be seen as a form of magical realism in terms of genre, due to the fact that it can be seen as being a distortion effect that points out the realistic view of the modern world, while interconnecting the fantasy realm into it; which is what magical realism does to texts. It shows an alternative to reality and usually goes against political regimes; making readers question what is real and what is not. Hence why, Beloved includes both historical and supernatural elements throughout the text; made apparent through the usage of analepsis and prolepsis to make the transition from the present to the past apparent. 

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Beloved was set in Ohio and based on the Black Book in the 1970’s; which was an anthology of black experiences; that were edited by Toni Morrison. One of which was by Margaret Garner who reported the murder of her children to end there suffering instead of letting them go back to slavery. She couldn’t reconcile the fact that they were to go back to the place that had to be endured during the slave trade.[1] Similarly, the main protagonist, Sethe was a former slave at ‘Sweet Home’ who ‘escaped to South Ohio with her children after her act of infanticide; leading to her ostracisation in the community’. Soon after a ghost was deemed to be haunting their house, known to be the daughter that she killed for the same reason Margret killed hers. In the final chapters, Paul D another slave who endured slavery with Sethe who forces the spirit out of ‘124 BlueStone Road’. Replacing it is promiscuous and grown up version of the ghost possesses the house. This is Beloved, ‘a mysterious, strangely child-like young woman of untold origins’ who readers soon conclude into being that this demonic being is actually the murdered child, who has ‘returned and assumed real-life proportions’[2].

Therefore, due to the fact that ‘Beloved’ is based on a true story, the text can be seen as being historical. However, it can also be deemed as being a gothic horror as the incorporation of what is perceived as being ‘Beloved’s’ ghost by the other characters makes it supernatural. This results in the novel having a magical realism genre as it can be seen as implementing the amalgamation of realism and fantasy. This allows for a hybridisation ‘between the natural and the supernatural by focusing on specific historical moments in order to portray present day as being a disjunctive reality’[3]. Presenting an outward direction toward postcolonial culture as the African diaphora is mythical and magical elements to express experiences without Western notions of history we are failing go address, by using a decolonising tool; enabling readers to reimagine relationships, land and the state. When applied to ‘Beloved’ the decolonising technique is displayed through magical realism conventions such as myths, fact, religion and historical elements of the piece. Allowing the genre to both enable, yet also restrict meaning.

Firstly, the novel can be seen as enhancing the text via the most important characteristic found in Beloved which are myths. Morrison mainly focuses on the oral culture of African Americans and black historical experiences to enhance her literature by forming a political meaning. This can be accessed by incorporating myths into ‘Beloved’ which brings back the identity that the ancestors built; this was lost through slavery during the 1800’s. She is representing the invisible as the contradictory to the real or visible by including folklores of the black rather than authorised beliefs from the western world. As a result, she commits the acts of defamiliarisation by including a mixture of old legends such as the Abiku, Bakalu and Orisha of West African Yoruba mythology. [4] Semantically, Abiku is the return of a deceased spirit of a baby, just like ‘Beloved’ does in the text, ‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were it’s only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old—as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it; as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake’[5]. The number ‘124’ connotes the restless spirit that has been left behind after being murder by Sethe and her uneasiness for revenge. It acts as a marker for the haunting of their house with his of the supernatural, ‘hand prints appeared in the cake’ pragmatically relating back to the myth of the Akibu babies who torment their mothers when they become spirits. Furthermore, the description of the baby as one who, ‘spits venom’ draws attention to the magical and unnatural element of the play, as it semantically labels the baby as being animal like as she spits out poison like a snake and seeks revenge on ‘house number 124’.

