Book of the Month: Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison

Critical Assessment

“Thanks to this narrative method and Ms. Morrison’s magisterial yet sensuous prose, ”Beloved” possesses the heightened power and resonance of myth – its characters, like those in opera or Greek drama, seem larger than life and their actions, too, tend to strike us as enactments of ancient rituals and passions. To describe ”Beloved” only in these terms, however, is to diminish its immediacy, for the novel also remains precisely grounded in an American reality -the reality of black history as experienced in the wake of the Civil War. It’s not only possible to recognize the people in ”Beloved” as older relatives of the small-town Ohio folks who populated Ms. Morrison’s earlier novels ”Sula” and ”The Bluest Eye;” it’s also necessary to understand their story in order to comprehend the loss of innocence that is the legacy of the characters in all her fiction.

Michiko Kakutani, “Books of the Times: Beloved,” The New York Times, Sept.2, 1987.

First Excerpt

“I24 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old–as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once–the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn’t have a number then, because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.”

Second Excerpt

“Baby Suggs died shortly after the brothers left, with no interest whatsoever in their leave-taking or hers, and right afterward Sethe and Denver decided to end the persecution by calling forth the ghost that tried them so. Perhaps a conversation, they thought, an exchange of views or something would help. So they held hands and said, “Come on. Come on. You may as well just come on.”

The sideboard took a step forward but nothing else did.

“Grandma Baby must be stopping it,” said Denver. She was ten and still mad at Baby Suggs for dying.

Sethe opened her eyes. “I doubt that,” she said.

“Then why don’t it come?”

“You forgetting how little it is,” said her mother. “She wasn’t even two years old when she died. Too little to understand. Too little to talk much even.”

“Maybe she don’t want to understand,” said Denver.

“Maybe. But if she’d only come, I could make it clear to her.” Sethe released her daughter’s hand and together they pushed the sideboard back against the wall. Outside a driver whipped his horse into the gallop local people felt necessary when they passed 124.

“For a baby she throws a powerful spell,” said Denver.

“No more powerful than the way I loved her,” Sethe answered and there it was again.”