Thinking the Unthinkable in Morrison's Beloved.

Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has borne the unthinkable and not gone mad, yet she is still held captive by memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Meanwhile Sethe’s house has long been troubled by the angry, destructive ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Sethe works at beating back the past, but it makes itself heard and felt incessantly in her memory and in the lives of those around her. When a mysterious teenage girl arrives, calling herself Beloved, Sethe’s terrible secret explodes into the present.

Beloved.

Beloved.

BELOVED.

Am I addressing you or am I so stunned speechless by the immaculateness of Toni Morrison's prowess in this book that all I can do is repeat it's title until you understand by pure osmosis how bloody brilliant this is?

Look, I didn't think my entry into Toni Morrison would be a ghost story- which is wild cause even though the synopsis fully describes this as one I just didn't believe it? I thought it would be some sort of metaphor but it isn't. Maybe it's because I always thought Toni Morrison's work would be.. lovely and dainty (nothing to do with poltergeist children haunting their mothers), while still maintaining power. However it is none of that frivolous-ness I thought. Lovely and powerful maybe, but dainty, not at all. In fact, it is brutal to say the least. And exceedingly uncomfortable. For example, the way Morrison treats issues of murder, torture and rape is with respect but it is not with delicateness. She shoves those things in your face and forces you to see them in the ruthless casualness that they were done during that time period.


Tell me something, Stamp." Paul D's eyes were rheumy. "Tell me this one thing. How much is a nigger supposed to take? Tell me. How much?"

"All he can," said Stamp Paid. "All he can."

"Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?"

- Beloved


I have a lot to say about this book but I am not smart enough to say it. I am barely convinced I was smart enough to even read it. The writing was not at all straight forward. The POVs were abrupt and all over the place? And tenses? switched up in a blink of an eye. If you like linear narratives that are easy to follow, this book is definitely not for you. There's so many things that made little sense to me. There's two whole chapters towards the end that literally read like a fever dream from an actual ghost. Not that I'm surprised. The book was written way back when by a genius of both her time and mine, how was I expecting to ever understand..

Still I got the gist. Stripped to it's bare bones, it is a simple story really. Inspired by the true story of Margret Garner, it follows a family that's on it's fringes: There's a dead and holy grandma (who stays dead, thank God), a vengeful baby spirit (as alluded to), who two sons have run from (never to return), a lonely daughter and a (crazy) mom. There's also a man from the past, who performs a failed exorcism with his fists and tries to build a home there. It's is a dysfunctional family if there ever was one, but what more can one expect from a time riddled with slavery and its aftermath.


She couldn't get interested in leaving life or living it.

- Beloved


In fact, I feel like this is a really really great exploration of how an oppressive system can have effects at a micro level - from individual to their family. The unimaginable thing our protagonist, Sethe (the crazy mom), does is a direct consequence of having lived the brutality of slavery. As much as the act itself is unspeakable - and you see that from how all the characters even tiptoe around the subject, not speaking it until the story demands they do - it does not feel unthinkable. There's a sympathy that Sethe's story brought out in me. It made me wonder what a mother will do to keep her children safe, even if it is the "unthinkable" - especially in the moments where you believe there are more cruel fates than death.

If you were to ask me if I blame her for what she did, the answer would be murky. If anything I blame the system that she was in, that broke her back as ruthlessly as it broke her spirit. However, I do not blame what everyone else thought of her either. I do not blame her community for excommunicating her. I do not blame her sons for running from her and the vengeful, spiteful ghost of their sister. I do not blame her living (and non-leaving) daughter Denver for fearing for her life. And I do not blame Paul D, the man who fought the ghost, for leaving immediately after he knew the truth. Both Sethe's actions and the reactions of those closest to her seem justifiable to me.


Before and since, all her effort was directed not on avoiding pain but getting through it as quickly as possible.

- Beloved


And that isn't even the half of it. It also explores a lot about memory , disremembering and "rememory" (as Morrison puts it when she wants to wax poetic about the repression of trauma ), the role of community in catalysing loneliness and isolation, the fragmentation of manhood, the burden of guilt and I guess the physical manifestation of trauma through generations. And all this crap and more happens in a book that's just under 300 pages.

As you can see, Toni Morrison's Beloved left me with a lot of thoughts to think about. It's a solid 4.5 stars, half a star shy away from a 5/5 not for any fault of its own, but of mine for failing to understand certain aspects of the writing and the story.


“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind."

- Beloved


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *