A post-bellum black settlement in the outskirts of Cincinnati: Sethe, a lone proud woman lives in house 124, with her withdrawn daughter Denver and the ghost of her murdered third child. Until Paul D turns up- another survivor of the Kentucky homestead across the river, the slave plantation from hell that Sethe escaped but is never free from. Paul D takes up with Sethe and drives away the ghost, upsetting Denver. But a semblance of normalcy and Paul D’s good humor are a powerful attraction; a thaw is coming. At this point a girl appears in Sethe’s yard calling herself “Beloved.” Sethe’s Beloved, adored by Denver, tormentor of Paul D.
This is the stunning setting for this complex novel that traverses time for each of its characters enabling them to ‘rememory’ what they have ‘disremembered’ in order to survive. And in as much as it reviles that most abominable of institutions and through its characters indicts an entire race, there is very little that is sensational. Terrible experiences, the heart breaking fates of those that could not make it, are rendered mainly through a quick telling or a reference, or a sad wondering. What Morrison achieves is focus on the aftermath. Who is Beloved? It is the name engraved on the baby’s gravestone. Is she the ghost returned with redoubled vigor? Or is she a child-woman, a victim of the Middle Passage and worse, who has mistaken Sethe for her dead mother? Does Beloved stand for all victims of slavery in America? Is she an allegory for the institution itself?
I posit that the institution and her architects the slavers, brutalized a population to the point where they had to kill the child inside them to stay alive. They are now haunted by the presence of this loss- the loss of innocence, hope and happiness. This loss of their childhood and the capacity to be-loved is Beloved. She is as old as the first rape in the first passage of slaves across the Atlantic. Beloved is the ghost of excised humanity; she is angry and greedy to come back. But you cannot embrace her- she is not a child, she is her ghost, an ‘absence’. She will alienate her people and she will not allow them to pursue happiness for she is vengeful.
If Sethe represents the damaged past of a people- her back is a tree- Paul D can be seen as the optimistic side of his people. He lives in the here and now and has survived through practicing detachment. But he too is a prisoner of the past. He has survived in fact by refusing to revisit his past and is quite helpless before the seductive force of Beloved. His tightly locked up fund of bitterness and sorrow is soon pried open and he has no choice but to fly.
Denver as the undamaged future should be less vulnerable, but having grown up alone in a haunted house she knows no-one else. For her, Beloved is initially exciting and attractive but ultimately isolating and weakening. However, being undamaged, she has the resources and the power to resist the influence of this most heart rending of metaphors. With the help of the community she avoids self-destruction.
Beloved is a book of redemption that looks to the younger generation, the larger community and significantly women to heal an unspeakable wound. I found the book traumatic and therapeutic. And the staggering novel craft! The coinage of new words, the knotted narrative woven through with countless,seamless strands of story and allegory that move this way and that, glint this way and that, to produce an enchantment that is truly the work of genius. We could only marvel at it, analysis was beyond us.
We introspected and thought of what it would have taken to implement the Varna system in Aryan India.
As the unrecorded history of a subjugated people we agreed it was invaluable.