‘Beloved’ as History

In one sense, fiction can present (or represent, a better term) history as an autobiography might, exploring the inner thoughts and emotions of a survivor or witness. In another, fiction is more like a standard nonfiction work, its omniscient gaze shifting from person to person, revealing that which a single individual cannot know and experience, but not looking within, at the personal. Toni Morrison’s 1987 Beloved exemplifies the synthesis of these two commonalities: the true, unique power of fiction is the ability to explore the inner experiences of multiple persons. While only “historically true in essence,” as Morrison put it, the novel offers a history of slavery and its persistent trauma for the characters Sethe, Paul D, Denver, Beloved, and more.[1] It is posited here that Morrison believed the history of enslavement could be more fully understood through representations of the personal experiences of diverse impacted persons. This is the source of Beloved’s power.

One way to approach this is to consider different perspectives of the same event or those similar. To Sethe, her back was adorned with “her chokecherry tree”; Paul D noted “a revolting clump of scars.”[2] This should be interpreted as Sethe distancing herself from the trauma of the whip, reframing and disempowering horrific mutilation through positive language. Paul D simply saw the terrors of slavery engraved on the body. Here Morrison subtly considers a former slave’s psychological self-preservation. As another example, both Sethe and Paul D experienced sexual assault. Slaveowners and guards, respectively, forced milk from Sethe’s breasts and forced Paul D to perform oral sex.[3] Out of fear, “Paul D retched — vomiting up nothing at all. An observing guard smashed his shoulder with the rifle…”[4] “They held me down and took it,” Sethe thought mournfully, “Milk that belonged to my baby.”[5] Slavery was a violation of personhood, an attack on motherhood and manhood alike. Morrison’s characters experienced intense pain and shame over these things; here the author draws attention to not only the pervasive sexual abuse inherent to American slavery but also how it could take different forms, with different meanings, for women and men. Finally, consider how Sethe killed her infant to save the child from slavery.[6] Years later, Sethe was unapologetic to Paul D — “I stopped him [the slavemaster]… I took and put my babies where they’d be safe” — but he was horrified, first denying the truth, then feeling a “roaring” in his head, then telling Sethe she loved her children too much.[7] Then, like her sons and the townspeople at large, Paul D rejected Sethe, leaving her.[8] This suggests varying views on the meaning of freedom — death can be true freedom or the absence of it, or perhaps whether true freedom is determining one’s own fate — as well as ethics and resistance and love; a formerly enslaved woman and mother may judge differently than a formerly enslaved man, among others.[9]

Through the use of fiction, Morrison can offer diverse intimate perspectives, emotions, and experiences of former slaves, allowing for a more holistic understanding of the history of enslavement. This is accomplished through both a standard literary narrative and, in several later chapters, streams of consciousness from Sethe, Denver, Beloved, and an amalgamation of the three.[10] Indeed, Sethe and Paul D’s varying meanings and observations here are a small selection from an intensely complex work with several other prominent characters. There is much more to explore. It is also the case that in reimagining and representing experiences, Morrison attempts to make history personal and comprehensible for the reader, to transmit the emotions of slavery from page to body.[11] Can history be understood, she asks, if we do not experience it ourselves, in at least a sense? In other words, Beloved is history as “personal experience” — former slaves’ and the reader’s.[12]

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

[1] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), xvii.

[2] Ibid., 20, 25.

[3] Ibid., 19-20, 127.

[4] Ibid., 127.

[5] Ibid., 236.

[6] Ibid., 174-177.

[7] Ibid., 181, 193-194.

[8] Ibid., 194-195.

[9] Morrison alludes, in her foreword, to wanting to explore what freedom meant to women: ibid., xvi-xvii.

[10] Ibid., 236-256.

[11] Morrison writes that to begin the book she wanted the reader to feel kidnapped, as Africans or sold/caught slaves experienced: ibid., xviii-xix. 

[12] Ibid., xix.