I first attempted to read Beloved my sophomore year in high school. I say “attempted” because I never finished it. Before picking it up again recently, I remembered almost nothing about it, except that I found it slow and I couldn’t keep the characters straight, much less get to know them. So I put it down.
I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Jazz in college and loved them both, so I knew that one day I would revisit Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. But I wasn’t looking forward to it because of my experience with it when I was 15 or 16.
Predictably, 10 years makes all the difference in the world. Perhaps I’ve become the person my teenage self loathed, because this go-around, reading Beloved solidified my suspicion that my own teenage angst prevented me from accessing the empathy more experienced adults are capable of. Empathy is essential to understanding Beloved.
A major theme in Beloved included mother-daughter relationships, which I wasn’t able to understand from a mother’s point of view firsthand until recently. Morrison writes with such conviction and insight that I think the mother-daughter dynamics in the book are impossible to ignore whether you’re relating from a mother or a child’s point of view, but I will say that as a mother, this aspect of the novel just destroyed me. The book’s protagonist, Sethe, a mother, made every feeling I’ve ever had about my daughter bubble up in me. I read Part 3 (the conclusion) on Mother’s Day. I would not recommend that for my fellow mothers out there, probably.
The other major theme woven into this haunting story is identity, which Morrison skillfully points out can be lost, confused and tattered when one person is a slave to another. By the way, as you might guess if you’ve read other Morrison books, slavery is illustrated in both the historical American sense and non-traditional senses.
I went to Goodreads to remind myself exactly what Beloved was about before I started it again. In the simplest terms, Sethe is a freed slave who has lost all of her children except for one, her daughter, Denver. Toward the beginning of the book, a stranger named Beloved shows up at Sethe and Denver’s home. Beloved is a pretty ambiguous character, and most certainly not what she seems at first. There are flashbacks to Sethe’s time as a slave and her escape to freedom throughout the story, so there are essentially two plots happening at once.
As you might expect from a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, most of the reviews on Goodreads were good, but I always like to see what people who rated books low have to say. Most people who didn’t like Beloved cite the (at times, VERY) disturbing descriptions of slavery, bestiality, infanticide and physical and sexual abuse. Yes, these things are all in this novel and they are horrifying. But I think that if you’re setting out to read Beloved, it would serve you well to remember that this novel deals primarily with slavery, and it’s important to keep in mind that this period in American history should horrify us. It’s easy to read hard facts about one group of people systematically treating another group of people as sub-human and move on, but it’s imperative to understand that we’re not realizing the weight of what happened if we just move on. I think it’s ill-informed at best to gloss over this part of history, and quite possibly dangerous. Don’t forget that slavery is not dead.
So, I would recommend Beloved to anyone interested. If you’ve never read Toni Morrison, you should know that her prose is absolutely masterful. She’s lyrical, emotional and at times dramatic, but restrained enough to never cross the line into melodrama. If you’re like me and have read Morrison before, but never Beloved, please run to your local library or bookstore immediately and pick it up. My opinion is that it’s an important work of fiction.