Book Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison

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.

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2 comments

  1. The first time I read “Beloved” I was a bit lost — largely because I was in high school. That was before my degree in English.

    “African-American” culture does not reject the universal for the particular. To read it that way is to oneself insist that our specific worldview is “universal.” It isn’t. And I’m not a relativst.

    Morrison’s Beloved speaks to a number of specific, universal themes: the role of history and memory, the ability and function of narrative and identity, and offering a completion of American history and identity by giving us at least a fictionalized variant of stories left out of our own understanding of slavery.

    Besides this, African-American literature deals with the suffering, creative potential, living, agency, resistance (although this theme is complicated — too often we want to reduce minority voices to “resistance/acquiescence” dichotomies) and a number of other themes that while filtered through specific, racialized experiences I as an American white male do not have, I can nontheless empathize with via my own experiences.

    A central plotpoint of Beloved is the haunting memory of a mother killing her own child, something meant to provoke the “unheimlich” in readers. It represents the absolute inversion of something many of us would assume is natural and universal: a mother’s love for her own child. And yet situated in the story, we come to understand that the murder was an act of love: it prevented a loss of life into slavery, something many enslaved Mothers historically thought was worse then death when they chose to simultaneously reject the Slavemaster’s “right to ownership” over their child and protect their child from a world of hate by sending them straight to their Lord. The death of Beloved is a complicated situation many of us will never have to experience, but through its particular insights into Blackness, femininity, and motherhood, we can relate to broader – and universal – themes of suffering, oppression, and domination.

    I suppose I take issue with the statements reducing the African-American greats to “few and far between” and rejecting Beloved’s offer to the universal human condition. These reveal more about the reader’s inability to engage critically and empathetically than they do with any folly on the part of Black culture.

  2. I believe the overarching problem with Beloved is that the main character of the novel does not exist. Even in a house whose only visible occupants are four blacks (Paul D, Sethe, Beloved, and Denver) the central figure and force is the “whiteman.” It is this nebulous figure who, even while not physically present, defines the particular personalities as well as the relationships of each character. There is something to be said for this as conveying an important aspect of the African-American experience, but I think Ralph Ellison conveyed the same point better in his Invisible Man.

    Ultimately, it is the problem of the “whiteman” (visible or invisible) that I see as the central issue that prevents African-American literature from taking its rightful place alongside the literary canons of other nations and peoples. With a few important exceptions, African-American literature (and wider culture) has defined itself in terms of relation to whiteness. This is where I think the Négritude movement was an important though ineffective and tentative step in the right direction. By defining “blackness” on its own terms rather than in categories imposed by and in opposition to the white majority, the movement came closer than any other in the history of African-American culture to developing a definition of blackness that was not itself dependent on and in a sense derivative of whiteness. The Négritude movement went wrong, however, in some important ways as well, including its insistence on the cultural unity of Africans and African-Americans, a useful fiction at best, and the danger it ran of defining the “black” as altogether ontologically different from the “white.”

    W. E. B. Du Bois perhaps most cogently stated my own position in his belief that African-Americans must enter into the wider context of American civilization (perhaps most importantly through an embrace of liberal education in the traditional model) and, from this vantage point, elucidate their own experience in a manner that simultaneously preserves its uniqueness and relates it to the wider human experience. It is in this way that African-American identity can be defined on its own terms and so speak to the experience and history of other people groups in a relationship of equality and mutual understanding.

    There are some works of African-American literature that do this. Ellison’s Invisible Man, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative all come readily to mind as examples of African-American literature that authentically deserve to be classed among the world’s great literature on their own merits. I do not believe this is the case, however, with Beloved, in which Morrison opts to perpetuate the narrative of identity via oppressed minority status, thereby reducing the novel itself to, at best, an interesting if often anachronistic exercise in historical fiction.

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