Beloved Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Beloved, is a historical novel that serves as a memorial for those who died during the perils of slavery. The novel serves as a voice that speaks for the silenced reality of slavery for both men and women.
Morrison in this novel gives a voice to those who were denied one, in particular African American women. It is a novel that rediscovers the African American experience. The novel undermines the conventional idea of a story’s time scheme. Instead, Morrison combines the past and the present together. The book is set up as a circling of memories of the past, which continuously reoccur in the book.
The past is embedded in the present, and the present has no foundation without the past. Morrison breaks up the time sequence using the visions of the past that arouse forgotten experiences and emotions. The visions of the various occurrences of slavery survive time and continue to haunt not only the characters directly involved, but also their loved ones. In Beloved, Morrison makes the past visible in the present by making it into a tangible place that can be revisited, where people can be seen and touched, and where images and pictures survive and are projected outward from the mind.
Morrison transforms these projected images into events for the reader to experience. The reader becomes part of the tradition of passing on the memories of the past. Yet, in the last two pages of the novel, Morrison instructs her readers that Beloved is not a story to be passed on. (275) It is not a story about happiness or healing or the success of one woman’s escape from slavery. Rather, Morrison communicates these images through a maze of emotions to accentuate the pain and suffering left by the remains of slavery.
It is the story and the experience that Morrison wishes for the reader to remember, and not the characters. The novel is based on real events, that have past and been forgotten. Yet Morrison is not telling a story about happiness or healing or the success of women escaped from slavery. Rather Morrison delivers the past experiences of enslaved African American women, a past which is often forgotten. In the novel, Morrison brings to life the events and the stories that become permanently imprinted on the reader’s conscious.
Morrison communicates these images through a maze of emotions that accentuate the pain and suffering left by the remains of slavery. Morrison wants the reader not to remember the characters; instead it is their experience that she wants the reader to remember. Throughout Beloved, the past is continually brought forth in the present, both physically and mentally through visual images, particularly those relating to slavery. The life at sweet home is all too real to escape for Sethe, her family, and all the others who once lived there. Sethe is continually brought back to Sweet Home through her rememory, against her own will to forget. Physically, Sethe’s body bares her memory of Sweet Home; the choketree that is on her back, a maze that Paul D describes as a “decorated work of an ironsmith too passionate to display” (17).
Yet, it is not the physical markings that cause the most pain to those who survived the bonds of slavery, as the story strongly points out, it is the mental images that haunt them along with past emotions of fear, horror, and regret, that manifest themselves physically with vengeance. Morrison uses the word rememory to mean the act of remembering a memory. This rememory is when a memory is revisited, whether physically or mentally. Yet the word is not a verb but a noun.
It is an actual thing, person or a place that takes on the existence of a noun. When Sethe explains rememory to Denver, she states, “If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place-the picture of it-stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think about it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there.” (36) To both Sethe and Denver, the past is inescapable. Denver come to realize that the past is something that cannot be blotted out.
It is the question of the past, asked by Nelson Lord, that makes her understand the present. She was so happy she didn’t even know she was being avoided by her classmates-that they made excuses and altered their pace not to walk with her. It was Nelson Lord-the boy as smart as she was-who put a stop to it; who asked her the question about her mother that put chalk, the little i and all the rest that those afternoons held, out of reach forever…but the thing that leapt up in her when he asked it was a thing that had been lying there all along. (102) Denver, while attending school at Lady Jones’, first comes to understand the past of 124.
Ironically it is hearing this, which causes Denver to lose her hearing. It is her means of blocking out the past that is too painful for her to accept. Even when she did muster the courage to ask Nelson Lord’s question, she could not hear Sethe’s answer, nor Baby Suggs’ words, nor anything at all thereafter… For two years she heard nothing at all and then she heard close thunder crawling up the stairs… The return of Denver’s hearing, cut off by an answer she could not bear to hear, cut on by the sound of her dead sister trying to climb the stairs… (103-104) The past exists on its own and lingers in the air, haunting all those who live in the present.
What is scary about this idea of rememory, however, is that it effects everyone, not just the person who experienced the event. The rememories are tangible. Sethe explains, ” It’s never going away .. . The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there-you who never was there-if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.” (36) Sethe though tries to protect Denver from the past by keeping it from her.
She tells Denver, “It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to someone else…So, Denver, you can’t never go there. Never. Because even though it’s all over- over and done with- it’s going to always be there waiting for you” (36). Sethe tries to keep Denver away from the expereince of slavery. So by keeping Denver from the reality of the past, Sethe is preventing her from experiencing the trauma of slavery. But eventually, Denver is awakened by the past as she is forced to take responsibility for saving her mother from the same past that her mother tried to save her from.