To further this idea that the Akibu myth reinforces the hatred that Beloved seeks on 124, readers can also see her being reborn multiple times throughout the novel to emphasise the fact that she is a dangerous spirit. At first as a ‘baby’ then as a grown women who tries to seduce Paul D, ‘I want you to touch me on the inside part’. This sexual innuendo is rather disturbing as it is assumed as she is meant to embody the spirit of a deceased child, yet she even though she is an incarnation of the past, she is the manifestation pf the present as she uses her promiscuity to present her desires to Paul D ten though she is meant to be a baby. This represents the abnormality created by the magic realism as the Akibu spirits are always hungry, never know the feeling of being fulfilled, as their life is left fulfilled after becoming deceased at such a young age. ‘It was though sweet things are what she was born for’ and ‘Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go… Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they disappear again as though nobody ever walked there’ represents her as never being able to leave and being stagnant; never being able to let go as ‘come and go’ suggests that even though she is shown as being gone at the end, she never really leave and is left craving revenge. Critics Duth and Barkishnan suggest that that African American heritage has an immense power to be transformative. It was able to break the assumptions of Western empiricism and question the contradictory terms that magic has from a  real view point of another narrative that lacks those assumptions and oppositions. Application of magic realism into the hegemonic western native binary on which western realism is based. Moving the discursive power for the comelier to the colonised..[6]

However, this interpretation can be criticised for being too deterministic by looking only at the supernatural elements of magical realism. Instead, Beloved can be seen as being an ‘amnesic runaway’ as Sethe can be seen as  mirroring  her deceased infant onto the supposed ‘spirit’ as ‘her skin’ is described as being, ‘smooth it’s like new’ by Paul D’s neighbour who informs him about a female who was caged by an older caucasian man in the neighbourhood. [7] Therefore, representing the death of an author theory by Roland Barthes, as the magical realism genre helps readers become more open minded to interpretation.[8] While the idea that she is an amnesic runaway is more realistic, the earlier interpretation involving the Akibu myth is juxtaposing because while one takes on a more realistic view, the other is more spiritual.

But, critic Hendrix claims that the incorporation of myths can be quite limiting for ‘Beloved’ as gothic horror is all about competition. Experiences being portrayed in literature are not ‘considered the territory or horror anymore’ if it is not a description of gruesome and bloody imagery. The horror genre may include experiences that are ‘considered the purview of literary fiction’ and are only regarded as stories that have no plot progression due to the author not ‘being focused on the plot or the felt experience between characters’. Horror isn’t considered ‘genre appropriate anymore’ and has actually ‘walked away from the literary’. Therefore the horror genre has been revoked from it’s nineteenth century conventions; leading to the conclusion that the genre is not ‘interested in what it represents anymore’. Looking at this declarative when analysing Beloved, we can see that Sethe is consistently dismissing the past spirit of slavery, and as a result disregarding what makes the text a horror story.[9] Therefore, Beloved may only be seen as being that runaway girl, not the myth; limiting the interpretation and decolonisation for readers.

Yet, magical realism can be perceived as conveying meaning through the symbolic use of religious and nature; allowing the author to portray the trauma that the protagonist Sethe endures in a defamiliarising way. While the natural imagery of the trees symbolise peace and life. Denver’s ‘emerald closet of boxwood bushes’ portrays the feeling of freshness and solidarity. While the trees at ‘Sweet Home’ curtain the abomination which is known to be a plantation, even though it is name semantically represents a safe haven that gives birth to joy. This is ironic as true meaning behind what goes on behind it which is torture as the boys ‘who took her milk’ can be seen as enslaving her. However, regardless Paul D and Sethe find their freedom by ‘flowering trees or escaping to the forest’. ‘By imagining the scars on Sethe’s back as a ‘chokecherry tree’ Amy Denver ‘sublimates a site of trauma and brutality into one of beauty and growth.’ However, the trees do not just connote peace and safety, but also symbolise ‘a darker side of humanity’ due to the lynching on those same trees and the incarceration of Sixo. Additionally, ‘Beloved’ can be explored religiously and spiritually as well, as it allows for an ‘epigraph, taken from Romans 9:25, that bespeaks the presence that Christian ideas will have in the novel’. Secondly, the fact that ‘Beloved’ is reborn and takes the form of a female dripping in holy water, and that, ‘Denver drinks her sister’s blood along with her mother’s breast milk’ can both be seen as a link between the two characters that lead readers to believe that this is in fact an ‘act of communion that highlights the sacrificial aspect of the baby’s death’. Beloved’s death scares Schoolteacher to the core, hence why he leaves without capturing the other children, resulting in their freedom, instead of their captivity. Resulting in her death acting as a salvation just like Jesus’s sacrificial death[10]. Displaying the modern traits of magical realism as the novel is shrouded in gloom based from trauma. It is this trauma born out of post-reconstructionalism and the former slave experience that becomes the taboo and the guilty pleasure for many readers as they strive to understand the novel’s true meaning.

Furthermore, the analepsis included in magical realism is seen as an effective technique for the text as it creates an optical text, because of the set of pictorial flashbacks where the ‘past intrudes on the present’. However, the text performed the role of a camera as it ‘omnisciently zoomed in and out of her characters minds’, while ‘Demme’s’ focus was restricted to a ‘third person’ perspective, creating a more personal account and selective shifting through time, as the ‘map of slave history within the United States’ and the repercussions of slavery are being addressed.[11]The declarative sentence, ‘Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. She came back to me of her own free will…my love tough and she back now’ could suggest that she echoes the memories of the ethnic individuals who had to endure the slave trade in the mid-seventeenth century. Therefore, the text can be seen as a haunting of ‘Beloved’ who returns to recover her previous life. Nonetheless, ‘Beloved’ is presumed as being a spirit by the others throughout the novel, however she is also ‘meant to be an actual survivor from a slave ship’. As a result, she can be regarded as a ‘human being’ telling her story in little anecdotes due to her disturbing past, ‘I am Beloved…I am always crouching the man on my face is dead’. Yet, the shattered pieces of her speech are  intertwined in ‘a way which means that what she tells Sethe and Denver and what they think she says are two different things – and yet the same’.[12] As a result of this interpretation Beloved can be seen as enabling trauma to be shown through the symbolic representation of a spirit, which Sethe uses as a coping mechanism to heal from slavery. Furthermore, because Beloved terrorises them, it represents her as being more dominant and putting down those who once put her down; making history visionary and decolonizing the text.

However, some critics do not believe that this is an empowering text, created to make the ethnic minorities more dominant. Instead they claim it is a postcolonial hangover, a category used by “whites” to marginalize the fiction of the “other.”[13].

To conclude, ‘Beloved’ can be categorised as being a magical realism text as it incorporates the convention of the genre via the inclusion of myths, natural and religious imagery and flashbacks. These conventions enable the text to reinforce the different realistic, supernatural interpretations that readers have of the main antagonist Beloved. Furthermore, it emphasises her revenge on the house, while also representing Sethe and Paul D’s trauma and healing after encountering enslavement in ‘Sweet Home’. However, some critics do not believe that Beloved can be classed as being a gothic horror, therefore limiting it from having a supernatural and mysterious effect on readers. Additionally, other critics argue that Beloved was only written to marginalise the ‘white’ while excluding the black by incorporating the Civil war and the slave trade into the text. But, the limitations of magical realism are outweighed by the enabling mechanisms and conventions; making the genre more advantageous to the text rather than hindering it.

Bibliography

  • Alan Baker, Derek, ‘Escaping The Tyranny Of Magical Realism? A Discussion Of The Term In Relation To The Novels Of Zakas Mda’, Postcolonial Text, 4 (2008), 1-20 <https://doi.org/https://www.postcolonial.org/index.php/pct/article/viewFile/769/602>
  • Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’ and ‘From Work to Text’ in Image, Music, Text, ed and Trans Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), pp. 142-148; 155-164 
  • Shmoop.Com, ’Beloved In Beloved’<https://www.shmoop.com/beloved/beloved-character.html> [Accessed 5 June 2019]
  • Hendrix, Grady, Stubthe Rocket, Tobias Carroll, Keith DeCandido, Keith DeCandido, and Natalie Zutter, “Beloved: The Best Horror Novel The Horror Genre Has Never Claimed”, Tor.Com, 2016 <https://www.tor.com/2016/02/18/beloved-the-best-horror-novel-the-horror-genre-has-never-claimed/> [Accessed 3 May 2019]
  • Krishna Duth, K.S., and Dr. K. Balakrishnan, “Postcolonial Perspective Of Magic Realism In Beloved”, Rjelal.Com, 2017 <http://www.rjelal.com/5.3.17a/521-525%20K.S.KRISHNA%20DUTH.pdf> [Accessed 2 May 2019]
  • Nobis, Nora, ‘GRIN – The Significance Of Numbers In “Beloved”’, Grin.Com, 2012 <https://www.grin.com/document/204561> [Accessed 5 June 2019]
  • Sparknotes.Com,’Sparknotes: Beloved: Motifs’, 2017 <https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/beloved/motifs/> [Accessed 2 May 2019]
  • Morrison, Toni, Hortense Chabrier, and Sylviane Rué, Beloved (Paris: 10-18, 2015), pp. 1-289
  • Walton, Sierra, ‘Beloved: Parallels Between Sethe And Margaret Garner’, Imarreis, 2017 <https://imarreis.wordpress.com/2017/04/30/beloved-parallels-between-sethe-and-margaret-garner/> [Accessed 2 May 2019]
  • Wilson, Robyn, ‘Magical Realism In Application To Toni Morrison’S Beloved. – Ppt Download’, Slideplayer.Com <https://slideplayer.com/slide/4599482/> [Accessed 3 May 2019]

