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Beloved ()

Westchester Women's Book Club

Well, I actually made it through the whole book, though I'll admit to having to look up criticism & reviews to figure out some of what she was trying to say and skimming some things like the section where the baby's memories are presented. (I've included some weblinks below which were extremely helpful.)

At the center of the book lies Sethe's guilt over murdering her two year old girl, rather than allowing her to return to slavery (this is apparently based on a true story). The child's ghost, Beloved--so named because that was all Sethe could get put on her tombstone, has returned to 124 Bluestone Road as an 18 year old woman to haunt her mother. The book details Sethe's efforts to come to terms with her grief and guilt and quiet the turbulent ghost.

Beloved is apparently also supposed to be a symbol for Slavery in general.  Sethe must come to terms not just with her action, but with the fact of Slavery as a whole.

One initial fact is very troublesome. If slavery is so awful why didn't Sethe kill herself, instead of just killing the baby? One thinks of the Jews at Massada. When the Romans finally took the fortress they found that all of the defenders--men, women and children--had killed themselves, rather than
surrender. It seems to me that there's something heroic in this, as opposed to the murder of a defenceless child. Similarly, polls show a vast dichotomy in opinion on mercy killing between the healthy and the dying. Healthy people are more likely to support euthanasia, while those who are actually dying oppose it.  We can usually find reasons why other peolpes lives might not be worth living, but we cling to our own.

I suppose it's significant that the character who most forcefully argues that the murder was wrong is Paul D--the male character. The essence of Morrison's writing is supposed to be that black women have had to face a double burden, first as blacks then as women. As a white male I'll admit that I don't
understand how Sethe could have killed her child and not also killed herself and this made it extremely difficult for me to relate to her.

There are a number of other books that deal with the theme of responsibilty for the death of a child--Sophie's Choice (see Orrin's review), Fearless (Rafael Yglesias) and Ironweed (see Orrin's review). Sophie was interred at Auschwitz and was allowed to save either her son or her daughter from death. Her guilt over having to make this choice leads her into a masochistic relationship with a
paranoid/schizophrenic. Fearless features a young mother who could not maintain her grasp on her baby during a plane crash & so is plagued by survivor guilt.  And in Ironweed, Francis Phelan has become a bum after accidentally dropping his 13 day old son to the ground & killing him. But in all of these stories, the child's death is beyond the control of the parent, so we can identify with them
and we feel their guilt all the more acutely.

As to Morrison's style, I suppose that she is trying to render her tale in a sort of afro-mystic manner. I found it merely annoying.

RESPONSE (from Amy Reilly):

One of the themes in Beloved, I thought, was not only the mother's guilt
over the obvious, but the incredible power of love between mother and
child. This love is different from other loves; perhaps because a child
really does evolve from a woman's flesh (a man's too, but it's not the
same). This is why, I think, Sethe flipped out so much when those nasty
boys attacked her and took her milk. To her, that was the worst thing
possible, worse than rape even, because a mother's instinct (according to
Morrison, it seems) is to protect her children BEFORE she protects herself.
This connects to your point about why didn't Sethe kill herself too. She
killed her child because in her mind, this was the only way to protect her.
Think of it as protection, not murder. Once captured, Sethe would have
absolutely no control over the fate of her child. The only way she could
control the fate of her child, her flesh and blood, was to kill her. And
she didn't kill herself for two reasons: one, she still had 3 living
children to take care of and 2) she probably didn't care all that much
about herself. She lived to protect her children, not to protect herself.
Her own sense of self was pretty much nonexistant, slavery took that away
from her, for the most part. She was merely the means to her children's
survival. Oddly enough, I think she cared less about her own survival than
she did her children's survival, and that's why she killed the baby, not
herself. Sounds backwards, of course, but that kind of adds to the drama
and the tension.

