Author: Toni Morrison
Genre: General Fiction
Length: 12 hrs 3 mins (audiobook)
Selected By: Elle Tea
Elle’s Score – Selection:
Elle’s Score – Narration:
Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.
Elle Tea’s Review
I was told that this novel would be right up my alley. “It’s creepy,” I was told. “It’s about a ghost,” I was told. “There’s a haunted house in,” I was told.
And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe.
This novel was right up my alley. There’s a ghost, of sorts, and it haunts a house, in a way. But I didn’t find the story at all creepy. No… I found Beloved to be a profoundly sad novel punctuated by an occasional message of hope – though that hope is quite often yanked right out of the clutching hands of the character who dared try to hold it to begin with… right up until the end when all that’s left is the potential of the unknown future.
There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind – wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.
Beloved tells the story of the slaves of the plantation called Sweet Home, specifically that of Sethe, a former slave who survived the brutality of rape and the whip to emerge on the other side a proud woman of claws and teeth with iron where once was her heart. Sethe at various turns displays shifting duality: she is complex, flipping from ferocious to helpless in the blink of an eye, but her needs, desires, and motivations are surprisingly simple; she is more deeply impacted by Schoolteacher’s¹ assertion that she and the other slaves of Sweet Home are little more than animals than she is of any of the physical tortures she was forced to endure at his hands and those of his vile nephews; she insists she thinks of herself as no better than any of the other black residents who make up her community while simultaneously stealing food to avoid having to stand in line with those same neighbors; she guards her hard-won independence fiercely but doesn’t even pause for thought before accepting help from any willing to offer it; she is reclusive, exiling herself and her daughter from their community and effectively imprisoning them on their property at 124 Bluestone Road, but she is also bitterly lonely.
“Let me tell you something: a man ain’t a goddamn axe. Choppin’, hackin’, bustin’ every goddamn minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside.”
Paul D, on the other hand, is quite simple to understand. After their distinctly unsweet life at Sweet Home, Paul D found himself on a chain gang, where he landed directly in a fresh new hell. He spent his years after that roaming from place-to-place, a shambling wanderer, until the moment he lands on 124’s porch. Paul D is an idealist – he believes that if a man lives well and works hard, he will be afforded a position to make a difference, to be somebody; the reality of the times in which he lives, however, is that Paul D will never be allowed to be anyone, because as far as those with any sort of authority are concerned, he isn’t even a man: he’s black… and that’s all that matters. But Paul D just keeps doing what he feels is right – he just keeps living his truth, as we’d say today. And at first, that truth holds – he brings life back to the tomb that Sethe’s house has become, and, more importantly, he brings life back to Sethe herself. Eventually, of course, it all goes sideways and upside-down and backwards… but Paul D, in the end, gives Sethe a reason to not only reclaim her life up until that point but also to risk grasping for a future worth living.
Then she shouted, “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her. “Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang… Then, “Let the grown men come!” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees. “Let your wives and children see your dance,” she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet. Finally, she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them, “for the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes, the women let loose.
Two other characters make up our primary cast: the eponymous Beloved and Sethe’s youngest child, Denver. Denver has spent eighteen years restricted primarily to the grounds of her mother’s house. She is a shy and lonely girl, shunned by her neighbors and practically friendless, who watched her two elder brothers run away from the sorrow and impotent rage which permeates the walls and saturates the soil of 124 Bluestone Road. But Denver is her mother’s daughter, and that strength – Sethe’s strength – does not dilute so easily. Beloved, on the other hand… Beloved may be the ghost of Sethe’s nameless child, who died at the age of two under horrible but terribly desperate circumstances. She may be a runaway or rescued slave, driven half-mad from her ordeals. She may be a woman, a stranger who comes across Sethe’s household and decides that this is where she will be for the moment. Personally, I believe Beloved is the physical manifestation of her mother’s past, a revenant if not quite a ghost: Beloved weeps Sethe’s unshed tears, she screams Sethe’s muffled cries, she voices all the anger Sethe refuses to claim as her own. And Beloved will always be there, like a parasite, feeding on Sethe’s self-loathing, hopelessness, and anger until Sethe acknowledges all that has happened, all she has done and that has been done to her, and genuinely forgives herself.
“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.”
For such a short novel, there are so many allegories within Beloved‘s pages: the long-term physical, emotional, and mental impacts of enslavement; the question of manhood and how it is defined and by whom; motherhood and the fine line between allowing oneself to define one’s role as a mother versus being defined by that role; the relationship between mothers and daughters; the dangers of ignoring or denying the past; and how women tend to deny their femininity and suppress their emotions in order to appear strong to others.
He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose – not to need permission for desire – well now, that was freedom.
I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, narrated by the late author herself. Morrison’s voice is perfect for this tale, with its gravelly, earthy tones and slow, steady way of reading each word, as if she’s savoring them before she lets them loose into the world. I don’t often prefer audio versions of books, but in this case, I have to say that Toni Morrison’s delivery of Beloved really brings Sethe’s story of tragedy and love to life.
Elle listened to the Audible edition of this selection, narrated by Toni Morrison.
¹ This character’s name retains a lowercase “s” in the novel, no doubt as a representation of how little the slaves of Sweet Home wish to acknowledge him. I’ve capitalized it here only to differentiate to those unfamiliar with the novel that this is, indeed, a reference to a character.