[1] Sierra Walton, ‘Beloved: Parallels Between Sethe And Margaret Garner’, Imarreis, 2017 <https://imarreis.wordpress.com/2017/04/30/beloved-parallels-between-sethe-and-margaret-garner/> [Accessed 2 May 2019].

[2] Nora Nobis, ‘GRIN – The Significance Of Numbers In “Beloved”’, Grin.Com, 2012 <https://www.grin.com/document/204561> [Accessed 5 June 2019].

[3] Nora Nobis, ‘GRIN – The Significance Of Numbers In “Beloved”’, Grin.Com, 2012 <https://www.grin.com/document/204561> [Accessed 5 June 2019].

[4] K.S. Krishna Duth and Dr. K. Balakrishnan, ‘Postcolonial Perspective Of Magic Realism In Beloved’, Rjelal.Com, 2017 <http://www.rjelal.com/5.3.17a/521-525%20K.S.KRISHNA%20DUTH.pdf> [Accessed 2 May 2019].

[5] Toni Morrison, Hortense Chabrier and Sylviane Rué, Beloved (Paris: 10-18, 2015), pp. 1-289.

[6] K.S. Krishna Duth and Dr. K. Balakrishnan, ‘Postcolonial Perspective Of Magic Realism In Beloved’, Rjelal.Com, 2017 <http://www.rjelal.com/5.3.17a/521-525%20K.S.KRISHNA%20DUTH.pdf> [Accessed 2 May 2019].

[7]shmoop.Com, Beloved In Beloved’ <https://www.shmoop.com/beloved/beloved-character.html> [Accessed 5 June 2019].

[8] Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’ and ‘From Work to Text’ in Image, Music, Text, ed and Trans Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), pp. 142-148; 155-164. 

[9] Grady Hendrix and others, ‘Beloved: The Best Horror Novel The Horror Genre Has Never Claimed’, Tor.Com, 2016 <https://www.tor.com/2016/02/18/beloved-the-best-horror-novel-the-horror-genre-has-never-claimed/> [Accessed 3 May 2019].

[10] Sparknotes.Com,’Sparknotes: Beloved: Motifs’, 2017 <https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/beloved/motifs/> [Accessed 2 May 2019].

[11]Robyn Wilson, “Magical Realism In Application To Toni Morrison’S Beloved. – Ppt Download”, Slideplayer.Com <https://slideplayer.com/slide/4599482/> [Accessed 3 May 2019].

[12] Nora Nobis, ‘GRIN – The Significance Of Numbers In “Beloved”’, Grin.Com, 2012 <https://www.grin.com/document/204561> [Accessed 5 June 2019].

[13] Derek Alan Baker, ‘Escaping The Tyranny Of Magical Realism? A Discussion Of The Term In Relation To The Novels Of Zakas Mda’, Postcolonial Text, 4.2 (2008), 1-20 <https://doi.org/https://www.postcolonial.org/index.php/pct/article/viewFile/769/602>.

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