Death Duties: Toni Morrison Looks Back in Sorrow
September 8, 1987
The subject of Toni Morrison’s new novel, Beloved, is slavery, and the book staggers under the terror of its material — as so much holocaust writing does and must. Morrison’s other novels teem with people, but in Beloved half the important characters are dead in the novel’s present, 1873. Though they appear in memory, they have no future. Slavery, says one character, “ain’t a battle; it’s a rout” — with hardly any of what one could confidently call survivors. The mood is woe, depression, horror, a sense of unbearable loss. Still, those who remain must exorcise the deadly past from their hearts or die themselves; Beloved is the tale of such an exorcism.
In complex narrative loops, Beloved circles around and hints at the different fates of a group of slaves who once lived on a plantation in Kentucky, “Sweet Home” — of course neither “sweet” nor “home”: an old woman called Baby Suggs, her son Halle, Paul A, Paul D, Paul F, Sixo, and the one young woman among them, Sethe. (Here as everywhere in the novel names raise baleful questions. Slaves have a tragically tenuous hold on names, and it is only in their final destinies that the three Pauls are allowed separate lives.)
Halle strikes a bargain with his master to sell his few free hours and use the money to buy his mother’s freedom. Baby Suggs wonders why he bothers. What can a crippled old woman do with freedom? But when she stands on the northern side of the Ohio River and walks through the streets of Cincinnati, “she could not believe that Halle knew what she didn’t; that Halle, who had never drawn one free breath, knew that there was nothing like it in this world.”
Back at Sweet Home the decent master dies. (In slavery, a good master is merely a chance episode, any feeling of autonomy merely a fool’s illusion.) The new boss, “schoolteacher,” beats his slaves and measures them with rulers, keeping pseudoscholarly lists of their “human and animal characteristics.” He demonstrates that any time the whites want to, they can knock you into the middle of next week, or back into the dependency of childhood. But Sethe now has three babies by the generous-spirited Halle, and the idea that she might never see them grow (like Baby Suggs, who saw seven of her children sold), or that they will grow only into schoolteacher’s eternal children, strengthens her resolve to join the Sweet Home slaves who plan to run, taking a “train” north. Paul F is long gone — sold, who knows where. During the escape, Paul A gets caught and hanged. Sixo gets caught and burned alive. Paul D gets caught and sold in chains with a bit in his mouth. Sethe manages to get her three children on the train, but is caught herself, assaulted, beaten. Halle fails to appear at their rendezvous — lost, mysteriously lost, and never to be found again. Sethe runs anyway, because she can’t forget that hungry baby who’s gone on ahead, and because a new one is waiting to be born.
Half dead, and saved only by the help of a young white girl, trash almost as exiled as herself, Sethe gives birth to her baby girl, Denver, on the banks of the Ohio and manages to get them both across and truly home, to Baby Suggs’s door.
Told flat, the plot of Beloved is the stuff of melodrama, recalling Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But Morrison doesn’t really tell these incidents. Bits and pieces of them leak out between the closed eyelids of her characters, or between their clenched fingers. She twists and tortures and fractures events until they are little slivers that cut. She moves the lurid material of melodrama into the minds of her people, where it gets sifted and sorted, lived and relived, until it acquires the enlarging outlines of myth and trauma, dream and obsession.
In fact, the intense past hardly manages to emerge at all. It is repressed, just as the facts of slavery are. Instead, in the foreground of the novel, Morrison places a few lonely minds in torment: Sethe, Denver, Paul D. All the drama of past desire and escape has fled to the margins of their consciousness, while Morrison’s survivors are living in one extended moment of grief. Slowly, painfully, we learn that in order to keep schoolteacher from recapturing her children, Sethe tried to kill them all, succeeding with the third, a baby girl Morrison leaves nameless. This act lies at the center of the book: incontrovertible, enormous. Sethe explains that she killed the baby because “if I hadn’t killed her she would have died.” Morrison makes us believe in this logic down to the ground.
By 1873, 18 years after Sethe’s fatal act of resistance, slavery is technically over, whether or not the former slaves feel finished with it. Sethe’s eldest two boys have run off, perhaps overfull of the mother love that almost killed them as children. Baby Suggs’s house has become the entire world to Sethe and Denver — now 18. They live there ostracized, proud, and alone — except for the active ghost of the murdered two-year-old.
