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Giselle AnatolDr. Giselle Liza Anatol is an associate professor of English at the University of Kansas. Her areas of specialization include contemporary Caribbean women’s literature, African American literature, and children’s literature. She has published an edited collection Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays (Praeger, 2003), and numerous articles on representations of motherhood in Caribbean women’s writing. Professor Anatol has lectured on the works of Toni Morrison to high school students, junior high and high school teachers, and delivered papers on Morrison’s work at academic conferences. She was a Conger-Gabel Teaching Professor from 2001-2004.

Novel Discussion

Morrison came across the story of Margaret Garner in The Black Book while working as an editor at Random House. Morrison states that she did not do any additional research on Garner while writing the novel. She didn’t want the book to be a biographical study of one woman, or a novel about slavery, per se, but rather a story about human interactions and the ways that people reacted to, survived, and lived in the wake of the horrible conditions of slavery. These motivations and their fruition were recently recognized by the New York Times Book Review, which identified Beloved as the best piece of American fiction written in the last quarter century. In describing the grounds for their top choices, the  conductors of the survey commented,  

The best works of fiction . . . appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance. They attempt not just the explorations of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting but also their subject. (A.O. Scott, "In Search of the Best," New York Times Book Review, May 21, 2006, 18)

A quotation from Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1991) works well in conjunction with Morrison's premise of survival, particularly African-American women’s survival:

[Black feminist] thought views the world as a dynamic place where the goal is not merely to survive or to fit in or to cope; rather, it becomes a place where we feel ownership and accountability. The existence of Afrocentric feminist thought suggests there is always a choice, and power to act, no matter how bleak the situation may appear to be. Viewing the world as one in the making raises the issue of individual responsibility for bringing about change. It also shows that while individual empowerment is the key, only collective action can effectively generate lasting social transformation of political and economic institutions. (237)

Issues of power and powerlessness, choice and accountability; ownership of property, self, and others; individual action vs. communal action—all these are raised in Beloved.

Historical Chronology Integrated with the Basic Plot of the Novel

1820: Missouri Compromise
Missouri enters the Union as a slave state, and Maine enters as a free state. The boundary line on Missouri’s southern border is used to determine later territories’ status ( those territories south of this line permitted slavery; those north of the line did not).

1850: Compromise of 1850
The annexation of Texas to the U.S. at the end of the Mexican-American War (1848) led to growing concern and outright hostility about the slavery status of new territories. The Compromise allowed for California to join the Union as a free state; the organization of Utah and New Mexico territories without reference to slavery (the populations would decide for themselves when they sought admission to the Union as states); the prohibition of the slave trade in Washington, DC; and, most important to the plot of Beloved, stricter fugitive slave laws.  The Fugitive Slave Bill stated that captured runaways could be returned to their owners, regardless of where they were captured (North or South). Furthermore, in court, only masters could testify; enslaved peoples were symbolically voiceless.

1855: * Sethe’s escape from Sweet Home
* Denver’s birth
* Sethe arrives at Baby Suggs’s home in Ohio and enjoys 28 days of freedom.
* Schoolteacher’s arrival; Beloved’s death

1857: Supreme Court rules on the Dred Scott case
Dred Scott and his wife filed suit for their freedom in St. Louis in 1846 after living for 12 years in Illinois and Wisconsin (free states) with their owner. The Supreme Court decides that the Scotts should remain enslaved.

1863: Emancipation Proclamation

1865: * Buglar and Howard flee 124 Bluestone Road.
* Baby Suggs dies.
* end of the Civil War

1865-66: The “Black Codes”
A series of bills passed by the ex-Confederate states concerning the status of the newly emancipated slaves. While they granted basic civil rights (the right to legally marry, the right to own personal property, etc.), the statutes often provided a legal means of racial domination (vagrancy laws, segregation of public facilities, restrictions on freedmen’s ability to work as a free laborer, etc.)

1873: * The year in which the novel opens
* Paul D arrives at 124 Bluestone Road after escaping from prison and wandering around the country for several years.
* Beloved arrives at 124.

The Structure of the Novel

Many readers find the chronology of Beloved confusing, especially the details of the escape from Sweet Home, which unfold slowly, piece by piece. This structure can be interpreted in several ways.

