“Beloved,” a Nobel prize-winning novel by Tony Morrison, is, in a word, a tale of a zombie.
Yet, to call it so would seem ridiculously naïve and unforgivably reductive—if, that is, you believe, the word describes a blood-splattered, axe-yielding, rampaging corpse. Otherwise, yes. Its protagonist is an incorporeal non-being.
A tale of four women—two living, one dead, and one undead—it’s the most singular ghost story you’ve read, for it breaks your heart; not curdle the blood.
The horror, it conveys, cuts very deep, though without the obvious, disturbing theatrics of measly poltergeists that give you the heebie-jeebies.
To regard it as prose is to miss the point. It’s a proem, written in a language so lyrically poetic, you almost hear the cadence of the speech used by the early African-Americans, falling rhythmically, free from the shackles of the figures of the speech.
Sethe, a runaway slave, has settled down in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is still learning to live as a free person. She’s coping with a ghost of her past—literally—when, without warning, another segment of her past—one from a period previous to that—walks up her porch.
Paul D. is one among a group of five men, who, along with herself were a tight-knit group of six, employed on a small farm in Kentucky.
At the time, the house in 124—a homestead provided to her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, by a local abolitionist family of a brother and sister—is lived in by Sethe and her daughter, Denver. Her two boys have fled. Baby, a strong and pious matronly figure, has passed on.
Still, the house is full—full of “lively spite” and of a “baby’s venom.” Its invisible occupant, Beloved, would make her presence known by shattering mirrors, crumbling soda crackers, leaving little hand prints on cakes.
The arrival of Paul D. gives a bold shake-up to the emotional status quo of everyone there, himself included. Forgotten memories are dredged up, new feelings take hold, affections realign, and a simmering vendetta reaches boiling point.
Enraged at the blossoming romance between her mother and Paul D., Beloved escalates the scale of her mischief from making loud noises and crawling up the stairs to breaking and spilling and striking clear fear.
When she sends the entire house rattling, Paul D. loses his temper. “God damn it! Hush up!” he bellows in rage. “Leave the place alone! Get the hell out! He screams back at the “screaming house,” throwing a table at it.
Sethe is staggered and is too busy cleaning up the mess.
Denver has a feeling of mingled fright and delight. She “burst from the keeping room, terror in her eyes, a vague smile on her lips.”
The incident marks a climactic moment. It’s the point from which the novel progresses by shuttling back and forth between the very distant past, the near past, and the present.
Confronted squarely, 124 might have piped down, but it certainly wasn’t exorcised.
Returning home, one day, from a happy social outing to a carnival, their hearts lit with hopes of building a future family, Sethe, Paul D., and Denver, find sitting on a stump, in their porch, a woman dressed in black, with unlaced shoes. Earlier, “a fully dressed woman walked out of the water.”
Beloved is back from the “other side”—to haunt, yet again. Except this time, she has strong bones, a ravenous appetite, and a vindictive heart.
After Paul D. fisted the tiny phantom menace out of 124, Denver was the only one crestfallen, heartbroken to see her only playmate disappear. Her brothers’ leaving, and there being “no children willing to circle her in a game or hang by their knees from the porch railing,” she’d grown up a tragically lonely child.
So, when Beloved reappeared, she was profusely thankful. Intuitively, she knew that the older girl was none other than her sister, miraculously resurrected.
Paul D. senses a whiff of oddness about her. She “acts sick, sounds sick, but she don’t look sick. Good skin, bright eyes and strong as a bull,” he observes.
Only Beloved knows what she wants. Perceiving Paul D. as a stumbling block in her path to securing her mother’s love, she moves swiftly, but slyly, to create distance between her mother and him.
Without reason or premeditation, one night, after supper, Paul D. “sat in the rocker by the stove, bone-tired and fell asleep.”
He began sleeping there, till he moved to Baby’s room and dozed off on the bed the old lady died in. Then, he started lying in the storeroom. Still later, he moved farther out, into the shed behind the house.
He moved out of 124 quite “involuntarily,” he reflected.
And one night, when he lay by himself, she throws herself at him, confident that Sethe won’t find out about it, and ask him to leave. Ironically, the only person with knowledge of this secret—Denver—keeps it as such. Sethe never finds about the backyard trysts.
The stranger, who’d entered the sprite-recovering household as a parched and passing traveler, never intended to leave.
Denver has an inkling of her sister’s insidious motives when the three women go on a fun trip to the woods. As Sethe sat musing on the rock where Baby Suggs perched and preached from, she felt a set of unseen hands strangling her throat.
“You did it, I saw you,” said Denver. “I saw your face, you made her choke.”
She may have been “alarmed by the harm Beloved planned for Sethe, but felt helpless to thwart it, so unrestricted was her need to love another.
“Whatever her power and however she used it, Beloved was hers,” she knew. Yet, she was also ashamed of her choice. She was hers to protect, she felt. “This time I have to keep my mother away from her. That’s hard. But I have to. It’s all on me.”
The girl, who had “no lines on her palm” and moved with a footfall no one heard, sets off a taut tug-of-war of loyalties.
