Denver and Sethe have found a rhythm in their isolated existence.. Even while they are haunted by an occasional eerie noise or movement from the unexpected, and even as they mourn the loss of Baby Suggs, their mother/grandmother, they have figured out a way to work and live and get through the days. It is only the arrival of Paul D who stirs up old trauma for Sethe, throwing her back into her past, forcing her to relive old horrors. And it is very unclear if their unusual little family will be able to leave the past behind and move forward.
Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning Beloved, is beautiful, poetic, lofty, erratic, layered, and extremely hard to understand without guidance. It is likely that repeated readings are necessary to glean the most meaning from the text Because it was not set up as a traditional story might be, it was hard to get oriented to the characters, — who they were, where they were, and how they were related to each other. Once I did muddle through the first, maybe 10%, of the book, however, I was then able to appreciate the book for all its magnificent power.
There is a story here, but a non-linear one and one that mixes in much superstition, supernatural, and memory. In truth, it is a lyrical platform in which to lament the horrors of enslavement, the way in which enslavement robs us of our humanity. It is loosely based on a true story of a woman who, rather than allow her daughter to be captured and be enslaved, murdered her instead. This unthinkable act forces us to examine just how desperate a mother could be to choose death over a life of ownership by another individual. To choose death rather than not having freedom to choose whom one may love and form attachment to. To choose death over a life of being chained, both figuratively and literally.
Most powerful for me were the sparks of memories of Paul D and of Sethe as they went about their day to day on “Sweet Home,” the plantation where they’d originally met. Paul D harks back to a memory of overhearing an assessment of his monetary worth, as if one could place such a figure on a life. At another moment, Sethe remembers overhearing Schoolteacher showing his pupils how to list Sethe’s human qualities on one side of a page and her animal qualities on the other, reducing her to only partly human. There is physical brutality described as well, but I believe these more insidious crimes reveal more about how these individuals were perceived and how these perceptions seeped into their souls– even more so than the physical harm that befell them.
I feel that I’ve gotten so much from having read this book. If reading can impart some degree of empathy, Sethe’s story is an important place to start.