It reveals the importance of the oral tradition in African-American culture. Rather than rely on a more Eurocentric, linear, “rational” narrative, often associated with writing, Morrison employs a distinct Afrocentric storytelling style.

  1. More than one perspective is privileged: the stories are told from several points of view. One striking example of this is the blending of Sethe’s and Paul D’s narratives in the cornfield (32-33); another is when the four horsemen come to “collect” Sethe (174-78). Consider the ways that this technique also challenges the idea of a singular, supposedly objective, version of history.  Morrison chooses to give us the tales that were for many years untold, because, as we know, history typically belongs to the “victors”—those who maintain the social power necessary to control the narratives that are recorded and distributed.
  2. Note how powerful the oral/aural story is: Denver has physically "stepped into the told story that lay before her eyes on the path” (36); telling Beloved this same story allows Denver “to see what she was saying and not just to hear it” (91)—in other words, to truly understand her mother’s feelings. Additionally, Sethe fears actually bumping into a “rememory” (43).
  3. The circular structure of the narrative allows us to circle closer and closer to the story, getting more details each time. An excellent model for reading this novel can be found on pages 187-89. Sethe is trying to convey the information to Paul D but cannot sit still. He sits at the table, facing forward, as she walks around him, in and out of his line of vision:

    She was spinning. Round and round the room. Past the jelly cupboard, past the window, past the front door, another window, the sideboard, the keeping-room door, the dry sink, the stove—back to the jelly cupboard. Paul D sat at the table watching her drift into view then disappear behind his back, turning like a slow but steady wheel. (187)

Readers are in the same position: Morrison gives us a few details, a glimmer of the story, and then the story slips away, out of focus, behind our backs. See the line at the top of the page: “She was crawling already when I got here”—we have seen that several times before. So we get the hint of an image, and then, several pages later, it returns, coming into clearer focus, but then it slips behind our backs again.

And then on p.189:

It made him dizzy. At first he thought it was her spinning. Circling him the way she was circling the subject. Round and round [….] [L]istening to her was like having a child whisper into your ear so close you could feel its lips form the words you couldn’t make out because they were too close.

It’s like the scene on p. 5, close to the start of the book. There’s a reference to Sethe leaning against a headstone on tiptoe, “her knees wide open as any grave,” with an ambiguous “he” claiming that for ten minutes he’ll do “it” for free. For readers, that initial image is too close. It’s not until we read down a few lines that Morrison pulls back and allows us to see the scene more clearly: the “he” is an engraver, the “it” is getting a word carved on her baby’s headstone, the “ten minutes” involves sex. Morrison makes the reader literally experience the holding back—all of the horror involved in not being able to broach that memory directly, including the engraver’s son witnessing the whole event.

Back to the passage on page 189—Paul D “caught only pieces of what she said—which was fine, because she hadn’t gotten to the main part—the answer to the question he had not asked outright, but which lay in the clipping he showed her.”

Again, this inability to ask the question, and Sethe’s inability to tell the story directly, reveals the horror of the event. The speaker and the novel hold back the horror that can barely be spoken. Beloved is as much about how the story is told as what it is about. At the same time, Sethe (and we) must circle around the subject, returning obsessively to it again and again. The last two pages of the novel repeat the line “It was not a story to pass on” (323-24). Note the double meaning here. Americans, both black and white, don’t want to remember this story. They might say that it is history too ugly to pass on to their neighbors, to their descendents. Think about Sethe’s fear of the past—how initially she’s trying to keep the past at bay (51). But we can also read the line as a statement of how crucial it is that we do remember. This is not a story to pass on, meaning not a story to pass by.

The Identity of Beloved

One possibility suggested is that Beloved is an enslaved girl who had been locked up by a white man for sexual exploitation. Most of the other possibilities involve the supernatural. Note the many ways Beloved is marked as a newborn baby when she enters the narrative (60-62). She is believed to be Sethe’s daughter, Denver’s sister. She might also be a survivor of the Middle Passage—the traumatic journey across the Atlantic Ocean into American slavery—a compilation of all of the enslaved peoples who died (248-52). This section is often very confusing to readers—look for the details that convey the imagery of African captives crowded on a ship.  One telling phrase is Beloved’s description of “men without skin” (248): Africans perceived the first Europeans they saw as skinless because they didn’t have dark complexions. Another textual detail that supports this interpretation is the roaring of voices that Stamp Paid hears when he visits 124 but cannot not enter, or even knock. He does not hear only one ghostly voice (Beloved's)—he hears many. These may be the "Sixty Million and more" to whom Morrison dedicates her novel on the page before the epigraph. Why do you think Morrison does not provide us with a definitive answer?