Beloved clings to Sethe like a plastic wrapper to a hot ramekin, her deep desire for sweet love manifesting in her monstrous craving for all things sweet. And, Denver yearns for Beloved, like a kid wants a rare candy, wanting to be able to forever hangout with her.
Denver cherishing Beloved, with the same intensity as Beloved needs her mother, makes a familial Rube Goldberg machine, whose groaning cogs and gears keeping turning, until the friction of the unspoken resentment of the three women ultimately breaks it.
Bent on extracting revenge for having slit her life short, Beloved ensures that her mother’s is not prolonged.
Never admonished, Beloved went from being snotty to imperious, not once lifting to finger to split chores. Strengthened by home-cooked meals, and emboldened by “thick love” and lavish attention, with the passing of every day, her intake rose; her nagging grew constant; and her girth, got very noticeable.
“The bigger Beloved got, the smaller Sethe became; the brighter Beloved’s eyes, the more [Sethe’s] eyes that never used to look away became slits of sleeplessness.” Sethe sat in a chair, hair disheveled, “licking her lips like a chastised child while Beloved ate up her life, swelled up with it, grew taller on it.”
Sethe remained the confused spectator. Preoccupied with safeguarding her present from the shrapnel of her past, she’s little aware that her past, has in fact, taken complete possession of her present. She has become a slave, once again—to her old memories.
There comes a time when Denver, tired of the raucous, if tragic, drama that played out in 124, realizes that it’s her mother that needed to be rescued from Beloved.
Throughout the novel, Morrison drops a trail of tantalizing hints, like the bread crumbs scattered by Hansel and Gretel, which lead the reader to puzzle out the root of Beloved’s dark nature.
A question, asked by a kid at a neighbor’s homeschool, where Denver went to learn to read and write, intrigues the reader: “ Didn’t your mother get locked away for murder?”
But as the book is not narrated linearly, in a chronological sequence, the reasons for Beloved’s bitter actions remain quite out of grasp.
It’s revealed in snatches, peeping out, every now and again, from the ruminations and reminiscences of either Sethe, or Denver, or Paul D., but is never explicit.
Set against the backdrop of the Civil War that legally ended slavery in 1865, “Beloved” is history, set to story. The unspoken inhumanity of the inhuman institution is told through the insidious effect it has on Sethe’s psyche.
Sethe had been in 124, for a mere twenty-eight days, when her former enslavers tracked her down. Rather than throw in the towel, she runs with her kids, to the back of the house, and swings a handsaw across them, killing one: Beloved.
What her capturers witness is a murderous woman, of an unsound mind, utterly unfit for labor. Aghast, they ride away from the scene of the bloodbath. Self-rescued from renewed slavery, Sethe loses her freedom, anyway. Jail awaits her.
One could think of this as the dénouement. A pall of gloom falls over her life, hovering for a long stretch of time. It’s broken with the coming of Paul D., but the little happiness she experiences, is too short-lived.
Morrison has not painted the two people, blacks and whites, in pure black and white. Neither race is either absolutely villainous or wholly virtuous.
In the wake of the tragedy, it’s Sethe’s own people that heap opprobrium on her, ostracize her. Her home grows stone-cold, without the warmth of the visit of neighbors and friends; not a single one.
The killing could’ve even been averted, had Baby had a circle of genuine well-wishers. Soon after Sethe arrived in 124, she’d held a feast out of a desire to share the gastronomic joy of two “pails of blackberries that tasted like church,” picked especially for Denver. Her gesture was misinterpreted as a stance to boast of her domestic bounty.
124 shook with their voices far into the night. Ninety people who ate so well, and laughed so much it made them angry.
Baby Suggs’ three (maybe four) pies grew to ten (maybe twelve).
Sethe’s two hens became five turkeys. The one block of ice brought all the way from Cincinnati—over which they poured mashed watermelon mixed with sugar and mint to make a punch became a wagonload of ice cakes for a washtub full of strawberry shrug […]
Too much, they thought. Where does she get it all, Baby Suggs holy?
Her friends and neighbors were angry at her because she had overstepped, given too much, offended them by excess.
So, when Sethe’s former owners bustled in, they watched with a touch of schadenfreude, neither forewarning her, nor rushing to her aid.
With shoulder-slumping resignation, she mused, whether there was a cruel pattern to her life.
“Every eighteen or twenty years her unlivable life would be interrupted by a short-lived glory?” Twenty-eight days bright days were followed by eighteen years of condemnation, and a solitary life. Again, the sun had shone, before setting far too quickly.
At a time when she was just—only just—beginning to take delight in her being, it was her own people—once more—who snatched it away from her.
Oddly, Stamp Paid, the very sympathizer, who’d ferried her, with her newborn strapped to her bosom, to safety, was the very person, who drove a wedge between her and Paul D.
Conjecture: had he not folded out the offending newspaper clip to Paul D., he might not have walked out on her.
Beloved, is another matter. She was vapor, who went back into nothingness.
“Everybody knew what [Beloved] was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Although she has claim, she is not claimed.”