Points To Ponder
Memory: Dwell on the past or focus on the future?
Toni Morrison's novel Beloved does not focus on slavery as much as it focuses on the aftermath of slavery. Indeed, much of the novel's action occurs in 1873. Both Paul D and Sethe are especially haunted by their memories of Sweet Home, Kentucky and their successes and failures in free life force the question on the reader: is it better for Sethe and Paul D to dwell on the past or should they focus on their future? The question is an interesting one because Toni Morrison is writing over 100 years after the setting and historical context of her novel, so she too is dwelling on the past just as much as her characters are. While Paul D lives for the future, he suffers internally, rarely revealing any of the tragedies that he has suffered. On the other hand, Sethe's mode of survival is by living in a house that is literally haunted by the past. By the end of the novel, both of the characters have to make some compromises. Paul D comes to realize that he cannot lock his heart away in a "red tobacco tin." As Stamp Paid's newspaper clipping proved, the unknown, unresolved past has a way of forcing itself into the affairs of the day, usually in an unexpected way. Sethe must learn to analyze her "rememory" and then follow Baby Suggs' advice to "lay it all down." After mining the details for knowledge, the painful memories should be forgotten; otherwise they will become an obstacle. Sethe only barely escapes from memories so vicious that they returned to haunt her in human form.
The murder of Beloved: Infanticide or Euthanasia?
Toni Morrison is a writer with epic tendencies. Her characters loom large and her allusive literary structures hearken back to Biblical stories and Ancient Greek myths. Stamp Paid's troubles with his wife Vashti put a spin on the Biblical story of Esther, who replaces Vashti as the king's favorite. Sethe's crime of murder strongly resembles the Greek story of Medea, who kills her children in a similar fashion. Both Sethe and Stamp Paid (who is reincarnated as a Christ-like "Redeemer" whose suffering will pay for the sufferings of others) resuscitate old literary themes of euthanasia (mercy-killing) and infanticide (baby-killing). Many readers are horrified by Sethe's crime; others argue that Sethe's act was justified and agree that Sethe was simply trying to prevent her children from the debasing, dehumanizing life of slaves. Morrison is well aware of the murky debate and she makes no effort to justify or condemn Sethe's actions. Rather, Morrison indicts the Fugitive Slave Bill specifically, and slavery in general, for providing the context in which Sethe committed her crime. Rather than focusing on the nuances of euthanasia and infanticide, Morrison comments on the emotional trauma that preceded and followed Sethe's act of desperation. How horrible must slavery have been to take rational people - slaves and their owners - so far beyond the bounds of reason and morality?
The Text and the written word.
Morrison teaches humanities at Princeton University and she is one of America's leading literary artist-critics. Both her published criticism and her Nobel acceptance speech focus on what she describes as "reifying language" - language that materializes divisions, patriarchy and racism in America. In Beloved, it is interesting to look at Morrison's deliberate efforts as a writer who is trying to engage herself with old texts, laws and phrases that are not only out-dated, but which she finds personally offensive. Specifically, the Bodwins and Schoolteacher are an interesting contrast to the characters in another famous novel about the Fugitive Slave Bill - Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Some literary critics have also found responses to specific passages of Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous novels - particularly the imprisonment of Sethe with her infant child, Beloved's tombstone and Amy Denver's trek to Boston, all evoke the thematic details of The Scarlet Letter. Finally, Morrison's launched attack on the Fugitive Slave Bill is part of a larger effort to expose a large number of literary endeavors - laws, sermons, bills of sale - that intentionally and sometimes, unwittingly locked African-Americans out of the human family. Consider the "harmless" intent of Schoolteacher's "education." His beatings and whippings fail to damage Paul D and Sethe's psyches, only leaving physical scars, but his note-taking prevents Paul D from believing that he is a man - twenty years later. And Sethe is permanently bruised from seeing her "animal and human characteristics" listed on paper, written in the ink that she has slaved to produce. As a result - she kills her child, explicitly stating that she did so to prevent the child from ever seeing her "animal and human characteristics" listed on a sheet of paper.
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Points To Ponder
Did You Know
Chapter 8 and 9
Chapter 10 and 11
Chapter 14 and 15
Chapter 17 and 18
Chapter 19 and 20
Chapter 21 and 22
Chapter 23 and 24
Chapter 27 and 28