I finished the book weeks ago and am still thinking about what a powerful, important, disturbing read it was. The plot centers around a former slave named Sethe who escapes to Cincinnati where her children are already living, giving birth to her fourth child along the way. Less than a year after her and her childrens’ escape , she is in the backyard of the house she shares with her mother in law and sees a man from the plantation where she spent her life ready to call upon the Fugitive Slave Act. Sethe chooses to gather her four children and attempts to kill them, rather than allowing them to be brought back into slavery. Three of the four are spared. The bulk of the story is set over a decade later when her house is haunted by the child’s ghost. Two people arrive: Paul D, a man who was also a slave on the plantation with Sethe, with whom she begins a relationship. For a time, he is able to scare the ghost away, but then a girl arrives who Sethe and her daughter Denver believe to be the incarnated ghost, which completely rocks and changes Sethe, forcing her to face her past decisions. The book is about the spiral of Sethe wrestling with her demons and the definition of love, of finding and losing herself.
As a reader, I couldn’t discern if the ghost-girl was literal or figurative–and at different moments I think could be either. So I’ve been thinking about the questions Beloved poses in terms of healing: on both a personal and corporate level. It is much too heavy of a story to simply say that it ends with hope–it is a beautiful mess of a narrative that left me a wreck while reading it.
Sethe’s turmoil through Morrison’s writing feels weighty enough to be corporate. It is not just her story, it is the story of the psychological effects of slavery. On this level, I felt as though I had no place to judge Sethe for her choices–and how she chose to define the love she had for her children. Sethe writhes with her choice and it is impossible as a reader not to do so right along with her. It feels an impossible situation, where I can’t decide if the healing of an entire nation after such an abomination on humanity or the healing of a single heart engulfed it it feels more difficult.
This is when I come back to the quotes I cited at the beginning, that came in the first third of the story and were spoken to Paul D, but shaped what I began to see as the purpose of the whole book: that Sethe had to wrestle with the pain and had to feel it deeply. There was no way to move forward without it. Paul D says to Sethe toward at the end, when Sethe is still is the ashes of her life: “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” This seems so simple and almost trite, but only out of context. The poetry and pain of this story–individual pain of the characters and the pain of looking at our history of a nation– echo for anyone who has felt the complicated brokenness of tragedy and the reluctance to even try to heal. What Morrison leaves the reader with is the idea that there is still life. There is still life.