Was Sethe nuts? That's one thing we talked about. Probably. Guilt made her
crazy. Was she right in killing her child? Not in my mind. I couldn't
relate to the action, but I could relate to the crazed desire to do
ANYTHING to protect her kids. What she chose to do was perhaps not the
greatest choice. I guess what I mean is her reaction was something I
understood; her action itself was not.

We also talked about whether or not Beloved was real. Was she a real ghost?
Could other people see her? Was she purely a product of Sethe's mind -- and
Denver's? I don't know. I thought it was sort of interesting to consider it
both ways. I'm not convinced she was a literal ghost.

I didn't get the weirdo pages of Beloved's inner dialogue. When I read
stuff like that I always wonder if the author is just messing with the
readers. Kinda making it look like it Means Something when in reality it's
just a bunch of nice words.

I for one have no interest in seeing the movie. Can't imagine Oprah as
Sethe. She's just too damned rich!


Grade: (F)


Toni Morrison Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Toni Morrison
-INTERVIEW: Toni Morrison on Craft, Inspiration, and the Time She Met Obama: Sarah Ladipo Manyika Talks to an American Literary Icon (Sarah Ladipo Manyika, February 2, 2023, LitHub)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Genius of Toni Morrison’s Only Short Story: In the extraordinary “Recitatif,” Morrison withholds crucial details of racial identity, making the reader the subject of her experiment. (Zadie Smith, January 23, 2022, The new Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” Showed Me How Race and Gender Are Intertwined (KORITHA MITCHELL, 11/10/20, Electric Lit)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Nobel Prize
    -BIO: (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -Anniinna's Toni Morrison Page
    -General Notes on Toni Morrison's Beloved
    -Toni Morrison References on the Internet
    -Web Page of Toni Morrison's Beloved
    -Writing and Resistance>> Authors>> Toni Morrison
    -Authors Online: Toni Morrison  (Book Spot)
    -ESSAY:  Controlling the Images of Black Womanhood: The Contemporary African-American Women's Novel  (E. Lâle Demirtürk, Journal of American Studies of Turkey)
    -ESSAY : Transforming the Chain into Story: The Making of Communal Meaning in Toni Morrison's Beloved (Claire Cowan-Barbetti, Janus Head)
    -REVIEW: of Paradise (YVONNE CRITTENDEN -- Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW: of Paradise (DIANE MENZIES -- Edmonton Sun)
    -REVIEW: BLACK MADONNA: Toni Morrison's popularity is less a matter of literary taste than of mass psychology (David Klinghoffer, National Review)


Suicide is rarely heroic. I didn't know Christians such as yourselves were so heavy on advocating it.

- Beezo

- Jan-09-2007, 14:26


beloved is a supernatural power, that is very paradoxial. She represents the past, in which she wants her mother to remember so that she can dwell on it, and never forgive herself of infanticide. however, by beloved prying open her mothers "rememories" Sethe is able to stand up to the past and move on with her life. It is shown by Beloved physically desintergrating (loosing her teeth). THe house number 124 represents her children 1 & 2 being the boys 3- being beloved who is dead; therefore, missing in the house number. and 4 being denver

- lauren

- Dec-16-2006, 15:28


Elli what were the 7 sins? Here's what I think. 1. infanticide 2. adultry (even though halle is dead she is still married and Paul D is her brother in law) 3. attempted murder 4. escape (if thats what ur thinking, but I dont really see that as a sin) 5. The Lie's told throughout the whole story 6.the stealing of Sethe's milk by schoolteachers nephew 7. the escape from prison by Paul D and the rest of the 184 prisoners.

Well thats what I would think. But in my words I think that the significants of 124 is that its a house that is personified through out the whole story to show Beloved's effect on it. As well as the beauty and horror that came to and from it. Before Sethe came 124 was fun to be around. Once Sethe came it disinegrated. So what does any one think about this? I really do what feed back from it if u dont mind.