Excess and Greed

Baby Suggs doesn’t approve of extra: she claims that “good is knowing when to stop” (102). The picnic feast to celebrate Sethe’s escape from slavery is described as offending the community by its excess (163); further, Paul D tells Sethe that her love is “too thick” (193). What do you think of this idea of “too thick” love? Do you agree that love can be too thick?

One way to read Sethe’s murder of Beloved is as an act of too much love: she loves her children too much to allow them to be put through the brutality of slavery (physical, mental, and emotional). Do you think Sethe is wrong for making this choice? Why or why not? How does Morrison complicate absolute judgment of her protagonist? In the end, does the novel condemn Sethe for committing the murder, or is she found more at fault for other acts, thoughts, behaviors? Where do you find evidence for your conclusions?

In the historical case of Margaret Garner, Margaret’s children are very light-skinned; research suggests that they were her master’s children, and that attempting to kill them was not simply motivated by love, but by revenge. What do you think of Morrison’s choice to omit this element of the story? How does her relationship with Halle affect our reading of her actions?

Motherhood in Slavery

Note that Sethe is not the only mother in the book to kill her children. When she is a child, Sethe is told by Nan that her mother “threw away” the children before her—Sethe is the only one she keeps because she is the only child not born out of rape. Ella refuses to breastfeed her newborn, and it dies after five days. (301-2, 305) These women kill out of hate for their abusers and rapists; Sethe, however, kills out of love.

Morrison asks us to consider what it means to be a mother generally, and what it means to be a mother in slavery. Think about Sethe’s relationships with her biological mother, Nan, and Baby Suggs; Baby’s relationships with her children, etc.

Masculinity in Slavery

When Paul D arrives at 124 Bluestone Road, sees the “chokecherry tree” whipping scars on Sethe’s back, and learns part of her story, he is appalled that Schoolteacher and his nephews used cowhide to beat her when she was pregnant. His focus is on the pain inflicted on a woman in a “delicate” condition, but Sethe keeps repeating “they took my milk!” (20). Her emphasis is on what was taken away—the only thing she had to give her children. Their dialogue highlights gender differences between them. Halle’s reaction to seeing Sethe’s abuse and being unable to protect her is also important in this light.

Thus, besides asking us to consider what motherhood means during slavery, Morrison asks us to ponder the meaning of manhood during at this time (manhood during the slave era as well as the legacies of slavery on African American masculinity).

Mr. Garner prides himself in being “tough enough and smart enough to make and call his own niggers men” (13). What do the idea behind this statement and its language imply for the actual manhood of the Pauls and Sixo?

Paul D identifies Sixo as his ideal of manhood (25-26). What about Sixo makes him a model for Paul D? Is it in any way a flawed model? What type of man is Paul D when he is introduced to the storyline? How does his character progress and develop? What do you think Morrison values as the best qualities in men? How do these compare and contrast with contemporary mainstream views of masculinity?


The novel ruminates on the delicate balance between individual and community, between Self and Other.

  1. The community anger at Baby Suggs’ individual success leads them to ignore the riders and their “responsibility” as a community to warn and protect one of their own, which in turn leads to the crawling-already? baby’s death. No one sings when Sethe is taken from 124 Bluestone Road to be imprisoned for the murder; however, the community of women comes together at the end, both in the food donations and the thirty singing women who come to “baptize” Sethe and exorcise the ghost (308)
  2. Sethe loses her self in an attempt to merge with another person (Beloved). Note, however, that the young woman’s name calls forth community: Dearly Beloved is typically heard at weddings and funerals (as in “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today…”).
  3. Denver’s outlook and community life improve radically once she leaves the yard and the isolation of 124 Bluestone Road.
  4. Morrison comments on the gender and class inequities of the time that allow for common ground between women of different races. Baby Suggs and Mrs. Garner stand beside one another and work together at Sweet Home (164); Amy Denver and Sethe struggle “appropriately and well” during the birthing of Denver (99-100). These relationships are not completely idealized, however, in that both Amy and Mrs. Garner are products of their era: they have been shaped by the racist ideology of their communities.

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