Friday, December 23, 2011

The Shadow of Slavery and the Light of Kindness

Beloved, of course, has become a `canonical' work in American fiction. Whereas twenty or more years ago, High School Students may have been assigned The Great Gatsby or The Sound and the Fury, they now get Beloved. My copy belonged to an Ithaca High School student. I wonder what she thought of this story of ghosts, slavery, pain and partial redemption?

Beloved has curious plot holes. We know what Sethe does to Beloved, and she somehow injures her other children, but the extent is never made known. What did she do to the boys? The plot just glides by it. And why did Sethe cross the Ohio River only to `hide' at her mother-in-laws house, Baby Shruggs, when that would be the first place slave catchers would go to retriever her? She doesn't even try to hide, but is out in the open for all to see. The characters in this novel are very adept at saving themselves, and very clever, so this move makes less than no sense --- it just reminds the reader the Morrison is writing a novel and wants to give us a message, even at the expense of common sense.

Regardless, Beloved is a masterful work. Morrison gives a lyrical quality to many passages, taking the reader to places that are hard to pin down in terms of concrete reality. It is a timeless world of myth and legend, rendered into a prose which is very much near poetry. She also shows how the `colored' community of Cincinnati helped each other, relied on each other, even in difficult circumstances (or rightly because of them). The legacy of slavery and the Civil War was families broken apart and scattered around the country; in the wake of this, community filled the gap in helping individuals, even strangers.

Ultimately, Beloved is a novel about how human suffering can be elevated through the help of others. Even the legacy of slavery can be mitigated by simple kindnesses.


  1. Beloved is one of my favorite books, and I'm glad to hear that it has become a part of the country's literary canon. I think it is one of the best pieces of literary work to highlight an amazing, enduring segment of American history, one from which we are still feeling the ramifications.

    To answer your question, I believe that she settled in with her mother-in-law because Ohio, at the time, was a free state. The book is actually inspired by a true runaway freedom seeker, Margaret Garner, who also fled Kentucky. She intended to remain only for a night and then proceed onward toward Canada, but was caught. Rather than have them go back into slavery, she killed one of her children and halfway slashed the other's throat. It was a major case that went to the Supreme Court because of it involving two state's two different views: One a "free" state and one a slave state. In the end, I believe Margaret was found guilty of destroying the slaveowner's "property" (e.g., her children) and was eventually sent back to him.

    You can research her story online, but I believe Toni had Sethe remain in Ohio because it was required to tell the story and develop the overall plot. Plus, it helps showcase just how drastic things were then, how torn and divided this country was leading up to the war.

    I'm actually from Kentucky and live across the river from Cincinnati now. It is eerie to look across it and think what people then must have surely thought when they gazed out across the waters are perceived freedom on the other.

    The book, I think, captures so much of this, as well as other important themes from a very troubling time in American history. I'm glad you enjoyed "Beloved."

  2. Thank you for the info. I was aware of some of the historical background of the novel. I too am glad that it is part of the canon. Obviously, it is a novel of great power and beauty.

    I live in upstate New York and there are numerous underground rail road sites. In my wife's town, there is reputed to be a tunnel beneath the town church connected to an old house which was used to hide runaway slaves.

    Again, thanks for reading and your comments.