"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë
still figuring this place out - Jen W
Beloved, I felt, at one point, as though you were flaying me – repeatedly striking me with the details of Sethe's story, as they were revealed in layers, by her, by others. Each lash landed from a slightly different angle; each one dug a little deeper into my flesh.
I’ve read novels about slavery, and also non-fiction. Not much of the physical or emotional reality of the slave’s life was new to me. But somehow, in her presentation of it, Morrison took me deeper. She pulled me into Sethe’s mind – a confusing, terrifying, possibly insane place – and into each of her characters’ situations, with a ferocious, unyielding veracity that I’ve never felt with any other novel. Lots of literary reasons: devices of narration and imagery that I suppose I could unearth and analyze – and that could, perhaps, be used by other writers. But not like this, none with this effect.
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The most extraordinary thing is not how Morrison conveys the physical brutality of the slave's life. It is the way she manages to make that horror pale in comparison to the brutalizing effect of the shame, the humiliation, the deprivation of personhood. I found that Morrison’s taking me into the innermost sanctum of that experience was harrowing.
It’s the use of the torturous bit; and the craziness it leaves in the eyes. It’s the scar in the shape of a tree with pustulating ends like blossoms. It’s the description of a rape and beating that accommodated, with a hole in the ground, Sethe’s pregnant stomach. It’s “freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another” and how that sentiment plays out in the novel’s characters’ experiences.
“This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw. This here new Sethe didn't know where the world stopped and she began.”
Beloved explores what it means to be a person – what it means to “claim one’s self” – and what it does to people's hearts and minds and very beings when that personhood is denied.
And this novel is also about who denies selfhood, and why. Even the 'kinder' slave owners do.(show spoiler)
This novel is about the scars – physical, emotional, psychological – left on slaves, and what they must endure to reclaim their humanity. I think it is also about the scars left on a people who, as a whole, have enslaved; and what they must understand if they are ever to heal as a society.
And Beloved is also, of course, about love – and specifically, a mother’s love: its absence and its presence, what that love creates and destroys, what it brings into existence and what it takes away: for and from the mother, and to and from the child that is beloved.
Everything in Beloved revolves around these themes, entwined around each other and played out in imagery real and magical.
“Could she sing? (Was it nice to hear when she did?) Was she pretty? Was she a good friend? Could she have been a loving mother? A faithful wife? Have I got a sister and does she favor me? If my mother knew me would she like me?”
Sethe's decision to do what she did was not based - at least not entirely - on the fact that her babies or she would be returned to a life of physical abuse. It's that they would be returned to a world that denied them their humanity; a world that evaluated their characteristics in two columns, with a bias to the second: human and animal. [leaving aside that humans are animals; a reality that this world does not acknowledge in so many ways]
“"You got two feet, Sethe, not four," he said, and right then a forest sprang up between them; tactless and quiet.”
Aside from the consequence of denying individuals their personhood, there are the consequences of labelling them as animals, like the pigs and horses and dogs that are barely fed, beaten and bred at Sweet Home. The animals that the slaves have no right to treat as their own.
Own - ownership of other beings. One's own self. What one owns or has the right to own and what one loves and has the right to love. Ownership and freedom; violence and love. Ownershipfreedomviolencelove.
"Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight, copper dirt, moon - everything belonged to the men who had the guns. ...And these "men" ... could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Glass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn't do. A woman, a child, a brother - a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose - not to need permission for desire - well now, THAT was freedom."
These themes of selfhood - of ownership - of love - of freedom (and their denial and the consequences of that denial) are profound and all-encompassing here in Beloved.
That slaves could want to keep their babies, that they could love them, that they would do anything - anything - to protect them and keep them safe and give them a self - is at the core of Beloved, as it was at the core of the real-life events upon which Morrison based the story.
"Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all."
The moment that Sethe responds to Paul D's pointing out to her that she had two legs not four is a turning point. Morrison only later puts that statement into context for us. That’s how this story works: oblique details that gather meaning as the story unfolds; the line between the real and supernatural worlds fluid; the difference between the sane and the irrational act impossible to discern.
It’s remarkable, really, that a book so sad, a book that made me so angry, could also be so uplifting. But it is. Because Sethe wins. In the end, she – and her Beloved - triumph.
Some kind of justice that is no kind of justice prevails.
I understand you, Sethe: I understand how the life you were forced to endure made you crazy. And made you do the thing that, for you, was the only sane response to subjugation, to dehumanization, to pain:(show spoiler)