So far in this blog I’ve touched upon several works that incorporate a blend of fantastical and realistic elements—the “magic realism” genre found in works like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children.
Before I read Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (published in 1987), though, I had never experienced a work that so well mixed and mingled real-life with the supernatural.
We tend to relegate ghosts and spirits to horror novels and not works of literary fiction, but Morrison shows how a great writer can pretty much have whatever features he or she wants in a work, no matter how “out there” they might be. Ghosts and a historical account of American slavery might sound like an odd combination, but if you dust off Beloved, you’ll see how these two ideas not only intersect but spin a disturbing story about past regrets.
What makes Beloved such an interesting read (and one that definitely demands careful attention on the part of the reader) is its narrative plays out in overlapping and interweaving segments that don’t follow a simple beginning-middle-end pattern.
Readers first encounter Sethe, a woman who fled slavery in the American South for freedom on the other side of the Ohio River. Although Sethe is now free, she continues to have psychological damage from her time as a slave, and she believes her home is haunted. As the novel progresses, this haunting turns out to be the ghost of Sethe’s daughter, referred to her tombstone title of “Beloved.” Even more surprising, we discover that Sethe killed her daughter when she, Beloved, was an infant.
Now a ghost, Beloved plays havoc with Sethe, her other daughter Denver, and another former slave known as Paul D. The dynamic between Sethe and Beloved, at times enchanting and at other moments disturbing (as Sethe gives more and more attention to her dead daughter than her living one), is the top reason you should dust off this book.
The second-best reason would be two sections toward the end of radically different styles, one chockful of dense text and the other sparse with words. These two portions bring the Sethe-Beloved connection to a crescendo and reveal just how deep the trauma they’ve both suffered has been. Also, for a fiction writer like me, it’s fascinating to see the juxtaposition between two such different writing styles within the same book.
There aren’t just metaphorical scars in Beloved, though: Sethe often refers to the very real physical scars on her back inflicted from her time as a slave. This gives readers a clear picture that Beloved isn’t the only part of Sethe’s past that she must deal with; the abuse she suffered in slavery lingers with her body and her mind. By the book’s conclusion, the three major living characters—Sethe, Denver, and Paul D—have, in their own way, come to grips with Beloved and what she represents of the past.
I found Beloved difficult to interpret when I read it back in early 2018. That wasn’t Morrison’s fault, considering that a novel that’s totally transparent with its themes and messages risks telling, rather than showing, the reader what it’s about. Indeed, in the year-and-a-half since, as I’ve gained a bit more knowledge about psychology and have encountered more and more novels with supernatural realism, my appreciation of Beloved has shot up.
I can see much better now how brilliant and tragic Sethe is as a character, stuck in the past but yearning to move on in her life. This is all to say that if you don’t “get” this novel the first time you read it, I’d advise putting it aside for a year or two and then rereading it after you’ve discovered more magic realism in literature. If a great novel could be dusted off and understood in one reading, I doubt it’d be considered a great novel at all.
Read what others have to say about this book on Goodreads.com here.