Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Look, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of those books that’s so good there are only a few ways of writing about it, one being “awesome awesome awesome” and another being “go read it right now, this second.” The novel deals with memory, with personal and cultural history, as though they are real and tangible things that can walk into someone’s life or move objects in a house; and it does not only this, but looks at the way the perceptions of outsiders can “create” or change what they are perceiving; and looks at slavery and the power a name has and what impact not owning oneself or the world one looks at can have on a person’s life and their ability to view and create themselves.
The novel centers on the former slave Sethe and her daughter Denver and their house at 124 Bluestone Road. The house is haunted and avoided by everyone in the neighborhood, and in some way holds both Sethe and Denver to its confines. Morrison gradually reveals an image of the house from years before, when it was a hub for the neighborhood and recently freed or escaped slaves. Not until Paul D, an escaped slave from Sweet Home (where Sethe, her husband Halle, and his mother-in-law Baby Suggs were also slaves) enters the home and throws out the ghost, returning it in its physical form of a grown woman, does the history of the house and its family begin to reveal itself.
There is too much here to fairly address in a short review, so I’ll focus my attentions on Paul D and specifically on the way he recognizes perception as forming the world. At one point near novel’s end some of Morrison’s characters begin to question their lives at Sweet Home and after Sweet Home, how the way they were addressed (as “men” at Sweet Home and as “children” elsewhere) affected how they viewed themselves. Did being called “men” make them, really, men, or was it simply another way of controlling them? Although they felt at the time of their enslavement somehow, slightly, empowered by the word “men,” was that title any better than being called children – as they were treated, regardless of the relative kindness of their owner? And how, after they escaped slavery, did the reclaiming of the word change their lives and their way of viewing themselves? Once Morrison’s characters were capable of perceiving the world through their own eyes, through the eyes they did, for the first time in their lives, own, could they think of themselves as men? At one point one of the slaves at Sweet Home, Sixo, is beaten by “schoolteacher” to “show him that definitions belonged to the definers – not the defined” (190). It is only those who are free and have the power to label their world who can truly own it.
Paul D, though, recognizes too the way the perceptions of others can influence or change what a person is. He repeatedly notes the way women “glow” when they’re around the man they’re attracted to; it’s why he is able to seduce (though that seems the wrong word) Sethe when he walks into the home that is controlled by the ghost of her daughter. One of the other slaves from Sweet Home, Sixo, arranges with the 30-Mile Woman (so called because of the distance he traveled to meet her) to escape slavery with the Sweet Home slaves; for a time, Paul D waits alone with the 30-Mile Woman. After Sixo arrives:

She is lit now with some glowing, some shining that comes from inside her. Before when she knelt on creek pebbles with Paul D, she was nothing, a shape in the dark breathing lightly. (225)

Paul D isn’t just noting the mechanics of sexual attraction, but rather the way perceptions change reality. More than that, there seems to be almost a sort of ownership in the relations Paul D sees between people, in the understandings he sees between them. By envisioning Sixo and the 30-Mile-Woman’s relationship as a visible thing – not as a public display of affection, say, but something that cannot be controlled – Paul D suggests a sort of inevitable and permanent relationship not dissimilar, in its shape though not in the details or the affections, from the sort of ownership the two are escaping. It’s not that there’s a slavery to the visibility of their relationship, but that even after gaining freedom and the ability to view the world through eyes they own, they cannot decide how they are viewed.

Morrison’s novel? Extraordinary. Amid all the hubbub about the insularity of the Nobel Prize Committee (who will seemingly never award another Nobel to an American writer because they are “too insular”), I have to note that this is one time when they got it right. Read Beloved this second, or go see Jeff O’Neal’s post at Book Riot about the two Morrison novels you should read before hitting Beloved. And then read Beloved.


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