This awkward spirit shakes the furniture, puts tiny handprints on the cakes, shatters mirrors, while Sethe and Denver live stolidly in the chaos, emotionally frozen. Into this landscape of regret walks Paul D, one of the dear lost comrades from Sweet Home. He has been tramping for these 18 years, and now comes to rest on Sethe’s front porch. Innocent of the secret of the baby’s death, he seems to exorcise her ghost with nothing much more than his warm presence. As it turns out, she is not that easy to dismiss. The bulk of the novel dwells on the ghost’s desperate return as a grown woman who calls herself “Beloved,” the one word she has found on her tombstone.
At first, Beloved seems benign in her new avatar, and Sethe is ecstatic to have her daughter back. But gradually the strange visitor in elegant clothes and mysteriously unscuffed shoes turns into a fearsome figure, seducing Paul D in order to drag him into the wrong and send him packing, eating all the best food until Sethe and Denver begin to starve, ruling the demented household. The whole center of the novel is a projection of Sethe’s longing; Beloved is a snare to catch her anguished, hungry mother’s heart and keep her in the prison of guilt forever. She is also memory, the return of the dreadful past. In her, the breathtaking horror of the breakup of Sweet Home lives, sucking up all the air.
And so Toni Morrison has written a novel that’s airless. How could this happen to a writer this skillful, working with material this full and important? In the reading, the novel’s accomplishments seem driven to the periphery by Morrison’s key decision to be literal about her metaphor, to make the dead baby a character whose flesh-and-bone existence takes up a great deal of narrative space. Even Sethe and Denver complain at times about the irritating presence of their ghost. And when she returns as a woman, she is a zombie, animated by abstract ideas. Later those who loved her “realized they couldn’t remember or repeat a single thing she said, and began to believe that, other than what they themselves were thinking, she hadn’t said anything at all.”
Symbolic thinking is one thing, magical thinking quite another. Morrison blurs the distinction in Beloved, stripping the real magic of its potency and the symbols of their poetry. Her undigested insistence on the magical keeps bringing this often beautiful novel to earth. Morrison’s last two strange and original books, Song of Solomon and Tar Baby, had some of this unconvincing reliance on the supernatural, too. By contrast, The Bluest Eye, her first, was bitten and dry-eyed; the little girl in that novel who thinks she can get blue eyes by magic sinks into the psychosis of wishing. Morrison’s best magic was in Sula, the novel where it is most elusive, making no more solid a claim for the Unseen than the human spiritual power to move mountains.
This isn’t to say ghosts can’t or shouldn’t be the stuff of fiction. The present generation of South American gothicists often convince us of the living power of ghosts in the worlds they describe. And the literature of disaster is haunted by the noisy dead, clamoring to be remembered as active presences, not cut off from a continuing story. Morrison is working in these traditions when she tries to animate the resistant weight of the slave experience by pouring on magic, lurid visions, fantasies of reconciliation. And why not? In one way, she comes by her magic honestly: It is the lore of folk she loves, a visionary inheritance that makes her people superior to those — black or white — who don’t have any talent for noticing the unseen. She wants to show how the slave past lives on, raising havoc, and to give Sethe, her treasured heroine, a chance to fight it out with the demon of grief. If Beloved is a drag on the narrative, a soul mixed with a great deal of dross, well so be it, Morrison seems to say. When strong, loving women would rather kill their babies than see them hauled back into slavery, the damage to every black who inherits that moment is a literal damage and no metaphor. The novel is meant to give grief body, to make it palpable.
But I suspect Morrison knows she’s in some trouble here, since she harps so on the presence of Beloved, sometimes neglecting the mental life of her other characters. Their vitality is sacrificed to the inert ghost until the very end — a structure that makes thematic sense but leaves the novel hollow in the middle. Beloved is, of course, what’s heavy in all their hearts, but can the ghost of a tragically murdered two-year-old bear this weight of meaning? No matter how she kicks and squalls and screams, the ghost is too light to symbolize the static fact of her own death. She is a distraction from those in the flesh, who must bear the pain of a dead child’s absence. She is dead, which is the only arresting thing about her, and Morrison’s prose goes dead when it concerns her.
If Beloved fails in its ambitions, it is still a novel by Toni Morrison, still therefore full of beautiful prose, dialogue as rhythmically satisfying as music, delicious characters with names like Grandma Baby and Stamp Paid, and scenes so clearly etched they’re like hallucinations. Morrison is one of the great, serious writers we have. Who else tries to do what Dickens did: create wild, flamboyant, abstractly symbolic characters who are at the same time not grotesques but sweetly alive, full of deep feeling? Usually in contemporary fiction, the grotesque is mixed with irony or zaniness, not with passion and romance. Morrison rejects irony, a choice that immediately sets her apart. Like Alice Walker (there are several small, friendly allusions to The Color Purple in Beloved), she wants to tend the imagination, search for an expansion of the possible, nurture a spiritual richness in the black tradition even after 300 years in the white desert.