Somebody had to be saved, but unless Denver got work, there would be no one to save, no one to come home to, and no Denver either. It was a new thought, having to look out for and preserve. And it might not have occurred to her if she hadn’t met Nelson Lord leaving his grandmother’s house as Denver entered it to pay a thank you for half a pie. All he did was smile and say, “Take care of yourself, Denver,” but she heard it as though it were what language was made for. The last time he spoke to her his words blocked up her ears.
Now they opened her mind. (252) In the end of the novel when the mob of the townspeople visit 124 Bluestone road for the first time in ages, they fall into their own rememories, and see themselves as children in their own past. They are forced to return to the party that took place before the arrival of Schoolteacher. When they caught up with each other, all thirty, and arrived at 124, the first thing they saw was not Denver sitting on the steps, but themselves. Younger, stronger, even as little girls lying in the grass asleep.
Catfish was popping grease in the pan and they saw themselves scoop German potato salad onto the plate. Cobbler oozing purple syrup colored their teeth. They sat on the porch, ran down to the creek, teased the men, hoisted children on their hips or, if they were the children, straddled the ankles of the old men who held their little hands while giving them a horsey ride. Baby Suggs laughed and skipped among them, urging more. Mothers, dead now, moved their shoulders to mouth harps. The fence they leaned on and climbed over was gone.
The stump of the butternut had split like a fan. But there they were, young and happy, playing in Baby Suggs’ yard, not the envy that surfaced the next day. (258) It is almost as if these places exist devoid of time and space, and appear in the form of the past, serving as a permanent reminders of a time that most of these characters long to forget, not pass on. Their souls are branded with the memories of slavery, chain gangs, lynchings and beatings.
The memories still exist for the characters in the book, even though the Civil War has been won and slavery abolished. Morrison moves around in the novel, allowing each character to in turn, share pieces of their rememory. This multiple narrative viewpoint enables Morrison to fully establish the past, which she has created. Each account of suffering has the haunting of 124 as its center, while the events which caused it explained in ever-widening detail, embracing the composite experience of slavery.
The enormity of the experience focuses on the triple burden carried by African American women who had no control over their children or their bodies. Along with the rememories that resurface to the present, there are also mental images, or pictured thoughts that arrest the mind and torment the heart. It is futile to try and escape, or to try to beat back the past, because like the places, the images that are revived by the brain are even stronger. This is something that Sethe comes to learn in the book.
She shook her head from side to side, resigned her rebellious brain. Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept? Like a greedy child it snatched up everything. Just once, could it say, No thank you? I just ate and can’t hold another bite? I am full God damn it of two boys with mossy teeth, one suckling on my breast the other holding me down, their book-reading teacher writing it up. I am full of that, God damn it, I can’t go back and add more.
(70) Yet she does add more, because she is forced to. The internal and external scars which slavery has left on Sethe’s soul are irreparable. Her brain will not let her forget the images ingrained in her mind, just as Paul D is haunted by his own images; “nights in the cellar, pig fever, iron bits, smiling roosters, fired feet, laughing dead men, hissing grass, rain, apple blossoms, neck jewelry, Judy in the cherry trees, cameo pins, aspens, Paul A’s face, sausage or the loss of a red, red heart.” (235) Paul D similar to Sethe also tries to forget his past. Paul hides his past inside his “tin heart:” It was some time before he could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest. By the time her got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open.
(113) While Paul D helps Sethe face her own past, he too is forced to return to his own past and open his sealed “tin heart.” Going back to the past disrupts the peace of the present for both Paul D and Sethe. Even though they do share their memories, there is only so much that both of them are willing to divulge. They both share the same belief that it is best to keep the past buried. “Saying more might push them both to a place they couldn’t get back from” (72).
For both Sethe and Paul D, Beloved forces the two of them to deal with the past they are afraid to. Part of Beloved’s character is her mechanism for causing others to deal with their pasts. The image of the tobacco tin containing all of Paul D’s repressed memories of abuse and degradation through his life of slavery is used throughout his story. This tin container is the means for holding what his soul cannot. But Beloved seduces Paul D in the cold house, thus provoking the flaking of the rusty tin and exposure of his “red heart” (p117).
She moved closer with a footfall he didn’t hear and he didn’t hear the whisper that the flakes of rust made either as they fell away from the seams of his tobacco tin. So when the lid gave he didn’t know it. What he knew was when he reached the inside pas …