- What: Beloved
- Who: Toni Morrison
- Pages: 324, soft cover
- Genre: Classic literature
- Published: 1987
- The lit: of 5 flames
Do you ever wonder if you have a problem when you don’t like something that others love? When I hear a person doesn’t like Lady Gaga, I assume something doesn’t tick correctly. But do they ponder this too? They must.
I feel this way every now and then with books that have been elevated to immediate cultural superiority; usually, this happens with the classics, and I think, “Why does this influence and touch everyone but me? Am I dark inside?”
And these are exactly the feelings I had while reading the legend Toni Morrison’s Beloved. For so long, I waited to feel the power and connection that so many readers before me had felt. After a while, though, I just waited anxiously for it to be over even if I did enjoy it more toward the conclusion. Beloved has been etched into American literature and culture for all time — and even won the Pulitzer Price for Fiction — but for this reader, the book did not live up to its expectations.
“It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made.” — Beloved
Sethe lives as a free black woman in Cincinnati eight years after the Civil War, but as the book summary declares, she’s still not free. And not just because of the struggles African Americans endured in post-war America. Sethe must also grapple with the phantom of her deceased child who haunts the house she shares with her 18-year-old daughter, Denver.
Eighteen years after escaping slavery on a southern plantation, Sethe has become an outsider to her peers and fellow townsfolk because of the torment and superstition that reside in the house, as well as her own dark secrets. She and Denver, who has no friends and never leaves home, haven’t had visitors in years until Paul D., another slave from the plantation, show ups at 124 Bluestone Rd.
Paul D. has demons too, but as he finally settles into normalcy with a woman he grew up with, he starts uncovering Sethe’s and why her dead daughter, whose tombstone reads “Beloved,” has terrorized her life. The answer isn’t something you’d expect but will become something you ponder as you replay the tragedy and horrors of Sethe’s past.
Without giving too much away, Beloved is based on an African American slave named Margaret Garner who escaped to Ohio in 1865 (*spoiler alert* this link gives away a lot of detail but is a fascinating read). Garner’s story is one of a mother’s sacrifice — as is Beloved — but it also speaks to the traumatic psychological damage that slavery had on an entire group of people and how questionable decisions can easily be made bearing in mind someone’s past.
“All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day.” — Beloved
This novel derives most of its strength from this facet. And thankfully, Morrison drew on this real-life story for literary and spiritual inspiration. For me, there’s a lot of intensity wrapped up in this powerful story and the fact that Morrison decided to tell it and to explore themes within its context.
But this is also where the book’s effectiveness stops and where me feeling like an asshole begins.
For far too long while reading this novel, I honestly didn’t know what was going on. Now I know I’m not the deepest, most poetic, or most artistic (definitely not); I have never claimed to be. I’m also not great at reading between the lines and grasping symbolism. I do believe, though, it’s reasonable for me to expect some level of understanding. It seems problematic if I have to keep referencing Wikipedia (without spoiling anything for myself of course) to fully comprehend what’s happening in a book. I did that a lot with Beloved.
Certainly, this means Morrison’s intelligence and skills have soared eons from mine. I’m OK with that, but I can’t be dishonest about my true feelings while reading. And this is where respect and appreciation can vary so greatly from love and admiration — something that happens quite often when I finish a novel.
“Slave life; freed life — every day was a test and a trial. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem.” — Beloved
The passages tend toward lengthy, wordy, and flowery, and the imagery appears more vague and opaque than distinct and colorful. These likely were literary choices made by Morrison, but they weren’t something I could easily follow.
“Morrison traces the shifting shapes of suffering and mythic accommodations, through the shell of psychosis to the core of a victim’s dark violence, with a lyrical insistence and a clear sense of the time when a beleaguered peoples’ ‘only grace … was the grace they could imagine,'” wrote Kirkus Reviews in 2011.
Sure, these things are true, and maybe Beloved is a work of art. I didn’t feel any sparks while reading it, though, and for this bibliophile, literary magic is exactly what I anticipate — and what I intensely crave when I don’t feel it. I’ve learned it’s not something you can force yourself to experience no matter how hard you try.