From book to book, Morrison’s larger project grows clear. First, she insists that every character bear the weight of responsibility for his or her own life. After she’s measured out each one’s private pain, she adds on to that the shared burden of what the whites did. Then, at last, she tries to find the place where her stories can lighten her readers’ load, lift them up from their own and others’ guilt, carry them to glory.
In her greatest novel so far, Sula, she succeeded amazingly at making this crucial shift in atmosphere. Her characters suffer — from their own limitations and the world’s — but their inner life miraculously expands beyond the narrow law of cause and effect. In Sula, Morrison found a way to offer her people an insight and sense of recovered self so dignified and glowing that no worldly pain could dull the final light. The novel ends with a song which soars over the top of its own last word, “sorrow”:
And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We was girls together, ” she said as though explaining some thing. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl,girl,girlgirlgirl.”
It was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
Song of Solomon and Tar Baby, and now Beloved, have writing as beautiful as this, but they are less in control of that delicate turn from fact to wish. Even at her best, Morrison’s techniques are risky, and sometimes, in Beloved, she loses her gamble. Slavery resists her impulse towards the grand summation of romance. The novel revolves and searches, searches and revolves, never getting any closer to these people numbed by their overwhelming grief. Why could they not save those they loved? Nothing moves here; everything is static and in pieces. The fragmentary, the unresolvable are in order in a story about slavery. When Morrison embraces this hideous fact, the book is dire and powerful: Halle is never found. Baby Suggs never reassembles her scattered children, whose names and faces are now those of strangers. Sethe has collapsed inside, unable to bear what has happened to them all.
Still, for Morrison, it is romance and not the fractured narrative of modernism that is the vehicle of her greatest feeling for her people. Though in their sorrow they resist her, she keeps inviting them to rise up on wings. She can’t bear for them to be lost, finished, routed. The romantic in her longs to fuse what’s broken, to give us something framed, at least one polychromatic image from above. When this works, it’s glorious. And even when it doesn’t, it’s a magnificent intention. But there are moments in Morrison’s recent novels when the brilliant, rich, and evocative image seems a stylistic tic, a shortcut to intensity. Romance can be a temptation. At the end of Beloved Morrison joins Sethe and Paul D together for good. Their happy union is a device laid on them from without by a solicitous author. It should be possible — why should pain breed only more pain? — but Morrison doesn’t manage to maintain a necessary tension between what she knows and what she desires. She wishes too hard. Something in the novel goes slack.
Because Morrison is always a tiger storyteller, she struggles against her novel’s tendencies to be at war with itself. She keeps writing gorgeous scenes, inventing characters so compelling and clear they carry us with them, back into a novel that seems determined to expel us. The ending in particular pushes Beloved beyond where it seemed capable of going:
Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. In the place where the long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.
It was not a story to pass on…
By and by all trace is gone… The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.
“Disremembered and unaccounted for.” The Dead may roar, but they are impotent. It is a brave and radical project to center a novel on a dead child ignored by history, cruelly forgotten along with so much else that happened to black people in slavery. A slave baby murdered by its own mother is “not a story to pass on.” Even the slaves who know Sethe’s reasons find them hard to accept. Paul D is so horrified when he finally learns about her crime that he leaves her for a time, telling her she has two legs not four. It is beastly to kill a baby, and yet Sethe asks, who was the beast? To keep Beloved out of the hands of an owner who would see her only as an animal, Sethe would rather be wild herself, do her own subduing of the human spirit, if killed it must be. As always in the last pages of her novels, Morrison gathers herself together and sings, here of those who didn’t even leave their names, who died before they had the chance to become the sort of people about whom you could tell real stories.
There are the novelists who try something new in each book (Doris Lessing, say, or Joanna Russ, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Walker) and the novelists who keep on worrying the same material (Saul Bellow, Robert Stone, Philip Roth, and Morrison herself). The first group has all the advantage of surprise, offering the thrill of new territory. Some of these trips come out better than others, but the overall effect is of travel. The second group has a different task, to find the same small door into the same necessary world, to wander the same maze trying to find the way home. Each novel in this group says to its readers, here I am again; do you feel what I always feel — as fully as I want you to? Well, not this time. But Morrison is great even in pieces, and worth waiting for, however long it takes.
This novel deserves to be read as much for what it cannot say as for what it can. It is a book of revelations about slavery, and its seriousness insures that it is just a matter of time before Morrison shakes that brilliant kaleidoscope of hers again and the story of pain, endurance, poetry, and power she is born to tell comes out right. ■
By Toni Morrison
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 7, 2019