When I think of literature that is worthy of an award that holds the sort of esteem the Nobel Prize does, I think of Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot. As I approached this novel with these great Nobel laureates in mind, I was setting myself up for disappointment. Beloved is not a bad novel, but it nowhere approaches the greatness of The Old Man and the Sea or Murder in the Cathedral.
I am not only disappointed with the novel itself, however, I am more disappointed that I must be so disappointed. Literature is primarily the study of the universal human condition and experience through the particular experiences of humans. It is the ability of a great author to grant insight into the universal through the particular that makes great authors great.
The African-American experience is a unique one in the history of mankind. While those who have been a part of this experience have produced several great works of literature, these are, unfortunately, few and far between. Most African-American literature eschews the universal features which can be extracted from the African-American experience in favor of a particularity that borders on insularity. It does not allow one who has not partaken of this experience to enter into it and understand it, nor does it grant such a person any insight into the universal human condition which can be re-particularized by forming that person’s worldview and experience.
This is, unfortunately, the case with Beloved. No matter how much I tried, I found it difficult to feel a sympathy, much less an identity, with any of the characters. Most of the characters are too simple and one-sided to be confused with persons; nearly all of them behave in bizarre and irrational ways that makes it difficult to understand their feelings, desires, and motivations. Always lurking in the background, though rarely visible, is the consistently ominous presence of the “whiteman,” who is evil embodied.
All of this makes the novel difficult to read and leaves the reader ultimately unfulfilled.