- Tatiana Lashe` (age 16)

- Dec-18-2005, 01:08


Wow, seems like there was no real effort to understand this book here. Of course it doesn't follow a normal path of events. It's all about memories, flashbacks, and what Morrison calls "rememory." Just like soldiers that fought in the war have flashbacks. They do not occur when YOU want them to. Certain events trigger them, and are back in your gear, fighting the enemy 15 years later. It is not an annoying read, nor is it too difficult once you find a summary of it. You just have to be intelligent enough or at least very patient to read this novel.

Also, 124 adds up to the number 7, which in some cultures is a holy and/or lucky number plus there are the seven deadly sins.

- Ellie

- Nov-25-2005, 20:15


In response to the significance of 124 -- one of my students came up with the idea that Sethe killed her third child & thus the absence of three in the address.

- Danielle

- Feb-08-2005, 21:42


Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved" is confusing but it tells the story of many slaves back in the past which makes it a very powerful story. I have a question though...what do you think the significance of 124 is? If there is in fact any.

- Stephanie

- Jan-13-2005, 11:47



Pretty easy to kill yourself, if you're serious.

- oj

- Apr-29-2004, 20:49


Actually, Sethe had every intention of killing herself. Note the following passage: "My plan was to take us all to the other side where my own ma'am is. They stopped me from getting us there, but they didn't stop you from getting there."

Guess you missed that.

- Chris

- Apr-29-2004, 20:39


Wow, you just really didn't want to understand this book, did you? You should try harder. Dig on your maybe-it's-just-because-I'm-a-white-male explantion. Fly that flag high, Brothersjudd!

- Heath

- Jul-04-2003, 04:14


Toni Morrison's Beloved is a powerful and mystifying novel that has been enjoyed by so many. A good book does not give you a clearly labeled treasure map to the meaning of it, rather offers a colorful quilt with a multiplicity of meaning and understanding. Beloved is one of these books, and probably should not be read by those who are satisfied with a harlequin romance, because quite frankly it is written for a deeper level of understanding and connection. The passive and lazy reader should steer clear of such a novel. I can't believe you feel justified in saying something such as "If slavery were so bad" as if there is any contestability on this issue. Not only is this story based on a woman who actually did kill her children to save them from slavery, it shows accurately the total desperation many women felt to save their children from danger. Imagine seeing your own children tortured and starving daily, possibly even raped at very young ages. It always amazes me how in the current court system we are always excusing people for "temporary insanity" yet we cannot imagine how Sethe, only several days after risking her life to escape slavery, tries to kill her children because she knows she has no other means to protect them. She knows she will NEVER be able to escape the plantation again with her children because they will keep an extra eye on them. They might have even tortured her children to death in front of her. It's difficult for us to imagine the cruelty of the white slave owners, but this is the reality of it. I would have done the same that Sethe did. It is one thing for me to suffer, it is another thing for my "innocent baby" to suffer. Again, good books don't have "good" or "evil" characters: people that are good and bad, right and wrong, suffering and content, etc. Sethe's role is intended to be morally debatable, but I would think anyone with any sense of the cruelty of slavery would be able to understand that the normal rules of morality could not apply in her situtation, just as they could not apply in the Holocaust. I believe it was Elie Weisel who said "The best of us died in the concentration camps" because it was the Jews who stole from others, found ways to cheat the Gestapo system, had more money to pay off police, etc. who mostly survived the Holocaust. No one, including myself, would call these actions wrong or even strange, because it is in a different time and place, where we understand normal rules of morality and humanity did not apply. For many Jews it was about surviving at all costs; for Sethe it was not worth surviving because she knew that as a black woman she could never truly have freedom or justice nor have the privilege to be a good mother to her children, no matter if she was a slave or not. In every culture there seems to be a similar tale such as this one, a couple examples are La Llorona and "No Name Woman" by Maxine Hong Kingston. These things have happened, and do happen. It is not in my mind just for a person of privilege, such as all Anglo middle-class Americans and Western Europeans, to make judgements towards these helpless and brave women who were left with no other choice.

- Toni Morrison Fan

- Jan-31-2003, 05:54